Monday, August 27, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 20, 2012 - Aug. 26, 2012


Statues Also Die (1953)


Déjà Vu (2006, Tony Scott), seen on DVD in Brooklyn, N.Y.
As I mentioned in my last log, this film seemed to be the one many Tony Scott fans cited as one of the late director's best, especially among his more recent (post-Sept. 11) work. Last Monday, I finally decided to check it out—and, while its first five minutes of portentous slow-motion and quick-cut montage gave me unwelcome reminders of the headache I had while watching his previous film Domino (2005), eventually Scott calms the jittery aesthetic down—or at least applies that aesthetic more judiciously afterward—and allows the romantic elements of this high-tech science-fiction riff on Vertigo to come to the fore. The last thing I would have expected to find in a Tony Scott film is something approaching a spiritual component to it, but seriously, there's real, multifaceted depth of emotion to Doug Carlin's (Denzel Washington) quest to try to go back in time and save a woman (Paula Patton) from being murdered. To Carlin, it's not just about saving this beautiful woman whom he hardly knows, but also doing something unprecedented for him as an ATF agent: stop a devastating criminal act before it happens rather than just picking up the bloody pieces afterward. Tony Scott's best film? I'd have to see the rest of his oeuvre to determine, but this is certainly the best film of his I've seen to date.

El Velador (2011, Natalia Almada), seen on DVD in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Here's the next blind spot I filled in thanks to the Slant screener-exchange program: a near-wordless, impressionistic documentary that uses one setting, a handful of people and a detached camera style to make a broader implicit commentary about the Mexican drug war. The "velador" is an anonymous (to us) watchman who oversees a cemetery full of drug-war victims, many of them given fancy burials/burial houses; director/co-producer/cinematographer/co-editor Natalia Almada observes him and a handful of others going about their daily routines at that cemetery: mopping up tombs, watering dirt, building new structures, etc. The drug war waging outside isn't seen up-close, instead remaining as background noise thanks to television and radio news reports glimpsed/heard on the soundtrack. And Almada often find bits of grim beauty in this particular milieu, with some breathtaking wide shots worthy of, say, Michelangelo Antonioni in L'Avventura. Even the one ray of hope towards the end—when reports that one of the main drug bosses has been killed in a gun battle—is negated in a subsequent scene, suggesting a never-ending cycle; in such a context, it's fitting that one of the film's final scenes is of the watchman watering the dirt in a seemingly endless long take. Socially conscious documentary filmmaking of the best (read: least didactic/preachy/polemical) kind, the strangely lyrical El Velador is definitely worth seeking out once (it played for a week-long run at Museum of Modern Art a while back, but will hopefully find its way to home video and/or television at some point).

Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch), seen at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y. 
You will all note that there is no designation of this being a second or third viewing of this film. That's because it wasn't. When I went to the Museum of the Moving Image to see this David Lynch classic on Saturday evening, I was seeing it more or less for the first time (I had seen bits of pieces of it beforehand on cable, but never the complete film). Now I definitely see the seeds of Twin Peaks planted in Blue Velvet, though I think Lynch went even deeper and darker with his stylistic and thematic concerns not only in that television series, but in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), with that final act that resolutely refuses any of the ironic distance between us viewers and the horror he depicts onscreen that marks, and arguably sometimes mars, Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks series. Blue Velvet is still pretty terrific, though—as much an essay on the dark allure of movies and movie-watching as it is about its more obvious subjects, the seedy underbelly of suburbia and Jeffrey Beaumont's (Kyle McLachlan) loss of innocence and recognition of violent inner impulses.

Statues Also Die (1953, Alain Resnais/Chris Marker), seen at Light Industry in Brooklyn, N.Y.
All the Memories of the World (1956, Alain Resnais), seen at Light Industry in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In honor of the late filmmaker Chris Marker, Light Industry—an independent organization devoted to screening avant-garde work here in Brooklyn—hosted a free day of screenings of all of Marker's films yesterday. Thanks to my day job, I was only able to check out these two early Marker collaborations with Alain Resnais (he's not credited as a co-director in All the Memories of the World, but he's nevertheless a major creative force behind it). But the combined 52 minutes of these two films managed to cram a lot more wit, intelligent provocation and insight than a lot of single feature-length works. In Statues Also Die, Resnais and Marker turn a celebration of African art into a pointed critique of French colonialism, addressing broader concerns about the changing meanings of art over time in the process; their subversive edge comes out in a different way in All the Memories of the World, a tribute to the Bibliothèque Nationale that pokes philosophical fun at the idea of an institution like that one housing pretty much all the memories of Western civilization, preserved for mass consumption and judgment by future generations. If La jetée (1962) and Sans soleil (1983) are anywhere as rich, heady, profound and funny as these two short essay films, then I'm already chomping at the bit to finally make their acquaintance.

You can find both of these shorts on YouTube, by the way: Statues Also Die here and All the Memories of the World here.

Bitte Orca (2009)


Bitte Orca (2009, Dirty Projectors)
Swing Lo Magellan (2012, Dirty Projectors)
Now I have finally reached the Dirty Projectors albums most people know and love—and yeah, Bitte Orca is as excellent as I'd heard, with Dave Longstreth effectively streamlining his experimental tendencies into more conventional song structures to fresh and exciting effect. The song in which the album's title is sung, "Useful Chamber," is one of the more joyous things I've heard from the band since maybe "Two Young Sheeps" from their New Attitude EP. I'm marginally less enthused by their newest album, Swing Lo Magellan, but it's still quite good. If nothing else, it has, in its last cut, "Irresponsible Tune," a short but touching celebration of music and art-making, with Longstreth singing,

Sing all day
Record and play
Drums and bass, and a guitar
Will there be peace in the world,
or will vile winds always own the truth?

The Roosevelts, seen live at 68 Jay Street Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This a Wall Street Journal co-worker's band; I found myself with a free night on Saturday, remembered the co-worker had invited me to this, and figured it'd make for reasonable after-Blue Velvet entertainment. They're mellow and all right. 

Study for Homage to the Square (Terrassed Foliage) (1960), Josef Albers


Robert Wilson/Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, seen at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York
Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture, seen at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York
Renaissance Venice: Drawings from the Morgan, seen at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York
Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper, seen at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York
I made my first-ever trip to The Morgan Library & Museum (which was once known as The Pierpont Morgan Library after its founder, J(ohn) P(ierpont) Morgan) mostly to see the Einstein on the Beach exhibit, which includes not only Robert Wilson's storyboards for the 1976 opera and projected video of rehearsal footage, but Philip Glass's complete score, from his own hand, encased all along the gallery's right wall. Because I studied music performance back in grade school, I have a natural curiosity as to what beloved pieces of music look like on staff paper, so seeing all the music of Einstein on the Beach right in front of my eyes was a pretty cool experience; hell, if I wasn't with a friend, I might have stayed in that gallery longer just to examine that score.

