Michael Gordon and Bill Morrison talk about their Miami Beach city symphony El Sol Caliente — An Indie Ethos exclusive
January 30, 2015
It’s been 12 years since Bill Morrison came to Miami and blew the minds of a nearly packed house with Decasia in a large screening room at the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Miami as part of the Rewind/Fast Forward Festival. The 70-minute film was made up of clips from movies from the early 20th century printed on nitrate film that had succumbed to a state of decay as the nitrate began breaking down. Morrison went around the world looking for destroyed movies to bring back to life without any intention to restore them (they were beyond help) but to recontextualize them, rot intact.
With music provided by avant-garde composer Michael Gordon, Morrison strung the images together. It opens with a whirling dervish somewhere in Istanbul, spinning slowly to the metallic circular hiss of what may be a lightly scraped cymbal. The film builds from there, featuring waves crashing on rocks and globules of bubbled, corroded film seemingly overlaid on the image and a boxer jabbing at a strip of undulating celluloid. As the image itself comes apart, something new arises, as Gordon’s music pulses between a call and response of droning piano and tapped xylophones, the cymbal still hissing along. The movie builds with a pastiche of images as diverse as the patterns of decay Morrison found on the films, with Gordon’s music building repetitively, growing higher and louder as more instruments pile into the mix offering layers of harmony and counter melody.
The 2003 film has become legendary in the experimental film world and was registered at the Library of Congress in 2013 as one of the supreme examples of American cinema aesthetics, alongside Pulp Fiction and Mary Poppins. Morrison has continued to work with Gordon and has never stopped experimenting with film in decay, but he also shoots his own footage. Below you will find two fine examples of their work since Decasia, both of which were featured during a retrospective at the Miami Jewish Film Festival a few days ago (Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon to discuss and present their avant-garde films at Miami Jewish Film Festival). The first, “Light Is Calling” (2004) is a short that follows a similar construction to Decasia. Gordon first provided the music, a slow and sad violin solo to the soft pulse of a bell recorded backward as unrecognizable ambient hums pile up and melt away. Morrison culled images from a damaged print of The Bells (1926) by James Young to create an enthralling experience of sound and vision:
The next short is something completely different. Morrison handed cinematography duties to his cat in “Gene Takes a Drink” (2012), as the feline explored their garden. The perspective of grass and flowers and a fish pond via this “cat cam” is a revelation. Gordon’s playful music, though it sounds electronic, actually features cello, piano, guitar, double bass, clarinet, and percussion. The footage is sped up a bit to the music, adding another layer of new perspective, and then Morrison starts playing with filters on the image for yet another abstract layer, raising the film to another realm of transcendentalism by calling attention to the beauty of new perspective.
I point all this out to hopefully prepare you for tonight’s world premiere at the New World Symphony of El Sol Caliente, a near 30-minute “city symphony” by Morrison and Gordon dedicated to Miami Beach. As they usually work, Gordon first provided the music and Morrison cut his footage to it. “It’s typical of two other city pieces that we’ve done,” says Morrison, speaking from his home in New York. “Gotham being about New York and Dystopia being about Los Angeles, and it sort of comes from a tradition of city symphonies with Berlin: Symphony of a Great City or Manhatta.”
You can find a great overview of what a City Symphony is by reading this article (City Symphony Primer: 3 Essential Films to Watch Now), where you can stream Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand‘s Manhatta (1921) and the more epic Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) by Walter Ruttman. “We’re sort of resurrecting that for the 21st Century,” notes Morrison, “but really drawing on 20th century archival imagery and then sort of as a refrain at the end, adding original, contemporary footage.”
So you can expect images Morrison shot himself of Miami Beach as well as old footage he discovered. Though Morrison calls himself an “interloper” in Miami Beach, he has set his aim to present a version of the city outsiders would not expect. “You know, Miami Beach, at least the way it’s been portrayed throughout history, has been as a vacation land,” he says, “so it’s been a struggle to find imagery that isn’t about tourism, but it has any interesting portrait of the 20th century in that you have a lot of footage of the 1926 hurricane, you have the troops coming in and G.I.s taking over the Miami Beach hotels in the ‘40s for training, and then a lot of those guys end up coming back from the war and settling there, so it is an interesting cultural melting pot.”
