November 25, 2011
Rarely do performances transcend the quality of the movie they appear in. In My Week With Marilyn, Michelle Williams accomplishes that feat while taking on the persona of the iconic screen legend Marilyn Monroe.
Though director Simon Curtis makes the bold move to start the film with Williams performing “Heat Wave,” it takes the film awhile to rise above the dull overtures setting up the appearance of Monroe at the heart of the film’s drama, which includes the showy prelude. Great, Williams does her own singing. She also captures Monroe’s mannerisms. It almost comes across as a campy impersonation. But I blame the over-reach of the director. The redeeming factor is the inkling of sincerity in Williams’ eyes and a subtlety in her gestures that manages to rise above the din, including Monroe’s exaggerated curves.
The movie is based on the book The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me: Six Months on the Set With Marilyn and Olivier by Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne in this film version). Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) hired him as third assistant director in the UK-production of the Prince and the Showgirl, the 1957 comedy directed by and starring Olivier.
Clark would never go on to much success beyond his role in this movie, but apparently, according to his book, he had a unique and close relationship with Monroe during the production. Hired as a newbie assistant at Olivier’s production company he was entrusted to make sure Monroe appeared to the set on time. The film opens and closes with Clark’s voice-over, as if lifted from the book, which was based on a diary he kept while the film was in production. It’s all young, naive high hopes and aspirations, as he lucks into following through a foot-in-the-door opportunity to make it in the picture business.
There is much build up to Monroe’s appearance in the movie. Characters constantly repeat her name. There are slow motion shots of her, flash bulbs from paparazzi fill the screen and corny orchestral music. It could be camp were it not so sincere. The film has a made-for-TV quality, and it is no wonder, as Curtis only has made movies for television up until My Week With Marilyn. The film is a by-the-numbers drama, and it is ultimately up to Williams to perform the heavy lifting to help the film rise above the material.
The drama finally begins to transcend the tropes when Monroe appears on the London set of the film for her first day of work. With her method acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), wife of Lee Strasberg, who popularized Stanislavski’s acting system in Hollywood, at her side, Monroe comes across as something much less iconic and much more human. Strasberg treats Monroe like some strange exotic creature who needs special handling to tap into the emotion necessary for her role. It annoys Olivier to no end, and his reaction rattles Monroe’s already frayed nerves.
With Clark in-between, who Monroe latches on to like some human security blanket, the drama finally begins to soar. The relationship endangers Clark’s budding romance with a wardrobe girl (Emma Watson) and Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), but it never comes across as some torrid love affair. Clark clearly becomes infatuated, but Monroe seems to be wanting to reach out for humbling human contact in an almost desperate manner.
Meanwhile, Strasberg’s smothering attention adds another layer of powerful tension and contrasts the vulnerability and pathos Williams brings out of her version of Monroe. She seems tortured by the weight of words from Strasberg like, “You’re the greatest actress that has ever lived.” An insecurity conflicted with her awareness of having to be “on” as the living alter ego that is Marilyn Monroe (she was born Norma Jeane Mortenson, after all) even while trying to shop in the streets of London. She seems worn and frayed.
Only Clark seems to calm Monroe. Tense with the pressure of Olivier’s demands to show up on time at the set and remember her lines, she looks to Clark for some emotional relief. The moments they share reveal the deeper drama in the story and a humanity that more often than not eludes celebrities. After all, these people do not only act in movies, they all take on personas for the press and the public. Monroe knew this well, and it weighed on her. Williams wears the weight dynamically, from her flirting with reporters at a press conference to her quiet solitude locked in her hotel room strung out on pills. When Olivier openly whines about her needs to emotionally prepare to act as dictated by the method, it hurts Monroe. Clark tells her, “You’re the future, and that frightens him.” It’s a line that resonates with relief of understanding, encouragement and pressure, and a line that indeed defined Monroe far beyond her short life.
My Week With Marilyn is Rated R and opens today at select theaters.
November 23, 2011
Pink Floyd has seen quite a resurgence in interest these past couple of years. Since the blog began, I have referenced them often. There was the amazing Dark Side of the Moon cover album headlined by the Flaming Lips (Flaming Lips’ brilliant take on Dark Side of the Moon). Then Roger Waters began his global tour where he performed the Wall in its entirety (Waters’s ‘the Wall’ live cements theme with vivid production). Now comes a comprehensive campaign reissuing and remastering the band’s entire back catalog, including some insanely thorough box set treatments for several albums.
Earlier this month, EMI Records continued its “Why Pink Floyd?” campaign with its second “immersion” box set, the five-disc CD/DVD/Blu-ray of Pink Floyd’s 1975 masterpiece Wish You Were Here (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). On Black Friday, indie record stores will offer an exclusive 7-inch vinyl box set of the singles spawned by that other masterpiece by Pink Floyd, 1979′s the Wall, thanks to those Record Store Day people (Here are a couple of indie stores in my area that should be carrying it: Radio-Active Records and Sweat Records). That album will also receive the “immersion” treatment in February of next year (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).
