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Wednesday
Nov252015

CYNTHIA ON THE THRONE

                                                Cynthia Robinson 1946-2015

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were so reticent, so well mannered. They knocked on your door like 7th Day Adventists and said they were seeking worldwide unity. Could it be possible, they asked politely, that you might be ready for a brand-new beat?

Not Cynthia Robinson. Cynthia was not polite. Cynthia hollered. Not a church holler or a mountain holler or an R&B holler. She wasn’t Levi Stubbs hollering for Bernadette. Cynthia’s heart was not broken. Cynthia’s heart was ablaze. She had one call to action, one message that kicked down the door: “Get on up and dance to the music!”

 The rest of the lyrics are self-referential doggerel, Archie Bell & the Drells on LSD; each Family member tells us what they’re about to do. Then Cynthia belts out the parameters: “All the squares, go home!” If you don’t go home you’re not a square, but only if you get on up and dance to the music. And in case you missed the point – that you better heed Cynthia – Sly shouts it out: “Cynthia on the throne, yeah!”

 Where else would she be?

 Did any voice ever come out of the radio like Cynthia’s? Did any song ever start with a statement like her’s? That holler – so strained, so ferocious. No song with a feminine imperative equaled Cynthia’s until Patti Smith introduced Gloria. No other woman in R&B took on Cynthia’s roles: Drill sergeant, evangelist and moral center.

Prior to Dance To the Music, the only signals of a life worth living that reached my redneck hellhole hometown were Otis Redding and James Brown. I didn’t know much – that is, I didn’t know shit – but I knew there weren’t any girl trumpet players in the Famous Flames or the Bar-Kays. The Family Stone was the first mixed-gender band I ever saw. The women weren't backup singers; they were bandmates!

Cynthia ‘s holler was so incongruous with her appearance. She looked schoolmarm-y and earnest, stoop-shouldered and focused, myopic and contained. Yet she was always the second-most visually interesting person in the band. Sister Rose, for all her silver/orange wigs and Space-Is-The-Place mini-dresses and knee-boots, always seemed invisible. Jerry Martini was a non-entity. Cynthia’s remove proved the necessary counterweight to Sly’s beaming, inclusive insanity. Even in her incongruity, though, I recognized Cynthia right off. I’d seen girls like her in Jr High on July Fourth.

 July Fourth my hometown hellhole held a parade. That was when I saw students from the black high school on the other side of the tracks. Our band uniforms made us look like Captains in the Army of some cartoon republic from a Peter Sellers’ comedy: Red pants with a white stripe, red double-breasted jackets with gold buttons and white braid and ridiculous red pilot hats with shiny black brims. I played snare. We started up the street with our pathetic, militaristic, 4/4, rat-a-tats.

Then came the E. E. Butler High School Marching Band, resplendent in purple and chartreuse with foot-long fake-fur shakos. They had the single greatest cheer I’ve ever heard: “Hooo-Ray for the Purple! Hooo-Ray for the Chartreuse! Go! E. E. Butler High!” Their drum section was otherworldly, with non-stop polyrhythms and movements to match. The bass drummer played both sides of his drum (forbidden to me) and twirled his sticks over his head (ditto). The E. E. Butler band didn’t march. They danced, strutted, twirled. Their music had a quality I’d never associated with band: Joy.

But no matter how difficult the choreography, no matter the effort it took to breathe and blow their complex arrangements, no matter how ecstatic the sound, nobody smiled or changed expression. They were focused, determined, in the moment. Their joy remained internal. Their mien, disciplined.

 And that’s how I recognized Cynthia. To me she was always the earnest, dedicated, quiet girl in high school band with a home-polished cornet and a heart full of hidden fire.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4URogrXiKsI

Thursday
Sep172015

Criterion's My Darling Clementine - John Ford As Mozart

Criterion’s My Darling Clementine – Ford As Mozart

The Searchers is John Ford as Wagner. It’s an opera of one mood: Portent; Ford vests so deeply in cartoon characters they become archetypes; he vests so deeply in cornball it becomes profound. Those Wagnerian images – how can a troop of cavalry crossing an icy stream be so inspiring? Like Wagner, Searchers’ John Ford builds myths and monuments. Nobody frames and composes for – or understands the power of –inhabited space like Ford.

