J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

5/9: Surfwise

Dr. Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz introduced surfing in Israel, which is a pretty cool claim to fame. His unconventional approach to child rearing—or perhaps non-rearing would be more apt—is the focus of Doug Pray’s new documentary Surfwise (trailer here), opening in New York May 9th.

At one time Dr. Paskowitz was a pillar of the Hawaiian community, even considered a potential governor. Yet at the height of his respectability, he decided to drop out and raise his family—nine, count them nine children—off the grid as itinerant wave chasers. No school, just surf.

Surfwise sees Paskowitz as an idealist, bordering on a mystic, but it does not hide the dark side of his alternate lifestyle. To say his eight sons and one daughter had difficulty adjusting to conventional society would be a fair statement. The grown Paskowitz children now face very concrete costs for their unconventional upbringing, finding themselves unable to pursue certain ambitions because they simply lack the requisite education.

Watching Surfwise suggests some of the Paskowitz children should go into therapy, particularly Michael, the oldest. During their camper years, he served as his father’s chief enforcer. Now as an adult his rage seems barely contained at times. When he stares into the camera to sing his heavy metal ode to paternal neglect, it is skin-crawlingly uncomfortable. While Michael Paskowitz appears to have the most marks on his psyche, the other Paskowitz children have plenty of their own issues. The sole daughter Navah (#8) sounds distinctly disturbed to have heard her parents frequently engaged in the process of making more Paskowitzs.

Despite hearing from Dr. Paskowitz quite a bit, it is difficult to understand him. In an emotionally heavy scene he visits the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, where he becomes visibly distraught that he allowed such horror could befall others when was “at the peak” of his strength. Yet instead of engaging with the post-war world around him, such as it may have been, Dr. Paskowitz withdrew from society. It is a moment that seems completely at odds with his life choices, but the filmmakers do not press him on the apparent contradiction.

In some ways, the Paskowitzs have contributed to the society they shunned, most notably in the Paskowitz family surfing camp for which they are best known. Unfortunately, the camp faces an uncertain future during the course of Pray’s filming due to (big surprise) dubious management and questionable business savvy.

It is hard to know what to think about Dr. Paskowitz after watching Surfwise. Like his offspring, the film seems conflicted on the subject. Despite all the angst expressed by the grown children throughout the film, they can come together as a happy family in an almost anti-climatic third act.

Surfwise does broach some interesting questions about a non-conformist’s place in society. To its credit, the film even-handedly documents the consequences of Paskowitz’s choices. At least the surfing was good. It opens in New York May 9th (while I’ll be traveling, so go to a movie to fill the void) at the IFC Film Center.

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Tribeca: Man on Wire

Before September 11th, the most vivid memory many New Yorker had of the World Trade Center was Frenchman Philippe Petit’s 1974 death-defying high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. Taking its title from the incident’s police report, the new documentary, Man on Wire, tells the story not just of Petit’s walk, but the painstaking planning and blind luck which made it possible. Directed by James Marsh, it screens at Tribeca this week, with a theatrical release scheduled for August.

Petit is something of a Captain Kirk character, always looking to go where no man has gone before. He had performed previous unsanctioned “clandestine” walks at Notre Dame and the Sydney Opera House, but his imagination had been captured by a 1968 article about the WTC construction, ultimately setting in motion the arguable stunt of the century.

Wire often seems more like a caper movie than a documentary, relishing the Mission Impossible style preparations. You didn’t just show up at the Towers and toss a line across (it involved a bow and arrow, believe it or not). Aerial photography, scale models, reconnaissance, forging documents, and recruiting an inside man, all figured into Petit’s so-called “coup” and we see all these steps lovingly explicated.

The animated Petit was probably difficult to sit down for his interviews and impossible to shut up, once they had started. While his segments are quite entertaining, the interviews with his unindicted (but in some cases deported) co-conspirators carry surprising emotional weight. For his then girl-friend and close colleagues, the WTC walk would be a culminating moment in their relationships. Even thirty some years removed from the experience, it still clearly holds great meaning for them.

While never disrespectful in any way, Marsh made the conscious decision to avoid references to September 11th, focusing exclusively on the events leading up to that one moment of time in 1974. It is hard to say if that works though, because the weight of that tragedy hangs over the film at all times. When a police officer tells reporters at the time that he knew he was seeing something he would never see again in his lifetime, it takes on obvious added layers of meaning. However, Wire does perfectly capture its own historical moment, during New York’s grungy period. In yet another quirk of fate, Petit made his walk the day before Pres. Nixon’s resignation, giving the film a recurring Watergate motif.

Director Marsh and cinematography Igor Martinovic tell much of the story through highly stylized re-enactments that suggest Errol Morris on steroids. The film also relies on video shot by Petit’s crew during the coup itself, which dramatically illustrates the enormity of the Towers and the unbelievable nature of their mission. Nicely complemented by Michael Nyman’s pseudo-classical score, Wire is compulsively watchable.

Petit did indeed go where nobody will ever go again—1,360 feet in the air, between the Twin Towers. Years later his walk continues to hold a peculiar fascination for New Yorkers. Everyone I have mentioned Wire to have responded with enthusiasm, suggesting it might be a sleeper hit when it is released in August. They will enjoy it. It also screens again at Tribeca on Sunday.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Crispell’s Vignettes

Vignettes
By Marilyn Crispell
ECM Records 2027


ECM has always been known as an audiophile’s label, but the audio quality of Marilyn Crispell’s new solo release, Vignettes, sounds particularly gorgeous. Fortunately, the careful production values (recorded in the Auditorio RSI in Lugano, Switzerland, for those keeping score at home) are not misplaced in a surprisingly accessible session marked by its austere beauty.

As the title implies, Vignettes consists of several short improvisations, most under three minutes, mixed together with longer, more formal compositions. The brief, minimalist “Vignette 1” starts the program, establishing the spare elegance of the music to come. Though known for her associations with fire-breathing avant-garde artists, Crispell displays a delicate lyricism on “Cuida Tu Espíritu,” one of only two compositions here not composed in some fashion by the pianist. Likewise, the following “Gathering Light” is elegantly melodic in a way that approaches the revelatory.

Of course, the Cecil Taylor influences still come through. “Vignettes” 3 and 6 have that distinctive percussive playfulness that has long been a hallmark of Taylor’s music. Crispell has also been greatly influenced by Scandinavian jazz artists, many of whom have also recorded for ECM, so the thoughtful composition “Sweden” makes a fitting homage to her colleagues and labelmates.

From the graceful “Stilleweg” to the foreboding “Axis,” Vignettes is a rich study in ostensible contradictions, which Crispell nicely reconciles into a unified musical statement. The disk culminates with the relatively brief “Little Song for My Father,” a tune sharing little beyond the sentiment of the similarly named Horace Silver tune. It is a performance striking for its open spaces and emotional purity—a perfect summation for Vignettes.

Stark one moment, sweeping the next, yet never jarring or disjointed, Vignettes is a richly crafted record. As impressive as Vignettes’ engineering might be, nothing beats live. She performs in New York at Birdland tonight, live and solo, as part of a tour that will also take her to Baltimore, San Francisco, and Seattle over the coming year.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Tribeca: Faubourg Treme

The Tremé/Sixth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans has a storied jazz history as the one-time home of pioneering musicians like Sidney Bechet, Freddie Keppard, George Lewis, Jimmie Noone, and later even Louis Prima. Despite lending its name to one of the city’s best known brass bands, residents of Faubourg (French for suburb) Tremé (from the land developer Claude Tremé) were losing sight of its rich cultural history. To rectify that, director-producers Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon began production on Faubourg Tremé: the Untold Story of Black New Orleans (screening this week at the Tribeca Film Fest, trailer here). And just as they were wrapping production, Katrina hit.

As the film opens, Elie, a columnist for the Times-Pic, has moved into a fixer-upper in Faubourg Tremé. His restoration efforts frame the film’s history and provide a link to the neighborhood’s storied past in the form of his contractor, Irving Trevigne, whose great uncle Paul Trevigne was an early champion of civil rights as the editor of the nineteenth century New Orleans Tribune. For post-Katrina filming, the rebuilding of his house becomes an analogy for the rebuilding of a neighborhood and city.

Faubourg gives a lucid explanation of New Orleans’s rather exceptional position in the south during slavery, given its large population of free blacks and it’s comparatively humane treatment of slaves. It becomes clear these attitudes and traditions would have a lasting impact, as New Orleans became the cradle of the post-Reconstruction civil rights movement. It was a New Orleanian, Homer Plessy, who agreed to become a test case for a legal challenge to segregation that tragically resulted in the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson.

