The film The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, currently on view at James Cohan’s Grand Street location, takes the colorful funerary traditions of south Vietnam as a means to meditate on loss and mourning. Yet the emphasis is very much on life–on the people performing the rituals of mourning rather than the absent dead. To create the 21-minute work, first shown at Prospect in New Orleans in 2014, The Propeller Group attended and recorded the funeral ceremonies of several people. In doing so, they found not just ritual practices–extreme demonstrations such as balancing motorcycles on one’s head or sword swallowing–but a cast of charismatic characters, such as the leader of the brass band that processes through the film in white.
The film is full of dances with fire and snakes, feats of skill, flowers and processions, and, paramount to all, music. Music permeates the film. It is not just the auditory soundtrack we hear, although that is compelling in itself. The Propeller Group portrays musicians alone with visual references to karaoke and music videos. The pace of jump cuts matches the rhythm of the different Vietnamese songs, whose sad and trite lyrics are shared on screen in English captions. The lip syncing of featured individuals registers as slightly out of time with the soundtrack.
Swirling camera shots develop a sense of intoxication while the music acts upon the emotions of the viewer. The music’s emotive register reminds me of the sentimental pathos of Ragnar Kjartansson‘s work rather than tragedy, perhaps because the film uses signifiers of the dead without the dead being present. No bodies are shown. The viewer only sees coffins or, at most, pictures. The focus is on rituals that stress aliveness, as if the passage from death to life should be celebrated. And, in fact, the Propeller Group borrowed the tittle of the film from a Vietnamese Buddhist proverb, which calls for the playing of celebratory music for the dead.
The Propeller Group shot everything in ultra-high definition video, creating a lush and convincing dreamworld for the viewer. Using both documentary footage and staged reenactment, the film moves seamlessly between real and unreal space and time. Thus while the film is specific to local particularities, it becomes a poetic rumination on life, death, and the stages in-between. The Propeller Group has seamlessly worked in artificial effects, like the silhouette of a person being filled with CGI red fire (pictured in the image below). It works because the real footage is as fantastical and evocative as the artificial scenes that it blends with, and it is partly the lyrical movement between documentary footage, staged reenactments, music video style scenes, and computer effects that makes this film such compelling viewing.
Up through May 15 at James Cohan Gallery at 291 Grand Street.