My Darling Clementine is Ford as Mozart. Clementine’s not operatic. It’s a series of self-contained movements forming a melodic symphony of moods: Elegiac, bittersweet, lethal, witty and touching. Some trip lightly, some evoke Death, some make fun of themselves, some are just plain stupid. The pace varies to underscore emphasis and emotion. The slower shit happens, the more it means.

Ford shoots Clementine with an unusual painterly sensibility. The grave, expansive frames are his most self-consciously gorgeous. The universe splits between immense sky above and endless earth below with men trapped where they meet. The interiors feature ceilings and chiaroscuro; Ford’s expressionist Black & White evokes Film Noir like no other Western. Criterion’s extraordinary 4K print brings out the richness of the cinematography. For once in a Ford picture, visual context isn’t only backdrop or grand metaphor. Clementine is Ford’s most subtle, elegant picture and, when it’s not stupid, his least sign-posted.

The story addresses mortality; the symbiosis between civilization and violence; the scale and poetry of the Western landscape; family bonds; and how the spoken word fails to resolve disputes or express love. When Ford vests in those themes, Clementine proves hypnotizing and profound: an archetypal myth. Ford tells it as a myth should be told, quietly. Astonishingly, Ford never beats you over the head with the most profound moments. The narrative power rises from the characters and the visual presentation of theme. Ford frames Wyatt Earp against the gigantic sky and Doc Holiday tucked in the corner of a long dark bar. The meaning’s clear. Earp strides the West like a colossus; Holiday’s a dead man walking.

 As for the stupid part, Ford apparently never had a conversation with a woman in his life. Or, at least never a post-orgasmic conversation – hers, not Ford’s. It’s not entirely Ford’s fault. In classical-period Westerns – Anthony Mann’s Freudian The Furies aside – women are wives, virginal wives-to-be, whores, spinsters, moms, prizes to be fought over, chicken-pluckers/plow-pullers, ornaments or encumbrances. Even so, where in Western mythology to fit poor Linda Darnell leaning against a doorway in mismatched flounces with a hairdo that launched a thousand drag queens, announcing: “I’m Chihuahua!”?

Mood needs nurturing. When Chihuahua appears as the epitome of grasping, clueless low-rent love – and she’s the sex object! – the mood goes to hell. Here Ford proves arrested development incarnate, stuck in 8th Grade, obsessed with 8th Grade obsessions: Dick-measuring, who hits hardest, who’s fastest, who’s the Alpha, who best conceals emotion, who’s most impervious to desire, who’s got the most inflexible notions of right and wrong. Granted, those obsessions do form the heart of classical-period Westerns. Only someone wholly vested without self-consciousness could spin that straw into mythology.

No women characters perfectly incarnate a '50's man's terror of women as do Ford's. Chihuahua counterpoints Clementine, who’s so virginal she’s practically paralyzed. She barely lifts her hands above her waist once in the entire picture. Earp, repressed himself, falls hard. Ford relishes their 8th Grade courtship. Clementine pretends to have no sexuality and Earp, no aggression. The more his Alpha aspects recede, the more comfortable Clem becomes. Yet in almost every exterior frame Earp and Clementine share, somewhere in the background, always between them, always thrusting to the sky, stands a big ol’ raging boner of a cactus. Few things appear in Ford frames by accident. Maybe all that role-playing and repression service lust. Must have been hell, getting laid in the 1940’s.

Just as the stupidity and regression, uh, climax, Ford constructs a transcendent sequence of visual narrative and metaphor. Clem and Earp stroll arm and arm down a board sidewalk. Ford goes to a medium long shot. Still for an instant, Clem and Earp look exactly like a couple atop a wedding cake. As they walk toward the camera, Ford pulls it just a bit ahead in an extended stately track. Somebody – I always think it’s Godard when somebody says something insightful about cinema – said that tracking shots carry the story forward into the future. Ford makes Clem and Earp’s future plain. In case we didn’t get the point, Ford goes to a reverse of the couple walking slowly, slowly, slowly to a half-built church under a vast, sheltering sky. Of course a big-ass American flag waves in the breeze.

