What to watch at LFF: Joining the dots between David Byrne, Delia Derbyshire and a dive bar in Las Vegas

At a time of distancing and disconnection, 3 films at this year’s festival suggest a way to start making sense of our sociability and the sensory impact we have on each other.

American Utopia (2020)

“Here is an area that needs attention; here is a connection to the other side”, sings David Byrne, imagining whispers in the dark, passing through our neurons. 

At the time of writing, 25 pilot whales were rescued out of 270 that had become stranded on Tasmania’s west coast. It was reported that when one gets in trouble, it’s the empathetic, caring nature that brings the others closer. It’s the size of their brains that leads these mammals to have such a powerful range of communication, complex relationships and tight-knit communities. And it’s this sociability and these deep connective bonding urges that make them akin to humans. 

David Byrne’s American Utopia opens with the kernel of an idea about the human brain and its capacities; how as humans we’re born with a huge array of connections firing in our brains that deplete as we grow up and age, and how the ones we’re left with define who we are and how we perceive the world.

Directed by Spike Lee, the film connects the viewer to the performance in a powerfully visceral experience, which offers a welcome intensity after many months of social distancing. The dynamic, energetic style makes you feel like an atom moving around in the audience, above the stage, in the performance itself. Alongside the thrill of the music and the infectious energy of American Utopia, Byrne is inviting growth; imaginative, playful and empathetic growth. He wonders how that could be achieved; perhaps by being more open, perhaps by deep listening, and in that listening, that attention, perhaps your brain could regain some of those lost connections. 

Deep listening is also an act of channelling in Caroline Catz’s documentary Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes. After the discovery of 267 tapes in the pioneering electronic music composer’s attic, Catz digs into the rich archive, tunes into Derbyshire’s esoteric wavelength and embodies her subject. Derbyshire’s personality comes through in her own voice on archival recordings, but also through Catz stepping into Derbyshire’s shoes and fleshing out her character. In a similar vein to the way that Derbyshire herself imagined the way visions could sound – such as trying to convey the distance of the horizon, the heat haze, and a strand of camels – Catz envisions the way Derbyshire moved through the world. 

Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes (2020)

By connecting on an intuitive level with Derbyshire’s archive and recordings, Catz explores the possibility of mapping out a person’s life from sound, and how connections could be made in the echoes we leave behind. Performance artist and musician Cosey Fanni Tutti is a vital presence, with an original score that connects her and Derbyshire’s common interest in musique concrète, and by imagining psychic routes to Derbyshire. “I wonder,” CFT reflects, “how from what we leave behind we expect people to have any understanding of who we really are, or the reasons behind our choices.” In the absence of a living person, is it possible to channel their character through the way they chose to express themselves, in the echoes and resonances and words they left behind?

Mood, atmosphere and intuition are the bassline to our experiences of reality, and the connections we make and what they mean to us determine how we move through the world. Fraternal filmmaking duo Bill and Turner Ross explore these factors in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a film that explores the experience, circumstances and depth of connection, and how we relate.

With an intoxicating dive-bar den of warm pinky hues and deep familiarity, the Ross brothers have set up the environment for the perfect storm. It’s the closing night of Roaring 20’s, a bar in Las Vegas, and the regulars gather as the day makes way for some nocturnal festivities. The circumstances are hazy – the bar exists purely for the film, but the attendees are making unscripted connections with one another based within their own truths. 

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)

With its focus on the conversations and encounters that unfold, the film asks where authenticity starts and stops in the way we get to know and are intimate with one another. “That felt real,” says one late-night drinker to another, as the intimacies deepen and the hours dissolve. What feels real is a delicate chemistry that incubates beyond the measures of reality. Connections can be transitory, such as being at a gig or in a bar, but it doesn’t affect how much they mean. As Derbyshire recalls her mother’s upbringing: “Those experiences must live in every cell of your body.”

These films ask how we resonate with one another. How do you measure a person’s sensory impact and how that reverberates in you? What does it mean to be on the same wavelength? In American Utopia, David Byrne makes new connections in a way that starts making sense. He refers to the work of the Dadaists in the 1920s, who were making art in a world that was slipping into economic crisis and fascism, so used nonsense to make sense of a world that didn’t make sense. And he bounces back to people, and the potential for us to make powerful connections with one another that centre on empathy and care. We are a work in progress and our brains can change.