13 ways to kill a mockingbird

The pleasures and terrors of Old Hollywood from a master manipulator

passage a l'acte (1993) makes a simple breakfast scene from To Kill a Mockingbird look like a surrealist nightmare. The 1950s family is the target here. Those who know the film will recognize the characters as a father, his two kids, and a neighbor woman, but the film transforms them into a crazed version of the postwar family. While "Mother" sits with a frozen smile and Father (Gregory  Peck) reads the paper, sonny boy gets up from the table and opens and closes the screen door repeatedly. The slamming of the door sounds like gunfire, hinting at an unnamed aggression occurring somewhere just outside this sacred space of the '50s [sic] home and perhaps at disturbing forces at work within this family. Arnold's exploitation of these characters is pitiless; like an evil puppeteer he repeats a shot of Gregory Peck screaming words and parts of words to stultifying effect, while the son twitches back and forth with some unknowable frustration and the daughter makes guttural noises that attain a kind of robot rhythm.


In my films the projector is broken (or neurotic) in many ways at the same time. Sometimes it seems to stand still, the next moment it seems to flip the film outside down. With regard to the characters, a similar phenomenon occurs: they clearly project a neurotic impression, although I feel that their form of neurosis would be hard to diagnose because their symptoms are changing from one moment to the next. So they seem to be hysterical, compulsive, and manic, at the same time they are stuttering and having tics, the next moment they fall immobile. So what is their symptom?

Martin Arnold, quoted in Akira M. Lippit, “Martin Arnold´s Memory Machine.”  Afterimage:  The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism:  24.6, 1997, 8 – 10.

User Comments for passage à l'acte (1993)
Astonishingly weird, 28 January 2004
Author: James Garfield (axiomattic23@aol.com) from California, USA

This little-seen (at least in the United States) experimental film is a truly astonishing experience. I saw it in a film class, the likely place most people will see it, and at first I wondered if I was dreaming or hallucinating. I looked around at the other students in the class to see if they had similarly bewildered reactions.

This short film appropriates a domestic scene from the classic film of To Kill a Mockingbird and plays around with it, like a hip-hop DJ manipulating a record on a turntable. A character begins to say something, and that brief second of footage repeats rapidly, so the character seems to twitch and stutter mechanically. The film continually halts and repeats infinitesimal instants.

Ignore whatever pretensions about "deconstruction" and the like the filmmakers have dressed "Passage" up in and, if you get the chance to watch it, just cherish how totally bizarre it is. I wish it was more readily available on video or DVD.

I’m not sure why I wanted to attempt to restage Martin Arnold’s experimental video, passage a l’acte, with live bodies.  I can give you all kinds of theoretical reasons but that wouldn’t be honest, because really, I just wanted very perversely to see if we could do it and what would happen. As a director, I am fascinated by the differences in my responses to the live bodies of performers during rehearsals and the strips of restored bodies I cut and splice together on Final Cut Pro.  I wanted to juxtapose these two kinds of bodies, and I suppose as well to critique, apologize for, and parody my own predilection for working with cinematic bodies so much these days, with a sideways glance at my colleagues who tolerate, sometimes just barely, the amount of technology I keep dragging into the Black Box.   Staging the scene was like staging Beckett, whumping out beats, memorizing intricate choreography, and the cast only got it once they began thinking of it as a grotesque song and dance routine.

It was horribly violent and oddly beautiful, and I loved to watch people watch this scene.  They laughed when we got to Scout throwing milk around—the milk in the film stays in the glass of course, but live milk doesn’t behave like film milk.  There are different kinds of strips of restored behavior.

One night after I watched it I had to go outside on the porch with Scout (the dog) because it upset me dreadfully.  While I was out there I thought long and hard about the invisible violence of cinema, the gash of the editorial cut.

MacDonald:  How did you choose this particular scene from To Kill a Mockingbird?

Arnold:   . . . [I chose] a scene of a family at the dinner table, where the family, home, and gender theme could pair best with my formal ambition to work with repetitions of sounds. There would be a lot of clatter and scraping at the table, the shrill voices of the kids, and the lower voices of the grown-ups who “educate,” that is, repeat certain orders to furnish the kids with a decent behavioral repertoire. However, even if you know generally what you want, and are determined to rip films off instead of buying them, it’s not easy to get your hands on the right scene. I taped a lot of things from TV, and finally chose the scene from To Kill a Mockingbird – a scene that is not vital for the narrative structure of the original movie and which does not have anything to do with the central theme of racism. The race issue made To Kill a Mockingbird famous, and I would have been afraid to use a scene where, for example, the black man is on trial. I wouldn’t want to play around with that material. In any case, the scene I chose is a family scene, not different from many other family scenes, where parents and children are sitting at a breakfast table eating.

It’s true, as you’ve said, that if somebody knows To Kill a Mockingbird, he could associate the rest of the film to what I am doing. But that wasn’t my intent.

Scott MacDonald, “Martin Arnold.”  A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers.  Berkeley:  U of California P, 1998.  347 - 362.

“With actors, in 13 ways Suchy replicated Arnold's work in excruciating detail—including having a screen door installed in the theater to create the same, violent and unnerving percussive effect (indeed, in the theatre the slamming of the screen door sounded like a gun shot).  Both Arnold and Suchy's "remixing" get at the Real by critiquing visibility; in representation the audience is made aware of the unconscious optics of the archival impulse, as the sounds of bodies in motion—of speech—become increasingly grotesque.   Yet seeing the embodied remix in 13 ways made me much more aware of the dominant role of the acoustic field in Arnold's piece, as well as the original film itself.  Of course, it is impossible to describe the way in which the actors in this interlude were moved around by sound, articulated by the slow, staccato moans of speech, and how each violent slam of the screen door in that space marked the cut of sound into the biological body.  Unlike the visible connotations of postmodern "pastiche," the citationality of the remix—the sonorous repertoire of archival repetitions—captures the relation between the real and the voice, the unspoken and the marked, and the interplay of silence and speech.”

                                                                                               -Joshua Gunn

“The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web.  There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain.  That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law.  Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment.  And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.”  (Benjamin 233-234).

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