Thursday, October 13, 2016

Two Problems with Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature

  1. The elevation and sanctification of the strange and pernicious middlebrow belief that "songwriting" is essentially and importantly the writing of lyrics, or, to put it slightly differently, that the important and meaningful parts of songs are their words. The best way to dispel this one is to dive into this cover of "Outlaw Blues" by Thin White Rope, in which the guitar lines that come in after "I feel just like Jesse James" manage to convey that sentiment (cocky strutting) and "I got a woman in Jackson" (randy as fuck howling) substantially better than the words do (which is itself well). In rock and roll, it's almost always the guitars that get the best words.
  2. A parallel misapprehension about songwriting: that it is fundamentally an individual act, and that the players of songs are somehow secondary or subordinate. An easy way to correct this misapprehension would be to start your own fucking band, which would quickly revise your mental model of songwriting through the tool of practical experience.

If you're into easier, less rewarding modes, you could correct both of these mistaken notions simultaneously by reading historical accounts of the process of recording Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", probably as responsible for the award as any other single song:

Tom Wilson invited Al Kooper to stop by the next day's session simply to watch, but he had far bigger plans. "Taking no chances, I arrived an hour early and well enough ahead of the crowd to establish my cover," he wrote in his 1998 book Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. "I walked into the studio with my guitar case, unpacked, tuned up, plugged in, and sat there trying my hardest to look like I belonged." Soon enough, [British blues player Mike] Bloomfield walked in and began practicing. "[He] commenced to play some of the most incredible guitar I'd ever heard," Kooper wrote. "And he was just warming up! I was in over my head. I embarrassedly unplugged [his guitar], packed up, went into the control room, and sat there pretending to be a reporter from Sing Out! magazine."

With Kooper in the control room, the same group from the previous day launched into "Like a Rolling Stone," though with Paul Griffin moving from organ to piano. Kooper knew so little about the organ that he didn't even know how to turn it on, but he was desperate to play on a Dylan song and when a distracted Wilson didn't give him a firm "no" he walked into the studio, sat down at the instrument and was delighted to see Griffin hadn't turned it off. "Imagine this," Kooper wrote in his book. "There is no music to read. The song is over five minutes long, the band is so loud I can't even hear the organ, and I'm not familiar with the instrument to begin with. But the tape is rolling, and that is Bob-fucking-Dylan over there singing, so this had better be me sitting here playing something."

Wilson may have been shocked when he saw what was happening, but Dylan dug Kooper's sound and asked for the organ to be turned up. "You can hear how I waited until the chord was played by the rest of the band before committing myself to play in the verses," Kooper wrote. "I'm always an eighth note behind everyone else, making sure of the chord before touching the keys." The unique style of playing not only gave the song a signature component, but it also introduced Dylan to a musical collaborator he would return to time and time again in the coming years.

In "Like a Rolling Stone", the organ is an unmistakeable carrier of meaning, and it was an accidental, improvisatory addition. Occluding these facts is one consequence of Dylan's Nobel.

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Thursday, October 06, 2016

Knock Knock (a review of MARKED FOR DEATH, a record by Emma Ruth Rundle)

"Knock knock."

"Who's there?"


"Better who?"

"Better record than Emma Ruth Rundle's new one, Marked for Death."

"Fuck you, you don't exist, so you can't be knocking.  I hereby banish you to the realm of non-existence."

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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Blue Őyster Cult Sandy Pearlman Mixtape I: for the Byrds

The sound is dense, but not obviously and impressively complicated. That is, it is very coherent. It works because of its unity, not out of an accumulation of contrasting effects such as volume changes or syncopation. (48)
Crawdaddy I 10, July-August 1967, The Byrds p. 48-50

Consider these: The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, The Mothers of Invention, Love. Not a random choice among them. Because they are all groups with their own great world systems. I mean each group has its own comprehensive way of doing things, of looking at and organizing them. Often all we can recognize are the final results—this or that song—and in (21) so doing, we forget that this or that implicates some comprehensive view behind it. Not that everybody has a great world system. Not everybody is a philosopher. But for those who do, it can determine such diverse matters as album covers1, wardrobe2, haircuts3, half-time banter4, appearance of the instruments5, group athletics6, etc.


