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Dear Reader, over the next 6 weeks or so I’m going to be writing about the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts (FoF) in addition to the fall season of plays at our local theaters. If you don’t know what the Festival of Firsts is, well, all I can say is: get your head out from under that rock, high thee over to the Cultural Trust website, and make plans to see some of the performance and visual art that will have its World, US, or regional premiere right here in the ‘Burgh! You don’t want to be one of those people who read my post and think to yourself, “Dang, I can’t believe I missed that!” Most of the artists will only be here for a very, very short window, so by the time you read about it here they will likely be gone, and you will be kicking yourself. Seriously, don’t miss out – the last two Festivals were paradigm-shifting, game-changing, life-altering, and just plain made those of us who attended them glad to be alive.

Okay, done shilling for the Cultural Trust. On to Blind Cinema –

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Photo by Kitoko Chargois on behalf of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

I’m not quite sure what to call Belgian film/media/performance artist Britt Hatzius’s Blind Cinema: it’s a hybrid of film and spoken word “performance” that defies easy categorization. It’s certainly an experience, and an unusual one at that. Here’s what happens: you are handed a blindfold as you enter the cinema and are then shown to a seat. Behind you is an empty row. A film begins – it’s a film of an animated white dot on a black background. The dot descends from the top of the screen and wanders around the frame, and then expands to fill the entire screen with bright white light. At that point, you are instructed to put on the blindfold. You hear shuffling around and behind you, and soon the (nine- to eleven-year-old) child who takes a seat behind you places a tube with two cones attached at your shoulder – one cone for you, and one cone for your adult neighbor. You hold the cone to your ear. The child introduces herself: “Hi, my name is ______ and I’m going to be narrating the film for you.” And then she starts to whisper in the tube, describing a film that she is seeing for the first time. About a third of the way through, there’s a pause, and suddenly, surprisingly, a new voice begins to whisper in the tube. And then, after another bit of time, that voice stops, there’s a pause, and a third whisperer takes over describing what’s on the screen. The film ends, the children quietly leave their seats, and when you finally remove your blindfold, the collective group of kids is standing in front of the screen.

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Photo by Kitoko Chargois on behalf of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

The film they describe seems complicated, with many layers of narration and/or reality. From what I could gather, there’s a room, and a child in the room who is looking at books, and the film shows what is in the books. There’s also a projector and a screen in the room, and the child turns on the projector and watches a film-within-the-film that features a large office building with a lot of windows. Within that film, as far as I could make out (and as much as I can now remember) there is a sequence in which someone draws a scene that the characters in the film-within-the-film can enter. The action seems to bounce back and forth between the room with the child, and the world of the film-within-the-film, and the animated/drawn sequences within that world. Something happens that involves a lot of flashes of light, and at one point the room is reduced to rubble. There is a flashlight that turns into a white dot searching across the screen – a clue that the one bit of film we saw before we put on our blindfolds was a scene, somehow, from the film the children get to watch – and there is also an egg, which the child shells and eats, and later in the film the egg grows large and somehow floats up in the sky and joins the stars.

In the moment, I found it surprisingly difficult to visualize what was being described to me, particularly because none of my whisperers gave any clue as to the style or genre of the film they were watching. Although the first scene we watched was clearly animation, for reasons I can’t explain my brain defaulted to imagining that the film was live action, with real actors, and as a result, when my whisperer started to describe some of the more “unreal” events – such as the sequence in which a door was drawn inside a window and a person stepped through that door – I found it difficult to slot what I was being told into the schema my brain had already constructed. At times I even stopped trying to get myself to form pictures in my mind of what the whisperer was describing, often because I couldn’t figure out how to make the transition from the picture I already had in my head to the image that was being described. Nevertheless – and even though, days later, my memory of the narration has become a little hazy – “images” from this film that I never saw continue, improbably, to bubble up in my visual imagination. The sensation is odd, more like remembering a dream on which you have a tenuous hold than recalling a real-life experience: an egg being cracked on top of the head of a young boy with dark curly hair; stars that look like x’s with a square in the middle; a set of windows with a door drawn in the middle; a shelf with three books, one red and one green (there was a third color, but I forget); a boy standing on the books so that he can reach the projector; fireworks; a huge pile of eggshells on the floor.

Blind Cinema is disorienting in the best and most literal sense of that word: it shifts your orientation, not only because you can’t see what is being described, or because you are dependent on both the observational and descriptive powers of a young person who may or may not be able to fully narrate what she or he is seeing, but also because your experience of time is mediated and shaped by a child’s moment to moment reaction to what is happening in the film. Some of the best moments of Blind Cinema, for me, were when my whisperer was taken by surprise, or started editorializing. At one point the first whisperer exclaimed, in excitement and shock, “Oh! Oh! He’s putting the egg on his head!” and then calmed down – “oh, good, oh, okay, it’s cooked, that’s okay.” At another point, the second child commented, “So now he’s going into the door that was drawed, or drawn, or drewed…I don’t know which, I’m not very good at that kind of grammar, but anyway – he goes through the door of the drawing…”; and later, he cried out, “Oh, ow! Okay, there are a lot of really bright flashing lights, it hurts my eyes, ow!” followed by a long pause, during which I imagined that he must have closed his eyes for a bit, too. After that, there was a poignant moment of editorializing: “Oh, this is so sad. Oh, no. Oh….now it’s back at the room, but it’s all rubble. Oh.”

Such moments didn’t necessarily help me visualize what was on the screen, but they gave me a far more potent emotional and psychological experience than I expect watching the film ever could. For childhood is a lost country; we all experienced it, but most of us can’t truly remember what it was like to think and feel and perceive as a young child. Yet at those points in the narration when the child-whisperers reacted spontaneously to film’s odd surprises, it felt as if a tiny portal of access to that lost country had opened up again.

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The narrator-whisperers. Photo by Kitoko Chargois on behalf of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

 

Next up: Cirque Eloize Hotel (FoF) at the Benedum. And this weekend, barebones productions opens Lobby Hero at their space in Braddock. Those of you with kids might want to make plans to take them to see Gab Squad (FoF), which opens next Wednesday.