Friday, April 28, 2006

The Fabulous Baker Boys



The Fabulous Baker Boys changed my life. Sounds like a hoary old cliché, no? But it’s true. I saw it three times the week it opened in 1989, and without ever having touched middle C, walked into a music store and signed up for piano lessons. The piano has been an integral part of my life since; I can’t imagine living without it.

Michelle Pfeiffer will not be lacking for love today. In addition to joining the giant birthday hug and crooning her praises along with tout le monde, I figured nobody would mind if I seized this opportunity to talk in some detail about this film, one of her best. Specifically, I’m interested in the role of music in this film, and the way the world of music fits into the world of this movie.

Steve Kloves wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys. In a nutshell: Frank (Beau Bridges) and Jack Baker (Jeff Bridges) are a veteran lounge piano duo who’ve never had a day job. When times turn hard, they take on a singer, Suzie Diamond (Michelle, naturellement), and begin landing prime gigs. But she changes the dynamic between the brothers and catalyzes a long-time-coming fissure of values between them, both commercial and musical. Along the way, she and Jack become lovers.

When it comes down to it, the basic conflict in this movie is between two musical worlds: lounge and jazz. It’s mostly unarticulated in the film, but here’s how they are different. Lounge often draws from the jazz repertoire (the Great American Songbook—Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers & Hart et al.) and is melodically similar to jazz since they both play many of the same tunes. But unlike jazz, lounge involves little improvisation (“We play the same goddamn tune the same way every time” says Jack as he quits). Rhythmically, lounge often accents insistently and predictably, and is nervous about syncopation lest it lose the audience, who are only half-paying attention; they are there to eat and drink. And harmonically, lounge is relatively timid, laying off dissonant chords so as not to disrupt the mood. (Lounge is mood music.) Jazz, of course, thrives on syncopation and harmonic daring.

How does all this relate to the movie? The lounge career is Frank’s idea, and Jack goes along with it for fifteen years because he doesn’t seem to have the courage to break out and do what he really wants to do, which is play jazz. Jack lives alone in a run-down apartment downtown—the movie is set in Seattle—and Frank lives with his wife and kids in the suburbs. Frank runs the business but Jack is—the movie implies—the real artist.

Now, pull back a little and things start to get really interesting. Dave Grusin did the music for the film, and played both Frank’s and Jack’s piano parts. Two pianos is a scarifying format even for seasoned pros—there are just way too many notes that can be played at any one time; the excess of possibilities is fraught with danger. Train wrecks, muddy sound, too little space—these problems are all too common. But the times Jack plays alone, without Frank, we hear pure jazz. Dave Grusin plays lounge without condescending to it and jazz without putting it up on a pedestal. Grusin isn’t always loved in the jazz world—he’s accused of being a sell-out because he does a lot of soundtracks, occasionally slathers on the strings, runs a "smooth jazz" label, and tries too hard to cross over. But I like the way he represents the two musical genres in this movie, truthfully and non-judgmentally.

And you ask: Are we ever going to get to Michelle? Well, the single-best scene in the film is her first appearance. She is late for her audition, cusses loudly as she walks in, and has gum on her lip. But what follows is a brilliantly authentic musical episode, even if it only lasts two minutes. She asks for “More Than You Know,” and Jack, without skipping a beat, knocks off a sprightly two-bar intro for her. She cuts him off and snaps, “Real slow, okay?” He stops mid-note, pauses for just a second, and then reels off, improvised, a brand-new intro (in pure jazz spirit). Her voice starts out soft and tentative—Michelle did her own singing—but quickly gains in confidence without losing its vulnerability. He stays both with her and a hair’s breadth behind her, following where she leads. There’s a moment when he throws in a tasty little fill and a shadow of a smile crosses her face for a half-second, the first time we see her lighten. As she hits her last note, he holds back on playing anything, then glides in a half-step above her note for a bittersweet finish on a faintly tangy chord. It’s one the best love-making scenes I’ve ever seen.

