Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Three Faces of Eve

The Last Eve
Directed by Young Man Kang
Vanguard Cinema

What do you get if you combine Caine from Kung Fu with the Biblical brothers Cain and Abel? Something like The Last Eve (now available on DVD, trailer here), Young Man Kang’s bizarre triptych of Kung Fu Biblical allegories, which mixes and matches elements of the Adam & Eve and Cain & Abel stories, often to head-scratching effect.

Kang seems to be building a reputation as a low-budget auteur, evidently holding the Guinness World Record for the least expensive feature film ever produced and released: the $980 Cupid’s Mistake. Based on Eve, he seems to be more in the tradition of the strange but highly stylized low-budget fare of Edgar G. Ulmer, rather than the grade-z schlock of Ed Wood.

The product of three different shoots, with three different crews, Eve is uneven in the extreme. Bruce Khan provides the only continuity, reprising the role of Adam, the martial arts warrior, in the tripped-out opening “Eve’s Secret” and the middle story, “Cain and Abel,” which is by far the best of the film.

Filmed in Korea, “Cain & Abel” also has the superior cinematography, visual composition, and fight choreography. Khan’s Adam is now a retired cage fighter who wants to marry Eve, here the sister of the slimy Cain. Haunted by the death of his last opponent, Adam refuses Cain’s offer to fight again. Instead, Cain tempts Adam’s brother Abel into the ring, with disastrous consequences. Abel killed by the hulking Muay Thai Fighter and Eve’s freedom is wagered away to the local criminal overlord by her hopelessly corrupt brother. That of course sets up some old school steel-cage kung fu retribution. Khan is a commanding action presence as Adam, particularly in the second story-line, and Seung Min King is by far the most compelling Eve in the film.

Khan also has some decent fight sequences in the opening “Eve’s Secret,” a segment with no spoken dialogue aside from some introductory narration. One of three survivor’s of the apocalypse, Adam is charged with protecting Eve from seven demons bent on killing her to prevent the rebirth of humanity. Unfortunately, the segment is undermined by the frequently garish looking special effects and a dubious punch-line of an ending.

The final story arc, “Snake’s Temptation,” is the weakest of the three. Forsaking martial arts for drama, it chronicles the disintegration of the chaste young Adam and Eve’s engagement, while a comet bears down on Earth, signaling the end of the world, and giving the film a circular narrative structure. Unfortunately, the performances here are significantly weaker than “Cain & Abel,” with the supposedly demonic Snake character coming across as a metrosexual street punk. However, it does feature Tim Colceri (who might be recognizable to some from guest appearances on shows like Babylon 5) as Father Julius, a Catholic Priest who has adopted the trappings of a Buddhist.

Eve is an odd but commendably ambitious film. Despite it biblical inspiration, it does not seem overtly evangelical. Yet, when it works, it is quite entertaining, which would be about one and a half times out of three. Obviously nothing will stop YMK from making more films, since he can amazingly bring them in for less than four figures, but Eve shows a lot of promise, so hey, more power to him.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Chamber Music: Melos

By Vassilis Tsabropoulos, Anja Lechner, and U.T. Gandhi
ECM Records 2048

What is chamber music? Most definitions speak of small ensembles playing intimate music, with only one instrument per part (as opposed to section play in symphony orchestras or big bands). Stylistically, it is frequently, but not exclusively associated with classical idioms. Given the classical backgrounds and improvisational facility of Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and German cellist Anja Lechner, chamber music is an appropriate rubric for consideration of their latest collaboration, Melos.

Melos ventures deepest into jazz terrain when Tsabropoulos and Lechner are joined by Italian jazz drummer U.T. Gandhi (originally Umberto Trombetta), whose jazz credits include work with Lee Konitz and Enrico Rava. His shimmering cymbals work propels selections like “Vocalese,” which features the closest example to a traditional improvised jazz piano solo from the composer.

Other times, when Tsabropoulos and Lechner play as a duo, Melos fits more easily into a classical chamber bag, though it is a hauntingly elegant one. The pianist’s opening title composition is one such case. As are his concluding “Evocation” and “In Memory.” Darkly hued, but performed and recorded with eerie clarity, they have an austere beauty.

While the majority of the program consists of Tsabropoulos’s originals, the musicians do interpret three compositions by the controversial Armenian spiritualist G.I. Gurdjieff (arranged by Lechner and Tsabropoulos, based on piano transcriptions by Thomas de Hartmann), which lend an exotic vibe to the session. “Tibetan Dance” and “Sayyid Dance” have a more pronounced rhythmic drive thanks to Gandhi’s cymbal work, whereas as on “Readings from a Sacred Book,” he adds subtle color to the evocative tone poem.

While Melos might blur genres, the music is not at all abstract or diffuse. The melodies are strong, even catchy at times, like the insistent “Reflections and Shadows,” or the rhapsodic “Gift of Dreams.” With similar backgrounds (like Tsabropoulis and Lechner’s classical training, and Lechner and Gandhi’s experience playing jazz-influenced tango with Dino Saluzzi) the three musicians clearly share a high degree of rapport, resulting in music that is sophisticated, but also deeply resonate.

NYADFF: Return to Goree

Although it was a small supporting role, Youssou N’Dour showed tremendous screen presence portraying Oloudah Equiano in Amazing Grace. A charismatic performer with a powerful voice, N’Dour commands the screen as the subject of at least two recent documentaries: Chai Vasarhelyi’s I Bring What I Love, which played at this year’s Tornto Film Festival, and Pierre-Yves Borgeaud’s Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée (trailer here), which screens Thursday at the NYADFF, after a successful week long run this summer at the late, lamented Two Boots Pioneer Theatre. Gorée seems particularly appropriate for the Diaspora Festival, since it documents N’Dour’s pilgrimage through the music of the African Diaspora, as he leads an all-star group through jazz and gospel arrangements of his Senegalese songs.

The film starts and culminates at Gorée, the island home of the notorious slave-trading outpost off the coast of Senegal. It opens with the stirring lyrics of N’Dour’s anthem “Red Clay,” which speak directly to the African experience, making a fitting start for the musical odyssey to come. After securing the blessing of the curator of Gorée’s House of Slaves for his mission, N’Dour’s first rendezvous is with the French jazz pianist Moncef Genoud, who had previously collaborated with the vocalist on jazz arrangements of his material at a jazz festival. Together they perform with the Harmony Harmoneers at the Greater Israel Christian Fellowship church in Atlanta. However, N’Dour seems bizarrely alarmed to hear them sing their praise of Jesus in rehearsals—he wanted gospel, after all. Despite a bit of grumbling, the Harmoneers do agree to secularize their performance of “My Hope is in You” (the “you” formerly being Jesus for the gospel singers).

The next stop is New Orleans for a jazz set at Snug Harbor, with drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist James Cammack joining the rhythm section for the duration of the tour. In a pattern that repeats throughout the film, director Borgeaud films N’Dour and colleagues in a scorching rehearsal, and then moves on without showing the actual concert.

The next stop is New York for a session with vocalist Pyeng Threadgill (daughter of the often avant-garde Henry Threadgill) and harmonica player Gregoire Maret, who has played on high profile recordings with the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Pat Metheny, and Marcus Miller. We also hear a jazz-and-poetry collaboration with Amiri Baraka, who is relatively restrained in his militancy on that particular day, mercifully.

N’Dour and company make a final stopover in Luxemburg to add two more axes to the band, trumpeter Erni Hammes and Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel. As the musicians assemble in Dakar, the Harmoneers tour the House of Slaves and are moved to sing “Return to the Land of Gorée.” It is a scene that recalls Roberta Flack singing “Freedom Song” in a Ghanaian slave fortress during the Soul to Soul concert film (which was cut at her request from Rhino’s DVD/CD reissue).

