Spielberger has returned with a brand new album, and the duo has added guitars and drums to their wash of ambient noise. Where 2011’s Chrissie’s Last Swim existed in a world of droning hiss and white noise, Jazzy features driving rhythms and enthralling guitar showmanship. The product of Miami-based musicians Bert Rodriguez and Ed Matus, the duo’s third album kicks off with a grand statement, as far as the presence of these two new instruments in the Spielberger mix.
“Mistaken, Abandoned and Alone” opens with the roar from a strike to the hot strings of an electric guitar, responded to by the growl of a bass. The instruments sizzle for a couple of seconds in that classic charged reverb only electric guitars can make before the musicians take off, following the thud of a kick drum and clang of a high hat. After a few bars of swelling chords, the rest of the drum kit comes to life and a melody of muddy reverbing guitars tangle and bound along in classic post rock fashion. Almost halfway through the piece, the groove seems to freeze and echo, as the drumming disappears. Throbbing in place for approximately another two minutes, the guitars emit roars and growls that seem impossible to create by the strokes of the strings, recalling shades of the earlier Spielberger. The piece sways and throbs in mid roar, as other sizzling drones grow almost exponentially, spinning off from the array of notes, throbbing, shrieking and pulsing at their own pitches and echoing at various tempos. The drum kit comes alive again with power and zeal, snares, cymbals and all. The shrieks of the ambient drones grow higher until they seem exorcised out of the piece, and the melody returns. After a few bars, the guitar breaks away to slowly start a solo that turns into a frantic pummeling of strings in an aggressive tremolo. As “Mistaken, Abandoned and Alone” grinds to its end, the strings seem to emit little electric speckles of reverb, like the remnants of static hidden in a wool blanket.
The track makes for a thrilling opener to an album firmly in the contemporary world of post-rock, while still reflective of its early roots in minimal ambiance. It marks a positive sign of evolution for the duo. However, as Rodriquez reveals, do not call this a departure. “Actually, the first track, ‘Mistaken, Abandoned and Alone,’ is literally the first song we ever wrote together,” he writes via email from his new home in Los Angeles. “We put it aside because we hadn’t built up other tracks that related to it. The whole album is really the result of several jam sessions we had from before we even released the first EP [“Music for Cruises”]. Almost all of the tracks on this record came from those sessions. I guess we’ve been working on this album from the beginning of our relationship together.”
So guitars do not mark anything that new for the duo, as Rodriguez tells it. “We both play guitar so, whenever we got together, we would plug them in and just write parts until things fit together. We were also constantly experimenting with affecting the guitar sound.”
As described in my earlier profile on this band (Spielberger hold torch proud for ambient music), some moments of Chrissie’s Last Swim, composed mostly through altering sounds on an iPhone app called Mixtikl, sounded like electric guitars. However, the sound of contact between guitar string and pick seemed missing. “We were really obsessed for a while with trying to make the guitars sound as little as a guitar as possible,” Rodriguez states. “I wanted to be able to play guitar but have it sound like a synth.”
Though Spielberger mutated the sound of electric guitars into something original on Chrissie’s Last Swim, it was the first step toward the new album. “That experimentation really helped us find some pretty interesting sounds that you can hear on the record,” Rodriguez says of Jazzy. “In fact, now that I think of it, almost everything on this record, even the two ambient tracks, were created with guitars.”
In a recent phone conversation, Matus says the two recorded the album just as Rodriguez was in the middle of moving to LA, but the mixing took a while longer. Matus notes that it was also important to get the drums sounding realistic, though no real drumming took place. With Jazzy’s rollicking opener, one can practically visualize a drummer raising his arms as high as possible to beat the skins, however, Matus, says, it’s all computer-generated and very carefully produced. Matus had already turned artificial drums into something primal and real-sounding in the past. “Ritual #1,” an instrumental track on the final album by his previous project, the Waterford Landing, In The Heart Of Zombie City, features some nightmarish rhythmic pounding of something akin to an indigenous drum accompanied by tambourine, echoing through what sounds like a giant room inside a derelict building of some wasteland as some alien, mechanical screeching echoes in the background (stream and download the album here). It’s a visceral moment on that final, grand album by the Waterford Landing (also worth checking out is the Bay City Rollers meets chill wave number “Soft Revolution [Blue Flames]”).
Matus says some of the ideas for the pieces off Jazzy came from he and Rodriguez improvising together on guitar. The title track began with the simple, soft pulse of an electronic click track, he says. Matus starts it off with a luscious, grooving but repetitive guitar line and Rodriguez comes in plucking his part out, dropping down the guitar’s neck, like a series of soft, dripping bits of rain on a window’s edge. They wrote the piece as such: two guitars tangling together. They later added bass and rhythm, a move that might seem counter-intuitive to many musicians who piece together music via overdubs while writing or recording. “I don’t think I’ve ever recorded a song like that,” Matus says, “to just plug in our guitars and see what happens.”
Though ambient music pioneer Brian Eno was a major inspiration for the two earlier Spielberger albums, this one features the influence of another pioneer and cohort of Eno’s in the prog rock world: Robert Fripp. When asked about the similarity of “Jazzy” to the work of Fripp with Andy Summers in the early eighties, Rodriguez embraces it as a high compliment. “That was definitely an inspiration, without a doubt,” adds Matus. “A long time ago, when I first heard that stuff, I always thought it was so alien and otherworldly.”