(There is a wonderful and historic jazz moment that is an analogue of the one above. On the Miles Davis recording of “You’re My Everything” (1956) with his group which included Coltrane and the great pianist Red Garland, Miles starts out by blowing a few warm-up notes, stops, and then Red comes in with a pretty ballad-like intro. Miles cuts him off with a whistle and growls, “Play some block chords....” Red freezes, pauses for a second or two, and improvises on the spot a gorgeous block chord intro.)

Michelle’s singing is a little revelation in this film. Her models are not recent singers but chanteuses from the golden age of jazz singing, the 1950’s. She sings unfussily, confessionally, tenderly. And her small voice—it’d never work without amplification, but you could say that for millions of other singers too—appeals more than many other big and powerful ones because she seems acutely aware of the words she’s singing and the humanism of these classic songs. Here’s a phrase that used to be a put-down to mean that a singer didn’t have a good voice but let me strip it of that disparaging whiff and sincerely pay her one of the best musical compliments I know: Michelle is an intelligent and subtle “song stylist,” making more meaning with her modest means than most belters do with their big brassy pipes. I really wish she’d do an album of jazz/pop.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon

I’d like to propose an Avant-Garde Film Blog-A-Thon on Wednesday, August 2. (The initial brief discussions of this idea can be found in the comments to this post; scroll way down.) The vast majority of movie writing on the web is on non-avant-garde cinema, and I think we might be able to make a modest but potentially valuable contribution to cinema resources on the web with this project, even if the size of the group ends up being smaller than our critical crusades for Showgirls, Abel Ferrara, etc.

If you’d like to join us, please e-mail me or leave a comment and I will make sure to link to your post in mine. So far, those who have signed up or have expressed interest in doing so include: Acquarello, Mubarak, Brian, and Peter. And I’m going to be bold enough to volunteer Darren since it was his comment that started the ball rolling. Plus, what’s a blog-a-thon without the guy who coined the word in the first place?

And now I’d like to ask for your help. If you can think of avant-garde/experimental films easily available on region 1 DVD, please feel free to post names of films or filmmakers in the comments. It would help us build a resource pool of titles for people to draw from when they are making their choices.

How does one define avant-garde/experimental cinema for this purpose? My own inclination would be to do so loosely and inclusively. Netflix has a really loose definition of experimental cinema, so use your judgment. (A quick peek at their Experimental section reveals Rocky Horror Picture Show, Heathers, Blood Simple, and—this is amusing—Showgirls.)

The mother lode of avant-garde/experimental cinema on DVD is without doubt the 7-disc Unseen Cinema set, containing 160 films, available at both Netflix and Greencine. For my own post, I’m leaning towards the films of Joseph Cornell. I just finished reading Deborah Solomon’s biography and admire his art, so this will give me a chance to delve into his films, of which I’ve seen just one, Rose Hobart.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Recently Seen

Some scribblings on two recent viewings.

CHAIN (2004). A hybrid "docufiction" from Jem Cohen, who has also made films about music and musicians, like the Fugazi documentary, Instrument. Chain has two selves: its documentary self consists of footage of the commercial landscape in which we all live: malls, chain stores (thus the name of the film), corporate skyscrapers, vast parking lots, highways, hotels, airports. We see this commercial-scape every single day but hardly ever notice it. Wrenched free from the banality of our everyday vision and placed on the screen without being at the service of an engulfing narrative, we are suddenly confronted with both the size and the extent of "reshaping" our living environments have seen so quickly. And here's the most damning part: the footage is from over 25 locations around the world, and there's no way to tell as Cohen cuts from one shot to another. We feel like we are in one seamlessly flowing space: The images capture a perfectly, namelessly, homogeneous place.