When the final concert kicks off, it does sound like the band came together into a tight unit. Unfortunately, we do not hear the full group with the Harmoneers or Threadgill. In general though, N’Dour’s experiment sounds great. His songs translate well into a jazz context, helped by the presence of jazz musicians like Muhammad and Genoud who are well attuned to N’Dour’s original music.

With an interesting mix of well known musicians like N’Dour and Muhammad with European artists largely unfamiliar to American audiences, like trumpeter Hammes in particular, Gorée is definitely a cool jazz documentary. It screens Thursday at the Clearview 62nd Street Theatre, as part of the NYADFF.

Friday, November 28, 2008

NYADFF: Changing Faces

Though thought of as an Islamic country, studies estimate roughly forty percent of Nigeria’s population is Christian, so a Nigerian film with Christian themes is not such a contradiction in terms. Screening this afternoon at the New York African Diaspora Film Festival, Faruk Lasaki’s Changing Faces suggests personal angels and demons are not simply metaphorical, but wield a tangible influence on mortals which we cannot comprehend.

Marriage means little to Lola, the hedonistic journalist. Unmarried herself, she refuses to let a mere trifle like a wedding ring deter her from a promising sexual encounter. However, the devoutly Christian Dale Svenson takes marriage very seriously. He is even prim and proper with his own wife. Assigned to cover the painfully dull architectural conference he will address, the uptight Svenson catches her eye. Over the course of a week, Lola plays an elaborate game of sexual cat and mouse with her prey. Eventually, it indeed turns out that whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.

However, this time conquest comes with a price, both for Lola and Svenson. Faces posits a world in which sex not only occurs on a physical level, but on a spiritual level, involving the spirits people carry with them. By some fluke, Lola and Svenson swap their moral compasses during their night of passion. Now recklessly lecherous, Svenson recognizes something happened to him that night, which threatens to derail his marriage and career. On the wagon and living with integrity, Lola by contrast welcomes her new square life.

While Svenson resorts to a witch doctor’s services in a moment of desperation, Faces ultimately links salvation and faith. Lasaki’s debut narrative film, written by Yinka Ogun, is surprisingly overt in its Christian orientation. It is a morality tale in which morality matters. It suggests a life of rectitude is preferable to the ostensive pleasure of sin. However, like Christian films produced domestically, the production values are spotty and the acting is sometimes suspect. British actress Rachel Young fares the best as Lola, the former temptress. Unfortunately, as Svenson, her fellow countrymen, Marc Baylis comes across like an actor in a Christian film.

Still, in many ways Faces is an intriguing film. His scenes involving the unseen “angels” are particularly clever in their staging and Emmanuel Fagbure has a real screen presence as Lola’s leering supernatural companion. It also serves as an interesting reflection of contemporary Nigeria, in that the inter-racial relationships never raise eyebrows—at least for that specific reason. Though undercut by a weak lead, Faces suggests Lasaki might have some fascinating films in his future. It screens today at the Cowin Center and Monday at the Anthology Film Archives, as part of the NYADFF.

NYADFF: Panman

The drum has always held great spiritual significance beyond its formal music making role, particularly in the Caribbean. It has inspired artists as disparate as Duke Ellington and Vachel Lindsay. The drum’s elemental appeal is deeply felt by the protagonist of Panman, Rhythm of the Palms (trailer here), which screens as part of the NYADFF this weekend.

The drum in question for Panman is the steel pan drum, which originated in Trinidad, but spread throughout the Caribbean, including the Dutch Antilles. It is the instrument that has given meaning to Harry Daniel’s life, but as the film opens, his traditional style of music has fallen out of favor. He labors through a demeaning resort gig, before his deteriorating body collapses, which cues the extended flashback of his musical rise and fall, told through the narration of his estranged student Jacko.

Though fictional, Daniel’s career follows a path recognizable to those who have seen a lot of musical biographies. As a young man, his musical talent initially makes him a star, but his business concerns are damaged by his troubled brother’s incompetence. Along the way, he meets the right woman, but his obsessive dedication to his music leads him to neglect his family.

Oddly, there is not a lot of steel pan in Panman. It seems more interested in using the instrument as a symbol—representing both the traditional music losing popularity to modern electronic forms, and African culture, as opposed to the Dutch, which many on St. Maarten persist in identifying with. Fortunately, Panman is relatively restrained when addressing issues of cultural identity. (It is considered the first film to be produced by St. Maarten, though directed by the Dutch filmmaker Sander Burger.)

As a result, individual drama takes center stage in Panman, and to that end, screenwriter Ian Valz is quite convincing as Daniel, displaying both rage and nuance in his portrayal. Frankly, the entire cast holds up well, considering there are not a lot of musical interludes to leaven the script’s trials and tragedies.

Although Valz’s Daniel avoided the cliché of self-destructive substance abuse, there is much in his story arc which seems predictable. In a sense, the lack of faith shown in pan music by the filmmakers undercuts their lionization of Daniel. However, things never get irreparably bogged down in melodrama, and Panman does convey a good sense of life on St. Maarten. Highly watchable, it still might disappoint hardcore steel drum enthusiasts. It screens this Sunday and the following Sunday at the Anthology Films archives as part of the NYADFF.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

NYADFF: As Old as My Tongue

Mark Twain’s classic quote: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” may have become something of a cliché, but Zanzibari vocalist Bi Kidude is certainly entitled to use it. While touring Europe, spurious rumors of her death produced a genuine outpouring of emotion throughout the Tanzanian archipelago. It was yet another chapter in Kidude’s complicated relationship with Zanzibari society, which Andy Jones explores in As Old as My Tongue (trailer here), a documentary profile of the singer screening at the New York African Diaspora Film Festival tomorrow.

Kidude is thought to have been born sometime around 1915, which would put her near the rather exclusive neighborhood of ninety-three. She still enjoys a nice beer and a good smoke, which is frowned upon for women by many of Zanzibar’s Islamists. Kidude also performs without the veil, which is particularly significant. Her musical inspiration and role model Siti binti Saad did in fact perform veiled. For Saad, simply performing in public and recording in India were enough of a challenge to established tradition.

Kidude is generally considered the greatest living representative of Taarab music, a style derived from Eastern African and Middle Eastern musical forms. Its instrumentation includes violins, ouds, and traditional percussion instruments, like the dumbek. Kidude still interprets the classic songs of Saad, but she also has a repertoire peculiarly her own, like the drinking song we hear at one point.

While she is celebrated abroad, attitudes in Zanzibar seem much more ambivalent. Many come to sponge off Kidude when she returns flush from a world tour, but when the money runs out, so do they. Concerned her music was not better appreciated in her native land, one of Kidude’s most enthusiast fans, Yusuf Aley Chuchu, launched his Heartbeat Studio with a session designed to reintroduce her to Zanzibar. He also explains a certain attitude prevalent among older Zanzibaris, including his mother, that Kidude should retire from music and spend more time at the mosque.

Although Jones did not capture any truly signal moments in Kidude’s career as they occurred, one could argue that at ninety-three years of age, give or take, any performance is noteworthy. Evidently, there is something to be said for drinking and smoking, because Jones often shows Kidude still maintaining a solid groove on hand-drum, despite her advanced age. To her enduring credit, Kidude also remains something of a non-conformist in Islamist Zanzibar, continuing to resist calls for her retirement.

