Thoughts on GREY X, Part 1

by Brantly Martin

29 May 2014

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Angelo Turetta’s shoot in Grey X, “Playhouse,” triggers in me a transcendental experience the likes of which I’ve rarely experienced via visual portal. The sensation is subterranean and justifies the word cinematic. No doubt my visual consumption of late—Game of Thrones, The Americans, True Detective, Penny Dreadful, NBA playoffs—left me primed for a stimulating smack upside the head. I don’t think episodic TV is the new cinema, nor—with a few exceptions—the new Zola or Dickens or even the Rolling Stone serialized version of The Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s closer to a blend of theater and church when they were the only weekly community magnets. Today’s only other New York equivalents might be brunch or a Steve Jobs post-mortem product update. The burst in quality and popularity of American episodic television has coincided with—and is in response to—the image replacing the word as the go-to tool for communication. Pattern recognition, having played a monster role in earlier human evolution, is, once again, center stage and eclipsing both other forms of communication and more refined versions of itself. Americans (the world always following) appear to have developed an unquenchable and addictive appetite for the latest method of “free” image dispersion. This despite the clear fact that nothing about this technology is free if you consider privacy a cost. Question: If, in a magical world, we Americans could do away with all government spying by agreeing to no longer use images on social media, would we do it? Of course not. And just wait…what we call spying now will soon be renamed as only the nation of Jazz and Advertising can: enhanced locating, paternal patriotism, predictive predators, open source fortressing…
      What about Aesthetes? The visual has gone the way of the audio: erosion so steady one forgets old sightlines. (Okay, I know—HD! The new penicillin. Have fun with that.) Digital music has done many things. One of which was tricking otherwise “with it” globalatti into gathering in small groups to stare at their Macs while they dive into Adobe this or Adobe that while listening to music at the most rancid sound quality (I won’t say imaginable, I have quite an imagination for filth and worst-case scenarios). So when I say Turetta’s “Playhouse” hits me as cinematic I mean it’s loaded with shape-shifting possibilities. The images, individually and as gestalt, demand second and further examinations. There is something about the eyes. I doubt this is accidental, even if it wasn’t intended. There are multiple stories within the eyes alone, a la “Chinatown,” only less linear. This shoot is a horror film starring children at play. (Which is a genre, yes, but on the page we’re freed of the need to “wrap it up” or expose anyone to exposition. Every inch is in media res.) Are the children lost? Have they been abandoned? Is the horror my horror—should I feel guilty for assuming they are all dead, or at least trapped in a looped Other. The spread opening the story contrasts an eye of the child in the foreground—mesmerized by the Light—with the child in the background already in tune with this Other. In the following spread there are three mirrors I should be familiar with (I put them there); and while they are, familiar, and I have spent many late nights “hosting” in that stairwell, this image altogether freaks me out. More so when I’m told the woman appearing in the mirror (which I picked up about 5 years ago at a flea market in Pigneto) to the lower right of the page was “not there.” I don’t mean to say she wasn’t in that shot—this person was not at the house.
      This would seem preposterous without knowing some history. The house was built around 1900 (quite new for Rome) and was inhabited by one family during the 20th century. Many of them died there. Natural causes are presumed. I moved there in 2008.
      The thing about haunted houses is…that, well…does it matter? “I don’t believe in ghosts.” Okay. “There must be an explanation.” I concur. “It’s all in your head.” No doubt, my man. Problem is, there is a lot in my head. And when something is “in your head” it doesn’t make it less real. Quite the opposite. Once, maybe 2010, we were staying at a hotel in Paris. I was taking a shower and heard the phone ring four times. I toweled off and checked caller ID: casa roma. The one person with keys was in Puglia. I called the house: no answer. We’ve come home to a spotless house: floors mopped, dishes clean, clothes pressed. I know, I know: Un fantasma che pulisce! What’s the problem? I don’t suppose there is one. Only the neurological tussle to believe or not. Does what you believe = what you believe = what is real = subjective “choice”?
      Over the years there were a few characters who later proved themselves to be shady or downright duplicitous who, on getting out of their cab in front of the house, refused to come in. Was the house “looking out” for us? Or at least itself? One such par-for-the-fashion-world-course (I’d come to realize) nefarious clown saw, specifically, a woman looking out from the piano nobile (American: “second floor”). He wouldn't come in and left for a hotel. This “noble floor” remains as the last of the original owner’s descendants left it after he died there. He left behind his bed, wallpaper, three armoires with suits hanging or half-hung, and a few choice, disapproving letters to my wife in an ancient Italian. Signore, are you not at peace? This floor is without power or running water. I set up shop in the dead guy’s bedroom. My desk faces out the window, over the viale; the shutters (no latch) open and close at the winds’ behest; the armoires, also, open and close “on their own.” There is, yes, a feeling, always, that someone is observing you. I leave the door to the floor open and, of course, it sometimes shuts on its own. There is no way to leave the door unlocked and opening it is a laborious—as only Roman laborious can be—process of skeleton-key jiggling. Which is more arduous when you keep looking behind you for…someone? No matter the editing/writing/reading roll I’m on, I always leave before the sun sets. I once rigged an extension chord from upstairs, through the window, to a reading lamp and lingered just past dusk… I ended up turning the desk around to face the room so no one could sneak up on me. I have, on occasion, been forced to retrieve something—book, tobacco, wine, coffee mug—“down there” during the night. Inebriated or not, there is a clear strategy: bright flashlight, pray and apologize to the deceased, prop the door open with something marble, walk briskly yet peacefully to the desk area, retrieve and retrace, close door and leap-frog-sprint up the stairs.
