J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bley’s Black Orchid Big Band

Appearing Nightly
Carla Bley and her Remarkable Big Band
WATT/ECM Records


The website for Carla Bley’s WATT label (distributed by ECM) is pretty funny. It represents WATT Records as a prison, with Bley and longtime musical partner Steve Swallow as the inmates, and web designer and frequent musical collaborator Karen Mantler as the warden. That sense of humor and all three musicians are also present on Bley’s newest release, Appearing Nightly.

Nightly consists largely of festival commissions which, though modern, are informed by and deliberately suggestive of 1950’s big band jazz. The opening “Greasy Gravy” for instance, has hints of a Basie vibe, particularly in Bley’s use of the trombone section. At times tagged with a reputation for playing "arranger's piano," Bley fits nicely into the Basie mold—supportive and swinging, but stylistically economical in her own solos.

The following “Awful Coffee” came out of the same culinary themed festival commission that produced “Gravy.” For one passage of the somewhat more caffeinated track, Bley throws in quotes from “Salt Peanuts,” You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” Watermelon Man,” “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” “Hey Pete Let’s Eat More Meat,” and “Tea for Two.” The food theme seems to come naturally to Bley, who penned six different Banana compositions for last year’s release with her “Lost Chords” group and Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu.

The heart of Nightly is “Appearing Nightly at the Black Orchid,” a twenty-five minute suite commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, named after a Monterey lounge Bley gigged at early in her career. Its movements allude to elements of the nightly jazz gig: “40 On / 20 Off,” “Second Round,” “What Would You Like to Hear,” and “Last Call.” It may sound a bit self-referential to compose a jazz suite to represent a jazz gig, but these are post-modern times.

Introduced with an elegant piano prelude from Bley, “40 On” then segues into a fine example of Steve Swallow’s melodic approach to the electric bass, as the band slowly swells up underneath him. The brass comes out swinging in “Second Round,” particularly featured trombonist Gary Valente. “Like to Hear” is more subdued, maybe reflecting musicians’ constant trepidation a patron might request some dreaded chestnut like “My Melancholy Baby.” Muted horns wail plaintively and Bley takes a brief but meditative solo, before the bands comes in building up towards the hard charging finale, “Last Call.”

Rounding out the program with one standard, “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You,” and “Someone to Watch,” an original which germinated from the seed of a Gershwin tune, Nightly is most definitely a swinging affair. Bley has assembled a first-rate band and her originals have a vigor that is refreshing. For some reason, her music seems to have a reputation for being less accessible than it really is, but Nightly ought to be warmly received by both jazz modernists and big band fans.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Rural Route: Island of Lost Souls

The Danish selection in the Rural Route Film Festival’s Scandinavia House film series might be the ringer of the program. Following her mother’s divorce, fourteen year-old Lulu suddenly finds herself in a community that might better be described as boring, rather than rural. Perhaps, for a budding young mystic, there is little distinction between the two. However, in Nikolaj Arcel’s Island of Lost Souls (partial trailer here), the nearby Monk Island proves the perfect desolate setting for an undead Necromancer to wage war against the forces of light.

In 1871, a lodge of mystics dedicated to fighting evil wages a pyrrhic battle against an evil Necromancer, thinking they have defeated him at great personal cost. Obviously, they haven’t killed him dead enough, just deferred the final battle to our time. Now the reconstituted Necromancer is wresting dead souls from their eternal rest, holding them captive on Monk Island. Each has a clue to the location of a page from the powerful Lodge Book which temporarily overpowered him some hundred years prior. However, Lulu’s Ouija board diverts one such lost soul, lodge member Herman Hartmann, who inadvertently takes possession of her annoying younger brother Sylvester.

Together with the help of Oliver, the awkward rich kid, and the questionable adult supervision of Ricard, a failed psychic researcher, they investigate the evil happenings on Monk Island. Amongst the scares they find there is an evil scarecrow, whose effects are surprisingly well done. Indeed, the production values of Island are quite strong throughout.

As Lulu and Sylvester/Hartmann, Sara Langebæk Gaarmann and Lucas Munk Billing both look age-appropriate, and Billing is reasonably credible when channeling the older character. Lars Mikkelsen is a creepy screen presence as the Necromancer. Unfortunately, the other adults are mostly stereotypes, including a mom straight out of John Hughes movies, who recognizes no behavioral changes when her son is possessed by a thirty-nine year-old from the nineteenth century.

In terms of tone, Island’s scenes of supernatural horror might be too intense for young viewers, but the early teenaged anxiety of Lulu and Oliver probably skews more towards that audience. If you were at Anime Fest this weekend, you should love it and normal film fest patrons could find it an interesting diversion, leading up to Halloween. Universal is developing a remake of Island, also to be helmed by Arcel, so in the future it could conceivably secure some sort of American distribution. For now, it screens at Scandinavia House this coming Wednesday and Saturday.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

NYFF: Waltz with Bashir

War is Hell, but context is important. In the case of Waltz with Bashir, screening at the New York Film Festival October 1st and 2nd, in advance of a December 25th theatrical opening (trailer here), one might assume the Israeli audience is only too familiar with the context surrounding events chronicled in the film. However, international audiences primed on anti-Israeli propaganda might interpret it as confirmation of the narratives they have constantly been fed. The Israeli Consulate is pushing Bashir hard, promoting its NYFF screenings in two emails, during the relatively short time I have been on their list. Having seen the film it seems a bit odd they would work so hard to promote an often unflattering portrayal of the Israeli military.

This review will be expanded when Bashir opens theatrically, but in brief, it is an animated pseudo-documentary illustrating writer-director-producer Ari Folman’s efforts to awaken suppressed memories from his military service in Lebanon. Much of what he has forgotten involves the deaths at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. In retribution for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese president-elect, Christian militia attacked the camps. Perhaps initially looking for PLO terrorists who had indeed been harbored there, events quickly deteriorated. While not directly involved, the Israeli military is thought to have had a pretty good idea of what was happening as it went down.

In Bashir, these events haunt Folman and his comrades. Of course, we see the Sabra and Shatila massacres in graphic detail, including the only non-animated archival footage included in the film. What we do not see is the Gemayel assassination or the constant bombardments and terrorist attacks the PLO staged from Lebanon, which precipitated 1982 invasion in the first place. These are only perfunctorily referenced through dialogue.

Still, of recent anti-war films (broadly defined, not conflict-specific), Bashir is probably the best. Admittedly, the bar has been set pretty low, but Folman and director of animation Yoni Goodman have created some striking visuals. The opening sequences involving the dogs that haunt a fellow Beirut veteran’s dreams are powerful stuff, forming a most compelling case against the dehumanization of war. Folman also gets surprising mileage from structuring the story as a psychological investigation.

Bashir has been well received in Israel, where it recently won their equivalent of the Academy Award for best picture, making its selection assured as their official selection for the Academy’s best foreign language film. Its Oscar campaign should be interesting to watch, given recent history. Last year, France unsuccessfully submitted the animated Persepolis for best foreign language picture, but did snag a best animated nomination. Israel’s original best foreign language selection, The Band’s Visit, was disqualified for having too much English content, but its replacement, Beaufort, another revisionist Beirut drama, beat out Persepolis and other highly touted releases for a foreign language nomination. Though technically well made, Bashir lacks the heart of either Band or Persepolis, but it may well find an appreciative audience at the Academy.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

NYAF: Machine Girl, Eventually

The Japan Society’s booth seemed a little out of place at this year’s New York Anime Festival. Evidently, they have an exhibition of bamboo art opening October fourth, but I am not sure how many of the costumed patrons will be showing up at Turtle Bay for that show. Friday night, there were plenty of kids wearing anime ears at the Javits Center—plenty of adults too. There were a lot of women dressed up as maids as well. Sometimes that was okay. Sometimes, not so much.

I have a hard time relating to all that so I thought I check out the screenings, figuring that would be familiar territory. Anime and manga can be a little weird, or at least what I sampled was. The live-action screening room was also serving up decidedly mixed fare. Like everyone else, I walked out of zero-budget alleged manga spoof that was truly unwatchable. The one thing I responded to (as a guilty pleasure) was Machine Girl (trailer here).