Barely running over an hour, Tongue might be brief, but it gives audiences a solid introduction to Taarab in general and Kidude’s music in particular. Tongue also features some compelling music from its subject, even including “Done Changed My Way of Living,” a Taj Mahal track heard over the closing credits, which features Kidude and her frequent backing band, Culture Musical Club. Overall, Jones nicely balances the musical and the sociological in a very watchable documentary. It screens as part of the NYADFF on Friday at the Cowin Center and Saturday at the Anthology Film Archives.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Moment with Fred Hess

Single Moment
By the Fred Hess Band
Alison Records

For the sake of a wider perspective, every jazz writer ought to familiarize themselves with another jazz scene outside of New York. Fortunately, I have been able to check out a number of gigs in Denver during periodic family visits—one of the bright spots for jazz in the big square states. Some of Denver’s leading players have earned national reputations, particularly tenor player Fred Hess and his frequent musical colleague, trumpeter Ron Miles, both of whom are well known outside of Colorado for their time in Ginger Baker’s group. They have also played in New York, including an appearance under Hess’s leadership at what sadly turned out to be the final IAJE Conference in the City. Hess has now slightly expanded his line-up with his latest release, Single Moment.

Returning from Hess’s previous outing, In the Grotto, are two of Denver’s busiest jazz artists, the aforementioned Miles and reedman John Gunther, heard on alto and flute, as well as the two “ringers” from New York, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Matt Wilson. To shake things up a little, Hess added another Denver-based musician, Dale Bruning on guitar, who fits in rather seamlessly on a session of generally advanced hard-bop jazz.

Hess starts Moment with “Blues for Bonnie Belle,” an up-tempo blues with an edge, inspired the Hess family’s dog. Its combination of groove and inner fire has a similar vibe to some of the classic 1960’s Blue Note sessions. It is followed by Bruning’s jazz waltz, “Dancing with Daffodils,” featuring a brief but distinctive solo from the leader before the composer and rhythm section each take their turn.

While Hess is known for keeping one foot in the avant-garde and the other rooted in the straight ahead, Moment leans more to the latter. For instance, there is a starkly beautiful tenor and guitar duet rendition of “While My Lady Sleeps,” a Kaper & Kahn tune originally written for The Chocolate Soldier, an old MGM vehicle for Nelson Eddy. It is followed by Bruning’s infectious “Port O’Call,” a jazz calypso in the tradition of Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas.” The guitarist even takes an unaccompanied solo turn on “Spring is Here.”

For those familiar with Hess’s idiosyncratic musical family, the Clefs, your long national nightmare is over. They are indeed alive and kicking, despite Grotto’s rather ominous sounding “The Clefs—Final Chapter?” However, as the most dissonant track of the session, it sounds like the Clefs may not be safely out of the woods yet. Stay tuned.

At about twice the length of Hess’s other selections, the title cut is also the least structured, venturing the furthest out. A tribute to the late Michael Brecker, “Single Moment” ranges far and wide, providing ample solo space for the entire band, including an appropriately mournful statement from Miles.

Once again, Hess and his colleagues prove there is a lot of great jazz to be heard outside of New York. Moment happens to be a particularly rich, listener-friendly release from the inventive musician-composer, which should serve as a convincing introduction to Mile High jazz for the rest of the nation.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Avi Nesher’s Secrets

In 1577, Safed, one of the Four Holy Cities of Judaism, became the site of the first printing press of the entire Ottoman Empire. Long venerated as a seat of mystical learning, Safed also has a strong klezmer music scene, all of which provides an intriguing backdrop for Avi Nesher’s latest film, The Secrets, (trailer here), an examination of gender issues and traditional authority in Orthodox culture, which opens in New York Tomorrow.

Young Noemi’s faith is strong, but her life is plagued with emptiness. After her mother’s death, she convinces her learned rabbi father to postpone her marriage to a sanctimonious fiancé, allowing her to enroll in a Midrasha, a seminary for young women founded by Orthodox feminists. At Safed, the bookish Noemi, able to quote long passages of sacred texts from memory, is thrown together with three perfectly mismatched roommates, including the rebellious Michal, a spoiled rich girl from France. To Noemi’s annoyance, the two women are both assigned to serve a new client for their Midrasha’s meals-for-shut-ins program: Anouk a notorious French speaking convicted murderess.

Hardly an innocent victim, Anouk really did murder her lover in a crime of passion. Facing her own impending mortality, the older woman desperately seeks spiritual redemption from the unsympathetic religious authorities of Safed. Against her own better judgment, Noemi delves into Kabala, looking for an impossible tikun, a cleansing ritual for the sin of murder.

Unlike most contemporary films, Secrets treats concepts like sin and redemption with absolute sincerity. It is at its strongest when portraying the relationship between the two younger women and the ailing Anouk, played by the distinguished French actress Fanny Ardant. The ancient walls of Safed function almost like another character, effectively heightening the film’s aura of metaphysical mystery. However, the development of a problematic lesbian relationship between Noemi and Michal does not really cover any new territory not previously seen in other films about homosexuality in traditional societies, including the Orthodox documentary, Trembling Before G-D.

Nesher helms the film with admirable restraint and sensitivity, while cinematographer Michel Abramowicz invests the action with a warm, mysterious glow. The cast is quite credible, including the great Ardant, and Adir Miller, as Yanki, the tragically likable klezmer clarinetist and Noemi’s rival for Michal’s affections.

Along with other recent film imports, like The Band’s Visit and Jellyfish, Secrets well represents the increasing diversity of contemporary Israeli filmmaking. While not perfect, it is a handy corrective for those who associate Kabala with trendy red bracelets. It opens in New York at the Quad tomorrow.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Macedonian Film Festival: Milcho Manchevski

While Milcho Manchevski’s greatest claim to international fame might be as the director of the first Macedonian film nominated for the best foreign language Academy Award, he probably deserves far more credit for inspiring a host of films that in various ways fracture linear narrative. Told in a triptych which forms a circular narrative, Manchevski’s Before the Rain (trailer here), made its European festival debut weeks ahead of Pulp Fiction, yet it would be Tarantino’s film that would be credited (or blamed) for a parade of non-linear imitators. In advance of the January 30th New York opening of Manchevski’s latest film, Shadows, the director’s first two films closed the Macedonian Film Festival Sunday night.

Rain begins and ends in Macedonian, but its middle story is set in London. The film was in fact a British-Macedonian co-production, at a time when the British government did not recognize that of Macedonia. As befits its title, a storm is always approaching in Rains, both the meteorological and human varieties. In “Words,” the first chapter, Kiril, a young monk who has taken a vow of silence, gives shelter to Zamira, a young Albanian girl running from a lynch mob. After his act of sanctuary results in his own expulsion from the monastery, Kiril mentions an uncle in London might be able to help them, and that is indeed where Manchevski shifts the action with “Faces.” The Pulitzer Prize winning photo-journalist Aleksandar Kirkov is returning to the city after an assignment in Bosnia that profoundly disturbed him. After resigning, he tells his photo-editor and illicit lover he is returning to Macedonian, with or without her. She declines to leave despite her dubious feelings for her husband. However, the violence she had only experienced vicariously through Kirkov’s lens erupts into her own world when a Serbian rivalry turns violent in a posh London restaurant.

The longest segment, “Pictures,” tells the story of Kirkov’s problematic homecoming. As he approaches his native village, he disarms a petulant teenager standing guard with a machine gun. At times Kirkov resembles Eastwood’s Man with No Name, except instead of a former gunslinger, Kirkov is a retired photographer. However, we eventually learn that his camera has actually killed people. Although more familiar to American audiences for sinister roles on Fox’s 24 and in films like Eyes Wide Shut and The Saint, Rade Šerbedžija gives one of the best screen performances of the 1990’s as Kirkov, the celebrated observer forced to chose sides and participate.