He spent a lot of time in Miami and Miami Beach and offered a preview of some of the images he has assembled. “I walked through Art Basel with a GoPro on my chest,” he says, referring to the Miami Beach-based international art festival that unfolds inside and around the Miami Beach Convention Center. “I got some nice scenes of people going up to a photo booth and posing.”
He also went outdoors, riding a bike with a Go-Pro camera on its handlebars and shot footage from the shore, which will provide a key element in the film. “There was a couple of full moon shots,” he notes. “I got a couple of full moonrises and sunrises over the ocean, and also I had a small drone camera, so I got some footage of the beach and the waves from a different perspective, so that footage I used to create chapters and a way in and out of the archival stuff.”
Morrison says he gathered lots of footage from various locations, including the Miami-based Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives, which happened to have been the main sponsor of the Rewind/Fast Forward Festival that brought Decasia to Miami all those years ago. “With the archival stuff,” Morrison explains, “I hit the Library of Congress for nitrate 35 millimeter to see what I could find on Miami Beach, and that was an interesting project. Then, with the new film stuff, a lot of it came from the Fox Movitone Archive at the University of South Carolina and then more locally the Louis Wolfson Archive … They are now located in a beautiful new facility at Miami Dade College, so I was working closely with them to come up with home movie footage, and some of that’s been really, really awesome.”
It is fitting that Gordon provided the glue to the images via his music for El Sol Caliente, which translates from Spanish to “the hot sun.” He has intimate knowledge of Miami Beach. “My family moved there from Central America when I was almost 8 years old,” says Gordon, speaking via phone from Amsterdam, where he was visiting for a concert, “and I went to [Miami] Beach High, so I feel like I’m from Miami Beach, and this is kind of a wild, trippy thing to be doing, actually, going back to my town, working with the New World Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, especially on this piece.”
When asked about his memory growing up on Miami Beach, Gordon recalls an experience distinct to those who have lived a long time in the area: the weather. “I was talking to Bill and of course, he’s drawing on a lot of historical images of Miami Beach, but when I was thinking back to growing up in the area, all the time I spent there, the thing that influenced my thinking was kind of seeing this little, tiny strip of land, surrounded by this huge bay and then this large ocean and the crashing of the waves and the stillness of the waves and those sudden huge storms that happen every afternoon at 4 o’clock or something and then how it clears and how hot it becomes. It’s really more a feeling for the land and the climate and the forces of weather.”
Considering the weather, there is something even more ominous about the territory of Miami Beach, for, as with Decasia, a profound subtext arises in the juxtaposition of the film and music in El Sol Caliente. As some might be aware, scientists have warned it will not take long before sea-level rise erases Miami Beach (check out the graphic in this article). This was not lost on both the filmmaker and composer. Morrison says, “Though I don’t make an explicit reference to it, there’s also this overriding it: it’s a very fragile barrier island on a continental peninsula, all of which is at risk with rising ocean waters, so there is this sense that none of this is permanent.”
On Friday, January 30, and Saturday, January 31, the New World Symphony will present the world premiere of El Sol Caliente, a tribute to Miami Beach celebrating the city’s centennial by Michael Gordon and Bill Morrison as part of its “New Works” program. Tomorrow night is already sold out, but there will be a free, live “Wallcast” on the front of the NWS building for park-goers. For more information, visit nws.com.
November 19, 2014
We at Independent Ethos are extremely supportive of the Miami Beach Cinematheque and its Speaking In Cinema series, which would not be possible without funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The series has brought some excellent filmmakers to Miami since it began earlier this year, and we helped out with its inaugural event (An Interview with ‘Hide Your Smiling Faces’ Filmmaker Daniel Patrick Carbone in ‘Miami New Times’). We’ve covered them all because, frankly, it is damn exciting to consider movies thoughtfully for an hour (sometimes longer) in such a setting with some amazing guests.
This month and next — the month known in Miami Beach for one of the biggest art festivals in the world: Art Basel – Miami Beach — the Cinematheque has begun screening some rare films by Andy Warhol thanks to The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA at the Carnegie Institute. The four films are all about Golden Age Hollywood starlets and their scandals recreated in the experimental and exploratory way only Warhol could have made. The Velvet Underground, Edie Sedgewick and famous drag queens are all collaborators. The films include Harlot (1964), Lupe (1965), More Milk Yvette (1965), and Hedy (1966)*.