The fictional part of the film consists of two stories of women who never meet. One of them is a teenage runaway who lives in abadoned houses and spends her days at the mall, trying to divert attention away from mall security guards who assume she's "a legitimate consumer" because they see her talking on her cell phone every now and then. (It's a broken and dead phone she pulled out of the trash.) She also finds a lost video camera and records (a Marker-ian touch) a video diary to send to her family. On the one hand, being poor and homeless, she stands outside the desired demographics of the commercial world. This allows her to observe that world from a distance, and learn how to forage in it like a wild animal of the steel-and-glass jungle. On the other hand, she is on a path of entry into joining that commercial world—where, one way or another, all of us live—and ends up becoming a chain-store employee herself.

The other woman is Japanese, and has been sent to America to scope out prospects for a Japanese-style theme park. She memorizes her company's vision statement chapter and verse and utters it to herself for inspiration. She looks upon the West, through the eyes of her employers, as a vista of commercial opportunity. But as time passes, her communication with her home office starts to dry up and her future as a foot soldier (and casual casualty?) in the reconfigurations of the corporate army is most uncertain.

Cohen dedicates the film to Chris Marker and Humphrey Jennings and thanks Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project in the credits. In his personal appearance at the screening, he called them all "collagists" who have influenced his own methods of working. For Chain, he shot footage for several years without knowing what it was going to turn into. The fictional narrative strands were added much later. The single biggest strength of the film is that it does not come across as a heavy-handed, screechy condemnation of the "chain-world" in which we live. We see thousands of images, neutrally, with no commentary. It is their accumulative effect of relentless uniformity and standardization that gets to us in the end. Favorite shot, towards the end: A dilapidated "Sam's Club" sign on a store long since abandoned. In the base of the "B," a bird has built its nest. One might sardonically say: The detritus of the chain-world serves some purpose.

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943). Val Lewton is that rarity: the producer as auteur. Scores of “A-films” from the golden age of Hollywood have all but faded from memory, but Lewton’s B-movies burn even brighter this year, thanks to their arrival on DVD. Lewton died in his mid-forties, but not before he had made a handful of now-classic low-budget horror B-movies.

In The Seventh Victim, directed by Mark Robson, Kim Hunter comes to New York to find her missing sister who may have taken up with a group of Greenwich Village devil-worshippers. (Michael Almereyda used The Seventh Victim as the inspiration for his 2002 film Happy Here And Now. A young woman goes to New Orleans to look for her missing sister who has vanished not into some devil-worshipping cult but into. . .the Internet itself.) Jacques Tourneur once said, “During war, for some mysterious reason, people love to be frightened.” Fact is, Alexander Nemerov convincingly argues in his book Icons Of Grief, Lewton films like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie can be seen as a wartime response of grief on the home front.

Befitting this grieving tone, The Seventh Victim is a quiet and melancholy movie. (The “horror” is interior and invisible.) Going hand in hand with this calmness of temper is the deliberate image-making. Light and shadow appear to possess, each, an architectural solidity. Nearly every single scene has a little touch of ingenuity motivated probably by the miniscule budget but persuading us that it is just the right aesthetic choice, irrespective of budget. Case in point: As Kim Hunter leaves her school to go look for her sister, we see her descend the stairway with not a soul in sight. In the soundtrack, we hear a patchwork of school sounds interwoven: vocal scale practice, French verb conjugation, poetry recitation. An offscreen world is evoked amply without showing you any of that world.

George Sanders had one of the most glorious voices—and dictions—in the movies. He's not in The Seventh Victim, but Sanders' identical-sounding brother Tom Conway is. Like in Cat People, he plays a psychiatrist named Dr. Judd. (Is it the same character? We never find out.) The devil-worshippers turn out to be a strikingly normal bunch, sympathetic even. They're genteel, polite, and never raise their voice. It's a nice touch, and completely consistent with the ever-placid Lewton tone.