(Demographically, New Orleans was even more diverse and complicated than Faubourg has time to detail. Left unaddressed in the film are the relationships between Creoles of French and African descent and African Americans, often expounded upon in Louis Armstrong biographies, for instance.)

The filmmakers make clever connections between past and present, as we meet Irving Trevigne, who restores houses to their former glory, and then his ancestor, who endured death threats to fight for a just cause. Ironically, the filmmakers used a descendant of Homer Plessy to re-enact his attempt to integrate the East Louisiana Railroad and his subsequent arrest. Perhaps most provoking is the analogy made between post-Civil War Reconstruction and post-Katrina Reconstruction.

Since music figures so prominently in the history of Tremé, and New Orleans in general, it logically plays an important role in the film. Wynton Marsalis served as an executive producer, and while he is interviewed on camera, there seemed to be a conscious decision to use his voice sparingly. We also hear from musicians like Bob French (briefly) and troubled Katrina survivor Glen David Andrews.

The music we hear in the film is great. We hear classics from George Lewis and contemporary selections from John Boutté and the Rebirth Brass Band. Perhaps most rewarding is the original jazz-based score composed by Derrick Hodge. Hodge has worked with jazz musician-film composer Terence Blanchard on many projects. Most notably he played bass and contributed the original composition “Over There” on Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will, a full length album based on themes composed for Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, making him an inspired choice to score Faubourg. It is one of the strongest original soundtracks recorded in years. It would be great to see the original themes released in some fashion, and to hear future film work from Hodge.

Faubourg is a thoughtful meditation on a city and its culture, particularly its music. It has been playing to sold out audiences during the Tribeca Film Fest, but tickets are still available for the Thursday screening. It will be playing selective theatrical engagements, before airing on PBS sometime next year.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jazz Score: Bad Love with Subtitles

“Go to the movies to see love!” a rather agitated dance judge tells an inebriated Marlon Brando towards the end of Last Tango in Paris. It is one of several pictures screening as part of MoMA’s Jazz Score series in which you will not see much love, but plenty of unhealthy obsessive behavior. They have nice scores though.

There is love of a kind in Kô Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit (trailer here, with unrepresentative music), but it is corrupted by boredom manifesting as lust and obsession. Brothers Haruji and Natsuhisa have nothing better to do than while away their summer sailing and drinking with the elder’s equally aimless friends. Haruji is the shy, sensitive younger brother, whereas Natisuhisa is a brash, self-styled ladies man. They both fall for the beautiful Eri, who seems like an innocent sun worshipper, but harbors a dark secret: she is married to a middle-aged American. In the post-occupation mindset of Fruit, where the kids actually shout “yankee go home” to tell each other off, that is about as scandalous as it can get.

Played by Mie Kitahara, Eri is a tragically corrupted young woman, who loves the Haru, but cannot resist Natisuhisa. Eventually, the brothers’ respective puppy love and lust both lead to obsession, focused on an awfully young looking object of affection. (Kitahara was attractive to be sure, but did not have the beauty of a real woman like Hideko Takamine in A Woman Ascends the Stairs.)

Of course, that is sort of the point. Each side of the love triangle, particularly Haruji and Eri look too young to see the film they are in. If this 1956 picture were to be released today, it would at least rate a PG-13 for some very frank discussions of sex and downright misogynistic dialogue. Fruit wants to show a generation bereft of values, idly exploring hedonism. It was evidently influential in spawning other so-called “Sun Tribe” films. However, Fruit’s generation of Japanese youth would knuckle down and rebuild the Japanese economy into a world-leading power, so its influence only extended so far.

Fruit is often compelling, with an intriguing undercurrent of dark comedy. The climatic shot is still impressive filmmaking, even in 2008. It also has a jazz influenced soundtrack, often voiced by a baritone saxophone, with a bit of Polynesian steel guitar accents for color, making it another interesting selection for MoMA’s Jazz Score.

The kids of Fruit were at least looking for happiness through sex. That is not the case for Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci’s notorious Last Tango in Paris (not quite safe for work trailer here). Perhaps the most misrepresented film of all time, Tango is considered either a masterpiece or pornography. It is actually neither.

Jeanne, a young woman played by Maria Schneider, catches the eye of Brando’s Paul. He follows her to a vacant apartment she wishes to see, where they have a rather forcefully initiated sexual encounter. She however, does not seem to have any problem with it, agreeing to come back for more.

There are several critical defenses made of Tango: Paul’s sexually depraved acts are meant to demean himself and not his partner. As we learn about the recent suicide of Paul’s wife, we come to sympathize with him, despite his misanthropic actions. By sharing intense intimacies, regardless of the depraved nature, Paul is able to feel love again.

Maybe, maybe not. There are elements of truth to some of this, but clearly Paul’s actions are often humiliating for Jeanne. Her reasons for repeatedly coming back remain obscure—her boredom with her idiot filmmaker of a fiancé hardly seems sufficient motivation.

Truthfully, Tango is not erotic at all. Jeanne seems to be in a child-like stage of arrested development, and really is not that attractive. Brando is Brando—all of him. Their sex scenes are total turn-offs. Nobody could be aroused by the now infamous butter scene. However, probably the vilest dialogue of any film comes when Paul basically has Jeanne return the favor as he describes a bestial fantasy.

The main theme to Tango would become a bread-and-butter tune for Gato Barbieri, but his score actually does not get the credit it deserves for making the film respectable. Elegant and sweeping, it has a lush romanticism that counteracts the baseness of the acts seen on screen. As Jeanne leaves the flat after her first encounter with Paul, she looks stunned, vacant. Yet as Barbieri’s theme swells up in the background, it becomes easier to think of what transpired as a “ravishing” in the paperback bodice-ripper sense.

Barbieri began his career recording for the very avant-garde ESP label, but would record popish material for A&M in the mid 70’s. In a sense, Tango would foreshadow the commercial appeal of Barbieri’s later work, while maintaining the passion and intensity of his earlier recordings. With an assist from Oliver Nelson as orchestrator and conductor, the soundtrack is among Barbieri’s best work. The 1972 vinyl soundtrack release consisted of eleven themes expanded into full tunes, but the late 90’s CD reissue also included nineteen original film cues.

Tango is not porn. It does not seek to arouse and there is hardly any nudity. It is serious cinema, but not a masterpiece. Schneider brings little to the underwritten role of Jeanne and there are serious flaws in character development and motivation in general. Yes, the music is great. It would be interesting to see Fruit and Tango programmed together, because in their own ways, each addresses sex, obsession, and betrayal. That will have to be during a different retrospective. Fruit screens at MoMA May 3rd. Tango screens July 5th and 12th.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Jazz Score: Some Game-Playing

Given their improvisational spirit, it is not surprising many French New Wave directors were receptive to jazz soundtracks. For a time Roger Vadim was included in the New Wave ranks, before veering into Barbarella territory. Indeed, some of his early films featured very influential jazz soundtracks, a particularly controversial example being Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which will screen as part of MoMA’s Jazz Score series.

Often referred to as Dangerous Liaisons 1960, despite having been filmed in 1959 and released in America in 1961, Vadim’s film is the first cinematic adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's novel and is particularly notable for the liberties it takes setting the film in contemporary times.

The film was notorious in its time, even facing French censorship for allegedly slandering French virtue (is that even possible?). Likewise, the jazz soundtrack was somewhat controversial, for more bread-and-butter issues of composer credits. There were two rival soundtrack albums available. The official release was recorded by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers augmented by French saxman Barney Wilen, performing themes written by the hitherto unheard of, and never to be heard from again, J. Marray. Duke Jordan, Charlie Parker’s longtime pianist also claimed credit for Liaison’s themes and would record them on his own album two years later.

Of the original themes, “No Problem” has become something of a standard, and nearly every version credits Jordan as composer. Ironically, for all the questions regarding authorship, most of the music heard throughout the film are Monk standards. The opening titles even acknowledge groups led by all three musicians, which happen to be some of the coolest credits ever, lingering over close-ups of chess pieces, while Monk’s ruminative music works its magic.

Of the various Liaisons, Vadim’s might be the stone coldest, thanks to Jeanne Moreau’s performance as the ruthless Juliette de Merteuil. Vadim radically alters the dynamics of the novel, making the two antagonists husband and wife. As the movie opens, they are enjoying a sort of open marriage, where each takes vicarious (and sadistic) pleasure in their partner’s conquests. Early in the film they debate how affairs should be ended. For Juliette argues it should be done with style, but Valmont’s favors a direct approach: “I wanted you, I had you, goodbye.”

