A Very, Very Distant Thunder: A film by Zach Kleyn screened at Dutch Door

Please join us for a screening of Zach Kleyn’s “A Very, Very, Distant Thunder”.

Doors open at 7:00
Screening starts at 7:30

Description of “A Very, Very, Distant Thunder” from Zach Kleyn’s website:

“A Very, Very, Distant Thunder” is a video project using found footage from a fundamentalist Christian film made in 1978. The original film follows the female protagonist as she struggles to survive the collapse of society after the rapture, or the disappearance of all true believers. The artist’s version of this film is an unusual homage inspired by the childhood game of muting the television and speaking for the actors: every portion of the audio, including all character voices, sound effects, and the musical score, have been completely re-made using only sounds that were produced directly with the artist’s own body. All religious scenes and explanations have been edited out of this new version, leaving the viewer within a confusing and incomplete storyline that resembles the artist’s own fragmented memories of seeing the original film at a young age. Because of the rupture between sound and image, as well as the sincerity with which the audio is re-created, “A Very, Very, Distant Thunder” creates an effect that is simultaneously comical and disturbing. The project functions as both an exorcism and possession of a film that represents a foundational childhood understanding of faith – a meditation on the alarming question of whether a clear boundary exists between individual self-consciousness and religious doctrine.

I sit down in the room behind the Dutch Door, near the screen, to see Zach Kleyn’s film, and I quickly become engaged. The original film, A Distant Thunder, comes through loud and clear: A young woman wakes and finds evidence of missing family members and friends; she has adventures. I can see that the movie would have been clumsy but effective (especially if one watched it as a child). I get excited by a chase scene, I’m saddened when the hero girl cries, and so on. Kleyn’s interventions are also clear: The artist has superimposed his new title in a bold, sans serif font over the original, more florid 70s era lettering; and this draws laughs, as do the artist-made voice-overs of all of the sounds in the film, including the dialogue. Kleyn has deleted much of the dialogue, leaving only the connective tissue of the script – the language without propaganda or polemic content; he has resolved this visually by Photoshopping in closed lips on characters who have lost words. The effect is of eerily wriggling faces with expressive eyes; it feels like people in a Greek myth – or in 1960s spooky comics – who are cursed to be silent and wordless. (Curiously, I think also of the historic Early Christians, of their persecution by the Romans, and their torture and murder and as they prayed silently and in secret. While I think that Kleyn is interested in drawing my thinking away from the religious subject matter of the film – he has negated the Christianity originally present – and not toward, but at the same time, I wonder, is there a way to think about Fundamentalist Christianity as an intellectual in 2013 without disdain?)

There is plenty to find funny in Kleyn’s film: The original A Distant Thunder is hokey, and this condition has its own delightful camp. Too, the subject matter of religion and the Christian Rapture is foreign enough to (and is held in enough disdain by) most people in the room for this to be funny also, and Kleyn’s Foley tricks, while smooth as one can do this sort of thing, are jarring and funny at first, too. For me the humor stops pretty quickly, as I become interested in this strange and satisfying disunion between two films: a pure religious tract full of propaganda that is overlayed with a second film of Kleyn’s making, using materials drawn from the first. This creates a weird sort of embedding in my mind, and I must constantly ask myself which I am seeing, and to what I am responding.

These language-less moments I describe above, they are really lovely to see. In one such scene, following a character’s banal comment, the camera moves from face to face, emphasizing what is, without words, potentially a meaningless space, and yet, because Kleyn has put me in the position of constantly seeking meaning in his film, working as I am on the assumption that he has drained away the original meaning of the Christian film, these silences have power. I am forced to consider that in film message can exist apart from language, that the broad strokes of action and the curiously coded facial expressions remaining in Kleyn’s film still convey the propaganda from the original Distant Thunder.

Experientially, these lapidary utterances surrounded by pregnant silences remind me in music of the way that Morton Feldman will lead and follow a note with quiet – this draws attention to the singularity of the note, and also makes clear his belief in silence as a powerful tool of communication. The fact is that, in Feldman’s compositions, as with Kleyn’s film, each silence has its own feeling, its own potential for interpretation and experience. Similarly, and closer to film, in the morning television soap operas I watched as a child I remember that sometimes characters would express complete non sequitors, or perhaps one character in a group would utter some grave pronouncement, and then the set would be engulfed in silence, lacking any musical soundtrack, and the camera would pan from face to face and then to furniture, until finally a commercial break came along to end the scene.

Kleyn does use a musical sound track of a sort: In moments of high tension a hip hop style music (again, made by Kleyn’s vocalizing) accompanies the characters as they struggle. If this music is anomalous to the original score, it works so well here that the deviation doesn’t matter. Sometimes inconsistencies make the art.

I think about the artist as the ambient noise of this world in his film; he is physically embodying the noise, as well as the conversation. There is something of the idiot savant about this prodigious totality of sound and self, as well as a revisiting of a Surrealist trick of replacing the dialogue of a film. But what can it mean to replace the dialogue with itself? Watching the film, I kept suspecting that I was hearing some other script, full of ideas that do not exist in the original, and yet my senses assured me that I wasn’t. Indeed, the ideas of those earlier film makers are exactly what Kleyn removed, stressing instead a faltering connectibility and the cryptic social interaction of people, without the intrusion of ideas.

I consider also that this project begins for Kleyn in memory, in a remembered, possibly traumatic reality of force and persuasion. One way to understand memory is as stories we tell ourselves that from the instant of an experience begin to change, and that continue to develop over time. Another way is through the body, where experiences can be coded physically into sensations. This reminds me of the voids of dialogue in Kleyn’s film, when as a viewer my stomach lurched in expectation of human voices. Memories from childhood can work this way.

In A Very, Very Distant Thunder, Kleyn experiments with the material of film – sound and moving image. He treats this material of a single film in the manner of the Structuralists/Materialists; where those earlier avant garde artists focused on the material of film itself to question communication, Kleyn points himself, as camera (and as audio) at the material that is on the film, on already used film, so to speak, impure and with an intelligence already about it. Everything being already unclean: content, meaning, hierarchy, polemic, formalism, etc., Kleyn pushes us in and makes us swim with the sharks. My own observational powers must be questioned, as must my ability to interpret. Finally, Kleyn’s experiment in Structuralism is a very personal film. And perhaps this insistence on the personal is part of his experiment.

I worried about constant laughter during the screening. I worry that such laughter indicates missing a larger point: By removing the propagandistic text of A Distant Thunder, yet showing us that the message remains, it seems to me that Kleyn is showing us that the films we watch, those popular entertainments which, in our minds, are the farthest thing possible from propaganda, work on us in the same way the rapture movie worked on the naive and pliant viewers of the original A Distant Thunder.

Kleyn’s film draws a connection for me between the comfortably assured world view of popular film and the harsher, more strident message of A Distant Thunder.

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