But all of these [examples] are really instances of the taste for order. Even the nihilistic stuff. That certain longing they reveal is a longing for order. Actually it gets harder and harder to imagine something nihilistic. I mean, what would it be like?8 If you do songs about perversion, drugs and popular ideas about disorder, then you are summing up an alternative, that which you happen to find tasty. And tastes change. And then what you have found tasty may even become generally palatable. And then what? Rock's great world systems are sets of alternative arrangements—or at least visions—of the world. Idealized arrangements, according to the tastes of whoever made them. They are sort of perfect—because they don't matter. Irrelevancy can always set you free and guarantee your privacy. Despite the fact that rock is big business, why should anybody care about what goes on? Unless you were really smart you would have to toil at making it as important as something else: politics say. That people do care is, then, very nice. Simple altruism probably. But most who care are still on the outside. And those on the inside, the ones who make the rock, don't care enough. That audience of theirs is so young, (23) so impressionable, and yet they'll say anything at all. Simple irresponsibility probably. Or maybe they're just self-consciously irrelevant.
Crawdaddy I 11, October 1967, Science Fiction p. 20-24

But suddenly that previously mentioned specter rears up. A really awesome monster, it comes on rushing like Diz-Busters7 with too much iron in its bloodstream and zero invisibility.
Crawdaddy I 12, January 1968, Doors and Kinks p. 21-25, 36-38

Now, about Marcel Duchamp we've gotta say this (at this time 'cause it also bears): his ready-made looms large in the potentiality of objects. It's well known that this person's self-conscious placement of an ordinary urinal in the midst of a pretty fancy 20th century art show simultaneously created an extraordinary art historical urinal and added the artist's intention to the dimensions within which objects could be manipulated. But his use of this ready-made was questionable. The art show wasn't its rightful spot. It was out of place / out of phase. So Marcel Duchamp wound up a very nasty comedian, i.e. both funny and disturbing. Setting a pattern. And, in fact, it's only been recently that the presence of a ready-made (anyone at all, anywhere at all) has become blatantly hackneyed enough to prove not always hilarious, not always scary, but sometimes just potentially comforting. R. Meltzer's term "academic beauty," encompassing such truck as Steve Noonan, Tim Buckley, Simon and Garfunkle (sic), The Bee-Gees and Pearls Before Swine, implicates this newer style for the ready-made: the formal one of modular component. Ready-mades can be taken from anywhere and plugged in anywhere. Their neutrality is violated only by the intention of their manipulators (and this intention, of course, controls where they wind up). Something becomes a ready-made when your manipulative intention takes it from one context to another. When it is intentionally recontextualized. And when these new and old contexts are equivalent, then the ready-made could seem comfortable and comforting. (In phase.) Back to the academically beautiful, and we note that the ideal for this stuff's words is most of the poetry we had to learn in the 7th through 12th grades. Perhaps that explains its high dullness potential. [...] I mean, I mean that the academically beautiful is obvious clichés. (41)
Crawdaddy I 13, February 1968, Van Dyke Parks p. 41-43

1. Album Covers

2. Wardrobe

3. Haircuts

4. Half-Time Banter

"I'd like to thank my friends here who gave me this little whip. It's really lovely, I'll keep it and cherish it forever."

5. Appearance of the Instruments

6. Group Athletics

7. Diz-Busters
This mysterious phrase graced a terrific song on the band's second album (and became the name of my first car, The Seventh Screaming Diz-Buster, a name I told at least one person [who promptly mocked the shit out of me]). There are a few extant theories about its meaning:
Albert has revealed that "diz" refers to the cleft of the penis, and that "duster's dust" refers to sperm. But the concept of diz-buster is left ambiguous. The definition of "something that can make one ejaculate" most plausibly applies to a reading that these seven diz-busters are evil, paranormal sex sirens, woman beings without a conscious [sic], the number seven bringing in a biblical element to the lyric as well. But this track could also be one of Sandy's biker songs, diz-buster referring to the result of a long, vibrating Harley ride (and then, mamas and old ladies often joke about the orgasmic qualities of a good ride). Indeed, many lines in the song could have one believe that the diz-buster is a bike (there is mention of cast iron, the mirror's face, rigid arms, routes, all suggesting this interpretation), especially in (Lucifer) light of the fact that females, female pronouns, or sexual ideas are never mentioned in the song.