Already available are a couple of compilations, an immersion set for Dark Side of the Moon (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon), not to mention vinyl versions of the albums selected for the immersion sets already out or yet to be released. Then, of course, there are the individual remastered albums issued on CD. Frankly, the immersion sets with all their subtle variation of the same album are quite overwhelming to a casual Pink Floyd fan, such as myself. For instance, check out the details on Dark Side of the Moon (copy and pasted from Amazon’s description):
DISC 1 – CD 1:
The Dark Side Of The Moon digitally remastered by James Guthrie 2011
The Dark Side Of The Moon performed live at Wembley in 1974 (2011 Mix and previously unreleased)
DISC 3 – DVD 1, ALL AUDIO:
- The Dark Side Of The Moon, James Guthrie 2003 5.1 Surround Mix (previously released only on SACD) in standard resolution audio at 448 kbps
– The Dark Side Of The Moon, James Guthrie 2003 5.1 Surround Mix (previously released only on SACD) in high resolution audio at 640 kbps
– The Dark Side Of The Moon, LPCM Stereo mix (as disc 1)
– The Dark Side Of The Moon, Alan Parsons Quad Mix (previously released only on vinyl LP/8 track tape in 1973) in standard resolution audio at 448 kbps
– The Dark Side Of The Moon, Alan Parsons Quad Mix (previously released only on vinyl LP/8 track tape in 1973) in high resolution audio at 640 kbps
DISC 4 – DVD 2, ALL AUDIO VISUAL:
-Live In Brighton 1972:
Careful With That Axe, Eugene (previously unreleased on DVD)
Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun (previously unreleased on DVD)
-The Dark Side Of The Moon, 2003 documentary (25 min EPK)
-Concert Screen Films (60 min total):
British Tour 1974
French Tour 1974
North American Tour 1975
Screen films play in stereo and 5.1 Surround Sound
DISC 5 – BLURAY, AUDIO+AUDIO VISUAL
-AUDIO: The Dark Side Of The Moon, James Guthrie 2003 5.1 Surround Mix (previously released only on SACD) in high resolution audio at 96 kHz/24-bit
-AUDIO: The Dark Side Of The Moon, Original stereo mix (1973) mastered in high resolution audio at 96 kHz/24-bit
-AUDIO VISUAL: Live In Brighton 1972:
Careful With That Axe, Eugene (previously unreleased on DVD/BluRay)
Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun (previously unreleased on DVD/BluRay)
-AUDIO VISUAL: The Dark Side Of The Moon, 2003 documentary (EPK)
-AUDIO VISUAL: Concert Screen Films (5.1 Surround Mix):
British Tour 1974
French Tour 1974
North American Tour 1975
-AUDIO VISUAL: Concert Screen Films (High Resolution Stereo Mix):
British Tour 1974
French Tour 1974
North American Tour 1975
DISC 6 – CD3:
-The Dark Side Of The Moon 1972 Early Album Mix engineered by Alan Parsons (previously unreleased)
– The Hard Way (from ‘Household Objects’ project)
– Us And Them, Richard Wright Demo (previously unreleased)
– The Travel Sequence, live from Brighton June 1972 (previously unreleased)
– The Mortality Sequence, live from Brighton June 1972 (previously unreleased)
– Any Colour You Like, live from Brighton June 1972 (previously unreleased)
– The Travel Sequence, studio recording 1972 (previously unreleased)
– Money, Roger Waters’ demo (previously unreleased)
40 page 27cm x 27cm booklet designed by Storm Thorgerson
Exclusive photo book edited by Jill Furmanovsky
27cm x 27cm Exclusive Storm Thorgerson Art Print
5 x Collectors’ Cards featuring art and comments by Storm Thorgerson
Replica of The Dark Side Of The Moon Tour Ticket
Replica of The Dark Side Of The Moon Backstage Pass
3 x Black marbles
9 x Coasters (unique to this box) featuring early Storm Thorgerson design sketches
12 page credits booklet
When I first saw those details my head began to hurt. This is clearly designed for the certain Pink Floyd fan in mind. In this post you will learn I am not that kind of fan (though maybe I am for David Bowie). Still, I do take Pink Floyd’s influence on popular and alternative music seriously. I even have a deep affection for much of their output. I can also get pretty passionate about which records in the Floyd canon matter.
My awareness of the band started in the late seventies, on local FM radio but also on the TV show I used to love as a kid: “WKRP in Cincinnati:”
Having watched that clip as a little, elementary school kid, it stuck with me and probably even informed the sort of music appreciator I am today (thank you, Dr. Johnny Fever). As the punk rock scene emerged in the same country that spawned Pink Floyd around that time, Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten lumped them in his “boring old farts” category. Dance crazes from pogoing to disco to techno came and went. Yet, Pink Floyd continued to matter. If progressive rock ever had a figurehead it would be Pink Floyd. But the Floyd also transcended that genre by finding a presence on the pop charts and even influencing “progressive” musicians of today. Just listen to the birds and acoustic guitar that opens Radiohead’s “Giving Up the Ghost” from their new album the King of Limbs. Pink Floyd did something similar on “Grantchester Meadows” from 1969′s Ummagumma. Today, these reissued albums are at the upper parts of the selling charts on Amazon.