Vadim’s power couple would seem to be courting a karmic payback, and indeed events take them outside their comfort zones when Valmont begins to pursue a woman out of genuine love rather than the seducing another target to suit the machinations of his wife. Moreau is perfectly matched by Gerard Philipe as Valmont, whose life was cut short by cancer less than a year after filming Liaison.

MoMA’s Jazz Score also features Joseph Losey’s The Servant, another film featuring quite a bit of psychological and sexual gamesmanship. Penned by Harold Pinter, The Servant is a disturbing look at the control games valet Hugo Barrett plays with his employer, Tony, played by James Fox. As Barrett, Dirk Bogarde is sinister and calculating but, aside from some implied sexual overtones, his motives are never explained. Of course, coming from lefties like Losey and Pinter, perhaps class distinctions are supposed to be motive enough for any hostile behavior. The Servant has moments of chilling black comedy, but as the film becomes increasingly fever-dreamlike it is difficult to stay invested in the story.

British jazz saxophonist Johnny Dankworth did compose an interesting score that does fit within the series parameters, thanks to his sax passages, but is often quite classical in its conception and use of string quartets. It features two notable musical “guest stars.” Dankworth’s wife and longtime vocalist, Dame Cleo Lane, recorded Pinter’s song “All Gone,” which is often heard on Tony’s turntable. Bert Jansch associate Davey Graham also appears briefly performing the folk-blues “Rock Me Mama” in a café scene.

Unfortunately, Liaison and Servant are not scheduled for the same day, as they would make an interesting double feature. Of the two, Liaison is richer film and music. It screens May 3rd and 4th, while Servant screens April 26th.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Memory Thief in May

Is a deep fascination with the Holocaust healthy? Writer-director Gil Kofman asks that question in his upcoming film Memory Thief (trailer here), opening in New York May 9th. There might be a thin line between empathy and morbid obsession, but Kofman’s protagonist Lukas veers so far into the latter territory, it is not at all a close call.

It is probably safe armchair psychology to diagnose Lukas with an under-developed personality. Most of his interaction with people lasts mere seconds in his job as a freeway toll collector. When a toll casually tosses Lukas a copy of Mein Kampf, the impressionable loner nearly falls under its spell. However, Zvi Birnbaum, a Holocaust survivor passing through his lane happens to see Lukas reading it and offers to buy it in disgust. Rebuffed, he later returns with a copy of his videotaped survivor testimony, setting in motion an obsession that will obviously have tragic consequences.

Though Birnbaum’s tape has a profound influence on him, Lukas is never able to discuss it with him, as he passes away shortly after their encounter. Following his new-found fascination, Lukas takes a part-time job at a Holocaust foundation. He might even have a shot with Mira Zweig, a woman he meets at Birnbaum’s funeral, if he can start acting less creepy.

Yet, we know there is something fundamentally off about Lukas from the start. Still, Kofman deserves credit though, for not completely stacking the deck against Lukas. We suspect fairly early that he is prone to delusion, but we also see that is not a bad person, generously sharing his limited resources with a needy family in his building.

To say Thief treads on some delicate ground would be an understatement. Watching Lukas playing survivors’ numbers in the lottery is uncomfortable enough. When he shaves his head and has his own arm tattooed, the film becomes quite disturbing. The filmmakers do, however, make a good faith effort not to be exploitative in their treatment of the Holocaust. No archival images are used, instead Thief relies on survivor interviews, conducted and filmed by Kofman, putting the focus on reactions in the here and now, rather than the actual horrific events. Whether that strategy works is open to debate, even within the film itself. At one point, the father of Lukas’s potential girlfriend, himself a survivor, tells him: “the Holocaust was not about those who survived, but those who did not.”

Jerry Adler (the genial killer in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery) gives a remarkable performance as Zweig in the film’s strongest scenes. Adler expresses pathos and humanity, but his Zweig is never reduced to a stereotype of nobility or suffering. Lukas though, is a cipher by design. Mark Webber brings a measure of sympathy to an odd variation on the obsessive psychotic. Watching his downward spiral raises many questions about who this person really is, but Kofman declines to supply any answers.

Ted Reichman’s soundtrack notably heightens the eeriness of the film without being obtrusive. It brings to mind some of the minimalist film work of John Zorn, which is appropriate given Reichman has recorded for Zorn’s Tzadik label. His use of John Herbert’s bass and Dave Shively’s vibes establish an air of foreboding in the opening sequence. At times, Reichman’s Claudia quartet colleague John Hollenbeck adds some effective percussive accents and Anthony Burr’s bass clarinet sounds appropriately doleful, but the music always remains safely in the background.

Thief is not a perfect film. A Taxi Driver-like subplot about Lukas stalking a Spielberg-esque filmmaker seems tacked on and distracting. There are some fine performances though, particularly from Adler and Rachel Miner as his daughter. Ultimately, the ambiguous tone of the film is disconcerting, making for an unsettling viewing experience. (It is probably worth noting that Thief is distributed by 7th Art, one of the leading distributors of Jewish and Holocaust related films.)

This is definitely dark, provocative filmmaking, which audiences will likely be digesting for days after their initial viewing. It opens in New York at the Quad May 9th, and in LA May 30th.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Standard Orbit

Ted Kooshian’s Standard Orbit Quartet
Summit Records


There is a well established tradition of jazz artists interpreting pop tunes and movie themes. (How many versions of The Sandpiper’s “Shadow of Your Smile” did jazz artists cut in the 60’s?) In that spirit, Ted Kooshian’s quartet tackles such unlikely source material as Batman, Spiderman, Buffy, The Simpsons, Hanna-Barbera’s Top Cat, and Led Zeppelin on his new CD. With such inspirations, it is tempting to label Kooshian’s Standard Orbit as jazz for forty-year olds still living with their parents—call it Mr. Kooshian’s neighborhood. However, Kooshian and quartet largely pull it off, creating some entertaining and completely legit jazz in the process.

Not being familiar with Top Cat, I can’t judge how far the opening track ranges from the original. However, it is an appropriately vigorous up-tempo opener, giving listeners a taste of the bop chops of Kooshian and reedman Jeff Lederer on tenor. This is followed by the greasy “Black Dog,” one of the most successful jazz Zeppelin renditions yet, that evokes the band’s under-recognized blues roots.

Perhaps the most perilous covers are the two superhero themes. However, they are both highlights of Orbit. Lederer switches to clarinet for both, giving “Spiderman” a traditional vibe and a darker hue to the moody “Batman.” Wisely, Kooshian opts for the brooding Danny Elfman theme for the animated series, rather than Neal Hefti’s campy 1960’s theme.

“Buffy” is probably the most difficult to recognize, thoroughly reconceived as an edgy hard bop burner. Propelled nicely by Warren Doze on drums, it features some muscular tenor work from Lederer and a somewhat skitterish solo from Kooshian, channeling the nervous energy of the series.

Of all Kooshian’s pop culture covers, the only one which really does not work is the disk’s shortest: “The Simpsons.” Perhaps the Groening series is just too ubiquitous in reruns, making it hard to hear another version with fresh ears. Regardless, the Standard Orbit take is the only cut that sounds gimmicky—a little too close to the mock jazz passage of the series’ opening credits maybe.

Conversely, Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” is particularly strong thanks to a respectful and faithful straight-ahead arrangement, dominated by Lederer’s soprano. Lithe and heartfelt, it is a perfect jazz-for-people-who-don’t-like-jazz track.

Orbit is an energetic and entertaining session that proves Kooshian and company can do their jazz thing with some crazy tunes. It is a healthy exercise in remaking tunes their own, which very definitely follows in the jazz tradition.

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Jazz Score: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Many Hollywood film composers experimented with jazz elements, including figures represented in MoMA’s Jazz Score retrospective, like Alex North, Henry Mancini, and Elmer Bernstein. Though celebrated as a leading figure of Japanese classical and electronic music, Toshirô Mayuzumi composed several jazz-influenced soundtracks, including Black Sun, a collaboration with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, and Mikio Naruse’s Criterion Collection worthy When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, screening this week as part of Jazz Score.

Featuring xylophone and piano, Mayuzumi’s score has a chamber jazz vibe that brings to mind the film work of the MJQ’s John Lewis. His xylophone passages bear a similarity to Lewis’s use of Milt Jackson’s vibraphone, and both composers partially shared a classical aesthetic. How well Mayuzumi’s Ascend would stand on its own remains an open question, but his themes hauntingly enhance the on-screen drama, which is considerable in Ascend (the trailer here is not particularly representative of the soundtrack).

