Log on. ID. Password.
The centerpiece of the American Music Theater Festival's "CrossWaves" -- a week of works-in-progress last week at the Annenberg Center that used cutting-edge computer and video technology -- was the world premiere of LifeSighs, rocker Graham Nash's whiz-bang interactive computer project, which he and his collaborators (system designer Rand Wetherwax and a list of technicians as long as your arm) have been noodling with for five years.
Lodged in the memory circuits of a bank of computers in Los Angeles, LifeSighs is a scrapbook of photos, film clips and computer-generated animation waiting to be accessed.
Each night last week, on stage at the Zellerbach Theater, Nash stood in front of a large screen, remote control mouse in hand (a cross between a flashlight and a TV remote), and clicked on one or another of the icons floating on the screen, calling up images from the computer in LA, which whizzed their way east via fiber-optic cable.
The effects are neato keeno. Not so the use to which they are put. Nash sings a half-dozen old songs and three new ones, during which the screen gives us computer-generated animation, as though we were watching a rough cut of a music video. (For one of the songs, Nash sings a karaoke duet with a pre-recorded David Crosby.) But mostly, Nash just talks: a little (well, too much) about the nifty technology, and mostly about his life and times, calling up images of his childhood bedroom in Salford (near Manchester), of his favorite '50s American rock-and-roll stars, of the women in his life (Cass Elliot, Joni Mitchell and his wife Susan), etc. At one point he talks with cut-out images of Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt, whose mouths move like Terry Gilliam cartoons in old Monty Python episodes (but without the wit). At other times, he chats with "CyberGraham," a huge computer-generated replica of his own face floating around the screen, whose lip and facial expressions are animated by an offstage actor with a fake (and fleeting) Mancusian accent.
Mostly, though, we have to listen to Nash's grossly simplistic historical generalizations ("Uncle Walter was giving us a new body count each night on TV,""Remember Watergate?") and sophomoric philosophy ("My loyalty is to the planet,""The Gaia Theory is true,""What's it going to be like in 50 years for our children?"). Worse, we have to listen to the ad-libbing CyberGraham (or rather, to actor Steven Nystrom, standing in the wings with wires glued to his face) and to his grossly simplistic historical generalizations ("1969... that was a whole crazy summer, wasn't it, luv?""Why were we ever in Vietnam?""Jerry Garcia, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, John Lennon... who's left?") and sophomoric philosophy ("You can kill the man but you can't kill the idea").
What LifeSighs really needs is actors, a script and an onstage personality with more presence than Graham Nash -- the cyber one or the real one. Without that, the nifty computer graphics are about as impressive as the EarthWatch radar map on the Channel 10 news, and considerably less informative.
Watching LifeSighs is like looking over the shoulder of a friend sitting at his computer showing you all the nifty hot-links on his World Wide Web home page.
Abort, Retry, Fail? Quit. Log off.
-- Cary M. Mazer