The Strange Case of Dr. Chicago

Thursday 23 July 2009

One thing I forgot I wanted to talk about when mentioning Alvin Lucier last month was his starring role in George Manupelli’s Dr. Chicago trilogy*. I first heard about these films only last year, over at Renewable Music, where Daniel Wolf suggests that Lucier is the composer with the most prominent film career.

(Possible runner up, Erik Satie in Entr’acte. John Cage makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in Maya Deren’s At Land, and almost had a part in La Dolce Vita, but didn’t.)

The thing that reminded me was Kyle Gann has just posted about these films, and mentions that Robert Ashley made the soundtracks for them. That’s something else I didn’t know before but do now.

I’ve only seen short excerpts from each film, on YouTube and Manupelli’s website. They look like a mixture of cinéma vérité, awkward improvisation, and flights of deadpan absurdity. A lot of that last element comes from Lucier’s portrayal of the nefarious Dr. Chicago as he flees with his meagre entourage across the United States into Mexico. His Chicago combines the feckless insouciance of Nick Riviera with the calculating amorality of Burroughs’ Dr. Benway deprived of a budget.

* “There was also a fourth film, Dr. Chicago Goes to Sweden, but Manupelli got pissed off at a film festival in Toronto and drove around town with the only copy of the film unreeling out the window of his car.”