Variety Show

#8 (Devil: Master of Ceremonies) (Photos courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

“That’s some fucked-up shit,” a friend of mine used to say when he really appreciated something, or sometimes, for variation, he’d announce, “That shit is fucked up.” And who could blame him? These are sturdy declarations; they neatly say all that can — or can’t — be said on a topic, and they come in handy, five words that open things up and close things down all at the same time.

I can’t help muttering the same thing in response to Mike Kelley’s nearly three-hour musical Day Is Done, which really is some very fucked-up shit. Which is to say that it’s great, and insane. With this new video, Kelley is doing what he does so well — mixing up high and low, major and minor, the ridiculous and, well, if not the sublime then something grand.

If you scan the history of L.A.’s most interesting artistic moments, Kelley’s often there. Born in Detroit in 1954, he moved to L.A. in the 1970s to attend CalArts, graduating in ’78. He was in a band that did backup for poetry recitations by pomo philosopher Jean Baudrillard in 1996. Ten years before that, he played the green water imp in Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s video Kappa. And in ’92, he filled Rosamund Felsen’s gallery with tattered, grubby stuffed animals in Ralph Rugoff’s seminal “Just Pathetic” show, presenting works that abjured high art aspirations while limning the dark edges of childhood. He’s collaborated with many other artists, including Tony Oursler, Raymond Pettibon and Paul McCarthy, with whom he crafted the creepy video adaptation Heidi.

Day Is Done, the single-channel, 150-minute musical screening for two nights at REDCAT on January 22 and 23, is the latest incarnation of a much bigger project, one that began as a series of high school yearbook photos that Kelley used as the basis for a massive sculptural installation at the Gagosian Gallery in New York at the end of 2005. Critically applauded (“A true epic,” according to John Waters), the elaborate installation featuring 32 synchronized video stations and sculptural elements was designed to be part adult amusement park, part “spatialized filmic montage,” and all Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art — think Wagnerian opera or any other kind of immersive environment that mixes multiple artforms.

“Films are the total work of art,” Kelley muses, noting the varied input and talents required by the medium. “I was just extending film to three dimensions. I had done a lot of performance work earlier in my career, and the installation was an attempt to get back to theater work, through sculpture, and to make something that could last and that could also be spatialized, and that’s what viewers will be missing in the film version, namely the element of space.”

What they’ll get with the linear film version instead is something akin to The Lawrence Welk Show crossed with a Busby Berkeley musical,high school on acid laced with eye-popping truth serum. The ersatz story follows a series of unnamed character types through a day in high school. Some are dressed as vampires, others as devils, acolytes and mimes, like it’s Halloween or “crazy-outfit day,” a seeming reprieve from the humdrum repressive world of what Kelley calls “the educational complex.” The sequences, called “Extracurricular Activity Project Reconstructions,” are numbered and vary in length and style. Some are hypnotic, like the sequence of three dancers who form a train and chug their way through the halls and past the administrative offices; some are boring, like the long sequence in a classroom when students argue about their heroes; and others are nicely shocking, as when a character dressed as a devil leans forward, revealing bulging, squishy red testicles (and yes, someone squeezes them).

References? Add William Burroughs to Welk and Berkeley. “Burroughs used a lot of literary tropes like the detective novel, or the sci-fi novel or pornography,” says Kelley, “and while he played with certain kinds of language experiments, he always had the anchor of the trope to hold the reader. I think Burroughs is really good at that, and that’s something I’ve always admired, the play with structure, the play with trope, and I think this whole thing sprang out of a similar exercise.” Freud is also present, mainly in Kelley’s fascination with repressed-memory syndrome and the idea that trauma causes us to forget our past.

Describing how the project began, Kelley says he was fascinated by the performative “types” he found among the yearbook photos. For most of us, “high school types” means something like jocks and geeks. Kelley, however, was looking literally at the ways students perform — in dance routines and school plays, for example. He used the selected images of students in various costumes as the foundation for his own creative exercise — some of the pictures compelled him to write music that became the basis for a mini-musical; others suggested a dance number, standup routine or comedy sketch like you’d see on a TV variety show. Kelley’s goal, however, was not mere re-enactment. Instead, he decontextualizes the images in an attempt to reveal an underlying structure.

The single-channel version, Kelley insists, is not merely a documentation of the larger installation or the video portion sucked out of the sculptural context. “The installation was like a carnival; you had an environment that you entered, you could walk around, and you could see things happening around the gallery. But I don’t want people to think this is a leftover, a resplicing. It has taken me a long time to edit, and I’ve worked a lot on giving it a sense of simultaneous action, of flashbacks, and so on.”

Kelley says he is fascinated both by film language and genres — like musicals — in which the stories seem wildly illogical when you think about them. “How much sense does Moulin Rouge make?” he asks, adding that his cinematic inspiration includes films by Guy Maddin, Federico Fellini and Luis Buñuel.

Day Is Done shares some of the narrative anarchy of Kelley’s three filmmaking progenitors, as well as their sly social commentary. In examining the brief window of freedom occasionally allowed in repressed contexts, Kelley suggests that there may be corollaries, both for the rest of our psychic lives, where repression reigns, and for our current political situation, which, like dress-up day at school, is described as a temporary state of exception. That said, Day Is Done is decidedly not a political commentary, Freudian analysis or critical examination of anything. It’s a lurid, funny, weird, long, taxing, thrilling, unnerving, visual, aural extravaganza. It’s some fucked-up shit.?

Day Is Done screens Monday, January 22, and Tuesday, January 23, at 8 p.m. at REDCAT, W. Second and S. Hope sts., downtown. General admission is $8, $6 for students. (213) 237-2800,

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