This is not exactly a lost Kurosawa film. It is basically girl in school uniform with large gun. If you are looking for a gory actioner this may actually exceed the bill. The plot is the basic vigilante story amped up on amphetamines. Ami is a terribly put-upon college student, but she can fight. Her parents committed suicide, unable to bear the shame of a false accusation of murder. Now Ami’s only family left in the world is her younger brother, Yu. When the vicious son of the ninja yakuza boss murders Yu and his friend, it sets Ami on a blood-spattered quest for vengeance. When captured by the yakuza, her arm is sliced off in a gruesome torture session. No worries, after escaping, the grieving parents of Yu’s friend mount a powerful machine gun in its place. Of course, once you have artillery for an appendage, you have to use it.

Machine is essentially the film Tarantino’s retro-exploitation movies want to be. People at the screening likened it to a Japanese Troma picture, and that is not far wrong. As Ami though, Minase Yashiro brings more humanity to the picture than is ever on display in Troma fare. Still, Machine is only about one thing: killing. Writer-director Noboru Iguchi never lets the lunacy slacken, showing the kind of frenetic energy and odd black humor that marked Sam Raimi’s early pictures. It is what it is.

NYAF continues throughout the weekend, with the Japan Society giving introductory lessons in Japanese on Sunday. I might possibly make it back for another report, but make no promises.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

A/P/A: Koryo Saram

It was a massive displacement of innocent civilians motivated by a baseless suspicion they might sympathize with the Japanese during World War II. Few have heard of it, because the offending government was the Soviet Union. Known as Koryo Saram, they were Soviet Koreans, forcibly exiled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on Stalin’s orders. Their story is told in Y. David Chung and Matt Dibble’s documentary, Koryo Saram: The Unreliable People (extended trailer here), which screened last night as part of the film series sponsored by NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute.

Largely, but not exclusively from the Northern provinces of Korea, many of these Soviet Koreans were refugees from the occupying Japanese. However, they were not deemed sufficiently loyal by Stalin, who dubbed them “Unreliable People.” Victims of the Great Terror, an estimated 180,000 Koryo Saram were rounded up and deported in cramped boxcars to the Central Asian Steppe. Kazakhstan in particular became Stalin’s dumping ground for various undesirable ethnicities, where the combination of harsh winters and little or no shelter led to a high mortality rate among deportees.

Inevitably, comparisons were made in the Q&A to FDR’s Japanese interment policies, but the brutality of the Soviet was in a league of its own. Thousands died in-transit in what became known as “Ghost Trains,” with their bodies callously tossed out at each stop, in violation of Korean tradition requiring proper burial for the peace of the spirit. However, credit is given to the formerly nomadic Kazakhs for showing a compassion which saved scores of deportees officially designated “enemies of the state” by the Communists.

Koryo is as much about Kazakhstan’s contemporary Koryo Saram community as it is with their tragic history. They usually have Russian names and speak Russian, as well as Korean dialect dating back to the early twentieth century. Reasonably well integrated, they maintain their own traditions as best they can in a rapidly changing Kazakhstan. As a twice diasporized people, their experience is deeply entwined with issues of cultural and ethnic identity.

Chung, Dibble and co-writer Meredith Jung-En Woo provide a succinct history of a largely ignored episode of Soviet terror, incorporating some rare archival footage and revealing oral histories. An informative installment in A/P/A’s film series, Koryo is screening on several campuses and the Library of Congress on October 9th. It is worth checking out if you have the opportunity.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Gilroy’s Characters

Desperate Characters
Directed by Frank D. Gilroy
Legend Films DVD


Writer-director Frank D. Gilroy’s was a onetime amateur jazz musician with notions of turning pro. His later film The Gig, is a loving valentine to the music, so it is not surprising he looked to jazz greats Ron Carter, Lee Konitz, and Jim Hall to supply the original music for his 1971 film Desperate Characters. However, there is little joyful noise to be heard in Gilroy’s quiet and sober drama, recently reissued on DVD.

The Bentwood’s Brooklyn neighborhood is changing, reflecting demographic changes and the unchecked social pathologies of the early 1970’s. Their stylish home no longer feels so secure and their personal relationships offer no solace. For Sophie Bentwood, those anxieties result in feelings of dread and isolation. For her husband Otto, frustration and disappointment increasingly manifest themselves in rage and contempt for the world around him. It makes for a tense Friday night dinner for the couple. Against Otto’s warnings, Sophie feeds a stray cat on the fire escape, only to be bitten by the ungrateful beast, adding a potential case of rabies to her worries for the weekend.

Everyone in Characters is scared and miserable, but they employ vastly different methods to cope. One of Sophie’s friends clings to her ex-husband, a literature professor afraid of being drugged by his counter-culture students. Another friend has adopted the empty philosophy and jargon of the time, sounding like a borderline self-help-cultist from a Tom Wolfe book.

The precipitating crisis of the film is the dissolution of Otto’s law partnership with his lifelong friend Charlie (Gerald S. O’Loughlin making the most of a small, but important part). Yet over a late-night coffee with Sophie, it does not sound like Charlie’s worries are so different from Otto’s, he simply tries to ingratiate himself with those Otto is loathe to suffer. In a telling exchange, he decries to Sophie: “the having children business, the radical business, the culture business, the decline of old values business, the militant business, the failure business.”

As Sophie and Otto, Shirley MacLaine and Kenneth Mars are uncomfortably convincing as the troubled married couple. They were helped by Gilroy’s screenplay, featuring banter that would probably be funny in a lesser film, but is only too serious in the context of Characters. MacLaine’s Sophie is a portrait of quiet desperation, while Mars is able to find nuance in a difficult role. Though thoroughly unsympathetic, Otto has the virtue of at least saying out loud everything their liberal friends are thinking but are afraid to verbalize. Insensitive and ultimately brutish, he is also the only character attempting to reassert control over his life.

The music of Carter, Konitz, and Hall is only heard during party scenes. For the rest of the film, only disconcerting silence accompanies Gilroy’s sharply pointed words. Truly, Gilroy’s dialogue cuts like a knife, holding its power more than thirty years later. Rich but unremitting in its gloom, Characters is an extremely well written film, that captures the fear and pessimism of pre-Giuliani, pre-Koch New York, when the City seemed to have only darker days ahead.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

2 X Eri Yamamoto

Redwoods & Duologue
By Eri Yamamoto
AUM Fidelity


It is quite an accomplishment for a jazz artist these days to record on a legitimate label, be they even the smallest of independents, as opposed to essentially self-producing. To have two label releases within the span of about three months time is really getting someplace. That is the enviable position Eri Yamamoto is in, following up the early summer release of Duologue, with her new trio release, Redwoods.

Yamamoto has a regular Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night gig with her trio at Arthur’s Tavern in New York, when she is not touring (which she probably does at least one week out of the month). However, she seems to take inspiration from the road, frequently returning to home base with new compositions. Dropping by Arthur’s is a great way to hear her abundant new material taking shape.

Indeed, Redwoods had its genesis in the Muir Woods of Northern California. The title track is an elegant meditation on nature, featuring the sensitive brush work of Arthur’s stalwart Ikuo Takeuchi. Reverence for natural beauty is a theme for the session, also inspiring the stately but sensitive “Magnolia.”

The opening “This is an Apple,” referring to her initial English lessons (she is now picking up Italian too), nicely illustrates her talent for composing strong melodic hooks, as well as her mastery of dynamics though her powerful attack on the keys. It is followed by a spritely groover, “Wonder Land,” that nicely captures her strong rhythmic drive and sense of humor. It is the sort of tune jazz D.J.’s used to choose as their theme songs, back in the day when there were such creatures.

Of her now six CDs, Duologue is the first to break from the trio format, featuring two duo performances a piece with guest artists reedman Daniel Carter, percussionists Federico Ughi and Hamid Drake, as well as bassist William Parker, with whom Yamamoto has worked as a sideman. Starting with the beauty and graceful simplicity of “Thank You” and concluding with the wit and verve of “You are Welcome,” Duologue is a series of friendly, but eloquent conversations between the leader and her guests.