Yes, this is some popular music, but Pink Floyd attained this popularity by maintaining an independent ethos many bands and musicians of their stature have never been afforded. They made albums with entire sides of one record dedicated to a single song and still made a lucrative impact on the music charts. Most recently, they famously fought against allowing iTunes to sell single songs out of context of an album.
This band is an independent force, whose creativity reshaped the popular music world. With this recent re-release of the Pink Floyd catalog, remastered by James Guthrie, Pink Floyd’s engineer since the Wall, I’ve spent several weeks re-experiencing the entire catalog. It gave me a chance to really go back and spend time with some albums I have not heard in years and some I’ve also never grown tired of, not to mention a few surprises I have never given a chance. But, I’m not oblivious to the fact Pink Floyd also brewed up some dull work that never totally clicked, be it in a stretch to find their elusive greatness in some of their early albums to their post-Wall implosion.
It was not until the Shine On box set saw release in 1992 that I actually gave Pink Floyd any space in my music collection. I had just begun writing music reviews in ‘zines and my college paper, not to mention spent a fair amount of time as DJ and later program director and my college radio station. I felt obligated to get to know this band. The packaging of Shine On— though pricey for an undergrad— was impressive, and I had a friend who worked at a Sound Warehouse who could buy it for me with his employee discount.
The collection contained a selection of key albums, promoted as their best works by those who compiled the set. The band was officially involved, but it did not include Roger Waters any longer, who famously sued or tried to sue the remaining members for continuing on as Pink Floyd without him. This bias is apparent in the album choices featured in the set. Like most, I recognized its short-coming in including the post-Roger Waters album, 1987′s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, over the band’s Syd Barret-led debut full-length, 1967′s Piper of the Gates of Dawn (guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour had yet to join Pink Floyd). I still got into all the albums inside, very gradually, except for parts of Momentary Lapse of Reason, which still has a dated eighties-era quality and lacked the odd flavor Waters brought to the band. I still own all those versions of the albums, though the outer box wore out practical use over the years, but at least the spines of the CDs look cool lined up on the shelf, as seen in the image below:
Now, having finally spent time with the entirety of Pink Floyd’s catalog (all 16 full-length albums, including the soundtracks for two Barbet Schroeder films: More from 1969 and Obscured By Clouds the soundtrack to his 1972 film the Valley), a more complete picture comes to light of the band, not to mention some of the clear improvements in the sonics of these albums. Of course there will also be naysayers and purists who will protest any tinkering to the original releases (some people want to hear tape hiss in the music, which I think is just as bad as hearing surface noise on vinyl). But, when you listen to this new 2011 version of the Wall and can clearly make out words that sounded a bit indecipherable in earlier releases, you know something was done right in the remastering process. On the con side of this new remaster of the Wall, cues for “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2″ and “Young Lust” will not please many who want to isolate those tracks for whatever reason. Then again, this is a concept album that deserves a full contextual listen.
Speaking of the Wall, the first Pink Floyd album where Waters wrote all the lyrics, one new observation I made of his choice lyric pattern became apparent while hearing “Mother” from that album, “Brain Damage” from Dark Side of the Moon, “Wish You Were Here” from the album of the same name and “If” from Atom Heart Mother (maybe others?). He changes the number of syllables per line every so often and ever so slightly in an odd but still rhythmic pattern that bolsters the impact of his words, which are often very self-reflexive, tortured and existential. It clearly makes him the stand out lyricist of the band.
Pink Floyd’s great Waters-penned songs, however, only adds to the disappointment of 1983′s the Final Cut, where Waters entirely took creative control, leaving the other band members with almost bit parts, equivalent to the components of the National Philharmonic Orchestra featured throughout. Subtitled “A Requiem for the Post War Dream by Roger Waters” on the back cover, this album was to be a sequel to the Wall, where Waters bemoans his lot in life, growing up fatherless in post-war 1950s England. But he also stretches into the then current Cold War era of politics and society in the wordy album, where more is just too much, detracting from Waters’ strengths as a lyricist. Its ambitious and falls flat. Again, sonics are improved throughout, which does great justice to much of the subtlety of the album’s softer moments, as well as the many bombastic ones. Waters’ scream in “The Gunner’s Dream” bleeds into the screech of saxophone seamlessly. Though again, the effect can sound a bit over-the-top, typical of the entire album.