“Jazzy” also found a life outside the album thanks to a famous beer company, and Rodriguez’ higher-profile reputation as a contemporary multi-media artist. Beck’s commissioned Rodriguez for part of its “Artist Series Bottles,” alongside M.I.A., Freegums, Geoff McFetridge, Willy Chyr and Aerosyn-Lex. Rodriguez designed the only text-based label with the loaded statement “Don’t Forget You’re Here Forever” in neon lights. Beck’s created a campaign promoting the artists in this limited edition series and produced a short video documenting Rodriquez’ journey and arrival to LA. The music used in the video is “Jazzy:”
Though the guitar-use is unmistakable, still prevalent in Spielberger’s sound is the creative use of Mixtikl. Though it features some frenetic guitar work, the sound of the guitar in “In the Museum,” sounds like some spasmodic little creature trapped in a gelatinous blob, composed of echoing reverb that washes and wanes over the poor guitar. “Part II – A Boundary Crossed” is a subtle thing of beauty, as the guitar echoes from below the whoosh and calm sparkle of electronics like a ghost. “We just decided to break out the guitars … There are still tracks that are largely Mixtikl-based,” Matus says. “We always wanted it to have that background quality where we wanted it to be floating in the background. Some songs started with a Mixtikl theme.”
Rodriguez sheds further light on the duo’s creative process. “It was never our intention to only use Mixtikl to make music,” he states. “In fact, Ed has hardly used it at all. He likes to use his phone mostly to make beats and use the synth apps that are on there.”
However, Rodriguez appreciates how one cannot completely control the resulting music via the program, as it is just one of many auto-generative applications that can produce its own music via programming. “I’m a little more obsessed with Mixtikl,” Rodriguez confesses. “I think it’s because it ties so much into my art practice. It’s a really unique and non-traditional way to produce compositions. I could use that thing to make music forever really. I really enjoy the fact that you can’t expect 100 percent how the composition will turn out. I like the chance at play there.”
Despite Rodriguez’ relocation, the distance has not stopped the duo from recording and planning follow-up projects to Jazzy. Though this latest album came out only three months ago, the duo is deep into work on follow-ups, including a third full-length album and a physical 7-inch single. “The next album is gonna be called That Championship Season,” Rodriguez says. “My gallery out here offered to produce a limited edition 7-inch so, we’re working on two new ambient tracks for that.”
The 7-inch will mark Spielberger’s first physical release, and will surely become a collectible considering the LA-based art gallery OHWOW would be behind it. As far as other physical media or even working with labels, the duo are happy with their independence. It allows them to release music when they want, no matter how close to their last release date. It also frees up their creativity. “We like a lot of different stuff, we like playing different instruments,” Matus says. “It’s just making music the old fashioned way. It’s the idea that this is us, and we’re going to do what we want. We don’t have anyone to answer to. As long as it comes out honest and real, that’s what matters.”
Spielberger likes to allow the music to speak for itself. Though for sale in cyberspace on sites like iTunes and Amazon (You can support this blog as well as the band by purchasing their album through Amazon links), Matus is fine about giving it away to anyone who might be curious. “It’s there for free if you want to take it,” he says referring to links on the band’s website. “If you want to donate and help us, that’s fine too, and there are people who do that. But the most important thing is for people to have it and listen to it.”
At first, Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st might feel like an indulgent, meandering film filled with chatty people who cannot stop saying the obvious or repeating themselves. But look below the surface, and its brilliance creeps up on you. Superficially, the film offers a minimalist day-in-the-life portrait of a recovering drug addict at a crossroads. But this film is about so much more. This is a meditation on losing the past and the fleeting opportunities life constantly hands you to change the future.
It opens with a scenic montage of Oslo featuring the voices of people sharing memories of the capital city of Norway. They recollect specific days in the city and the significance of those memories. As the voices change from male to female, young person to elder, scenes shot in the streets of Oslo unfold. The grain of the images and the framing reveal them as coming from various sources. Sometimes the streets are empty, sometimes they are alive with people and activity. It all ends in the collapse of a building. A camera attached to the structure gives us a rubble-in-progress view of the event. A fine bit of symbolic foreshadowing by the director who does not waste a moment’s time in characterizing Oslo, August 31st‘s protagonist.
On Aug. 30, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is released for a day on his own recognizance from a rehab facility. That morning, he tries to commit suicide by drowning himself in a lake. Though his attempt results in failure, it looms like a foreboding cloud over the rest of the “action.” He returns to the rehab home, soaking wet, showers and heads out on his own.
He first pays a visit to a friend now raising a child, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner). This meeting sets up Anders’ history via dialogue that carries on for almost 20 minutes, but it also reveals the film’s strategy. Oslo, August 31st seems obsessed with dialogue, the reactions statements illicit and the variations of possible actions as result of suggestion. It seems repetitive at first, but Anders is being handed opportunities. He can choose to interpret them how he will, but it always seems to be toward a grim self-fulfilling prophecy. He and Thomas talk at a table, in a room, on a bench, out on the street. There is a constant play in the dialogue where Anders seems to hear and say the wrong things that only leads him down that same hole he crawled out from.
This becomes more vivid during a job interview, which comes to an abrupt end and marks the true turn down the dark path leading Anders to his fate. After a nap in the park, Anders heads into the night for parties and encounters with women. But Anders always seems alone. During an early scene, the director sets up that fact when Anders sits by himself at a cafe. He listens in on conversations by fellow patrons that reveal dilemmas, hopes, dreams and plans. It’s a smart setup leaving one to wonder, once again, about the possible fate of our hero.