With the rock solid support of Parker, she brings a certain Monkish charm to “Subway Song,” whereas “Violet Street,” featuring Carter on tenor, is both simultaneously soothing and searching. Throughout Duologue Yamamoto takes us through a variety of moods, but the most dramatic might be the trance-inducing “Circular Motion,” featuring Drake’s gently hypnotic frame drum.

Both are thoroughly entertaining releases, but if you want to start with just one, Redwoods probably gets the nod, capturing the highly tuned empathy of Yamamoto’s working trio. There are plenty of talented jazz pianists in the City, but while they sound quite nice, I could never recognize them blindfolded. However, I am pretty confident I would know Eri Yamamoto’s playing by ear. She really has honed an individual sound all her own, which is why I have recommended her recordings here before, and do so again with Redwoods and Duologue.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Multinational from London

Although Belgian Georges Simenon’s crime fiction often had a strong psychological component, his novels still might seem to be unlikely source material for Hungarian art-house director Béla Tarr. Indeed, some will surely wish Simenon’s most famous character, Inspector Maigret, was on hand to spur the action along in Tarr’s painstakingly deliberate adaptation of The Man from London, screening this week at MoMA.

In an exquisitely filmed opening tracking shot, we see the nocturnal world of Maloin, the railway switchman at a seaport station. Given the late hour and foggy ambiance, it seems like anyone about must be up to something nefarious. Indeed, the two shadowy figures moving in and out of Maloin’s field of vision eventually scuffle over a suitcase, sending one permanently into the drink. When the coast is clear, Maloin ventures down to fish out their suitcase, which he discovers is full of British pounds. So we have our MacGuffin and the game’s a foot, right? Not exactly.

London is a master class in the use of light and shadow, but not in breakneck thriller pacing. Tarr’s shots are meticulously composed and Fred Kelemen’s black-and-white cinematography is arresting. Every still of the film is worthy of framing. However, pulling viewers through the story is clearly not their priority.

For the most part, the actors, like Czech Miroslav Krobot as Maloin, are just props for Tarr, walking in and out of his scenes as needed. American audiences will recognize Tilda Swinton as Maloin’s wife, Camélia, but it is a largely thankless role. However, Hungarian actor István Lénárt provides the film’s only spark of energy as Morrison, an elegantly sinister British investigator, reminiscent of the sort of roles Alec Guinness excelled at late in his career.

Tarr plays games with perception and implies more than he shows. Yet, London adopts enough of the trappings of a film noir mystery that it is not unfair to judge it in that context. Though never explicitly stated, the setting seems vaguely French, shot on location in Corsica. A notoriously cursed project, there may have been more intrigue behind the scenes of London, than on the screen. The suicide of the original French producer led to a long hiatus in production, as the Hungarian-French-German-U.K. financing became even more complicated. The result is a fascinating exasperation of a viewing experience that screens at MoMA through Sunday.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Rural Route: Quiet Storm

It can be pretty lonely up north. As the land of fields and fjords Scandinavia has its share of rustic countryside, which explains the programming collaboration between the Rural Route Film Festival and the Scandinavia House, presenting a series of films set in rural Scandinavia. Evidently, the American belief in the virtues of country living as an antidote for delinquency also had currency in Scandinavia, or at least the early 1970’s Iceland dramatized in Quiet Storm (Veðramót, Icelandic trailer here), the first film in the series, which screens this Wednesday.

At the Veðramót juvenile detention facility, the hippies are literally running the prison. Selma has run away from her respectable middle class home to join her boyfriend Blöffi as caretakers of a remote prison farm for highly disturbed teens. With paintings of Marx and Che on the wall, they oversee their charges with scrupulous respect for their self-esteem. Knowing nothing about their past, they encourage the teens to open up in their rap session group meetings. Do not bother rolling your eyes, because the kids do it for the audience.

Obviously things go bad, because the film is told as a flashback precipitated by a letter sent by Disa, one of the former Veðramót kids, now serving time for murdering her abusive step-father. Fishing for clemency, she writes to the middle-aged Selma (who returned to her bourgeois roots to become a judge), explaining what really happened during their fateful time on the farm.

Veðramót really is in the middle of nowhere. The vistas are impressive, but the isolation exacerbates Disa’s emotional problems. Although some of the troubled teens show initial progress in their new environment, she is a destabilizing influence in the house, determined to sabotage Selma and Blöffi’s relationship.

While far from a celebration of rural living, Storm makes effective use of its remote location, arrestingly filmed by cinematographer Svein Krovel. Surprisingly, the younger actors are the more convincing in the cast. Hera Hilmarsdottir is the stand out as the manipulative Disa and Jörundur Ragnarsson is just plain creepy as the highly disturbed young Sammi. However, Tinna Hrafnsdottir never looks right as Selma, appearing too young to be a magistrate and too old to be college drop-out.

Writer-director Guðný Halldórsdóttir displays little sentimental attachment for the era, dramatically illustrating the consequences when good intentions collide with reality. Never send a hippie to do Father Flanagan’s job seems to be the moral. Storm is a legitimately edgy film that could probably never get picked up by politically correct art-house distributors, so catching it at Scandinavia House is recommended. It screens this Wednesday and Saturday.

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Singles from Argentina


Maria Puga Lareo
In a Sentimental Mood
Beijo Partido with Quique Sinesi
My Keter Records downloads


Welcome to the post-album future. This is the first time I have reviewed EP’s available only online, but I suspect it might become an increasingly widespread practice. Truly, the downloading revolution ended the days of bulking up albums with mediocre tracks, so more and more singles and EP’s are turning up exclusively at online retailers. Such is the case with Maria Puga Lareo’s single “In a Sentimental Mood” and her two-song EP recorded with Quique Sinesi.

Though released earlier in the year, the publicity campaign is evidently just ramping up. Despite some overdubbing effects, all three tracks express the spare intimacy of a duo setting. During “Sentimental” Lareo is primarily accompanied by the sensitive playing of pianist Frank Collett, an American jazz pianist probably best known for his work with Carmen McRae and Louis Bellson. Producer Fernando Gelbard, a jazz pianist countrymen of Lareo’s, adds a tasteful solo of his own, in nice wistful take on the Ellington standard.

With Argentinean guitarist Quique Sinesi, Lareo also recorded two Brazilian songs of a distinctly romantic flavor. Here Lareo’s delivery is breathier, caressing the lyrics of “Beijo Partido” and “Atras Da Porta.” Probably best known to American audiences for recordings with Pablo Ziegler, Sinesi is delicate and expressive in support, getting a nice little solo turn on “Beijo.” Through over-dubbing, Lareo harmonizes with herself before taking the track out. While slower in tempo, “Atras” might frankly be a bit too similar in theme and tone for the purposes of an EP. As background listening, they blend together in the ear. Lareo’s vocals on “Atras” express even greater yearning and are quite pretty, but more variety might have showcased her range to better effect.

These are three nice tracks, proving Lareo can certainly do the dreamy Brazilian thing. According to the “liner notes” an album with Eddie Gomez on bass is forthcoming. It will be interesting to hear if she stretches in new directions with its release.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Rissient: The Cannes Doctor’s Doc

Emerging from a film festival with strong buzz and a distribution deal is the dream of every filmmaker. If it seems like the fix is in for certain films, you need to find your own fixer. At Cannes, that would be Pierre Rissient, the subject of Todd McCarthy’s Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema (trailer here), now screening at the MoMA.

Essentially, Rissient is the Clark Clifford of international cinema. If your film is screening at Cannes, you need to be talking to him. In his often overlapping roles of critic, publicist, and distributor, Rissient has championed films that fired his passion. He has worked behind the lens as well, even directing two reasonably well received films of his own. However, his greatest influence seems to come through his unspecified (by McCarthy) role as an advisor to the Cannes Festival.

