Sunday, 23 November 2014

x: the man with x ray eyes - live score by pere ubu

when i was a kid, probably too young to be watching horror films, my dad showed me x: the man with xray eyes.

it terrified me, but it stuck with me as well, especially the ending. i won't spoil it but if you haven't seen it you need to check out this film. anyway, when i heard it was being shown at duke of york's in brighton with a live score from pere ubu, i had to go. it also just happened to tie in with a visit from my old man so i took him along as well.

i'm not going to go into huge detail here, you need to see the film, but you do need a bit of background to understand where this ends up.

first of all, the man with x ray eyes isn't as schlocky as the title makes it sound. yes, it's a typical science gone wrong film, yes, it was made by roger corman, yes, it should by awful. but it's not. i don't know whether that's because of ray milland's performance in the title role, or the story that is more similar to something like nightmare alley (one of my all time favourites) than any sci-fi b-movie. it's a film about ideas, and ultimately for me it's a film about misfortune and tragedy. milland's character pushes the boundaries of science with a recklessness that will get him into trouble time and time again in the story, and yet he presses on. he strives to see something no man has ever seen, but once you've seen the heart of the universe you can't unsee it. milland's character gets all he ever wanted in the first ten minutes, but from then on there is only horror and disappointment.

secondly, you need to know a bit about pere ubu. they were an experimental rock band that started in the 70s in the states and have been around in one form or another ever since. frontman david thomas is the only constant ad he pretty much is pere ubu. my dad was more familiar with them as a band, while i only knew of them from their live score to carnival of souls, which i'd seen a few years earlier. that screening ran a whole lot smoother.

so here's what happened. david thomas comes out with the band and introduces the film with some facts and jokes about how drinking will help make sense of it all. then he describes how everyone knows the ending is missing the line 'i can still see' (makes sense when you see it). in the first few scenes thomas made fun of a couple of the lines in the film, setting a light-hearted tone. but then things got serious.

from where i was sitting it seemed like someone in the band wasn't doing what they were supposed to. thomas gestured furiously at the musicians in front of him and a couple of times he shouted at them. if you were just listening to the music it didn't seem like anything was wrong. the score added a layer of depth to the film that was always there but didn't quite shine through before. onstage, however, it seemed like thomas might stand up and walk out at any moment. i found myself completely distracted and in a state of high tension because it looked like this was a man on the edge of a breakdown.

he didn't walk out. he made it to the end. then he said 'goodnight' stood up and staggered off the stage shouting 'turn the fucking stage lights on!' confirming to me that all had not gone to plan. but then i started to wonder. was this part of the performance?

whether intentional or not, the parallels seemed clear to me. there's a moment at the end of the film when milland's character is staggering around in the desert having just crashed his car. he's just lost everything, an yet he still has this power to see the secrets of the universe. it's worthless to him now. the score at the this moment was particularly moving.

as i watched david thomas shouting and cursing his way off the stage i couldn't help seeing a living version of the character from the film. here was someone who had seen too much. someone who had an idea of what perfection was, and who was striving for that thing, but in the end all he was left with was disappointment and sadness.

it was one of the most profoundly moving performances i have ever seen.

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