“Story, characters, and other reassuring elements are simply obliterated by what appears to be Maybury’s elaborate private mythology.”
John Maybury (born 1958), who’s been making experimental films since 1982, emigrated to the ostensibly commercial world of feature films with 1998’s Love Is the Devil, the well-regarded story of the tortured affair between painter Francis Bacon and his dizzy, muscular muse George Dyer. But that film was hardly a typical biopic. The Bacon estate’s refusal to cooperate with him was only one more reason for Maybury to dig into his roomy bag of experimental tricks. The result was a series of often brilliant effects, most notably his catty payback to Bacon’s heirs by staging numerous scenes in the exact manner of Bacon’s blood-dribbling, angst-ridden paintings.
Despite occasional forays into narrative features (2005’s The Jacket and 2008’s The Edge of Love), Maybury’s most exciting work remains his experimental videos. Curiously, some of the latter work hasn’t been connected to his official filmography, if the Internet Movie Database is any indicator. But works like Maledicta Electronica (1996) and most strikingly, the sometimes rewarding, sometimes grueling Read Only Memory (1998), remain high water marks.
Fans of Love Is the Devil will recall that film’s hammering use of strobe effects, sudden bloody faces, curious camera angles, and a kind of mythology of the unconscious that always threatened to overwhelm the tenuous reality of Bacon and Dyer’s lives. In Read Only Memory — which premiered in San Francisco in a 3+ hour video version but has appeared in various other, shorter versions — it’s no longer a threat; story, characters, and other reassuring elements are simply obliterated by what appears to be Maybury’s quite elaborate private mythology, rendered as a visual tour-de-force.
Maybury (right) is always generous in his hommages (Maledicta Electronica, for example, is a tribute to British wartime code-breaker Alan Turing), and Read Only Memory is no exception. The opening sequence resurrects the famous psychedelic split-screen light show from 2001, and for good reason. As in the Kubrick film, this is the trippy intro to a fabulously weird, drug-addled psychic landscape. Maybury’s mindbending tour hits all manner of cultural hot buttons: gender politics, anticonsumerism, cultural imperialism, AIDS, bizarre computer art, trance music and imagery — if you can think of it you can probably find it somewhere in here.
Other objects of Maybury’s artistic affections include Edweard Muybridge, whose famous series of frames of horses is recalled here; The Road Warrior, whose homo-inflected character the Humungous is vocally reprised; J. K. Huysman’s Against Nature, a cornerstone novel of fin-de-siecle decadence whose spirit drives much of the film; and of course Andy Warhol, from whom Maybury borrows the endless repetitions of faces.
Every trip needs a guide, and this one has a spirit-muse in the form of a fat, naked woman — or was that a post-op tranny? — who reappears throughout gyrating across lysergic landscapes to Arabic trance music. (The late scenester, performance artist, and Maybury pal Leigh Bowery provided the body.) Lest it be said that Maybury has no sense of humor, this character is the height of camp. She wears an assortment of ornate headdresses and glittering go-go boots, and her dance is far from classical; it’s closer perhaps to the funky chicken. The film’s attempt to re-create an acid trip is showcased in this creature’s dance: whenever she moves, a rainbow of colors and shapes appear, as if her appendages are the artist’s brushes. Those who can’t get enough of this hefty, unpredictable gal will be pleased to see her multiplied in one sequence, creating all kinds of visual mayhem with her bumps and grinds.
Still, Maybury is far from mere frivolous campmeister, and much of Read Only Memory is pithy cultural criticism. An early extended sequence shows a cartoonish landscape crowded with a parade of consumer objects moving through the air as if on invisible conveyor belts; a typical such object is a bottle of perfume labeled “Paranoia.” The director’s colorfully weird visualizations of these images make them memorable.
Some of Read Only Memory’s imagery is downbeat and disturbing, particularly another recurring character seen in strobe-drenched half-light, writhing on a floor wrapped in ragged bandages. In another scene a splash of blood appears on a face, seen in distorted close-up; soon the face is covered in blood, a clear reference to AIDS paranoia. Maybury’s pummeling use of strobe-edits, distorted angles, and kaleidoscopic colors is both shocking and obscuring, putting a bit of breathing room between the audience and the startling imagery. Some viewers will appreciate this distance; others will ignore it and simply immerse themselves in the onscreen fantasia. Still others may prefer to sample the work in bits, which the egalitarian Maybury probably wouldn’t find objectionable. At the moment no DVD release appears to exist, but snippets can be found on the ever-reliable youtube and elsewhere.