Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for Bernard Shakey Film Retrospective: Neil Young on Film opening across Canada this summer, with an exclusive engagement at The Royal, Toronto, July 23-26.
To complement, or perhaps promote, his 2012 album release Americana, Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s electric remake of classic American folk tracks, Neil Young donned the mask of his auteur pseudonym, Bernard Shakey, to create a silent film about art and American history. Conceptualized by Gary Burden of American film research, A Day at the Gallery (2012) shows Neil Young as an author haggling with a gallery curator over paintings to include in his book. As they traverse the gallery in this faux-silent film, the paintings come to life through the combination of Neil Young’s music and old American film footage. The musical lyrics and profilmic content illustrate one another in juxtaposition, with the lyrics providing interpretation for the artwork seen in the gallery. The entire concept is quite elaborate and exceptionally well executed, though A Day at the Gallery works less as a film than as an interestingly researched document of American folk culture. It perhaps belongs in a gallery.
The musical lyrics and profilmic content illustrate one another in juxtaposition, with the lyrics providing interpretation for the artwork seen in the gallery.
To resemble American silent-era films, Bernard Shakey utilizes intertitles to convey dialogue and piano music to provide a soundtrack. The film opens and closes using irises, a film technique for fading in and out which is almost exclusive to silent-era film. A Day at the Gallery has much film grain and lines to resemble old stock film footage that has degraded over time, and the characters are sped up by a slow frame rate, similar to what is seen in silent film. As a whole, the film actually looks like it was made in the silent era, and there is no significant difference in the aesthetic between modern shots in the gallery and historical footage seen through the paintings.
The eleven tracks of Americana are paired with eleven paintings by Shepard Fairey, who also plays the role of the artist in the film. The concept album is made visually expressive through the use of video. The first track about a man with a banjo is paired with a painting of a man with a banjo and a video of a man playing banjo in an old tavern while a little boy dances to the music. A few minutes later, the classic folk tune “This Land is Your Land” is paired with images of farmers harvesting crop all around America. At once Neil Young is taking music from an older era, transforming it with modern sensibilities, and transporting it back to the time it came from. The video footage displays the culture which inspired the lyrics, but it is all being conveyed by a modern man with a golden heart.
Being made today the film has obvious subversive, satirical tones. While representing silent-era films it automatically comments on them.
Dialogue throughout the film is notably modern and punk. When Neil Young asks the curator to make a painting “a little less expensive”, the curator tells him “you’re a cheap fuck”. Being made today the film has obvious subversive, satirical tones. While representing silent-era films it automatically comments on them. For example, the characters walk nonsensically to left and right of the frame quite obviously passing through the same stage every time and never showing an ounce of spatial continuity. This occurs in quite a number of silent-era shorts before technology and creativity had advanced. At another point, the curator’s words are marked with dollar signs, expressing his capitalist intentions to make money off the commercial viability of the artwork, paintings which are duplicated by the artist using spray paint. This whole scenario is quite obviously a critique on the consumption of art in the modern era.
Besides being an interesting overview of Neil Young’s album and folk American culture, A Day at the Gallery offers little substance. The concept is certainly high-minded and executed well, but the final product is rather tendentious and tedious. The point it is making is made almost immediately, and the formula becomes rather tedious: we see a poster, the camera shows us close ups then dissolves to old film footage, a snippet of Neil Young’s music is heard, the film footage dissolves back to the poster. At some points it feels like a glorified music video rather than a sincere and creative depiction of American culture. Nonetheless, the project is undoubtedly original, the film footage is highly resourceful, and the music is inspired.
The entire concept is quite elaborate and exceptionally well executed, though A Day at the Gallery works less as a film than as an interestingly researched document of American folk culture. It perhaps belongs in a gallery.