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Off Brand Video #12: Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s “Life & Times, Episode 4.5”

Fourteen years ago, Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska called Kristin Worrall on the phone and asked her the world’s most open-ended interview question, “Can you tell me the story of your life?” They recorded it all, like, every word, and used the oral history of her suburban Rhode Island upbringing as the base ingredient for their multiyear series, Life and Times. For instance, Worrall loves her cat, Bentley. “And even he had like little fat pockets, but I thought they were like perfectly placed, you know.” He loved sitting on her father’s lap after dinner. He loved milk, “so you know, I’d give him the milk and he’d be like freaking out with joy, you know, purring super loudly,” but he’d “always have diarrhea afterwards.” In a conversation, the listener might feel a brief moment of empathy for Bentley’s conundrum before moving on. But imagine if, after this litany of detail, an orchestra swelled, and the listener watched Bentley lick his genitals for sixteen bars of melancholic strings and woodwinds, wringing pathos out of his limited existence, the unfortunate union between pleasure and pain, milk and diarrhea, transforming Worrall’s rambling into hymn. 

Atop Worrall’s verbatim recollections, Copper and Liska have lathered various aesthetic forms. In Episode 2, Worrall recounts her childhood as pelvic thrusting disco. Episode 3 is a murder mystery. Five is a children’s book that documents her first sexual experience by including rudimentary drawings of Copper and Liska’s own copulation. For Episode 4.5, the first cinematic entry in the series, Copper and Liska drew each image by hand on 4×6 index cards, presenting adolescence as a series of jumbled and decontextualized pictures and phrases, an ode to the nonlinearity of linear life. Oh, and it’s an opera. Robert M. Johnson and Daniel Gower’s score, sung by Julie LaMendola, melodizes each of Worral’s hesitations and divergences, huffing along with a hint of 70s pop. 

Even though Copper and Liska recorded Worrall’s memories as words, the brain’s filing cabinet stores pictures more easily. “My science partner the first half of the year was Eric… Somebody,” Worrall says (and LaMendola sings) early in Episode 4.5. She can’t recall his name, only appearance, “a very squarish face and kind of buggy eyes.” Like forensic sketch artists, Copper and Liska draw what Eric Somebody might look like, and the episode visually maps out what could be happening in Worrall’s head while she speaks. At one point, she describes her science teacher, Mr. Lettera, “an ex-Marine Corps guy,” who reminds her “of that actor who’s in Star Trek.” She can’t remember the words “Patrick” and “Stewart,” so Copper and Lisa draw Stewart in costume. Worrall’s many “ums” and “likes” could be read as necessary vocal placeholders while the mind translates pictures into the right word. “Like” is the sound of the rat’s nest disentangling. 

Near the end of Episode 4.5, another voice enters, Liska, the listener, silent until now, asking, “What?” “Can you repeat that?” According to Copper, “Kristen was in the country at the time and had bad reception, so we just used this broken language, and the work started disassembling.” Autotune latches onto LaMendola’s voice, aurally matching the connection’s fizzle, chewing Worrall’s narration and Mendola’s voice beyond recognition. The story halts. The past retreats back inside its shell. “Am I breaking up?” “Yeah.” Copper and Liska mimic this effect visually by cycling through the images, the memories, rapid fire, out of order. It’s as if the words are turning back into pictures, shuffled cards. Memories are mis-shelved, each time a bit differently.

Off Brand Video will return next month with a video premiere from Dynasty Handbag. Read our mission statement below.

Off Brand Video is interested in pieces that trouble, queer, and speak back to mainstream cultural production. OBV provides access to non-narrative video normally reserved for private collections, gallery spaces, one-off screenings, or personal Vimeo accounts. In a gallery or on YouTube, you may watch for a minute and move on. Off Brand Video is the place to take the time. Send recommendations for artists, videos, or archives to [email protected] 

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