Naturally, though, a minimalist work begets a minimalist exhibition—so, in order to get our money's worth, my friend and I explored some of the other exhibits at The Morgan Library & Museum. One of the ones we took in was a show devoted to German-born 20th-century American artist Josef Albers, a show mostly featuring experiments he tried out while creating his famous Homage to the Square series (a bunch of paintings that mostly consist of bold colors juxtaposed within concentric squares). Seeing this in fairly quick succession after seeing the Einstein on the Beach exhibit was a surprisingly eye-opening experience; in fact, I might go so far as to say that Albers's abstractions of color and form in his paintings could be seen as echoed by Glass's abstractions of melody and rhythm in his music. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Summoning Up My Inner Schwartz in Writing About Spaceballs


My second contribution to The House Next Door's "Summer of '87" series is a look back at Mel Brooks's sci-fi/consumerist spoof Spaceballs—never a film I held in nearly the same esteem as a lot of my friends, and often considered one of Brooks's lesser comedies, but one that I found myself enjoying more than I remember doing in previous viewings. Maybe I was just in the mood for some dumb laughs that night—though, as I try to argue in my piece, not all of the jokes are dumb; some of them, in fact, do have a considerable edge to them.

You can read more here.

P.S. Just for kicks: Hey, all you fellow Generation Y-ers, do you all remember that ol' blog-hosting site Xanga? I had one of those things during my freshman year of college. It was during that year that I finally saw Spaceballs uncut and uncensored for the first time. Here's what I wrote then, for your collective amusement:

...Spaceballs was playin' in the Lounge on the big screen TV tonight. It was good to watch most of it unedited for the first time—but i still think a lot of it is just plain stupid. Frankly, though i enjoyed the musical of The Producers, i've never been a big Mel Brooks fan. The movie of The Producers was all right (more strange than hilarious to me, although the musical numbers were the best), and Young Frankenstein is his best spoof—but his comic timing is sometimes faulty, and seriously, he must take us for dumbasses if all he's done after Producers and The Twelve Chairs are dumb no-brainer spoofs, some mildly funnier than others. I dunno...i just prefer the ZAZ spoofs. You knowAirplane!, Top Secret!, and the Naked Gun series, and let's not forget Hot Shots! Part Deux...

Oh, I was so young then! But the fact that my 26-year-old self enjoyed Spaceballs far more than my 18-year-old self did...well, I'll let you all parse the implications of that yourselves. (That said, my take on the original 1968 Producers notwithstanding, I would say my views on Mel Brooks and ZAZ haven't changed all that much.)

Feel free to read that whole Xanga post, by the way, if you dare (and imagine me blushing while doing so).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Top 10 Films...Plus 10 More! Oh, And More Gushing About Playtime

NEW YORK—So, the pool of voters constituting two of the most prominent end-of-year online-only movie surveys—the Skander Halim Memorial Movie Survey, or "Skandies;" and the Muriel Awards, or "Muriels"—recently decided to team up and co-host their own Sight & Sound-inspired poll asking participating voters to contribute their own individual lists of 20 greatest films of all time, from which a larger list of 20 top vote-getters would be culled and presented at this site as part of "The Skuriels." As someone who has been a Muriels voter in the past, I was naturally asked to participate...and so I did.

Thus, remember that list of 10 I came up with for The House Next Door recently? I came up with 10 more to add to that! Check out my ballot four lists in from the top here.

And no, I am absolutely not kidding about my No. 20. I mean—I know it's become a cliché when picking out memorable moments from ZAZ's underappreciated follow-up to Airplane!, but if nothing else, this particular scene really is all sorts of comically inspired:

In addition, I was asked to write a little bit about my favorite film ever, Jacques Tati's Playtime, which ended up placing fourth in the Skuriels master poll. Little did I know that I would be sharing the same space with the one and only Jim Emerson, the esteemed film critic behind the consistently scintillating Scanners blog. That was cool. You can read both our tributes here.

Rhapsodies in August: Boozy Brunch on a Pier, Followed By a Walk on the High Line

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—"Brunch."

I've heard this word a lot, especially in New York, where a lot of people take the idea of weekend brunches seriously indeed, planning their Saturdays and/or Sundays around this middle-of-the-day cross between breakfast and lunch. Sometimes brunches in New York often include a certain amount of booze to go along with it—preferably something tropical like, say, sangrías or margaritas. And, of course, a brunch in New York ideally ought to have a social component to it.

Despite the fact that I've lived in New York for close to two years now, I have rarely taken part in this classic institution known as the "boozy brunch." So, when a dear grade-school friend of mine from East Brunswick, N.J.—now living in Singapore, currently visiting the United States with his girlfriend—told me he wanted to come visit me in New York on Friday, I figured I'd use this opportunity to not only partake in a "boozy brunch," but to finally visit yet another New York destination that I've only read/heard about previously: the High Line.

But first, food!

Well no, this isn't food; it's a picture of a ship, duh.

Way on the west side of Manhattan, a ship called the Frying Pan is docked. But this is no ordinary ship; this is one of 13 lightships that still exist in the U.S.—lightships being floating lighthouses that were meant to help other ships navigate at nights. After what some believe to be a broken pipe led the ship to sink sometime in the 1980s and spend three years at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, it was salvaged and restored to something close to its original appearance. It now rests at Pier 66 in Manhattan—and, most importantly, its bottom floor has been transformed into a popular bar/nightclub, one that many of my friends have visited but I had not.

I was hoping to be able to finally check out the Frying Pan with my two guests on Friday afternoon—but alas, the ship itself was closed for a photo shoot going on at the time. Still, I can't say I feel too disappointed; I ended up getting a chance to have one of those boozy brunches in the bar & grill situated next to the ship on Pier 66. And I mean, look at this view of the Hudson from where we sat!

And look at this dessert!

This is called a chocolate tuxedo bombe. It has strawberry sauce and blueberries on it. It was scrumptious.

Afterward, I convinced my friends to come visit the High Line. The High Line, for those of you non-New Yorkers who haven't heard about it, is basically a strip of former New York Central Railroad property that was recently converted into a linear park extending from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street. Again, I keep hearing great things about it, but hadn't checked it out at all until I got the idea to try to get my guests to come with me to visit it on Friday.

Actually, I only ended up walking about four blocks of the 16 or so that constitute the High Line—but hey, even within those four blocks, we were treated to sights like this...

Look at all these plants as we made our way up the stairs to the High Line itself!

...and this:

The High Line is known as much for the public art—including this face of a North Dakotan Native American courtesy of flypaper artist JR—that can be glimpsed along its linear path as for the green-filled path itself

And finally, two last photos of the High Line, just because:

Taken earlier in the day, just before I met up with my friends for brunch, this suggests something like a living canvas up on the High Line

A straight-ahead view of the High Line. Hey, look, my friends are right in front of me! Hi, Adam and Keren!

So those were my big non-cultural explorations this past weekend. What's next on my list? Heck, I don't even know that yet. I guess you'll all have to just watch this space, won't you? (If you care to do so, of course.)

