How many, how many, how many?
In Abigail Child’s diverse and prodigious artistic career, Mayhem represents one, very specific type of exploration. Coming at the spectator like a violent cut-up, it mixes her filmed images from New York’s Lower Eastside in 1985 and 1986 with various old movie samples, plus a soundtrack comprised of audio fragments (also sampled) alternated with improvisations from a gang including Christian Marclay and Shelley Hirsch.
It has the rawness and insider-vibe of an “art school confidential” exercise in mimicry and playful subversion (notwithstanding the fact that Child was already long out of school!) – but taken all the way: an over-15-minute montage sequence that rarely eases off in its blistering intensity.
When I first saw Mayhem as a stand-alone 16mm show in the Melbourne avant-garde scene of the late 1980s, I was forcibly impressed by its speed and transgressive energy. Today, it has been recontextualised by Child as part 6 of a series titled Is This What You Were Born For? bridging work from 1981 to 1989, and presented that way on UbuWeb and in some screening situations.
Back then, Mayhem had a lot to do with what many people, in art conclaves all over the world, were doing during that decade: re-mix in its rougher, scratchier, pre-digital forms, bits of film glued or spliced together, and their more-or-less accompanying sounds likewise hacked apart. Plenty of clicks, pops, flares, smears, semi-loops, discrepancies. The forms-in-flight are jagged, never cohesive; gestures are caught as they exit the screen, music jerks into and out of its aural life.
At the same time, Mayhem, with its unifying tone of black-and-white footage, has a particular content or target in mind: not one story, but a story of all stories, at least in the large family of film noir. Not a film but, in this sense, cinema – at least, some primal essence or effect of cinema.
These are not the slick spectres of noir nostalgia (I can hardly identify a single frame lifted from elsewhere), but rather the grubby end of the genre, its detritus. More Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958) than The Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Lady from Shanghai (1948). Even more like the degraded telemovie thrillers of the ‘80s, which we may hear filtered on the soundtrack. Tom Gunning, in his fine introduction to Child’s 2005 book This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film (University of Alabama Press) describes Mayhem as “amazingly dirty – in the best sense. It leaves stains on my consciousness” – the result of a cinema-distillation that “yield[s] a final grimy residue”.
It's a magma of noir filled with abstract snippets of doors closing, people running down corridors and stairwells, cars burning off down streets, torture scenes, fatal looks. Plus some flipping of positive film stock into negative; and some subtitled “continental” shots. It’s all encapsulated, early on, in the recurring motif of slats of light and darkness as cast through Venetian blinds, onto torsos, eyes, arms: a visual cliché already done to death in a thousand Old Hollywood pastiches, music videos and TV ads (not to mention a million student films), but here taken to a new, experimental extreme, slicing up frames and figures alike, spreading blindness as much as insight in its flickering, shuddering mania.
Maureen Turim, in a perceptive analysis, asserts: “Mayhem strews the shards of a broken order into a new configuration” (Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks, Duke University Press, 2007, p. 274). The mayhem signalled in the title is a double disorder: it’s the Gothic menace of ever-present threat (posed mainly by men to women, although there are many queer shifts of costume and act here); and it's the joyful release of playful destruction, Chytilová-Daisies-style, turning all the tables over and around.
The occasional murmur or whisper or snatch of spoken words – everything from old audio samples to Child’s performers giggling uncontrollably before the dubbing screen – consolidates this double sense: the détourned, ironic commentary of a “Why do you ask?” battles it out with the more hysterical and helpless cry of “How many, how many, how many?”.
Slowly, the centre of this montage appears to shift. Noir edges into more graphic sex (it’s a drag/queer kissing jamboree, a bit like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures  with more stylish ‘80s posing; Diane Torr is among the players) – and then into outright porn, thanks to an old Japanese reel (a masked bandit surprises two lesbians in flagrante delicto) that plays out with less visual interruptions (but more extravagant music-track switching) for around the last two and a half minutes of the piece.
The footage is washed out, barely visible in spots; only the essential, animalistic motions survive the general degradation. From essence of cinema we transit to death of cinema, “film found on the scrapheap” as at the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967).
That’s the way the scraps go in this avant-garde efflorescence of panicked energy: they can fall together to make a new impression, or they can be relegated back to oblivion. Abigail Child, in Mayhem’s montage, catches and stretches out the eternal split-second of pregnant pause between this act of creation and this shrug of devastation. Very 1980s – and very now.
Mayhem can be viewed at: http://ubu.com/film/child_mayhem.html
© Adrian Martin March 2018