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Tucson Weekly Minimalism Goes 3D

Philip Glass And Robert Wilson Go Back To The Future.

By James Reel

MARCH 29, 1999:  NO SWAMP CREATURES will take a swipe at you in the latest Philip Glass-Robert Wilson collaboration, although that's what you might expect from a 3D morev2: nstead, the 73-minute film with live musicians, including composer Glass himself, brandishes nothing more threatening than Sufi mystic poetry, computer-generated stereoscopic animation and a comfortingly minimalist score. Just what you'd expect from the two guys who created the genre-busting opera Einstein on the Beach in 1976.

Don't try to figure out what this show is about. The title is merely a line that director-playwright Wilson always muffed in his monologue version of Hamlet. The lyrics by Persian poet Jallaludin Rumi, the original Whirling Dervish, bear little relation to Wilson's visual imagery. Even the film's animators never quite got it. "We could tell right away that it wasn't appropriate to ask Robert Wilson 'What does this mean?'" says Diana Walczak of The Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company.

Wilson originally intended Monsters of Grace to be an all-live show, but his ideas were too grandiose, too technically daunting, too expensive for the real world. The next best thing was virtual reality. Enter Kleiser-Walczak.

These animators were accustomed to shorter projects involving more time and money. The company has produced special effects for such feature films as Stargate and Clear and Present Danger. It specialized in creating "synthespians," realistic computer-generated human figures that could be knocked around and blown up without alarming Hollywood insurance companies. The group is now finishing Spider-Man, a computer-generated stereoscopic short for Universal Studios. "That's four minutes of film at probably eight times the budget of Monsters of Grace," Walczak points out. "Monsters was one of the most frustrating things we've ever done, but it was a labor of love for us, a gift to art."

The 13 scenes weren't complete in time for the premiere last April at UCLA, so Monsters of Grace 1.0 debuted with live dancers alternating with film segments. The last pixel didn't get pushed until December, but now Monsters is a finished product.

"I think it's fairly firm now," says Glass. "Not just because the pictures were finally completed, but also because our technical director really understands now how to set up the screens and projectors so the 3D projections work in an optimal way. There's no model for this, and it took a lot of experimenting, and it wasn't until January that he said to me, 'I finally know how to do this movie.'"

Almost everything on screen was produced in a computer, although the animators did scavenge some initial material from out here in meatspace. For the longest scene, a nine-minute segment, the animators first "cyber-scanned" a real boy's head. A laser beam passed all the way around the kid, picking up information on his head's shape, color and brightness. The head became a computer model, which the animators popped onto a computer body on a computer bicycle creeping down a virtual suburban lane. The houses, the trees, the individual leaves blowing in the wind were all generated electronically and tracked from two points of view three inches apart, like human eyes. In the theater, one projector shows images to be seen by the right eye, and a second projector shows images for the left eye. The cardboard 3D glasses handed out at the door sort it out at your face.

The only live element to this production is the music: four singers and a band of wind instruments and electronic keyboards. But the computer was essential even in the orchestra pit. Sampling technology allows Glass and his fellow keyboardists to mimic, from time to time, a variety of Middle Eastern string and percussion instruments. This is a nod to poet Rufi's Persian origins, which aren't obvious from Coleman Barks' colloquial English translations.

"That allows us to create a sound world that has the atmosphere of a particular place," says Glass. This is nothing new for the composer, who has explored Indian, African and Asian sound worlds in his work with sitarist Ravi Shankar and his scores for the films Powaqqatsi and Kundun.

Its marketers claim that Monsters of Grace represents the future of musical theater. But yank out the circuit boards, and what you get is state-of-the-art cinema circa 1927: Surrealist imagery flickers silently on the screen while a pit band supplies the music.

Though launched from the '20s, Monsters of Grace won't be mistaken for a Luis Buñuel period piece. While careening toward the end of the millennium, the show swerved into the 1950s, scooping up a bit of mid-century pop culture--those 3D glasses, plus Philip Glass' beloved early-rock and roll rhythms and backup singers. And now it slams into the end of the '90s, piling in front of it a tangle of our current aesthetic obsessions. Here's the multicultural cachet of Middle Eastern sounds and poetry. There's the postmodern rejection of grand narratives that make sense of the world, in favor of brief cryptic utterances reminding us that our universe is inherently weird. And sprawled over it all is the pomo obsession with how technology can help us substitute the simulacrum for the real. Our culture traps "reality" in ironic quotation marks, as if it were too dangerous to be left prowling through our lives, and Monsters of Grace valiantly keeps "reality" at bay.

None of this means that Monsters of Grace is a nasty wreck. Most of us cultural gawkers can find odd beauty in interesting collisions.


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