A Chinese Billie Holiday 


When Derek Larson’s experimental art flick Happy Chinese Billie Holiday played at the Indianapolis Museum of Art earlier this winter, the room — like the film — was full of Herron art students. Now, a recording of this live performance is available for the rest of us to see — and interpret for ourselves.
Larson, a Herron art student, directed, filmed and created the music (with his band ESL, English as a Second Language) for the hour-long movie. Mostly silent — other than the music — with bits of on-screen text, the movie is roughly based on Holiday’s life. But don’t expect an A&E biography. Filled with an assortment of film tricks — some more effective than others — the scenes move through the dimly lit industrial landscapes and dirty waterways of Indianapolis. In one scene, an actor (Brian Priest) in a yellow wig and dress floats past some unsuspecting White River fishermen atop a giant Styrofoam block. “A lot of the film was written by the actors on the spot,” Larson said. “It’s very improv. I gave them an idea of what I thought they should do and the actors would wing it and usually get it in one or two takes.” Because of the improvisation of the actors, Larson drifted away from his focus on Holiday. So, he said, the movie is more about a girl who was impersonating a Chinese Billie Holiday as a way to find happiness. “The editing became ‘how can I put this together and lose the first idea?’ A lot of the actors and especially the musicians all wrote it. I was just there to provide a space for the viewer and for them to create something for themselves, too,” Larson said. The movie played two nights at the IMA, projected on a 30-foot canvas hung in a 10-foot-by-10-foot space. The edges of the canvas were painted so the colors would change as lights moved behind the screen. And Larson’s band — a cross between Radiohead and Neil Young — played live behind the screen during the film. The music pulsates eerily with Larson on vocals and guitar, Keeara Rhoades playing drums, Todd Arney playing the keyboard and drums and Jon McGlothin on bass. The music alone is worth the $5 cost of this DVD. But be ready to bring your own interpretation to the assortment of images on screen. “What I wanted to do was provide an environment for the viewer and myself to experience these colors, this imagery of a vague story and the music as more of an experience of the senses,” Larson said. “And I’m not letting go of all responsibility, I’m not saying it’s up to the viewer completely because there are specific things that I want to bring across. “But in between gaps of those points, I think it’s different for everyone. I think that’s what a conversation is, somebody is explaining something and a person is receiving this information. You’re going to decide for yourself what I am saying. Somebody else could get a whole different meaning from the same conversation.” The film also features Jose DiGregorio, his dog Cokey, Michelle Walkey, Larissa Heller, Rhoades and Arney. To purchase the DVD, e-mail Larson at chinesebillie@yahoo.com.

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