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It felt like a kiss – an experiential documentary?


A co-production between documentary maker Adam Curtis and performance theatre group Punchdrunk  was shown at the Manchester International Festival (2nd-19th July 2009): It felt like a kiss takes the shape of a walk into a warehouse that has been staged by Punchdrunk props and décors, and populated by Curtis’ videos. Can we call it an interactive documentary? Is it an “experiential documentary”?

Manchester International’s website describes the event like this: “It Felt Like a Kiss tells the story of America’s rise to power in the golden age of pop, and the unforeseen  consequences it had on the world and in our minds. Beginning in 1959, the show spotlights the dreams and desires that America inspired during the ’60s, when the world began to embrace the country and its culture as never before. But as this daring production unfolds across five floors, blending music with documentary and the disorientating whirl of a fairground ghost train, the audience is forced to face the dark forces that were veiled by the American dream – a dream that ultimately returns to haunt us all.”

As in all Punchdrunk’s production a certain mystery was created around the project: what is really going on when one walks around the warehouse? I have tried all my best to see the show but it was completely sold out and the press office was highly unco-operative (and definitively not interested in academic publications)… so I unfortunately cannot reveal the mystery for you…

All I know is what I have read in the reviews. Here are some selected paragraphs:

1) Mark Billington, from the Guardian 3.07.09:

“How to describe the experience? Well, like Caesar’s Gaul, it is divided into three parts. First we assemble in small groups in the lobby of a derelict office building and are warned that what follows may not be suitable for pregnant women or the highly nervous.

Not fitting into either category, I join a party that ascends to the sixth floor. Stumbling through the dark we suddenly find ourselves in a meticulous recreation of period suburban America. This is Norman Rockwell country: manicured lawns, toys in the attic, bakelite radios pouring out pop music. But there is a hint of something more sinister as we edge into a television studio, find dressing rooms decorated with horror-movie posters and hear news of the assassination of JFK.

So far this is all very Punchdrunk: a mixture of art-installation and immersive theatre, on the lines of The Masque of the Red Death, except that here there are no actors. But we come to the main bill of fare, and the real justification for the evening, when we enter an air-conditioned room and watch a 35-minute Adam Curtis documentary” (…)

“But the film, which I sat through twice, is jazzy, stimulating, nerve-pricking. I can only report, with dismay, that the last third of the evening is a total let-down. Coming out of the film, we find ourselves wandering through debris-filled rooms, entering desolate cells, even being pursued down darkened corridors by a masked man clutching a chain-saw.

I guess the aim is to show how the American dream turned into a nightmare. But to do it through these fairground shock-tactics is an insult to our intelligence.”

2) Dominic Cavendish, from the Telegraph 6.07.09

“For It Felt Like a Kiss you enter – in small groups of nine – a quasi “haunted house”. Over two hours or so, in a disorientating atmosphere of darkness and dread, assisted by the enervating strings of Albarn’s compositions and period footage edited to violent, perturbing effect by Curtis, you’re asked to turn sleuth and nose around eerie interiors.

These range from forlorn suburban dwellings to battered CIA offices and vacated film sets, many presided over by creepy mannequins. By the time you get down to the basement, where some very nasty surprises lurk, whatever spurious empowerment you might have felt has evaporated – a perfect fit between the show’s thesis and the spectator’s experience.”

3) Paul Vallely, from the Independent 3.07.09

“It Felt Like a Kiss moves from the 1950s to the present telling the story of America’s shift from the confidence of post-war Fifties Hollywood through the political and cultural turmoil of the Sixties and the social and economic revolutions of the decades that followed: the Cold War, the Space Race, the assassination of JFK, Vietnam, the Black Panthers, the legalisation of homosexuality, and the credit boom.

The audience moves through rooms decked out like a film set of each period, inhabited by creepy mannequins. In each room screens relay evocative archive footage of the nodal moments in history against a sinister atmospheric background score by Damon Albarn so you feel you are a character in some weird movie. It mixes pop, politics, fashion and sex along with shots of chimps sent into space and in the jungles where the HIV virus transferred from ape to man.

It is a powerful journey, through rooms and gardens deserted with the cherry pie half eaten as in some domestic US Marie Celeste. There is a poignant tableau of a father looking silently at his sleeping child as the world waits to be blown to smithereens as the Bay of Pigs crisis unfolds. And director Adam Curtis has done an extraordinary archive trawl to find historical curios like an architect condemning the World Trade Centre twin towers as “satanic” even as they were being built – or archive film of Osama bin Laden’s father building Saudi Arabia’s first modern highway to Mecca.

But there is paranoia among the poignancy. By the time you get to the centre of the piece – a 35 minute film on the implosion of the American Dream – you know too well what you’re in for.”

So… is this an interactive documentary?

To start with this is definitively not a DIGITAL interactive documentary. No sensors, no computers, no digital stuff is involved. But the idea is still to create an immersive experience using the viewer’s interaction with the space and the media content (mainly Curtis’ documentary).

What interests me is the fact that the linear documentary that Curtis has producedhas been taken away from the familiar cinematic (or home) context and it has been placed in a staged context. How much is the fact that viewers are moving in space, feeling anxious because of the setting, and feeling fragile (because they are physicallly involved)… how much is this transforming the video experience to a different type of experience?

Since I have not been to the show I can only guess. In this kind of production the user does not change the plot, and does not influence the content of the performance. But the audience is free to discover the narrative in its own personal order. In a way it is like the digital interactive hypertext mode (an interactive mode where the user clicks on the screen to browse through a narrative which is used in websites and CD-ROMs) but where there is no computer and the viewer becomes the mouse, and the clicking mechanism: while wondering into the warehouse the viewer/audience physically browses the potential narrative. The viewer is the hyperlink of the real space.

Is enough to make the link between It felt like a Kiss and a digital hypertext documentary? Probably no, as It felt like a Kiss is a physical experience and therefore what counts is the layers of emotions that are generated by this physical browsing, and that create what then becomes the “personal experience”.

Can anybody help here? Has anybody participated to the show?

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

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