Joe sheds more light on his approach to this track's lyric. "I had a tendency where I would take a Sandy Pearlman lyric and shape it. Those guys would use a Sandy Pearlman or Richard Meltzer lyric just the way they wrote it. But I always felt that structure was important in music, the structure of the lyric. So I ended up changing around the lines, not changing any of the words per se, but changing the order of the lines, which I also definitely did in Astronomy. And same with 7 Screaming Diz-Busters. Like I say, I wrote pretty much most of the music on our organ, which was in the living room of the house we rented. I would just get up in the morning and start banging on the organ, and came up with that, while Donald and Albert added in sort of the jam section." (47-48)
[from] Martin Popoff, Blue Őyster Cult: Secrets Revealed!

8. Longing for Order, Imagining Nihilism
Sandy Pearlman told me that at the last [Black Sabbath show] he attended, nobody in the audience could even stand up, barely managed to applaud, and bodies were sprawled everywhere. [...] A graphic tragic survey of the littered battlefield of the contemporary concert, with pitiful panoramas of passed-out pukes and other alliterative gimmicks. (237)
[from] Lester Bangs, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, "Bring Your Mother to the Gas Chamber", p. 222-242

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Friday, February 26, 2016

The More Jobs We Do with These Guys the More They Squeeze Us

2 of the most enduring sub-genres of crime: cop drama and heist thriller.

Cold open. Inside a car MICHAEL BELMONT (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discusses some details about the next heist he and his team will hit. A foreshadowing occurs in this first shot. Tight, dark, and with barely any information on the screen, it gives the feeling of being lost and afraid or at least of being somewhere you shouldn't be. It's not movie-lighting dark, it's is something wrong with the screen dark.

Michael's talking with brothers RUSSELL WELCH (Norman Reedus) and GABE WELCH (Aaron Paul). They'll need 2 more for the job: MARCUS (Anthony Mackie) and FRANCO (Clifton Collins, Jr.). There's a collective apprehension about doing another job with Russian mafia gangster IRINA (Kate Winslet).

Then the opening credits.

Triple 9 (2016, John Hillcoat) understands how to focus on the dangerous atmosphere of its group of 5 bank robbers, and it seems to play out so well because it just sticks to the facts. There are never any distractions from the plot. And Triple 9 is all about plot. Although the action sequences give the film its character. Before the opening credits have finished, the crew has already geared up for their job. The opening First City Bank 3rd & Peachtree bank robbery with the exploding red dye packs brings a lot of energy with it, and there's momentum to back it up. Crime thriller. The movie hits the bullseye, I'm telling you. The way it works within the genre, it's never misguided.

The ensemble cast is terrific. The best part about the cast is that they're featured just enough to become tapestry, and then attention is always on to something else. To cut to the chase, everyone except Marcus' partner CHRIS ALLEN (Casey Affleck) is corrupt and none of them are likeable except Chris and Michael. So Triple 9 sets up Atlanta, GA as a crime-ridden ghetto warzone between the police, Russian mob, and Mara Salvatrucha 13 Mexican street gang.

Michael is almost too likeable. He worked for Blackwater in Iraq years ago where he met Russell and they worked special ops. He was married to and had a child together with a gorgeous hot model Russian woman, ELENA (Gail Gadot) who's sister is Irina. He's the leader of the crew. He's the badass and the smart one. And his only care is his son, whom he shares joint custody of with Elena.

Marcus is Anthony Mackie at his most loathsome. Smoking Black & Milds, driving with his pistol on his lap, and full of nothing but hate and a short temper, his every action feels calculated to make us hate this cop. Same with Franco. But that's another thing that gives the movie its modern edge. We sympathize more for Chris because of what he's up against all around him; and it's his own partner who he need fear most.