They get to the church and everybody’s a’dancing. Clementine offers an 8th Grade condescending smirk as she stands in the hot sun waiting for fearless, mankiller Earp to grow a pair already and ask her to dance. Ford follows this annoying pantomime with one of the most evocative symbolic moments in all Westerns. As Earp prepares to pop the question, he yanks off his twenty-gallon hat and tosses it out of frame. He’s done with the range! Earp don’t need no hat! He’s gonna let this gal civilize him and live in town!

 In a metaphorical marriage, Earp dances with Clem before all the townfolk. Fonda manifests Earp’s notion of dancing as sweet, unknowingly ridiculous, and gooberishly self-assured. In that moment, Fonda rivals Charlie Chaplin in finding the precise physical manifestation of his character. Fonda has Earp wired, inside and out.

 As Walter Brennan has old man Clanton. This is not the wisecracking, aging coot Brennan of Red River (and everything else he ever did). Brennan’s never been so amoral, unyielding or darkly paternal. There’s a lot of Lear in his slumped shoulders as he bullwhips his boys and spits: “When you draw a gun – kill a man!” Clanton’s as serious as Earp. His sons, like Earp’s brothers, provide window-dressing. They give the old man and the Marshall context, but we know who matters.

Victor Mature seems to have wandered onto the wrong set. He’s so 20th Century and urban. Could it be that Val Kilmer manifest the definitive Doc Holiday in Tombstone? Maybe so; Mature justifies his presence in a jarring, haunting recitation from Hamlet. A drunken actor can’t remember his lines and the consumptive Holiday embraces his rapidly approaching death with, for Mature, astonishing gravity. It’s the single most credible, moving, precisely proportioned moment of his career.

Clementine’s power springs from restraint. Restraint ain’t Ford’s métier, but his rigorous understatement fuels the pressure in every crucial scene. Even within his immense, Olympian frames, Ford keeps the lid on. Clementine features genuine suspense, the rarest thing in a Ford picture. The final shootout, a masterpiece of composition, cutting and pace, carries no bombastic score, no musical cheering section. It plays in eerie silence. Character, not plot needs, drive the results.

 It’s impossible to reconcile the sensitivity, maturity and technical genius of these exemplary sequences with Ford’s aggressive dunderheadedness when it comes to women. This is the John Ford conundrum. And as much as I’d like to suggest fast-forwarding any time Chihuahua shows up, there’s a key plot kernel embedded in each of her appearances. I solve this dilemma – whenever Linda Darnell spouts her humiliating dialogue – by putting my hands over my ears and maturely humming aloud. Try it!

Criterion’s 4K Blu-Ray is mind-blowing: the restored print’s so sharp and clear and grand. However big your TV, you’ll wish it were bigger. If your living room was the Ziegfeld, you’ll still wish it were bigger. The crisp soundtrack’s in mono, as it was meant to be. Among the extras is a103-minute pre-release version of Clementine. This cut seems to be a compromise between Ford’s slower, bleaker version – one with fewer, less obvious musical cues – and Darryl Zanuck’s 96-minute cut that hit the theatres. The longer one feels more attuned to Ford’s themes. I prefer it.

 

 

 

Sunday
Jul192015

Communication Breakdown - The Tribe

THE TRIBE - Miroslav Slaboshptskiy

A young innocent travels to the big city. The rushing traffic, construction sites and human babble are deafening. But not to the innocent; he’s deaf. He finds his way to an institution, arriving in the midst of an elaborate ceremony of government oversight and adult supervision. Once inside, the innocent finds neither. The other boys humiliate him, take the food off his plate, steal everything he owns, beat him, kick him, shove him from room to room and leave him to sleep in the hall.