Ascend takes its title from the walk Keiko must make every night up to her job as a hostess at a Ginza bar. Keiko, or Mama-san, ranks hostesses in the following terms: the best go home each night by car, the not so good must walk home, whereas the worst go home with clients. Not everyone in her line of work concurs with her hierarchy though, making it impossible for her to get ahead while simultaneously maintaining her integrity.

Stress is literally tearing Keiko apart. As a hostess, she must maintain the clothes and trappings of luxury, or risk deflating her clients’ idealized fantasies. At the same time, she must support an ungrateful mother, an idiot brother, and a nephew in need of treatment for polio. To play the game, she could take a “patron” (read: sugar-daddy), but she refuses out of principle and love for her late husband. Keiko is filled with past regrets, wishing she had treated her husband better while he was alive, so now refuses to do anything she might later repent. Yet, in her situation, she is nearly doomed to failure, as she takes the stairs up to the Carton Bar each night.

Hideko Takamine’s performance as Keiko is heartbreaking, vividly portraying the desperation barely contained beneath her carefully controlled, beautiful exterior. Naruse leaves little doubt the world of Ginza is not fair, particularly to a woman as sensitive as Keiko. Tragic and naturalistic, Ascend has a sad beauty, effectively amplified by Mayuzumi’s score, making it a nice addition to MoMA Jazz Score series. It screens at MoMA this Friday and also July3 at Film Forum as part of a Tatsuya Nakadai retrospective.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Traveling Music

After six years with Paquito D’Rivera, Alon Yavnai is probably well accustomed to life on the road. Of course, having moved to America from Israel, by way of Costa Rica, Yavnai was already something of an accomplished traveler. Now leading his own trio, the pianist previewed Travel Notes, his first release as a leader, with a pre-release celebration at the Jazz Standard last night.

Travel Notes releases in May, and will be reviewed here then. Those at the Standard last night got a preview of how Yavnai’s diverse influences combine into a rich new voice in jazz. Drawing on elements from American jazz, and the music from Israel, Cuba, Brazil, and even Bulgaria, the title of his CD makes perfect sense.

Yavnai has spectacular technique but is never pyrotechnical simply for the sake of being showy. Logically, he played many selections from Travel, including the striking title track. Many musicians will manipulate the piano strings for effect, but Yavnai’s method here is more intriguing and melodic, consciously recalling the sounds of distant lands. Among the departures from Travel were two classical selections from Bach and Lecuona that had a sense of swing, yet remained eminently respectful to the essence of the originals.

Generous as a leader, Yavnai gave ample space to his sidemen. Last night he was joined by bassist Haggai Cohen-Milo, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, and guest Brahim Fribgane on oud, doumbek, and assorted percussion. On Travel Yavnai’s trio consists of Omer Avital on bass and oud, and Jamey Haddad on percussion. According to Yavnai’s itinerary, Cohen-Milo will be on many dates in the near future, with either Haddad or Takeishi handling percussion. Yavnai sounds great with either the Travel trio or the Standard combo, so check them out if you have the chance. (His next CD launch event is in Philly at World Café Live on June 17th.)

Yavnai has a fresh, distinctive sound, and he also seems like a really nice guy, all of which makes one hope Travel is the start of a long discography. (I will actually be traveling the day before Travel Notes releases, but barring complications en-route, look for a full review here May 13th.)

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Anna Akhmatova On Naked Soil

Anna Akhmatova began her career as a poet writing about love and loss. Those poems were immensely popular, but not very Soviet. This led to problems. Ironically, the Soviet persecution of Akhamatova and her family led the poet to write “Requiem,” one of the greatest poetic responses to Stalin’s terror. The life and words of Akhmatova have now been adapted for the stage by Rebecca Schull in On Naked Soil: Imagining Anna Akhamatova, currently playing Off-Broadway at the Theater for the New City.

Both writer and lead actor, Schull actually bears a striking resemblance to her subject. Perhaps best recognized for her role in Wings, Schull is something of an authority on the literature of the Great Terror, having previously adapted Yevgenia Ginzburg’s memoir of the Stalinist era. Her treatment of both poet and poetry is knowledgeable and respectful throughout Soil.

Structured something like a volume of poetry, Soil consists of one continuous act, broken into many short scenes, introduced by Akhamatova’s verse and photos projected on screens above the stage. The action alternates between the late 1930’s and the mid 1960’s. In the earlier scenes, Akhamatova befriends Lydia Chukovskaya, with whom she has much in common. Both are writers and have loved ones condemned to Stalin’s prisons. During the later sequences, Akhamatova reflects on her life with Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of poet Osip Mandelstam, with whom Akhamatova had her own history of a sort.

Schull deftly incorporates Akhmatova’s words into the play’s text, much of which is quite telling of the Soviet experience. She was blessed with excellent source material, since Chukovskaya recorded her time with Akhamatova in journals that were later published. We come to truly understand her later poetry when Schull quotes Akhamatova’s conversation with another woman queuing outside a Leningrad prison for news of those unjustly held within:

“’And can you describe this?’
And I answered:
‘Yes, I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”


That exchange would later become the prefatory material of her masterwork “Requiem.” Akhmatova’s life is important to remember for many reasons. Far too many are still willing to accept the early Soviet propaganda, believing the experiment only soured with Stalin’s ascendency. However, her experiences with Soviet oppression began in 1921 with the execution of her first husband, fellow poet Nikolai Gumilyov, well before the Stalin years. As is also quite clear in the staging of Soil, Akhamatova lived under constant surveillance, unable to speak freely in her own flat.

Despite the brevity of each mini-scene, the play starts slowly. However, as the richness of Akhmatova words unfold, the play picks up momentum. The projected verse and photos are nicely integrated into the production (but are somewhat undermined by the screens’ partially blocked sightlines).

Schull is completely believable as the noble, but still very human Akhmatova. As Mandelstam, Lenore Loveman conveys a hard-won wisdom that just seems appropriately Russian. As written, Chukovskaya too often functions simpy as a sounding board for Akhmatova, until late in the play, when the full significance of her visits is revealed. Schull compensates for a weak foil in those scenes, powerfully expressing Akhamatova’s anguish over her alienation from her imprisoned son, and her shame for trying to curry favor with Stalin on his behalf with poetry intended to appeal to the dictator’s personality cult.

More than history, Soil is about the words of one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, who lived under one of the twentieth century’s least poetic regimes. It would be great to see Soil performed together with Schull’s Ginzburg play, but separately her Akhmatova work offers much to contemplate. Now open, Soil runs through May 4th.

(Photo credits: Jonathan Slaff)

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jazz Score: Man with the Golden Arm

A jazz musician suffering from drug addiction—imagine such a thing. Yet that is the subject of Otto Preminger’s Man with the Golden Arm (partial trailer here, dig the Saul Bass design). Based on Nelson Algren’s novel, Arm is a mixed bag, distinguished by its music and Frank Sinatra’s performance as Frankie Machine, the man with an arm for drumming that he abuses with a needle.

Arm had a reputation at the time for being brutally frank in its depiction of addiction, and Sinatra does indeed deliver in those scenes. Machine has just returned from taking the cure in Lexington, but he now must face all the same old problems and temptations. His wife Zosh pretends to be confined to a wheelchair to exploit Machine’s guilt over their fateful accident. Louis the pusher immediately pursues Machine, both as a customer and as a card dealer in his associate’s illegal card games, where Machine’s arm was first dubbed golden.

As part of his treatment, Machine learned to play drums. With the help of a reform-minded agent, he hopes to find better employment for that golden arm. Ironically, life on the road with jazz musicians is portrayed as an escape from the temptation of drugs.

Arm tries strives for realism, but sometimes looks odd in retrospect. The mean streets of Chicago look more like an old-fashioned neighborhood. Darren McGavin is effectively creepy in keys scenes, as he tries to lure Machine back on the needle again, but dressed in his jacket and vest, with handkerchief and umbrella in tow, he looks more like a villain from 1920’s England than the mean streets of 1950’s Chicago.

Elmer Bernstein’s score was the first jazz-influenced soundtrack to be nominated for an academy award. Full of foreboding, yet still swinging, Arm is the prototypical sound of what would come to be dubbed “crime jazz.” It features West Coast jazz greats Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne, who even appear as themselves during Machine’s ill-fated audition.

