Canada Day marked the kick-off of Fringe Toronto, the annual alt-theatre fest that runs until July 12. As part of Fringe’s reliably eclectic programming, the festival has teamed up with the Bloor Cinema and put together a fairly interesting shadow-cast program. If you’ve never seen a shadow-cast before, it’s basically a fan practice where a film is screened with actors pantomiming in front of the screen. It’s a staple of what writer Jeffrey Sconce would call paracinema—a ten-dollar academese word that refers to any sort of film, from Swedish arthouse pictures to sword-and-sandal epics, that encourages patterns of reception divergent from those provided by mainstream cinema—and it’s generally good fun.
While shadow-casting, like almost any practice associated with cult movies, has its roots in the Rocky Horror Picture Show subculture, Fringe is taking the whole thing outside of its traditional cross-dressed comfort zone. In addition to a requisite Rocky Horror screening, Fringe has also cobbled together shadow-casts for an especially musical episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy, and most bizarrely, David Lynch’s seedy-underbelly neonoir Blue Velvet and Spielberg’s dino-cloning cautionary tale Jurassic Park. Because these latter films are directly responsible for Laura Dern being the first woman ever worthy of my confused pre-adolescent affections, and because I’ve probably seen them a combined 300 times, I was particularly interested to see how these productions would pan out.
I caught the first Blue Velvet performance last night, and frankly, it doesn’t work. This isn’t so much because I’m some fanatical Lynch purist who thinks that everything he makes should be observed with the sort of sober reverence some people reserve for church. Yes, Blue Velvet is Lynch’s masterpiece, and yes, it’s neck-and-neck with Verhoeven’s Robocop as the most pointed portrait of Reagan-era America ever captured on celluloid. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it.
The problem, however, is that Blue Velvet doesn’t operate the same way that Rocky Horror, or something more recent like REPO!: The Genetic Opera (which besides being bad, was disingenuously cooked up to capitalize on the cache of cult films), does. Where these films have ample open space for fan (or shadow-cast) participation, from their musical numbers to schlocky dialogue encouraging call-and-response heckling, there’s no such breathing room in Blue Velvet.
While shadow-casting relies heavily on any number of Sontag’s hazy definitions of “camp,” it’s impossible to make Blue Velvet campy. Having the actors suggest some sort of homoerotic bond between characters in a film which orbits around the violent expression of the most clandestine and primeval sexual urges in an exercise in redundancy. And what could be the point in having an actress, dolled-up as Dean Stockwell’s Ben, deliver a haunting, androgynously gendered rendition of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” when that precisely how the scene functions in the first place? To prove that she can play guitar and pull off a passable Orbison impersonation?
The cast was fine, with Anthony Furey hitting most of the notes of Kyle McLachlan’s crackerjack “aww shucks”/”let’s fuck” portrayal of square-jawed American everyboy Jeffrey Beaumont, and Jo Fallak wonderfully embodying the troubled sexual balletics of Isabella Rosselini’s femme fatal Dorothy Vallens. But not much else about the performance worked. While dropping balloons from the balcony when Dennis Hopper huffs amyl nitrate is cute, spraying water in the crowd with a super-soaker to simulate lawn watering or masturbation proved little more than an annoyance substantial enough to make two patrons in front of me walk out.
Again, it was the first performance and it is certainly charming, from its “let’s put on a show!” conceit to the its high-school drama class production values. But when a movie so endlessly compelling is playing the background it’s often hard to figure out where to look, with the dynamics betweens the film and the on-stage cast rendered alternatively distracting and confusing.
That said, the Jurassic Park shadow-cast promises everything from song-and-dance numbers to burlesque velociraptors. In striving more apparently towards camp and open lampoonery, it seems to be the more interesting show. Regardless, if you’re into seeing your favourite movies get the shadow-cast treatment, Fringe Toronto 2009 is definitely worth checking out.
For more info on Fringe shadow-cast performances at the Bloor, click here.