Monday, April 17, 2006

New Orleans

A funny thing happened to my palate when I moved to the States. Being south Indian, I was raised on fire-breathing spicy food, the masala practically glowing in the dark. I came here armed with a sheaf of my mom’s recipes, but had forgotten that Indian cooking is labor-intensive. It was faster to eat out or whip up quick Western meals, which has softened my palate and made me over-sensitive to spices. Nothing like a plate of seafood jambalaya at Pere Antoine’s on Royal Street—the only dish marked “spicy” on the menu, and when they do that, they mean business—to pull that palate out of hibernation and rev it up.

Some of the more unpredictable culinary adventures in New Orleans are to be had outside the French Quarter. A brisk half hour away from Canal Street on foot is Frenchmen Street, site of what they tell me is the best soul food in New Orleans, at The Praline Connection. I ordered filé gumbo and red beans & rice, only to discover that the portions were mountainous. Didn’t have room for dessert, and trudged back there for an encore the next day and a cuboid slab of thick bread pudding with bourbon sauce. But the beignets at Café Du Monde, so familiar from all the tour books, were—soggy and greasy—a bit of a disappointment. I didn’t seem to mind them much the last time; maybe it was the novelty.

The only bit of shopping I did was for CD's, at the Louisiana Music Factory, the best place to find local music. I walked out with a stack of rare Henry Mancini albums, and would’ve sampled some Dave Zoller discs I saw there if I hadn’t blown my budget so precipitously. In terms of live music, about half the jazz clubs I remembered from my last trip, pre-Katrina, were now closed. And the ones that were open were thinner on audiences. At Snug Harbor, what is probably the city’s foremost jazz club, I caught a double bill of visiting New York Cuban jazz artists, in the city to help revitalize the music scene with stints at local colleges and clubs. Meanwhile, many of the local New Orleans jazz musicians have hit the road because their homes have been destroyed or they've found it impossible to make a living in the city.

Even the main drag, Canal Street, looked half-abandoned, buildings stained and graffitied, businesses shuttered with hastily hand-scrawled signs pasted and fluttering on doors. One hears stories of Burger King offering $18 an hour and a $5000 signing advance, with few takers. If noise and neon are any indication, one business seems to be booming: the ghastly casino—“Largest in the South!”—on the Mississippi riverfront in the heart of downtown. One can get an idea of the temper of a time and place by simply reading the T-shirts, and the one I encountered most frequently here said, “The New Four-Letter Word Starting With “F”—FEMA.”

Monday, April 10, 2006

Work-Week



I'm traveling to a conference in New Orleans mid-week, and will be spending the next few days getting my presentation ready. I'll most likely return with a post in a week or so. Meanwhile, as ever, feel free to use the comments box for links, remarks, the usual. I'll probably check in there too. Take care of yourselves.

(Illustration: A panel from a work-in-progress comic on Bollywood.)

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Cinema Reading

When my sister and I were kids, we were book-hounds, and my parents, after the food and rent had been taken care of, would literally spend every last rupee on books. We took it for granted when we were growing up but one of these days I need to thank them—it was thoughtful and generous of them. So, all my life I’ve had a weakness for acquiring books.

In the last couple of months, I’ve been on a book-buying bender. I’m not sure if you are this way too, but I almost never read a non-fiction book sequentially from beginning to end. I’m much more inclined to dive in, or search for a specific name or topic, and end up reading a book in bits and pieces over the course of, literally, years.

And years it will take me to get through these recent acquisitions:

  • The recently released American Movie Critics: An Anthology From The Silents Until Now, edited by Phillip Lopate. There is a round-up of reviews and links at Andy Horbal’s.

  • I know very little about film theory but reading Zach and Matt has got me curious to learn more. I picked up the following: a tome of key articles in the field, Film Theory And Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen; two books by Robert Ray, The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, and How A Film Theory Got Lost, And Other Mysteries In Cultural Studies; Christian Keathley’s Cinephilia And History, Or The Wind In The Trees; and Francesco Cassatti’s Theories Of Cinema 1945-1995. I’ll be sipping this huge and heady cocktail for ages.

  • Two books, one written by David Bordwell (Figures Traced In Light) and the other co-edited by him (Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies).

