Prompted by cultural and political developments, influential 80s industrial music collective Test Dept have recently resurfaced and are currently touring their film DS30 (2014) along with other archive film material. Their book Total State Machine has just been released by PC-Press and is available from Rough Trade East and from the PC-Press website. There will be a number of re-issues of their recorded material soon on PC-Press/Forte Distribution. Test Dept: Redux will be playing live at the Wroclaw Industrial Festival, Poland, on 7 November and at TPO in Bologna, Italy, on 14 November. They will be appearing at the Cambridge Film Festival (4-12 September) on 12 September as part of the Microcinema event programme curated by James Mackay and William Fowler, DARK PICTURES: Industrial Music Culture. Below, Test Dept founding member Graham Cunnington picks his ten essential films, some of which have a personal significance while others have influenced the work of the group.
1.Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
A seminal moment of inspiration and one of those films where you look at the world differently once you emerge from the darkness of the cinema into the light. The landscape of ‘The Zone’ in the film, where one’s deepest dreams can perhaps be realised, somehow reflected the desolation of the former docklands around New Cross where we lived at the time; mile upon mile of derelict and ruined industrial buildings and forsaken empty wasteland. The film raises philosophical questions about the nature of reality and about the existential battles of science and logic vs art and creativity, religion and belief, about right and wrong, good and evil, and it made me feel there were much deeper levels of understanding to explore in the world around me. It also heavily influenced our film Cold Witness starring the great Ken Campbell.
2. Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (Dziga Vertov, 1931)
Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera could be in this list as it was a huge early influence on our visual director Brett Turnbull and of Test Dept’s filmmaking style, especially during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike. But Enthusiasm is here as it was the first sound film. The first to use sound recorded on location, and then to use those sounds, cut up into a sound collage for the soundtrack. A technique that we have developed throughout our career, using found sound in creating film soundtrack and music composition.
3. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)
The opening shot of the young main protagonist choreographing the drunken inhabitants of a bar in a small town in rural Hungary to act out the movement of the heavenly bodies of the solar system is a beautifully arresting scene. Béla Tarr’s customary ultra-long takes create a dreamlike metaphorical meditation on the fall and failure of the machinations and corruptions of power and the willing blindness of people to accommodate such things. A constant struggle between dark and light around prophesies of doom in a world on the brink of disaster. This film produced another jolt of a creative spark for me.
4. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
The adaptation of Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the script, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the characters, and the surreality and unexpectedness of some of the scenes and scenarios. In every aspect an astonishing and ground-breaking film that really resonated with us, not least because the Vietnam War was a constant background noise on the news when we were kids. Some sonic material of this was inevitably extracted and used in early TD work, and many others’ too. Someone said of our original installation of DS30 on the river Tyne in Newcastle last year that approaching it by boat was like one of the scenes from this film. A compliment indeed.
5. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
Although Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are brilliant films, Eraserhead was the first Lynch film and the first one I watched. More surreal and strange than anything I had ever come across before, it knocked me sideways. It was always on late night screenings at The Ritzy in Brixton and that was the best time for it. The strange main character of Henry, the black and white cinematography, the sound design and the atmosphere of alienation have lingered in my creative cloud, and, as a reference for being out there, doing your own thing and not giving a shit what people think, it’s pretty unsurpassed. A disturbance of the psyche that textured and coloured some of mine and Test Dept’s very early work.
6. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
The fact that this had been banned and could only be watched on illegal VHS video tapes created the initial intrigue. As a punk in South London in the late 70s, violence was a part of my teenage years. The streets were a dangerous place where gangs of Skinheads, Teddy Boys, Casuals, Hells Angels and Bikers were out to get you. This film reflected that reality – Alex and his Droogs wear their identifying uniform and commit ‘ultra-violence’ much as some in those sub-cultures did – but it also made such an impact on me through its depiction of a government using psychological conditioning to control its citizenship, fanning the flames of my own young anti-establishment tendencies. The design of a near-future, much like our own but strange and alien too, helped by the invented language of Nadsat, appropriating words from other sources, and the incredible soundtrack by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, transplanting Beethoven’s Glorious Ninth Symphony onto the Moog synthesiser; all an inspiration which would come back to me years later when me and the other members of TD came to work on the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket as extras.
7. No Mercy, No Future (Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1981)
Incredibly difficult to watch, but this is an enormously powerful work and, along with Sanders-Brahms’s other film Germany, Pale Mother, had such an influence on me, coming out of both in tears, absolutely drained and devastated. A story about a schizophrenic young girl in West Berlin, under the shadow of the Wall, alone and alienated in a brutal city, looking for god. It was an eye-opener that such a powerful emotional effect could be got through a story so uncompromising, uncomfortable and disturbing. It sparked an interest that would eventually lead me to have the courage, many years later, to develop and tell my own story in the solo play Pain.
8. Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)
Another future dystopia, it was a toss-up between this and Blade Runner, even though that is undoubtedly the better film, but MMII gets in due to the mutated vehicles and repurposed materials giving an obvious link with TD and our choice of scrap-metal instrumentation. What drew me in was the lonesome road warrior with his dog and his souped-up car, concerned with doing the right thing, but only just, something I identified with completely in my imagination. Also, the opposing tribes: the bad biker-punk gang so much more beguiling than the boring hippie goodies inside their oil-well encampment (except for the cool wild kid narrator with the boomerang). A high-octane-powered roller coaster ride. As TD, we later hooked up with the Mad Max-inspired Mutoid Waste Company, who were living at the time in a quarry in Italy, mutated their own vehicles and could have been characters straight out of the film. We went on convoy with them around Italy and felt as though we actually were.
9. Ghost Dog (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)
I just love this film with Forest Whitaker’s depiction of the eponymous lone hitman who communicates by pigeon and constantly refers to the Hagakure: Book of The Samurai, trying to interpret its code as a spiritual guide; his character here resonates with my own conflicted struggle for a spiritual understanding, beyond religion, in a harshly unspiritual time. He moves through the city unnoticed by most except the few who really see him, accompanied by RZA’s great score, and when you come out of this film you want to do the same, in that lazy, slouching walk that he has, just to be as cool as him – even though he kills people.
10. Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Really three films in one post. This, along with Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation and Naqoyqatsi: Life as War introduced another element into my creative perspective. Film as documentary and as art with a powerful societal message and without words (except those spoken or sung in the soundtrack). The mixture of breath-taking imagery depicted in slow motion or time-lapse with the modernist minimalist repetitive looping soundtrack by Philip Glass created a gloriously vibrant and addictive mix. The films depict the human impact on both the developed and developing worlds, starting from untouched natural landscapes through human intervention to the urban and built environments and beyond to the technologically driven world we inhabit today. Astonishing works, of which maybe a little influence trickled through to our film DS30.