Like I said, the rest of the characters are scumbags and lowlifes. But, my favorite actor himself Woody Harrelson as DET. JEFF ALLEN, uncle to Chris Allen, is one of the strongest supporting roles in Triple 9. Jeff smokes joints like some cops smoke cigarettes, lives alone in a living room strewn with empty bottles and trash, and is consumed by his profession. He heads the special crimes division and fights what he calls "the demon." Hell no does he look like he has any business being a cop, he's psycho. But Triple 9 lacks the traditional moral boundaries, and Jeff comes off as the good guy, having adjusted to the responsibilities of being a cop the only way he knows how with what he's up against. The scene at the bar when he's wasted and slurs the provocation: "hey any of you motherfuckers strapped right now?" lets us know what he's about. He's not good anymore, but one time he was. Maybe I like Jeff because I know the Hank Quinlan in him.

I can't believe I can still say this, but Triple 9 is realistic. It rushes through the tense days desperate to see out the final outcome of the high stakes involved, yet doesn't shift into overly melodramatic, political, or character development timesucks like this genre has often suffered from. And the tone always feels like impending doom (the wall to wall low atonal metallic electronic drone score is great), like everything's going to go wrong, but through most of the movie we're watching how expertly proficient the cops and the robbers perform their missions. And it's fresh.

Another of the big set pieces, the projects raid is the obligatory shootout, but god it's so good. That leads to the Homeland Security Holding heist following immediately after. Also what's that they use in the heists, a taser cannon? That's awesome. All the action sequences feel like someone really knows what they're doing, giving them the attention and skill to make them good. Another great chase in itself is Jeff's speeding pursuit through traffic to the 999.

Again Triple 9 is really about Det. Jeffrey Allen. At the end, with some flecks of blood splatter on his face, that last shot, when the camera freezes on him and then slowly zooms in for a few seconds, I ask myself: why was he in that cop car instead of calling it in? I don't know, but it stays with me. That's some Hank Quinlan.


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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Would that It Were All So Simple

At least half of the Coen brothers' movies are set sometime during the 1920s-1960s and all of their films take place in America. The brothers are among the brightest talents to emerge from American independent cinema in the 1980s. Their diligence resulted in the back-to-back independently produced hits Fargo (1996, Coen brothers) and The Big Lebowski (1998) securing their futures with the freedom to continue working on projects of their own choice.

I've learned that some Coen brothers movies stay with me. Barton Fink (1991, Coen), Fargo (1996 Coen), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001, Coen), No Country for Old Men (2007, Coen), and A Serious Man (2009, Coen) for example, are what I call the heavy ones. They're dark, sure, but they also all open with angst and a foreboding, ominous, dark moral storm already brewing that never lets up.

But I've also learned that my response and relationship to their heavy ones doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of their lighter work.

The setting of Hail, Caear! (2016, Coen) is what is most important about it. 1950s Hollywood connotes myths, rumors, and gossip about stars, communism, sex, drugs, and all sorts of lurid pulp fodder--pretty much the dramatic elements of every James Ellroy novel. But we also have novels like Day of the Locust, The Last Tycoon, and What Makes Sammy Run? that provide similar noir tones to the fatal peril of Hollywood's lure. The point is there's a lot about that time we'll never know.

But in the hands of the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! is a well-executed love letter to Hollywood studio filmmaking of the classical era. And the reality of technology's pace is hard to ignore. The first sound movie was 1927 and by the mid 50s, when Hail, Caesar! takes place, it is already the end of the studio era. So short. In addition Hail, Caesar! could likely be the last movie the Coens or Roger Deakins shoot on film.

Like the fake trailers from Grindhouse (2007, Rodriguez/Tarantino) or Tropic Thunder (2008, Ben Stiller), the movies-within-the-movie are the best part of Hail, Caesar! From the opening footage of Hail, Caesar! (the movie-within-the-movie not the movie itself) we get the thrill of knowing we're watching parody, knowing we'll only be watching a few moments of any given movie, yet still suspended in a mixture of nostalgia, recognition, awe, and contempt that that's what people actually watch.

Among the coincidental similarities in the movie, we have BAIRD WHITLOCK (George Clooney) playing a Roman politician; with the "Caesar" hairdo, we recall Clooney's breakout in ER with, what else, the "Caesar" hairdo. The dancing sailor played by Channing Tatum obviously isn't a far stretch from Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh). And the Esther Williams footage is all about Williams' star status, so Johansson is perfect casting.

