Sunday, April 25, 2010

Keanoshow - A Collection Of Short Films by Dave McKean

The opening of the 15 minute short film “Kodak: Take Pictures Further“ contains the following lines written across the screen; “My head hurts. I’ve got too many images in my brain. Quick, somebody get me some more film before my head explodes.” Welcome to the world of Dave McKean.

The visual work of McKean, particularly his motion picture work, requires that you pay attention at all times. Being a visual artist first, his films are filled with bizarre imagery that may or may not be representative of anything, but are still a treat to look at. For those unfamiliar, McKean was the cover artist on the entire run of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic book series, and also was the director, designer, and co-storywriter of the film “MirrorMask” (Gaiman was the other storyteller). One of the things that is consistent about McKean’s work is that you can never be quite certain of just exactly what it is you’re looking at. Even if you think you do know what you’re seeing, quite often it will metamorphose into something else in a graceful and oftentimes surprising way. He also tends to combine images in a way that juxtaposes them wonderfully. He will alternate between a fixed camera position, with interesting images literally unfolding before the eyes, to giant sweeping arcs in and around computer creations seemingly floating in the ether. McKean never fails to visually dazzle the viewer. Some of the short films on “Keanoshow” don’t even center around a narrative per se, as much as they are just about stunning visuals.

As far as narratives, my personal favorite film on the disc is “The Week Before“, about the seven days leading up to the week in which God created the world. Featuring the music of Django Reinhardt (which is apparently the reason for the unavailability of “Keanoshow” in the US), we follow God (portrayed by Dean Harris wearing one of McKean’s trademark masks) as he works his way thru seemingly ordinary days of naming objects, fishing, and playing cards with his neighbor (who, since the world hasn’t been created yet, is The Devil, played by Eamonn Collinge in another of McKean‘s beautiful masks). It’s a lighthearted look into a life, made rather dazzling by the combination of live actors wearing some of McKean’s art, existing in worlds that are part physical set and part McKean’s computer art. It always seems interesting to me to see McKean’s paintings come to life, and that is in a nutshell what “The Week Before” is, more so than any of the other shorts on “Keanoshow“. “The Week Before” is also probably closest of anything on the disc visually to “MirrorMask“, and the excellent choice of Reinhardt tracks to accompany the days of the week makes for a truly engaging 23 minute film. It was actually the music of Reinhardt that inspired McKean to write many of the scenes for the film.

“n[eon]” contains a line that is very appropriate. Although the lead character, voiced by narrator John Cale, is talking about Venice, Italy (which is where McKean wrote the short) when he utters the line, he could well be talking about McKean’s work in any medium when he says “(It) rewards those who pay attention. The more you look, the more you see.” This is perhaps the most surreal, dream-like piece on the disc, which is saying something considering it’s context. It may also be the best piece on the disc. A seemingly somber short, you find your self thinking, a lot, as the film unfolds. A man searching for where he belongs wanders Venice and sees a ghost, as he wonders about his place in the universe. Obviously, there’s much more to it than that, but the 28 minute film has to be seen, not explained.

“Whack!” is a 14 minute live-action adaptation of the Punch & Judy puppet shows; just as violent, and perhaps more disturbing, in real life. The entire film takes place inside the tent that the puppet shows would be presented from, so the overly close perspective adds a bizarre quality to the visuals, making everything, even though comedic, seem more intense (no pun intended). The actors are members of Forced Entertainment, an experimental theater group in England.

“Dawn” is a 9 minute film made in 3 days because McKean wanted to remember that making films was fun, after spending 2 years making “MirrorMask” where it had become a tremendous amount of work. It stars his daughter Yolanda and is based on “conversations with (his) worrisome daughter”, and, while not featuring the look of his artwork, is visually unique in that it was shot on video thru glass bottles to add a sort of dream-like quality.

“Displacements” seems to exist solely for the pleasure of being able to create interesting images on computer for the camera, interspersed with snippets of an interview with Michael Moorcock that are layered and looped in to become another visual element of bizarreness. McKean is fond of distorting audio, leaving in scratchy noises that sound like a German Expressionist film looks.

There are also a dozen more short films included, varying in length from 1 to 15 minutes. These include music videos for artists as diverse as guitarist Buckethead (featuring Les Claypool on bass & vocals), opera singer Izzy, and a live performance at a jazz club by Iain Ballamy and Stian Carstensen, which McKean later added visual effects to. The music video seems to be a perfect format for McKean; I personally would love to see him add to his repertoire in this genre. He’s done well over 150 CD covers, it seems only natural that he would progress to this medium. Of the rest of the films, an especially interesting one is “A Short Film For Adobe“, in which the company’s Photoshop program is demonstrated within the context of a photo shoot in a rather clever way. Also of note is a short adaptation of part of “Signal To Noise“, originally done as a series for Face magazine, and then collected into a graphic novel, written by Gaiman and released back in 1992. A conversation shot in a living room from a single camera angle is transferred into a visually arresting image with the collage of images coming together to form the whole. Much like a lot of McKean’s work, in any medium, it needs to be seen, as it is rather difficult to explain…however, it is all very much worth it indeed.

It is also worth noting that much of the music for many of the films on “Keanoshow” is written and performed by McKean himself. Even the basic DVD menus are done in McKean’s style, making the entire disc a treat for fans of his work. There is an interview with him in which he discusses some of the work seen on the disc, and even that is infused with some of his artistic sense. McKean is a very talented visual artist in whatever medium he chooses to work in, having a very distinctive style which is on full display in this collection of short films directed and designed by him spanning a nearly 10 year period. As mentioned earlier, the copyright issue over Reinhardt’s music currently prohibits a release in the US, but it looks to be getting a release in Europe from Darkside in the next few months (this information direct from McKean himself via his Twitter account…well worth following, as his taste in film mirrors much of what appears on this site, and he often reports on his family‘s choice of film the night before). “Keanoshow” was very briefly available on Amazon in the US in late July, 2008, which is how I got my copy, but quickly became unavailable from them when the copyright issues arose. You can find it on eBay and things like that, and for those with a taste for visual flair who are willing to try something a bit different, you shouldn’t be disappointed…as long as you pay attention.

Special thanks to Dave McKean for the info and the images, and for being a pretty cool guy, as well as a helluva artist.

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