Suggestions welcome, by the way.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 13, 2012 - Aug. 19, 2012: "RIP Tony Scott" Edition

NEW YORK—I was going to post this earlier in the day, as I usually do...but then, as I was trying to finish up this log late last night, news reports started coming in that Tony Scott had jumped off a bridge to his death.

Tony Scott, left, with Denzel Washington during the making of Déjà Vu (2008)

Despite a recent attempt in some critical circles to make a case for this filmmaker as a real auteur, not just a slick Hollywood craftsman (or hack, as some may more uncharitably label him), I'd never had an especially strong opinion either way on the films of the director of films as varied as Top Gun (1986), True Romance (1993), Enemy of the State (1998), Déjà Vu (2008) and many others. I remember hating just about every minute of Domino (2005), with its relentless ADD aesthetic and desaturated color palette, at the time, though I had read enough interesting defenses of the film that I was always curious to revisit and reassess. I loved his most recent film, Unstoppable (2010) (I expressed my giddiness toward the film here). And, for all its misogyny and nihilism, I've always harbored a sneaky affection for The Last Boy Scout (1991), a detective noir in the guise of an overblown Lethal Weapon-style action extravaganza. I still haven't seen either True Romance or Déjà Vu, two titles that many of the critics/cinephiles I read/follow on Twitter are citing as among his finest work. And whatever one may think about Scott's films, there's no doubt that, even as he continued working on a big, mainstream scale in his last decade, he remained as adventurous a filmmaker as ever, unafraid to challenge himself and push his style in new directions (for better or worse).

Details are still pouring in as to the circumstances surrounding his suicide. Whatever they are, though, this was really shocking and devastating to hear. My thoughts are with his family and relatives (especially his brother/fellow filmmaker Ridley).

RIP Tony Scott.


Nocturna Artificialia (1979)


Nocturna Artificialia (1979, Stephen & Timothy Quay), seen on DVD in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This Unnameable Little Broom (1985, Stephen & Timothy Quay), seen on DVD in Brooklyn, N.Y. 
Naturally, after seeing the Quay Brothers exhibit at Museum of Modern Art, I was curious to catch up with their short films, to see how all the designs and props featured in the exhibition were used in context. So, one night this past week, when I found myself with nothing else I was interested in doing, I watched their two earliest stop-motion-animated shorts, Nocturna Artificialia and This Unnameable Little Bloom. Actually, the latter film's full title is much longer: Little Songs of the Chief Officer of Hunar Louse, or This Unnameable Little Broom, Being a Largely Disguised Reduction of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Tableau II.  (Who knew the Quay Brothers had beat Fiona Apple in the extremely-long-title contest years before When the Pawn Hits blah blah blah...) No matter; I wasn't hugely taken with that one anyway. Nocturna Artificialia, on the other hand, is both confounding and haunting in its wordless, Surrealistic evocation of a man—given an appropriately gloomy-looking countenance—stuck in a rut while dreaming of leaving his home on a newly built tramline going through his town. More Quay Brothers shorts to come; until then...

Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog (2004, Yôichi Sai), seen on DVD in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This Japanese film got a small belated release here in New York a few months ago; I missed it then, but, thanks to a kind of screener-exchange program in which I'm participating with some of my fellow Slant Magazine contributors—with the purpose of filling in blind spots before best-of-year lists are due towards the end of this year—I finally caught up with it sometime this past week. 

As the title suggests, Quill charts the life of the titular dog, named "Quill" as the result of a birthmark he bears which looks like a quill feather. The U.S. title makes it sound like a nonfiction film; it's not, but it suggests the intriguing approach director Yôichi Sai takes with the material. Especially in the way the film is dominated by voiceover narration—first from the woman of a couple who trains him during his first year of life, then from the daughter of the blind man Quill eventually helps—the film ultimately comes off as an odd hybrid of educational documentary, Au Hasard Balthazar and Ikiru. Sometimes the approach is refreshing in its resistance of easy anthropomorphizing; about as often, however, Sai can't resist hitting sentimental, tearjerking notes hard. The thin characterizations don't help either, especially when the film gestures that we're supposed to be emotionally affected by what happens to these people/creatures towards the end (the rather insistent score by Kuricorder Quartet is the worst offender in that regard). Nevertheless, Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog—a film that is as much about making something meaningful out of one's life as it is about a cute guide dog who changes a stubborn owner's life—does have its genuinely affecting moments, and its sheer earnestness does count for something.

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966, Harold L. Warren), seen with live commentary from Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett at Regal Union Square Stadium 14 in New York
As someone who never watched Mystery Science Theater 3000 during the 1990s, and thus was not intimately familiar with the episode that introduced a whole new generation to the awesome terribleness that is Harold L. Warren's Manos: The Hands of Fate, I thus had no intention of seeing a theatrical transmission of the three MST3K guys—now doing their schtick as "Rifftrax"—doing a live encore Thursday of one of their most popular acts of snarky movie commentary. But then, on Thursday, one of my co-workers—who has quite the taste for trash cinema, and has talked about Manos every so often—mentioned that a friend of his had bought a couple of tickets to the event and now needed a +1. I didn't have any plans that night, so I figured, why not? Turns out, though, that this friend of a friend not only had bought four tickets, but also couldn't go himself—so, in an email, he asked me and another of his friends if we'd be willing to take the tickets off his hands. The other guy couldn't do it, so, in what I assume was a fit of desperation, he basically decided just to give the tickets to me, free of charge.

Hey, free tickets! Who wouldn't take advantage of that, right? Honestly, though, I did have my hesitations—not so much because I ended up not being able to find three people with whom to go see this (but then, I've had so little success soliciting company for just about anything on social media that I didn't expect anyone to bite from the outset, especially on such short notice), but because, after being mostly kind of bored by that supposed '80s trash classic Miami Connection when I saw it last month at New York Asian Film Festival, I had concluded that maybe fetishization of bad cinema just wasn't something I was into. Why would I want to waste my time watching a movie that I knew was going to be crap going in when I could be watching something that had a better chance of being at least interesting and possibly great?

But I eventually decided to go...and I guess being in the presence of Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett—all part of the MST3K cast back in the day—making all manner of wisecracks over a film as blatantly inept as Manos: The Hands of Fate will make the experience of sitting through even the junkiest cinematic trash heap tolerable. And boy, is this baaaaaad. Terrible acting (was John Reynolds's goofy limp as The Master's villainous henchman Torgo supposed to be, like, menacing or something?) with even worse post-synch dubbing of all the actors, a music score that's unbelievable in how inappropriate it is for a "horror" movie (think '70s hardcore-porno cheese), and some of the most incompetent bits of continuity editing I've seen in quite a while—yes, Manos really is as awful as its reputation. The brilliance of some of the MST3K boys' jokes lay in the ways they wittily highlighted why certain moments were bad rather than just indulging in above-it-all snark; to my surprise, the commentary actually did add a weird sort of value to the whole experience. But I guess that was what Mystery Science Theater 3000 did best.