Along with the footage of the Roman epic, the aquatic number performed by Scarlett Johansson was breathtaking, fun, impressive and the height of how high the success of Hollywood's studio system soared. Johansson swims in an underwater tank, air bubbles from her breathing, hair and makeup to the nines, in a body of water where a mechanical whale emerges in the center of Busby Berkeley-style synchronized swimming rings of female dancers. The spout sprouts a geyser rising and rising until Johansson is revealed atop its very peak, to gracefully dive down below. As she's underwater the camera moves in to be close on her perfect face as it arises, every hair in place, her make-up immaculate and unsmirched.

Tatum's Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen style  barroom dance number with all the sailors was too much. The Coens showcase so much of what still makes these old movies so magical.

While Hail, Caesar! may at times feel episodic, I think it only enhances the entertainment value of the movie. We want to just walk around the studio lot, that's why we came. The plot feels like a throwaway, kind of like Burn After Reading (2009, Coen). It's not really important what happens to MANNIX (Josh Brolin). Mannix is our entrance into the day to day chaos of what goes on behind and in front of the scenes. Hail, Caesar!'s ingenious ending makes it clear that this is just another week in Mannix's life, and it might not even be the craziest he'll deal with, not by a longshot. Mannix is also a great counterpart to the manic delirium of Hail, Caesar!'s pace. He's a pragmatist. And what a funny detail with him and his only apparent vice: he's quit smoking and when he finally goes to confession he admits to having a couple of cigarettes.

Last word on the cast, Ralph Fiennes as director LAURENCE LAURENTZ steals the show. As the gentleman director, Fiennes finesses the dialogue and I don't know who he's supposed to be, if anyone, but I'm guessing Ernst Lubitsch. For such a short amount of screen-time, Laurentz brings more comedy than I could have ever expected.

So aside from the macguffin conspiracy thread, Hail, Caesar! is escapist entertainment of the classic variety. Sure it's light, a diversion. And sure sometimes I wonder if that makes a movie a failure. But this time I say not. Hail, Caesar! is an excellent comedy, and one with wit, insight, and a genuine love of its subject.


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Monday, February 22, 2016

The Ultimate Road Movie

The end of the Wim Wenders series shown by the Austin Film Society.

In summary, what I've learned since attending 8 films directed by Wim Wenders is that he is the foremost expert practitioner of the road movie genre and his collaboration with cinematographer Robby Müller leaves several lasting proofs of their fortuitous time spent working together. Alice in den Städten (1974, Wim Wenders), Falsche Bewegung (1975, Wenders), and Im Lauf der Zeit (1976, Wenders) are their road movie trilogy.

The road movie trilogy are examples of the finest in 1970s independent personal filmmaking. They are slow, all revolve around variations of a different central protagonist, with each played by Rüdiger Vogler, and see him embark on a quest of small stakes that end with him alone as he was at the beginning. These 3 films get away with making the most out of the least. Alice in den Städten is about PHILIP WINTER (Vogler) accompanying ALICE (Yella Rottländer) from NYC to Germany and hanging out with her for a couple of days until her mom meets them their. Falsche Bewegung is about WILHELM (Vogler) walking around hoping to find ideas to write a novel about. Im Lauf der Zeit is BRUNO WINTER (Vogler) driving through some small German towns and doing maintenance work on film projectors in some theaters. But it is this foundation that Wenders constructs his artistic identity and style from.

Der amerikanische Freund (1977, Wenders) preserves the aesthetic template and loosely adapts a pulp noir narrative to it. And Paris, Texas (1984, Wenders) surfs the driving force of these 4 films, riding the crest, almost effortlessly enjoying its status as sublime masterpiece.

In Der amerikanische Freund, ZIMMERMAN (Bruno Ganz) is diagnosed with terminal leukemia, which leads him to take some contract work as an assassin. Surprisingly that break from Wenders' trajectory doesn't prevent him from observing sketches of the lives of the film's ensemble. We never feel like we're getting the biographies of Wenders' characters. That is a key to his style.