French director Bertrand Tavernier describes Rissient’s legendary arm-twisting, having seen it firsthand as his longtime partner in film publicity. Unfortunately, we never see Rissient get down to business with a difficult critic. We also hear Rissient is a fount of scandal regarding the international filmmaking scene, but the film never gets past the “oh, the stories he could tell” tease.

Primarily, Rissient is a tribute to the film guru by directors who have benefited from Rissient’s boosterism. This is accompanied by clips from their films, which makes Rissient something of a Chuck Workman film for the international arthouse scene (Werner Herzog! King Hu! Jane Campion!). At the time, Rissient raised some eyebrows when he campaigned on behalf of Clint Eastwood, who was then still widely dismissed as an action star. Rissient is effusive in his praise of Bird, Eastwood’s Charlie Parker bio-pic. Just as French critics were early defenders of jazz’s artistic merits, French critical reception led the way for Eastwood’s re-evaluation as a serious filmmaker, thanks in large part to Rissient’s nicely symmetrical efforts on Bird, a jazz film.

There are entertaining stories sprinkled throughout Rissient, but it does not delve much below its subject’s placid surface. While the film convinces audiences Rissient has led an interesting life, it never really makes the case that people outside of his rarified world should care about his career. Clearly, Rissient made a lot of great future films possible through his early efforts on behalf of important directors, which is undeniably a significant contribution. (Conversely, we can also blame him for paving the way for Tarantino’s Grind House.) However, this is not a point the film presses.

Rissient is the ultimate film festival film, being about festivals, as well as the people and films that are a part of them. MoMA is probably the perfect venue for it, and if you are a member it is a diverting way to spend some time, but far from revelatory. It screens through Wednesday.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Jasny at AFA: Gladys

New York is the last frontier. Like Matthew Broderick’s character in Election, it is here that people come when they need a fresh start. For Czech filmmaker Vojtech Jasny, New York became his first real home after he found it prudent to relocate following the 1968 Soviet invasion of his homeland. Once in New York, Gladys St. John Colegrove, an elderly neighbor with reported psychic abilities would become part of his adopted family. She would also be the title subject of Gladys, a documentary assembled from footage Jasny shot on Hi-8 over the course of several years, which screens at AFA as part of their Jasny tribute.

Twice widowed, Ms. Gladys explains to Jasny that she has been in constant contact with her husbands from beyond the veil. It is clear that she misses them very much, particularly number one, St. John. Most of this contact seems to come through automatic writing, some of which was collected in a published book (Listening Across the Border, Vantage 1981, as Gladys St. John).

We see several birthday celebrations including the big 100 and after, so it is understandable that she is somewhat physically infirm. However, Jasny and his friends are able to coax her out of her apartment for the first time in twelve years for a walk in the park. It might sound trite, but she looks pretty good, all things considered. Despite her general frailty, she sounds feisty and opinionated when interviewed by Jasny’s friends and students. Her answers are not always politically correct either, sounding downright Lou Dobbsian on the subject of immigration.

While Gladys is very definitely about its central character, Jasny’s love for New York suffuses the film. During his introductory narration, Jasny states: “Here I soon lost my home-sickness that I couldn’t lose in Europe. New York became my passion.” Though seen obliquely, audiences get a sense that Jasny and his friends are smart, decent people, who genuinely care about their elderly neighbor.

Gladys nicely fleshes out AFA’s Jasny retrospective, giving a sense of his life in America. However, of the films playing in the series, it is probably the slightest. His classic narrative films, like All My Good Countrymen and Cassandra Cat in particular, should appeal to a wider audience. Still, Gladys is a pleasant look at the improvised families that make New York the capital of new beginnings. It plays at AFA this coming Sunday and Wednesday.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Dead Sea Scrolls in New York

Nearly everyone has heard of them, but what is actually recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls is not widely understood. Given the kind of wild religious conspiracy theories floating through popular fiction in recent years, it is extremely welcome to have an exhibit that really explains the historic and theological significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those with a healthy interest in either Jewish or early Christian theology are likely to be fascinated by the Jewish Museum’s upcoming exhibit, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World, carefully curated to resist taking sides in related academic controversies.

In addition to material providing helpful historical context, six fragments of the priceless scrolls are on display. They come from The Book of Jeremiah of the Hebrew Bible, the Words of the Luminaries prayer book, the Aramaic Apocryphon of Daniel, The Book of Tobit (considered apocryphal in Judaism but canonical for Catholics and Orthodox Christians), and two writings evidently pertaining to an ancient sect, the apocalyptic War Rule and the governing regulations of Community Rule.

Discovered in the Qumran caves of the Judean desert, the Dead Sea Scrolls are arguably the most important archaeological discovery of the last century. They were first unearthed in 1947 when a Bedouin boy tossed a stone into a cave, shattering one of the scroll vessels, whose contents he sold to a dealer for relative pocket change. Over all, the Qumran scrolls date from 300 BC to 100 AD, but of those be displayed in New York, only the Tobit possibly dates to the early decades of the Common Era (evidently the Museum’s preferred semantics), with the other five originating sometime during the first three centuries BCE. Some consider the scrolls the former holdings of a specific group (the Essenes are most frequently suggested), whereas others consider it a non-sectarian Jewish library or a cache deliberately hidden from marauding Romans. The exhibit draws no conclusions.

Jewish Museum visitors will only have a ninety day viewing window, a limit strictly enforced by the Israeli Antiquities Agency (IAA) to protect the scrolls, three of which, Jeremiah, Luminaries, and Tobit, will be displayed for the first time here in New York. This exhibit and another currently underway in North Carolina are part of a commitment by the IAA to always have scrolls on view somewhere outside Israel at all times. It is clear from the remarks of the IAA representative at the press event and the exhibit’s video loop that the agency, working in concert with the international experts, including the Dominican order of Jerusalem, considers their work preserving the scrolls to be a sacred trust.

The area of Qumran Caves has since been turned over to the PA. Wisely, the IAA conducted an exhaustive final search of the area for additional scrolls before the land was transferred. Evidently some interesting artifacts were unearthed, but no scrolls. One shudders at the thought of such an important archaeological legacy entrusted to Israel’s neighbors (who of course would consider the scrolls heretical).

The centerpiece of the Jewish Museum’s exhibit is of course the scroll fragments—documents dating back 2,000 years. These time-battered scraps dramatically illustrate the fragility of human learning. Thankfully, the IAA is determined to preserve them another 2,000 years. New Yorkers will have a chance to see them for themselves when the Jewish Museum’s exhibition officially opens this Sunday.

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A Thousand Years of Good Prayers Starts Today

Imagine you just divorced your husband when your estranged father announces he is visiting you help straighten everything out. Oh, the joy. Such is the parental visit Yilan must endure in Wayne Wang’s quiet but emotionally heavy A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (trailer here), opening in New York today.

The fissures between Yilan and her father Mr. Shi are not just generational, but also geographic and cultural. He has traveled from mainland China, where he may just be the last surviving true-believing Communist. Conversely, Yilan has acclimated to the lifestyle of suburban (or exurban) America, now more comfortable expressing herself in English than Chinese.

Over the years a significant chasm has opened up between father and daughter, with roots in Mr. Shi’s past that Yilan never fully understood. Though ostensibly polite, she did not want him to come and withdraws further and further the longer he persists in staying. Confused by her cold response, Mr. Shi finds himself increasingly alienated in a strange country, only able to forge a human connection with Madame, a gregarious Iranian matriarch he often encounters at a nearby park.

Madame emigrated following the Iranian Revolution, to escape the repression which followed. Mr. Shi, a loyal servant in Mao’s revolution, now finds himself in America only out of a sense of familial duty. Neither has a strong command of English, yet they successfully communicate almost telepathically, using fragments of three dissimilar languages.

Something happened in the Cultural Revolution that derailed Mr. Shi’s life. Yet like an excommunicated sinner, he holds onto his love for his faith. Thousand subtly shows the continuing influence of seemingly far-removed tumultuous historical events on its characters, but not at the expense of its central family drama.