The film ends affirming all of Anders’ decisions that came before. It is far from a cop-out. It is also at this point, that the film’s cold, washed out quality shifts. A color saturation unseen until now reveals some of the film’s most gorgeous shots: Oslo, Norway looking beautiful and lush in the summertime.
Trier first gained notoriety about five years ago as the director behind the fast-paced Reprise, also featuring Lie in a leading role. The film had a much brisker pace, became a festival hit and brought some rare attention to Norway’s film industry. It took many years, but the pair have returned with a more intimate, subtle film that should remind audiences of Trier’s ingenious command of the cinematic language.
Oslo, August 31st reminds us that we are all responsible for our own fates. We make the choices we make because of what we see in the opportunities handed to us. Do not be fooled by the film’s chatty nature, as it is more about the gaps in the conversation than what is said, and it’s a brilliant thing to watch unfold.
Watch the film’s trailer:
Oslo, August 31st is not rated, runs 95 min. and is in Norwegian with English subtitles. Strand Releasing provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens in South Florida on Friday, July 27, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema.
Today marks the release of a pair of thoroughly modern pieces of popular music for the cool kids. Passion Pit’s second album, the much-hyped Gossamer, arrives following years of anticipation. Then there’s the Antlers’ little 4-track EP, “Undersea.” Both bands were once labelmates on Frenchkiss Records but have since taken decidedly different paths at different labels. Passion Pit has gone to release stuff on Columbia Records, one of the larger major labels still in business. Meanwhile, the Antlers’ new release comes via Anti- Records, their new label. One release could be called sweet but superficial while another is simply sublime.
Gossamer (Support Independent Ethos, purchase the vinyl on Amazon) reeks of preciousness defined by the high-pitched, soaring singing of founder and mastermind Michael Angelakos. It gets old and annoying fast, so there are variations to the vocals throughout, including real female voices and samples. The music is all parsed out beats and bare melodies mostly generated by dinky moments of synthesized squeaks, howls and dings. It’s all bombastic cuteness that wears out with each fade out. Who still puts on the Wannadies’ once smash, self-titled debut for a full listen nowadays? There’s a reason you can find the CD version for a penny on Amazon 15 years later, despite it being out of print. Gossamer will likely end up in the same position in about the same time.
The album opens with the already familiar “Take a Walk.” With its jaunty synth and pounding beat it probably makes for one of the more accessible moments on Gossamer. It gets a bit more nerve-wracking when instruments seem to take split second turns to create the opening for the sample-montage “I’ll Be Alright.” Stings of synth strings, pounding drums and cooing vocals pop up and disappear in bursts that flicker and alternate during a song that crescendos as more layers pile up while Angelakos sings: “Can you remember ever having any thoughts?/Coz when it’s all said and done/I always believe we were … but I’m not so sure.” The flighty nostalgia gives way to an even more saccharine tune. Defined by a cooing synth under a thumping beat that could have been at home on a Debbie Gibson record in the mid-eighties, “Carried Away” sees Angelakos singing a chorus that might as well be “tra-la-la,” which features teen angst lyrics like: “Sorry ’bout things that I’ve said/Or is that again to my will?”
If you can withstand the cuteness further, the album has slower, more soulful moments like “Constant Conversations” and “Cry Like a Ghost.” But by then the vocals, accompanied by the soaring synths over and over grow tiresome.
The music’s light, effervescent quality makes it difficult to give it full attention from start to finish, much less repeated listens. Gossamer arrives on a wave of hype sure to have massive appeal. Like typical sugary treats, consumers might find themselves getting sick of it quick, however. At 12 tracks, it makes for a brief release, but the vinyl version has been spread across two slabs wax on 45 rpm for quality sound. However, as the music is so electronic-reliant, the analog format seems immaterial to the quality of the music. Besides, it’s quite a demand to ask listeners to flip through four sides of such a redundant record. A single vinyl LP would have worked fine. The vinyl also comes with a CD version of the album, so that means only one side to put up with.
Meanwhile, the Antlers further mellow out with its new “Undersea” EP (Support Independent Ethos, purchase the vinyl on Amazon), and the results are gorgeous. The trio from New York layer on the melodies with patience, creating an entrancing quality that lives up to the EP’s title. The music sounds buoyant and weightless. Guitars echo on languid strums and muted horns play melancholy melodies as the band’s frontman Peter Silberman sighs out his vocals that seem immersed in the soothing swells of the music. His vocals are so buried and languid, the words are difficult to make out. No matter, as the record works best as an abstract, impressionist thing that celebrates an immersive experience.
With this four-track EP, the Antlers have created something sublimely ethereal. It opens with “Drift Dive” fading in, sounding like Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day,” off his space-ambient masterpiece Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. Guitars echo and wane. With the flourish of a harp, a spare, melancholy horn appears, slowly falling down a minor key run. Every stroke from the strings to the horns have a genuine, organic variable quality but appear to complement one another rhythmically. It’s a genuine entrancing moment produced in a manner that only real instruments can create. It’s the chaos and symmetry of nature not unlike the ripples in a pool.