The difference in Paris, Texas is that we get to find out everything we need to know about TRAVIS (Harry Dean Stanton), JANE (Nastassja Kinski), and HUNTER (Hunter Carson) as the narrative unfolds. That Sam Shepard wrote Paris, Texas as a play that the movie is adapted from may be a contributing factor. Paris, Texas has a purpose. It deals with large stakes and knows it.

I apologize for doing a disservice to you, the reader, by not providing more information about all of the rock 'n' roll found on the soundtracks to all of these movies, or the recurring instances of characters listening to radios in their cars, motels, jukeboxes in diners, live performances, or even that Can recorded Alice in den Städten's original soundtrack.

Another trend I see in these early Wenders/Müller films is the creative character. In Alice in den Städten, Philip Winter is a journalist who rebels against his current assignment, aggravating his editor, by shooting a bunch of photos of a trip he was supposed to write about. Wilhelm's singular pursuit is writing a novel in Falsche Bewegung. Bruno loves cinema, fixes projectors and knows a thing or two about being a projectionist in Im Lauf der Zeit. Zimmerman owns a shop where he makes frames for pictures in Der amerikanische Freund and all of the criminal underworld are battling in the world of counterfeit paintings.

Which leads me to a subtle joke in Paris, Texas. If we know Wenders likes artists as his characters, and we know going into Paris, Texas that it's about America in a lot of ways, what happens when we ask who the artist is in that movie? Well it's Travis' brother WALT (Dean Stockwell) and the first time we see Walt, he's at his job. Taking up the focus of the frame, what else but an enormous black velvet painting-style portrait of Barbra Streisand on a billboard happens to be the day's work at Walt's billboard company. It's like, this bullshit is what Americans have turned art into.

OAR 1.66:1 4K DCP projected Bis ans Ende der Welt (1991, Wenders) screened yesterday in its original 5 hour cut and as theatrical screenings go, felt like it was being shown for the first time.

It wasn't until I was 20 that I saw a subtitled foreign language film. One of the most useful resources I had access to when I moved to Portland, OR when I was 19 was other people's recommendations about what movies to watch next. My cinematic appetite was voracious already. But I'd come from a small town and this was before I used the internet, so I didn't have any idea what I liked or what was out there to watch other than Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino), Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995, Todd Solondz), Lost Highway (1997, David Lynch), Your Friends & Neighbors (1998, Neil LaBute), Celebrity (1998, Woody Allen) and this John Waters VHS box set I had.

One day I went into a chain video rentals store and based on browsing the covers in the foreign section for what must have been an hour at least, I decided on Nóz w wodzie (1962, Roman Polanski) and Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) as my first foreign movies to watch. Within the next year or so, Fat would lend me his copy of Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa), which first established my respect for his taste in movies. Anyway at this same time I was lent a couple of VHS tapes to watch, highly recommended. The tapes were of The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola) and Bis ans Ende der Welt.

The guy who lent me the tapes was named Matt. He had a girlfriend named Erin who helped open the all-ages club 17 Nautical Miles. Nice guy. I remember he was very enthusiastic about Bis ans Ende der Welt. He said something like dude it was a 5 hour movie about these people going all over the world looking for a camera that records dreams, directed by Wim Wenders, you gotta see it. It sucked. Bad. I hated it. But only now do I realize how much I missed back then watching a version that was missing 3 hours from it, panned & scanned, on a small tube TV.

I haven't seen Matt in 16 years. But he was right. To this day I keep an inventory of movies that are recommended to me personally by all sorts of different people.

Bins ans Ende der Welt is a big movie. It's a road movie, shot by Robby Müller, spans the globe, and explodes with a soundtrack of contemporary 90s rock. Released in 1991, it also boasts the reputation of being the earliest movie to deal with the millennium bug. And its prophecies are spot on while more often than not being alarmingly accurate--CLAIRE TORNEUR (Solveig Dommartin) and SAM FARBER (William Hurt), the pair the film centers on, eventually find handheld digital video viewing devices that they get addictively sucked into, lose all ties with reality, and become nearly catatonic. Take that smartphones.

