Feature Film is a video installation by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. It is comprised of two large wall projections showing the same closely cropped footage of a conductor’s hands and face. The projections, measuring at least 3 x 5.5 m, are shown on opposing walls in a blacked-out room, with one image flipped horizontally so that the images mirror one another. The film was made in super 16 mm before being blown up to 35 mm. The soundtrack of the film, which consists of the music that the subject is conducting, is played at high volume.
The conductor depicted in the film is James Conlon, who was Music Director at the Opéra National de Paris at the time that the work was made. In Feature Film he interprets the full soundtrack written by composer Bernard Hermann for the film Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. When Hermann’s soundtrack was originally issued by Mercury Records in 1958 to accompany the film’s release, it contained only thirty-four minutes of the eighty minutes of music featured in the film. Conlon’s recording is the only one to date to feature the entire suite as written by Hermann. The score, which echoes the Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s 1859 opera Tristan und Isolde, opens with a portentous two-note falling motif; a musical imitation of the notes emitted by the foghorns on either side of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. This bridge features in the film as the site where the character played by actor Kim Novak jumps into the bay. The dialogue in Vertigo is sparse, and Hitchcock relied on Hermann’s score throughout the film to drive the narrative.
Gordon made two continuous recordings of Conlon while he conducted the score, one filmed with three semi-fixed cameras and the other with two constantly moving films. When edited, this footage was cut into a study of the conductor’s body and face, sketching his gestures and creating intense close-ups of his lips, hands and bulging eyes. The rhythm of the cuts in the film was determined by the rhythm of the score. Gordon divorces the sound that the viewer hears from the sight of the orchestra creating it, instead focusing on the conductor’s body, which reinforces the visceral nature of the music. This effect has been observed by curator Nancy Spector: ‘Splitting the image from the orchestra, by splitting sound from image, Gordon teases forth the soul of the movie – which finds expression in Hermann’s ever-circular labyrinth of a score – and gives it new life’ (quoted in Brown 2004, p.90). Vertigo was the first film to use dolly zoom (an in-camera effect that warps perspective and disorientates the viewer) and Gordon pays homage to this in Feature Film with his own use of distorted perspective.
Gordon has long been fascinated by Hitchcock’s work. In 24 Hour Psycho 1993 (Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg) he slowed down Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho 1960 from the usual twenty-four frames per second to two frames per second, thus extending its running time from 109 minutes to twenty four hours. His impetus for exploring Hitchcock’s Vertigo was the power of the film’s score, as he has recorded: ‘Between 1993 and 1997–8 most of my video and film work was silent and this unbearable silence was what got me interested in looking specifically at the musical or audio component that had already been used in the film’ (quoted in Brown 2004, p.91). Two versions of Feature Film exist. The one in Tate’s collection depicts Conlon conducting Hermann’s score straight through. The other version mirrors the use of Hermann’s score in Vertigo itself; when there was no soundtrack in the film the projection in Gordon’s work goes black, and a monitor showing a muted version of Vertigo is installed at an oblique angle.
Gordon is represented in Tate’s collection by several other works, including the video installations Play Dead; Real Time (this way, that way, the other way) 2003 (Tate AL00339) and A Divided Self I and A Divided Self II 1996 (Tate AR01179). Like these works, Feature Film seeks to unsettle the viewer, disturbing their perspective on something they may have considered fixed. As the artist has stated:
While you might be looking at my Feature Film, you’re always conscious that this is music from another film … there’s an image in front of your eyes and an image inside your head. There’s maybe some kind of conflict between the two and that conflict is what I would call an interesting game to play.
(Quoted in Brown 2004, p.93.)
Jennifer Higgie, ‘Douglas Gordon’, Frieze, vol.48, September–October 1999, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/douglas_gordon/, accessed 5 March 2016.
James Lingwood and Michael Morris (eds.), Off Limits: 40 Artangel Projects, London 2002.
Katrina M. Brown, Douglas Gordon, London 2004.