Could it be possible, that after 192 years, dozens of movies, television shows, critical theses and innumerably terrible Boris Karloff latex masks, that anything new could be said about the Frankenstein story? Dave Douglas and Bill Morrison certainly think so.
Utilizing bleak found footage of early 20th century avant-garde films and combining it with experimental jazz and ambient sonics to retell Mary Shelly’s Prometheus, Spark of Being is a wondrous, sensory overload. It is a magnificent double entendre that at once demands attention from its audience and yet does not rely on it for its success. Douglas’ Keystone group wholly compliments Morrison’s black-and-white montages, while a story, which is ingrained in our public consciousness is given fresh, yet intentionally directionless, legs.
The film itself is ice; cold washes of found footage told in chapters to break up both the narrative construct of the film and Douglas’ compositions. The opening sequence, “The Captain’s Story,” follows a clipper ship cutting its way through frozen, arctic waters, while icebergs dance in the background under the indifferent gaze of the ship’s captain. The sense of isolation is fully realized by Douglas’ muted trumpet work spitting over the imagery. The scene plays like an early Soviet propaganda film, complete with sailors attempting to revive a drowned comrade. The use of ice as a metaphor is omnipresent, appearing in nearly every episode.
The story itself moves along at a brisk pace. Though the chapters are given overtly obvious titles, the scenes within are much less structured. “A Promising Start” begins with synths reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s “Mitternacht” (courtesy of Geoff Countryman) while images of blood cultures in Petri dishes are splashed across the screen.
It is on “The Doctor’s Creation” that the visceral experience truly begins to take hold. What starts out as a lonely oarsman traversing a lifeless, burned out landscape is given a propulsive bass synth line by Adam Benjamin. Electric tendrils splash across the screen as Douglas and saxophonist Marcus Strickland start to truly belt it out. Douglas’ muted trumpet progressions land like napalm as the electricity onscreen gives way to static fuzz; it is Pollack at light speed. The scene belongs, though, to Gene Lake, whose drum work keeps such amazingly tight control over the chaos.
The following vignettes focus more on austere visuals rather than on a consistent musical form. Color displays of the Creature’s world coming into focus on “The Creature’s Education” show a pantone dream of butterflies and the monotony of human life. A Tim Hecker-type ambient smear follows two naked lovers running through a field in “Observations of Romantic Love.” It is a stunning moment of mournful joy, wholly capturing the concept of love through the eyes of something that has never experienced it.
The film inevitably takes a turn and, with “The Doctor’s Wedding,” returns to its oppressive grayscale palate. The scene is nearly nihilistic as a joyless wedding procession gives way to monotone Bavarian dancing. “The Creature Confronts His Creator” is essentially a long introduction for the penultimate act, “The Doctor Flees.” It is a chase scene emphasized by staccato cymbal and drum work. The imagery returns to the ship on icy waters, but this time Douglas has put his mute aside. This is the only moment where Keystone truly opens up. Before the playing was withheld, controlled. Muted tones play over quick rhythms. Here, though, the sound is full: Strong chords, loud and shaking vibrato, sustained whole notes, and keys flooding the theater. It is powerful and huge. “The Creature’s Pursuit” follows, and Douglas puts back in his mute. It is a weary song, with a man running sled dogs. The final scene is the same as the first, with the ship’s crew unsuccessfully reviving the drown sailor. Keystone fades out, and ‘The End” flashes on-screen.
Douglas and Morrison strive to attain the near impossible: retell a universally known and exhausted story in a way that has not yet been imagined. The creativity and cleverness of Morrison’s editing and the chaotic restrain of Douglas’ ensemble let the audience fill in the gaps of a loose outline, rather than using straight-forward and rote storytelling to force-feed them something they have already eaten. It is really the only way that Frankenstein could be retold. At this point, the story is so obvious, it has its own Halloween industry.
What has been lost over the years is its actual meaning. Frankenstein is a discourse on humanity, not a simplistic mad scientist/monster scenario. The Creature is a wholly formed being but has the disadvantage of being devoid of prejudicial feelings and cultural boundaries. He is seen as a monster because he has no side to choose and no understanding of why he needs to choose one. In the hands of Douglas and Morrison, this story seems amazingly fresh, vital, topical, and necessary. It’s exhilarating, weary, and thought provoking. When was the last time anybody could say that about a Frankenstein retelling?