Manos: The Hands of Fate is indeed the worst film I've ever seen (and by the way, no, I still haven't seen anything by Ed Wood). In that sense, this was some kind of landmark of sorts. More to the point: I actually enjoyed watching it! But then, I had a lot of help in making the experience of it enjoyable. Maybe I need the MST3K guys to provide voiceover commentary for every bad movie I see. Well anyway, moving on to good movies now...

Cosmopolis (2012)

Cosmopolis (2012, David Cronenberg), seen at Walter Reade Theater in New York
And yes, this adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2003 novel of the same name is quite good—to my mind the most vrai Cronenberg film since he went "accessible" with A History of Violence back in 2005. That said, for those of you who may have been put off by the overly talky nature of his last film, A Dangerous Method, you won't find much relief here...and if you don't warm to the oddball cadences of Don DeLillo's highly stylized dialogue coming out of these characters' mouths, you may find parts of Cosmopolis to plod as much as A Dangerous Method occasionally did. This, however, is a much more surreal picture in its details: The rear-projection Manhattan glimpsed during the first interior shot inside Eric Packer's (Robert Pattinson) limo, coupled with the utter lack of background noise other than the sound of the actors' voices, indicates early on that this won't be taking place in any recognizable "reality" by any means. And as Packer makes his long, strange trek across town just so he can get a haircut, the episodes get—to borrow a Lewis Carroll-ism—curiouser and curiouser.

Here, finally, are the glints of Videodrome-era madness that I thought had been near-subsumed by the more "respectable" Cronenberg of his recent films. But all of his usual themes are here: the war between total intellectual control and darker inner emotions, bodies turning on the humans housing them, and so on. To those themes, Cosmopolis adds heavy doses of deadpan black comedy and a financial-crisis-allegory angle; as Packer experiences the meltdown of his financial empire in the back of that limousine, the world around him—which he barely recognizes in his singularly insular existence—seems to be falling apart in a sea of Occupy Wall Street-ish anarchy. All of this builds up carefully to a final confrontation between Packer and a former employee of his (Paul Giamatti) that is one of the most gripping sequences I've seen in a movie all year.

So overall, I liked Cosmopolis; it's quite possible I may fully love it on a second viewing. Oh, and how is Robert "Edward Cullen from Twilight" Pattinson in this, some of you maybe wondering? Well...let me put it this way: He can certainly do dead-eyed soullessness quite well.

Le Jour se Lève (1939, Marcel Carné), seen at Film Forum in New York 
Ah, Jean Gabin: so masculine yet so sensitive, a man's man with the heart of a romantic. Of course, the world doesn't always operate the way the characters he plays in movies like this or, say, La Bête Humaine and Grand Illusion think they should. So it goes with François (Gabin), the metals worker who falls for one woman, Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent); carries on an affair with another, more experienced and world-weary woman, Clara (Arletty), even though he still has his heart set on Françoise; and finds himself opposed by jealous Valentin (Jules Berry), the unsavory MC who runs a dog show featuring both Françoise and Clara, and who has carried on relationships with both of them. Quite the series of romantic entanglements, that! Within the complicated plotting, however, Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert—both more widely known for teaming up to make Children of Paradise (1945)—successfully manage to evoke all sorts of nuanced emotions and broader themes underneath the surface melodrama. It's a deeper film than it at first appears—and it's all capped off by one hell of a final shot uses gunsmoke and a ray of sunlight to beautifully evoke the bleak "daybreak" of the title.

In My Head (1985)


Slip It In (1984, Black Flag)
Loose Nut (1985, Black Flag)
In My Head (1985, Black Flag)
None of the songs on these three albums match the sheer blazing energy of Damaged (1981), but that assumes that Black Flag intended to make the same kind of album as their debut in the first place. Actually, as Henry Rollins, Greg Ginn & co. waded deeper into the 1980s, the tempos became slower, the songs got looser (giving Ginn more opportunities to simply improvise and riff) and the lyrics became more introspective in nature. I can't say that I'd play these albums as much as I would Damaged, but there are plenty of fine moments in all of them, especially in those two '85 albums.

Rise Above (2007, Dirty Projectors)
After my detour into Black Flag, I finally decided to listen to this album of covers of 11 Black Flag songs from Damaged. None of these covers sound anything like the originals, so give Dave Longstreth & co. points for at least being imaginative. But why does "Depression" sound so damned happy? Why does "Thirsty and Miserable" sound anything but? Those are among the many questions this album inspires. An, um, interesting try, I guess, even if it mostly left me baffled. Oh well; Bitte Orca—the Dirty Projectors album everyone seems to know and love, anyway—is up next.

William Baziotes's The Beach (1955), featured in Whitney Museum of American Arts' Signs & Symbols exhibition


Signs & Symbols, seen at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York
Oskar Fischinger: Space Light Art—A Film Environment, seen at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York
I found myself with oceans of free time on my hands on Friday afternoon, and since I found myself in the Upper East Side at the time, I decided, on the spur of the moment, to wander over to the Whitney and check out whatever exhibits I had missed since the last time I was there. Mostly, I wanted to catch up with German-American artist Oskar Fischinger's trippy three-screen multimedia projection Space Light Art (1926), which initially caught my interest not so much for its visual qualities as for the snatches of Edgard Varèse's Ionisation I heard coming out of the screening room. Ionisation is actually a fitting piece of background music for Fischinger's work; like Varèse's blast of nonmelodic percussion noise, Space Light Art works on a purely abstract level, blasting its bright colors and ceaselessly reconfiguring geometrical shapes at you in a 10-minute loop. It's a pretty cool experience if you're willing to fully submit yourself to it.

Space Light Art also fits in well with the exhibit right next to the screening room on the second floor, a large-in-scope show entitled Signs & Symbols devoted to showcasing the work of many post-World War II American artists—heavyweights like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Louise Bourgeois, among plenty of others—who dealt with visual abstraction partly in response to the rampant consumerism of the 1950s. But this isn't just another exhibit devoted to Abstract Expressionism; there are also works by other lesser-known American artists that show off a more concrete sensibility—like William Baziotes's ocean landscapes, for instance, or the Asian-language-inspired pictograms in the work of Bradley Walker Tomlin. Regardless of historical context, the exhibit, taken as a whole, is intriguing enough to the eye to sharpen one's awareness of the awesome power of suggestion symbols have in evoking all sorts of different meanings and connections.