The next song, “Endless Ladder,” opens with some soft feedback and soon flows into the beautiful echo of guitars, similar to Storm In Heaven-era Verve. At just over eight minutes long, the song takes its time. Each refrain of the melody during the first two minutes plays with textures of subtle instrumentation. It builds on cooing voices and the whir of a synthesizer. Trickling guitars repeat and reemerge in a pattern not dissimilar to the opener. The song is all entrancing repetition even with Silberman’s voice, which appears at the two-minute mark. He sings hushedly, as if not to disturb the surface of the music.
The second side opens with “Crest.” Featuring an echoing electronic pulse and click track, it feels like the least organic of the songs. The repetition of a whining, muted horn sounds like its part of a loop and Silberman offers vocal accompaniment sooner than in the earlier tracks. There are spare pauses allowing for the quiet strum of a guitar, but it’s the briefest track of the EP and its least calmly built moment. Finally, “Zelda” again features a nice interplay between horns and guitars. Silberman offers a few opening lines of lyrics, but the song mostly drifts into a delicate, instrumental jam that again highlights the Antlers’ guitarcraft but augmented with the echoing din of zipping electronic effects.
“Undersea” makes for a consistent musical experience from start to finish, and what keeps it interesting is its organic quality thanks to a casual, confident exploration of classic instrumentation via an original, evocative vision. Though Antlers’ vocalist, like Passion Pit’s, sings into high-pitched flourishes, he never ventures into obnoxious, over-the-top territory, flowing with the music organically and atmospherically. The vinyl looks to be an object to look forward to, as well, pressed on a dark blue (Deep Blue Sea) translucent wax, as revealed by a picture shared by the band via its Facebook page (pictured above).
Note: Columbia records offered a preview of Gossamer for the purposes of this review.
You have to admire Christopher Nolan. Count him among those few Hollywood directors alluded to in an earlier post who can prop up a tent-pole film franchise with minimal artistic compromise. Nolan is also among those few former indie directors working in Hollywood with the fortitude to maintain his voice in the corporate machine of mass-consumption filmmaking. In the Dark Knight Rises, his third film following the comic book hero Batman, he finishes his trilogy with a giant flourish that never forgets its humanity. The film has a visually symphonic quality so brilliantly composed, it makes its near three-hour runtime fly past. In this day where filmmakers seem to pander to the continued shortening of attention spans to produce a film of such a runtime at Warner Bros. is a feat in itself. But the film also offers so much more. The key to the film’s brisk pace lies in Nolan’s unsentimental cutting of scenes, the invested performances of his actors and an ingenious plot design (whose major twists you will not find spoiled here).
Though the story of the Dark Knight Rises unfolds along the classical dramatic curve of screenwriting made famous by Syd Field, Nolan knows how to push it to edgy extremes and stay with it. When Batman and his beloved Gotham City seem to arrive at their nadir, the twists never relent, all the way to the film’s final frame. Watching the Dark Knight Rises unfold feels like watching an elaborate sculpture form out of an intricately laid out array of toppling dominoes that span an array of directions and double back. You can tell Nolan has learned a lot from his last film, Inception (2010), whose story of dreams within dreams wrapped in a mystery-heist-thriller, also probably owes a debt of its own existence to Nolan’s reputation as Batman’s current cinematic creator. Most everything that happens in the Dark Knight Rises feels connected and warranted. As he has firmly stated in interviews, this marks the end of his trilogy of Batman films, and it makes for one heck of a finale. The Dark Knight Rises even has an ending nearly as good as Inception.
Nolan inherited the Batman franchise on somewhat shaky ground in his career as an indie director gone Hollywood. He burst onto the mainstream’s radar with Memento (2000), a film with twists in its narrative structure so visceral it could leave an audience member dizzy by the end credits. However, a remake of the Swedish thriller Insomnia (2002) followed. It felt so devoted to the original, it left many with a “why-bother” shrug. Somehow Nolan was next handed the keys to Batman, after the famed DC Comics hero was re-envisioned from sixties-era camp to stylized Gothic hero by Tim Burton and then run into the ground by Joel Schumacher who would miscast a glut of distracting Hollywood stars.
With Batman Begins (2005), Nolan would re-write the degree of sincerity warranted to a form of entertainment (the comic book) invented to amuse teenage boys in the early part of the 20th Century. Until Nolan, Hollywood had long treated the comic book film as disposable entertainment. Even the Burton films feel slight in comparison to what Nolan created. Nolan instead focused on the gray areas that had long kept comic books alive with adult readers in the 1980s, when the term “graphic novel” appeared, as well as trailblazing independent comic book publishers that explored more grown-up dimensions of character and society.
Played by Christian Bale, Nolan’s Batman felt tortured and haunted. But beyond the characters, Nolan knew how to incorporate social malaise as part of his Batman stories. His second Batman film, The Dark Knight (2008), famously examined the moral compromise of a country spying on its own citizens in the wake of President George W. Bush’s administration policy to wiretap citizens without a warrant (read this). Meanwhile Batman’s antagonist was the nihilistic Joker, whose sole motivation for violence was to have a laugh. Heath Ledger would go on to win a posthumous Oscar® for his portrayal.
Picking up where the Dark Knight left off, the Dark Knight Rises brings a new nemesis into the mix along with another prescient story. Clearly inspired by Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the 1997 graphic novel written by Sin City’s Frank Miller, Batman’s alter ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne has gone into recluse mode. After Gotham City passes an ordinance that seems to put criminals in jail with minimal due process, Batman “retires.” The law, called the Dent Act, alludes to one of the other villains of the Dark Knight who ironically met his demise a martyr at the hands of Batman. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) used to be the city’s District Attorney, until his face was partially melted away by the Joker, turning him into the psychotically schizophrenic Two-Face. When Batman kills Two-Face to save the life of the police commissioner’s son, Batman takes the fall for the sake of Dent’s legacy and the passage of the law.
