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Phase' features new score, reworked dialogue

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Every true film fan is well-acquainted with the theoretical game of giving a movie flop a mulligan by re-imagining the work with tweaked cast lists, reworked story lines or even a major overhaul that might salvage an otherwise interesting premise.

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A recent incursion by six-legged invaders into the home of Brian Hearn inspired the curator of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art's film program to turn the mind game into a multimedia performance piece. Hearn has remixed the 1974 sci-fi flick "Phase IV" with live actors and new soundtrack for a live cinema event titled "Phase V," to be shown 7:30 and 9 p.m. Friday at the Mainsite Contemporary Art gallery in Norman.

"It all began with a couple ant invasions I had in my home this spring," Hearn said. "It was particularly bad this year. I woke up one morning with ants in my toothbrush, and I found that really horrifying."

For him, the image brought to mind "Phase IV," which depicts super-intelligent ants on a mission to wipe out humanity. Hearn said the film was a little too "brainy" for the standard sci-fi fan and was difficult for its studio to promote, politely implying that the movie wasn't particularly well-paced.

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"Phase IV" was the one-and-only feature directorial effort from Saul Bass, who won an Academy Award his 1968 documentary "Why Man Creates." He is best known for his avant-garde title sequences on pictures such as "The Man with the Golden Arm," as well as for allegedly co-directing the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." Although "Phase IV" has its problems, Hearn said that the film's imagery, particularly the microphotography of the ants, was impressive, and he connected with its theme.

"The story of these two scientists resonated with me and it got me interested in re-editing the film to get down to the nitty gritty of this conflict between man and ant," he said.

Hearn said he was inspired by an international movement flourishing online where movies and open-source material are re-appropriated as a way for professional and novice filmmakers to experiment and sharpen their skills. As a film historian, he saw the project as an opportunity to reintroduce an obscure film last presented to American audiences via an ignoble inclusion in a 1989 episode of cable TV's cult comedy series "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

"The movie had really great imagery, so I wanted to achieve two things," Hearn said of the remix. "One is to streamline the narrative and really focus on the conflict between the scientists and the ants, really play up that chess match. Also take out a lot of onscreen dialogue to emphasize the visual elements of the film. It features a lot of great microphotography of the ant kingdom, which is really beautifully shot and lit. It gives a sense of how intelligent the ant species is."

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Hearn has dubbed the project "Phase V" because the original movie was cut, edited and reworked so much that it almost became a new movie. The audio from the film has also been scrapped in favor of an original score by Norman musician Brad Fielder of Anvil Salute, which will be performed Friday and synced live with the film.

The majority of the original dialogue will be omitted, but three characters with speaking roles remain in the remix and will be voiced live by other actors, which Hearn said gives the performance a bit of a "radio drama" feel.

Fielder, who has scored his own short films in the past, jumped at the chance to work on the project. He said he has long wanted to create a live cinema soundtrack.

"Silent film accompanist is my dream job, even though it's outdated," he said. "I would love to be an organist or piano player in the hall while the movie is going, any kind of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin slapstick comedy."

For "Phase V," Fielder said he has to tread a fine line of playing up the 1970s sci-fi mood without falling into farce and eclipsing the movie's more cerebral qualities.

"It is an early-'70s science-fiction movie, so it will be really heavy on synthesizer and dramatic hits, orchestra smashes," Fielder said. "I won't be able to do the orchestra smashes like I'd like to, but I'll throw a couple in there. I'll try to keep it true and not let it devolve."

Hearn has also worked to ensure the audience won't perceive his remix of the Bass film as any kind of slight on the man's talent. He wants to balance the admittedly campy elements of the original movie with a genuine appreciation of the filmmaker's eye for stunning imagery.

"I really want this to be a tribute to Saul Bass," Hearn said. "I certainly don't think I can make a better film than Saul Bass, but some of the stuff in it is quite humorous. The best way I can think of this is the drive-in movie remixed in an art gallery. If people laugh at it, that is perfectly fine. That is part of the fun." 

Phase V screens at 7:30 and 9 p.m. Friday at Mainsite Contemporary Art, 122 E. Main in Norman.

"?Charles Martin

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