The other day, thanks to a friend, I took a trip down memory lane listening to some early music that would later come to define a movement now often referred to as “glitch” music. A pioneer of this once obscure and now quite influential music genre, Oval, real name Markus Popp, had just released much of his back catalog as free album streams via bandcamp.com (link).
Characterized by rhythms and melodies that appear on an almost subliminal level, Oval’s music stands as something beyond gimmick. It’s the aural equivalent of art that looks better from the corner of the eye. Forced attention makes the music seem jarring. A casual listen, with the mind preoccupied on something else, like writing, enhances the experience. It is then when the music expands and swells and breaths, shimmering with a life inequitable to traditional music. These are the unseen atoms of life that barely hold matter together made manifest as sound— almost a portal to another dimension sprung to aural life. In turn, put it on some headphones and look out at the world, and you might feel a strange disconnect, as if everything has turned noisily silent. A fellow blogger paying tribute to the music Oval admitted he finally “got” Oval after having his wisdom teeth pulled out and taking painkillers (read the blog post here).
The notion of glitch music comes from its source: samples of damaged sound sources like CDs and records. It’s the skips in the disc or the hiss of surface noise that interest these artists. They then process them into subtle rhythmic and melodic patterns on a computer. The first I ever heard of anything like this was on Tortoise’s 1995 post-rock masterpiece album Millions Now Living Will Never Die (you can read a thorough review of that album here: Albums that have stood the test of time: Tortoise – ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’ ).
Popp was the sole figure behind Oval when I first met him on tour with fellow Thrill Jockey Records label mates Tortoise sometime in the late 1990s. I had a chance to watch him work his magic on a MacBook on stage during soundcheck at Club Firestone in Orlando, Florida, and I introduced myself. This may have been one of the first times I had ever seen a musician work solely on a laptop, and I was skeptical but also curious how he employed musicianship via this tool.
Standing over his shoulder he showed me how he moved tiny midi files into an array of folders, in effect turning the craft of mixing into a performance. I recently got back in touch with him via Facebook, and he reminded me, “That was SoundMaker, an OS9-only shareware app made by a dude from Italy. Parts of the workflow still unrivaled today.”
I’m not sure if I reviewed his first album for Thrill Jockey, Dok, before or after this meeting. Regardless, I had been impressed by it. I wrote the review for the record collector’s magazine “Goldmine.” I had been the go-to guy at to write reviews for some of the more difficult to classify music, and Oval’s 1997 album Dok was one of those albums that required my attention.
I have dug up my old draft of that review. Save for a couple of spelling errors this is what I handed in to my editor:
Presented in layers of hushed, yet dense sounds, Oval’s latest release, Dok, feels like the soundtrack to a dream. The surreal music sounds as if it were coming through walls or from down the street. Like clouds drifting high overhead, it’s music appreciated from afar.
“Lens-flared Capital” opens Dok with thick layers of harmonic hiss and fizz, creating a sound one might hear in the deep, suffocating stillness of the ocean, while the hum of a raging tsunami echoes in the distance. The album is filled with lush soundscapes that rumble along quietly with the threatening potential of explosive character. On most of Dok’s tracks, melodies, driven by bells, ring under rumbles of dissonance, while unintelligible voices loop and fade in and out among layers of whispering static.
On earlier recordings, the Berlin-based Oval scratched records and marked CDs with paint to create a pallet of sounds to work from. To create Dok, Oval’s third album, Tokyo-based “installation artist/sound designer” Cristophe Charles, who has two doctorate degrees in music, provided sounds from his travels to foreign towns— particularly the sounds of bells among everyday noise. Markus Popp, Oval’s sole member, took Charles’ clatter and processed it with loops and tones to create musical collages of sound. The sounds are so thoroughly processed that the only true noises one can distinguish are the chattering voices that appear from time to time. The resulting tracks are soft, yet luxuriant, ambient pieces that aren’t as difficult to listen to as the concept seems to suggest.
