DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

How to Get Out of the Cage – A Year with John Cage (1988/2012)

An alternatively fascinating and maddening hour with John Cage, especially if you watch the five films.

Published on September 10, 2012

How to Get Out of the Cage – A Year with John Cage (1988/2012)

Director: Frank Scheffer
Studio: Silk Road Film/EuroArts 2059168 [8/28/12] (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 4:3 (documentary); 16:9 (5 experimental films), color
Audio: English PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, French, Japanese
All regions code
Extras: Five experimental films by Scheffer and Cage: Chessfilmnoise, Wagner’s Ring, Nopera, Ryonji, Stopera’s I & II
Length: 56 mins. (documentary); 92 mins. (five films)
Rating: ****

For the 100th Anniversary of the birth of John Cage this month, filmmaker Frank Scheffer went back to 16mm footage he had shot of Cage from 1982 to 1992 (some of which resulted in the film Time Is Music in 1988) and created this new documentary. It is a mix of interviews, statements to the camera by Cage, musical performances of Cage works, demonstrations by Cage at workshops (similar to one I attended in the 80s), and footage on various places with relation to his life and work. In spite of the 16mm source, the images are good quality.

Scheffer was introduced to Cage in 1982 and says the composer dramatically changed his thinking: “He had opened my mind!” In the film Cage speaks about his early attending of lectures by Zen-master Daisetz Suzuki, and how it changed his life. He also speaks about his interests in chess, mushrooms and chance operations based on the ancient Chinese I Ching. He also speaks about James Joyce’s Ulysses, which he considers the greatest book ever written. Composer-pianist David Tudor is interviewed about his performances of Cage’s 4:33 (during which the pianist doesn’t play a note), and Cage’s longtime partner, avantgarde dance choreographer Merce Cunningham, also speaks about Cage, and we see some of his dancers in action. (During which there is no relationship between the musical score by Cage and the dancers’ motions, and Cunningham has a story about that.)

The documentary is a fascinating watch, and in less than an hour you get a feeling for how Cage’s creative mind worked and his main concerns. However, watching the five experimental films also included here may not be for everybody. On the first film the lenses, length of shots, focus and everything was controlled by the I Ching, and it was difficult to take for 17 minutes. The one-hour film Ryoanji has some lovely shots taken in a Zen garden near Kyoto, but they and the accompanying music by Cage are spaced out with often lengthy black screens due to the images and sound all being controlled by chance operations. My personal favorite was Wagner’s Ring in 4:24. It telescopes the entire 14-hour complete Ring cycle into 4 minutes and 24 seconds using the I Ching to select exactly when to shoot a single frame of what was going on onstage at the time. Everything’s in focus and some of the staging is really impressive.  I loved it! Can’t say now I don’t like the Ring cycle anymore!

—John Sunier




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