Clearly, the spaghetti westerns were a pronounced influence on Manchevski, because he would incorporate the genre into his second film, Dust. Told in flashback by Angela, an elderly woman, to her would-be robber “Edge,” Manchevski weaves a Munchausen-esque fable about Cain and Abel brothers who start in the Old West, but travel to the wild East of Macedonia, as it revolts against the Ottoman Empire. Again, Manchevski plays narrative games, but the intrusion of elements from disparate time periods is often distractingly played for comedic effect.

The strongest scenes of the film are actually the least mythical. Rosemary Murphy and Adrian Lester convincingly sell the unlikely relationship between Edge and Angela. Unfortunately, neither brother is particularly interesting. Joseph Fiennes’s Elijah is a caricature of religious zealotry, while David Wenham is somewhat more nuanced as Luke, who is incapable of true emotional engagement, except when killing people.

Dust is a big, ambitious film that ultimately got away from Manchevski. Rains however, is a contemporary masterpiece that reveals increasingly greater depths with each viewing. In Rains, characters fantastically reappear in various times and places to further challenge the overall narrative thread. Yet, Manchevski’s execution is subtle, never directly interfering with the events on-screen. Ultimately, the cycle of violence continues, as the story doubles back, forming a complete circuit. Evidently, Sergio Leone was not his only influence. During last night’s Q&A, Manchevski explained the first part of the film’s repeated mantra: “Time never dies, the circle is not round” was in fact inspired by Chick Corea’s Mad Hatter album.

Given his international success, the Manchevski double-feature made a fitting closing night for the Macedonian Film Festival. Rains is a member of several exclusive cinematic clubs: the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, the New York Times’ “Best 1,000 Films Ever Made,” and a Criterion Collection DVD treatment. Though flawed, Dust is still fascinating filmmaking, worth seeing simply to compare with future Manchevski films, like the forthcoming Shadows.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ichikawa’s Kabuki Actor

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor
Directed by Kon Ichikawa

Many consider Kon Ichikawa second only to Akira Kurosawa among the great filmmakers of Japan, but frustratingly little of his filmography is available here in America. Following the Japan Society’s mini Ichikawa retrospective this summer, the film billed as his first venture into “samurai cinema” is now available on DVD. However, Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (trailer here) is worlds away from most costume swordplay movies.

In this case, the swordsman out for revenge is not just a kabuki actor, he is an onnagata, one of the actors who played female roles on-stage, who during the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate (prior to the Meiji Restoration) were obliged to maintain their assumed gender role even when off-stage. Yukinojo Nakamura might play delicate lotus blossoms on-stage, but beneath the kimonos, he is an accomplished swordsman of muscular build. Despite attaining wide acclaim, his abiding ambition is to avenge his late parents, who were destroyed by a clique of powerful office-holders and merchants.

Learning his enemies have assumed positions of influence in Edo society, Yukinojo accepts a theatrical engagement there with the intent of attracting their patronage. However, mere killing is too good for them. Yukinojo insists on an elaborate revenge that will inflict pain and humiliation, forcing them to suffer as his parents suffered. Attacking at their most vulnerable point, he seduces Namiji, the sentimental daughter of Sansai Dobe, the most powerful of the actor’s targets. As the Shogun’s concubine, Dobe’s position is entirely dependent on her. The resulting scenes between Yukinojo and Namiji could support an entire film and gender studies academic conference.

As Yukinojo, Kazuo Hasegawa chose to return to the role he first played in the 1935 film version of the same story to mark his three hundredth film appearance. In addition, he also plays Yamitaro, essentially the Robin Hood of Edo. While Yukinojo’s rarified exterior camouflages a cold and calculating heart, Yamitaro has a hearty laugh and a Texas-sized swagger. All he seems to be missing is a parrot and an eye-patch. However, at times the dialogue winks at Hasegawa’s dual role with “you look a little like . . .” references.

Indeed, Kabuki is at times very self-referential. Ostensibly addressing the spirit of his father, Yukinojo’s voice-overs come perilously close to breaching the fourth wall. However, when the characters step out into the night world ruled by thieves and ruffians, Setsuo Kobayashi’s arresting cinematography creates a stark netherworld that is part Twilight Zone, part Beckett. Heightening the late-night ambiance is the anachronistic jazz-influenced soundtrack composed by Yasushi Akutagawa, Tamekichi Mochizuki, and Masako Yagi.

Ichikawa and Natto Wada, his wife and frequent screenwriting collaborator, crafted a sly but totally satisfying revenge tale. Well rendered on disk by AniMeigo, its wide-screen allows viewers to fully appreciate Ichikawa’s visuals, and their program notes nicely serve as footnotes to the on-screen action, explaining historical references that might be lost on many western audiences. While watching Kabuki one is constantly struck by Ichikawa’s masterful touch and the elegant craftsmanship of his crew. It is a film that deserves its reputation as a classic.

Images ©1963 Kadokawa Pictures, Inc.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Macedonian Film Festival: I am from Titov Veles

Many Communist-era industrial behemoths are still around, continuing to plague the environment in former Warsaw Pact countries. Macedonian’s Titov-Veles, now known simply as Veles, is one such city dominated by a carcinogenic white elephant. Its dreary backdrop dominates Teona Strugar Mitevska’s I am from Titov Veles (trailer here), which opened the Macedonian Film Festival last night.

The blight of Veles accentuates the bleak desperation of three sisters’ lives. The eldest Slavica is a recovering heroin addict looking for economic security. Sapho, the middle sister, is obsessed with immigrating out of Macedonia. Deeply affected by their mother’s desertion and father’s subsequent death, the youngest, Afrodita, desperately clings to her older sisters. Since their mother left, she has not spoken a word out loud, and might even have difficulty fully distinguishing fantasy from reality.

Mitevska portrays a rootless Macedonian, where jobs are scarce and immigration information is discussed in much the same way New Yorkers trade real estate anecdotes. Given the tremendous continuing human and environmental costs of what the press notes call “forceful socialist industrialization,” it is understandable Afrodita’s sisters are looking for a way out. However, when they find apparent escape from the doldrums of Veles, they leave behind Afrodita, in much the manner their mother did to the family years before. Ill-prepared for life on her own, Afrodita’s perceptions and judgments becomes ever more questionable. Likewise, Mitevska’s narrative becomes increasingly subjective, seemingly giving Afrodita’s fantasies equal footing with ostensive reality.

In other words, Titov is most definitely a festival picture. Unfailingly patient, Mitevska lets her distinctive visuals unfold at a very deliberate pace. Often we watch Afrodita from odd angles, observing events at ankle level or over her shoulder. At other times, we see her fully exposed during moments of such vulnerability, the film feels intrusive. Mitevska’s sister and producer, Labina Mitevska, carries the entire emotional weight of the film as the lost Afrodita. She is quite convincing, holding up well under the scrutiny of director Mitevska’s unforgiving lens.