Discussing the films with depth and knowledge will be our old Miami friend and compatriot on WordPress Alfred Soto (check out his terrific blog Humanizing the Vacuum). He will lead a discussion with director/producer Tom Kalin and Claire K. Henry, Senior Curatorial Assistant and project manager of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I corresponded with the out-of-town experts via email ahead of their visit and wrote an article for the art and culture blog of the Miami New Times, “Cultist.” Among other topics, we discussed common misconceptions of Warhol’s film work, and I even asked them for a personal favorite of the the four Warhol films screening at the MBC (it turned out to be unanimous). You can read the result by jumping through the link below:
But, as always, there was more. Asked what mainstream filmmakers can learn from the work of Warhol, Henry declared that indeed they have already learned a tremendous amount. “The commercial success of The Chelsea Girls in 1966-67 paved the way for more radical filmmaking,” she notes, “both in subject matter — Midnight Cowboy (1969); A Clockwork Orange (1971); Pink Flamingos (1972) — and in technique — Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975); Memento (2001).”
She deferred to Kalin for more on this notion. Though he was rushing to board his plane to Miami, he offered, “Sometimes in mainstream cinema a pop star crosses over and becomes a screen star. This blurring of the lines — the synergy between music and movies for instance is very Warholian. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was ahead of its time and the boundary pushing of his expanded cinema like Chelsea Girls still resonates in this era of ‘multiplatform storytelling.’ Also Warhol’s superstars, mere mortals transformed by the magic lens, anticipate today’s preoccupation with reality, real faces.”
Finally, since Speaking In Cinema also tries to go off topic to discuss film in general, it was worth asking Kalin, what he is up to as a filmmaker, considering this writer is only familiar with his work as a feature filmmaker of 1992’s Swoon and 2007’s Savage Grace. “In addition to my feature narrative work, my films and videos include short experimental work, installations and collaborations,” notes Kalin, who is also a professor at Columbia University. “Recently, I have been collaborating with musician Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) on a series of projects. We premiered My Silent One at REDCAT in Los Angeles in July. You can read a bit about it here and here.”
He also pauses to note Warhol’s own influence on his work. “Of course Warhol famously was a key figure in the combination of film and live music in his work with The Velvet Underground, and like many filmmakers, I have been inspired by this work. I also have just made a new short film for Visual AIDS’ 25th Anniversary of Day Without Art. The film is called ‘Ashes’ and features the voice of Justin Vivian Bond.”
Finally, for those curious about his feature work, Kalin offers: “I’m developing two new features, one of which is about a crime in a small town, my first feature set in present time. I will shoot summer 2015.”
Director/producer Tom Kalin will join Claire K. Henry, Senior Curatorial Assistant of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art and “Humanizing the Vacuum” critic Alfred Soto for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss the films on Thursday, November 20, at 7 p.m. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for all the Warhol screenings and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.
*The films in the retrospective are from the Collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © 2014 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA., a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.
November 6, 2014
Miami’s O Cinema is once again expanding. After setting up a movie house in the artsy district of Wynwood in February of 2011, O Cinema opened another movie in Miami Shores in October of 2012. This Friday, it will take charge of a third movie house in the northern part of Miami Beach. It’s an old movie house built in 1968 and once owned by Wometco and later the Regal Group.
I sat down with O Cinema’s co-founder Kareem Tabsch, in one of the cinema house’s 304 seats, at the front of the theater. It’s a large space with a mezzanine and is fitting of the aspirations of one of several Miami-area indie art houses. Tabsch says the City of Miami Beach has long hoped to bring art and culture to an area that already has plenty of great restaurants and lies just blocks from the beach. “It’s part of a lot of things there,” Tabsch says. “They just redid the fountain up the street, on 71st, Normandy Circle, the band shell is being activated.”
