Tuesday, February 12, 2008

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.


Blogger Darren said...

I need to get that Joni album, apparently. The last chord of that song is ridiculous. I didn't realize Robben Ford ever played with her. (I would've guessed it was Larry Carlton or Walter Becker -- that solo has a Dan-ish feel to it.) Who's playing keyboard on that song?

When I saw Emmylou Harris a couple weeks ago, I was so moved by Buddy Miller's tone that I've been deliberately avoiding local music shops ever since for fear of giving in to temptation and buying a new guitar and a truckload of pedals and processors. I've always been more attuned to the sound of particular electric guitar players than to the their style of playing, and I have a special weakness for late-80s, early-90s "college radio" bands like The Sundays (David Gavurin), The Innocence Mission (Don Peris), and Cocteau Twins (Robin Guthrie). Frisell's tone on "Para Nao Contrariar Voce" reminds me Andy Summer's playing from the same era, on his solo records and his collaborations with Robert Fripp.

February 12, 2008 7:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice ears, Darren! (But then I already knew that...!) Indeed, the second guitarist on the track is Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, although Robben plays the solo. The harmony vox are by Crosby, Stills & Nash + James Taylor. Victor Feldman is on electric piano. (I need to devote an entire post to him sometime--what a guy.)

I haven't heard the Fripp/Summer records, although I'm a huge fan of Summer, esp. his Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus tribute records, which are amazing. I like the guitar textures of all those bands you mention, esp. Cocteau Twins, whom I've been listening to a lot lately ("Four-Calendar Cafe").

February 12, 2008 9:12 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

Another nice post - I have to think about some of it a bit.... Right now, though, speaking of Bill Frisell's "harsher, more visceral, effects-altered tone" - one of the records I am really anticipating is the new CD he made with Earth - "Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull" - due out the end of this month... plenty of rootsy drones, I imagine, lots of tonal manipulation - it's an intriguing match...

February 12, 2008 10:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Sam, thanks for the the tip on the new Frisell record. I didn't know there was one in the offing.

February 12, 2008 10:12 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

First: that extended quote from Jayamanne should be part of the ideal syllabus on film criticism. As I continue to develop my skills (as a writer and as a reader, or viewer) the second, shorter quote speaks for me, as well.

Next: I don't know much about music but recently I listened to two albums I'd neglected for a few years. Around 2000-2002 all I listened to, it seemed, was Fennesz and My Bloody Valentine. (That I mostly listen to French Touch dance music now is besides the point.) In the past week I threw on Fennesz's _Endless Summer_ and MBV's _Loveless_. I still really dig them, and maybe even more now, but I understand why I stayed away. As my interests favored film more and more, I found music to be a much more immediate magic -- one I was less inclined to (fully) submit myself to on such a level as works like these demand. The wild movement between form and play is awesome: it's scary and inspiring. But now I get the same kind of kick out of something like _There Will Be Blood_ (which I'd like to see in theatres again before it disappears (after the Oscars)) or _Miami Vice_ or, even, _Marnie_, to look back to your last post. But I need to get back to homework so I think I'll stick with the theme and listen to that Oren Marshall album (he plays six tubas at once!) while I read about hermeneutics. [Understand THIS! Can you? How is that all tubas? Crazy, right? That's right: crazy cool.]

February 12, 2008 11:27 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Another link to aid in your searches for more audio clips.

February 12, 2008 11:31 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Hi Girish, long time, no talk. :) I've been buried beneath a mountain of work for weeks, and this week the mountain just got bigger. So I'll have to make this quick, but let me (aside from saying hello!) say a couple of things:

First, I wasn't aware of Jayamanne's work, but after reading your post I'm going to have to add her book to my list of things to read. I absolutely love the passage you quote -- it's not about recitation, but about revelation; using description to reveal something -- a new perspective, a greater appreciation -- within a film, which in the end reveals something about a film.

Second, it's good to see you posting about music again. :) Ford is just sick (and I mean that in a good way), and I love the delay he's got on that solo. Thanks for posting the MP3s.

I hope you're well.

February 13, 2008 12:51 AM  
Blogger nitesh said...

I really found this excerpt very useful, as a budding student of the medium; it gives an interesting food for thought in really going about finding a way to analyze a film, rather as u point out the “Angle of entry”. I mean we all wrestle with the fact how to go about starting to write about a film and this excerpt really highlights some important aspects. Her book is definitely on my Top Priority Purchase for the year. I really found her interview and list pretty interesting, especially the fact Kumar Shahini films were restored was a revelation of sorts. His films are almost obsolete here, except for Kasbha that too is widely not available, and death of the great KK Mahajhan last year really brought one of the greatest partnerships to end. Thanks again Girish for the valuable post and links.

February 13, 2008 8:17 AM  
Blogger Herb Levy said...