Ultimately, it’s the sound of this album that makes it worthwhile. Its modest 45-minute length transports you to another dimension of sound, where environmental noise becomes music, but you don’t have to be John Cage to appreciate this record. Rather than wading in self-indulgent noise and sound freak-out, Oval does what so many ambient artists overlook: add a depth to found sounds through conceptual pieces that are pleasant to listen to. Eat your heart out, Brian Eno.
“Eat your heart out, Brian Eno.” Lol. Some nerve, but at that time, Eno’s music was not treading such pioneering ground as Oval. It was an utterly refreshing re-invention of ambient music that I can still appreciate. Popp’s a true music pioneer with a firm sense of the independent ethos. He has agreed to answer some questions regarding his thoughts on his peculiar brand of music. Come back to “Independent Ethos” for that exclusive interview in the next week or so.
Film Review [in 'Miami New Times']: ‘Cubamerican’ documentary walks a nice line between nostalgia and identity
June 14, 2013
My latest film review was taken by the “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist.” It’s fitting, considering its subject: a group of people key to the culture of Miami: Cuban-Americans. In my many years living in Miami (most of my life), Cuban-American art and culture has come across as rather in-your-face and self-conscious.
I was therefore a bit cautious approaching the documentary Cubamerican when asked for my opinion by my editor at “Cultist” on this film. I was afraid the documentary would come across as preachy and self-righteous and disproportionately rounded. Instead, it ended up hitting all the right notes and substituted the usual angry bitterness I come to expect from Cuban art with a sense of melancholy and hope. It downright moved me.
I was amazed this marked José Enrique Pardo‘s debut as a director. Though it’s rather straight-forward as a documentary, his pacing and thoroughness show this is a man who knows how to put in the work to compose an engaging work. As a plus, the film also provided a clear history that informs the Cuban-American identity. It does not sentimentalize pre-Castro, mobster-influenced Batista Cuba. But the kicker are the men and women who have done so much for society, art and even sports by tapping into a unique drive they call viveza. Everyone can learn to be a better person from this documentary, no matter if you are Cuban-American or not.
The film’s U.S. commercial premiere is tonight in Miami. You can read the full review and see details of the screening today by clicking through the “Cultist” logo below:
Up-date: I just heard Cubamerican expands into Broward County, at Fort Lauderdale’s Cinema Paradiso, for two nights, Saturday, June 22 and Sunday, June 30. The director will be present for a Q&A on June 22. Click here for more information (that’s a hot link).
If you think you know anyone, even your closest family member, you may be wrong. Canadian director Sarah Polley makes that vividly clear with her new film Stories We Tell. After losing her mother Diane to cancer, Polley tries to demystify some of the subtle mysteries behind the woman who bore her into this world. Unfurling like a rosebud into infinity, the more Polley explores, the more unknowable her mother seems. The journey is heartfelt, witty and devastating. As Polley has proved throughout her cinematic career, which also includes such marvels as Away From Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011), she has composed another film about relationships that is both humbling and transcendent.
The candid cinéma vérité thing may seem cliché by now, but Polley’s casual set-up of her family preparing to tell the story of her mother is breathtaking in its brilliant brevity, as she ends with a match cut of her and her mother’s faces at around the same age. Her siblings, two brothers and a sister, and her father, fuss and complain of a sense of discomfort sitting in front of her camera. There’s a human sense of insecurity captured in candid commentaries as they worry about how they appear on the monitor. It’s stuff they probably never wanted or expected to appear in the film, but as such becomes more real than anything played self-consciously to the camera. Then there is a dissolve to black and white footage as the elder Polley settles in similarly for a vintage television appearance. Her own discomfort passed down to this younger generation. As the beautiful Bon Iver song “Skinny Love” quietly stirs along, Polley’s face melds with her mother during the song’s climax where singer Justin Vernon howls “And I told you to be balanced/And I told you to be kind.” It’s a ghostly, stirring moment that speaks to the film’s multi-layered brilliance, capturing both the doubt and intimacy between the generations.