Tabsch notes that when he and his business partner Vivian Marthell started O Cinema, they hoped to usher in a new era of film culture to the community. “Why we did it from the beginning, which is what we believe in, is that there are plenty of film lovers or people who want to see quality independent cinema in the city, but they don’t have the opportunity … There is a critical mass for film. All the arts in Miami have reached these new levels,” he says, referring to the art scene in Wynwood, the Adrienne Arsht Center, a massive theater and concert hall in Downtown Miami, and the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, among other new cultural destinations in the city that have popped up in the last decade or so. “But film was kinda held back in a sense, as far as critical mass. You had stuff going on in the ’70s and the early ’80s with Nat Chediak’s theaters in Coral Gables and the Fendelman Brothers in the Grove.”
He also brings up the ’90s, when Miami had the Alliance Theater in Miami Beach and the Absinthe House in Coral Gables, the owners of which later expanded to the Mercury in North Miami, in the early 2000s. The Mercury would only last a couple of years, and all those theaters soon shuttered. The only mainstay, as far as indie/art/world and retrospective cinema was concerned, was being programmed by the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which is now celebrating its 11th year in operation under founding director Dana Keith, who has been booking special screenings in Miami Beach since 1993. “I always give Dana at the Cinematheque props because he’s held it down for the longest,” says Tabsch.
Tabsch also notes that he has a great working relationship with Keith and neither see the new O, which is located more than 60 streets north of MBC, as competition. Tabsch brings it back to North Beach as opposed to South Beach, which has its own culture and scene. Tabsch says it’s all about giving the area its own indie cinema. He also notes that he is very aware of the demographics of the community, including the fact that there is a high concentration of Brazilian and Argentinian families in the area. “Going to the movies is something that should happen within your community,” he offers. “It’s a part of your life. It’s a part of your culture. You want to walk to your movie theater. You don’t want to drive 20 minutes away. For a very long time in Miami, all you could do was just drive. For the first time in 15 years we will be providing, 52 weeks a year, seven days a week, cultural programming in North Beach. You will be able to come and see an indie movie every day of the week, and I think that’s gonna be a huge part of the growth of the neighborhood.”
You can read more of my conversation with Tabsch and plans for the new theater in this week’s “Miami New Times,” out on newsstands now or on-line at the weekly paper’s art and culture blog Cultist. Jump through the banner below to access it:
The opening night screening of Birdman is already sold out, but the film will play there until Nov. 13 (Update: due to technical issues the O Cinema premiere of Birdman was postponed. It now opens Friday, Nov. 21, and the cinema is honoring tickets from Nov. 7 for any Birdman screening at O Cinema Miami Beach). For screening details, visit here. Then, the theater will host The Theory of Everything (details). Read my review of Birdman here: ‘Birdman’ lampoons Hollywood with humorous, hyper-real, hero-hating satire. I loved that movie.
November 23, 2013
As the much-anticipated Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire opens wide this weekend, allow us to direct you to a much different story about a girl suffering through a time of revolution under the iron rule of a totalitarian regime. The Book Thief struck a particularly personal chord with this writer, as it is based on a book by an author who has a very similar perspective on the German side of World War II.
Novelist Markus Zusak grew up in Australia where his German parents did not hold back telling him stories of their experiences as children growing up in small German villages as Adolf Hitler rose to power. The film adaptation by British director Brian Percival opened this Friday in South Florida in only two theaters (the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 and the AMC Aventura 24), after a steady role-out in limited release across the nation. The film features 13-year-old French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, who I first became aware of when I reviewed Philippe Falardeau’s terrific little drama Monsieur Lazhar. (Film Review: ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ tells powerful story by staying grounded).
I met all three of these artists last Friday during a face-to-face interview in a windowless conference room of the Ritz-Carlton Miami Beach. Nélisse chucked a paper airplane across the room when I walked in. “We’re making paper airplanes,” she said exuberantly, as she proceeded to fold another airplane, standing at the edge of a table. British director Percival, most famously known for Emmy-winning work directing many episodes of Downton Abbey, sat slouched on one side of the table. He offered a bright smile and a soft laugh. They were just coming to the end of a month-long tour of U.S. cities promoting their new film, which looks at World War II through the eyes of Liesel (Nélisse), who lives in a small village not far from Munich, as Germany heads into war.