If you have seen Travolta pop the syringe full of adrenaline through Uma Thurman’s sternum in Pulp Fiction, Arm might seem a little tame overall. However, when Machine kicks cold turkey, it is pretty serious stuff, even by today’s standards. The film honestly represents some of Sinatra’s best screen work.

According to Chris Fujiwara’s The World and Its Double, Preminger notoriously rubbed Algren the wrong way and took great liberties with the screen adaptation. By cutting the class-warfare elements and giving the film a redemptive conclusion, Preminger actually made the film more relevant to more people. It screens as part of MoMA’s Jazz Score series April 26th and 27th.

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IAJE RIP

In an extremely depressing turn of events for the jazz community, the International Association of Jazz Educators has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This will leave a huge void that will be difficult to fill. According to a letter sent to membership (also posted on their website while it lasts) by (now former) president Chuck Owen, it sounds about as final as it gets. Here are some excerpts:

“a Kansas bankruptcy court will appoint a trustee to oversee all ongoing aspects of the association. This includes the ability to examine IAJE's financial records and mount an independent inquiry into the causes of it's financial downfall as well as disposing of the remaining assets of the association with proceeds distributed to creditors in accordance with Kansas and Federal law. The board will no longer be involved in operation of the organization and will at some point resign. IAJE as it presently stands will no longer exist . . .

Since our chapters are either separate corporate entitles or voluntary associations with their own boards, constitutions and bylaws; IAJE views them as completely independent entities. Ultimately, however, the trustee and the court will make this determination and it is anticipated that the trustee may request certain information from the chapters in this regard.

Sadly, the 2009 IAJE International Conference in Seattle has been cancelled. However, there has been some discussion of mounting a regional conference in its place. . . .

For the time being, the IAJE website will remain up. However, the international offices of IAJE will close their doors at the end of the day on Friday, April 18th.”

What happened? Owen cautions members to wait for the court’s trustee for answers, but the causes seem pretty clear from his email:

“years of dependence upon the conference as a primary (but unreliable) revenue stream and the launch of a well-intentioned capital campaign (the Campaign for Jazz), which generated a meager response but required considerable expenditures in advance of contributions, drove the association into insolvency. Sadly, the attendance at the conference in Toronto (the lowest in 10 years) exacerbated an already critical situation, depriving the association of the cash-flow needed to continue daily operations as well as the time needed to seek alternative resources.”

When you have more funds going out than coming in, bad things will happen. I had heard rumblings of financial trouble, but have only received Owen’s farewell email, and not the previous emergency fundraising appeals he mentions. This suggests disorganization, though certainly nothing nefarious.

The loss of the annual conference will be a blow to the jazz community. It was always a great opportunity to reconnect with friends and colleagues. Two years ago, the conference was overflowing two midtown hotels in Manhattan. It will be difficult for a new organization to step in a replicate such an event anytime soon.

However, if a successor to IAJE does emerge, they should learn from past mistakes. It should hardly be surprising that the prospect of January in Toronto was not much of a draw. The next IAJE should ignore regional pressures, alternating the conference between New York and New Orleans, exclusively.

New York conferences always appeared very well attended. Many members are based here and can more easily afford New York conferences. True, the City can be unpleasant in winter but this is the jazz capitol of the world, a destination spot anytime of the year. New Orleans also has a storied jazz history and an active musical scene, as well as a special call on the jazz community as rebuilding efforts haltingly continue. It also offers an attractive climate in early January.

This appears to be a failure of management and definitely not a lack of interest in IAJE’s services. Hopefully the state chapters can eventually reconstitute themselves in some form. I have met good friends through IAJE and heard a lot of great music at the annual conference. It will be missed.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Jazz Score: Anatomy of a Murder

Many reviewers considered Duke Ellington’s soundtrack an awkward fit for Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (trailer here). However, both film and music are of unusually high quality, and work together in ways not fully recognized by such critics.

Jimmy Stewart plays Paul Biegler, the former district attorney of Iron City, a small upper peninsular Michigan town, recently defeated in his bid for re-election. We quickly learn Biegler, in a departure from Robert Travers’s source novel, is also a jazz enthusiast, whose records collection goes “from Brubeck to Dixieland.”

Biegler accepts a difficult client in Lt. Manion, a hard case Army officer with anger management issues, accused of murdering the man who raped his flirtatious wife. His investigation takes him to an Upper Michigan roadhouse, where Duke Ellington appears as the bandleader Pie Eye. Biegler even sits in for some four-handed piano, clearly proving he is indeed a jazz kind of guy. Anatomy is a film that deftly handles some very delicate subject matter, with the help of powerful performances from Stewart, Ben Gazzara as Manion, and Lee Remick as his wife, Laura.

The majestic blues of Ellington’s soundtrack are completely at odds with our impressions of small town white America, but it is precisely this dissociative effect which serves the film so well. Viewers first meet Biegler driving home through his familiar town, returning late at night from a long fishing trip, as the Ellington Orchestra swings hard in the background. In effect, it sets Biegler apart from his community—an alienation any former DA reduced to scuffling for divorce cases is likely to share.

James Stewart is perfectly cast in a role that capitalizes on his everyman image, but gives it a twist. Though a decent person and an underdog, Biegler is no saint. We see him subtly lead Manion into adopting an insanity defense and watch as he navigates the grey areas of his legal defense. When his associate asks about the case, he frankly replies: “I’m making a lot of noise and Dancer [the prosecution] is racking all the points.’

After a grueling trial, we hear Biegler teasing out some blues on the piano as he waits for the jury to come in, courtesy of the off-screen Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's writing and arranging partner. According to Chris Fujiwara’s The World and It’s Double: the Life and Films of Otto Preminger Strayhorn made a characteristic effort to fit the music to Stewart’s personality. Fujiwara reports:

“‘He asked me to play something I liked,’ said Stewart, who had studied piano and played with a jazz band as an undergraduate at Princeton. ‘What I think he did, you see, was write something for me that I would have played myself.’” (p. 242)

The soundtrack for Anatomy of a Murder is an enduring classic of Ellingtonia. Whether it is Johnny Hodges’ sweet alto on the suggestive “Flirtbird” or Cat Anderson’s high notes on “Upper and Outest” heard over the film’s ironic closing scene, Ellington demonstrates his inspired ability to compose for particular sidemen that marked his remarkable career. Anatomy is arguably one the greatest soundtracks ever, and the rest of the film is also quite good. It screens tonight and the 26th at MoMA as part of the Jazz Score series.

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Jazz Score: Paris Blues

What is the best pairing in Martin Ritt’s 1961 Paris Blues? Easy: the combination of the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with the trumpet of Louis Armstrong. The worst pairing? At the risk of heresy charges, it must be said the casting of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward was a mistake. It screens tonight as part of the MoMA’s Jazz Score series, so you are invited to judge for yourself (trailer here).

Paris Blues could have been great. It is based on Harold Flender’s book (currently out-of-print), which, though not stylistically remarkable, did address some interesting issues. It centers on Eddie Cook, an African-American alto player (in Flender), who falls for a visiting American tourist. Cook faces two conflicts. He plays traditional New Orleans hot jazz, while many of his colleagues try to push him towards more modern bop-oriented styles. At the same time, his new lover wants him to give up the expat life and join her in America to campaign for civil rights.

Newman and Woodward are on the cover of my old movie tie-in mass market, but you won’t find anyone who looks them inside. According to Krin Gabbard’s Jammin’ at the Margins, Ellington committed to scoring Paris with the understanding that the central romantic relationship would be an inter-racial one between Newman and Diahann Carroll, but by the time cameras rolled, Newman and Woodward were the safe romantic leads.

For jazz audiences, Paris is also problematic for its treatment of the music itself. Newman’s Ram Bowen (a name Boogie Nights could have used) seeks musical validation through recognition for his classical compositions. Paris leaves little doubt as to its musical hierarchy—classical is up and jazz is down.

In effect, the music of Ellington, Strayhorn, and Armstrong is at war with the very film it is in. Which faction wins? Given the lameness of the Newman-Woodward relationship, it is no contest. Early in the film, Louis Armstrong, essentially playing himself in the role of Wild Man Moore, arrives at the train station, received by throngs of Parisians like a conquering hero. As the film closes, the Ellington band starts on a mournful note, but they suddenly rise up in revolt, ending on a defiant high note.

Although Cook’s moldy fig vs. bop conflict is not retained from the novel, Sidney Poitier and Carroll do debate whether Cook should stay in Paris living a relatively comfortable expat life, or return to America to pursue their relationship and progress in the civil rights struggle. Their scenes together are the best written in Paris.

