Almost 50 years ago, musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt came up with a set of cards called “Oblique Strategies,” each of which offered some kind of suggestion that could be used in almost any situation. So now that director Gary Hustwit has made a movie about Eno, which is appropriately called “Eno,” it might be instructive to randomly pull a few Oblique Strategies cards and use them to write a review of the movie that premiered on Thursday at the Sundance Film Festival.
To do that, I used an online Oblique Strategies generator, which gave me these prompts. (Full disclosure: I left out two cards that were specific to the creation of music.)
Card 1: “You are an engineer.”
A little engineering is helpful in explaining “Eno” – which, in keeping with Eno’s own work, is partly a piece of art, partly an experiment in technology.
First, the facts about Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de a Salle Eno. Age 75. Born in Suffolk, England. First came to public attention as a member of the pioneering glam-rock group Roxy Music in the early 1970s, though he left the group after two albums. Embarked on a solo career distinguished by jittery pop songs and languid instrumentals. Pioneered ambient music (and coined the term) with minimalist works like “Discreet Music” and “Ambient 1: Music for Airports.” Served as produced on many of the essential works of the last half century, including albums from David Bowie, U2, the Talking Heads, Coldplay, Devo, Laurie Anderson, Grace Jones and many others.
You’ll hear about some of this in “Eno,” a mixture of contemporary interviews with its subject and clips from throughout his career. But don’t expect a clear chronology, because the film is a so-called “generative documentary” that takes its cue from the generative music that Eno has been experimenting with in recent years. Hustwit and digital artist Brendan Dawes developed a proprietary software system that changes scenes and their order every time the movie is shown while displaying code so the audience can watch the process of selection and organization as it takes place.
So a section on the collaborations between Eno and Bowie could end, the screen could scroll through options for what’s next, and Laurie Anderson could appear on camera pulling an Oblique Strategies card that tells her, “Do nothing for as long as possible.” When she’s finished doing nothing, another reset could take us to Eno explaining the connection between Nigerian musician Fela Kuti and the Talking Heads. Then to Eno talking about the “suspiciously acquired” video camera he bought from a roadie for the rock group Foreigner in 1980.
All that generative technology basically makes “Eno” a jumble that could take you anywhere at any moment. So it’s worth pointing out that this review is of the version of the film that screened in Sundance on Jan. 18. All subsequent screenings could include some different footage and a different order.
Card 2: “Consider different fading systems.”
Is the standard biographical documentary a fading form? It’s hard to say that in a time that has produced such strong biodocs as “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” “Apolonia, Apolonia,” “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” and such bracing music docs as “Moonage Daydream” and “The Velvet Underground.”
But just as one of the themes in “Eno” is that its subject is always agitating to get musicians to rethink conventional methods, the film is defiantly unconventional even if it does provide enough of the usual beats to give its audience a solid footing. You can come for the footage of U2 and Eno working through the recording of “Pride (In the Name of Love),” and then be sucked in by the expected story of how Eno managed to pee into the famous urinal that Marcel Duchamp exhibited as art. (I’m assuming that the generative algorithm wouldn’t dare leave that out of the edit at any subsequent screenings.)
The film has a few more delicious stories like that one, but also lots of theorizing and philosophizing. Eno, after all, may be popular music’s foremost theoretician this side of Pete Townsend (who’s not heard from much anymore). Hustwit’s movie may be interested less in what Eno did than in what Eno thinks – but when “what Eno thinks” encompasses everything from the connection between frogs’ eyeballs and repetitive music to his determination to “rethink surrender as an active verb” to his love for the Silhouettes’ doo-wop classic “Get a Job,” it’s fun to spend 90 minutes rummaging around in Eno’s brain.
Card 3: “Emphasize the flaws.”
Uh-oh. I’m guessing that most filmmakers would NOT want a reviewer to use this particular strategy to write about their movie. That said, the deliberate randomness of “Eno” doesn’t always help the pacing. The Sundance premiere version of the film felt as if it were ignoring Eno’s seminal ambient work until late in the film, but it’d take a few more viewings of other versions to see if that’s a consistent problem.
And despite the use of more than 50 pieces of music, including a couple of fascinating scenes of Eno working on compositions in his home studio, the film seems to keep his work at a distance. Brett Morgen’s “Moonage Daydream” and Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground,” to name a pair of recent music movies about artists who’ve crossed paths with Eno, were fearsomely and gloriously immersive trips into David Bowie and the Velvets’ music; “Eno” is about the musician rather than inside the music, which can’t help but be less involving.
Card 4: “What wouldn’t you do?”
I wouldn’t write another review based on pulling cards from a deck (or from a website that generates them randomly), that’s what. But Brian Eno’s career is a testament to pushing people (and himself) to do things they normally wouldn’t do, so it makes perfect sense that a documentary about him should nudge a reviewer in that direction as well.
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