Angelica — Entr’acte
It begins with a slow rumble, the deep growl of a car engine. Across the top of the image is a strip of grey that grows longer, stretching down to fill the screen — like a curtain slowly, steadily unfurling. The wash of grey begins to swim, to move, to roll — shifting and turning, gentle movements side-to-side, pivoting, hinged on a central axis. Slowly, jarringly, then swiftly, coherently, the realisation dawns that we are inside the wheel of a car. Driving over a bumpy cobblestone street, we roll with the wheel, becoming more familiar with its motions — left, right — its interior nuts and bolts, the large coil that holds it to the body of the car, expanding and contracting according to the lilt and shock of the terrain beneath. Squeaking, creaking, the wheel reveals itself. We see what it is made up of. We see how it works. We think — perhaps — how strange it is, this unseen view, how unsettling, how enthralling the notion of the invisible machinery that underlies even the most basic, taken-for-granted elements of our daily existence. The secret murmurings that tear away some of the veil, reminding us not to be fooled: nothing is neutral, everything is a construction, a performance.
The film is full of interiors. Inversions abound, abut all the clean sight lines of our expectations, catching us off guard. Look again — they seem to say — look differently, look harder, look better, look back, forward, look here. The impossible wheeling ride of the wheel as seen from inside. Now, vignettes later, the inside of a Pianola — a player piano. We look down at its piano roll, a cream-white cylinder covered with small pieces of metal. As it turns, the hard shining studs catch against a row of metal keys that sit parallel, flashing light from above as they revolve. Each emits a different note, all together, faster and faster, stringing a song into the air with a frenetic, haphazard joviality. We watch as the roll unscrolls, disappearing into the instrument below. A pause between songs — the movement stops — a moment later the keys lift up, shift left, shift gears and resume their mad musicality. What is this soundtrack for? What do the songs — their melancholic strains, their disembodied melodies — accompany? For how long does it play, this seemingly endless score? Does it end only to resume once more, right back to where it began, a helix of descant?
Orlando Innamorato — or, ‘Orlando in Love’ — was penned by Matteo Maria Boiardo in the late 15th Century. An epic tale of romance, the story follows the valiant knight Orlando on his mission to win the heart of his one true love, Angelica. In the manner of popular works that both precede and proceed it, the story is full of magic, mistaken identities, love potions, deception, battles, tests of valour, and vanquished enemies. The sweeping, action-filled aspect of the narrative has firmly established Orlando and his trials as popular subject matter for traditional Sicilian puppetry. It is possible that within the original published cantos, Angelica had a somewhat significant, independent role. In contemporary puppet theatre performances, however, she appears largely as a speechless, if not completely marginal character. She exists as a goal for Orlando — amongst other male suitors — to pursue. He the arrow, she the target. He the active, she the passive. He the lover, she the loved.
We know from the title of the story that he is in love: ‘Orlando in Love.’ But what of Angelica? Like so many heroines of old — Penelope in The Odyssey, Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, pretty much all of Tennyson’s women, (and on and on, etc.) — Angelic waits. And waits and waits. That is her role — to sit and watch as the action unfolds outside of her; participating not, though it will directly determine the outcome of her existence. What of her love, her desires, her trials and journeys for surely she too must possess these things in equal measure to Orlando?
What if you could see even for a moment what she saw as the world, in all its violence and frenzy, unfolded around her? Indeed, Angelica is full of Angelicas.
Angelica the warrior princess, metal breast-plated, magnificent helmet- crowned, face placid and sweet below, a calm blue gaze.
Angelica with dusky skin, red lips, red fingernails. A black, stomach-baring costume. Again a crown, gold this time. In one scene as she is embraced by Orlando, a slain man lying at their feet, I am unconvinced of her love for him. Something about the movement of her head seems like a shake no side-to-side. I wonder if she is bored; or maybe she feels uncomfortable that Orlando is only able to demonstrate his dedication to her by murdering people. After they depart the scene, whisked offstage, the dead man over whom they stood is carried off by an evil angel with a bushy tail, black wings, and the face of a beast. A devil dog with a mean swoop, a wolf of the skies. This love story, puppet shows, theatre, performance — they contain a violence that is surprising, that catches you off guard, sticks like a lump in your throat until you swallow it down and reassure yourself: it is just a story; it is just for play, for entertainment.