Enter the revolutionary: Bane (Tom Hardy), a misguided monster out to “save” Gotham from a perceived tyrannical rule that implicates the city’s wealthiest, including Wayne. References to class warfare abound. When Bane and his thugs terrorize brokers on the floor of the stock exchange, 98 percent of the audience will probably find themselves rooting for Bane.
The muscle-bound Bane almost shares as much screen time as Batman. He starts as an enigma who also wears a mask, which generates a tortured but eloquent voice, similar to Batman. His origins eventually come to light, and he becomes humanized to almost creepy affect, as a sort of echo chamber of all that seems rotten in today’s society.
Beyond Batman’s already established regular sidemen Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Wayne’s father-figure butler Alfred (Michael Caine), the film introduces several new characters into the mix and takes time to flesh them all out with conflicted characterizations, one of the best, next to Bane, being Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). Dumping the campy dominatrix quality of the Catwoman in Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), this Catwoman grows from ethereal mystery woman to a creature of charm and heart. But another delightful introduction into the mix is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an ambitious “hothead” of a rookie cop, John Blake. Both Hardy and Gordon-Levitt make returns from Inception, as does Marion Cotillard who plays Miranda, a cipher of a character more complex than she at first seems. Great performers are present all over this film, not the least of which is Bale himself who treats his Bruce Wayne/Batman with as much care as his portrayal of the real-life Dieter Dengler in Werner Herzog’s amazing and underseen Rescue Dawn.
Though the film sustains an edgy, dark tone with its drab, cold color palette, the Dark Knight Rises defines itself with action. The set pieces, including a mid-air plane hijacking scene that introduces Bane, takes one’s breath away. Nolan incorporates digital effects with subtlety among live-action stunt sequences (that plane scene!). Unlike most of these films, Nolan seems to skip out on the digital “stuntmen,” heightening the film’s realistic qualities and, in effect, the film’s stakes. Nolan also avoided the temptation (and probably the pressure) to shoot the film in 3D. It was however, partially shot on IMAX, so the bigger the screen the better.
Having long ago set the tone for the current new era of proper super hero films, there is little room for Nolan to reinvent Batman, however. It just as well may end here (though his next job happens to be as producer on the reboot of the next Superman Film). I should not fail to mention that the Dark Knight Rises is not without its action movie tropes. The film indulges in a couple too many monologues of righteousness between characters that these do-or-die action films tend to lean on for characterization. Also, as much hype was placed on keeping Bane’s plan for Gotham secret, the film should be docked for giving us another climactic “countdown” that’s almost de rigueur in action movies. However, it does redeem itself for revealing the flaws in the goals of the Tea Party-type (or Occupy) extremist Bane. His plan to “give Gotham back to the people” results in a terrifying portrait of anarchy that Nolan does not fear dwelling on for an effective amount of screen time.
Another crutch that seems over-used at first but later brilliantly subverted includes the bombastic mood-enhancement of Hans Zimmer’s score. It can get grating in its obvious quality during the beginning of the film. I began to worry how much longer will the film rely on the layering crescendo of an orchestra and the boom from a barrage of percussion to make its point that this is scene or that scene is DRAMATIC. Then there arrives this fantastic moment about an hour into the film when Nolan eschews music to nerve-wracking effect. It happens during the first confrontation between Bane and Batman in the sewers of Gotham. You almost forgive the initial overuse of scoring ahead of the scene where the only soundtrack is the sound of physical violence. The moment also includes a wise decision by Nolan to include momentary cutaways to a few scattered onlookers, most of which are Bane’s henchmen. Contrary to many of these moments in the good v. evil canon, they do not cheer their leader on, but watch with a quiet, cold, curious interest. It’s the accumulation of these small but definitive moments inserted among terse action sequences that make the film such an awe-inspiring thing to watch unfold.
My favorite of the four trailers available, as of this post:
The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13 and runs 164 minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now in HD, 35mm and IMAX.
In today’s modern world of music, where computers have replaced both studios and instruments, music of the seventies and eighties seems both quaint and alien. Just as radio stations that played popular music of the fifties and sixties in the seventies and eighties were known as “oldies” music, the circle has come around to once popular artists of the seventies and eighties. Time and history has caught up where a modern cover of a song from 20 years ago can only sound dated if done with too much dedication to the original. Enter Sexton Blake, a pseudonym for Josh Hodges, the man who would go on to found Starfucker (sometimes shortened to STRFKR for politeness’ sake), an odd hybrid of psychedelic rock and new wave that knows how to write a song around a dance beat.
Ahead of the band’s fourth album, Starfucker’s label, the Champaign, IL-based Polyvinyl Records, has just reissued a limited edition vinyl run of Hodges’ second, and most popular, Sexton Blake album. Plays the Hits!covers mid-seventies hits as old and respectable as ELO’s “Evil Woman” and Elton John’s “Daniel” into late eighties horror shows like Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” and Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True.” Though Hodges shows respect to the essence of the music (like the transitional hook into the chorus of Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”), he incorporates a sonic palette that would become characteristic of Starfucker’s sound. The songs often include the luscious, slurry strum of a processed electric guitar and the soft but terse electro beat of a drum machine.
