11 Feb 2022
Gabriel Brown and Howard-Smith
Sophie Bullock, Julie Hayes, Robert Woodhall
Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007) was a German composer known in the 50's and 60's as a groundbreaking pioneer in the evolutionary theory of music. He is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th Century with his compositions and theories reaching into fields as diverse as jazz, pop and electronica. His influence can be found in the music of bands from Pink Floyd to Sigur Ros to Captain Beefheart to Elbow. He, and his music, were also a bit weird.
Cue, Sophie (Bullock) – a regular, bored teenager who always has a dismissive scowl on her face and who thinks there is never anything else to do but look at her phone. She has, however, managed to find herself listening to House Of The Rising Sun by The Animals. This is due to Uncle Eric (Woodhall) who, despite Sophie's mother's protestations, continues to be a presence and influence on Sophie's life.
Uncle Eric, rather incongruously, runs a bookshop and not a music store. Yet, when Sophie finds herself again with nothing to do, this is where she heads to get advice on expanding and developing her knowledge and taste in music. Uncle Eric is also more than a little bit weird.
After a brief conversation about how music should 'speak to you', Uncle Eric reveals that Stockhausen is his kind of music. Sophie is eager to explore Uncle Eric's passion and on listening to Stockhausen's music for herself finds that the bangs and clicks and crashes and atonal notes unlock something within her too. Naturally, Sophie's mother is against this kind of dangerously alternative influence, and takes matters into her own hands to try and stop it.
Stockhausen Syndromeappears then, to be commenting on the mainstreaming of media which is more and more keeping people hemmed in behind tight boundaries, as well as the perceived corruption of youth which gets attributed to anything outside of the norm. Uncle Eric seems to have his ick factor deliberately turned up to eleven so that he almost comes across as a clone of the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), even though he is in actuality just a kindly uncle who takes an interest in the likes and dislikes of his niece.
Julie Hayes as Sophie's mother, Jean therefore takes on the role of 'normal society', who sees danger and criminality everywhere and whose mind and ears are closed off to anything that isn't immediately familiar. She sees herself in a battle for Sophie's soul and seems to equate alternative sounds, visions or lifestyles as tantamount to heresy.
All this, you would think, sounds like a strong basis for a thoughtful and compelling short film. There are over-arching themes and relevant discussion points as well as a subtext that serves to deliberately unsettle the viewer in order to provoke a reaction which reveals in themselves their own standpoint on what's being shown. However, it feels as though writer/director Howard-Smith may be testing us.
By making his film an arthouse movie, about the inability of the mainstream to find an accessibility to art, he is challenging us to say whether or not we find his film accessible, and therefore allow him to classify it as art. It's not. This is just a cheap and meaningless trick to try to elevate his work beyond the sum of its parts.
It is clear throughout Stockhausen Syndrome that the best things about it are the casting choices. Each actor physically represents their role perfectly and their characters are easily identifiable by their characteristics. Unfortunately this is all undermined by the fact that nobody in the film can act. This, coupled with a banal, lacklustre script and the way the camera always seems to find the easiest rather than the best placement, all serves to build an underwhelming film that is likely to turn many viewers off and tune many others out.
If you find Stockhausen Syndrome to be a poorly made film it is likely not to be because, as Howard-Smith seems to be suggesting, you are a philistine who doesn't understand 'real art' – it is more likely because you have eyes and ears and can identify its flaws.
We should all be free to make our own choices of the things which we elevate or deny, which is ironically the exact struggle Howard-Smith engages Sophie in. By trying to educate us about the acceptance of all forms and styles he instead alienates the viewer by forgetting to entertain or engage us. There is no reason that art and accessibility can't go hand in hand – just not here.