Laleen Jayamanne/Short, Sharp Solos
When it comes to writing about a particular film, here’s one thing I sometimes wrestle with: angle of entry.
The Sri Lanka-born, Australia-based filmmaker, critic and scholar Laleen Jayamanne once wrote a few words about this problem that I’ve found useful. They appear in the introduction to her book of film criticism, Toward Cinema and Its Double (2001). In addition to addressing the ‘angle of entry’ problem, she simultaneously suggests a need to ground criticism in precise description of the ‘film object’:
If the description does not move, then criticism is no more than a dull copy or repetition of the object. The kind of descriptive act required cannot be determined before the encounter with a particular object, but certain guidelines (at least those that work for me) seem to emerge through this writing. One is to ride an impulsive move toward whatever draws one to something in the object—a color, a gesture, a phrase, an edit point, a glance, a rhythm, a whatever. Enter the film through this and describe exactly what is heard and seen, and then begin to describe the film in any order whatsoever rather than the order in which it unravels itself. Soon one’s own description begins not only to mimic the object, as a preliminary move, but also to redraw the object. This is not a betrayal of the object through an enthroning of the primacy of the subject’s narcissistic projection but rather the activation of an encounter, a means of entering the object, though not necessarily through the door marked “Enter.” An eccentric, impulsive, descriptive drive will cut the film up and link the fragments differently from the way the film is itself organized. It is through this montage of description that a reading might emerge.
I’ve always been a bit undermotivated (okay, lazy) about taking a good set of notes after every film viewing. But since I read these words a few months ago, I’ve been trying to spend about 15 minutes most mornings setting down these details that “draw me to something in the object” from the film I saw the night before. Flipping through the pages of my notebook just now, I’m struck by how strongly affected I was by certain details in films I saw months ago, and yet these are details that had quietly slipped my memory until I was suddenly reminded of them through my notes.
In the same essay, Jayamanne writes: "There are, according to Raul Ruiz, two kinds of film critics. One sees a lot of current films and is able to respond on the run; the other spends a year or two on a few films. I am, alas, the latter kind of critic; hence the criticism in this book has taken nearly twenty years to write."
The book has an unusual and varied composition. It includes essays on: Australian films (Tracey Moffatt, Dennis O’Rourke, Jane Campion); interviews with Jayamanne about her films conducted by Anna Rodrigo, who turns out to be Jayamanne herself, using her mother's name; Sinhalese cinema, often overshadowed in its own homeland by Indian cinema; and a group of pieces on Bazin, Akerman and Ruiz that apply tools and methods used by Gilles Deleuze.
From the recent Screening the Past survey of key contributions to the field of film study in the last ten years, here is the list of her choices. And finally, an interview with her at Senses of Cinema.
Broadly speaking, a key difference between soloing in jazz and soloing in rock/pop is that the latter doesn't typically allow the soloist as much time to develop and build the solo in dramatic terms. Rock/pop soloists must compress their ideas into a small allotted duration and burn for this brief duration. Here are two contrasting instances of great solos that illustrate different approaches to this problem. Each solo lasts a little over 10 seconds.
Joni Mitchell's "In France They Kiss On Main Street" [mp3], off her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), features the blues guitarist Robben Ford. His elegant, extroverted solo begins at 1:55, ending with the flourish of a Charlie Parker-esque figure.
In the '80s, the Ambitious Lovers (Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer) began work on an album cycle based on the seven deadly sins. They only got as far as three: Envy, Greed, and Lust. They're all strong records, but I think I favor Greed (1988); it goes furthest in melding sweet, pop-like choruses with avant-garde noise and funk verses. The song "Para Nao Contrariar Voce" [mp3] is one of the few songs on the album that is all candy, no noise. Bill Frisell's introspective solo comes in at 1:30, and despite its extreme brevity, it has a structure to it. The first half plays a single-note melody, and the second half outlines arpeggios (broken chords). The lead vocals in Portuguese are by Lindsay, who was raised in Brazil.
The secret connection between these two miniature solos is tone, which is an integral part of a musician's 'voice'. Ford's tonal quality is unlike that of a stereotypical blues player: it's less 'earthy', more refined and urbane. Frisell's signature ghostly tone can set up an atmosphere with just a couple of simple, strategically placed notes and chords. Which means that he often tends to play more minimally than 99% of jazz guitarists. For him, before music is chords, melodies and rhythms, it's 'pure sound', something that lends itself to abstract sonic sculpture. In recent years, in getting back to roots music, he's been less interested in the kinds of pedal- and loop-based guitar sounds we associate with him in the '80s and early '90s. I think I prefer his harsher, more visceral, effects-altered tone from those years to his relatively unadorned tone of today.
(In this interview, Ford talks about tone being something extremely personal, being not just in the instrument, but also something that emerges from the fingers and indeed the whole body.)
-- Mubarak has a new post in which he mentions a Jonathan Rosenbaum interview at Quintín's and Flavia's La Lectora Provisoria, and this roundtable discussion between Pedro Costa, Catherine David and Chris Dercon.
-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on the Lubitsch musicals DVD box.
-- We're about half-way into Larry Aydlette's month-long Burt Reynolds blog-a-thon at Welcome To L.A.
-- At Critical Culture, Pacze Moj posts a 1973 interview with Ousmane Sembene.
-- Dan Sallitt: "The Iron Horse; or the Ever-Popular Drunken Irishman Effect."
-- The Senses of Cinema 2007 World Poll.