Angelica walking up a set of stone stairs, outdoors: where has the theatre gone? I see her from above as she makes her way forward. A different Angelica now, with shoulder-length golden locks, clad in a simple red corduroy frock.
The same Angelica, static now, as she dangles silent and still, separated from me by the glass windshield of a van. She is alone here. I wonder if it is a relief, this moment of solitude, but her cool, impassive gaze reveals nothing. I am left to imagine what she is looking at, what she sees.
Angelica tall and slender with neat brown hair, pale skin, and a small rose- bud mouth. Hanging from a bookshelf in an empty office room. Later, lying prostrate in a darkened space, a small flowered cushion propped beneath her head. Sun blazes outside, to the left of the frame, and a man’s shadow moves across the ground beyond her feet. I would say, perhaps, a luxurious afternoon nap, but her eyes as ever are wide open, unblinking.
Angelica walking through a room, calm and stately. She looks over to see an image that sticks out of the garbage pail. It is Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes! Angelica pauses. Does she feel kinship? She and Judith: could they be sisters in arms?
Three Angelicas, all in a row. A breeze, imperceptible but for the gentle sway of their bodies. They look not at each other, but face forward, as though contemplating in concert the same distant object — the long horizon of longing for the beyond here. This army of silent women.
In 1917, the composer Erik Satie wrote a piece of music called 'Musique D’Ameublement' — or, ‘Furniture Music.’ It was to be played at the theatre during the two entr’actes of a play, as a sort of background music to accompany regular intermission activity. The debut of the work was a disaster. As soon as the music began, everyone sat back down in their seats as though conditioned to conceive of only one manner of receiving live music: as performance, sitting stock still in silence, paying close attention. In spite of Satie’s adamant exhortations to the audience members to continue milling about, to converse, go to the lobby for refreshments as one might normally — they remained in their seats, listening attentively. Eventually, the composer gave up. It seemed impossible to explain that he wanted the ‘Furniture Music’ to be just that: furnishing the contours of the physical space, and of the spaces between things — here, the acts of a play. To make palpable the in-betweens, the marginalia, the pauses, the sideways glances, the whispers in the wings. That these things are all performances in themselves, part and parcel, whether they seem orchestrated or not. That beside, aside, astride the Main Act, something else — something of equal import and effort — is always occurring to generate, in aid of, the illusion.
It is a question of placing something just beside itself.
A question of, as Roland Barthes writes in ‘Lesson in Writing’, it is a question of the signifier doing nothing but “turn[ing] itself inside out,
like a glove.”
An elevator: its metal doors slide open, closed, open again. How did we get here? What building is this? Where are we going? Up or down? Why don’t we get off when it stops at different floors? Our vision shifts up slightly; someone’s legs — slight and askew — stretch across the ground. Or is it the ceiling? It is Angelica, again — it seems — waiting. Waiting for her stop, waiting to get off, waiting for us to leave — for any number of things, for anything and everything. Waiting to be animated. A voice slowly, mournfully intones her name in the distance, but she stirs not. She seems instead to look straight at us now, unflinching. Staring at us as we at her, fixed in a steady gaze. As if to say: I dare you to believe you can blink and find me still sitting here. Before we can meet her wager, a screen of black rolls down, darkening our view. The curtain descends, leaving us to wonder — or perhaps to decide for ourselves — what will take place during the entr’acte.
At the beginning and the end of Angelica, there is a sequence in which a man standing atop a clothes dresser attempts to hang a curtain above a door on the street. It is an incomprehensible scene: the curtain seems strangely elaborate and not suitable for outdoor use; several people wander in and out of the shot, no one offering to help even as the man struggles with his cumbersome task; next to the door in question, a bed frame and mattress lean against the exterior wall of the building. One wants to ask many things. What happens behind this curtain? What scene will it go up on? What is being framed?
What are you framing?
What is the picture?
What is the story?
Flashes of Angelica — outside — in the heat of the morning sun. The shore, the coast, the horizon behind her. Dancing, dancing, twirling, swirling, whirling like a dervish. Her red cape shines, her blue boots slide and skitter. For a moment, I forget there are strings attached to her — as to all puppets — that she is ministered by a greater animating force.
Angelica, given life. Dancing, dancing, dancing.
Published in Judith Cowan: Angelica, Museo Internazionale delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino, Palermo, October 2013.