Listening to all these albums, reveals the fine line Pink Floyd often walked that frequently dipped into greatness. Atom Heart Mother‘s single-track A-side, the 24-minute “Atom Heart Mother Suite” reaches too hard, plodding along with its overly dramatic horns, obtrusive samples and Gilmour’s bored strumming. But then, just a year later comes “Echoes” on the B-side of Meddle. The orchestrations are gone and the band has found a place for some evocative lyrics. “Atom Heart Mother Suite” has its moments, especially during its middle guitar vs. organ jam and the softer, creepier chorus of voices. However, the grooving in it never comes close to the dynamic quality of “Echoes.” That track knows how to start soft and build dramatic crescendos with just the key players that are Pink Floyd: Waters on a soulful, solid bass, Gilmour soaring on guitar while breezily singing lead, keyboardist Rick Wright offering luscious, swinging organ bits, and drummer Nick Mason providing his decorative, scatter shot rhythms. One of Pink Floyd’s less celebrated apexes in the recording studio. I love the fact that a tremendously shot live version was caught on film for one of the most amazing Pink Floyd live videos available, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (though the Meddle version eclipses its performance power):
I can go back and forth about where Pink Floyd succeed (Animals is a tight, powerful concept album) and stumble (Most of the noodling on the studio album of Ummagumma goes nowhere and sounds like the soundtrack of a psychedelic B-grade horror movie). However, I cannot fail to pay tribute to the presence of Syd Barrett in the band’s early career. Like Waters, he too seemed obsessed with the subject of the mind and perception. Maybe it was the acid, but his lyrical contribution comes from a world beyond Waters’ depressed realm. No one could capture the “Twilight Zone” quality of Barrett’s words, from the opening lines of the opening track on Pink Floyd’s debut full-length, 1967′s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn: “Lime and limpid green a second scene/A fight between the blue you once knew” to the closing lines of the final track of the final Barret/Pink Floyd album, 1967′s A Saucerful of Secrets: “And the sea isn’t green/And I love the Queen/And what exactly is a dream/And what exactly is a joke.” Barrett would go on to be institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia, the result of his well-known abuse of LSD, and then die whilst living at home with his mother in 2006 of complications from diabetes. Barrett was a living legend, madness personified, yet he seemed in tune with the greater mystery of existence in this universe that few know and understand.
I barely found a blemish in the results of the remasters. Though, as noted, the new remastering process has made some of the blemishes of Pink Floyd’s catalog pop, like Gilmour’s aforementioned languorous strums in the “Atom Heart Mother Suite.” For every such moment, there is the redemption of hearing all of the fervor of Gilmour’s playing in the guitar solo of “Money.” However, on the live disc Ummagumma some tape hiss remains (it becomes most apparent during the hushed opening of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”), and some of the audience applause comes across flat and trebly. Still, the performance, for the most part, never sounded cleaner. These four tracks almost sound like studio outtakes. Tape hiss is an inherent problem for many pre-digital albums released on CD. With A Saucerful of Secrets, I noticed less tape hiss in this new version of the album as opposed to the 1992 remaster from the Shine On set, however. It has been cleaned up so well, that I can finally hear the slowly swelling and throbbing minor key drones beneath the quiet din that opens the title track. That part of the track never stood out until now.
It is hard to cover all 16 of these gloriously remastered works in one blog post, and this has probably gone on long enough. So one last note: for those seeking key bonus tracks, none of the albums have been marred in flow with tacked on studio outtakes or live versions, except on supplemental discs on two albums selected as “experience” versions. Particularly outstanding is the complete live version of Dark Side of the Moon at Wembley Arena in 1974 in the “experience” version of that same album.
There is also the “experience” version of Wish You Were Here, featuring an early live version of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” also recorded in 1974 at Wembley. Though labeled as Parts 1 – 6, it is actually nearly finished up to Part 8 (the studio album is book-ended with “Shine On (Parts 1-5)” and “Shine On (Parts 6-9)”). Even more interesting are lengthy embryonic live versions of “Sheep” and “Dogs,” from the 1977 Animals album, presented alternately as “Raving and Drooling” and “You Gotta Be Crazy,” recorded at the same show.
Though I turned on to Pink Floyd later in my life as fan of alternative and progressive rock, I had been keenly aware of them on the radio as a kid. Later on, I could also always count on a few teenage friends who either had Floyd in their collection, if not their parents. Like the Beatles, I took them for granted, but I never failed to recognize their important role in the history of popular art rock. The mass of their work reveals a few bumps in the road, but they indeed merit this broad remastering treatment by EMI.
Note: EMI provided review copies of all the 2011 remastered CDs for the purposes of this post.
November 15, 2011
Lars von Trier‘s Melancholia touches on humanity’s existence in relation to the universe by taking an intimate approach to drama. It’s a refreshing twist on the end-of-the-word disaster flicks that often feel superficial and unsatisfying in a junk food way after the end credits. At the same time, von Trier shows a movie need not sacrifice impressive special effects when considering the intimate approach. Dazzling scenes of what seem to be the last seconds before annihilation bookend the film. In effect, the encounter with the sublime in Melancholia is probably more powerfully felt than in many end-of-the-world sci-fi movies that came before it. It comes close to the feeling of the starchild approaching earth in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but only comes close.
At the heart of this movie is the relationship between two sisters: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Love and tension between the two shift and flip at Justine’s wedding, which takes up the first half of the movie, and during the pair’s waiting as the cataclysmic inevitable approaches, during the second half. A series of luscious, vibrant shots in extreme slow-motion, kick off Melancholia. The images shift almost as slowly as clouds billow and morph in the sky while the mournful prelude of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolode” churns on the soundtrack. At the center of the images are the emotionally wound up Justine, her supportive sister Claire and Claire’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr). All are outside the property of a fancy mansion by the shore as the gigantic planet Melancholia creeps on its collision course with Earth (there are also dazzling cutaways to space). Everything seems frozen in the last seconds of earth’s demise, and the dragging pace opens the film up for contemplation. One sister enjoys these last moments of life with wonder while the other suffers in helpless horror. It is one gorgeous, meditative moment after another that encapsulates the extreme reactions one must expect when the entirety of planet earth is about to be consumed by another planet, which will probably continue drifting through space, leaving no trace of this world’s inhabitants and their history. Utter oblivion of not only the present, but also the past and any hope of the future, as well.