Released this past Tuesday on 180-gram, gold-colored double vinyl (see picture above) and limited to 1000 copies, this reissuing of Plays the Hits! offers an auspicious re-examination of Starfucker’s origin. The band’s self-titled debut established the Portland, Oregon-based outfit as a catchy, hip indie-pop outfit that gained nationwide popularity after its music’s inclusion in corporate television commercials for businesses like Target and IBM. But Starfucker’s staying power lies in Hodge’s playful but deep lyrical content. Often incorporating samples from the lectures of British philosopher Alan Watts, Hodges’ lyrics have an existential resonance as he often explores themes of life and death.
My conversation with various members of the band last year led to a popular profile on this blog spread across two parts (Exclusive interview with Starfucker [Part 1 of 2]: Philosophy and rock ‘n’ roll). Even in that expansive feature piece I was unable to cover everything we talked about, and that included Starfucker’s formative years as Sexton Blake. The setting was sometime just before midnight, in an alley behind an Orlando, Florida bar called the BackBooth. Starfucker had finished its set (read my re-cap of that night’s show) and everyone had more than a few beers in them.
In 2007, just before he recorded Plays the Hits!, Hodges was trying to survive in New York City as an underground parking valet while recording music. He said, though those years were tough he had not regrets. “It was amazing,” Hodges remembers of his time in the Big Apple. “It was the only thing I wanted to do. There’s nothing else I could have done with my life then. I went there to fuckin’ struggle and I did, but it was good.”
He arrived in New York from a small town in Michigan, around 2004. “There’s nothing going on,” he recalls of the small town he left. “We were in the middle of nowhere.” While in New York, Hodges produced and recorded his own solo record as Sexton Blake called Explosive Motion Picture Score. “It’s not that good,” he admits of the album.
It seemed someone liked it enough to not only release it, but start a whole indie label by releasing it. Expunged Records remains active to this day. Explosive Motion Picture Score marked Hodges’ debut as Sexton Blake. Though the album went nowhere, the label’s founder, Anthony McNamer, had an idea to get Hodges back into the studio. “I was working at a parking lot downtown,” recalls Hodges, “and he was like, ‘Hey, man, what if I give you like a thousand bucks to record all these eighties songs that I like,’ and I was like, ‘Well, that’s better than taking people’s money to park their car or whatever.’”
He says McNamer gave him a long list of songs to cover, and he picked and chose what he wanted to re-envision. As a 32-year-old now, Hodges admits the music predates his cognizance as an aspiring musician. “I didn’t grow up on that stuff … but kind of. My mom kind of used to work out to ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’” he says referring to a song Starfucker would cover on its second album, Jupiter.
In retrospect, Hodges actually holds a pretty harsh view on the original versions of the songs he covered for Plays the Hits!. “All those songs kind of suck, in my opinion,” he says, “like the music does, and so I’m trying to make something listenable out of it.” But maybe it’s the beer talking. He says he has a soft spot for Supertramp’s “the Logical Song,” admitting: “That’s actually my favorite song on the album. I mean the lyrics are amazing. It’s a really great song, but the way that they perform it is just kind of cheesy.” For its version on Plays the Hits!, Hodges removes all the quirks of the song like the song’s pulsing organ, castanets, hand claps, flourishes of bombastic electric guitar and, of course, the sax solo. Instead, he slows the tempo down and plays the melody on a solitary acoustic guitar in a somber, almost tired voice, which helps to highlight the lyrics. There is one break in the song to allow for a quiet, sparse piano solo, which is soon joined by the acoustic guitar for a minimalist union of density for the chorus before the song comes to sudden flourish and end.
But as he strips back “the Logical Song,” he knows where to fill in the gaps in other songs. Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” and the Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” are dense affairs that beef up the airy, dinky synth-based quality of the original pop songs. “Rush Rush” starts with the persistent plucking of a single note on a guitar and ends in a wash of screaming cymbals. “Life in a Northern Town” dives deeper into noise. He almost imperceptibly mumbles its famous jubilant chorus of “Ah hey ma ma ma/Ah hey ma ma ma hey,” and coats it with a layered, chaotic guitar solo mostly composed of feedback that still grooves along inventively, recalling middle-period Yo La Tengo. It offers a brilliant, haunting moment rarely even heard in later Starfucker music.
Sexton Blake would carry on as a live act in the Portland area for several performances, as Expunged Records was based there. He arrived with a musician friend of a friend who would later continue working with Hodges in Starfucker: keyboardist Ryan Biornstad. What began as a visit to support Sexton Blake’s releases on the label with live shows turned into something more permanent, and they just decided to stay there. “We were like, let’s stay in Portland and put a band together,” Hodges said. “Portland is a really good place to be a new band because it’s real easy to get written up. Even if you suck, you can get written up in the local media.”
As Hodges gradually came up with new tunes, the band, which also featured Tom Homolya on bass and Tim Edgar on drums (according to Wikipedia), morphed into something else. Biornstad, who was part of Starfucker during this interview*, says, “It all just progressed naturally on its own. It just grew into its own thing, and it just wasn’t happening anymore, so Sexton Blake died. We played like 14 last shows ever.”
Hodges laughs. “Yeah, we dragged it out for a while.” The band would never exist beyond a string of shows in the Northwestern part of the United States. Though Sexton Blake seems a footnote in the evolving legacy of Starfucker, it did release a noteworthy album in Plays the Hits!. It’s a welcome release finally on vinyl LP by Polyvinyl Records.