Based on a short story by Yiyun Li, featuring just four characters with significant dialogue, Thousand is uncompromisingly intimate. Yet, it never seems stagey thanks to Patrick Lindenmaier’s cinematography. Wang takes his exquisite time telling that story, but there are real emotional payoffs. Henry O is quite touching as Mr. Shi and Faye Yu gives a frankly remarkable performance as Yilan, expressing the quiet tragedies of life's bitter disappointments.

Thousand is an elegantly thoughtful film that lingers in your consciousness long after screening. It is part of a one-two punch coming from director Wang, author Li, and the distributor. While Thousand opens today at the Lincoln Plaza in New York, Princess of Nebraska (trailer here) debuts on youtube’s screening room about a month from now on October 17th. Having made the festival circuit, Nebraska has legitimate arthouse credentials, so it will be interesting to see how this distribution experiment works. As for Thousand, it might not be appreciated by those with limited attention spans, but it is an understated and rewarding film, that is definitely recommended.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jasny at AFA: Why Havel

Vaclav Havel’s longest stint in a Communist prison lasted about four and a half years. Nearly six years later he was elected President of Czechoslovakia in the country’s first free and fair election in over fifty years. Vojtech Jasny captured the exceptional role played by President Havel during those heady days of newly won freedom in his documentary Why Havel, screening as part of the upcoming Jasny retrospective at AFA.

How does a playwright become one of the world’s most respected statesmen? Jasny’s film literally asks why Havel, quickly answering its own question. We see candid footage of a President more comfortable laughing and joking with the kitchen staff than with the power and ceremonial trappings of office. A portrait emerges of a man of conscience, imprisoned for his activism and avant-garde writing, who earned the respect of both his dissident colleagues and his fellow citizens.

Why Havel begins with the President’s first state visit to America, attending an all-star tribute in New York at the Cathedral of St. John’s the Divine. Amongst those paying tribute are Joseph Papp, his American producer; director Milos Forman, Jasny’s celebrated colleague in the Czech New Wave; Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel; and musical guests, including Dizzy Gillespie (the rest of his band is not credited, but it looks like Mike Longo at the piano).

Jasny directs Forman as the film’s narrator and on-camera guide, who brings a great deal of charm to the role, sounding downright giddy at times. Considering the enormity of the changes under weigh, his euphoria is understandable. In one such exercise of the newly granted right to free speech, Forman mocks “the favorite pastime of the former rulers: giving each other medals—they loved it.”

Although there are some interesting transitions between scenes, Jasny seems much more interested in serving his subject than flexing his cinematic muscles. However, he clearly had remarkable access and a good amount of luck, filming Czech history as it happened.

Over the course of the film, Jasny and Forman give an unequivocal answer to the question why Havel. Only a man so uncomfortable with power could be trusted with it at such a delicate time in Czech history. Watching these events unfold through Jasny’s lens really is inspiring. While the Velvet Revolution was not so very long ago, many seem to have already forgotten its lessons, which is why Jasny’s film will always be a valuable document (that also happens to be quite entertaining). It screens at AFA this coming Saturday and Tuesday.

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Jasny at AFA: Good Countrymen

Rural Moravia offered its citizens plenty of hard work, but a proud life, until Soviet-style collectivization ruined their dignified existence. This phenomenon is dramatized unforgettably in Vojtech Jasny’s All My Good Countrymen, re-examined here less than a week after the DVD review, because it soon screens in New York as part of Anthology Film Archives’ upcoming Jasny retrospective.

Countrymen could only have been produced under Communist rule during the relatively free Prague Spring interlude. After the Soviet tanks rolled in, Countrymen was banned, consigned to a vault (although contraband prints did circulate). Yet, as Countymen opens, hope is in the air. The National Socialist occupiers are gone, though the Communists are growing in influence. Seven friends make music and general merriment together after a hard day’s work. However, Ocenás the church organist has assumed a leadership role on the local party council, whose actions will soon divide the once jovial friends.

Played by Vlastimil Brodský, a frequent Jasny collaborator also seen in Cassandra Cat, Ocenás is a surprisingly complex character. He alienates the village priest by leading the church choir in subversive hymns referencing such ungodly subjects as evolution and the Communist Party. However, his fellow party bosses are only too willing to sacrifice him for their own ends, leading to tragic unintended (but still useful) consequences.

In contrast, Frantisek, a successful farmer and pillar of the community, has no time for politics or ideological cant. He is a farmer in his soul, which he refuses to sell to the party. At one point he bluntly tells a local party boss: “You treat people like animals.” A taciturn man who leads by example, Frantisek is the archetypal strong, silent hero—the salt of the Earth, almost literally.

While in many ways a pastoral, Countrymen is identified with the Czech(oslovakian) New Wave, and it often shows a kinship with the Nouvelle Vague. Particularly striking are Jasny’s use of freeze frames during several death scenes. It even veers into disconcertingly surreal territory as the villagers cavort in exaggerated animals masks for an unspecified celebration that suggests subtle hints of danger.

Jasny addresses agricultural collectivization and its consequences directly and uncompromisingly. When viewing Countrymen, it is hard not to think he is probably lucky to be alive after 1968. However, Countrymen is never a simple indictment, portraying its characters with great nuance, most particularly the problematic Ocenás. When watching Countrymen, it is easy to see why the Communists banned it—it is simply a great film. It screens at AFA this coming Friday, Saturday, and Thursday, with Jasny himself in attendance for the first screening.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jasny at AFA: Cassandra Cat

From witches’ familiars to live action Disney films, cats endowed with supernatural powers are a long established archetype of story and legend. Such is also the case with Mokol, a bespectacled critter who disrupts the sleepy existence of a provincial Czech town in Vojtech Jasny’s Cassandra Cat. A leader of the Czech New Wave, Jasny is the subject of an upcoming Anthology Film Archives retrospective, beginning this Friday with Cat.

Part family fable and part surreal acid trip, Cat starts out conventionally enough, as Mr. Oliver, the town’s free spirit in charge of exposition introduces the audience to the cast of characters, including our protagonist, Robert, a humane, animal-loving art teacher, and the antagonist, his authoritarian principal, who happens to be an expert hunter who has largely stocked the town taxidermy museum with his kills.

Oliver, who later explains his mission in life is to fire the imagination of children, addresses Robert’s art class, telling a tall tale about a beautiful woman with a cat who wore eye-glasses. According to the old man, those glasses held in check a special ability the feline possessed: the power to turn people bright colors reflecting their true selves, yellow for the unfaithful, purple for liars, grey for thieves, and red for those in love.

Shortly thereafter, a rather eccentric troupe of vaudevillians and Dixieland musicians comes to town, led by a magician who looks exactly like Oliver. Accompanying him is a beautiful woman named Diana, who most definitely catches Robert’s eye, and Mokol, a cat wearing spectacles. During the company’s grand performance for the town, Mokol loses his glasses, and all chaos breaks loose, as the townsfolk become bathed in primary colors based on their inner beings. Smitten with Diana, Robert turns a deep Communist red. However, most of his neighbors reflect different colors.

Reacting with wild abandonment in the film’s trippy centerpiece scene, the townspeople break into a fantastical dance bordering on a riot. Mixing bold color, groovy jazz-like music, and choreography which alternates between telekinetic combat for the undesirable colors, and the Lindy hop for the joyous reds, Cat leaves Disney territory far behind in its rearview mirror.

Obviously, the problem is not the hypocrisy of the townspeople, but that darn cat. As Robert’s students conspire to protect Mokol, his boss leads the efforts to hunt him down. While Cat never explicitly addresses political issues (unless you consider Robert an early proponent of animal rights), it is always difficult not to graft allegorical meaning unto a film produced behind the Iron Curtain in which an authoritarian figure abuses his power until an everyman character stands up to him.

Usually surreal, hallucinogenic films are also dark and moody, but Cat is unusual in this regard. It is a bittersweet film that never loses its sense of innocence, despite the wild scenes from the town square. In the key role of the film, Vlastimil Brodský, best known as the remorseful party boss Ocenás in All My Good Countrymen, portrays Robert’s idealism with charm and genuine likability. Jasny deftly balances the fairy tale elements with his bold visuals, while never letting the film’s pacing flag. The only credibility problem for his fable is the children’s immediate devotion to Mokol, who seems rather lifeless, even with his shades and wardrobe. (It is hard to believe I am critiquing the performance of a cat, but there it is.) Still, the site of Robert’s students carrying Mokol around like the Art of the Covenant, as their elders dive into fountains and behind columns to escape his gaze is worth the price of admission.