I did also spend some time on the third floor checking out this show devoted to a previously unknown-to-me artist named Sharon Hayes. I'm a bit hesitant to say too much about it now, mostly because I feel a repeat visit might be beneficial to my formulating a more completely informed take on her work based on the exhibit. For now, then, all I'll say is that I found her multimedia explorations of the political and the personal to be intellectually intriguing (there are film installations, audio installations, pieces of performance art, photographs and even signs and posters included in this show) and sometimes genuinely poignant, and, based on what I've seen, I'd say it's worth a visit. More details later, I hope.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thinking Like a Director in the Documentation of One's Own Life

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—One byproduct of having so many easily accessible forms of media at our disposal every day is that we sometimes find ourselves making decisions as to which form is better at capturing a given moment in our daily lives. Or, at least, I do.

This past Sunday offered a case in point. The Dominican Day Parade was held here in New York on Sunday, and it proceeded up Sixth Avenue, past my office building. And certainly no one who was working at the News Corp. building that day could avoid hearing the festivities outside; that's how raucous it was. But hearing the din from my indoor aural vantage point was nothing compared to stepping outside my office and experiencing all that noise blasting into my face, as occurred when I went out to grab some lunch.

Here's where the personal decision-making came in. I wanted to capture a sense of this scene and share it with all of my Twitter followers/Facebook friends, so I instinctively took out my iPhone and took a photo. But then I realized that no photograph, however lively or colorful, could do justice to just how loud it was out there. So, after I had grabbed my lunch, I took out my iPhone again and, while walking past the parade on the way back to my office, shot this video:

I think that better captures the moment, don't you? (I didn't keep the photo I took, in the interest of saving space on my iPhone.)

There have been other times, though, where I went the other way and settled for still images rather than videos. Back in June—on June 20, the day of the summer solstice, to be exact—Times Square was transformed into a massive yoga studio of sorts, with four 90-minute sessions scheduled throughout the day for yoga enthusiasts all over the city could participate. I didn't participate, but I did drop by during the last session of the day to see what it was like. Again, I wanted to share what I was observing with friends online. To that end, I snapped these photos:

Then I thought about whether taking some video might further enhance my audience's sense of the scene. I did shoot one, actually, but I wasn't satisfied with the result (I think it was just a matter of me just missing an exciting moment before I turned my iPhone camera on and not finding anything of much interest subsequently). In the end, though, I decided that those photos above were enough to convey at least a measure of the sheer vastness of the scene; there wasn't anything about the event that I thought was special enough to lend itself exclusively to video. (The only thing I wish I had on hand, really, was a panoramic lens that would have done an even better job of capturing the full breadth of the army of yogis doing their thing in Times Square. I could have given even that old French filmmaker/madman Abel Gance—in Napoléon mode, of course—a run for his money in the widescreen-panorama department!)

Even when sticking with one visual medium, however, there are possible choices to be made thanks to phone applications and such. Consider Instagram. Instagram, for those who don't know much about it, is an app that allows users not only to share photographs they take on the go with their smartphones, but also to apply filters to give your photos a special look to them; one could theoretically make your photos look much older than they actually are, for instance. Many friends of mine add a filter to just about every single photo they take. I, however, tend to be more selective. So sure, an image of Sailboat Pond in Central Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon arguably deserves to be enhanced a bit with a filter, as this one was...

...but I'm not so sure even the snazziest filter could turn this trash heap into gold:

Yes, this is the desk of an editor with whom I work at The Wall Street Journal. This is probably not the messiest state in which it's been seen.

In our media-saturated world, and with social media seemingly inspiring all of us to turn our lives into entertainment to share with the masses, the choices which face us all as far as how we engage in this public documentation are seemingly limitless. Have any of you dear readers ever found yourself having these kinds of private debates about the best way to capture a real-life moment in digital amber, so to speak? If so, I'd love to hear your stories in the comments section!

(Of course, one could also simply give all this digital and social media the finger and just, you know, live life in the moment. There's that option, too.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Rhapsodies in August: Stepping Foot Into Citi Field For the First Time Ever

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This past Friday, I filled in one more recreational blind spot by taking a trip to Citi Field for the first time ever to watch the New York Mets take on the Atlanta Braves.

From the 7 train to the stadium

Actually, this technically wasn't my first time at Citi Field. On Oct. 30, 2010, I was one of many who went to Citi Field early in the morning to take a bus provided by Arianna Huffington to head over to the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert-hosted "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" in Washington, D.C.—but I never actually went inside the stadium. On Friday, I finally went inside.

It is indeed quite the beautiful ballpark—not that I have much context when it comes to U.S. ballparks, being that the only previous ballpark I've been in was the old Yankee Stadium maybe 10 years ago to see a regular-season Subway Series (New York Mets vs. New York Yankees, for those of you outside of New York) game. But, I mean, I think these photos speak for themselves:

Our view from the Left Field Landing

The much-maligned Jason Bay. Well, at least he made one or two good defensive plays

The much more celebrated David Wright on the plate. Unfortunately, he hit into an inning-ending double play at this at-bat. It was just one of those nights for the Mets.

Time to stretch!

As for the game was nothing if not brisk (it ended up lasting about 2½ hours). But then, that's because the Mets managed to muster up just about no offense against Braves pitcher Paul Maholm. The Braves ended up shutting out the Mets, 4-0.

If it was me 10 years ago watching this game, I might have cared more. But my days of carefully following professional baseball pretty much ended when the Mets started to suck after the hope they instilled in fans with their World Series appearance back in 2000. Maybe one of these days, I'll actually get back into baseball.

For now, though, I'm at least grateful to have finally gotten a chance to check out Citi Field. I hope it won't be the last time!

Certainly, I hope it won't be the last time I get to do this there:

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Sound of My Voice...On a Podcast


I've always thought I expressed myself much better in writing, with time to collect my thoughts, rather than in person and off the cuff. So when my friend Peter Labuza—a fellow cinephile and talented up-and-coming critic in his own right (he blogs here)—invited me to be the featured guest in the third episode of his new podcast The Cinephiliacs—well, I didn't hesitate to say "yes," and going into it, I think my excitement about just being asked to be on the receiving end of an interview overrode whatever personal anxieties I might have had going into the recording process.

After we were done recording the episode, though...oh boy. Fellow journalists might know of a certain regretful feeling that I've sometimes gotten after conducting an interview: that gnawing feeling that comes with the realization of questions not asked, lines of questioning not pursued and so on. On the receiving end of an interview, though, it became a question of things not said or things I wished I had articulated better. In this particular case, for instance, after I had finished recording the podcast with Peter, I immediately regretted not mentioning one of the most important film critics in the development of my cinephilia when he asked me which film critics I read early on: Jonathan Rosenbaum, he formerly of the Chicago Reader and without whom I may never have even heard of the likes of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Béla Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami and many other world-cinema juggernauts. I guess that kind of thing is what happens when I try to shoot from the hip rather than at least do a bit of preparation.

Oh well. Maybe, in my earlier and more insecure years, I might have taken this as a sign to never voluntarily do another one of these kinds of podcasts again. These days, though, I'm more inclined to just take it in stride, as yet another feather of life experience to put in my figurative cap. Hopefully I will have another opportunity to do something like this in the future.