I placed a stack of handwritten journals held together by twine on the table. “He brought books,” said Nélisse. I introduce myself as Hans and shake hands with Percival. “His name is Hans, like in the movie,” she added, referring to Geoffrey Rush‘s character in the film, Liesel’s adoptive father. I explain that these old books contain stories by my father, a former German soldier conscripted to join the Wehrmacht when he was 16 years old. He wrote them with the help of his first wife, as he lay in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis after surviving the front lines to take Stalingrad (One day, I hope to write the book based on these [Note to any serious German translators out there!]).
Zusak, author of The Book Thief, walks in a minute or so later, as I share the books, so they might flip through the pages, as we talk about the film. I mention the horrors my dad saw fighting the notoriously ruthless Russians. Percival and Zusak both know about the atrocities well, though they are too graphic to address in a book and film written from a child’s perspective for younger audiences.
Percival said he has heard all kinds of stories. “One couple in a bomb shelter actually remembered being in a bomb shelter during the war. It wasn’t just on the soundtrack. And they, and a number of people, said they fled from the Eastern Front in the final months of the war because they wanted to be captured or liberated, or however you want to look at it, by the Western forces rather than the Russians because the Russians were notorious for what they did, particularly to women and children. There were alarming accounts. A lot of German women dressed as men because they were just being dragged through the streets and raped. There was actually a black market lending out babies because apparently Russian soldiers wouldn’t attack a woman if she had a small child with her, so they used that as a deterrent.”
Zusak, who is 38 years old, said he finished the book when he was 29. It has since gone on to leave a profound mark on the “New York Times” bestseller chart and won scores of awards. He says his mother would have been 8 years old when the war ended, and the Americans drove through her village. Even though these were the much more sympathetic Western forces, the fear of the Other remain profound. “She said a truck came past her once, and a soldier leaned down and her mom saw, and she was yelling out, ‘Be careful, be careful!’ And a soldier leaned down and gave her a massive block of chocolate, and she said she ran down the street yelling out, ‘They have chocolate! They have chocolate!’ I mean, you think about what happened to so many people, and so many Jewish people in particular … She was so lucky, being that young, for a start.
“Even my dad who had the Russians come into his town after the war, he saw a soldier come up, he stopped his truck and walked up to him, put his hand on his face and said, ‘kind’ [German for child]. He had tears in his eyes and got back in his truck and drove away. That’s what happens, you start seeing things from different points of view, and that’s how I grew up, hearing those things.”
The Book Thief offers a powerfully humanistic portrayal of ordinary people surviving through a dark time in German history. It’s something that speaks profoundly to this writer, who grew up with other kids teasing that my father was a Nazi, when he hated the Nazis. He was harassed by the Hitler Youth, when he turned down membership at 12 years of age and torn away from his family as a 16-year-old, forced to fight in some of the most costly battles of the war (Africa and Russia) or face a firing squad by his own people. As a child, I lent a reluctant ear to stories of close calls and horror as my father worked out the traumas he had survived until he was blessed from returning to battle with TB, something many also did not survive back then.
As time ran out from our brief, 15-minute interview, and we said our good-byes, Zusak read from one of the last pages of one of my father’s journals: “‘Many German soldiers, including many who fought mostly in the first line knew nothing about concentration camps and the Holocaust. We, and I, fought on the Russian front mainly to fight for our lives and the lives of our loved ones because that enemy was guided by evil forces, Bolshevism, and we were guided and had to endanger our lives for the Nazis, so we were not better than they, but at the same time I must note that not one unit in which I fought committed atrocities. They were mostly men who had to face war because there was no other choice.’ Pretty amazing.”
“That was my dad,” I said, feeling a tad choked up. “That was him.”
“You should be proud,” offered Nélisse.
* * *
Thursday afternoon, The “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist” published my article about the film, where the filmmakers shared their feelings about the war that inspired the book. Percival also gave me some material on Downton Abbey. Read it by jumping through the blog’s logo below:
The following day, some of the flow of our conversation was captured in this article I wrote based on the interviews for fellow film critic Dan Hudak’s website, “Hudak On Hollywood.” Jump through the website’s logo below to read that:
Finally, go see the film! Here’s the trailer:
The Book Thief is rated PG-13 and runs 127 minutes. It opened in South Florida Friday, Nov. 22, at the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 and the AMC Aventura 24. Meanwhile, in other parts of the U.S., it may already be playing at a theater near you; visit the film’s website and enter your zip code to find out here.