Of course, the greatest attraction in Paris is the music the film does not fully appreciate. It screens tonight and Wednesday at MoMA.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Jazz Score: Mickey One

Call it a noble failure. Arthur Penn’s Mickey One was a somewhat experimental film for its time that fell short of its ambitions. It was graced with a great jazz soundtrack composed by Eddie Sauter, featuring Stan Getz’s tenor as the lead voice, in a follow-up to their collaboration on Getz’s classic album Focus. Little seen since its release, it is perfect title to showcase with a restored print during MoMA’s Jazz Score retrospective.

Warren Beatty plays Mickey (as he comes to be known), a comic on the run from the mob. For what he is not sure, but he seems to assume it involves the fast life he was living: women, booze, whatever. He drops out, taking anonymous menial work, until he suddenly finds himself back on stage in a seedy nightclub. Again, Mickey finds himself sucked into a place where show business and the underworld are scarcely distinguishable. Or perhaps not. Mickey’s perception of reality is highly suspect. This is indeed the sort of film that wants to blur the distinctions between the real and the illusionary.

Despite the hallucinatory sequences, Mickey has a relatively straight forward narrative structure if you chose to accept the events on-screen at face value. It is much more accessible than its reputation suggests, particularly in light of films which have come after it. Still, as a film, Mickey just does not work. A major reason is Beatty’s complete lack of believability as a comic. He is simply not funny and scenes of him in performance make the film even weirder. Even off the stage, this is not Beatty’s best work.

However, the music works brilliantly. Getz sounds especially lyrical blowing over Sauter’s lush charts. The opening theme “Once Upon a Time” is a beautiful accompaniment to the fall-from-grace montage that starts the film, a perfectly representative sequence of the swinging sixties and Penn’s New Wave auteur inspirations—if only the entire film had maintained that energy. With a full string section and great studio jazz veterans, like Clark Terry, Barry Galbraith, and Mel Lewis, the excellent late 1990’s CD reissue combines the original album release, which expanded the major themes into full performances, with the actual film soundtrack themes and cues.

There is no getting around the fact that Mickey One has serious flaws. Yet it is highly watchable—downright fascinating even. It screens at MoMA through Monday.

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HFFNY: The Other

It might not be quite like the urban legend of the dead man endlessly riding the New York subway, but when the protagonist of Ariel Rotter’s The Other (El Otro) has to clamber over a dead passenger when his bus arrives at its provincial Argentine destination, it still must mean something. Closing the Havana Film Fest NY last night, The Other (Spanish trailer here) had the final word of the fest (aside from a special screening of Havana Kidz II in the Bronx today).

Juan Desouza is an attorney. He seems to specialize in boring law. He appears happily married but must attend to an ailing father. After Manuel Salazar dies next to him during the trip, Desouza calmly attends to the property matters which brought him out, but he declines his local contact’s hospitality, eager to leave when the work is done. Except, for some reason he does not leave. Instead, he checks into two hotels, first under the name of the old man who died in the property in question, and then under Salazar’s identity.

As Desouza vacations from his responsibilities, he is drawn to the wake of the man whose name he appropriated. There he sees a woman who had caught his eye in a restaurant the night before. The attraction is mutual, but Desouza must pursue the brief affair under yet another name, as Salazar obviously will not do.

With issues of identity abounding, Other is a film that feels shrouded in mystery, but actually contains no mysteries at all. However, there are several ironies in Desouza’s hiatus from life. He came into town with death, but he leaves after having reluctantly saved a life. He tries to avoid human entanglements, but seems to attract the attentions of people, like the inn keeper and his legal colleague.

Writer-director Rotter closely observes his characters, but is not terribly concerned with plot. It is an intimate snapshot of one man’s life, as he takes a brief detour from responsibility. It probably suffer slightly if seen soon after Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon and Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, both of which are stylistically similar, and the under-rated (I know I’m alone out on that limb) Blueberry covers some similar thematic territory.

Rotter is a deliberate filmmaker, benefiting greatly from Marcelo Lavintman’s striking cinematography. (The audience’s frequent laughter during the second screening was puzzling, as this is a contemplative film, not at all comedic.) Rotter is a talented filmmaker and Julio Chavez gives a strong, subtle performance as Desouza (a.k.a. Salazar, etc.), but for all its up-close intimacy, Other never really lets the audience in. For all the time we spend with Desouza, we never really know him. It is a fine film, but in the end, it is more a cerebral exercise than emotional experience.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Primo: Tonight or Next Week

Fatigue for the recent proliferation of one-person shows would be understandable, but exception should be made for Great Performances’ broadcast of Sir Anthony Sher’s Primo (clip here), debuting tonight on New York’s WNET 13 and next Thursday, the 24th, for most of the rest of the country. Masterfully adapting and performing Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (If This Is a Man), Sher uses the format of solo performance to capture the fundamental contradiction of life in the death camps—despite cramped spaces, constant new arrivals, and the ever-present terror of SS guards, prisoners like Levi were in fact, alone in a very existential way.

Levi was captured with a group of Italian anti-fascist partisans in 1943. He assumed it would be better to identify himself as an Italian of Jewish descent, rather than as a member of the political resistance. As a result he was deported to Auschwitz in early 1944, spending eleven months in Hell before the camp’s eventual liberation.

Levi was a chemist, and numbers would be grimly significant in his story. He would be one of twenty two Jewish Italians out of 650 in his transport to survive the death camp. His very identity would be reduced to a mere digit: 174517. Sher’s Levi explains: “While the habits of freedom still made me look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name appeared instead: one hundred and seventy-four thousand, five hundred and seventeen.”

Primo is particularly effective when explaining the every-day horrors of life in Auschwitz. In a particularly gripping sequence, Sher’s Levi explains:

“Death begins with your shoes—your wooden soled shoes. At first they’re like instruments of torture. After a few hours marching you already have painful sores. These quickly become infected and then you are forced to walk with a kind of shuffle as if dragging a convict’s chain . . . In the lager [camp], the average life expectancy of a high number is about eight weeks. If you last longer, it is because you‘ve mastered two things. One, you’ve learned to obey orders in a language that you don’t understand. Two, you have a pair of shoes that fit.”

Levi attributes his survival against the odds to several factors. Most notably is his cooperative friendship with another prisoner, Alberto. In powerful scene, Sher’s Levi decries that prisoners are “ferociously alone,” but they “will conduct an experiment, a chemical experiment in a way. Is there not more strength in two?”

Also significantly contributing to his survival was an Italian civilian laborer, Lorenzo Perrone, who smuggled soup to Levi, and Alberto by extension. Levi the chemist is able to calculate precisely how the calories of Perrone’s soup are able to make up for the deficit of the camp’s inadequate rations. That chemistry training would ultimately lead to Levi’s assignment to a laboratory, likely saving him from the perilous conditions of winter labor.

Sher portrays Levi with restrained dignity. He is dressed in the shirt, tie, and sweater vest of a celebrated author and public intellectual, not in camp uniform—this is a memory play, not a docudrama. Primo is a deeply humanistic work that celebrates the spirit of people like Alberto and Perrone. Yet in a few devastating scenes, Sher’s Levi literally passes judgment on the causal inhumanity of his captors.

Finely nuanced, Sher’s performance is remarkable. With little more than a chair for a prop, he commands the stage and screen. He is aided by effective lighting and the haunting incidental cello music of Robin Thomson-Clarke. Recorded at London’s Hampstead Theatre the production enjoyed a critically acclaimed limited run on Broadway. It premieres on Channel Thirteen in the New York market tonight at 8:00 and on most PBS stations next Thursday (making the timing of this review difficult). It is a powerful production, strongly recommended.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

HFFNY: Radio Corazon

Would you tell your most transgressive sexual episodes to a Chilean in a tank top? Evidently, plenty of other Chileans do. Based on supposedly real calls to the Chilean radio show, Radio Corazón (Spanish trailer here), which screened at the Havana Film Fest NY, tells three stories of sexual intrigue, framed by scenes of Rumpy the host interacting with the callers from the studio.

"Initiation," the first story of Corazón, is meant to be a sort of sex farce, but it is highly problematic. A high school student is committed to losing her virginity before turning eighteen, but is not attracted to her classmates. When she discovers her step-father has been unfaithful to her mother, she attempts to blackmail him into sleeping with her. However, he extricates himself from this dilemma by giving her some alcohol and then having a co-worker impersonate him in bed. In Corazón, this psychologically perilous, potentially incestuous situation is presented in a smarmy American Pie style.

