Design And Performance Lab

El Automovil Gris

Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes

Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio October 2003

(c) 2004

Johannes Birringer


After touring in Europe and Latin America, El Automovil Gris made a rare U.S. appearance at the Wexner Center. An astonishing work of art, this multimedia piece is as difficult to categorize and describe in words as a musical symphony might be. It was fitting that it was staged at an auditorium normally reserved for music concerts. Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, based in Mexico D.F. and directed by Claudio Valdes Kuri, rediscovered an important historical document from the silent film era, and now Enrique Rosas's 1919 movie -- the origibal El Automovil Gris --comes alive in a riveting "voicescape" compounding the musical, theatrical and cinematic dimensions of a drama which - in today's understanding of documentary film and television - has a true story based in "real life."


The large film screen is the stage. Adopting the Japanese benshi tradition of silent film narration, Ernesto Gomez Santana sits down at the piano and Irene Akiko Iida (Japanese Benshi) steps to her microphone. They are later joined by Enrique Arreola (Mexican Benshi) and Claudio Valdes Kuri (English Narrator Benshi). Together the four performers create the voices and musical accompaniment for this silent film classic based on the legendary exploits and subsequent capture of a notorious band of robbers who terrorized Mexico D.F. during the tumultuous months of the Revolution. Rosas's docu-drama, filmed on location at the original crime scenes and at times using some of the actual victims playing themselves, constructs an extraordinary narrative history of the "Automovil Gris" gang, depicting in heightened melodramatic style how the robbers posed as soldiers, donning authentic military uniforms and presenting official, signed search warrants to carry out searches of the homes of the wealthy, thus gaining easy entrance into the premises before terrorizing and robbing their victims. Their stunts, which would end with their getaway in a grey automobile, made them legends in the Mexican oral tradition. While stories about them are still alive, the silent film itself is rarely seen today. The group rediscovered a 2-hour cut of the film from 1933, the original 5-hour copy is lost.


The production is a tour de force, a rich and complex examination of ideas of the "real" in media and the arts. Compared to contemporary popular culture and sensationalist spectacles, as we see them on Reality-TV, the live performance of the mediation of the story - through voice over, multilingual fake "dubbing," musical soundtracks, amplified audio effects, and partly manipulated and recoded visual footage (new subtitles and animated graphics on the company's DVD remastering of the film) - highlights the completely effective illusionism of the montage. There are many poignant ironies. As a real-time theatrical montage, their performed voices and sounds disrupt the illusionism of the film narrative. The filmed history now becomes present: the actors are also commentators constructing a precarious pseudo-documentary. A gap opens up between facts and their representations, then and now, here and there, between the onscreen melodramatic images and the live articulation of speech, text, subtext, "character" and codes of morality and conscience acted out in this archetypal crime thriller.


The actors adapt a culturally specific, historic theatrical technique (benshi) to present-day technological interfaces in which sampling and sound engineering are crucial modes of digital mastering. In terms of Nicolas Bourriaud's critique of contemporary artworks created on the basis of preexisting, found materials (cf. Douglas Gordon's slowed-down reruns of Hitchcock in 24 Hour Psycho or Pierre Huyghe's recent The Third Memory which revisits the Hollywood movie Dog Day Afternoon), El Automovil Gris is "postproduction." But in this case the processing not only involves a preexisting cultural object, but a complex performative context in which the actors revitalize a forgotten form of Japanese benshi live-narration, itself derived from older Noh and Kabuki traditions containing narrative elements that tell the story being shown, and turn it into a fantastic musical and vocal polyphony of arias and dialogues. The benshi performance of story-telling over silent movies emerged in early 20th century when foreign films were first shown in Japan and benshi narrators gave voice to many different characters, acting as cultural translators and commentators to scenes that may have been unfamiliar to local audiences.


When Akiko Iida intones the opening Spanish titles of Automovil Gris in Japanese, and continues for some time to voice a multiplicity of male and female characters in her native tongue, changing pitch, rhythm, and tone to "impersonate" different bodies, genders, and physical behaviors on screen while we read printed subtitles in English and Spanish, we are drawn into an operatic world that stretches from burlesque comedy to tragedy. When the other actors join, Spanish and English idioms along with some German and French, as well as animal sounds and sonic abstractions, are added to the bewildering mix which never fails to captivate us and focus our attention on the emotional tenor of the story. Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes creates a multilingual provocation, a work with so many language layers that it must tease and frustrate Western audiences in their presumed global sophistication.


Nuances and subtle inflections of voice create such a rich texture that we never lose sight of the serious political drama of subterfuge, terror and corruption played out on the screen, as we are jolted, repeatedly, into stunned recognition of the unfolding plot as well as the mechanics of melodrama. We know how important soundtracks are to our emotional identification with narrative, but here we see precisely how the pianist and the actors at the microphones manufacture and "edit" continuity and heighten our suspense. And how the actors, over a crazy quilt of early 20th century Mexican and Japanese music, mixed with early American jazz and ragtime, can launch into poetic arias or wildly creative and "unrealistic" interpretations of a particular character that make us choke with laughter. The story turns bad and the classic film ends with Rosas intercutting documentary newsreel footage of the gang's actual execution by a firing squad. The auditorium falls silent, no commentary is offered when the "real" Federales shoot the robbers in the false military uniforms. Under Valdes Kuri's careful direction, which gives attention to the smallest details and can only have been achieved after many months of rehearsal, Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes produces a powerful dissonance, a dis-junction in our reception of what appeared to be a melodramatic comedy of "good" versus "evil."