In the meantime...well, the third episode of The Cinephiliacs is out there—or, more precisely, here—for all of you to listen to, if interested. (You can go even further and subscribe to Peter's podcast on iTunes here. And if you like what you hear, by all means, kick in a few dollars through PayPal here to support the podcast.) Any and all feedback—for both of us, really—is welcome!

Artistic Consumption Log, Aug. 6, 2012 - Aug. 12, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—As you all can see below, I didn't listen to a whole lot of music this week. Blame it on my current earbuds breaking apart and me waiting to receive a new pair. In the meantime, though, I made a lot of progress on the book I'm currently reading: J. Hoberman's The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (2003), the "prequel" to his recent work of cultural film history, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War (2011). So far, if anything, I'm finding The Dream Life even more eye-opening and immersive than the later work. I'll have more to say about it when I finish it.

Oh, and I finally went to see a New York Mets game at Citi Field on Friday night! You will all be able to read more about that in an upcoming post. For now, onto the latest log:

Walkabout (1971)


Fallen Angels (1995, Wong Kar-Wai), seen on Blu-ray in Brooklyn, N.Y. [umpteenth viewing]
There is a specific reason why I watched this film again, and you will all find that tomorrow (if you haven't figured it out by following me on Twitter). Yes, it's still awesome.

Walkabout (1971, Nicolas Roeg), seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York
Honestly, for me, the greatness of this film lies mostly in its editing. Roeg's gorgeous images—which he shot himself—are certainly a major draw, bringing a near-psychedelic vibe to the story. But it's the montage Roeg employs—courtesy of editors Antony Gibb (who also edited Richard Lester's 1968 film Petulia in a somewhat similar manner) and Alan Pattillo—that lend the film its substance, with all sorts of juxtapositions suggesting the themes of maturation, colonialism and urbanization that distinguish this classic of Australian cinema. Rich and heady, it's a film that made me want to watch it again immediately just to parse its formal choices and pull them all together in my mind.

Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven), seen at Film Forum in New York [second viewing]
Yes, folks, you read that right: I saw a new digital restoration of this Arnold Schwarzenegger-led big-budget studio sci-fi epic in, of all places, that art-house institution Film Forum. Now, there's a clever bit of counter-programming against the current Len Wiseman version in theaters right now. I've always liked Paul Verhoeven's earlier version, but before this latest screening, my enjoyment of it stemmed mostly from the increasingly over-the-top action—hey, I do have macho tendencies that I need satisfied every once in a while—as well as for its impressive production design and special effects. Of course, being that it is a (very free) adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall always had those tantalizing undercurrents of ambiguity as to how much of what we were seeing onscreen was real and how much was part of Douglas Quaid's packaged memories; for some reason, though, only on this second viewing did I focus more on those ambiguities, infecting even the most excessively violent of scenes (case in point). If this is the kind of vacation Quaid desires, then he's welcome to it—but man, what a decadent macho fantasy it is! But then, that's the kind of having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too irony Verhoeven did best.

Easy Money (2010, Daniel Espinosa), seen at Film Forum in New York
Adapted from a novel by Swedish writer Jens Lapidus, Easy Money spins a three-stranded narrative which portrays an every-man-for-himself milieu and the ways three specific characters handle themselves within that world. Two of the characters—Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) and Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic)—are already knee-deep in it but trying to get out in their own ways; the other, JW (Joel Kinnaman, whom American audiences will know from AMC's The Killing), has stumbled onto this environment while trying to climb the social ladder and finds himself going in far deeper than he anticipated. None of this is exactly fresh thematic territory, but Espinosa's film distinguishes itself by virtue of its ambitious reach and the intensity of the performances, all of which combine to successfully refresh the familiar crime-drama elements. For a narrative as complicated as this one, Easy Money turns out to be more involving as a human drama than one might expect. It's a solid effort overall.

Setting up for Franz Schubert's Octet in F major at Alice Tully Hall


Messiaen: Le merle noir (1951) / Jonathan Harvey: Bird Concerto with Pianosong (2001) / Schubert: Octet in F major (1824), performed by Joanna MacGregor (piano), Jayce Ogren (conductor) and International Contemporary Ensemble live at Alice Tully Hall in New York
Inspired by Mozart's apparent fascination with a pet bird he once owned, this year's Mostly Mozart festival has been putting an emphasis on the music of birds. Fitting, then, that Olivier Messiaen—a 20th-century French composer who was obsessed with turning birdsong into actual music, among other things in his creative life—would figure into this year's edition, especially with the International Contemporary Ensemble in residence. But Messiaen's short but lovely flute-and-piano work Le merle noir—"The Blackbird" in French—was hardly the centerpiece of the night's event; in fact, it acted as a mere prelude to British composer Jonathan Harvey's 35-minute Bird Concerto with Pianosong. Yes, you read that right: It's not Piano Concerto with Birdsong, it's Bird Concerto with Pianosong. There's a piano, yes, but it acts as a musical sidekick to the recorded bird sounds that figure heavily throughout the work. Harvey's work goes even further than Messiaen's in trying to translate birdsong into music, creating a whole symphonic environment, by turns ethereal and ominous, out of both recorded sounds and piano transcriptions. The overall feeling is akin to floating in the air, taking in whatever seemingly random sonorities pass us by; Bird Concerto with Pianosong is actually very John Cage-like in that way. Whatever one ultimately thought about the piece itself—and I admit, it did try my patience at times—there was no doubt about the brilliance of Joanna MacGregor's performance, playing both the (seemingly very difficult) piano part and a keyboard of bird sounds at the same time.

What Schubert's Octet was doing in the second half of this program supposedly devoted to birdsongs, I'm still not quite sure; I didn't hear anything in it that sounded much like birds to me. That conceptual stumbling block hardly detracted from a very fine performance of a very charming piece. I had never heard this famous chamber work before, but after Harvey's seemingly endless parade of atonal noises, Schubert's Octet felt almost like a soothing balm, from its idyllic second-movement Adagio to its infectious third-movement Scherzo, and from the theme and variations of its fourth movement to the highly dramatic slow introduction that opens its rollicking finale. The eight International Contemporary Ensemble members performing this piece seemed to truly enjoy making music with each other up on that Alice Tully Hall stage—I could tell, since I was sitting a mere three rows from the front—and that energy showed in music-making of the first order.

The Quay Brothers (photo credit: Mariusz Kubik)


Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets, seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York
I've only seen Stephen and Timothy Quay's two feature films, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream That One Calls Human Life (1994) and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005); I remember finding them a bit tough to take at feature length, but there was no doubt that they were the work of filmmakers that, for once, deserved the label "visionary."

