Similarly, Woody has attempted to discover what some of the signifying units might be for electronically-generated and manipulated images. Some important qualifications should be interjected, however. He did not want to remain limited to images generated by the camera, nor did he want to rely on traditional narrative structures. But, as Metz has pointed out, "The cinema was not a specific 'language' from its inception, but only came so in the "wake of the narrative endeavor." He continues: "The pioneers of 'cinematographic language' - Melies, Porter, Griffith - could care less about 'formal' research conducted for its own sake... men of denotation rather than connotation, they wanted above all to tell a story."40
In 1978, after the Vasulkas made some of the first of their digital experiments, Woody expressed an interest in applying electronic imaging codes to a narrative: "The process of understanding these structure became aesthetic to me. But I also suspect that I feel again some kind of need to express literature ... Beyond dealing with these minimal image structures, I can foresee a larger structure of syntactic or narrative conclusions coming out of this work." 41 Woody's most recent tape, The Commission, (1983, sets out to do just that. The 45-minute tape is narrative; Woody calls it an opera, but it is more akin to modern fiction, relying heavily on the spoken word. This apparent irony, however, is countered by his strategic use of both audio and video effects as narrative devices. Initially, the extremely slow pace of some sections of The Commission is completely mystifying and frustrating. At the same time, the work is so carefully structured and the texts so compelling that upon repeated viewing the viewer can discern various themes unfolding, building and resonating.
The Commission is a metaphor for art-making as realized in the story of two eccentrics - the violinist Niccolo Paganini and the composer Hector Berlioz. Both are self-indulgent, theatrical, and ultimately tragic. As such, they represent archetypal artist-characters. Paganini, played by video artist Ernest Gusella, is a sickly agonized, romantic figure, near death, who describes his grotesque, fantastic visions. Berlioz, played by composer and performer Robert Ashley, is a cerebral and rather fussy character who speaks in abstractions. A male narrator is never seen, but his tale of Paganini's life - interspersed between scenes - provides continuity as well as a context for the otherwise opaque texts.
The script was written by the respective players, who seem physically and temperamentally well-suited to their roles. In Ashley's case, his Berlioz is much like his other performances; he adopts the same elliptical ruminating with the same sing-song delivery. However, in The Commission Ashley's opacity is appropriate to the depiction of a self-absorbed and self-interested man. Similarly, Ernest Gusella's Christ-like appearance suggests a tortured artist, who is abused even in death. If it's Paganini who actually dies in the end, it's clear that Berlioz - lost in his own world of tea and toast - is not much more lively.
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