Somehow Mitevska has crafted a film that is both impressionistic and naturalistic. While casting a critical eye on contemporary Macedonian culture, particularly the gender attitudes of the brutish men the sisters encounter, Titov is a very personal story and a demanding film. Although it might not sound like a Chamber of Commerce promotional film, Macedonia has selected it as its official best foreign language film submission for the upcoming Academy Awards, in hopes of repeating Macedonia’s success in 1994 with the nomination of Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain, which will close the festival with a special screening Sunday. The Macedonian Film Festival continues through the weekend, and Titov will screen again in New York this coming January at MoMA.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Betrayal

What happens when America abandons her allies to certain military defeat and subsequent reprisals? Suddenly this is a timely question. Before making any rash withdrawals, the incoming administration should study past examples. One such case study occurred in Laos following America’s military exit from Southeast Asia. Its dramatic consequences for the Phrasavath family are documented in The Betrayal (trailer here), opening in New York this Friday.

Filmed over a twenty-three year period by director Ellen Kuras and her primary subject and credited co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath, Betrayal captures just about every trial and tribulation on film as it happens to the family. During the Viet Nam War, Phrasavath’s father was Royal Laotian officer working with American military advisors. Following the American departure and the Communist Pathet Lao conquest of Laos, the elder Phrasavath was arrested and sent to re-education camp, which was considered tantamount to a death sentence. Facing an uncertain future as the family of a declared enemy of the state, the Phrasavaths sought refuge in Thailand before eventually making their way to America.

The title could refer to any number of betrayals in the Phrasavath family’s story. It can certainly refer to the American government turning its back on an ally in the fight against Communist expansion, as well as the inhospitable welcome they received upon reaching this country. However, there are very personal betrayals within the family as well. For a time, Kuras’s co-director seemed to turn his back on family responsibilities, joining a gang and challenging his mother’s authority. The Phrasavath matriarch also wrestles with her own guilt, having left behind her two youngest daughters as a result of miscommunication in their haste to leave. However, the greatest personal betrayal comes following the film’s third act surprise.

Remarkably, either Kuras or Phrasavath happened to have a camera rolling as nearly every family crisis came to a head. However, the film is not so diligent filling in the gaps in-between. For instance, how Phrasavath was able to return to Laos for the final scenes is never explained. He just seems to show up. Yet, for a shot-on-the-fly documentary Betrayal’s production values are quite high, even featuring a score composed by Howard Shore, known for his work on small films like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Betrayal is an American Documentary/POV co-production and frankly PBS is probably the right home for it. Most ticket buyers (outside of festival audiences) will likely find it better suited for PBS broadcast on POV or Frontline, than as a full-fledged theatrical feature. Still, Phrasavath has a dramatic story, and it would be great to see him get a book deal out of it all. It opens in New York on Friday at the IFC Film Center.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

La Guardia in the Eye of the Beholder

How did Mayor Bloomberg celebrate his inevitable victory overturning the term-limit measure New Yorkers twice approved at the ballot box? Instead of going to Disneyland, he went to Tony Lo Bianco’s one-man show La Guardia. The whole three-termer thing must have appealed to him. For the record, LaGuardia demurred on a fourth term, cautioning mayors tend to get “bossy.” One can see what he meant. You can also see Mayor La Guardia, as personified by Lo Bianco, at the Dicapo Opera Theatre, quite Off-Broadway on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper Eastside.

Distilled from Lo Bianco’s previous one-man productions down to a manageable hour and a half, performed without intermission, La Guardia is a respectful treatment of the progressive Republican icon. The year is ostensibly 1945 and La Guardia is packing up his office on his last day as Mayor, a process nicely suited to prompting reminiscences. Essentially, we hear the highlights of La Guardia’s public career, primarily his terms in Congress, service in WWI, and of course his years in Gracie Manor.

Lo Bianco did his research, acknowledging La Guardia’s little known Jewish heritage. As revealed in Hava Volterra’s documentary Tree of Life, he was distantly related to her Jewish Italian Volterra family-line that included Luigi Luzzatti, the first Jewish Prime Minister ever elected in Europe, and the mystical kabbalist Ramhal (none of which is in the play). Explaining the social pecking-order of turn of the century New York, Lo Bianco’s La Guardia tells the audience as both an Italian and a Jew, he started his career as a third-class citizen. Actually, he could have added Republican, making him a fourth-class New Yorker. In truth, La Guardia shows a better than average understanding of New York’s strange political ins-and-outs. Particularly, on-target was a crack about the “Republican deadbeat district leaders and club loafers,” he had to endure during his early campaigns.

To his credit, Lo Bianco unequivocally portrays Tammany Hall as the corrupt Democrat machine it was. However, he chooses to emphasize La Guardia, the provider of social services and supporter of FDR, rather than La Guardia, the pro-war hawk and crusader against Democrat corruption. Yet, when he covered the WWII years, La Guardia’s words had a ringing resonance for today, at one point warning listeners of his radio broadcast, they can indeed criticize their government in a time of war, but should remember that our enemies are listening as well.

Lo Bianco clearly loves the Little Flower like a brother, but that does not always make for the best theater. We never hear La Guardia holding a grudge or speaking a word in anger against anyone, except the Corruptocrats of Tammany. One-person shows are inherently limited, but La Guardia feels particularly stagy at times. However, Lo Bianco is quite effective channeling La Guardia, getting a standing ovation from an audience that included many who probably remember the great Mayor personally. La Guardia is safe theater and a reasonably diverting history lesson. It runs at the Dicapo through Saturday the 22nd.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Jazz Therapy: Dedicated to Earl May

Jazz Therapy Vol. 1: Smile
By Gene Bertoncini & Roni Ben-Hur
Motema Music

It came as a shock when the great jazz bassist Earl May had died in early January. I had recently heard him perform at a Jazz Foundation holiday event, where he looked and sounded great. Still a vital force on the New York scene, as it turns out, he was planning a new recording with his frequent musical collaborator, guitarist Roni Ben-Hur. The musicians often played together in the lobby of the Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, as part of a program sponsored the Jazz Foundation of America. Their intent was to produce a duo CD that would benefit Englewood’s Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund, which provides health services to jazz musicians in need. As a tribute to May, Ben-Hur has recorded the benefit CD they envisioned, with acoustic guitarist Gene Bertoncini joining the electric player for a set of jazz duets entitled Jazz Therapy Vol. 1: Smile, produced by Ben-Hur’s label and the Jazz Foundation of America.

As befits its name, Therapy is highly accomplished, but soothing jazz that would not sound out of place during a performance at Englewood. Given its lyrics, which might not be ideal for hospital audiences, one wonders if “Killing You Softly” ever made their Englewood set list. However, as the opening track, it is certainly indicative of the guitarists’ laid back camaraderie and very hip interplay.

The perilous title track, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” often lends itself to overly maudlin interpretations. Although Bertoncini and Ben-Hur are true to the original sentiment, they invest their rendition with a strong underlying rhythm and some tasteful flourishes, which prevent it from descending into the lachrymose.

While the entire CD is the tribute to May, some tracks are more direct in their reference to the bassist. Ira Gitler’s liner notes suggest the Chaplin standard was a reference to May’s own smiling countenance (seen pictured inside the CD digipack). Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Brown’s “That’s Earl, Brother,” though not originally composed in May’s honor, is nice twofer tribute both the bassist and the trumpeter-composer who started the jazz medical fund at Englewood. Naturally, it is the fleetest burner of the session, with Ben-Hur taking the lead on the bop lines.

Bertoncini in turn comes to the fore on a pair of his elegant originals, “You Are a Story” and the concluding “Set Blue,” a sophisticated reworking of Toots Thieleman’s “Bluesette.” In addition to being a friend of JFA, Bertoncini is also well known to the St. Peter’s community (the New York Lutheran church known for its jazz services and memorials), where his sensitive style is always appropriate. Together he and Ben-Hur create some intimate but artful jazz, obviously in heart-felt tribute to May, Englewood, and the Jazz Foundation. While its relative consistency in tone and tempo would be a drawback for other sessions, it fits Motema’s “Jazz Therapy” concept, which they plan to carry forward with future releases.

