L.08.5: Monomaniacal Masterpiece

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  • –from New on DVD

    Maxim Magazine

    September 2008

    The Children of the Dawn is now available on DVD, and one might learn some very interesting things by studying the demographics of the people who actually choose to purchase this exceedingly strange but admittedly monumental experiment in digital video recording and do so with the expectation of being entertained. This eight-disk set contains the complete work as it was first shown on a video monitor in a small room within MOMA in the autumn of 2007, and even in that urbane and adventurous setting, one would wonder about the motives of the few viewers who one could always see camped out in that very tiny space, those who had requested the special overnight passes and had committed to almost a day and a half of continuous viewing. Indeed, as with the original gallery installation, The Children of the Dawn on DVD will provoke for most of us questions about the mystery of what constitutes an audience and what compels a desire to consume something as entertainment or art. Those exclusive few who have made the full commitment are strangely silent about the mysteries with the work itself. Perhaps the control available in watching a DVD to stop viewing at will and resume at will might bring more viewers into willing contact with the work, but one must still wonder.

    Just as one must wonder why writer and “performer” Marc Honea would choose such an eccentric form to “record” what is essentially a sprawling semi-historical novel. Honea’s method involves recording himself in a single static close-up shot on a digital camera. Addressing the camera lens directly, he acts out the entire story, speaking as over a hundred different characters, all addressing themselves directly to the camera. The sensations of scenes among characters and dialogue exchanges are created by cutting, but the shot never changes. Honea has merely adopted the face and voice of a new character who is, in turn, addressing the camera. Often the cutting among faces and voices is diabolically fast and creates a strange disorienting effect in the viewer that ‘must be experienced to be understood or, at least,…experienced. As a literary comparison, one is reminded of the almost exclusively dialogue-driven works of William Gaddis, and as with Gaddis there are occasional descriptive passages, but Honea delivers them to the viewer in the same fashion as he performs the story’s characters, adopting what he has called “physiognomaniacal abstractions,” a more extreme method of delivery which contrasts with the very believable playing of characters. And if one takes the work in small doses, which the DVD allows, you cannot help but be drawn in by Honea’s acting which, though relying much of the time on extreme facial and vocal manipulation and contortion, does draw the viewer into a kind of unique reality. Honea perfected this method in his 2004 digital video treatment of Thomas Costain’s 1955 novel The Tontine. As to the “why” of this method, it is hard to know how to interpret what Honea said in an interview from 2005: “The only thing I’ve ever worked at consistently is making faces in the bathroom mirror while talking in funny voices. Everything else has felt like pretending.”

    Such is the method that Honea uses to perform The Children of the Dawn, and he persists with it without wavering for thirty-three and a half hours, for fifty-seven chapters and an epilogue. Part of Honea’s intent is to create a kaleidoscopic, surreal cavalcade that makes stops through most of the twentieth century, but most of the story’s action takes place in London in the late Sixties and focuses on the lives of two prominent musicians in two very prominent and legendary rock and roll bands. Honea has offered the following on the story’s origins:

    “I was at a party and people were trying to compare Led Zeppelin with The Rolling Stones, and as a result some people were led to say some really stupid things about both bands. I begin to feel a knot in my stomach and had to say that comparing Zeppelin and The Stones was like comparing apples and oranges. The hostess of the party agreed with me and I felt a tremendous amount of relief. That got me to thinking about how one might go about describing accurately the difference between the music and the overall vibe of these two bands. My shorthand distinction became ‘material and mystical.’ And I was rather happy with that until I started thinking about Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page in particular and how they both rubbed shoulders with American filmmaker, “magus,” and Aleister Crowley acolyte Kenneth Anger. In other words, two very different imaginations were dipping into the same pools, not only through a reverence for the Blues but also through this very theatricalized occult sensibility. How did my neatly formulated ‘material and mystical’ divergence fit into that? I came up with a few fictional identities and some imaginary discographies and let it start to play out…”

    And play out it does. On and on it plays. For hours. A maddening, crazed, brilliant exercise; a naively simple technique etching out an exceedingly involved, panoramic epic tale…

    8 Thoughts on “L.08.5: Monomaniacal Masterpiece

    1. I got this DVD. Honea is often maddening but never uninteresting. What I want to know is … what happened to the missing six hours? I mean, what’s the point of cutting it down from 40 to 33 for the home release? I want the whole enchilada, if I’m shelling out the big bucks. They weren’t even included in the deleted scenes. I enjoyed the director commentary, although you’d think Honea would have committed to the entire running time rather than cut it short at the 21-hour mark.

      The particular works reminds me a bit of Swimming to Cambodia, with a little Saddest Music in the World thrown in. I particularly enjoyed Honea’s take on Bonham. The resemblance is uncanny. And the musical interludes were a nice break from the virtual non-stop assault of 20th century impressionistic arcania.

      Overall, I’d give this a B+. The missing six hours might have made all the difference. Definitely felt like something was missing.