The first two-thirds or so of Bins ans Ende der Welt is a frenetic cloak and dagger chase where Claire hunts Sam. But the final third is set in Australia, and takes its time closing the story of this sci-fi romance with the care it deserves. And even though Bins ans Ende der Welt is magnificent with its grand scale and huge sci-fi questions, it remains a small character sketch about a couple of romantic types merely chasing their dreams.

PHILIP WINTER (Rüdiger Vogler) returns as a Hammett-type, fedora-sporting private dick who Claire hires in Berlin to help her find Sam. Yes, Rüdiger Vogler's back! Vogler gets a lot of screen time, he's a fundamental part of the group. The whole tale is told in VO by Sam Neil who plays GENE FITZPATRICK, an ex of Claire's who's remained friends with her and is writing a book about the events as they're occurring.

Robby Müller delivers strong work, with his customary blue skies, vast deserts & green countrysides, urban neon jungles, open roads, and all manner of transportation. It all happens so quick though. Another thing I've learned is that say, with Müller's photography for example, it was always there but I had to learn how to see it. Sam is on a mission travelling around the world taking pictures on a special camera that possesses the technology to record an image and play it back to a blind person using brain waves, because he wants to show them to his blind mother in Australia (Jeanne Moreau). The photo Sam takes of his sister is right up there with my favorite frames Müller's ever attained.

The MLS, inspired by Vermeer and his window facing the northern light, falling on the subject's right side, is a poignant reference. It's an acknowledgement of the history of the art of light and its translation to the filmed image in a movie. But it's also a striking counterpoint to most of Müller's best shots, filmed outdoors, without manipulating the lighting, void of life.

The world of high tech gadgetry at play in Bins ans Ende der Welt also includes Winter's GPS software that he uses to track people for his work. But maybe the funniest gag in the movie is the "Bounty Bear." The GPS program shows an animated bear with a Russian hat on-screen while the search is being performed walking around, continuously speaking to the user: I'm searching, searching, still searching, wait a minute, okay, almost there; and again holy crap I can't believe this was made in 1991.

I am so thankful I saw this in a theater finally. There's so much in Bins ans Ende der Welt that makes me want to see it again, but I'll likely never again have the chance to on a theater screen. But I can't complain. Sometimes once is enough.


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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

When the Child was a Child

The 7th theatrical screening I went to of a film from the Wim Wenders series shown by AFS.

The 5 films that I discovered while attending this series that show Wenders cultivating his own style and finding the movie he was born to make are all shot by Robby Müller: Alice in den Städten (1974, Wenders), Falsche Bewegung (1975, Wenders), Im Lauf der Zeit (1976, Wenders), Der amerikanische Freund (1977, Wenders), and Paris, Texas (1984, Wenders). I knew beforehand that Müller's cinematography was my main reason for going. And I knew Paris, Texas was the one work from the series that would be the most worthwhile. Becoming thoroughly acquainted with Wenders' films from this period has paid off and far exceeded my modest expectations.

I once took a course in college called "Independent American Cinema." On the first day we were asked, "what do you think of when you hear 'independent' movie?" The whole semester was about learning what that word means in that context. Independent used to mean apart from studio production, financing, and distribution. But in the 90s that changed. There was now a lot of money to be made by targeting that market, so studios entered the business of independent films. Does independent mean small budget? Does it mean that the movie is marketed or aimed at a niche or fringe audience? You get the idea.

I still cringe when I hear the word independent used to classify a movie. Coincidentally last year I went to an Orson Welles series, and saw several theatrical screenings, shown chronologically, from his career. And it was at that time I remembered something I had forgotten along the way: Orson Welles is often called the Godfather of independent film. Welles always developed and shot projects he wanted to make, going through all of the hell of battling studios and investors that goes with that.

These 5 Wenders films including Paris, Texas remind me of another movie we watched in my Independent American Cinema class, Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer). Released by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), Detour is a film noir road movie straight out of poverty row. And from the body of work I consider independent films, it's one of the best examples of a movie transcending its low budget with craftsmanship that gets so much story, performances, tone, fatal, out-of-breath, fever-dream and all around entertainment that it readdresses the question what makes a movie good?

