Jean Cocteau’s “Blood of a Poet” at The Guggenheim Museum, October 2010
A rescore and dance interpretation of Jean Cocteau’s classic film.
Coup de Foudre:
With my re-score of “The Blood of a Poet” (1930) – I didn’t want to simply create a new music composition. I wanted to look at gesture, performance, and above all, how artists create material that is trans-media specific. One could argue that “Blood of a Poet” wasn’t a Surrealist film in the same context as Buñuel’s material. But what it does evoke is a milieu where poetry becomes imagist at every level, in his film, one can see the direct connection between the “sub-conscious” impulses of an artist who is trying to navigate the rapidly changing terrains of the early 20th century’s industrialization of the collective imagination. He wanted to extend what he sometimes liked to call the “algebra” of verbal and written texts into a new grammar that could pull together theatrical presentation, film, poetry, painting, sculpture, literature, and all manner of inspirational material into new forms. The synthesis of so many diverse forms in Cocteau’s work – the abstract mise en scène language of theater applied to film, the links between scripts for actors and free associative poetry, the new forms of presenting visual material – all of this combined with the “newness” of the technologies of early modernism created a paradox that Cocteau embodied: a classical avant-garde.
Cocteau’s associates and collaborators read like a who’s who of early 20th century great artists: His circle of associates included Pablo Picasso, Édith Piaf, Andre Gide, Jean Hugo, Jean Marais, Henri Bernstein, Marlene Dietrich, Erik Satie, Sergei Diaghilev, Amedeo Modigliani… the list goes on.
His early work developed lyricism as a response against the standardization of aesthetics that artist groups as diverse as the Surrealists, the Futurists, the Dadaist and others were fighting against – it’s something that our era of Facebook, youtube, and the endlessly changing landscape of the internet foster in our contemporary information economy milieu. What is the center of our 21st century culture but the imagination? It’s more powerful than ever because so many people are sharing the same thoughts, ideas, sounds, and memories. One could argue that digital media inherited Surrealism’s willful breaks with reality precisely because digital code is so mutable. That’s where Dj Culture, film, and poetry collide in the 21st century. Digital media is the hidden poetry of our era. My re-score/remix of “The Blood of a Poet” explores these issues from the collision of sound and contemporary choreography.
Let’s explore some of the themes of the film that Cocteau directed: there are people walking through mirrors where they encounter the deepest psychological aspects of themselves. There are people walking upside down reciting “physical poetry” while they are painted into a canvass. There are sculptures that speak. There’s poetry become film scenes and back again. And there is a unifying theme of rejuvenation through exploring the subconscious. You could almost argue that in “Blood of a Poet” one of the central themes is that inanimate objects possess mortal properties, and subsequently performing a play within a play, a film within a film. That’s sampling! But there were other connections. Between dance, between film, between poetry one finds that the common language of a willful disregard for boundaries is what makes Cocteau’s work so compelling. The Russian ballet-master Sergei Diaghilev challenged Cocteau to write for the ballet – “Surprise me,” he urged. This resulted Parade (1917), produced by Diaghilev, designed by Pablo Picasso, and composed by Erik Satie. The ballet was performed in Rome. Things like that are what inspire me in his work.
This is a sample:
Jean Cocteau’s early theater piece “The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party,” like the later work of “The Blood of a Poet” is imbued with his fascination with the fractious relationship both between technology and theatricality. Think of his obession with those relationships as an abstraction between human desire and mechanization. With its “anti-theatricality,” the play shifted away from reproduction with a greater fidelity to “life,” – he had phonographs play several of the characters main lines, thus displacing the human voice.
For the “theatrical” representation of life – you can easily see where theater for Cocteau evolved to film, toward the assumptions that inform the desire for photographic reproduction. Characters vanish into poetry and remerge as cinematic characters. Eschewing banal hypotheses like “machines are dehumanizing,” Cocteau suggests a more complex desire: we want machines to exert control over the moment of the live event. The idea of sampling and making a complex system of quotations of his and other people’s work marked Cocteau with a kind of irreverence for “originality” that people like David Shields and Jonathan Lethem evoke in our digital overload era. Cocteau’s use of machines uncannily shows us that we exalt the representation of the event over its emotional content. What Cocteau is asking us to witness in “The Blood of a Poet”, as with his “phonograph theater,” then, in his exploration of our relationship to media, is a creative process inherent in the destruction of theatricality. In Walter Benjamin’s terms, one could argue that the play is a significant moment in the ongoing decay and transformation of theatricality’s aura. Is this the new “aura of authenticity” that Benjamin tried to describe? One can never be certain, but that’s the point. Cocteau once remarked “Art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious.” That’s exact what a dj mix is as well. They both center on the idea of stream of conscious narratives, archival play, and intertextual uncertainty.
In 2006 I was commissioned by Radio France Culture/ Atelier de Création Radiophonique to create a radio composition based loosely on Jean Cocteau’s theater piece about language “La Machine Infernal.” It played on national radio in France and one of the things that struck me about the process was that several of my favorite artists from France – Antonin Artaud, Jean Cocteau – amongst others, were what we would now call “inter-disciplinary” – in the same tradition of composers and artists as diverse as Scriabin, Wagner, Duke Ellington, or Valerie De St. Point.
What was so important about Cocteau? Here’s what I think makes him resonant for our digitally hyper-overloaded network culture: he thought about multiplicity of form before digital media really became the platform for almost everything digital modernity stands for. I think of several composers who strove to create multi-media works that still resonate with our era – Nam Jun Paik, Wagner, Stan Brakhage etc and Jean Cocteau still stands out – specifically because he used poetry as the basis for his music, painting, sculpture, opera, and film works.
Cocteau inspired composers like the group “Les Six” just as much as he interacted with painters like Picasso or photographers like Lee Miller, or authors like Andre Gide. He moved effortlessly between media at a time when orthodoxy prescribed the exact opposite. By being unorthodox, he is a hero for me. He was even the first theater director to use turntables as part of his theatrical process. But the point of doing a remix of one of the touchstones of early Surrealist cinema, for me, above all, is to link contemporary art practice to cinematic history and, by doing so, connect some dots that are usually left to archeologists of our modern life. This remix project is a consolidation of roles: director, poet, digital media editor, choreographer – all find themselves condensed into a new form. One that we have yet to name. I composed the music for this project, and wrote a series of treatments for each scene. Corey Baker of Ballet Noir (http://www.balletnoir.org/) did the choreography.
The full piece will be presented at The Guggenheim as part of the “Chaos and Classicism” exhibition. More details on the exhibition can be found at:
And one can view the stunning choreography of Ballet Noir everywhere from Bill T. Jone’s epic “Fela” dance theater (where Corey plays one of the central characters) to their Youtube Channel:
Cocteau once remarked that “a film is a petrified fountain of thought.” He even went as far as to say in his “Le Mystère Laïc” (1928) that “True realism consists in revealing the surprising things which habit keeps covered and prevents us from seeing.”
It’s with these ideas in mind that I present new mixes and interpretations of Cocteau’s classic film.
I hope you enjoy the “new” version of the piece.
Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky
Saas-Fee, Switzerland 2010