As a good karma bonus, proceeds of Therapy go to a worthy cause. The good work of Englewood’s longtime partner, the Jazz Foundation of America is also always worth reviewing. Led by the tireless Wendy Oxenhorn, JFA has been a life-line for jazz musicians in dire straits—artists without insurance or pensions, who were never properly compensated for their work. JFA has been there to forestall evictions and to provide emergency medical treatment (with their partners at Englewood). When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, their caseload went from the hundreds to the thousands. You can learn more about the Foundation at their website and see NY1’s report on Ben-Hur’s performances at Englewood in the newly rechristened Earl May Corner here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Margaret Mead: Alone in Four Walls

Call it the school for Jean Valjeans. Boy after boy incarcerated in a Russian reformatory school tells a similar story—sentenced for two to three years for stealing jam or other common foodstuffs. There is also the boy serving three years for triple homicide. If that sounds grossly unjust, the punch-line of German director Alexandra Westmeier’s documentary Alone in Four Walls (trailer here) is that most of the young charges of the remote Ural reform school do not want to leave. Alone, which screened last night at the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, is an unusual issue-oriented documentary, because it refrains from bludgeoning the audience with its righteous.

Artfully filmed by Westmeier’s cinematographer husband Inigo, Alone focuses exclusively on the children of this facility, giving the supervising adults only incidental screen time. As we first meet the charges, they explain for the camera their starter-prison tattoos. However, as they tell their stories, they do not seem to be bad kids. Although the film begins with a scared new arrival distraught because he was not allowed to say goodbye to his mother, most of the residents have clearly adapted well to their new environment. After all, it offers them things they did not have at home: namely structure and regular meals.

In a rare turn of events, the Westmeiers’ post-screening Q&A was actually illuminating. The director explained the seemingly disproportionate sentences for pilfering food were often handed down as a way to get the children out of a dangerous situation, giving them a chance to finish school. While it might speak well of Russia’s juvenile justice system, it is a pretty damning indictment of the country’s overall social support system.

One of the few adults we hear from is an alumnus of the institution, who recalls his time there as the best years of his childhood. Yet, when he sought out his closest mates from his time there, one was already dead and another was back behind bars. It turns out recidivism is a brutal 91% for the school’s graduates. Westmeier blames the lack of social services for such at risk youth. The lawless example of the Russia government itself also would not exactly instill good citizenship either.

Westmeier’s approach works because she resists the urge to explicitly tell viewers what they should think about it all. Whether you fully share Westmeier’s sympathies for the children or not, Alone certainly takes viewers to a remote corner of Russian they have never seen before.

Margaret Mead: Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers

About five or six years ago, Cambodia was the new in place for hipster expats. I hope this wasn’t the attraction for them. Life is brutish and short for Phnom Penh prostitutes. Drug addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies are facts of life for prostitutes everywhere, but abusive western johns are the greatest occupational hazards endured by the women featured in Rithy Panh’s Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers, which screened as part of the 32nd Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival.

On the surface, Embers is something of a departure for Panh, a Cambodian filmmaker based in France, whose past films have documented the human misery caused by the Khmer Rouge. However, Embers is actually more closely related to his past films than is immediately apparent. At least one of the featured women was forced into a life of prostitution after the UN incompetently repatriated her family back into Cambodia, after taking sanctuary in a Thai refugee camp. Heckuva job, UN. NGO’s do not emerge looking much better. At one point, two women discuss one do-gooder group that offers money for prostitutes’ funeral expenses, but as they note, no help while they are still alive.

Panh’s film is a tough viewing experience. You see the physical ravages of A.I.D.S. and drug use on the prostitutes sharing a Phnom Penh flat. They live a joyless existence toiling for a madam the audience never sees. The only laughter of the film comes at the expense of the Madam’s useless “tout,” who shares the women’s flat and doles out their meager payments.

Clearly, Panh has established a high degree of trust with the women, because we see them in some very intimate situations, speaking frankly about the mistakes which consigned them to such lives. However, nothing of their working lives is shown, aside from the proverbial street walking. When they speak of their encounters, it is only of the dangers they face. As a result, there is no explicit material in the film, aside from the plight faced by the women, which is truly obscene.

This is a hard viewing experience. Panh’s camera never blinks, showing all the black eyes and lesions that afflict the women of Embers. The greatest shame for western audiences is the repeated fear expressed by the women of their western “clients.” Again, a wary eye should fall on those hipster expats. Embers illustrates how tragedy compounds over time. It is a heartbreaking film that leaves viewers feeling helpless.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Margaret Mead: Umbrella

Evidently, there are many ways to live lives of quiet desperation in China. While they vary in degree of desperation, quiet is definitely the operative word in Du Haibin’s ruminative documentary Umbrella, which screened today at the American Museum of Natural History’s Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival.

The various figures seen in Umbrella are loosely tied together by tenuous connections to a Guangdong factory of said merchandise. As a parallel theme, each stop in an umbrella’s journey is put in the context of recent Chinese migration from the countryside to urban centers. Of course, this is a dramatic contradiction of historic Chinese Communist propaganda, which celebrated peasants as the revolutionary ideal.

Now the unofficial message seems to be: why stay on the farm when there is money to be made in China’s go-go economy. However, nobody is getting rich working at the eponymous Guangdong factory. Workers are paid piece-meal at posted rates broken-down to fractions of the Yuan. However, the toiling umbrella assemblers still appear to be surrounded by slogans extolling the virtues of labor, which are often translated in the film’s subtitles.

Ultimately, Guangdong umbrellas get into the hands of consumers who represent different strategies for making it in the “new” China. Rather than places of liberal arts learning, universities appear to be cranking out graduates for the sole purpose of competing in a fierce job market. Naturally, the army is always hiring, but Umbrella shows the Maoist tradition of public self-criticism rituals is still alive and well there.

Umbrella shows a lot of unhappy people, but it lacks a true narrative structure. When Du recognizes a good shot, he holds it interminably. He conveys a tactile sense of place as result of his ever so deliberate pacing. Truly, Du’s eye for composition is remarkable, but drive and focus are apparently not hallmarks of his style.

Preceding Umbrella was the thematically related ten-minute short Under Construction, directed by Zhenchen Liu. Using computer generated animation to recreate demolition sites it paints a picture of urban renewal out of control, in which wrecking crews function almost like protection gangs. Together they suggest the place of the individual in contemporary China remains tenuous at best. Although at times quite diffuse, Umbrella is a good festival programmer. Cineastes are likely to forgive its brooding pace for the sake of its earnestness. The Mead Festival continues at AMNH with screenings of documentaries on international cultures and the contemporary challenges they face, all day Sunday.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A French Christmas Tale

It’s time to get your Bah Humbug on, en Français. It might be the Christmas season, but there is little comfort and joy when the Vuillards get together. Instead it is family dysfunction of the highest order that comes to the fore in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (trailer here), opening today in New York.

The Vuillards have issues. Ever since the oldest child Joseph died of cancer at age seven, the family dynamics have been out of kilter. Now the children are physically grown, but remain emotionally stunted. Holidays are an ordeal for everyone, but they have been spared the presence of the middle son Henri. After nearly bringing financial ruin on the Vuillards, his younger sister Elizabeth made good on his debts, but at the price of banishment from the family. Henri does not understand how he inspired such resentment, aside from nearly bankrupting the family and just being a complete louse in general.