As Diane was an actress, and the man who married her seemed obsessive with shooting home video, there exists a lot of vintage footage for Polley to incorporate into her film. Polley puts her father in a recording booth to read his own story about her mother. Like everyone she asks, he is told to start at the beginning, when he first met Diane, and keep going until her end. Everyone seems taken aback at such an all-encompassing question. But as daunting as it might seem, there also lies a sense of trepidation. How much knowledge is too much, and is there even truth to be had in any such knowledge?
Despite the mystery upon mystery revealed by the film’s meandering but always surprising narrative from the various interview subjects, what comes across from Polley’s research is far from empty. It actually illustrates the complexity of any one person’s life and the array of personas within all of us. We all behave differently at school versus home with family, so no one but sociopaths should be surprised. Just as children try on their personas in those two different worlds, the film offers an illuminating insight into both family and the mother’s career choice: acting. But, then there are the additional shifts in persona that exist on a more intimate level that may seem a bit more subtle. Some women interview by Polley volunteer: “She had secrets.”
The film is filled with such tidbits that keep stringing the viewer along and engaged. Polley effortlessly weaves the various perspectives while also offering behind-the-scenes glimpses that reinforce the film’s intimate quality. It does not come across as voyeuristic. Despite some tears from her siblings over this journey into loss, the film is relatable beyond this one family unit because this is not necessarily only about Polley’s family but family in general.
Meanwhile, it remains dramatic in its own way. At the very end it offers a note, a passing thought—maybe a fact— that turns the whole film on its head, staying true to the aloof and unknowable woman at the heart of Stories We Tell but maintaining its thesis of growing up among strangers. Just when you think you might know someone, another fact pops up that will redefine the perspective. Though the story is as intimate and personal as one can imagine, there’s also a melancholy thesis that the only person and the only world one can really know is one’s own experience.
Stories We Tell runs 108 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in Miami exclusively at the Tower Theater this Friday, June 14. The theater arranged for on-line screener for the purposes of this review. This documentary is also playing in other theaters nationwide; check out the film’s official blogspot site for theaters.
Post Tenebras Lux, the fourth film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas demands a relaxed, open mind well aware of the boundaries of cinema and in search of something fresh. The cinephile with an adventurous taste looking for something new in the forms of narrative structure and framing will leave a film like this invigorated. Those looking for something traditional will only feel frustrated, however. But resist and miss a vital message about the class divisions that seem to perpetuate themselves via the mind-numbing escapism most filmmakers are comfortable to exploit for profit and cheap thrills.
Post Tenebras Lux (Latin for “After the darkness, light,” a term lifted out of the Book of Job) is a slippery affair that oozes a vibrant, vital energy looking to obliterate the confines of cinematic narrative for high impact of a social message that seems to trouble the filmmaker to the core of his being. He puts his own lifestyle at the center of culpability by placing his own progeny in the film as the main characters’ children. As you watch the main character Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) try to mingle with the working class while indulging in bourgeois life, which includes a sex adventure to France with his quietly suffering wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), one has to wonder how much of this is autobiographical, at least on the level of conscience. The abstract manner of this film speaks to the filmmaker’s own frustration with the hypocritical idea of it, for ultimately, how can an art film truly speak to the concerns of the other, much less the subaltern.
Illustrating the futile divisions in class systems, Reygadas, who also wrote the screenplay, juxtaposes vignettes of a small town in the lush forest landscape of Central Mexico, bookended by a children’s rugby match in the U.K. Consider the Jungian principal of synchronicity, and the narrative conceit should feel easier to accept, as both settings will illuminate the other in an incongruent but impactful manner. For the most part, the film follows an upper-class family that remains as humanly flawed as the rest of town’s denizens in the lower classes, yet social constructs result in an impenetrable division, despite Juan’s efforts to socialize and mix with those under his employ or simply living in the same area. It all comes to a head in a violent encounter as banal and distant as Reygadas dares to conceive.
