Thursday, July 23, 2015

ACBA: Beck's Sea Change by Jeremy Blake

2002's Sea Change was Beck's 8th album, and first since the break-up of his long-time girlfriend stylist Leigh Limon. The sombre songs and more acoustic arrangements led to lowered commercial expectations, but strong reviews (Rolling Stone called it his best album and later one of the best of the decade) and a tour in which the Flaming Lips were both his opening act and backing band, helped the record reach number 8 on the Billboard chart. The disk was eventually certified Gold, selling approximately 700,000 copies in the US alone.

For the cover graphic, Beck commissioned artist Jeremy Blake to create four different images, overtop a portrait by Autumn de Wilde. Beck himself is credited with art direction. Blake's "digital paintings" also appear in the video for the lead off single "Lost Cause". Information about the collaboration is scarce, overshadowed by the story of Blake's death, and conspiracy theories that implicate Beck and the Church of Scientology.

Blake discovered the body of his girlfriend of twelve years, filmmaker and computer game designer Theresa Duncan, in their apartment on July 10th of 2007. The official cause of death was an overdose, assumed to be a suicide. Ten days later a woman called 911 to report a naked man walking into the ocean. Blake's wallet and clothes were found at the shore, alongside an apparent suicide note scrawled on the back of a business card: "I am going to join the lovely Theresa."

A fisherman found the 35 year old artist's body five days later. Blake's work had, at this point, already shown in three Whitney Biennials and had reached a larger audience via sequences he created for Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 film Punch Drunk Love, starring Adam Sandler. Duncan was 40 at the time of her death. She had also been featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, and had created three pioneering video games aimed at girls, one of which featured voice-over work by a then-unknown David Sedaris. Entertainment Weekly called it the "CD-Rom of the year" in 1995. Her writing appeared in Slate and Artforum and she penned a well-respected blog.

According to statements by acquaintances of the couple, Blake said that he and Duncan were being followed and harassed by Scientologists. He had reportedly amassed a 27-page "chronicle" of these allegations which he was preparing for a lawsuit he hoped to file. “I got the sense that they were genuinely afraid,” a friend told Vanity Fair, “It wasn’t just weird party conversation. There was a real fear there.”

The couple told friends of repeated late night phone calls, mostly hang-ups but sometimes ominous questions like “Did you have a good meeting today?”. They often spotted men watching them outside their house, or following them in cars. Duncan began obsessively photographing out-of-town license plates. One day while she was walking her Yorkshire terrier, a man approached and said, “What a sweet dog. It would be too bad if something happened to it.” Shortly afterwards they found a dead cat on their roof.

These intimidation tactics do not seem far removed from those later documented in Lawrence Wright's 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief and the widely seen HBO documentary of the same name, released earlier this year. But testimonials from neighbours and onetime friends also paint the couple as becoming dependent on alcohol and increasingly unhinged.

Duncan believed that Tom Cruise used his clout at Paramount Pictures to get her debut feature film Alice Underground cancelled. Beck had been set to star. Cruise is the highest profile adherent of the religion, and Beck is a second-generation member, as is his wife Marissa Ribisi (twin sister of actor Giovanni Ribisi). Beck's father, the Toronto-born composer and arranger David Campbell has been a member of the church for forty-five years. (Beck is also grandson to Fluxus artist Al Hansen).

“Beck and I met repeatedly to discuss the film,” Duncan wrote a friend, though the singer denied this in a Vanity Fair article (below): “We never met to discuss doing her film. I did read her script eventually.” He described his relationship with the couple as a "passing social acquaintance” in the article: “I met Jeremy in summer 2002 when we worked on the Sea Change artwork. After that, I saw him out a handful of times.… We exchanged occasional e-mails. The last time I heard from them was 2004.”

Photographs of Duncan, Blake, Beck and a pregnant Ribisi  relaxing on a Malibu beach might suggest otherwise. More troubling is an interview from August 2003, originally overlooked as it was published in Italian. Speaking with Sandra Cesarale, Beck spoke of a his forthcoming film debut:

"It will be full of energy and full of characters: some kind of Alice in Wonderland set in the 70s. It still doesn’t have a title. The director is a friend of mine and it will be her directorial debut. But I trust her. We will begin shooting in the Fall."

A film based on Alice in Wonderland, directed by a woman as her first feature certainly sounds like a description of Duncan's project. Beck has never acknowledged the discrepancies between the two accounts.

Another mysterious aspect of the story feeding the conspiracy minded is that the Vanity Fair article’s original author, John Connolly, was reportedly pulled from the story and replaced by Nancy Jo Sales, the ex-wife of Father Frank Morales, a friend to Duncan and Blake who was there when Duncan’s body was discovered. Connolly, an ex-NYPD detective and stockbroker, has subsequently been accused of covertly working on behalf of the church, infiltrating media outlets (for more, click here).

A season 18 episode of Law & Order was apparently based on the case (the Scientologists are replaced by a group called the Systemotics) and author Bret Easton Ellis was said to be writing a screenplay about their deaths, with Gus Van Sant attached to direct. More recently Italian-Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noé has been listed as the potential director. He is reportedly in negotiations with actor Ryan Gosling to star as Blake.

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