The opening images have a dream-like quality. In fact, during her wedding reception, Justine references the image of tree roots dragging her down, which appears during the film’s prelude. This may seem like a flash forward to the world’s end, but it is actually the weight of the universe Justine feels as she battles depression. It just happens to look the same as the end of the world imagery that closes the movie.
Throughout her post-wedding celebrations to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at the sprawling country manor, Justine seems depressed beyond hope, moping throughout, avoiding the cake-cutting with a dip in the tub, not to mention having sex with one of the guests she only just met. As the movie progresses, she gets so down in the dumps that her sister must even bath her. But then the planet Melancholia approaches, growing bigger in the sky, prepared to not so subtly put her out of her misery, and she finds peace. She bathes in its glow at night, lying naked by a creek like some melancholic form of lunatic (surely the pun is intended). Now, the rested Justine must soothe her panicked sister who has a growing son and supportive husband (Kiefer Sutherland).
It’s a bit over-the-top, as one can expect by the leading pessimist of cinema. Von Trier has been quite vocal about his battle with depression, stating not only was this film his way of channeling his depression in a productive manner, but also his previous film, Antichirst, which dealt with a couple coping with the loss of their toddler son in an accident. In that film, Gainsbourg played the demented woman while her psychologist husband (Willem Dafoe) tried treating her during a retreat in a cabin in the woods. She would end up castrating him with a piece of lumber and snipping off her own clitoris. Von Trier has no comfort in the subtlety of anguish.
Therefore, it feels right that the only relief a character like Justine finds from her depression is in the impending doom of the planet earth. But it’s also a tad ego-maniacal. Where does that leave the more centered Claire when faced with the end of her life, not to mention that of her husband and child? Here von Trier’s loses his way. He is so fond with exploring the darkness he cannot see the light in anyone that might be happy. So, of course, in von Trier’s world, the mentally sane people, content and invested in earth’s continued existence, go insane. It makes for a tiresome second half of a two-hour-plus movie. Part 2, lacking in the dynamic action informed by Justine’s acting out at the wedding, and the messed up characters that parade through, including her colorful parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), becomes a bit dull and redundant. Claire now has her turn to melt down while Justine becomes some distant, crazed shamanistic enigma who suddenly finds peace. It’s no wonder Dunst won the best actress award at this year’s Cannes for her role and Oscar buzz has followed. The same was not said for Gainsburg or even the director. It’s a fault in an otherwise luscious film to watch. Yet it is still a big fault worth noting, as the film’s second half dwells on for too long. Key to any good movie is a story the viewer must feel invested in, featuring characters showing some depth, but this seems to disappear during the second half in a manner not worth spoiling in a review.
Beyond Dunst’s acting (it is also known that she too, like the director, suffered from a depression so profound she needed in-patient therapy, though she is not as vocal about it as the more shameless von Trier: read this interview). Ultimately, there is no denying the power of the simplicity in von Trier’s stylized imagery that opens and closes the film, however. His intentions are also solid, though his ego gets a bit in the way, but I feel inclined to forgive him that thanks to the character of Justine and Dunst’s portrayal of her.
Melancholia is rated R and premieres in South Florida Thursday, Nov. 17, at 7 pm at UM’s Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables featuring a discussion between a distinguished panel and members of the audience following the screening. It also opens Friday, Nov. 18, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at 6:25 p.m. and O Cinema in Miami at 7:30 p.m.
November 13, 2011
A rare opportunity to see a nice part of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s work in a revival art house setting is underway in— of all places— Miami Beach, Florida. In a bold move of programming, the Miami Beach Cinematheque, is presenting select pictures by Kaurismäki throughout the month of November under the banner of “Helsinki Cowboy.” So far, I have caught the career-defining Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) and his latest, 2011’s Le Havre. Both distributed by Janus Films, the label behind the Criterion Collection home video series. As can be expected from Janus/Criterion the films indeed justify a theatrical setting, as the images are impeccable from the hi-def projector of the MBC.
Beyond the wonderful images, the films reveal a heartfelt yet serious director with a droll comedic bent. Later films to be screened during this retrospective include The Man Without a Past (2002). It was a breakthrough work that saw distribution in the US by Sony Pictures Classics and earned the director an Oscar nomination in the foreign film category. His follow-up, Lights in the Dusk (2006), will also screen. That film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival upon its release. Also screening before the movies are several Kaurismäki-directed music videos featuring the Leningrad Cowboys, the stars of Leningrad Cowboys Go America.