Finally, seems the next generation is already covering Starfucker. Here’s The School of Rock performing “Florida:”
*Biornstad would depart the band after the tour where I met him as part of Starfucker. He reportedly announced plans for a solo record, but that has yet to materialize. He also continues to be a wanted man by Austin City Police. It all stems from an incident well-documented in the second part of my Starfucker story (Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 2 of 2]: From rough start to triumphant tour, Starfucker head home). A recent email to Austin’s community court revealed Biornstad has an active Failure to Appear Warrant after he allegedly skipped his court date in May of 2011.
July 17, 2012
All the exciting members of the Beat Generation have died, and one can feel it while watching the rudimentary documentary the Beat Hotel. Filmmaker Alan Govenar tags along with British photographer Harold Chapman as he returns to Paris to visit what remains of the cheap, bare-bones hotel where several members who defined a generation once stayed. The documentary covers the presence of William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, as well as his lover and fellow poet Peter Orlovsky, during their stay at 9 Rue Git Le Cœur, in the late fifties to early sixties.
“The last of the great Bohemian hotels,” Chapman calls it at the start of the documentary, as images and illustrations flash past during similar commentaries by various sources who will present running commentary throughout the film. Early on, someone notes that the hotel’s years of relevance began with the stay of Ginsberg and Orlovsky in 1958 and ended in 1963, after the Beats’ last relevant figure, Burroughs left. The documentary then proceeds to go over these times, exploring anecdotes via Chapman’s photographs but also with illustrations by another former hotel dweller, the Scottish artist Elliot Rudie. Talking heads range from those who lived there to younger scholars who now study the output of the Beats in university settings.
Though the documentary tries to keep the pace sprightly with fast edits and several images of the times, it does slow down to allow Chapman to chat with some of his old friends of the time. An oral history unfolds, as Chapman shares memories of his experience there. He tells Rudie about cameraman Yon Paulsky’s idea to shoot a cartoon via the hotel’s walls. Panels of illustrations were plastered along the wall of a hallway in the hotel, and he rode in a stolen supermarket cart as some pushed him past the panels. “It never came to anything … everybody had strange ideas then,” Chapman says.
Some great works came out of that hotel, nonetheless. Corso wrote “Bomb,” Ginsberg Kaddish and Burroughs finished Naked Lunch there. All mark definitive works of the Beat poets. But, more interestingly, it also marked a time where a rift emerged between Burroughs and Ginsberg. While at the hotel, Burroughs would discover decoupage, or his cut-up technique to writing poetry. Ginsberg expressed an opposition to the mechanical and random manipulation of cut-out phrases written by someone else. However, Burroughs reveled in its accidentally inspiring quality.
It seems doubtless this place, like the Latin Quarter Paris of those other American expatriates who came before them, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, marked an important moment in literary history. It’s a ghostly artifact whose specters are stories. The hotel that replaced the original “Beat Hotel” only hints at what was once there structurally, as revealed during a tour Chapman takes of the new hotel built within the shell of the old one. Chapman’s photographs actually offer a more vivid springboard to the stories within the documentary, including one long night photographing Corso and another evening when Burroughs “disappeared” into thin air during a “magic-trick” that counted on audience members to take drugs.
For the most the stories that paint a picture of the hotel are slight and will first and foremost prove interesting to fans of the authors than those who are not. Govenar does not employ any particularly creative or distinctive cinematic techniques, which is just as well. Anyone trying to upstage legends of a long past literary world via a medium outside that world would only embarrass themselves. It’s nice to see Rudie’s illustrations come to life in crude animated fashion on occasion, but beyond that and a couple of brief instances of staged re-enactments, the film never strays beyond the predictable limitations of historical documentary on a group of deceased artists.
The film carries a sentimentality and preciousness in following its quiet former resident. Indeed, quiet one must have been to count themselves a survivor of this group of people who lived life to the fullest with reckless abandon. The fierce creative energy of these people picked up where the surrealists and Dadaists took off (another keen story revealed during the course of the film involves an encounter between Corso and Marcel Duchamp at a house party) and blazed a trail for the free love generation of the late sixties. There were not many of these people before the beatniks became the more popularly embraced, if not recognized, hippies. These were the true “deviant” artists of their time. It’s a quaint testament to their creativity that the Beat Hotel never seems to overshadow its own subjects. Fans of these writers would do well to experience it while they can.
The Beat Hotel is unrated, runs 82 minutes and opens in South Florida on Tuesday, July 17, 7 p.m. at Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned me to a DVD preview screener for the purposes of this review. It runs only three nights, until Thursday, July 19. If you live outside the Miami area, the film screens in select cities, which can be found here.