Seven years on, here is a Museum of Modern Art exhibition devoted to this filmmaking duo—and it is an impressive one, seducing us into the haunting worlds that these filmmakers have created in their work, laying out their influences—Polish animated films among them, most interestingly—and giving us a sense not only of the development of their distinct sensibility, but also the various ways they have expressed it: not only through their films, but also through album and book covers; and even through the occasional television commercial. Much of the work inspired in me a kind of exhilarating sense of disbelief: How did these guys come up with this stuff? Not that I wasn't already interested in seeing the rest of the Quay Brothers' work, but this exhibit certainly has me impatient to finally do so.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Rhapsodies in August: Walking Along the Old Croton Aqueduct

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—In the midst of what turned out to be a busy, busy July, I resolved to make August not only a month of (some) rest, but also one in which I would de-prioritize artistic consumption somewhat in favor of indulging in different forms of recreation: hikes, walks in the park, trips to the beach and so on. As I thought more about this idea, I started to realize that, even though I've lived in New York for close to two years now, there were a lot of things that I still hadn't done. New York has a lot of beaches, for instance, but for the most part, I haven't gotten around to visiting any (well, other than that one time I dared to go to Coney Island on New Year's Day of this year to participate in the annual Polar Bear Club swim). Same with the High Line, Governors Island, Citi Field, City Island, and so on and so forth.

So I'm declaring that August will be the month where I make an effort to fill in some of these recreational blind spots. And since I have this blog, and since this blog is called My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, I figure I might as document some of these explorations here—for your entertainment, I guess.

First on my list: going upstate to do some nature-walking, which is exactly what I did this past Saturday, taking a Metro-North train to Tarrytown, N.Y., in order to do some hiking along the old Croton Aqueduct Trail. (I got the idea from this article from the site, by the way.) Armed with two bottles of water, sunscreen lotion and an umbrella (weather reports had indicated a chance of rain that day), a friend and I braved hot and humid temperatures and lots of sweat in order to walk five hours, more or less, from Tarrytown to Yonkers along the trail of the old Croton Aqueduct—New York's main source of clean drinking water from the completion of its building in 1842 to 1959.

Along the way, I took a handful of photos on my iPhone:

Tarrytown claims Legend of Sleepy Hollow author Washington Irving as its native son; thus, you'll see evocations of Sleepy Hollow every so often—like here!

We had to go through the grounds of Lyndhurst Castle—the hunk of awe-inspiring Gothic architecture you see above—to get onto the trail. It was very much worth the detour, though!

There was a short side trail at a certain point called the "Quarry Lane Trail"—taking you to a stone-arch bridge underneath the Aqueduct that still stands today—that we decided to check out. Somewhere around there, this photo was taken (hi, Mónica!).

For all of our effort and strain—plus an annoying bee sting for me—we were rewarded with this shimmering view of the Hudson River overlooking the Greystone Metro-North station. All in a day's work—or, rather, walk!

What will my next recreational adventure be? You will all just have to come back and find out, now won't you?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Propaganda With Kid Gloves


Theodor Herzl and children, in 1900

My latest review for Slant Magazine is of It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl, a biographical documentary about the founding father of Zionism. Having not heard much about Herzl going in, I found Richard Trank's film duly informative as a teaching tool; otherwise, I found it pretty much a snooze formally/aesthetically, and some of its gestures—a sentimental Lee Holdridge score, a lack of interest in addressing the more recent complexities of the Israeli-Palestine conflict—betray a pro-Israel bias that undercuts its pose of academic detachment. Really, you could just read the Wikipedia page about Herzl and pick up most of what Trank and co-writer Rabbi Marvin Hier show us in their film—and I bet you'd probably get a less blinkered view of things.

If you're still interested in the film, it begins a theatrical run at the Quad Cinema in New York Friday and some other theater in Los Angeles starting the Friday after.

Monday, August 06, 2012

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot...

NEW YORK—Last week, cinephiles all over the world waited with baited breath for the unveiling of the latest best-films-of-all-time poll held by the British film magazine Sight & Sound, held every 10 years since 1952. Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) had stood unchallenged as the top vote-getter since 1962 (Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1947) was the victor of the inaugural Sight and Sound poll); would it hold onto its reign at the top this year?

Nope, it turns out.

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) became the new champ this year, at least in the critics' poll, leading to all sorts of triumphant hurrahs as well as the usual contingent of dissenters. (In the directors' poll, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) emerged No. 1, with Vertigo placing seventh.)

As everyone was trying to weigh in on this supposed seismic shift in critical opinion, The House Next Door, the blog offshoot of Slant Magazine—both of which feature my own pieces of film criticism—began a new series in which it offered up the ballots of those contributors who had not been asked to participate in the Sight & Sound poll. My own ballot went up yesterday, for those who are curious as to what I consider my personal Top 10. It's not entirely the straight-from-my-gut lineup that my introduction suggests; I did engage in some contemplation over my choices. But all of the films I list have had some kind of profound effect on me in some way, as I tried to describe in each entry. So I'm happy with this list (though, of course, I'm hardly bound by this particular personal canon, reserving the right to alter it at the flip of a switch if I felt like it).

You know who else was happy with this list? A certain legendary film critic who, among other things, I met last year at a festival bearing his name, if this tweet from him is any indication...

Artistic Consumption Log, July 30, 2012 - Aug. 5, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—As ever, there is no real theme underpinning any of the art I consumed this past week, so...I'll just get right into it.

The Wolf Man (1941)


The Wolf Man (1941, George Waggner), seen at Film Forum in New York
Just as Lon Chaney Sr. elevated the otherwise shallow spectacle of Rupert Julian's The Phantom of the Opera back in 1925, Lon Chaney Jr. does the same for The Wolf Man, which, outside of his lead performance, is fairly workmanlike as filmmaking (a far cry from, say, the expressionism of a James Whale or a Karl Freund). What Chaney brings to his performance as Larry Talbot—the earnest and slightly immature main character who gets bitten by a werewolf late one night while trying to save from danger a woman, and thereby becomes a werewolf himself—is a pathos that lends the film a certain tragic weight by the end. He basically is, as the repeated saying in the film goes, "a man who is pure of heart" who just gets really, really unlucky; Chaney sells this premise in his own deliberately awkward, lumbering and oddly charming way. I never found this film to be especially scary or even disturbing, but by the end, I found it strangely affecting as a character drama.

Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970, Jerry Schatzberg), seen at Film Forum in New York
On the opposite end of the spectrum from The Wolf Man, there's this film: Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow auteur Jerry Schatzberg's debut feature, and a work that is a brilliant piece of filmmaking that I found rather less involving as a character drama. Basically, it's about a fashion model (Faye Dunaway) whose personal traumas—obliquely suggested, never fully explained—lead her to a bunch of meaningless relationships while much of the rest of the people she deals with on a daily basis treat her as just a glamorous object to be commodified. The "puzzle" in the title is apt. Schatzberg recounts her tragic story in an Alain Resnais-inspired fractured storytelling style that switches back and forth between flashbacks and dream sequences without always making it clear where reality ends and her delusions begin. The subjective non-linear storytelling was certainly enough to keep me on my toes even as my interest in the supposedly tragic plight of this "little girl lost" admittedly waxed and waned. But at least there's the spectacle of seeing Faye Dunaway at her most neurotic, impassioned and beautiful to keep one's eyes glued to the screen.

