In John Smith’s Girl Chewing Gum (1976) a set of stage directions works as a pivot for the representation of the actions of the people, vehicles and camera operator in the film. It’s a straightforward conceit: the actions were filmed first and the descriptions were added afterwards, but because they’re announced as directions the words appear to precede and cause the actions.

The clip below shows Rowan Atkinson comedically conducting Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. In place of the orchestra is the audience, who watch and laugh, while the music playing is pre-recorded and hence unresponsive to Atkinson’s conducting. When he looks out over the audience and begins to conduct the imaginary orchestra his efforts are pretty awful and certainly idiosyncratic, but at least he’s trying to do the kinds of things conductors do: he’s more or less in time with the music, he engages different sections of the ensemble, he gives occasional cues, he tries to follow the score, and so on.

But as the piece goes on his conducting takes various turns, borrowing from other kinds of rhythmic movements like fencing, dancing, playing golf and conducting traffic over a busy intersection. Rather than conducting the orchestra, it begins to conduct him. What interests me most of all is when he suddenly uses his baton to mime the instruments as they play – the violin, the oboe, the flute – and gives knowing looks to the imaginary players of each one as if to encourage them in solidarity.

In the introduction to J. L. Borges’s collection of stories Fictions, Anthony Kerrigan writes “In Literature it is only necessary to outline the steps. Let the people dance!”

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