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.

After hearing him play last month for the first time in years, I think Frisell's probably using pedals & loops as much as ever, but it's just more internalized into song forms.

&, FWIW, thinking of the new Earth album as a new Frisell album may not be the most productive way to listen to it.

February 13, 2008 9:48 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ry, thank you for all those links. And I love My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, although I don't know Fennesz.

Hey, Michael, great to hear from you! Best with your classes and that mountain of work.

Nitesh, is Kasbha out on video/dvd in India? If so, I'll hunt it down and pick up a copy when I'm there next winter.

Herb, you said, "...I think Frisell's probably using pedals & loops as much as ever, but it's just more internalized into song forms."

I've seen Frisell play live several times in the last few years, and while this is true of those live shows (which I enjoyed and loved), I don't find this as true of the recordings he's made since Nashville (1997). The extent of alteration of the tone of the electric guitar using pedals and loops is greater in the albums he made in the late '80s and early '90s.

February 13, 2008 10:10 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Great last couple of posts, girish! I need to become a better note-taker on the films I see. I took notes on all my Sundance screenings, but once coming back to home base I've mostly slipped back into my old ways.

Sad news for Japanese film fans via Peter's blog: Kon Ichikawa has died.

February 13, 2008 1:44 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Brian!
I enjoyed your great, new 2007 overview post.

Sad news indeed about Ichikawa. I saw almost the entire James Quandt-curated retrospective in '00, and it was a marvel. A seriously underrated filmmaker and (no exaggeration) among the greatest of all widescreen directors.

February 13, 2008 2:53 PM  
Blogger Tucker said...

Girish, great post. interesting musical juxtapositions. I don't know why, but I had never heard that Joni Mitchell song.

Darren, I'm glad to hear of another fan of Buddy Miller. He has got to be one of the best working guitarists today, esp. in a live show context. I saw him with Emmy Lou a few years ago and loved it. There is also the album Spy Boy from a few years back, which is from the first tour he did with Harris.

February 13, 2008 5:05 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

That is sad news about Ichikawa - I saw most of the retrospective too, and was very impressed - he moved fluently between several types of films, and styles, tones, etc., though always unmistakably himself. And he seems to anticipate the Japanese new wave, with his mix of realism and experimentation, his dark comedy, his politics, his network narratives....

and back to music - Herb is right - he record I mentioned is an Earth record, with Frisell guesting. It's an interesting combination - the last couple Earth records sound a bit like Frisell - maybe Frisell played at half speed. Similar countryish songs, similar interest in tone and sound... I'm curious how Frisell blends with them - he doesn't tend to play a lot of real low notes - and that's where Dylan Carlson lives.

February 14, 2008 7:18 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Tucker and Sam.

Sam, re: Ichikawa, I remember James putting a lot of work into the book (which was the next one he did after the Bresson book) and I think he was a bit disappointed that the retro didn't lead to a widespread 'discovery' and reappraisal of Ichikawa's films. I like the book a lot.

I still remember an amusing print mix-up: instead of Ichikawa's "Hawksian screwball comedy" The Woman Who Touched Legs, they shipped, from Japan, a film by Masumura with the exact same name! The Ichikawa film was supposed to be from 1952, so when the curtains parted to reveal a beautiful 'Scope opening image, we knew something was up...

February 14, 2008 8:13 AM  
Blogger nitesh said...

Girish, Kasbha is available on VCD here in India and not on DVD, if u want I could send it over to you. It’s sad to hear the demise of Kon Ichikawa, a couple of day’s back I managed to watch two of his films, Fires on the Plains and The Burmese Harp. And The Burmese Harp still lingers in my head, a deeply moving humane film. The humming and singing of the soldiers in the movie keeps repeating in my head, as they sang, “There’s No Place like Home.” He will be missed, wished more of his films were widely available and celebrated in the same breath as the other greats of Japanese Cinema.

February 14, 2008 11:11 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks much for the offer, Nitesh. I'm fairly sure I'll be able to find it in Chennai. If not, I might drop you a line.

February 14, 2008 12:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Glenn Kenny has an annotated bibliography for Pierrot le Fou: part 1, part 2, part 3.

February 14, 2008 1:18 PM  
Blogger girish said...

In his post "The "young turks" and Robert Wise," JD Copp at My Gleanings writes: "Recently, I read - I cannot remember where - the statement that the young critics at Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s and 1960s "disdained" the director Robert Wise. I decided to check that situation out and I discovered that things were not quite that simple."

February 15, 2008 8:11 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- "It looks like an Afterschool Special, only for hookers!" observes Glenn Kenny's wife, of this clip from Madonna's directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom.
-- Dan Sallitt posts his favorite Japanese films of the last decade.

February 15, 2008 11:07 AM  

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