    2. Your attention to numbers is appreciated. Quite vital for truly appreciating the work, actually. But it has always ever been thirty-three hours. Three was the basic unit for most of the work. Follow the numbers more closely.

      Your “Something was missing” is just the human condition and not due to any editing on my part.

      Affectionately,
      Marc Honea

    3. While I appreciate your attention to numbers and want to acknowledge the importance of numbers throughout The Children of the Dawn, I must gently encourage you to re-count. The work has always ever been thirty-three hours in length. Three was the basic unit around which everything was constructed. Good number with good properties. Your “something was missing” is just a truth of the human condition and is in no way the result of editing on my part.

      Affectionately,
      Marc Honea

    4. Now, with all due respect, Mr. Honea — and I must thank you for taking the time to chime in on this forum! (An artist of your stature must have better things to do, so consider us honored) — but, as I said, with all due respect, we’ve all heard of the original director’s cut you screened prior to its official premiere to a small group of associates. This is the cut I’m referring to. Maybe it didn’t fit with your over-arching numerical theme, but you could AT LEAST have included excerpts in the deleted scenes portion of the eighth disc. We’ve all been dying to see your imaginative re-enactment of the Jagger-Warhol “confrontation.” It is nowhere to be found in this version! Of course, I know how these things work. First you release the bare-bones set, then later comes the “special edition” and the “ultra special edition,” etc. etc. But I would have thought an exception would be made in THIS case, considering the asking price for these sets. The least you could have done is complete the commentary. Not to take away anything from the work or the DVD set as-is. It’s certainly a must-have for any Honea completist (as I am).

      Thank you for your time! “Genius” is certainly an overused term, these days, but … no other word suffices, Mr. Honea.

    5. The London Times

      March 12, 2009

      Home > Arts & Entertainment > Stage > Opera

      Trevor Nunn announced today the formation of a team to produce a new opera based on American video artist Marc Honea’s mammoth The Children of the Dawn. American composer Dale Lyles has been tapped to take on the musical duties, while British team of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, of Cheek by Jowl, will direct and design, respectively.

      “I can’t think of a single work of the last twenty years that has gnawed at my consciousness the way Children of the Dawn has,” Nunn said in making the announcement at the English National Opera, who are partnering in the venture. “Its scope, its intimacy, its sheer obtuseness have made it something of a grail quest for me.”

      He declined to comment on the opera’s eventual performance length.

      Mr. Lyles, contacted at his home in Georgia, was likewise evasive. “I don’t think it will be thirty-three hours long,” he laughed at one point, “but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be substantially longer than most audiences are used to these days.”

      He did say that the multitude of characters portrayed by Mr. Honea in the video project would be played by a much larger cast. “That of course makes sense,” he said. “Of course, the most incredibly daunting issue is what of all of Marc’s wonderful stuff we will use and what we’ll leave behind.”

      “We’re hoping at this point to secure the rights to use some of Led Zeppelin and the Stones’ pieces as ‘starting points’ for some of the work, although by no means will I be actually embedding the pieces whole. It will probably be more along the lines of [Philip] Glass’s use of David Bowie and Brian Eno’s work in some of his symphonies.” He added that Mr. Honea, with whom he worked in theatre during their youth, had asked that he not use Honea’s music in the new work.

      Mr. Lyles, best known for his popular symphonies, has been composing for the stage for several years now. Besides his parodic music for A Day in the Moonlight, with Mike Funt, he most recently completed Simon’s Dad, a romantic opera based on a short story by de Maupassant, which after premiering at the Welsh National Opera has had productions in Munich, New York, and San Francisco.

      Mr. Donnelly and Mr. Ormerod declined to be interviewed for this article, although Sharon Kean, Cheek by Jowl’s publicist, said that the company’s artistic directors were “excited at the prospect of being involved with what they were sure was going to be the 21st century’s most exciting musical work.”

      Mr. Honea did not respond to email requests for an interview.

      Mr. Nunn stated that they expected to produce Children of the Dawn at the ENO in the 2011-2012 season.

    6. Terry on April 29, 2008 at 6:21 pm said:

      33 hours of Marc Honea almost makes the mind shatter.

      And add to that all the Dale Lyles’ music and from 2010-2011 opera will never be the same.

      By the way congratulations to Mr. Lyles on completing Simon’s Dad, a thoroughly compelling piece.

    7. Yeah, I managed to catch the San Francisco production of that (Simon’s Dad). What they were thinking when they cast Glen Close as the lead, I will NEVER know. Explains the short run of an otherwise first-class production.

    8. Dear “jeff,” I am overwhelmed by your enthusiasm for my work, but what I have found out over and over is that the energetic support of fans often leads to fantastic tales and distorted embellishments of what I do. There was no special preview. I don’t have any “associates.” I write, shoot, cut, evaluate–alone. You are not being deprived of anything as a result of calculated marketing tactics. As for my sporadic and sketchy commentary, I just got tired of talking about how I chose when and when not to center sound on the soft palate. I assure you I have not withheld any powerful insights into my process.

      Gratefully,
      Marc Honea

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