These 5 films are some of the rarest, best examples of independent filmmaking at its best. Their slow pace, the freedom from strictly setting up and executing traditional plots, their location photography of interesting spaces that aren't necessarily crucial to the story or even beautiful, their love of the everyday and ordinary, all work together. And all remind us of the joy of finding a good movie, especially when you've never heard of it before or it looks like it didn't have a very large budget. And for good measure these films also have great rock songs thrown in, and are mostly in black and white.

From the Wim Wenders Stiftung, remastered in 4K DCP and shown theatrically in its OAR 1.66:1, Der Himmel über Berlin (1987, Wenders) played this past weekend and I went to check it out.

Der Himmel über Berlin is a bit of a departure from where we've seen Wenders going up to this point. But a lot of filmmakers get to a similar crossroads, where they seem to find that they can only take the independent style so far. So what is it? A black and white European arthouse film. Maybe it's even the European arthouse film. But Der Himmel über Berlin is also practically high-concept, and even commercially packaged.

The concept is simple: Angels watch over the people in Berlin and hear their thoughts. One day an angel, DAMIEL (Bruno Ganz), decides he wants to become human after falling in love with a human, MARION (Solveig Dommartin). And Der Himmel über Berlin is one of those movies where after it was finished I can't think of one other thing I learned or experienced other than: one day an angel, DAMIEL (Bruno Ganz), decides he wants to become human after falling in love with a human, MARION (Solveig Dommartin).

To its credit, Der Himmel über Berlin preserves Wenders' interests in showing everyday ordinary people, but this time the protags are immortal ghost observers watching over us. After the poem and the opening credits, the introductory shot of long hair pulled-back-in-a-ponytail, trench coat-clad Damiel high up on top of a ledge looking down on the select few children whom are able to see angels is iconic and quickly establishes Der Himmel über Berlin's look. Filmed in beautiful high contrast black and white by Henri Alekan, most of the shots are from subjective POVs done with Steadicam, cranes, or a dolly. And at this point it's safe to say Robbie Müller has proven that he hates Steadicam, which is another reason Der Himmel über Berlin has its own look. Of course Der Himmel über Berlin's camera movement and angles are motivated by seeing this world through the eyes of the angels--a clue to this is also that after a shot of the sky that follows the opening credits, we get a CU of an eyeball. The camera, like the angels, floats. It's always moving. Always observing people. But there's more to it. The axes are balanced with precision.

The sound design also contributes a lot, specifically with this device of Damiel and CASSIEL (Otto Sander) hearing everyone's thoughts, and with some built in subtle brooding cello which will continually serve as a minimal somber contrast to the chaos of all of the human thoughts. Anyone familiar with R.E.M's "Everybody Hurts" music video will be familiar with the shot floating through cars waiting in traffic with subtitles showing what the thoughts of their individual drivers are, but it's the library that establishes how overwhelming this cacophony can get.

Early on in an airplane we are also introduced to an actor named PETER (Peter Faulk) who provides all sorts of laughs. His first thoughts heard are: what am I doing playing this part?

Der Himmel über Berlin is sublime when all of the disparate characteristics of the humans coalesce. Many people are in pain, thinking about suicide. Many of these people are saved by the angels, but not all. Some people think of trivial matters. Some question their own identities. I get the most out of the anxious prostitute wandering in the street, paranoid one second, reminded of the love of a former boyfriend who was good "and that's why he ain't around no more" the next second. Or the young child in the crowded room full of strangers thinking: "I've been sitting here all morning. I'm so cold and bored."

Marion is a trapeze artist in a circus. Inside there are some great choreographed shots motivated by mimicking the movement of a trapeze back and forth, it even made me a little scared of heights for a second. In her bedroom, there's a scene where Damiel watches her and she puts on a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album and we, along with him, hear her sing along in her head. I like these sound design flourishes. Anyway Damiel becomes human and the final act is his search for his object of desire, Marion. There's a Nick Cave concert they go to.

Sure Wings of Desire is a stupid name. And yeah Damiel and Cassiel look dated with their long trench coats and long hair pulled back in ponytails (are those mullets?). And it all feels arty. But like Wenders' best, he finds inspiration from creative characters who perform, dance, act, play music, sculpt, write, and gets us to empathize with those around us. And he makes entertaining and interesting scenes out of the small things in life.


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