The second caller touches on similar themes, but “My Daughter-In-Law” is given a strictly serious treatment. When a career-minded Chilean neglects his new Argentinean fiancé, she finds support from his single mother. As the young couple’s relationship strains, she finds herself falling into a lesbian relationship with the mother of her intended. Rife with Oedipal implications, the second caller’s tale is presented as tragedy, not comedy. Yet the characters’ actions defy credibility, simply forcing viewers to watch uncomfortable situations unfold.

The final caller has the strongest story to tell, giving Corazón a measure of redemption. In “Fairy Tale,” we hear from Valeria, the former servant of wealthy landed family who tends to the children and the chronically ill lady of the manor. Knowing her time is short, the wife designates the nanny as her chosen successor, trusting her to care for her family in her absence.


Unlike the first two calls, the lead characters of this storyline, though subject to weaknesses, are essentially good people. It ends on an imperfect but satisfying note that is actually quite touching. It also features the strongest performances of the film, including Amparo Noguera as the ailing María Pilar and Tamara Acosta as the kind-hearted Valeria.

Obviously, the tone of Corazón changes drastically with each caller. The one consistency is Rumpy, who can be a bit annoying—think more of an unctuous Phil Donahue more than an outrageous Howard Stern shock jock.


Corazón is a flawed film. While it concludes with a very well written and powerfully acted storyline, its blithe treatment of provocative subject matter is at times unsettling. One wishes the other calls had matched the quality of the third act, but maybe that would not have been representative of the actual radio show. It must be an acquired taste.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

IU

It’s a brave new world in which the craft of filmmaking has been democratized. Some have not gotten the memo, like the interview subjects featured in Expelled, who were shocked to discover they were not preaching to the choir, so to speak. However, the college administrators Evan Coyne Maloney tried to interview for his new documentary Indoctrinate U were decidedly more camera shy. Premiering in New York last night, IU (trailer here) will be barnstorming across the country and is worth seeking out.

First, a disclosure: I know Maloney from a local campaign, and like the man. We used to be neighbors before he moved. That said, I do want to review and recommend IU.

There is a tendency to minimize political correctness on campus, or to defend it as merely a protection against forms of harassment. However, IU cites many instances of where campus policies, particularly speech codes, are used as by university administrations as instruments of harassment against political opinions they disagree with. Many students interviewed in film repeat the point that there is no diversity of opinion on campus—it will not be tolerated.

One of Maloney’s strongest case studies is a former student from Cal Poly. His thought crime consisted of posting a flyer for a College Republican meeting to feature a speaker advocating capitalism and entrepreneurialism for the African-American community in a campus building reserved for minority interest groups. Accused of harassment, and by implication racism, he was threatened with expulsion if he refused to undergo a Maoist regime of sensitivity training (transcript of his initial disciplinary hearing here).

The CR stuck to his guns and with the help a FIRE, an organization founded by political liberals to defend students’ rights to free expression, won in court. The entire attempted abuse of power cost California taxpayers forty-thousand dollars when the court awarded legal fees to the student. So what did the administration have to say in its defense? Nothing. They went to great lengths to avoid speaking on the record for Maloney’s camera, even threatening him with arrest.

So is it fair to “ambush” college administrators Michael Moore-style, as Maloney attempted? Certainly, at a taxpayer supported public school like Cal Poly, the administration has a special responsibility to represent the university to any reasonable person with a legitimate question about their policies. However, even private school administrators should be willing to publicly defend school policies and their enforcement, since such decisions can have lasting consequences. That nobody would do so on camera speaks volumes. It seems the administrations of Yale, Bucknell, Cal Poly, Foothill College, UC-SC and other schools featured in IU realized the academic sausage-making of enforcing orthodoxy of opinion, particularly through speech codes, would not appear attractive when exposed to sunlight.

IU is an effective example of guerilla filmmaking. It is not a perfect film. Frankly, the frequent uses of quick cuts (particularly early in the film) actually weaken Maloney’s case, allowing his inevitable critics to complain of heavy-handed editing. However, the cases he cites are honestly disturbing. He is right to try to hold administrators responsible, because their actions will have an impact on students’ lives for years to come. Despite the seriousness of his examples, Maloney brings his sense of humor to bear on the subject matter, resulting in an often entertaining film. In truth, I frequently review documentaries here, and IU holds up remarkably well in comparison to what I have screened in recent months.

These are important issues. Smart, decent kids are being demonized for not towing the official line. Although Maloney admits his film describes the problem more than proscribes answers, there corrective measures available. You can support FIRE’s work and you can be an active alumnus. If the administration has a sense that alumni will withhold financial support if student rights to free thought and expression are not respected, the message will start to get through. You can also check out IU. It will screen at many campuses in the coming weeks, including OU, OSU, and UC-Irvine. (It is also available on DVD, and you are encouraged to request it from Netflix.)

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Monday, April 14, 2008

HFFNY: Havana Kidz & Silvio Pupo

Cuba is celebrated for its music, but it is a tough place to pursue a musical career. Just ask the subjects of two short features screened at the HFFNY Saturday, Havana Kidz II (trailer here) and Silvio Pupo: No Borders.

Cuban-American filmmaker Alberto Gonzalez is following a group of aspiring student musicians in his Havana Kidz project. Resources are definitely an issue for his subjects. In fact, Gonzalez has been trying to collect instrument donations for them, but like the students in Bruce Broder’s CHOPS, these young musicians’ enthusiasm and commitment gives one hope for music’s future. Grounded in traditional Cuban forms, they are molding their own sound by incorporating reggaeton and other more contemporary Cuban styles.

Most of the festival cut of HK2 consists of the Kidz rehearsing and preparing to cut a demo. They sound great, and there is just something refreshing about their musical exuberance. When they do talk, it is usually in conversation with each other about music. Hopefully change will come to Cuba, allowing them to better pursue their ambitions.

Also screening in the same program was Gwendolyn “GG” Geddes’ Silvio Pupo: No Borders. A talented pianist proficient in many styles, Pupo bristles when asked to perform Cuban music simply because he is Cuban. An expat, Pupo evidently found Halifax, Nova Scotia to be greener pastures than Cuba for a career in music.

At just over three minutes total running time, Borders is essentially a brief commercial for Pupo and his regular weekly gig with the Jeff Goodspeed trio at a Halifax club. As such though, it is very effective. I’ll definitely look to hear them if I’m ever in town.

Finishing the program of shorts was Alejandro Ramirez’s Some Kind of Sadness, which starts quite promisingly, recounting a little known episode of Olympic shame from the infamous 1936 games. The decidedly non-Aryan Peruvian football team battled back against the lily-white Austrians, forcing overtime, where the underdog Peruvians were able to jump out to a 4-2 lead. However, after the Austrians protested, the Olympic authorities accepted their dubious claims, ordering a rematch. The Peruvians told them to stick it in their ear and left.

If ever there was a time to rethink the Olympics, it is this year. However, rather than focus on another telling episode of Olympic shame, Sadness uses it as a metaphor for vague feelings of sadness, or frustration, or general impotence, plaguing Latin American in general, at least according to the director. He seems to try to extend the metaphor through a depressed (and depressing) American expat friend. The film does not make much sense overall, despite a powerful beginning. Overall, it was a very mixed bag of shorts, but the program introduced audiences to some undeniably talented (and young) musicians. HK2 screens again at the Bronx Museum of the Arts on 4/18 at 6:00.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

HFFNY: El Benny

America had two Kings named Benny. Both Benny Carter and Benny Goodman were crowned Kings of Swing. In Cuba, there was only one El Benny. Benny Moré (sometimes Beny) straddled mambo, son, cha-cha-cha, and Afro-Cuban jazz, becoming one of Cuba’s most popular vocalists ever. He is the subject of El Benny (trailer here), Cuba’s officially submitted film for the 2006 Academy Awards (though a Cuban-British-Spanish co-production), which screened Saturday night at the Queensborough PAC as part of the HFFNY.

Directed by Jorge Luis Sánchez, El Benny follows the conventions of most music biography films. We see Moré scuffle early in his career, before he gets a few breaks and becomes a star. However, his self-destructive behavior (drink in Moré’s case) threatens to derail his career, as he hurts those he loves the most. Yet throughout it all, he stays true to his music. Maybe they are conventions, but they still work, particularly when accompanied by Moré’s music. Lovingly recreated by some of Cuba’s finest musicians, including the great Chucho Valdes, the music of Moré sounds fantastic in El Benny.