Even in today’s “progressive” society, women directors are still considered an anomaly in the world of filmmaking. This brief interview, shot not too long ago, between one of today’s most buzz-worthy female filmmakers and a veteran female director who only recently passed away captures the angst:
This blog usually does not go out of its way to hype the gender of a director and attempts to consider the output of female filmmakers on equal footing with men (see ‘Sleeping Beauty’ offers ominous exploration of the prostitution of the female form and ‘Tiny Furniture’: a harsh humorous stare into the mirror). The Connection, Shirley Clarke’s film about making a film about a den of heroine junkies from 1962 begs for an examination with gender in mind. As anyone who has watched “Mad Men” knows, the era was a different time for women. But allow me to point out one of my favorite filmmakers, who made a name for herself in the 1940s as one of the pioneers of experimental cinema: Maya Deren. Though her film style existed far from the Hollywood studio factory, she gained much respect among her contemporaries (read: men) and has become a touchstone in experimental cinema, judged on her own, unique terms. Though lesser known, Clarke, who arrived about 10 years later to the experimental film world, should be no exception. Of course, leave it to the more progressive French to produce a documentary on Clarke that lasts nearly an hour:
Just as I can hardly care that a director be gay or straight, foreign or American, black or white, I do not care if she is male or female. Sure, it must have been tough for a woman to be taken seriously as a director in the early 1960s, but you would not know it by watching the stark and raw Connection. Credit is due to the fact that it is based on a play by Jack Gelber, first presented as a play at New York City’s influential Living Theatre. But Clarke brings it to life on a cinematic level through the bold, shifting gaze of the camera.
As the years since its production passed, the Connection languished. According to the press kit for the film’s re-release, the movie barely screened because of the use of the word “shit,” which today flies around like nothing on basic cable. “[I]ts use in The Connection in reference to heroin disgusted many of the critics — and worse, it offended the New York Board of Regents” (see press kit). Though the film received praise at Cannes, censorship stifled the film’s distribution in the US. Only now, after the UCLA Film & Television Archive restored the film from the original 35mm acetate picture, a 35mm composite master positive and a negative soundtrack in 2004, is the film seeing a national, if limited, release in theaters before it comes out the following year on home video. It will have its Florida premiere thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which will only play it once per-night, for three nights straight, beginning this Friday.
On the surface, the Connection might seem dated. It unfolds only inside a Greenwich Village apartment in the late 1950s as a group of heroine junkies wait for a fix. While some characters deliver monologues, several actual jazz men from the time hanging out with them periodically burst into jam sessions. It has a quaint, stagey feel. Still, though hyper-realized, it captures a zeitgeist with the DNA of hipsterdom that informs Bohemian culture to this day.
Leach (Warren Finnerty, who won a Best Actor OBIE award for his performance in the stage version at the Living Theatre) hosts these men at his apartment. Over the course of the film, they transcend their seeming status as dregs of society into humanity via a dynamic script and mesmerizing performances, be it through speech or music. The atmosphere established by Clarke pegs New York City as it heads into its dreaded years of decline and decay. Voices from outside drift up and through the windows. They range from the sounds of an argument in Puerto Rican slang to children playing. Often, cars honk and trains pass by. There is even a siren screeching past more than once. Inside, the furniture creeks and the floor echoes of worn wood as the characters either drag their feet or stomp the floor while stalking around the space. Leach bitches about the pain of a boil on his neck throughout the film, and he and his fellow drug addicts speak in a beatnik slang, calling each other “man” and “baby” constantly. It amazes as a relic of an era 55 years in the past, as the image is flawless, thanks to UCLA’s sparkling restoration.
Then there is the music, written by Freddie Redd who also plays one of the junkies at Leach’s apartment and spends most of his time at the piano. A thesis paper on jazz and heroine use could be written alone from the mood shifts in the great pieces he and his band burst into between their fix. The line up also includes Jackie McLean on saxophone, Larry Ritchie on drums and Michael Mattos on bass. The music is varied and dynamic, and the camera takes its time to eat up their presence. Thanks to this beautiful restoration, Arthur J. Ornitz’ photography comes to life in light, shadow and detail. The viewer will even notice the sweat traveling down Redd’s neck, as he tickles the ivories on a beat-up, stand up piano with its hammers exposed. Clarke took editing duties, however, and the experience is dynamic. It ranges from a smooth, drifting camera that opens the film, as Leach introduces the junkies crashed out at his pad waiting for their man who they call Cowboy (Carl Lee). The opening set up following Leach carries on so long, you wonder if Clarke will ever break the film. But when edits do arrive, they do so in ingenious ways, bringing in the fictional filmmaker, Jim Dunn (William Redfield) out from behind the camera to bitch and complain about how boring his subjects are behaving. He says he wants to make a sincere cinematic statement chronicling a day-in-the-life of various kinds of men brought together for the same fix. Little did he know how boring it would seem. “Aw, come on!” he whines. “Do something!” As the junkies tease him, he begins to stutter and gets angry at J.J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Browne), the cameraman for continuing to roll on him, as he tries to gain some control over his picture. “I’m just trying to make an honest human document,” Dunn says.
In the end, humanity does appear in an array of interesting specters that are the experiences of these varied men brought together by a shared, irrepressible desire. The film patiently lumbers toward a devastating statement that probably felt more stark at the time, if it did not still have a resonance for today. The Connection is a thoughtful film feeling its way through a dynamic period. As subversive as it is sincere, whether the director happens to be male or female matters little. Artists like Clarke and her nearly all-male cast (also appearing at the den is a naïve, elderly missionary the junkies call Sister Salvation [Barbara Winchester]) reek of a desire for expression looking to burst out of the classical Hollywood from, many years before Dennis Hopper more famously helped establish a new standard for Hollywood with Easy Rider. Clarke was ahead of her time, and that matters most.
The Connection is not rated and runs 110 min. It makes its Florida premiere at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, July 13 at 7 p.m. and runs only through that weekend. If you live outside the area, I’m still working on a way to find out screenings across the nation from Milestone Films. Visit there website here. The director of the MBC loaned me a screener for the purposes of this review.