Introduced by John Canciani
HD Video, 24'
Set in a desktop-like visual space, «[…] craving for narrative» analyses and decomposes a famous scene from the film Grease, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. This clip becomes the starting point for a reflection on obsession, nostalgia, rhythm, repetition, and media theories, and their exponential development over the Internet.
John Canciani: «[…] craving for narrative» lässt sich einfach nicht gut übersetzen is based on a 23 second excerpt of the film Grease [R.: Randal Kleiser] from 1978. Most of the time the viewer is confronted with this 23 second loop while you start analysing it, and adding your personal thoughts. How did you come up with the idea and how come you chose Grease?
Max Grau: The choice of Grease is a little accidental. It really did start with my fascination for the first verse of that song (“You’re the one that I want”). There are certain songs that are so catchy, that I find myself listening to them on a kind of manic repeat-binge until I either get annoyed of them, or the next obsession takes their place. After having watched the film for the first time, I listened to the song again and again via a Youtube clip that also showed that scene. Since I really enjoyed the first verse and the vocal idiosyncrasies of John Travolta (there are various takes in which I try to comprehend what makes those so fascinating in the video), I kept skipping back to the beginning and after a while I became aware of how much weird stuff is going on in that scene. When I first thought about doing a work based on that footage, I thought about just doing a kind of visual analysis of what’s happening. That turned out to be a bit… I don’t know, didactic maybe? But while working on it, I became really interested in those two modes of temporality that are happening simultaneously on the screen: the circularity of the loop and the linearity of the subtitle-ish narration. That somehow formally resonated with stuff I had been thinking about for a while: nostalgia, retro, and other pop culture loops. Also I realized that the setting of Greasemakes use of those same things. Intellectually it became very overwhelming and wild, but at the same time I still really dug the song. I thought that by looping the song so insistently (almost) throughout the whole video, it (or it’s first verse) could become almost sculptural. Like it has a presence that relates to your body but also lets you move around it and look from various angels and all that.
JC: Your formal choice to have a white surrounding of the moving image is very interesting. When one watches your work on the big screen, particularly in a cinema, it is very unusual but helps to watch the image and comprehend your text. Plus it creates such a different of space, mainly because the cinema becomes pretty bright. When did you decide to do this and which was your intention?
MG: Oh that’s very interesting to hear. I haven’t seen it in the cinema yet and I didn’t really consider how much white background would illuminate the room. I’m not quite sure how much of a trope that is in the discussion about cinema as “site” or space, but the room being dark on default seems like a technique to minimize the corporeality of the viewer. Of course duration and sound are still very bodily things but I don’t know, that’s something I find very intense about cinema. It becomes most obvious if it’s a shitty film that uses its means in a manipulative way. Something like a Hans Zimmer score, for example. Although I can analyse what’s happening in the narrative—perhaps by identifying a cliché character or a schematic story—a combination of a dark room and a certain type of image and music doesn’t leave you much choice on what to feel. You’re kind of moved—whether you want it or not. At least I am. But as I said, I didn’t really consider brightness in the first place, but it is kind of related. I wanted to show the Grease clip as “scaled-down”. The intention was to make it more accessible as what it actually is: an excerpt from a movie produced in a certain period and circulating with the technological means of another period of time. I did use a HD clip from Youtube and even if the resolution was very high, the compression and colour are a little off and ugly: the clip as a clip opposed to the clip as a window into a cinematic reality. Like a soft BrechtianVerfremdungseffekt. But still highly enjoyable. The white background and the pop-up-like layering of images are also reminiscent of the way information is organized on a computer screen. Do you know how the German Mac desktop folder is called “Schreibtisch” [desk]? I thought it could be a little bit like that: a virtual desk where information is arranged and work is done.
JC: The visual analysis you carry out is also a film analysis, so there is a strong link to cinema and of course there are so many references to popular culture. For example the loop. It's like a music sample you loop, a practice which is very common in rap and electronic music. How did you work on this project? Did you watch through your loop and then came up with the different topics adding some kind of a narrative structure, or did you have topics planed and then thought on how you could connect them with the images?
MG: Yes, the images came first. I’ve done lecture performances before, where I used that type of “messy narration”. Those always started with a text and then I’d find images or something to illustrate the text with. In «craving for narrative» I tried to do it the other way round, working on the visual aspect first. The loop kind of dictated what topics would come on. There are also the illustrative pictures that visualize something that comes up in the text, like names or references but those where mostly about rhythm and attention, like little kicks to keep to viewer awake. I guess that at some point it also became interesting to see how much I could stretch the relationship between image and text without it being random. When the text starts talking about my mother and my stepfather for instance. That was also something I thought about, before I even knew what the text would exactly say. Since this is actually the first time I’ve shown a work in cinema and in a film context, I usually try to think about how it works in a gallery-type exhibition setting. The whole video would most likely be looped and I’d have no control over at what part a viewer would walk into the room and start watching it. I thought it would be cool if you enter the work in the middle and there’s John Travolta and the text is talking about something that at first seems totally unrelated but if you keep watching, it actually falls into place and makes sense. But I can’t really recall how much of that was planned in the beginning and what developed in the process.
JC: For how long did you work on this project?
MG: I actually worked on it for almost 18 months, on and off. I also started it over and lost faith in it and all that, so it’s a little hard to remember the exact process. I have weird little details in mind without even knowing what type of work it would be, though. Whenever I watch a movie I try to bring a book to note little editing tricks and schticks or stuff that stands out, and what kind of effect it has. There’s something very specific about the end, when the mini-credits come on. The screen turns dark the exact moment when you hear the chorus for the first time and then it takes a little to long for those credits to come on. That’s something I stole form the X-Files TV-Show. They often end episodes with a fade to black while the ambient-sound of the last scene keeps going for a while. I guess it’s very ominous, very open-ended and in my video the effect is very different but somehow when I noticed that, I just thought “that’s very cool, maybe I can use it at some point.” I guess there was some stuff that I really had to work in. The story about the Bob Dylan concert. That’s not necessary, but I though it’s a funny little story. I also really needed some breaks from the loop, because those I showed the work in progress complained that it was driving them insane, and that’s not what I wanted. The same with the content layering or jumping between various topics in the text. I try to find the point where it gets wild and messy in a way that feels interesting or somehow relevant, but you can still follow it.
«[…] craving for narrative» lässt sich einfach nicht gut übersetzen, Max Grau, 2015.
Courtesy of the artist.