Renny Arozarena brings a dynamic presence to the lead role. His Moré is roguishly charming, but with more than a hint of danger contained beneath the surface. The film moves along at a brisk clip, but it is not well served by the many flashbacks—another frequent convention of music bio-pictures. At times it is tricky placing the year on-screen (I was actually five minutes late, so perhaps it is easier if you see it from the start—this area of Queens is hard to get around in).

The sad irony is there would probably have been more politics in El Benny had Hollywood produced it. The film frankly depicts Moré as almost entirely apolitical. The Batista regime is certainly cast in a negative light, but his goons are seen hassling Moré’s friends in only one relatively restrained scene. There is also a completely unconvincing scene of a former theater owner who appears to be happy training a revolutionary cohort to run his former business on behalf of the people. Nobody in the scene appears to believe it.

Moré is safe cinematic fare in Cuba because he never left after the Castro regime assumed power. However, his life was tragically cut short in 1963, just four years after the revolution. Who can say how he would have reacted to the precipitously deteriorating conditions in Cuba had he lived longer?

Regardless, the music of El Benny is the reason to see the film, and it is great. All his biggest hits are represented in lively renditions, including “Maracaibo Oriental,” “Como Fue,” and “Santa Isabel de las Lajas.” Even if the film is not widely screened in America, there would still be a demand for the soundtrack if it were released. The film itself is very entertaining, despite some flaws here and there.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

HFFNY: Innocent’s Night

The Havana Film Festival NY is based in New York and accepts films from throughout Latin America. Yet for some reason, the organizers chose to closely identify the festival with Cuban films. Be that as it may, hopefully it will be an opportunity to see some great cinema.

The festival opened last night with Innocent’s Night, which was an odd choice for the kick-off, probably selected for its Cuban pedigree. Innocent demonstrates that Cuba can indeed do Sundance-style quirkiness. It is a rainy December 28th night, and a severely beaten man in drag is admitted to the hospital. Soon family and friends gather around him to reveal the events of the night Rashomon-style. Piecing their stories together is Frank, a suspended cop forgoing his usual late night assignation with the duty nurse, in the hope that some on-spec police work can rehabilitate his career.

The film quickly assures us the beaten Federico is not really a transvestite—events simply conspired to force him into drag. It involves his attempts to win back a former girlfriend from a foreign businessman. There is little politics in Innocent, but it does hint at how drilled the Cubans are to present the right public face to foreigners. We do hear the businessman blame the American embargo for his financial woes, but he does not get a sympathetic response. We are also treated to a quick recap of the glorious history of Cuban Olympic boxing.

Most of the characters have been seen before, like a cold, career minded father and the mother who feels unappreciated. The young actress who plays the patient’s little sister should defect when Ellen Page gets too old to play those oh-so-insightful teenagers.

Innocent is dark quirky, not cutesy quirky, that is cleverest in its final scenes. It deserves credit for not wrapping things up in a compulsively happy ending, which gives the film some sense of integrity. Unfortunately, there is little chemistry between the Federico and his ex, which is problematic.

Interesting viewing, Innocent kicks off a line-up drawn from many countries. Look for more HFFNY in the coming week.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Yama-san’s Campaign

Coin and stamp dealers are not typically on the fast track for elected office. Truthfully, they could not do worse than the attorneys we have sent to Congress and City Hall. In 2005, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party did in fact pluck an unknown coin dealer from obscurity to run in a special election for the Kawasaki City Council. That campaign is the subject of Kazuhiro Soda’s logically titled documentary, Campaign (Senkyo), playing at MoMA through the weekend (trailer here).

Kazuhiko “Yama-san” Yamauchi has no prior political experience, name recognition, or policy expertise. Frankly, he does not inspire much confidence on the stump. However, for this important special election, the LDP recruited Yamauchi from outside the city in place of the local candidates who sought the party endorsement. After seeing Yamauchi on the campaign trail, we can only imagine what the passed over candidates were like.

The vacant seat was formerly held by the LDP. If they hold it, the city council will remain evenly divided. If they lose it, the balance of power tips away from them. As odd a choice as Yamauchi appears, the stakes are not inconsequential.

Having spent a lot of time on campaigns, some things appear fairly universal. There is plenty of phone calling and envelope stuffing going on at headquarters. However, evidently Japanese campaigns, at least in Kawasaki, greatly rely on cars with high-powered speakers blasting the candidate and his surrogates through the very walls of his potential constituents’ homes. It makes robo-calling look unobtrusive.

The organization of local parties also appears much different, with most volunteers loyal to a particular candidate’s booster club, rather than the local party per se. Given the nature of the special, Yamauchi’s prospective council colleagues have loaned him their boosters, but it is made clear this is a one-time only deal.

No political genius, Yamauchi, at least comes across as a likeable sad sack. However, it is not appropriate to make him out to be a political Rocky, because the local establishment backs him all the way. Watching him take both abuse from voters on the street and condescension from party “senseis” can be down right uncomfortable.

As likeable as he might be, his wife shows the patience of a saint. She does lose her sense of humor when the party asks her to quit her job, sensibly reminding Yamauchi that she is currently the only one with a steady paycheck. “What if he loses?” she asks. “Don’t even think about losing,” the party tells her.

With no voiceovers or soundtrack, Soda’s vérité style is very straight forward. He captured some very cinematic episodes on the campaign trail, which unfortunately often place Yamauchi on the receiving end of some humiliation. Yet after a while, the scenes tend to blur together, as we see Yamauchi doing calisthenics in suit and tie or carrying shrines as befits which ever group he is courting. The film does end with some real suspense, after the twelve long days of official campaigning.

There definitely seems to be more hazing in J-Democracy than in the American version. Perhaps the Japanese are onto something. Maybe we should make our candidates sweat more before tossing them the keys to the treasury. Campaign runs at MoMA through the weekend and an edited version will broadcast on PBS’ POV July 29th.

Note: Yama-san has been seen pressing the flesh in-person after past MoMA screenings and he has an undeniable charm in person.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Poetic Charles Lloyd

Rabo de Nube
Charles Lloyd Quartet
ECM Records


There seems to be something almost otherworldly about Charles Lloyd. Steeped in the primeval blues of Memphis and informed by Eastern music and philosophy, Lloyd always pursues his own alchemy. His latest, Rabo de Nube a live set released within days of his seventieth birthday, proves Lloyd’s powers remain undiminished with the passage of years.

U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic contributed original verse for the liner, in an appropriate fit between poet and musician. Simic’s work combines the very real, concrete details of our world with a surreal vision of what lurks around the corner, just out of sight. Lloyd has always been very much of this world, grounded in the blues. Yet he is able to step outside it, with his searching flights of exploration.

In “Two for Charles Lloyd” Simic contrasts the pastoral of the flute with the urban of the tenor saxophone. For tenor, Simic writes: “Late night talk/On a tenor/With the dead/And the shadows they cast.” The opener “Prometheus,” a tenor feature, is a turbulent piece that demonstrates why Lloyd was often categorized in the Coltrane school during the 1960’s. Skitterish and constantly changing, it indeed could be an eerie conversation with Trane.

Lloyd continues on tenor with “Migration of Spirit.” Starting with Reuben Rodgers’ unaccompanied bass prelude, it builds in intensity as the full quartet enters, ultimately reaching ecstatic crescendos as Lloyd swoops and soars above. Then the rhythm section locks in and brings it back to Earth for a swinging solo from Jason Moran.

JaMo is one of the most accomplished jazz artists to hit the scene in the last eight or nine years, and it is fascinating to hear him play with Lloyd. Moran has recently been exploring the music of Thelonius Monk (particularly the 1959 Town Hall concert) so he has a lot to say with Lloyd on the Monkish duet “La Colline de Monk.”

Simic associates the flute with nature—the Charles Lloyd pictured in Big Sur, gazing out into the far distance. He writes: “The sound of flute,/That purest of instruments,/Close to breath,/Close to wind in the leaves.” Yet the flute selection is the most boppish tune on Rabo, “Booker’s Garden,” an up-tempo tribute to Booker Little, that also features a funky, percussive solo from Moran.

The concluding title track is the only composition of the set not penned by Lloyd. It is a tune he is revisiting from Lift Every Voice, the powerful set of spirituals and other meaningful tunes Lloyd recorded in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. The version here is much less elegiac, with a relaxed lyricism perfectly suiting his tenor voice.

Lloyd is indeed a poetic jazz artist. He has long had a mysterious ability to invent brief little melodies (or stanzas) in his solos that seem to redefine the entire song. As evidenced by Rabo, he has lost none of his power.

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