  • Peter Bogdanovich’s book-length interview, This Is Orson Welles.

  • Alexander Nemerov on Val Lewton’s films.

  • Wallflower Press has put out a large number of cinema book titles recently. They run two series that I’m familiar with: (1) “Director’s Cuts,” books devoted to filmmakers—I have their Malick, Kieslowski and Lynch studies, and (2) “Short Cuts”: I picked up the slim but solid volumes on teen movies, mise-en-scène and early Soviet cinema.

  • Nathaniel Dorsky’s 50-page lecture-in-book-form Devotional Cinema.

  • Robert Kolker’s The Altering Eye, now alas out of print but available in its entirety on-line. A wide-ranging, eminently readable and meaty book on world cinema, written in 1983.

  • Gilberto Perez’s amazing The Material Ghost, reviewed here by Adrian Martin.

And now, over to you: movie books you’ve been reading, or have acquired recently, or are tempted to acquire?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Dardenne Documentaries

I spent yesterday in Toronto with my friend Doug Cummings—of Film Journey and Masters Of Cinema—watching films, eating and drinking. (I wonder if there’s a documented link between cinephilia and food.) We saw three early video documentaries by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, each under an hour long. Considering that their last four films—La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002) and L’Enfant (2005)—are without exaggeration among the best world cinema produced in the last decade, we were eager to see these rarities. Thanks to Cinematheque Ontario, it was also the first time the films had been screened in subtitled form anywhere in North America.

How pleasantly unsurprising that the three films were all united by an insistent focus on human labor. When The Boat Of Léon M. Went Down The Meuse River For The First Time (1979) looks back to a general strike in the Dardennes' hometown of Seraing in Belgium in 1960. Léon is a worker who remembers how the strike came about—as a decision by the people against the wishes of the union—and shut down all the factories and local businesses in a spontaneously organized collective action. The film cross-cuts throughout between newsreel footage of the strike and the boat ploughing through the Meuse River—you can’t help but flash back to the scene of near-drowning in the same river in the Dardennes' latest, L’Enfant—the boat’s prow cutting through the calm waters and leaving turbulence in its wake. The parallels between the cross-cuts are hard to miss. Favorite parts: staccato montages of Léon working, making his boat—hammering nails, assembling panels—using his hands.

“On the screen of the cinematographic cave, films are projected endlessly,” says the voiceover in For The War To End, The Walls Should Have Crumbled (1980). There’s an unfamiliar self-reflexivity to this film, which begins, very self-consciously, three times. It’s about an underground newspaper, The Worker’s Voice, run by factory workers to provide a “truer” picture of their work because, as they say indisputably, “the eye of the mass-media camera opens too late.” Two delightful passages, one Dardennian, the other shockingly not: (1) Listing all the functions that a table serves: eating, reading the “Autodidactic Encyclopedia,” writing, playing chess, laying out documents, planning the strategy for a strike; (2) A startlingly humorous and playful montage of the worker’s battlefield, the factory, with blast furnace, fire and smoke, scored to industrial noises and videogame rat-a-tat-tat. At film’s end, the worker leaves home and gets into his car: “To the factory, to the war—the battle begins again.”

“The new revolution will be made on modulated frequencies,” begins R . . . No Longer Answers (1982), a freely impressionistic portrait of a radio service. (The "R" tellingly stands for "Reality.") It was the most overtly formal of the three documentaries, and I would not have been able to ID it as a Dardenne film if I didn’t know. Unconstrained by linearity, it moves between various parties—DJ’s, radio engineers, producers, listeners—mixing both interview and staged footage. There’s a dense political-montage element to the film that reminded me of Godard (Two Or Three Things I Know About Her or even the Dziga Vertov period). The film ends beautifully, in a silent radio recording booth. The screen turns from a photographic image into a minimal line drawing, outlining the equipment and furniture but without any people. A fittingly abstract coda to this abstractly-structured film. Color me surprised.