Thanks to my family in Finland, I had heard of Kaurismäki, especially his fictionalized band of “musicians,” the Leningrad Cowboys, who apparently were a regular fixture on the MTV of that part of the world in the early nineties. Because of Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, the band that played the titular group was eclipsed in popularity by the fictional band of the movie. The Sleepy Sleepers would then carry on as the Leningrad Cowboys, thanks to the notoriety of that film. Below, see a clip of the Sleepy Sleepers only a year before the theatrical release of Leningrad Cowboys Go America, at a music festival:
Their look would become more uniform for the Kaurismäki film. Defined by a style that seemed to parody that of classic fifties-era American rock ‘n’ rollers, with exaggerated pompadours, pointy shoes and sunglasses, the “group” played over-the-top rock, that would fit comfortably in the rockabilly resurrection and ska sounds that were part of the late seventies and early eighties. It was fitting that their sound was 10 years behind the trend yet still fit in well with then modern, western acts like Fishbone and Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who also resurrected the sound in the nineties alternative rock era.
Though Finland is Scandinavian and democratic, the implication was that this fictitious act came from the backwoods of Siberia. Kaurismäki introduced the “band” as some strange crossover vessel of cold war eastern European culture adapting to the growing pop culture of the West, as the iron curtain began to crumble in the late eighties. The film where this group made its debut offers a hint of the director’s quirky cinematic style as it was blossoming. He has an amazing deadpan sensibility, like a bitter, old Wes Anderson who still has a vague sense of what it was to be young and naïve.
The movie opens with the group of musicians, who seem to be the only inhabitants of some odd Siberian village, where the locals are defined by conical pompadours and pointy shoes (even a baby has a tall, triangular tuft of hair sticking up from out of the top of a crib). The band performs oompah-like music in a ramshackle shed to someone who appears to be a record label executive. After the music comes to a screaming halt, the band members stare in anticipation at the A&R rep who pauses to puff from a cigarette. “Shit,” he states. “No commercial potential. Go to America. They like all kinds of shit there.”
The band indeed head to America, rolling out of their village on tractors, dragging their frozen stiff bass player in a poor man’s coffin, his pointy shoes and pointy hair sticking up through the planks of wood. Following false promises of playing Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium by their shifty manager, they hit the road for a fantasy trip across the music landscape of the USA with Jim Jarmusch handing them the keys to their banged up wheels (two musicians need to sit in chairs in the open trunk of the old sedan in order to fit in the car, the bassist in his coffin strapped to the roof).
These characters arrived at the final warming of the cold war. Though Finnish, they clearly reference the chilly, stark distance of Mother Russia. With mostly deadpan presence, they crunch out driving rock tunes at an array of dive bars for change. It’s decades of repression taking its first baby steps to find a way to express itself. Though the Leningrad Cowboys find some love in New Orleans, the band only seems to reach some level of success after playing a wedding in Mexico. Leningrad Cowboys Go America was an odd introduction to what would turn out to be a seminal work by Finland’s auteur. A love of old time rock ‘n’ roll and the driest, drollest sense of humor clash in an almost surreal way.
Though the Cowboys was a breakthrough movie for Kaurismäki, Le Havre reveals a more refined, focused director who has not compromised his sensibilities. The film contains many a breathtaking scene, like the starkly lit stacks of containers at the harbor where we meet the young African migrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a good-hearted elderly shoe-shiner, will invest all he has to help the boy get to his mother in London. He will find karmic reward at film’s end, represented by a the neatly framed shot of the cherry blossom tree in his front yard. It’s a delicate, charming film that recalls the best of efficient world cinema. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes but lost out to the more bombastic Tree of Life.
Throughout Le Havre, characters have both colorful personalities and colorful attire that make them pop in the chiaroscuro lighting that defines the movie. Kaurismäki maintains the signature stagey feel of Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Often characters stare before taking action, giving the film a quietly unfolding, oddly-paced but charming feel, again recalling Anderson. And, look, there is Jean-Pierre Léaud playing the nosy, curmudgeonly neighbor who cannot abide “those immigrants.” Léaud’s appearance is fitting, seeing as the film owes a debt to the director that made him a famous actor in France as the star of 1959’s the 400 Blows: François Truffaut— also a touchstone for Anderson. The film flows with the ease and charm for the joie de vivre of both adventurous youth and aging with grace. At the film’s heart is the boy embarking on a new life, daunted by this new alien land where police are on the hunt and an old man happy in his groove of life, scraping together the few Euros needed to stay afloat and support his wife, home and dog.
When one thinks of world cinema, the thought of what Finland may have contributed does not often come to mind. Therefore I had not got around to checking out the output of Kaurismäki. I still have some catching up to do on Bergman and Kurosawa, but an opportunity to see this distinctive filmmaker on the big screen should not be passed up. As November’s choice in MBC’s monthly “Great Directors” series, Kaurismäki rewards a big screen presentation. Seeing the disparity of his early career-defining work, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, and the culmination of his refinement as a director, Le Havre, is a revelation. In these two films alone, Kaurismäki has proven a delight to watch. His quirky cinematic sensibilities, and the growth and refinement between the two films, also prove his movies still to come during this month’s series will offer interesting viewing.
