Past the Mission, I Smell the Roses: Tori Amos’s Army in Michael Robinson’s “Mad Ladders”

I am writing today in solidarity with everyone marching and fighting for bread and roses on this May Day. As a minor, Minus Plato protest, this post will highlight how recourse to a non-Christian mythic world aligns with feminist collective action.

Floating golden triangles, bird-headed creatures and the sun landing on earth – these are just some of the apocalyptic visions described by the found-footage narration of Michael Robinson’s 10 minute film Mad Ladders, 2015. Accompanying this vatic narration is steadily swelling soundscape, as storm clouds and other ominous landscapes roll by. Yet at certain moments, as the narration breaks, the momentum shifts and an 8-bit version of Tori Amos’ song Crucify blasts out amid footage of extravagant 1980s and 1990s pop music performances judders and splits before your eyes in a hallucinatory explosion. As this process is repeated, we reach a culmination when the sun lands on earth, in its blinding light but not its heat.

What is so captivating about Robinson’s film is not just how he transforms music performance into mythic ritual, but how he does so by means of blocking the Christianizing at the heart the original narration. In an interview Robinson explains this decision as follows:

It’s all pulled from the YouTube channel of a Christian “prophet” from the southern US, who posts daily audio recordings of her visions and dreams. I love her voice, and her stories are beautifully deranged. I edited out all of the specific religious names and references (of which there are many) to retain just the fantastical, mythological elements of her storytelling.

It is as if Robinson is echoing the Egyptian priests in Plato’s Timaeus-Critias when they admonish Solon and the Greeks as nothing but children since their myths are relatively new compared to Egyptian lore. But how does this work with Tori Amos’ Crucify, does its translation into an 8-bit game-version strip the song of its Catholic-infused lyrics about self-sacrifice, sin and guilt? One answer is found not in Robinson’s Mad Ladders the film but in a collage named after another Amos song and included in the 2015 exhibition Mad Ladders exhibition at Carrie Secrist Gallery in Chicago.

Past the Mission is a 2D collage showing an accumulation of geological phenomena and architectural structures with a central smear of rainbow running down some stone steps. Writing about the song, Amos notes how it is about the choice to recover from the trauma of past sexual violence:

“Past the Mission” refers to a personal experience with sexual violence, which I had a song about on Little Earthquakes also. So, the remark ‘I once knew a hot girl’ is painful. Where’s she gone? On this record there are songs about the healing from that experience, like “Baker Baker” (‘Make me whole again’), “Past the Mission”, “Yes, Anastasia”. The idea is to rescue myself from the role of a victim. That I have a choice left. Though I can’t change what has happened, I can choose how to react. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being bitter and locked up. That’s also the thought behind the phrase ‘past the mission/I smell the roses’.

While Amos is looking back to the song Me and A Gun about being raped in Los Angeles at the age of 21, her description of victim-hood and being ‘locked up’ could also refer to religious abuse outlined in Crucify as well (“I’ve been raising up my hands/Drive another nail in/Just what God needs/One more victim). In fact, it seems as if Robinson’s collage takes its imagery from the music video of Amos’ Past the Mission. Set in what seems to be a Greek village, the video begins with Amos holding hands with two young women and walking from an open field along a dirt road. As the three begin walking through a town, other women join them in their march until there’s a large army of women, with the men looking on somewhat disturbed. Then the women are confronted by a male priest, who blocks their way in a narrow pass. In response the  women lay on the ground, the priest steps over them, joining the rest of the men in walking away.  The women stand up and continue their march, eventually finding themselves in the open field seen at the beginning of the video.

Robinson’s collage distills the action of the video into the village landscape and the path of the women as the rainbow smear.Going back to the film Mad Ladders, the closing sequence as the narrator describes the sun’s decent onto earth, we see a large group of women, joined together in a circle in a field (I am not sure where this comes from but it looks like a music video of some kind). This shift from the excessive theatricality of “live” music performance to the music video, brings us from the 8-bit Crucify to the Past the Mission video. In the process, Robinson follows Amos’ lead in transforming the mad hallucinations of a religious fanatic into an inspiring vision of collective action. Bypassing patriarchal, Christian oppression and reaching back to to a more expansive mythical imagery, we can better hear Amos’ May Day call to for her and her army to go ‘past the mission’ and ‘smell the roses.

You can catch Mad Ladders for the whole month of May in The Box at the Wexner Center for the Arts (link here).

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