November 8, 2013
Jon Anderson is one of those early pioneers of the British progressive rock scene still working who has earned the title of living legend. He was part of many important albums of the prog scene as a co-founding member and frontman of Yes. What a breath of fresh air that he appeared game to entertain some questions that I’m sure he has heard often with warmth and some amusement.
For instance, what happened that made the band carry on without him? “I was going to get back together with the band [in 2008],” he admitted while chatting over the phone, during some grocery shopping, “and then I got really sick, and then that’s when the band decided to move on and carry on touring with another singer and I just thought, well, I gotta get better first. It took me a while. It took me about eight months, nine months. And then I said, OK, well, they’re out there doing their thing maybe I should go out and do my thing, and that’s when I started really touring as a solo artist more and more, and it has become part of my life.”
It’s probably an explanation his given many times before. The fact that he put up with such questions twice in a row after my recorder failed following a 20-minute chat stands as proof that he is far from allowing an ego to overtake his humanity. I regret that I lost a nice exchange about the band’s 1973 ambitions double-album Tales From Topographic Oceans, where he not only offered insight into its themes inspired by the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda but also what exploring that philosophy meant to him personally. He said, back then, record labels and some bands, were all about maximizing profit and excess. He was more interested in keeping his ego in check and maintaining a perspective unsullied by money and fame. Exploring this Eastern philosophy has helped keep him grounded as well as inspired much of Yes’ fantastic music and lyrics. We also spoke about meditation, which he still practices, and how Yes’ albums capture the sensation of meditation and bliss in its music.
Even though he is no longer with Yes, Anderson continues to compose and record new material as a solo artist not all that different from Yes. In 2011, he self-released a 20-minute-plus digital-only single entitled “Open” (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase direct through Amazon via this link). Not long after, he teased a follow-up called “Ever” that has yet to see release. “Yeah, I started it last year,” he noted, “and it has taken longer than I expected it. We’re down to the last framework of the songs—two-and-half songs. Altogether, it’s about eight songs that are all inter-working together. It’s still not quite finished. I’m working with them now with a friend … It’s a slow process. Music never happens when you think it is going to happen. You work on something and a week later you say, ‘Nah, that really didn’t work. I gotta try again.’ And you do. You gotta keep going until it feels right.”
Let’s face it, any fan of Yes’ music is waiting to hear about his return to fronting the band that has comfortably gone on without him. Well, he did answer that question as well as reveal plans with former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman in our interview, the bulk of which can be read in the “Miami New Times” music blog “Crossfade.” Jump through the blog’s logo below to read that article:
As the quote in the headline notes, Anderson may indeed once again front Yes. In an earlier interview I did with Yes drummer Alan White, for the “Broward-Palm Beach New Times” music blog “County Grind,” his former bandmate hinted at the same possibility. You can read that interview by jumping through the blog’s logo below:
Jon Anderson takes the stage Sunday, November 10, at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. Two shows: 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Tickets cost $81.95. All ages. Call 800-653-8000 or visit ticketmaster.com. For more Jon Anderson tour dates, visit his official website.
Anyone who follows Independent Ethos knows an artist’s perceived popularity matters little to this blog. What matters is the work produced, though sometimes the circumstances under which that work is produced matters. Take Fiona Apple’s current tour. When it stopped into Miami Beach over the weekend, something felt … flat. I had last seen her perform in Washington D.C., during the heat wave of ’06 in an outdoor venue. Though sweat poured off her, she offered boundless energy (read a review by “DCist”). She also seemed happy, noting last time she was at that venue was in the womb of her mother, as her father performed in a play there.
But, my how news coverage of an arrest for hashish possession can change things. Sure, it must have been a bummer for her, but probably magnifying the clouds over the tour where several things that unfolded in the mass media afterward. First her mugshot in prison stripes was circulated by the higher-than-though gossip media machine. Later, she lashed out against the arresting cops on stage. The audience video went viral. Then, the arresting police department’s spokesperson had the tacky idea to comment publicly telling her to “Shut up and sing” and “I’m more famous than you are.” Adding more insult was one famous and longtime unethical blogger’s idea to analyze her appearance on this current tour.