In The Tribe’s circumscribed environment – a government-run warehouse for deaf teenagers masquerading as a boarding school – brutality maintains the tribal hierarchy. Those at the top waste no time inflicting the hierarchy on the newcomer. He wastes no time accepting his place. Before long, he spends his nights pimping high school girls to truck drivers. He thinks falling in love might give the hierarchy less power over him or provide him a reason to live. It does neither.

The Tribe is a merciless amalgam of Lord of the Flies, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and Tod Browning’s Freaks. Left to their own devices, disenfranchised, outcast adolescents – metaphors for the adult society and economy crumbling around them – devolve to an animal state: They eat, they fight, they get fucked up, they fuck. None of them – save the newcomer – appear to reflect. They’re too busy surviving.

 First-time Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy explains nothing. If you understand signing, you can tap into what appears to be a world of expressive thought and emotion. If, like me, you do not, the story emerges from the kids’ physicality. That’s their only mode of expression and they are profoundly expressive. Perhaps the kids evince neurosis; maybe they act in opposition to what they think and feel. Non-signing viewers can only interpret their actions. Look away for an instant and a crucial, tiny narrative moment slips by: A glance, a blow, a nod, a touch that remakes the world.

Their struggles prove hypnotically compelling. The tribe at first seems otherworldly. Slaboshpytskiy gradually exposes their humanity or how it's been destroyed. It feels like the director wants to turn the tables; he wants the hearing to experience how the deaf perceive them – as ciphers.

 The Tribes’ style springs from the explosion of astonishing Romanian films, Police, Adjective and 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, foremost. Like Corneliu Porumboiu and Cristian Mungiu respectively, Slaboshpytskiy had no money. Like his Romanian forbears, he couldn’t afford cranes, complex lighting setups or special effects. Slaboshpytskiy presents a simple, rigorous cinematic language of revelatory, understated sophistication. He tells the story in a succession of long uninterrupted medium shots, vesting in narrative, character, grim locations, harsh natural lighting and guttural diegetic sound.

 Slaboshpytskiy's no social realist, like Dreiser. He’s a hyper-realist, a natural cineaste, and depicts his world unflinchingly. With deceptively simple frames and metronomic pacing, he sets the visual, moral and dramatic tone at the outset and never deviates from it. His dedication to pace and tone sustains a compelling claustrophobia.

 The world surrounding the story looms present by the absence of any direct reference to it. Even the brief moments of sentiment occur in a vortex of moral and financial bankruptcy. When state authority impinges on the kids’ lives, it proves corrupt and vampiric. In one of those easily missed realist moments, the pimped girls rejoice at their new passports and visas for Italy. They don’t realize they’re being sold into slavery. The adults responsible aren’t about to explain it to them.

 The critical response has been passionate and varied. Some, like me, think The Tribe is the best film of the year. Others regard the unrelenting violence and transgression as exploitative and self-indulgent. Anyone who finds the viciousness excessive or unrealistic must have never been bullied in high school. If they had, they’d regard the mayhem, and especially the vengeance for that mayhem, as more documentary than dramatic. The director’s commitment to the horror provides The Tribe’s dramatic spine. Turning away at the worst moments would be a moral failure.

And when The Tribe transgresses, it does not mess around. It features the single most harrowing and unbearable scene I’ve ever seen. It’s worse than anything in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and that’s really saying something. As it played, and as it became increasingly clear Slaboshpitsky would not cut away until the moment was fully lived out, I found myself thinking: “I can’t believe I’m actually seeing a depiction of (x).” The scene starts badly and turns into exactly what you think it wouldn’t dare.

The other moment that generates simultaneous fascination and distancing features two naked, deaf teenagers 69’ing on the dank floor of a deserted boiler room. And, boy, do they 69. Like the unwatchable scene, this one goes on a while, in a static medium wide shot. Though transcendent for the participants, it plays as deliberately anti-erotic. It’s explicit, but not porny. In Slaboshpitsky’s universe, two naked, deaf teenagers 69’ing on the dank floor of a deserted boiler room in a state-run hellhole can only be one thing: A love scene.