      The next spread takes place in the belly of the beast. In the left background you’ll see the doorway to the floor’s main hall: appearing here, to my eye, as nothing less than vortexual quicksand. There, again, are the eyes. I’m not sure if the bambino-pirate-ghost was ad-libbing or covering/peeking on command but the effect shifts my gaze into the background, beyond the other two fantasmi, and onto the—what else?—stuffed raven. I’ve moved that guy and his fratello around this room more times than I can recall: You’re freaking me out, let’s put you on the bed… You’re looking inspirational today, let’s perch you on the windowsill… Next to him is a masked trophy lying on a shelf which hovers over what looks to be a towel with two perfect Klan-cut eye holes. Once more the superfluous: Is it all in my head? 
     This is all somewhat terrifying not because everything in these rooms seemed a posto prior to “getting the film back,” a la many horror movies or New Orleans ghost stories (I’m thinking particularly of the oft-told-tale about the room with the balcony at the Andrew Jackson Hotel on Royal Street; not to be confused with the other tragedy at the same location, then a children’s school) but because these photos represent—esattamente—what I feel when I’m alone in them. Even more so with Old Man Fiume not in them. Trust me, he’s there. Reality is as subjective as taste, or as Alejandro Jodoworsky’s new film has it: La Danza de la Realidad. The next spread moves back to the piano secondo (American: “third floor”). This shot might appear to lessen the pace and provide un momento di pace. Or not. The ragazza fantasma—her face covered by a bouncing balloon that seems to morph into the edge of the framed Nobuyoshi Araki polaroid—is, if you look closely, looking just behind her apparitioned playmate. And so are the two Wonderland Alices trapped on her shirt. Only Alice-on-top has seen a bit further into the verified abyss. Check it out: what in the hell are i due Alice looking at? Little-ghost-boy knows but is not telling.
     The next spread goes—if “Playhouse” hadn’t already—there: the mien I’ll feel behind me whenever, if ever, I’m back in Rome sitting at “my” desk. And why is that? What do we have here Mister B? Well, nothing short of a ten-year-old space-ballerina, in the midst of a contented and willing demonic possession, jumping on the bed where Il Signore likely drew his last breath, staring, transfixed, on something near the ceiling. At this point we are (I am), clearly, dealing with a situation of “in cahoots with.”  
    The two remaining spreads feel “written for me” in the way, I imagine, bible verses do for some people. In the room adjoining the stanza di morte e di scritture we find a roll call. Our possessed space-ballerina is now a rambunctious little girl playing Caddo, with one eye gone completely white. There is the bambino-pirate-ghost to the right and a new arrival in the background playing with a dog. Dead center in the frame—and, somehow, the last thing I notice—is that knowing little ghost-boy, masked and caped, standing on top of my chair and staring right at me in front of a large and cheap world map I put on the wall about five years ago. (I’m not sure about “the where” or “the why” of the dog. A dissolving placation?) This photo is calm, fading into permanence, sotto-familial and declarative—eccoci.
      The last spread leaves the cerebral scar. Through the doorway on the left you see the now dispersed “homeroom”—(where did the map go? the door? the chair? am I falsifying memories?)—and the blurry bambino-pirate-ghost coming our way. The armoire that hung the dead suits and ties is now empty. I can only assume that Angelo removed them—I never dared. This doesn’t, I imagine, bode well for future Roman returns. Last, to our left and the blurry bambino-pirate-ghost’s right, we see a corner of the room cloaked in, well, nothingness more than darkness. This nothingness, or non-existence, is where my desk…was? Choices: the desk is no longer there; the desk was never there; the desk is there, unseen, and one of the piccoli fantasmi is sitting at it; il Signore morto is at the desk writing another long letter to my wife; I’m sitting at the desk, looking over my shoulder, and always was.
    That all of this is, for me, Real—and, as I see it, multi-linear—and sure to change under future neuro-stimulation is why it smacks, I think justifiably, of the overused cinematic, and why I feel that most fiction that is often referred to as “cinematic” is quite the opposite. Perhaps that’s because much of this “cinematic prose” from the 70s, 80s and 90s came before it could be labeled HDmatic. But we’re not talking about fiction. These twelve pages could have easily been thirty, maybe forty. The material is there. I saw the photos—but on a screen. I knew there was something there, but there was nothing to suggest an impending meditative state (do folding screens ever?) brought on via a Heidelberg in Veneto. Yeah—it’s my cinematic. Like Lydia Davis at her best or George Saunders almost always or some volumes of The Sandman or West Texas bleeding into Mexico. More world unleashing than world creating. 

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