Illustration courtesy of magixl.com.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Thelonious Monk

I’ve occasionally had friends tell me that they think of jazz as a sometimes inaccessible music—esoteric even—and not always easy to “enter into” and appreciate. When I hear this, I think back to the moment when I felt like I first “got”—and fell in love with—jazz: hearing Thelonious Monk for the first time.

This is not to say that Monk’s music is necessarily “easy” or watered-down or eager-to-please; it’s none of those things. What accounts for the instantly arresting quality of Monk’s work? I’m not exactly sure, but I have a few ideas I thought I’d lay on you. There are two major aspects to Monk: (1) his performing, and (2) his composing. We’ll briefly look at both.

I’m drawn to musicians who have a distinct “voice”—players you can ID within a few bars. (It must be the same side of me that loves auteur cinema.) More than almost any other performer in jazz, this is true of Monk. He plays with a staccato attack and leaves lots of silence and space around his notes—there have been instances, for example on his recordings with Miles Davis, of fellow musicians jumping in mid-solo because they assumed he was done. Most prominently, there is a percussive “hammering” to his style, as if he is rapping on a table with his knuckles.

Monk extracts an interesting tone from the piano—sort of raw and dusky—and uses fingering styles that would cause your average piano teacher to keel over in disbelief. For example, he will sometimes play a key with two fingers (!) and hold his hands flat above the keyboard rather than in the smooth poised curve that is "proper". Two Monk jokes made up by jazz wags: (1) He can make an in-tune piano sound out-of-tune, and (2) He sounds like he’s playing the piano with work gloves on. What makes them both funny is that you realize the seeds of truth in them.

Thelonious Monk – “Monk’s Dream” (1963)

This is the title track from my favorite Monk record. He made it with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who sounds the way Monk might’ve if he had been born as a sax player: dry, brusque and direct. He makes other tenor players sound sentimental, with all their glissandi and vibrato caresses.

Monk is arguably, along with Duke Ellington, the greatest jazz composer. Tunes like “’Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser” or “Misterioso” are revered fixtures in the jazz repertory, and have only grown in popularity in the decades since they were written. Monk wrote strange-sounding melodies, angular, lurching, often child-like. And he placed accents on odd and unexpected beats. He liked to use that fearsomely dissonant interval, the minor second—two notes immediately next to each other in pitch, like a white key and the black key next to it, played, or in Monk’s case, mashed, together.

Chick Corea – “Eronel” (1982)

Lewis Nash – “Monk’s Dream” (1993)

Andy Summers – “Shuffle Boil” (1999)

Pianist Chick Corea is also a percussionist and thus perfectly suited to Monk’s (percussive-sounding) melodies. His trio performs “Eronel”—the name of the song is “Lenore” spelled backwards. Drummer Lewis Nash offers up a version of “Monk’s Dream” that softens the jaggedness of the melody by arranging it for vibes and piano in unison. (I’ve always been a sucker for the sound of the vibraphone—first on the list of “What instrument do you wish you played?”).

And ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers rocks out on “Shuffle Boil”. He knows that jazz chops are not his strong point, so he wisely chooses to emphasize the tone and texture of his electric guitar playing, rather than his speed or harmonic (chord-based) proficiency. I’m actually planning an entire post on Summers; I’ve been a big fan of his playing since The Police and think he’s a terribly underappreciated guitarist. He’s recently made two superb albums that are radical interpretations of jazz composers (Monk and Mingus), both of which were sadly ignored—too rock for jazz audiences and too jazz for rock audiences. A shame.

For the uninitiated, please allow me to recommend three Monk artifacts: (1) Monk’s Dream (1963), a perfect starter record; (2) The newly discovered live recording he made with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall in 1957; and (3) Straight No Chaser, the documentary produced by Clint Eastwood and directed by Charlotte Zwerin, which features some of the greatest living jazz pianists playing and talking about him. It is widely available on DVD, and was made a few years after Monk died in 1982.