It Felt Like a Kiss
Punchdrunk, Adam Curtis, Damon Albarn
Manchester International Festival 09
Quay House, Quay Street, Manchester
Theatre company Punchdrunk, which specialises in installation pieces, has teamed up with documentary maker Adam Curtis and musicians Damon Albarn of Blur and Kronos Quartet to create this piece named after the Carol King song "(He Hit Me) And It Felt Like A Kiss", which becomes a metaphor about the way the US has infiltrated popular consumer culture and politics since the 1950s.
Firstly, for those who are having trouble locating the trendy new district of Spinningfields or Hardman Square even on Google Maps, the event takes place in a dull grey office building next to The Opera House on Quay Street within sight of Granada TV's studios.
When your group of up to nine people (there were only four in mine) is allowed in, you are told about explosions and strobes, warned to leave now if you are pregnant or have a heart condition and told to make for the red curtain if you have to leave in the middle before being sent up in a lift to total blackness. After making your way through various sensory experiments using light, sound and various scattered or hanging objects, you move between intricately reconstructed rooms from 1950s domestic idealism to offices, hospital rooms, police stations and TV studios all full of objects and documents that you are encouraged to pick up and examine. There are references to the JFK assassination, electro-convulsive therapy to 'cure' homosexuals, drug experiments, political meddling in other countries, sending chimpanzees into space and much more if these details and the many video screens are examined.
The centre of the installation is a 35-minute film from Adam Curtis, a narratorless documentary—although there are some subtitles to put certain sequences into the context that the filmmaker wants you to find—that flashes a huge number of images and archive film clips quickly past in a style familiar to anyone who has seen Curtis's previous work such as The Power of Nightmares. We see some of the locations that we have walked through in these clips, elaborating on the themes previously hinted at with sequences about CIA-backed coups in other countries and involvement in the rise of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, 'treatment' of homosexuals, the space programme and much more linked with excerpts from romantic comedy Pillow Talk starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson—the latter concealed his homosexuality to become a Hollywood heartthrob and died from an AIDS-related illness.
After the film, there are locations similar to before but fundamentally changed, corridors with flickering lights and bodies, hospital wards and finally a maze where you have to make choices about where to go and what to do, and perhaps you are not alone in there.
Curtis's documentary is the heart of the whole event and everything else, before and after, is rooted in it. Although it doesn't have his actual voice narrating, his editing technique uses subtitles and reaction shots taken out of context—many of Doris Day—placed next to another clip to look as though they are related. The film is excellent, but it does revisit areas that Curtis has covered previously and so can easily draw suspicions of conspiracy theorising and US-bashing (the US isn't exactly alone in colonising or trying to influence the running of other countries).
The rest of the installation from Punchdrunk is like a huge theme park built around Curtis's thesis. The first act is a fascinating way to prepare for act two—the film—by looking around the locations of the film, which are reconstructed in incredible detail down to the half-drunk cups of coffee on the desks, like detectives looking for clues about acts not yet revealed. The third act descends into melodrama a little—it reminded me of the old Haunted House at Blackpool—as you are told you are on your own and to run from... well perhaps there is something to run from but you should find that out for yourself.
Looked at as a whole, the basic metaphor is pretty crude: it seems to be saying that the system that creates and defends the US consumerist domestic dream that began in the 1950s used methods that will bring about its destruction. Fortunately this is elaborated on in the film and in some of the details of the installation. The construction and conception of the whole thing is extremely impressive and fascinating to discover as you walk around. The film, as others have said, stands alone very effectively although it covers a lot of old ground for Curtis in theme and style despite uncovering some new and interesting / shocking facts. As a whole, it is exciting and fascinating to explore with a strong political message, but whether it is anything more substantial than an adult fairground ride built around a conviction that US capitalism is evil is difficult to say.
Reviewer: David Chadderton