In response to it all, Apple most recently felt inclined to preempt her second Florida show this past Monday night by sitting down to offer a diatribe of her experiences in this losing battle with the larger voices of the conglomerate monster of the Internet. Watch the unedited near 9-minute thing here:
What a shame that a few people abusing their big metaphoric bullhorns have affected Apple’s performance quality. If she feels inclined to start a show with a speech like the one above, it’s ignorant to think it is not affecting her. The show is a stripped down affair with minimal theatrics, which is all the more reason to skip the personal distractions and focus on the marvel that is Apple’s music. Her new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, was a welcome return after seven years of recording studio silence. The vinyl record was made for such a work. Her voice is pure and raw, and the recording captured all the wonderment of beating the heck out of a piano. From the moment her fingertips touch the keys to the reverb of the strings, the entire beast of the instrument is on fine display.
But the weight of all these superficial concerns of image, fighting for hits on pop culture blogs and Apple’s silly idea to take heed to what the bullies of the Internet have to say dampened the show in Miami Beach. It felt brief, especially after she sprung off stage and did not return for an encore. The house lights went up soon after she bounded off, so this was probably planned. Still little, if anyone cared, as all the cheering stopped soon after the lights went out and people shuffled out with little a care. It was a lackluster performance, as she went through the motions. Here’s one subdued moment:
As this latent post reveals, I almost did not even bother writing about the show, I felt so underwhelmed. I was the guy nodding off a couple of times during the set. I was able to stay awake enough to capture some clips, but my wife captured this last one:
Though the first minute of the song is missing, it offers an interesting moment on stage for the singer. She and the band extend the pauses in the song, creating a playful tension as Apple waits for cues from her drummer. Though she’s laughing at the thrill of anticipation, the moment she sings, her voice carries an impressive weight. Apple is still an honest, potent musician and God bless her for it. She will probably only get better as the superficial media gets bored and stops covering her silly stumbles, and she starts to ignore the coverage, so she can focus on her fantastic music.
I’d be dreaming to think this type of high school-level-type news coverage of art will ever stop. But, by coming to this blog, you support intelligent coverage of music and film that sticks to the art and keeps irrelevant personal coverage out of the mix. We can all learn from this and be better.
Her tour continues at these following dates:
10/05 – Louisville, KY @ Palace Theatre
10/06 – Cincinnati, OH @ Aronoff Center
10/07 – Columbus, OH @ Palace Theatre
10/09 – Buffalo, NY @ Kleinhans Music Hall
10/11 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE
10/12 – Montclair, NJ @ Wellmont Theatre
10/16 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
10/17 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
10/21 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE
August 15, 2012
Art is at its most vital when it is harnessed to call attention to an injustice … and maybe overthrow an oppressive government. Art has been part of revolutions in the past. Look at the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The people would end up electing one of the revolution’s leaders, playwright Václav Havel, as the country’s president. You wouldn’t know it by the popular fluff that passes for art in contemporary America (I personally believe a lot of it is responsible for numbing the masses into passive “sheeple”), but art has an amazing power that still matters to this day. Take the case of Ai Weiwei, a Chinese conceptual artist and documentary filmmaker who would so upset Chinese government officials, he would wind up jailed for 81 days without due process, cut off from even communicating with his family.
Taking her interning experience from working on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Alison Klayman went to China to film Ai at work and at an amazing turning point in his life as an artist. Shot from 2008 – 2010, the film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry points out Ai did not come from the government’s Central Academy of Fine Arts , yet he designed the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium that was the center of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. For an “unofficial” artist in that autocratic regime to have such validity makes for an amazing statement. Before that, his work would even appear in national exhibitions alongside other Chinese artists that were basically the product of a government-controlled education system. When asked by an interviewer for his party affiliation Ai replies, “None. I’m an independent artist,” which probably explains why police not only follow him and record him on video but also intimidate him. The government has even installed 15 surveillance cameras around is home/studio in Beijing.