Not to overuse the word “charm,” but Cat is totally charming. It is also visually inventive and a thoroughly satisfying cinematic experience. It plays at the Anthology this Friday, Sunday, and Tuesday, with the director himself in attendance on the 19th.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Rape of Europa and the Heroism of the Monuments Men

The Rape of Europa
Directed by Berge, Newnham, and Cohen
Menemsha Films

They were the best and the brightest of the Greatest Generation. They were a handful of highly educated and cultured American military officers, charged with recovering and protecting Europe’s artistic legacy. It is these so-called Monuments Men who emerge as the true heroes of the outstanding documentary The Rape of Europa (trailer here), available today on DVD.

Largely based on the NBCC Award-winning book by Lynn H. Nicholas, who often appears as an on-screen expert, Europa significantly deepens viewers’ understanding of WWII. Nicholas convincingly argues Hitler and his fellow National Socialists allowed their appetite for prestigious plunder to influence their war plans, persuasively pointing to the shopping lists German art experts drew up prior to each military invasion.

Refreshingly, Europa rejects any suggestion of moral equivalencies. Certainly, the Allies did at times destroy important monuments (which was always exploited by Axis propaganda). It was war, after all. However, Europa makes it crystal clear that great efforts were made by American forces to avoid such collateral damage, with Gen. Eisenhower explicitly ordering his commanders to “respect monuments so far as war allows.” By contrast, the retreating Germans deliberately wrecked destruction on the irreplaceable landmarks of Florence and other cities, simply out of evil spite.

Charged with minimizing the damage to Europe’s architectural treasures and restoring its looted art, but working with little material support, the Monuments Men included officers in their ranks like Lincoln Kirstein (co-founder of the New York City Ballet) and painter Deane Keller. It would be Keller who emerges as first among heroes in Europa, having recovered the treasures of Florence and initiated the restoration of Pisa’s all but destroyed Campo Santo under desperate conditions—an effort which continues to this day.

A clear moral distinction between the Allies is also strongly implied. The Americans had Monuments Men. The Soviets had Trophy Brigades. The Americans returned Nazi loot to the governments of its rightful owners, whereas the Soviets loaded now twice-looted art on trains headed east. Europa also documents the revelation of seventy-four such trophy paintings in the Hermitage, which became a cause célèbre for Russian Communists and ultra-nationalists in the late 1990’s, with the Duma passing a resolution barring the return of these works to the heirs of their rightful owners.

Using the complex controversy surrounding the disputed ownership of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (often referred to as the Gold Portrait) as its touchstone case, directors Berge, Newnham, and Cohen have well-organized a wealth of fascinating material, including some remarkable eye-witness accounts. They are not afraid to broach controversial issues, and address the Holocaust with honesty and sensitivity. When Europa was released theatrically (becoming one of the top five grossing documentaries of the year), I thought it was one of the ten best films of the year. After revisiting it on DVD, my respect and enthusiasm for this documentary remains undiminished. I recommend it strongly to anyone who values the art and culture of Western Civilization.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Across the Crystal Sea

Across the Crystal Sea
By Danilo Perez, Arranged and Conducted by Claus Ogerman
Emarcy Records


Some top arrangers in jazz have had enough prestige to lead their own sessions, without ever picking up an instrument, aside from their pens. Gil Evans would be the classic example, but Claus Ogerman can also lay claim to that distinction. Recording an entire session of such an arranger’s charts is often a career highlight, which is why jazz pianist Danilo Perez’s Across the Crystal Sea, arranged by Ogerman, is sure to receive quite a bit of attention in the jazz press.

The fitting cover, John Marin’s Maine, 1914, comes courtesy of producer Tommy LiPuma’s art collection. While certainly representational, but with a dreamy abstract (dare say impressionistic) quality, depicting the wooden coast and tranquil sea beyond, it makes quite an appropriate image for the music stored within. Likewise, Ogerman’s charts, consisting of six of his originals (five of which are based on classical themes) and two standards, also have an ethereal, leisurely quality that can be either a blessing or a too-much-of-a-good-thing curse.

Probably the disk’s strongest selection is the opening title track, based on a theme from German choral composer Hugo Distler. The prominence of Luis Quintero’s percussion really helps propel the track, keeping it from being overwhelmed by the strings. Perez’s also takes an extended solo that shows true improvisational fire. Likewise, Lewis Nash on drums sets a solid groove for “Rays and Shadows” (after Jean Sibelius) that preserves a sense of momentum. Again, Perez takes a legit solo, as the rhythm section locks in beneath him.

The two standards are feature spots for guest vocalist Cassandra Wilson. Both are moodily gorgeous, but from a programming perspective, might be a bit similar in terms of tone and vibe. Of the two, “Lazy Afternoon” is probably superior to “My Heart Sings,” with Wilson’s hauntingly expressive vocals perfectly suiting the lyrics on the former, whereas the strings and chimes are more prominent on the latter.

“Purple Condor” (after Manuel de Falla) also gets the balance about right between piano, percussion, and strings. However, sometimes Crystal can sound a bit over-arranged, with the strings soaring too highly, or just conversely sounding just a little too sedate, as with “If I Forget You” (a la Rachmaninoff) or “Another Autumn,” the original Ogerman original.

There are some quite lovely moments on Crystal, even for hardened jazz ears, but it is certainly a quiet, late-night kind of spin. It is actually the kind of thin-edge-of-the-wedge release that might conceivably bring in new listeners for Perez, and jazz in general by extension, because it is truly accessible for all audiences.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

From PA to Italy to Cornelia St.

Are you Italian-American or interested in Italian culture? Do you just like words? Amy Barone, a friend of J.B., is reading at Cornelia Street Café tonight in conjunction with the Italian-American Writers Association, in support of her new chapbook, Views from the Driveway.

Barone’s work reflects her Pennsylvania roots and the extensive time she spent in Italy. She still writes a column on New York living for an Italian beauty magazine, including this report on Small’s. Jazz is indeed a significant influence on her work, including “Understanding Jaco,” a meditation on Jaco Pastorius and his composition “Three Views of a Secret,” from Driveway:

“I wanted to understand such a confusing and elusive song
Like you, the bass playing wonder who after years of saying
“no” turned to “yeses” that paved your undoing
As you traveled down dark streets and indiscriminately
picked your battles
Abandoning reason and the roles, of leader, teacher,
friend and muse” . . . (p. 29)


There is indeed a long history of poetry taking inspiration from jazz, and vice versa. Jazz musicians and poets have also often shared the same venues, like Cornelia Street. The tradition continues tonight at 6:00.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Jasny’s Good Countrymen

All My Good Countrymen
Directed by Vojtech Jasny
Facets


The four seasons loom large for a provincial Moravian farming village. However, it was roughly eight months of spring—the brief period of Czechoslovakian liberalization known as Prague Spring—that gave Czech auteur Vojtech Jasny a limited window of opportunity to make All My Good Countrymen, considered by many to be a masterwork of the Czech New Wave, but rarely seen due to Communist censorship.

Countrymen was completed shortly after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and banned shortly after its initial screenings. It is no secret why it ran afoul of the censors. As the tale of a peaceful Moravian community ripped apart by the devastating policies of agricultural collectivization, it is hard to think of a film more antithetical to Marxism produced behind the Iron Curtain.

As Countymen opens, hope is in the air. The National Socialist occupiers are gone, and though the Communists are growing in influence, Edvard Beneš is still the democratically elected president. Seven friends make music and carouse together after an honest day’s toil. However, Ocenás the church organist has assumed a leadership role on the local party council, whose actions will forever split the once merry friends.

Frantisek in contrast, has no time for politics or ideological cant. He is a farmer in his soul, which he refuses to sell to the party. At one point he bluntly tells a local party boss: “You treat people like animals.” A taciturn man who leads by example, Frantisek is not unlike the archetypal strong, silent heroes once played by Gary Cooper—the salt of the Earth, almost literally.