Le Havre continues its run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, tonight through Tuesday only. This Thursday, the Man Without a Past will screen for one night only, at 8 p.m. The series concludes Wednesday, Nov. 23, with the one-night only screening of Lights In the Dusk, also at 8 p.m.
November 8, 2011
As many familiar with this blog already know, I have written extensively about the reissue campaign for David Bowie’s 1976 album Station to Station (David Bowie’s Station to Station to be reissued in fancy 9-disc package; U.S. release date announced for Bowie’s Station to Station reissue; Advance copies for Bowie’s Station to Station features DVD-A). As I continue to receive many hits on my blog because of this coverage, I feel I must share the news (good or bad remains to be seen), that Bowie is considering leaving EMI Records, according to the “Financial Times” (Read more, but you will need to register for access).
Bowie’s office responded to inquiries with “no comment.” Meanwhile, an email to EMI Records in Los Angeles has not received a response. I will up-date this post as soon as I receive one. Up-date: my contact there could not comment, but she passed me queries up to corporate for a possible response.
One of the possible implications of Bowie’s decision to not sign a new contract with EMI could result in a whole new reissue campaign by another label he does wind up signing with. According to the article, Bowie is in talks with Universal or Sony Music. If he signs a new contract with Sony, that could provide new hope for those who missed out on the vinyl versions of his later-period albums, the especially great Heathen and Reality, the rights for which currently reside in the hands of Sony Records. But that is hopeful speculation on my part, since I would love to own those on vinyl.
More likely than anything, probably in late 2012, or maybe not until 2014, we will see reissues of his more famous albums from the seventies and eighties, which EMI has owned the rights to for some time. The last comprehensive Bowie catalog reissue happened in 1999, and that did little to repair flaws in mastering that has pervaded Bowie’s catalog ever since Rykodisc first reissued his albums in the early nineties. In recent years, every once in a while, EMI would reissue an occasional early Bowie album with a bonus disc featuring rare tracks from the respective periods, and even got into the reissuing of vinyl records only a few years ago. EMI seemed to just be getting around to covering the watershed Berlin-period Bowie, when this news arrived. Though there were never any firm, substantive plans to reissue albums like Low and “Heroes,” it seemed the logical step after last year’s Station to Station package.
The question remains how will any future re-issues be treated? It took awhile in the nineties for the Bowie catalog to re-appear on CD via the now defunct Rykodisc, which re-mastered all the pre-1983 albums with additional artwork, exclusive bonus tracks and even vinyl counterparts (though digitally sourced). RCA Records had lost its rights to the Bowie catalog in the mid-eighties, just as it began releasing a short run of analogue-sourced CDs, manufactured in both Japan and West Germany, that almost instantly became collectible and still go for good money on the collector’s market, even in today’s CD-tired era. Bowie has released albums on independent labels in the past, which all eventually wound up under EMI’s control, so the possibility remains he might go the indie route as well (see the Victory Records-released Tin Machine II album and the subsequent solo album, Black Tie White Noise on Savage Records). He could even go self-released, as the “Financial Times” article indicates. That move has proved lucrative for another former EMI act: Radiohead. Of course, Bowie’s an aged rock star, who quietly stopped recording about five years ago, so his audience is not going to equate Radiohead’s, but then he could gain the control he likes. This could wind up disappointing fans, however, as he proved quite tight-fisted with studio outtakes during the Ryko campaign.
Until January, when Bowie’s EMI contract expires, it’s wait and see. But this article today indeed hints that maybe fans will never see anything as luscious as that 9-disc Station to Station set, which included three vinyl records, from EMI. I’ll leave you with a cool video that would have been nice to see on a hypothetical DVD of the hypothetical “Heroes” reissue– something that has never been released on DVD, but is available via YouTube, a “video” of sorts for the instrumental “Sense of Doubt”:
November 4, 2011
With the arrival of daylight saving time this Saturday, here comes a special all-night out on Miami Beach: Sleepless Night Miami Beach. Every once-in-a-while Miami Beach is not about the club scene and partying at night. On Saturday night, as the populace “falls back” an hour, South Beach will host as many as 150 cultural events during the annual 13-hour night with an event that has only happened bi-annually since 2007. It follows in a tradition that first began in Paris as Nuit Blanche.
You want to see everything that will go down, maps, details and all? Go to the event’s homepage, to download this year’s 29-page program guide. The wonderful thing about keeping up with this blog is the inside scoop that seems to fall my way. Gabó hinted at what he had planned in my interview with him (Gabriel Pulido brings soundtrack craft to the early films of Luis Buñuel). Now he has revealed what movie will form the basis of his collaboration with visual artist Buzzeye. Check out the clip below, which demonstrates the sort of visuals that will be “wall-casted” on the Frank Gehry-designed New World Symphony wall as part of the night, at 1 a.m. (the hour just before the time shift, so be aware):
The music and re-mixing of dialogue is Gabo’s handiwork, while the film was “deconstructed” and “colorized” by Buzzeye. I’m sure I need not mention the Italian classic’s title to readers of this blog.
