Nicole Brenez/Ten Levels
Reno (Abel Ferrara) sees an ad for a $19.95 Porto-Pak on TV in The Driller Killer (1979)
In case you cinephiles out there haven't picked up Nicole Brenez's new book on Ferrara yet, let me post, as a little nudge, an excerpt from its first few pages:
“Ferrara has often expressed his admiration for the exacting artistry of John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Several principles unite the respective works of these four filmmakers. First, a practical principle: the constitution of a variable but faithful group of collaborators […] Second, a stylistic principle: the exclusive privilege accorded by these filmmakers to the description of human behavior via gestural, actoral, and emotional invention. And a third, a fundamental theoretical principle: these filmmakers explicitly conceive of their work as a vast enterprise of political critique. This conception is most evident in the cases of Pasolini and Fassbinder.
“For Fassbinder, each film constitutes a polemical treatise on Germany, past and present. His work never ceases to investigate five points: 1) the remnants of Nazism in contemporary Germany; 2) the moral nullity of liberal democracy; 3) the historical hypothesis that capitalism can accommodate itself to any political regime whatsoever, whether democratic or fascist; and, as a corollary to that, 4) Nazism as the ideal regime for capitalism, since it reduces workers to a “workforce” that does not need to be supported, only exhausted to the point of death and then instantly replaced (I. G. Farben paid Auschwitz prisoners); and 5) the servile ideological role of the culture industry.
“Pasolini’s work is organized on the basis of a central critical point: acculturation. This engenders a melancholic hypothesis concerning the disappearance of certain archaic forms of Italian civilization. While Fassbinder’s work (like Ferarra’s) declares itself to be entirely negative and purely polemical (in the great tradition of the Frankfurt School), Pasolini’s work presents at once a negative side (the angry description of the forms of human nature’s destruction) and an affirmative side (an affirmation of the survival or the force of the good and the beautiful, which is for him mythological barbarity; elaborated in Medea, 1970; The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964; and Love Meetings, 1965). Both filmmakers are bent on preserving particular forms of beauty: neoclassical beauty, like the angel in Pasolini’s Theorem (1968) or the gay boys in Fassbinder; and subproletarian beauty, like the ragazzi in Pasolini or the way Fassbinder films his own body (in Fox and His Friends , for instance). This is a dimension completely missing from Ferrara’s work; the beautiful appears nowhere in his representations. The beautiful and the good are either resolutely absent (as in Body Snatchers), rendered as repulsive ( the “healthy” character in The Blackout, Susan [Claudia Schiffer]), profaned (the nun [Frankie Thorn] in Bad Lieutenant), or treated as a catastrophic, unliveable eruption leading to death (the crisis of L. T. [Harvey Keitel] at the moment of his redemption) or to self-annihilation (the ambiguous resurrection of Kathy [Lili Taylor] at the end of The Addiction). In Ferrara, the journey of goodness is rendered as endless suffering. At the antipodes to the sporadic Hellenism that appears in Fassbinder or Pasolini, the only “beauties” in Ferrara are criminal, Baudelairean, infernal bodies.”
A clutch of Brenez links here: an introduction to her writing by Adrian Martin at Screening The Past; Body Snatchers; De Palma's Mission: Impossible; "Peter Whitehead: The Exigency of Joy"; "À propos de Nice and the Extremely Necessary, Permanent Invention of the Cinematic Pamphlet"; a tribute to Brakhage (with Martin); "Jeune, dure et pure! A history of avant-garde and experimental film in France"; "The ultimate journey: remarks on contemporary theory"; and a few brief reviews she wrote on the Amazon site. On the basis of these, I sent away for a film I had never heard of, Doctor Chance.
Whitney Balliett, one of the great jazz critics, has died. Here are tributes by Terry Teachout and Doug Ramsey. Also, some Balliett: an obituary of Thelonious Monk; and a short piece on Sonny Rollins.
It bugs me to this day that sometimes jazz musicians will play the “head” (the melody statement) perfunctorily, ripping through it, sometimes even abandoning it before arriving at the end of the head section, in order to get to the solo in a hurry. (FYI: an older post about jazz form and structure.) My first musical love was pop, in which stating the melody with some care and attention was always important. And let’s remember: Jazz is not only improvisation; it’s a productive dialectic between improvisation and pre-composition….
Anyway, in my early days of learning to play the piano, when I was too intimidated to improvise, and was having enough trouble playing the melody with faithfulness and care, I encountered this excerpt from a Whitney Balliett piece, and simple though it was, it was a little revelation. And a practical one that could be applied. It remains one of the best and truest things I’ve ever read about jazz. Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, quoted by Balliett in American Musicians: 56 Portraits In Jazz:
“I think of improvisation as coming in ten levels, each one more intense than the one before. On the first level, you play the melody, and you should sound as if you were playing it for the very first time. Freshly. If it doesn’t sound that way, you’re not ready to go to the second level. Playing the melody properly gives you the license to vary it, to embellish it, which is what you do on the second level. The melody is still foremost, but you add little things to it on the third level. Variation—displacing certain notes in the melody—comes in around the fourth level, and by the time you get to five, six, and seven you are more than halfway to creating a new song. Eight, nine, and ten are just that—the creation of wholly new melodies. Moving through these ten levels can take place during a set or over the course of an evening. Sometimes, though, you never get past three or four or five, but that’s O.K., because no one level is more important than any other.”