As Frantisek is imprisoned, debilitated nearly to the point of death, and eventually hounded to accept leadership of the disastrous collective, Countrymen becomes a grand tragedy, heightened by the elegiac narration. Jasny was inspired by gothic paintings and his sweepings landscapes truly have a painterly look. While Countrymen has a limited color palette, Jaroslav Kucera’s photography makes the farmland sparkle—making it easy to understand how Frantisek could be so emotionally tied to the earth he tills.

While in many ways a pastoral, Countrymen is identified with the Czech(oslovakian) New Wave, and it often shows a kinship with the Nouvelle Vague. Particularly striking are Jasny’s use of freeze frames during several death scenes. It even veers into disconcertingly surreal territory as the villagers cavort in exaggerated animals masks for an unspecified celebration (Christmas, Winter Solstice?) that suggests subtle hints of danger.

Jasny deftly elicited sensitive performances from his cast, particularly Vlastimil Brodský and Radoslav Brzobohatý as Ocenás and Frantisek, respectively. Both give nuanced performances as former friends seemingly opposed to each other, who both struggle with the decisions they face. Also notable is Vladimír Mensík as Jorka Pyrk, the Falstaffian town rogue, facing a prison sentence for undefined (at least to the audience) crimes.

It is easy to see why the Communists banned Countrymen—it is a great film. It speaks directly to the dire consequences of elevating ideology above humanity. Aside from a few bootleg copies circulated underground, it was locked in a vault from 1971 until the Velvet Revolution, so if you have not heard of it before, that was most certainly the intent. It deserves to reach a wide audience now that it is happily available on DVD from Facets. (It also screens next week in New York as part of a Jasny retrospective at the Anthology.) It is highly recommended.

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Tree of Life and Its Italian Roots

It is estimated eighty percent of Italy’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust. For most European countries survival rates were roughly an inverse twenty percent. Italy’s widespread resistance to the genocidal murder of its Jewish citizens made Hava Volterra’s documentary Tree of Life (trailer here) possible, because her father was one of those sheltered by compassionate Catholic Italians. Volterra’s film, opening in New York today, chronicles of her family history, reaching back to de Medici Florence and culminating with a reunion between her Aunt and the Good Samaritan Stortini family who harbored the Volterra’s during the war.

For family history to make decent cinema, the family in question had better be interesting. The Volterras pass this test. Their family tree includes some pretty significant branches, including Meshullam da Volterra, a Florentine banker (money-lender) and friend of Lorenzo de Medici; Ramhal, a mystical rabbi and extremely prolific kabbalist who was nearly excommunicated for his messianic teachings; Luigi Luzzatti, the first Jewish Prime Minister of both Italy and in Europe at large; and even New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, whose Jewish ancestry is not widely recognized. However, it is Volterra’s father Vittorio who looms largest in throughout the film.

According to Volterra, her father always struck her as innately Italian despite spending his entire post-war years in Israel. Shortly before his death, Volterra sensing time might be short, suggested he visit his Italian homeland. That trip not taken becomes the impetus for Tree. Volterra visits important sites from her family’s past in both Italy and Israel, with her Aunt Viviana Volterra Gerner, a puppeteer and documentarian, along serving as both cameraperson and company.

For Volterra, her father is the central figure of the story, a man who evidently considered himself something of a failure for not reaching loftier scientific heights. This is often blamed on the Communist ideology of his youth. While Volterra explains he “regretted his Communist past,” it is not made clear if that is because of the inconveniences it created in his career, or because of the revelations of the horrors committed in its name. It also seems his distaste for academic politics was probably as a great an obstacle in his career path, which one can certainly identify with.

While Vittorio’s story might interest some, the scope of the entire Volterra family history, which essentially encompasses the development of the modern Italian state, is far more interesting. Volterra employs some highly stylized animation and animatronic puppetry to illustrate key scenes from Volterra history, of which the Ramhal sequences are particularly effective. They give the film a distinct visual sense not often seen in documentaries.

When Volterra’s Aunt finally reunites with the Stortini family, it is a nice moment, but not as dramatic viewing as one might expect. Tree is really more about the family’s journey up to that point. Along the way, viewers will get a fresh perspective on Italian history in general, the Italian Jewish experience in particular, and even some relatively familiar historical figures, like Mayor LaGuardia. It opens today at the Two Boots Pioneer.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Day for Remembrance

There will be no reviews or reports today. September 11th remains a day for remembrance and contemplation here. 2,996 lost their lives on this day, and several people I know could have easily joined their ranks if not for the grace of God or the intervention of fate.

It is important today to focus on the people murdered on that day. They are the ones we should keep in our thoughts, not the very real terrorists who committed the atrocity or the concocted bogeymen of conspiracy theorists. That is why D. Challenger Roe’s Project 2,996 was such an appropriate undertaking. Bloggers around the country each profiled one the fallen. Ronald E. Magnuson was profiled here. According to the NYT’sPortrait of Grief,” he was an avid golfer and a social, outgoing family man. His loss is surely still felt by his friends and family.

Also, the jazz community should also stop to remember one of its own: Betty Farmer, a jazz vocalist working for Cantor Fitzgerald. She started her singing career in the cradle of jazz, her hometown of New Orleans, and performed with Duke Ellington. According to the NYT, she was in the process of re-launching her performing career. Tragically, we will forever be denied the music she would have created.

It is worth mentioning in passing, if you watch or listen to the commemoration ceremony this morning, violinist Esther Noh will be one of the accompanists. In addition to classical, she also plays some very interesting experimental improvised music. It is nice to see her selected for what must be considered a high profile performance. Indeed, it is always a moving service that focuses one’s thoughts quite effectively.

Let us hope that the friends and family of Mr. Magnuson, Ms. Farmer, and the other 2,994 individuals killed on this day find a measure of comfort and solace on this anniversary.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Utopian Love from the DPRK

What happened to the future? It was practically here already. The noble workers of North Korea were building it at a rate of 207 percent to plan, yet it still has not arrived. As arguably the most closed society on Earth, visuals from the DPRK are scarce and those that do seep out are much more reflective of the image the government wishes to project, rather than reflecting living conditions as they actually are. Such is the case with North Korean Images at Utopia’s Edge, a new exhibit which opened in the Korea Society’s gallery last night.

The exhibit’s twenty-four wood-cut prints depict almost exclusively scenes of happy workers building their socialist paradise, or the fruits of those labors. Many of the renderings include signs or banners with propaganda slogans, like “2.7 Times More Than Planned” seen in the background of Jong Gwan-Su’s Propaganda Van Girl. Many portray what might be called extreme labor, always performed with a smile, like the underwater welders in Kim Yong’s Builders of the West Sea Dam and the “Speed Campaign Youth Brigade” suspended halfway up the face of a mountain in Hwang Byong Gyun’s North Railroad Building Site (which seems like an intuitively dubious construction strategy).

Although not considered Socialist Realism according to the exhibition signage, they certainly seem to share many of the same motifs. However, the figures are less stylized, more realistic and easier to identify with. According to Society President Evans Revere, seeing the prints brought back feelings of nostalgia for visiting Chinese diplomats. They also seemed reminiscent of some of the books from my childhood illustrating our future lives in space, cheerfully jet-packing around our Moon colony communities. (I suppose that vision of the future is running a bit late as well.)

The art of Utopia’s Edge is most certainly propaganda, but it has a strange aesthetic appeal. Any halfway informed individual should understand the tremendous gap between the idealized visions of North Korea projected by the artists, and the brutal reality, which included mass starvation in recent years. It was culled from the collection of documentary filmmaker Nicholas Bonner, who is considered the most frequent western visitor to the DPRK.

