What Theodor Adorno famously decried in Pop music - instant recognizability - is less the outcome of an inherent simplicity that can be memorized, as the ability to plunge the listener blissfully into a songs distinctive ambience from the very first moment. The introduction is literally key; just think of The Animals' 'House of the Rising Sun' (1964) or Procol Harum's 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' (1967) or The Rolling Stones' 'Sympathy for the Devil' (1968). In fact, the search for an opening line for that last song is documented in Jean-Luc Godard's One Plus One (1968) a sharply self-reflexive film about music that serves as the most obvious model for Mathias Poledna's Actualité (Topicality, 2001?2).
Godard's film is typically understood as a ruthless critique of stardom and countercultural hipness, both of which are swiftly demystified via a sustained peek behind the scenes at the mind-numbing repetition and boredom of the studio process. Emotional authenticity and its attendant catharsis are the first casualties of this slice of vérité, but in the void left behind a new sort of aesthetic begins to take shape - call it music video avant la lettre - and it is this aesthetic that is the true subject of Poledna's film.
In it a well-appointed group of 20-somethings are trying to 'get it together', but the song they are chasing keeps evading their grasp. They have all the right stuff - Marshall amps, Fender guitars, the lot - an embarrassment of riches when set beside the somewhat meagre skills on display. However, failure is only half the story in this case; the stop and start of their faltering jam allows the mind to wander and take in the details, which are all-important. The band's co-ed line-up and grimly buttoned-down look evinces a very specific vintage of pop: the late 1970s/early 1980s era of post-Punk. It recalls bands such as Gang of Four and The Au Pairs - a historical role into which these four individuals were literally cast, and accordingly a question arises as to whether their get-up might in fact be a costume, and their re- hearsal studio a set.
It is, of course, significant that the moment represented by Poledna's band is also marked by the emergence of the rock video as an increasingly indispensable form in the promotion of music. In fact, the image begins to gain precedence, at this point, over its ostensible subject. These four, however, would probably have shunned the image, or at least critiqued it. As part of a new 'indie' network of distribution - think Rough Trade or Factory - such bands were treated to a plain, often perplexing, packaging that rarely, if ever, included their likeness on the sleeve. It was not from Madison Avenue or Hollywood cinema that this music took its cue, but from the Situationist movement and Godard. The 'New Wave' tag was applied appropriately at first - oh, the circularity of it all!
Poledna rounds out his point with a surreptitious loop that keeps his musicians stranded ad infinitum in their formless purgatory. The darkness all around them is doubled by the black-box theatre into which their image is poured - these are literal ghosts. The camera pans across this non-site like a slow and steady searchlight, but in the absence of song all those individual details of expression and pose fall apart like so much bric à brac. Instead, it is the black space between them, the imagistic void and sonic interval, that gains in density, in definition.
From a late 1970s/early 1980s standpoint, however, this is not necessarily such a bad thing. It was at this time that the speedy, live thrash of Punk, which had by then disclosed its underbelly of machismo and racism, would be systematically dismantled by the in-studio machinations of Dub, for instance. The continual collapse that plagues Poledna's group is thereby also potentially triumphant; as the breakdown of a former order, it points forward to new forms of musical production as well as social relation. In fact, it points all the way up to the present, when the looks and sounds of this particular era are being resumed by the next generation as the ne plus ultra in cutting-edge cool.
Actualité takes its title from the early films of the Lumière brothers. These were pure funfair spectacle where footage of an approaching train famously sent the audience screaming out of the cinema. Poledna's poster adopts a similarly sensationalistic, carnival barker-like tone: 'A unique automated cabaret!', it reads, both ironically and in earnest. A step back for every step forward, this is a cautious celebration of the power of both music and film to turn history into an effective present, an 'Actualité' or, as the poster goes on to inform us, an '8-minute cinema you can dance to'.