The film opens with an evocative if startling exterior scene at dusk. A little girl Eleazar (Eleazar Reygadas) stomps through a muddy meadow as a pack of dogs run back and forth around her, harassing a herd of cows, some of which attempt to copulate. The child, who must be about 3 years of age, is monosyllabic, uttering words like “dog” and “cow” and what will soon be revealed as the names of her immediate family. She sloshes around, fascinated by the mushy ground, as the dogs zip around her and nip at the agitated cows. The sky looms dark with gray clouds pregnant with rain and rumbling electricity. The opening scene carries on long enough, in what seems a single take, to turn from dusk to pitch black and only the sound of animals and the child’s startlingly playful voice resonate from a darkness broken up by flashes of lightning.
Scene 2: Enter the devil. The presence of evil is revealed in the family’s home. The glowing red thing, with no features but its silhouette and testicles hanging and swaying like a pendulum, creeps through the family’s fancy home, carrying a toolbox and bathing the walls in a red glow. The thing takes its time to establish itself. It feels as long as the opening scene, inviting the viewer to wonder. When the little boy of the house, Rut (Rut Reygadas), awakes, he stares at the figure with a sort of curiosity that implies he might be dreaming it but also an awareness that such visions can wholly come to children as rather real (read: traumatic). The scene may feel long, but it allows for it to creep under the skin, so it might echo and illuminate the following scenes that range from violence to animals, subjugation of men and the environment and degradation of love. This is not any easy film to experience, and there are many lengthy, quiet scenes similar in length that range from startling to mundane. But there are also chatty scenes that illustrate Reygadas’ concern also has a sense of humor.
Despite many grand shots outdoors, Reygadas subverts the landscape with the use of a beveled lens that refracts the edges of the image leading to a doubling or sometimes quadrupling of the frame’s edge, creating an invisible if suffocating border around the people he has focused his camera on. This is not some indulgent, random use of experimental lensing. There is a symbolic relevance to the flourish. Post Tenebras Lux is a darkly poetic wake-up call about people who have lost their humanity and could very well continue to lose it should they allow themselves to succumb to complacent entitlement. It’s as harsh an experience as the recent class-concerned Paradise: Love, another exclusive screening revealing the brave programming that continues at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (My review: Film Review: ‘Paradise: Love’ peels away layers perpetuated by Disney gloss of post-colonial times). However, whereas Paradise: Love found potency in its raw delivery of frank exchanges between two different worlds of people, Post Tenebras Lux takes a more abstract approach. The narrative frequently jumps around with seemingly disconnected scenes that demand an open mind by the audience prepared for an interpretive experience. To understand, however, might mean you will have to look at something that you might not like to see, be they scenes that shock on-screen or conversations that demand inference from a social standpoint of the same hypocrisy Reygadas seems to struggle with. It does not have to feel negative, and he offers hope at the end.
Post Tenebras Lux won Reygadas the best director award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It is a brilliantly structured work that encapsulates earthy characters, startling scenes of suspense and inventive cinematic techniques not seen in his prior work. It stands as one of this year’s truly transcendent films. The director seems very aware of breaking down and recreating the rules of cinema for such an experience to hit the audience. With Post Tenebras Lux, Reygadas shows a daring vision to experiment that echoes beyond panache and into consciousness that may aggravate some but never undermines its grander, insightful message that ultimately overshadows any idea of pretentiousness.
Post Tenebras Lux runs 115 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (this is in no way for kids, however). It opened in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which an early version of this review first ran. Post Tenebras Lux begins a limited engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, May 31. I have been asked by the Cinematheque to introduce the film on opening night, Friday, and the following Saturday night, so be there for either of those screenings and say hi and learn a little more about this movie.
Director Noah Baumbach is one of the most honest filmmakers working today. Often quixotically summed up as misanthropic or angst-ridden, Baumbach’s films actually feature an astute sense of humor that is not afraid to explore the deep emotional wounds we incur while growing up. It’s a difficult thing to turn humorous, and he has always handled it with masterful finesse.