Thursday
Jun112015

Ornette Coleman March 9 1930 - June 11, 2105

 

Ornette...proof that you can totally not understand something in any intellectual or emotional way and it still resonates so powerfully. Prior to Dancing In Your Head, which I wore out twice on vinyl, I had and have NO idea what Ornette was on about.

I could not parse his music. I could not grok it. I could not understand it. I'm not even sure I could say it 'moves 'me; it evokes emotions I can't name. it puts me in a place I cannot name; I like it, though. I love it. At specific and rare times, I need it.  And sometimes, his music makes me so restless I can't stand it.

Watever Ornette was doing struck me so powerfully and sounded as alien all the time - never less so on repeated listens - as it did familiar and meaningful. I hate to describe him as 'impenetrable; maybe he was. His music penetrated me in ways beyond words. Dancing In Your Head was suddenly comprehensible as were most of his compositions after. That you could dance to it, dance to Ornette, or hell, nod your head and tap your foot to it, was shocking. I think of Ornette as such a rock, so beautifully tailored and turned out, solid as a mountain amid that chaos. He knew where he was, always.

Those profound small group works with Haden and Cherry were conversations in a language from another planet, another sound-space-time continuum altogether. Their interior meaning escaped me, but the force of their connection, the eloquence of their communication, bore so much emotion even when I could not understand what they were saying. Fom listen one, you knew Haden totally understood what Ornette sought, his moods, his intentions, how to count it, where to be now or ten measures from now.... What a relief and blessing those two must have been to one another.

All these decades later, his music remains mysterious. What is he doing? What is he thinking? What is he on about? I don't know. I know no one's music does to me what Ornette's does. My lack of comprehension opens so many other doors as I listen. Maybe that's what he's on about...

Friday
May152015

iFUCKBOT

 

EX MACHINA – Alex Garland

Ex Machina is like one of the more bearable U2 albums. You know, like one produced by Eno. The glossy, seductive, futuristic form disguises the regressive content– for a while, anyway. The plot is an updated Isle of Doctor Moreau. Mad genius Oscar Isaacs hides in an isolated fortress doing crazy, brilliant shit. He lures a Naïf to assist with his nefarious experiments. Oscar wants the Naïf to seduce a robot. The Naïf doesn’t suss the real experiment, which is whether the robot can seduce him. The robot’s a babe. A babe constructed to align with the Naïf’s psyche and his online porn preferences, which Oscar hacked. The Naïf doesn’t stand a chance.

The moral structure is straight-up melodrama, with a bad guy – Oscar; a good guy – the Naïf; and a damsel in distress/femme fatale – the Babe Robot. Bad Oscar is bad because he fucks babe robots. Worse, he builds babe robots to his specific fuck-specifications. The good Naïf is good because he wants to fall in love with the robot, and then fuck it. The robot has ideas of its own.

 Ex Machina’s much ballyhooed double-helix indictment of the male gaze allows it to have its exploitative cake and eat the high moral ground, too. The plot parades inhumanly (get it?) beautiful women stark naked for our viewing pleasure. Then it offers moral and prurient pleasure watching the naked women wreak vengeance upon our on-screen surrogates for exploiting them. It doesn’t feel quite this mechanistic in the viewing, perhaps because the film has a sense of humor. One of the wittier, more charming scenes of the year is Oscar and Sonoya Mizuno, his blank-faced Japanese babe robot, tearing up the dance floor to Get Down Saturday Night by Olivier Cheatham.

http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/news/a624000/watch-oscar-isaacs-incredible-ex-machina-dance-scene.html#~pbRZC6485ab2Vm

Their dance evokes its antithesis in Pulp Fiction.  In Pulp Fiction, the babe says to the guy: “Dance with me.” In Machina, the guy says to the other guy, “Dance with her!” The former illustrates agency; the latter objectification. And, you know, pimping.

Oscar, a trillionaire software visionary, builds a Japanese babe robot as commentary on the stereotype of Silicon Valley dickless-wonder billionaires chasing Asian women. The Naïf’s love-object robot – Alicia Vikander – is a dewy, whispering ingénue. The Naïf’s a complete goober. He could never fall for a cold sophisticate like the Japanese robot. She scares him. He needs a babe robot next door.

