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DVD Review

John Cage

How to get out of the Cage

  • Documentary also includes the experimental films:
  • Wagner's Ring, 1987
  • Stoperas I & II, 1987
  • Nopera, 1995
  • Chessfilmnoise, 1988
  • Ryoanji, 2011
Director: Frank Scheffer
EuroArts 2059168 Widescreen/Fullscreen PCM-Stereo
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This is a splendid contribution to the Cage anniversary (2012 is both the centenary of his birth and the twentieth year since Cage died). His work, life and views remain poorly understood. Enthusiastic supporters and lovers of Cage's many worlds (music, sound, Zen, mathematics, poetry, dance, social movements, anarchism – and mushrooms) also admit that his reputation and reception make many challenges to our comforts, albeit legitimate ones. Probably without consciously setting out necessarily to clarify, to illustrate or explicitly to advocate, Frank Scheffer's nearly hour long documentary, How to get out of the Cage – a Year with John Cage provides extremely eloquent insights into the essence of Cage. Anyone interested in modern music, indeed in the way music and art more generally work (the relationships between movement in dance and musical time are a key example), and where they might be going, will benefit from careful interaction with the material of this new DVD.

In 1982 Marina Abramovic suggested to Dutch film make, Sheffer, that he explore John Cage. In June of that year the two men met and the hour long interview (whose openness and lack of preconception of course delighted cage) changed the way Sheffer thought quite radically. The "Year" in the title of this portrait is perhaps a little misleading… in fact Sheffer worked with Cage for ten years from that meeting. The resultant film contains interviews, musical and dance performances, images of places important to Cage, rehearsals, short sequences of other composers working (David Tudor at a huge tabletop of mixers, for instance); and above all Cage speaking in his quiet, soft and urbane manner about a myriad of aspects of life and art.

Indeed, if you're unfamiliar with Cage the person, and perhaps are only aware of his filtered status as provocateur, iconoclast, innovator, you'll be struck by his extreme humanity, approachability and gentleness. Then by his intelligence and almost infinite perception. Specifically, for example, this film (actually shot on 16mm) exposes and explores Cage's attitude to indeterminacy, and the philosophical underpinnings of the relationships between mind, perception and creativity. These are essential in understanding his music.

This process of our understanding is promoted in two ways in Sheffer's work: firstly, by our close attention as the film progresses to the relative priorities given, say, to the short aphoristic "interventions" by Cage… quiet, unassuming, pithy, pointed and spare; to the illustrative sequences of music, nature, landscape and the figures who people the feature. Secondly as we respond to the challenge and at the same time take the support offered by Cage's own thoughts – on how the people to whom he is most drawn are those he does not understand; on how the world's religions (which have so much in common according to Huxley, for instance) appealed to Cage in the ways they did, but how Zen came closest to his temperament; on how living in New York was a way to "enjoy the darkness"; on how the best government is "no government at all"; on how chess is a great balance to the apparent lack of rules in the world of chance; on how we can have our cake and eat it by saving the world using technology.

The net results of watching and following this collage, mélange, kaleidoscope of ideas, thoughts, examples and sequences of Cage's beliefs and reaction to the world include a much greater understanding on how the latter follows the former. Why create? How to create? To what extent is creation a reaction? And to what extent is creating music an inevitability because it's composed of sounds. In short, those aspects of Cage which are unequivocally inspirational are very much to the fore. The only danger once one has realized how this inspiration is derived from the raw material of the film is to become irrationally impatient with the pace of the film (which never lags at all) and look for topoi instead of letting it work at its own pace. If you do the latter, that danger dissipates.

How to get out of the Cage – a Year with John Cage is a very well-made film. "Raw" material it may be composed of. But barely a minute in, you're just as aware of a finely wrought, sensitive and expertly edited film as you are of the craft of spontaneity which Scheffer has obviously aimed for. And succeeded: his shooting, editing and mounting styles are never self-conscious. In this case Cage speaks for himself. (As do Cunningham and others from his life.) It's no co-incidence that Scheffer's idea of film making changed after the aforementioned interview 30 years ago. Perhaps he was lucky not to realize how influential Cage was then. To our benefit How to get out of the Cage carries over his sense of wonder, without adulation. It is indeed an intimate portrait – but as much because it's so full of color and insight, never prurient. An adult homage. And a homage with as much structure as impression.

That Scheffer himself used the I Ching to determine segmentation of the documentary is an indication of just how deep and real was Cage's influence on the film maker. The Buddhist "red thread" still binds everything together effectively. Aside from the introduction and closing credits, there are five substantive sections to the whole: Nachcagetag (a 24 hour exploration in Germany of Cage's music); Roaratorio; Los Angeles Festival; New York; and Europas. But these aren't really themes dealt with sequentially as such – although How to get out of the Cage is a chronological study.

As if the illumination and insights of the 56 minutes of How to get out of the Cage itself weren't enough, this superb DVD from EuroArts (which nicely blends "art film" with information-packed documentary) also contains five "experimental films" by Scheffer. These are Stoperas I & II (3 minutes, 1987); Wagner's Ring (4m, 1987); Chessfilmnoise (24m, 1988); Nopera (6m, 1995); and Ryoanji (60m, 2011). They too make interesting viewing; and go towards making this DVD excellent value for money. They, too, contribute to our appreciation that, for Cage, sound rarely exists in isolation. Music is part of the wider world. This is a thesis with so many levels and a thesis potentially amenable of a complete misrepresentation that it's a delight to see it so well handled here. This – perhaps above all others – is Sheffer's most significant achievement in this work. It is warmly recommended.

Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.