But, as the film chronicles, Ai has found freedom in his independent way of thinking. It is his thinking that allowed him to see through the twisted control Chinese officials have over their people, a revelation that seemed to come to Ai during his role designing the Bird’s Nest. Residents were ordered to smile at visitors to the Olympics and even forced out of their homes to make way for the games. This did not sit well with Ai and he spoke out. Here is that video:
A fellow artist tells the documentarian: “Weiwei has a hooligan style, like the Chinese government. So he knows how to deal with other hooligans.”
Like a good journalist, Klayman knows to keep out of the way of her subject and never inserts herself in the film, showing this figure the best kind of respect. Klayman also spends little time with talking heads. She presents these years as a kinetic action movie that happens to feature an artist as its hero, and art as his weapon. Her camera simply observes the artist as he assimilates activism into his aesthetic.
Interspersed with her interviews and moments of Ai’s action, whether directing his next project or Tweeting his every move (more for his own protection than promotional reasons), outside Western journalists come in and ask Ai questions. Ai fans from China show up after he Tweets what restaurant he is headed to, and they dine nearby in silent solidarity as police badger him, asking when he will be done eating.
Klayman weaves in footage from Ai’s own documentary works, including one illustrating his efforts to chronicle the identities of victims who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. He joined a team of volunteers seeking to document every fatality in that quake, estimated at 70,000, something the government preferred to keep secret. Of those victims, over 5,000 were children who died in schools built in such a shoddy manner activists use the term “tofu” to describe their construction. Through such horror Ai creates spare but moving pieces of art that are both grand and minimal.
Though Ai seems to taunt the limits of his “rights,” he recognizes the danger of confronting and testing the government. He thinks of it as a means of survival. “I act brave because I know the danger is really there,” he says. “If I don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.” He does speak English, as he spent more than 10 years in New York City, starting in the early eighties. He immersed himself in the art scene and the place definitely seemed to have a positive influence on his creativity. Ironically, the Chinese government was partly responsible for his trip, as it sought to loosen restrictions through cultural exchange programs, allowing Ai to travel and settle in there for a spell.
As much as his “hooligan” style of expression has become a manner of survival for him personally, he also believes nothing will change if he does not do what he does. He understands his role in stirring up some of the Chinese. The film sets this up beautifully at the beginning through a metaphor via Ai’s cats. He says he has 40 running around his studio, yet only one of them knows how to open doors. He says, had he not ever met this cat who can open doors, he wouldn’t know cats could have the power to open them. There is a human drama in the film, too. The birth of a son makes him reevaluate the risks he takes, and when he is finally released from jail, he seems shaken, and you can feel the energy of his creativity has been deflated.
Ai has no delusions of his efforts. He says he believes it will take several generations for China to see a fair change. The key is to keep the voices alive, to never be sorry. At an exhibit at the Tate Modern simply titled “Sunflower Seeds” he had 100 million had-painted porcelain sunflower seeds shipped in and spread across a gallery floor.
To him, he said, each seed represented an individual thought. He steps out to walk on them in front of a camera. The scene unravels from a distance, from another camera that seems to catch the action from the ground, highlighting other sunflower seeds that are not touched, cushioned by distance and the masses of seeds in the same space. It’s a highly conceptual work that brilliantly emphasizes his thinking of the futility of a government that thinks it can control the entire population by crushing the voices of a certain few. The piece could have easily been titled “100 million thoughts,” but that would have been too subversive.
Never Sorry is a strong documentary because Ai is such a strong figure with powerful, resonant ideas and a talent to pull off concepts vibrant with shock waves that wake up the audience. He is the activist who puts the “act” in activism with none of the ego, in effect inciting both those who also want to act and those who fear action. The film’s director clearly understands this and does the best thing she can do by putting her journalist soul to work to record and stay out of the way.
Curious where Ai is now? Check out this news piece by ABC’s “Nightline.“
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is Rated R, runs 91 min. and is in English and Mandarin with English subtitles. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Aug. 17, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):
Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
O Cinema – Miami, FL
Cosford Cinema – Coral Gables, FL
Shadowood 16 – Boca Raton, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL
Delray Beach 18 – Delray Beach, FL
If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year, including screenings in Canada and the UK. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)