The film puts us on a tightrope. It suggests that because the women are robots, it’s okay to savor them naked. And it wants us to feel bad for them. Oscar’s presented as cold-blooded but clear-headed because he revels in the Japanese robot’s absence of humanity. The Naïf, conversely, is a fool because he needs an emotional justification for objectifying his robot babe. She’s unlikely to provide him with one.

 Early on, Oscar tells the Naïf that a sentient artificial intelligence would quickly come to regard humankind with the deepest contempt. The film ignores the fact that it’s not humankind that fuels the babe robots’ contempt – it’s these two dudes!

 The story founders on the formula: If he’s smart enough to do X, how come he’s not smart enough to do Y? Oscar’s smart enough to home-build red-hot robots. How come he’s not smart enough to program them with Isaac Asimov’s first two Laws of Robotics? (Law 1: A robot may not injure a human being. Law 2: A robot must obey human beings unless an order conflicts with Law 1.) The Naïf’s smart enough to suspect Oscar is playing him. How come he’s not smart enough to suspect the Ingénue’s playing him, too? These are only the most egregious examples that undercut connection to the story and credibility.

 When the Ingénue escapes her babe robot prison and constructs a human body over her ‘bot core, she ends up with the ass of a goddess. The film lingers in close-up on said ass to ensure we understand that now – now that she’s free – the Ingénue can be a fuck-robot, too. Her stellar ass apparently serves a metaphor for her newfound liberty.

During that slow, caressing pan of the Ingénue’s goddess ass, you could see a thought balloon form over the head of every person in the theatre. One thought balloon for all; women, men, adolescent boys and great-grandmothers in wheelchairs all sharing but a single notion: “I sure would like to get me one of them fuck-robots!”

You could see the younger crowd counting their remaining decades, trying to figure out how old they’d be when they could finally line up for Apple’s iFuckbot. And you could see the rueful resignation on the faces of the older demographics as they realized this product would never hit the shelves in time. And isn’t that what memorable sci-fi is all about? Providing an idealized vision of the future for which we all can yearn?

With the Ingénue and her excellent body parts on the loose, less evolved members of the audience can be forgiven for thinking – as the film intends we should – “Now, at last, hot robot action!” We and the Naïf are doomed to disappointment. The Ingénue and the Japanese babe robot extract a heavy revenge for all those months being forced to listen to Get Down Saturday Night. 

The Naïf wants to free the Ingénue and run away with her. She, like any formerly objectivized and now liberated being, wants to run away, period. The Naïf thinks the Ingénue digs his sensitivity. Too bad for him she’s a hot girl who not only prefers douchebags, but was programmed by one. Her scarcely-justified motivation for betraying the Naïf falls under that favored rubric of exploitative cinema: Bitches – even robot bitches – be crazy.

Ex Machina, despite its powerful narrative momentum, superb casting and weirdly gripping dialogue, fails the most basic plot/intelligence tests. It’s truly disappointing. The first half hour felt like something groundbreaking, or at least smart. It’s beautifully shot in cold hard light, unless the characters go outside into the incredible mountain landscape. The mountain scenery is almost as much fun to look at as naked babe robots – and just as gratuitous. Only the characters keep things gripping. Isaacs is a tiny dynamo of charm; an Energizer Bunny of Id. Alicia Vikander is a tinderbox of knowing, seductive power. Sonoya Mizuno is glamour incarnate.

There’s a wonderful ending, right out of The Twilight Zone, that turns out not to be the end. Three more minutes of pointless exposition follow. There’s a few dead spots, but they’re necessary. Everyone needs a break from the intensity of the interactions, hence all the mountain scenery. Not counting the tacked-on ending, Machina’s not one minute longer than it should be. 

Despite its lazy internal contradictions, Ex Machina remains unrepentant 8th Grade fun. If I'd seen it when I was 13 – between the dance scene, the Noir/Twilight Zone ending and the naked babe robot cornucopia – I’d be swearing to this day it was the greatest movie ever made.