Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Filmotheques

PHOTOGRAPH: Abstract images form background for dancers at the Trips Festival. Two projectors with colored filters create weird patterns on the wall.

None of this could have happened five years ago. That was before there were Beatles. Before rock music was hip. Before the juke joint and the dance hall had mated to produce the discotheque. It was before the avant-garde had embraced the artistic potential of the moving image. And before the entertainment entrepreneurs had caught on to the economic potential of the avant-garde.

But now, everything has come together, and the result is the multimedia discotheque, where the sights as well as the sounds are super-new. Each version of the "electronic earthquake" has its own audio-visual flavor, and predictably--this is still rock and roll, after all--the auditory dominates, and at a high decibel level. This has always been so. But the latest discotheques blast their habitues eyes as well as their ears. They are designed to add to the inebriation of light to that of sound.

In New York the phenomenon has three major manifestations. As of this writing--that is--places come and go before you're really sure they're there. Nevertheless, these three seem solid. Each one caters to a different audience, and each one embodies a different attitude toward the value of pure light and of the moving image.

Most conservative in its approach is Oliver Coqueline's Cheetah, in midtown Manhattan. Engineered by a young electrical designer named Michael Lox, Cheetah has been a vast success, not only artistically, but financially. The sound of the live rock-and-roll is amplified by under-the-floor speakers which cause the bass to vibrate everywhere but mutes the treble so that tablesitters can hear one another talk. The sound controls a wheel of 3,000 colored light bulbs which hangs over the dance floor. The volume regulates the brightness of the overhead apparatus, while the tone of the music determines its color--sharp notes produce yellows, duller sounds a subdued violet. Equally important are the two projectionists perched in one corner. One of them controls an elaborate but conventional set of spotlights. But the other has in his power what Coqueline calls a depth perception machine, which can produce falling stars, color explosions, bouncing light pattern, and other effects.

PHOTOGRAPH: Cartoon movies provide the backdrop for couples dancing on the enormous dance floor of the World, which occupies a former airplane hangar. The area is ringed with a total of 21 screens.

All of this--the depth effects, spotlights, the overheads, performers, and the 2,000 dancers--is reflected in 50 stainless steel sheets, some undulating, some fixed, which hang behind the stage as a kind of screen. The total image, reinforced by the insistent music, is almost dizzying. For variety, there's also a translucent curtain which can be dropped for smoke effects in what amounts to gigantic rear-projection. Like the ads say: "It's a psychedelic experience."

Cheetah also goes in for a whole spectrum of less starling moving images, but these are separate from the central experience of the dance floor. There are four Celestrolites--rear-projection devices which produce protean abstract images of oozing, soft-hued light. There is a movie theater with free avant-garde movies by film makers such as Ed Emshwiller and George Kuchar. There is Scopitone, France's answer to the jukebox, which features not only rock-and-roll but a screen on which the songs are acted out by pretty girls. There is even a television room. But the bass keeps thumping away and soon distracted stragglers return to the dance floor.

PHOTOGRAPH: Shadow of singer at the Trips Festival falls on wall at rear as random images are projected on ceiling, floor and dancers.

A more integrated audio-visual approach is apparent at the World, in Garden City, NY, where a former airplane hangar provides dancing space for 3,000 on more than 16,000 square feet of floor. The designers are a group of artists who have banded together in a cooperative called USCO (for Us Company). USCO spokesmen readily acknowledge Marshall McLuhan as a major inspiration: the World is obviously an attempt to implement his media philosophy.

Although the World uses lights, it emphasizes the projected image. The floor is ringed with 21 screens. Most of them are rectangular, hung conventionally or slightly askew or even on one corner; a few are circular. Two of the screens are used for movies and eighteen others for slides. The slides change automatically every few seconds, their images frequently spilling onto the surrounding wall. The final screen had been part of a closed-circuit TV hookup which allowed dancers to watch themselves, but according to owner Michael Meyerberg, the other images were so overpowering that the idea was abandoned. The final screen now contains a stationary abstract image.

PHOTOGRAPH: Moving slides project endless variety of images and colors at the Trips Festival. Sometimes clips from old movies are used.

Because the World has no liquor license, it attracts a very young crowd, mostly suburban kids in their mid-teens. That makes USCO's choice of material even more extraordinary. Sometimes the rationale is fairly simple--When "Batman" plays, for example, fragmented Batman sequences appear on the movie screen and Batman images dominate the slide screens. At other times, pictures of the performers responsible for the piped music come on. But connections are rarely so obvious. The slide screen are usually filled with abstract shapes, or sections of Old Masters. The movie projectionist, situated on a platform over the middle of the floor, has his choice of clips from circa 1931 horror movies and unrecognizable avant-garde films. Most of the kids ignore this esoteric stuff for the traditional discotheque ploys also featured at the World, such as dance contest and guest groups. But a few watch in fascination. Maybe USCO is getting its message across.

Jackie Cassen's Trips Festival, on St. Mark's Place in the East Village, appeals to a much narrower clientele. Located directly above the Dom, one of the biggest conventional discotheques in the city, the Trips Festival is anything but conventional. The space is small and totally unsuited to its present function (it was originally a Polish-American meeting hall), but every incongruity adds charm to the total effect: images creep over ornate woodwork, dancers stand on the ungainly tables. The purpose of the Trips festival, stated simply, is to make everybody high on what is around them, a "trip"--but without artificial stimulation.

Six projectionists work on a semi-volunteer basis (pay is minimal), but anybody can participate--bring your own projector for free admission: if you don't have a projector you can man someone else's. The reflecting surface is anywhere. There are ordinary screens beside the stage and at the rear of the hall, and makeshift paper screens on room dividers at the far side of the dancing space, but projectionists are just as likely to focus on walls, ceiling, floor, or dancers. Effects are unplanned, and sometimes they are spectacular. At a typical moment, a Frankenstein movie or out-takes from some young genius's latest masterwork may be showing dimly on one of the side screens as strobe lights blink on and off and dancers' shadows compete with hand-painted glass slides on the divider screens. The projectionist in the center of the room experiments with two Kodak Carousel projectors. As the slides change automatically he blacks out first one lens and then the other as if they were a pair of bongos, occasionally adding a colored filter. The result is a rapidly moving image that bounces off the performers and the wall behind them. Meanwhile, a cockroach has gotten into the finger-painting in the overhead slide projector. Its struggles are magnified on the rear screen as the projectionist-artist-executioner adds more color to the mix to see what will result.

It doesn't always work. Occasionally it flops dismally. But when the music gets going and the dancers begin to move, this unpretentious place actually succeeds in integrating four or five audio-visual modes, with a total effect that is extraordinary. And it suggests that anyone can do the same. Collect a few projectors, some spotlights and some tinted plastics, add a stock of 8-mm movies and some slides, then lose a few inhibitions. The total result might approximate the hippest of the hip, right in your own basement.

Popular Photography, Jan. 1967

Postscript Notes:

Original article credited photographs by Dick Weiss. Don't have the photographs.