However, Henri might hold a trump card. His mother Junon has been stricken by the same disease which killed his brother, and so far no family members have proved compatible bone marrow donors. With Faunia, his amused Jewish girlfriend in tow, Henri joins the family for a miserable Vuillard family Christmas and some blood tests at the local hospital.

Tale’s trailer is somewhat misleading. While there is dark comedy, most of the lines in the preview which sound like jokes are said in deadly earnest. This is a largely loveless family of hopelessly incompatible people. Junon the matriarch was too vain and disinterested to love her children. The cold-blooded Elizabeth is incapable of forgetting her grievances. Her son Paul seems to have inherited the recessive underachieving genes which surfaced his black sheep uncle. For his part, Henri takes perverse pleasure in mismanaging his life, while Faunia finds the spectacle of it all amusing. Only their sensitive patriarch Abel shows any kind of capacity for familial love. We know he is a man of substance and depth from the music he studies and enjoys, including jazz compositions by Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor.

Desplechin’s domestic train wreck is all too believable, particularly because it resists explaining every little behavioral quirk. People hold grudges and blow each other off for reasons that remain obscure. That’s life. Catherine Deneuve is perfectly cast as Junon, the Mother of the Year. As Henri, Mathieu Almaric deftly portrays a multi-faceted character who is simultaneously charming, boorish, self-destructive, and passive aggressive. Not exactly comic relief, as Faunia, Emmanuelle Devos effectively provides an ironic vantage point on Vuillard family reunion.

Tale is a smart drama, but it is about as much a Christmas film as Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The holiday is an obligation for the Vuillards, not a celebration. While Tale might sound depressing, Desplechin strings together one fascinating scene after another, making it’s nearly two and a half hour running seem much quicker. It opens today in the City, at the IFC Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pan Asian Rep: Shogun Macbeth

Twelfth Century Japan and Eleventh Century Scotland were not totally dissimilar. Both were feudal societies with their own supernatural lore and the occasional outbreak of swordplay. Transferring Shakespeare’s Macbeth from the Medieval Highlands to Kamakura Era Japan actually makes far more sense than most radical setting changes for Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the seemingly compulsive need to place every tragedy in a thinly veiled Nazi Germany). In fact, Shogun Macbeth has already proved successful for the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, so as part of their Masterpiece Cycle, they have revived their production for a limited run, which officially opened last night.

Shame on anyone who needs the plot of Macbeth explained to them. Happily, Pan Asian Rep follows the original Shakespeare fairly closely, making a few linguistic and stylistic changes here and there. Instead of a dagger before Macbeth, he sees a shoto. They have also incorporated some traditional Japanese motifs, like the Biwa Hoshi, or “lute priest,” who serves as Shakespeare’s narrator. However, Macbeth still opens with the three witches (here called Yojo) foretelling Macbeth’s ascension to the throne (Shogunate), stoking his ambition and thereby setting in motion a bloody chain of events.

As Lady/Fujin Macbeth, Rosanne Ma is fantastic, subtly hinting she might be a little off, well before her “out damned spot” mental breakdown. She is completely believable and frankly sometimes creepy as the manipulative wife, goading Macbeth into murder. Kaipo Schwab seems to play Macbeth as a brutish savage, but given the body count he racks up, it is totally credible interpretation, which he carries off well. The formerly Scottish Play has a reputation for humbling actors, but here the two primary leads consistently rise to the challenge of the play whose name they cannot speak.

Designed by Charlie Corcoran, the simple set and prominent Buddha backdrop are visually dramatic, equally compatible with the scenes of supernatural mystery and the Kurosawa-esque samurai clashes. The Yojo/witches effectively play on Japanese archetypes, specifically the supernatural woman with preternaturally long tresses, accentuating the play’s uncanny themes. While Michael G. Chin’s fight sequences and Yoko Hyun’ elegant tea services firmly root the production in its new setting.

Briskly directed by Ernest Abuba, Macbeth is just over two svelte hours, not including the intermission. It makes for a quite manageable dose of high culture wrapped in a very entertaining package, and featuring a particularly noteworthy performance by Ma. Pan Asian’s satisfying revival runs at the Julia Miles Theater through December 7th.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Chinese Manga: Wild Animals

Wild Animals v. 1: Key Trafficker
By Song Yang
Yen Press Manga OT

Although Jiang Wen’s film In the Heat of the Sun received little western distribution, it evidently made quite an impression on those who saw it. Reportedly a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, Sun (trailer here) was considered relatively apolitical by western critics. However, according to Time, Jiang still had the Devil’s own time with the government censor, even offering the bureaucrat a role in the film to divide his attention. Jiang’s film also attracted the attention of Song Yang, who adapted it in Manhua form (the Chinese equivalent of Manga) as Wild Animals, the first volume of which is now available in translation for American audiences.

The great irony of Wild Animals is that Chinese parents’ lives became so regimented during the Cultural Revolution they were largely unable to supervise their children, who ran wild in the streets Lord of the Flies style. At least that is how Ma Xiaojun remembers his childhood in flashback. However, we soon learn he is not a reliable narrator.

Although Ma professes love for his soldier father and a desire to follow in his footsteps, he is a deliberate underachiever in school. His circle of friends could be considered a gang if they were more ambitious. Ma seems a little off, but initially not alarmingly so. Fascinated with keys, he often uses his collection of acquired cast-offs to break into homes—not to steal, simply for the thrill of the invasion. During one such foray, he falls in love with the picture of Mi Lan, a beautiful but somewhat older girl, much like Dana Andrews in Laura. Ma eventually meets the object of his desire, but reality does not seem to live up to his fantasy ideals.

While it might sound like a carefree coming-of-age story, there is a constant menace lurking beneath the surface of Animals. Occasionally, the tenor of the Cultural Revolution peeks through, as when students find themselves berated for the simple act of wearing lipstick. Though ostensibly revered, his father is a severe disciplinarian. In turn, Ma seems capable of shocking acts of violence, which he exaggerates all the more to impress the under whelmed Mi Lan. Perhaps Animals represents the chain of abuse being passed down from Communist Party to soldier and onto son, who eventually lashes out at those weaker than he.

The first volume implies his frustration with Mi Lan will lead Ma to commit a horrendous crime. Indeed, he prefaces the story with the lament: “It wasn’t until I was almost thirty, after a lot of effort, that I was finally able to lead a decent life.” (p. 6) However, it is hard to make hard and fast conclusions about Ma’s story, because his narration is intentionally cryptic.

Song Yang’s art can be striking, particularly when rendering the ethereal beauty of Mi Lan. On the other hand, though it might be a conscious strategy, his depictions of complex events are often difficult to discern. Dreamlike and mysterious is fine, but confusing can be a problem.

Most likely all will be revealed when Volume Two is published in May 2009. Often compelling if imperfectly executed, the first installment opens up some doors to very dark places, during a very dark time.

Les Blank: Blues and Cajun Music

Blues, roots music, garlic, and eccentric German directors are the stuff of inspiration for documentarian Les Blank. Probably best known for his documentaries featuring Werner Herzog, Blank’s second film was in fact a Dizzy Gillespie short. A wide cross-section of his filmography screens at the Film Forum for a week-long retrospective, starting this Friday.

Blank’s initial breakthrough documentary was The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, but he will probably always be remembered for his Werner Herzog films. The twenty-minute short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is pretty much what it sounds like—basically Fear Factor for the art-house set. As bizarre motivation, the established Herzog bet Errol Morris he would eat his shoe if the aspiring filmmaker ever finished his first film. Obviously it worked, and Blank was there when Herzog lived up to his part of the bargain. (If you’re wondering, he cooked it first, with garlic.) Soon thereafter, Blank would document the turbulent making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, in Burden of Dreams (trailer here). It was a process often described as well above and far beyond the chaos of Apocalypse Now.