Bonner co-produced Crossing the Line, which will screen at the Society next month. A profile of James Joseph Dresnok, an American who defected to the DPRK regime, Line opens an often fascinating window into the overwhelmingly oppressive environment above the 38th Parallel, but is problematic for never directly challenging the party-line parroted by the treasonous Dresnok. It is recommended to viewers savvy enough to parse through the propaganda, as is Utopia’s Edge. It is on display at the Korea Society through December 12th.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

ACE Film Fest: Music From the Inside Out (NYFA)

Representatives from New York Foundation for the Arts sounded like they really wanted to talk money at the ACE Film Fest. The lead sponsor of the festival, NYFA screened five documentaries made possible by seed money they originally provided. Before each screening they invited filmmakers to come talk to them later about their financing opportunities for documentary projects. (They would not have needed to ask me twice.) Their showcase films all received significant theatrical distribution and usually related to the arts and humanities, like Been Rich All My Life, a profile of the Silver Belles dancers, and Daniel Anker’s Music From the Inside Out (trailer here).

The Philadelphia Orchestra already had a significant claim on cinema history, having recorded the soundtrack to Disney’s Fantasia. With MFTIO, Anker profiled the orchestra over the course of five years and several world tours. While not every musician of the 105-member organization gets individual screen time, Anker shoehorns a good number of them into the film. These are section players, not star soloists, although some, like concertmaster David Kim, had such aspirations. His story of frustrated ambition, giving way to the artistic satisfaction of musical collaboration, is really representative of the spirit of MFTIO.

A surprising number of the musicians Anker interviews actually perform in different styles and genres for their own satisfaction. Adam Unsworth graduated from a jazz program and admits the regimentation of the orchestra is often artistically frustrating for a trained improviser. We then hear a cool performance of Bird’s “Blues for Alice” from Unsworth on French horn, an instrument not heard very often in a jazz context (only Julius Watkins and Vincent Chancey come readily to mind).

We also meet violinists who moonlight as blue grass fiddlers and Udi Bar-David, an Israeli cellist performing traditionally Middle Eastern music with Palestinian oud player Simon Shaheen. Perhaps the busiest crossover musician is principal trombonist Nitzan Haroz, who regularly jams with a salsa band after his symphony concerts.

Even though MFTIO profiles a symphony orchestra, it is more about the emotional resonance of music in general, than classical music specifically. While the film never gets too heavy or dramatic, there are some very effective scenes which convey the power of music to make direct human connections. It was an excellent representative of NYFA’s mission. Though available on DVD, special screenings for community and educational groups seem to be continuing. It is well worth seeing in either format.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

ACE Film Fest: The Big Shot Caller

While deeply rooted in the cultural environment of 1970’s El Barrio, salsa music has used evolving strategies to appeal to an emerging transnational market. That will be the stuff of an upcoming review of Christopher Washburne’s Sounding Salsa, but it is largely superfluous to Marlene Rhein’s salsa-flavored indy drama, The Big Shot Caller (trailer here), which concluded this year’s ACE Film Fest.

For protagonist Jaime Lessor, salsa simply represents freedom, passion, and a brief respite from being an uptight white guy. However, uncharitable reactions to an unfortunate eye condition (Nystagmus) caused him to bury his dancing ambitions, instead immersing himself in wage-slave drudgery. His family support system is nearly non-existent. He rarely visits a father who only cares about his next poker game, and he is avoiding his estranged sister Lianne, who ran away from home fifteen years ago.

At first, Lessor only agrees to see Lianne to get advice about a rare romantic prospect, Elissa, an Upper Manhattan party girl. It is pretty clear Lessor and Elissa are not going to work, but she is a woman giving him attention, so he falls hard. When the inevitable happens, it sends him into a personal tailspin. Depressed and unemployed, he turns to the only one who will take him in: his sister.

At its heart, Caller is a sibling story more than anything else. Music does play a significant role in the story, but it never eclipses the personal drama. The big dance comes and goes, but life goes on. Salsa fans might be a bit disappointed the music is not more prominent in the film, but they will enjoy hearing up-and-coming salsa band La Excelencia perform two tunes.

Jaime and Lianne Lessor are played by real-life brother-and-sister David and writer-director Marlene Rhein. They are indeed convincing in the roles, as one would expect. Marlene Rhein, a former music video director who worked with the likes of 2Pac Shakur and Amy Winehouse, helms with considerable sensitivity and uses New York locations to good effect. As a screenwriter, she steers clear of easy sentiment and delivers some of the film’s best lines as Lianne.

At times Caller is painfully believable to watch. Life can be that way. It is strong feature debut for the Rheins that deserves to find an audience as it plays the festival circuit.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

ACE Film Fest: Kill Kill Faster Faster

The ACE Film Festival began with a truncated discussion of the challenges facing independent filmmaking. In some respects, the indy film scene has been a victim of its own past success, with the influence of breakout hits, like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, becoming all too pervasive. Now, far from being “edgy” graphic violence and sex, as well as frank language about both, are more derivative than transgressive. A case in point is Kill Kill Faster Faster (trailer here), which screened at ACE.

Frustratingly, KKFF begins with the promise of fresh originality. Gil Bellows plays Joey One-Way, a convicted murderer released from prison through the intervention Markie Mann, a producer who has optioned the con’s confessional play White Man Black Hole. Mann and his vapid show business associates want to romanticize One-Way’s thug life as a paragon of artistic integrity and authenticity. However, One-Way, consumed with guilt for his wife’s murder, contrarily argues there is nothing to admire in his life of crime and addiction. It is the straight family man who upholds his commitments that gets One-Way’s props. A cutting rebuke of hipster values—that’s edgy.

However, things go downhill precipitously when One-Way meets Mann’s wife Fleur, leading to a series of depressingly graphic, but unsatisfying sexual encounters. These are not erotic scenes in the least, but more like exercises in mutual contempt and debasement. Unfortunately, they dominate the second act, making it near impossible to develop a rooting interest in any character.

As One-Way, Bellows has sullen down cold, but never hits any other notes. Esai Morales’s Markie is a basic stock character. Only Shaun Parkes as One-Way’s former cell-mate Clinique shows any screen presence, providing Cassandra-like commentary. Probably the most successful aspect of the film is the score composed by Mike Benn, a musician best known for his work with folk-soul-jazz vocalist Terry Callier (who is also heard on the soundtrack), which effectively mixes blues, crime-jazz, and soundtracky mood cues.

KKFF is based on a novel by Joel Rose, which may well be worth reading. Periodically, interesting ideas do peak out of the screenplay, before being overwhelmed by its indy film excesses. Had KKFF followed through on its early hints of being a morality play with a genuine sense of morality, it truly would be edgy and independent. Instead, it is only another explicit crime drama.

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ACE Film Fest: Shorts

Events seem to be conspiring against the ACE Film Festival. After facing stiff opening night competition from a historic RNC convention (better to be up against Sen. McCain than Gov. Palin though) the organizers will have Tropical Storm Hanna to contend with today. At least a couple shorts which screened Thursday should have cheered them up.

L.A. traffic can be a killer, to your social life at least. It also leads to a fair amount of bruising in Crystal Liu’s Speed Dating. Single and rather depressed about it, Kate is having difficulty meeting anyone, spending her days hermetically sealed in either her car or her office cubicle. After an unsuccessful night of clubbing, she accidentally nicks a single (but fortunately understanding) guy while pulling out of her parking spot. In the sober light of day, Kate realizes this can be quite an effective ice-breaker and loads up the car to deliberately clip eligible pedestrians. Hit them then hit-on them being the strategy.

Speed has pretty clever concept. While it might get a little thin if stretched to feature length, at about fifteen minutes, it maintains its comedic energy quite nicely. There are probably more laughs in this short film than most of the supposed relationship comedies produced by Hollywood for either television or the big screen.

While L’amie de Zoé would probably be more appreciated in this morning’s children’s program (at only two minutes, why not throw it in as a bonus?), it is an endearing little film, that actually tells a fair amount of story in its relatively short running time. In general, I think it is more effective when festivals thematically organize their shorts programs, but I have to admit the hodge-podge approach does sometimes get me to see films like Zoé which ordinarily I would not seek out.

You can see Zoé online here, but like any film, shorts are best viewed on the big screen. ACE screens another shorts program tonight, for those bold enough to brave the storm.

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