I also received a phone call from Carl Ferrari, who will perform his hybrid jazz-Flamenco style with dancer Ana Miranda, at the start of the evening, at 6 p.m., on the second floor of the Miami Beach Public Library, another nice piece of architecture in itself. I wrote about him here: Happy re-birth day to Miami-based musician Carl Ferrari.
Throughout the night, the Miami Beach Cinematheque will actually project outside its venue, on to the surrounding buildings from all seven of its giant windows. The looping film project, Sonámbula by Dinorah de Jesús Rodriguez, will start projecting at 9 p.m. As the MBC calendar event space describes: the images are culled from “classic vintage film imagery that addresses the topic of sleeplessness or insomnia and the magical phenomenon of sleepwalking. Snippets from such classics as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari will mingle with recurring images of giant eyes that blink with the electrifying movement created by hand-scratching on the imagery and the mechanical whirring of several 16mm projectors.” A few months back, the MBC’s director, Dana Keith, and I had chatted about how cool it would be to have the famous 24-hour film the Clock play inside the venue, but that was not going to happen (the night is 13 hours, after all, not 24).
Of course, that’s just a taste of the scores of events (and I am sure there will be plenty of unofficial ones) happening that night. All events are FREE and start at 6 p.m. and end at 6 a.m. with a free breakfast on the beach for those who can survive the 13-hour night.
Tonight, one day ahead of its commercial release in my area (Miami), the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema will host a preview screening of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, a film focused on one of France’s most influential modern musicians: Serge Gainsbourg. I did not have an opportunity to watch a preview screener in time to review the film due to a mailing issue, but I was delighted to learn— as with Mozart’s Sister— the Cosford is making a special event out of this film. One day before its official debut, the university art house will host a special screening with an introduction by Lauren “Lolo” Reskin, the owner of Sweat Records and a long-time local DJ (since the age of 16, as an unpaid volunteer at Miami-Dade College’s campus radio station WDGR).
So I called her up to talk Gainsbourg, whose music would gain worldwide notoriety only just after his death in 1991. She said she first heard Gainsbourg’s music, about five years after that, once buzz had built up during the “lounge” scene of the early to mid nineties, which celebrated Gainsbourg among other sixties-era pop pioneers who were just ahead of their time. “I was in high school,” she said via phone. “I was either a sophomore or a junior. I was volunteering at Miami-Dade’s radio station, WDJR. It was around the time Philips had released Du Jazz Dans De Ravin, Comic Strip and Couleur Café. There was a sampler that had three tracks from each album, and I was just hooked, and I knew it influenced a lot of stuff I liked like Stereolab, Broadcast and I think Air was starting to release stuff around then.”
During the brief telephone conversation, the self-described “music nerd” revealed an understanding of the wide-ranging influence of Gainsbourg, and already showed an eagerness to share her love for this talent. “I’m not an artist myself, but clearly his legacy is going to live on forever in music,” Reskin said. “Everyone from Beck to Bowie has cited him as an influence. For me, he’s just a really important figure.”
As the resident DJ at the local Miami hipster club Vagabond and music store owner, it makes sense that Reskin understands the flow of musical influence. But her sense of high regard for Gainsbourg lies no further than the façade that decorates her shop in North Miami. “Sweat got him on wall. We sell his stuff regularly,” she said. “Fans of his are still coming in, and they are surprised to see him there— in Miami.”
So, of course, Reskin is excited about introducing this movie, which, according to what I have read, is something more than a biopic. It is the feature debut of famed French comic book artist Joann Sfar. In the press notes, he notes that he moved to Paris from his native Nice with the desire to work with Gainsbourg on a graphic novel based on one of Gainsbourg’s novels. Just after making the move, Gainsbourg died of a heart attack. Though that working relationship never happened, Sfar notes Gainsbourg (who first aspired to be a painter before falling back on his talents as a musician) had an unshakable influence in the stories of his comic books, including, he notes, the Rabbi’s Cat, Pascin and Klezmer. Expect some surreal, artistic leaps away from the mortal realm and into something much more expressionistic. “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is not a historical or anecdotal film,” Sfar notes in his statement. “It aspires to recount a modern myth because the figure of Gainsbourg is radically modern … I wanted to create something more like a Russian fable, a modern legend.”
Starring at the center of the movie is Eric Elmosnino who won a best actor César in France last year for his portrayal of the master. During the film’s festival run that same year, he also captured the best actor award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Besides the accolades, still images also prove Elmosnino has an uncanny resemblance to exploit, a quality both Reskin and agreed upon.
Reskin also echoes my own feelings of high hopes for such a film. “I have not seen the film yet, so I hope [the director] does justice to the multi-facted life he had. He painted, he produced other artists, and his love life, with Bardot and Birkin, is a huge facet of his life.”
Finally, here’s a look at the trailer:
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life has not been rated and premieres in South Florida Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7:30pm at UM’s Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables featuring a special introduction by Lauren “Lolo” Reskin and followed by a post-screening reception celebrating Gainsbourg’s legacy and music after the film. The film continues a screening run until Nov. 6 and also opens Friday, Nov. 4, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at 6 p.m. and plays through Nov. 9. Both are digital presentations.