However, some of the coolest films in the series relate to various forms of American folk music. Blank returned to the blues in 1971 for A Well Spent Life, a profile of Texas country bluesman Mance Lipscomb. Unlike the rest of his blues revival colleagues, Lipscomb was “discovered” in the 1960’s, not “rediscovered.” He made his recording debut on Arhoolie, the blues enthusiast label in 1960. Oddly enough, he would also cut an album for Sinatra’s Reprise label, which not surprisingly, quickly went out of print.

Well Spent rather starkly captures the life of a sharecropper who just happened to be a world renowned blues artist. Recent revisionist blues scholarship argues many blues collectors have idolized individuals who really did not consider themselves musicians. Playing the blues for their own enjoyment or an extra dollar here and there, they happened to be captured on songhunters’ field recordings and from there, legends ballooned. In a way, Well Spent lends some credence to those arguments. Clearly, Lipscomb spent far more time eking out a hardscrabble existence as a sharecropper than singing the blues. However, there is an undeniable, almost archetypal appeal to Lipscomb’s blues. Often seen performing backlit by sunsets, Well Spent also features some of Blank’s most attractive photography.

While his Lipscomb film is a mid-sized forty-four minutes, Blank also made some relatively brief blues films, like the five minute Cigarette Blues. Starring Sonny Rhodes, also from Texas but based in the Bay Area, Cigarette is an unusual “PSA” produced by the Dallas Museum of Art. Featuring Rhodes’ smoking (if you will) slide guitar and a cigarette-butt sculpture created by an artist recently deceased from lung cancer, it is one of the hipper anti-smoking film.

Blank did his undergraduate work at Tulane, so his affection for Cajun and Creole culture should come as no surprise. The full length documentary J'ai Été Au Bal gives an affectionate history of Cajun music. While Zydeco artists like Clifton Chenier (also the subject of Blank’s earlier film Hot Pepper) are discussed, in this film Blank keeps his focus on the Arcadians. However, he argues the two musical forms are closely related. Both use the same ingredients derived from French, African, and blues music sources, differing only in their proportions.

Au Bal gives a brisk history of Cajun music’s milestones, including the first Cajun record cut by Joe and Cléoma Falcon, the husband and wife accordionist and guitarist. Blank profiles many Cajun musicians, including fiddler Dennis McGee, considered the apostolic link between the original Cajun musicians and succeeding generations. Arguably forward thinking in his time, in 1929 McGee cut six sides with Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin, at a time when racially integrated sessions were far from the norm. We also hear from many more contemporary performers, like Dewey Balfa, who is credited with launching a Cajun music revival with a well publicized set at the Newport Folk Festival. Altogether it gives viewers a comprehensive taste of Cajun music.

Blank has a true eye and ear for the music of Americana. His Film Forum retrospective starts Friday, screening twenty-six films in seven days. A Well Spent Life screens Saturday the 15th with Blank’s Herzog films. J'ai Été Au Bal screens Sunday with Hot Pepper. Cigarette Blues screens next Thursday with Blank’s polka film In Heaven There Is No Beer?, one of the many interesting combinations of the series.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

MIAAC: Bose, the Forgotten Hero

I have already reviewed several Holocaust films this year, and there are quite a few more slated to open in time for awards season. With several reminders of National Socialist horror still fresh in the movie-going consciousness, it is a bit disconcerting to see a WWII film in which the Nazis are not the villains per se, but such is the case in Shyam Benegal’s Bose: the Forgotten Hero, which screened as part of the MIAAC Film Festival.

Forgotten opens with arguably the pivotal scene of Subhas Chandra “Netaji” Bose’s life: his parting of ways with Mahatma Gandhi. Bose wanted to take up arms against the British, while Gandhi remained committed to non-violence. As a result, Bose resigned the presidency of the Indian National Congress, and set out looking assistance fighting the British under the assumption that the enemy of his enemy was his friend. This led him to seek the aid of Soviet Russian, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Hitler’s Third Reich.

It is perfectly understandable that Bose had little love for the British Raj. However, many are troubled that he advocated military action against Britain at a time when the Union Jack was all that stood between a racist ideology and world domination. Eventually, with Japan’s backing, he assembled the Indian National Army (INA), which along with their Japanese patrons, engaged the British in the Burma Campaign.

Although Forgotten seems pretty forthright in addressing Bose’s relationship with the Fascists and National Socialists, this BBC report (consider the source) suggests their collaboration was even greater than originally thought. While we do see Bose express some reservations about Hitler’s racial policies, as portrayed in Benegal’s film, the revolutionary is still perfectly willing to accept his military aid. However, having intermarried with a white Austrian, Bose eventually found prudent to leave Berlin for Japan.

Bose led quite the interesting life. Though highly problematic, it is undeniably cinematic. Benegal keeps the action movingly along nicely, so its three and a half hour running time does not feel so excessive. A big, sprawling historical saga with excellent production values, Forgotten even produced a hit song. It is a great festival selection, because it is difficult to envision a film of Forgotten’s length and political incorrectness receiving much art-house distribution from the studio’s boutique divisions. It was in fact, one of the closing films of the MIAAC Film Festival, when it screened Sunday at the Asia Society.

Veterans Day

Let us pause a minute to remember two of jazz's great veterans:

Lt. James Reese Europe (1881-1919)

Maj. Glenn Miller (1904-1944)

Sira: Kora & Trumpet

By Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze

The kora might be somewhat exotic, but is not unheard of in jazz contexts, having been featured on sessions led by Randy Weston and Herbie Hancock, among others. However, a preeminent jazz kora player has yet to emerge—until now, perhaps. Together with German jazz trumpeter Volker Goetze, Senegalese kora player Ablaye Cissoko has recorded Sira, a gorgeous jazz-world fusion duo set that is surprisingly pronounced in its jazz inclinations.

As is immediately evident on the initial title track “Sira,” named after Cissoko’s daughter, their duets are haunting in their intimacy. Cissoko plays delicate cascades of notes on the kora that blend perfectly with his impassioned vocals and Volker’s burnished trumpet sound, which establishes the almost mystical vibe of the session.

Volker has a warm tone that on tunes like the traditional “Gorgorlou” would not be out of place in classical chamber music. In fact, this is chamber music, played with remarkable rapport. As a composer, Cissoko has also written some very evocative melodies, like the brief “Domain Domain,” which still features succinct but legitimate jazz solos from both artists.

Cissoko’s kora has a lush, even baroque sound at times. Yet the session over all has a hushed intensity that is pretty powerful, as on the kora player’s solo feature, “Faro,” co-composed with Goetze. Although Cissoko contributes most of the originals, Goetze penned the rhythmic but strangely elegant “Bamaya,” inspired by the Dogbane harvest dances of Ghana.

Sira concludes with two of the three traditional West African songs arranged by Cissoko. His clear and powerful vocal delivery on “Sakhadougou” and “Mansanni Cisse” should appeal to fans of his famous countryman, Youssou N’Dour. Richly melodic and deeply contemplative, they nicely sum up the collaboration between the two musicians.

Cissoko and Goetze are not newcomers to the jazz scene, having worked with musicians like Randy Weston and Craig Handy, respectively. However, Sira is still likely to strike a lot of jazz ears like a bolt out of the clear blue sky. It is an amazingly assured musical statement. Like fresh water flowing out of a deep well, it has a sound that sparkles, but is deeply rooted in centuries old traditions.