Baumbach has directed films starring Ben Stiller (Greenberg, see my original review: Greenberg: The Great Projector) and Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding). His screenplays stand out as offering refreshing new challenges to stars like Stiller and Kidman, who sink their teeth into these titular characters with heavy, damaged personalities to sometimes disturbing lows while offering a mordant sense of humor. It’s a fine line to walk as far as entertainment, but it’s a testament to his craft that he can attract such figures to his work despite the rather dark humor.
With Frances Ha, Baumbach finally seems to reveal a lighter touch. The film follows a young woman (Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script) learning to let go of her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) while figuring out how to make her own opportunities in her career choice: modern dance. The film is a testament to the oft-neglected stage of growing up in one’s later years, sometimes referred to as the quarter-life crisis. It’s not far off the mark from what makes the current buzzy HBO series “Girls” so popular, but Frances Ha is much more tidy and heartfelt. It has a charm influenced beyond concerns of the current generation usurping interest in current media. Both French New Wave and early Woody Allen are more relevant as influences than Gen Y malaise.
Maybe it’s the luminous black and white cinematography and setting, but a comparison to Allen’s Manhattan would not fall far from the mark. However, it’s how Baumbach has channeled French film— from Nouvelle Vague influences to a contemporary master— that will appeal to most cinephiles. Over all, the film has a tone recalling the bright but resonant personal dramedies of François Truffaut. Then there are specific scenes that pay conscious tribute to the wardrobe of Bande à part by Jean-Luc Godard and the more contemporary Leos Carax, involving the hit David Bowie song “Modern Love” and Frances running in the street, a la Mauvais sang.
More subtly, Baumbach employees a smart soundtrack featuring music by Georges Delerue, whose scores accompanied many films of the French New Wave. Witty cues and flourishes pepper the closing of many scenes in distinct homage. However, beyond the black and white cinematography and the music, the nostalgia ends there. In fact, it’s representative of the titular character’s condition who has found herself in a rut because she cannot seem to let go of her own past. Her inner child still seems to claw its way out from inside her despite put downs from a friend who blithely calls her “undatable” and a boss who has grown tired of stringing her along for some permanent position in a dance company Frances seems only half-invested in.
Gerwig dives into the character physically and facially. With her forced smile, raised eyebrows and furrowed brow, she plays Frances with an awkward charm that buoys her throughout the film’s many dramas. Frances is so desperate for relevance, as her friends seemingly glide through life, be they “artists” with indulgent parents or lucky career climbers, she decides to charge a weekend trip to Paris, so she might “grow” a bit. Succumbing to jet lag and a friend who won’t answer her phone calls, the highlight of her trip may have been catching Puss in Boots in a movie theater off the Champs-Élysées.
As with any Baumbach film, the director knows how to pile on the witty, if sometimes sardonic, scenes at a break-neck pace. But the reason the script, which Baumbach co-wrote with Gerwig, feels so smart is not that these are jokes looking for easy laughs. They provide a charming avenue to develop Frances’ character while also making her relatable. The audience is not meant to look down at her state of arrested development but sympathize with it. The film has a wonderful way of piling on the moments of fleshing out the character without feeling redundant and still upping the stakes of the drama as her career becomes on the line, and her friendships drift away. It’s a valid fear everyone knows.
The brilliance of the film is how it can take a character in such a state and make it not only entertaining but also earn a sense of hope in the end. As much as she loves having friends and cannot seem to let go of her appreciation for animated movies (She says, “Animals have to talk or be at war for a movie to be interesting,”) or play fighting in the park, any growth ultimately has to come from within. You can give as much affection to your friends as you want but never neglect the friend you should be to yourself.
Frances Ha runs 86 minutes and is rated R (frank talk, including sexuality). It opens today, May 24, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach for its South Florida premiere run (IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review). It also appears in West Palm Beach on May 31 at Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Regal Delray and Cinemark Palace. Miami will see AMC Sunset Place adding the film to their line-up on May 31, also.
Late next month it will arrive at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (Update: possibly in July, I am now told). Nationwide screenings dates can be found here. Update: “Miami New Times” has published my interview with the star of this film here (that’s a hot link; more on this to come).