It is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl (2012, Richard Trank), seen on DVD in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This is just some documentary about the founding father of Zionism, opening soon at Quad Cinema in New York, that I agreed to review for Slant Magazine. It's...fine, I guess. More soon.

It Could Be Good, It Could Be Bad (1997/2011, Robert Gardner), seen at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y.
Baraka (1992, Ron Fricke), seen at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y.
Despite Baraka's high reputation, I found this much-lauded experimental documentary to be, as the saying goes, "a mile wide and an inch deep." For those who haven't heard about Ron Fricke's film: Baraka is a wordless, non-narrative documentary that tries to encapsulate, well, the world, more or less, in all its splendors and horrors. In a film like this, footage of a Balinese tribe engaging in a monkey chant coexists with time-lapse footage of people moving around in urban environments. Some of the Eisensteinian montage is fascinatingly suggestive: Fricke's juxtaposition of that time-lapse footage with discomfiting images of baby chicks on a conveyor belt may well be the closest the film ever comes to offering genuinely provocative food for thought. Mostly, though, Baraka is a travelogue that thrusts all sorts of images of global cultures, landmarks and natural events without ever once evincing even the slightest interest about what it shows beyond some banal "we are one" sentiments underpinning it all. For all its undeniable visual splendors (though some of it might have been more awe-inspiring if Michael Stearns's droning New Age-y soundtrack didn't seem to work overtime at certain points to tell us how awed we're supposed to be), its sheer superficiality eventually became grating. Pairing this with a documentary short from ace ethnographic documentarian Robert Gardner does Fricke's film no favors; if you've seen stuff like Gardner's Dead Birds (1964) or Forest of Bliss (1986), you'll recognize a genuine curiosity about these exotic cultures that Fricke is hardly interested in tapping.

Still, even as I didn't entirely warm to Baraka, I am glad to have been able to see it in a theater in an astonishingly pristine 70mm print. If nothing else, Fricke's film is best experienced in a theater, where its meditative qualities would come through more clearly. Fricke's long-awaited follow-up to this film, Samsara, is set for a theatrical release soon; I'm hoping for something more revelatory.


New Attitude (2006, Dirty Projectors)
Either I'm finally seeing the light with this widely celebrated indie rock band, or the band is finally settling into a relatively more accessible idiom. In any case, this half-hour EP features probably the most fun track Dave Longstreth & co. had put out up until that point: "Two Young Sheeps," a concert version of the earlier "Two Sheep Asleep" that features extended improvisations and a general sense of sheer fun missing from a lot of their previous music.

Their next album, Rise Above, is a collection of covers of songs of Los Angeles 1980s punk-rock band Black Flag...which leads me to...

Damaged (1981, Black Flag)
My War (1984, Black Flag)
Family Man (1984, Black Flag)
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised so many of my friends expressed disbelief when I told them I was diving into the music of Black Flag, considering how much I've focused mostly on classical music in recent weeks/months. Apparently, though, I need an occasional dose of invigorating speed and noise just to switch things up. Not that speed and noise is all Black Flag is; there's real wit to their music and lyrics as well. Witness, for instance, "TV Party" from their first full-length album Damaged: a theme-and-variations tune that wrings a lot of ironic humor out of the simple situation of a group of people looking forward to watching their favorite shows on television one night. (The payoff to this is very much worth waiting for.)

Henry Rollins, Greg Ginn & co.'s next two albums are wildly mixed bags: The second side of My War is a dreadfully boring mess; Family Man throws spoken-word cuts and instrumentals into the mix, with mixed but fairly interesting results. Damaged, however, is a stone masterpiece.


The Martian Chronicles (1950, Ray Bradbury)
Yet again, a major artistic figure had to die before I was finally inspired to check out that late artist's work (don't get me started on avant-garde filmmaker Chris Marker; I hadn't even gotten around to opening that Criterion La Jetée/San Soleil DVD before he died on Monday at 91). Not that I hadn't read anything by Ray Bradbury before he died recently; I read Fahrenheit 451 (1953) years ago; and I vividly remember the aching regret that ended his short story "All Summer in a Day" (1954), which I read back in sixth grade. But only after Bradbury's death did I finally get around to reading The Martian Chronicles, which is ostensibly a novel but is more accurately a collection of vignettes that, together, tell a story of imperialism on an interplanetary scale, one that eventually comes back to haunt the invading earthlings big time. The vignettes, however—many drawn from short stories previously published in magazines—touch upon all sorts of grand subjects, from religion to slavery; if anything, Bradbury, through the prism of science fiction, is far more successful than Ron Fricke in Baraka in encapsulating something close to an entire world, bringing the transformative intelligence of a real artist to the mix, using the material to both directly and poetically comment on matters pertaining to the world in which we all live.

I had also forgotten just how colorful and evocative his prose could be. I mean, right in the first chapter, his description of a so-called "rocket summer" is one to savor:

And then a long wave of warmth crossed the small town. A flooding sea of hot air; it seemed as if someone had left a bakery door open. The heat pulsed among the cottages and bushes and children. The icicles dropped, shattering, to melt. The doors flew open. The windows flew up. The children worked off their wool clothes. The housewives shed their bear disguises. The snow dissolved and showed last summer's green lawns.

Rest in peace, Mr. Bradbury.

The setup of The Murder of Crows


The Murder of Crows (2008, Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller), seen (or, rather, heard/experienced) at Park Avenue Armory in New York
If you spend as much time sitting in movie theaters as I do, sitting in a room listening to what is essentially a glorified radio play might require a considerable mental adjustment. At least, that's the way I felt coming upon this new sound installation from Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, both of whom have apparently been working on sound installations for most of their creative lives (this new installation of theirs at Park Avenue Armory represents the first time I've heard of either of them). Ultimately, though, I think it was worth making that adjustment in this particular case.  

The Murder of Crows is a 29-minute sound installation that is essentially a succession of dream sequences, tracing an arc from gruesome industrial and wartime nightmare to a calm but still unsettled peace. All of these dreams are recounted from a gramophone speaker placed on a table in the middle of the Armory's Wade Thompson Drill Hall; 98 speakers surround this table. That's pretty much it. And yet, through those 98 strategically placed speakers, Cardiff and Miller's many sonic and musical effects richly resound throughout the hall. Industrial noises shudder throughout the whole venue, waves crash throughout all 98 speakers—and yes, crows do seemingly caw throughout the entire space. The dim lighting of the venue adds immensely to the surreal, haunting effect.

What does all of this add up to? A disillusionment with the supposed "progress" of the 20th century, perhaps? Cardiff and Miller's "sound play" keeps things abstract enough that we can take away from this work whatever we want. Mostly, I enjoyed The Murder of Crows simply as a piece of sonic sculpture, imposing enough to be truly immersive in the moment. (It runs until Sept. 9.)