Thursday, April 28, 2011

Outsourcing Illumination:
2010 Oscar Winner, Inside Job

I watch a lot of documentaries in my free time though I rarely write them up here. There's a reason for that. Most of the documentaries I watch are political or activist in nature and involve a subject for which I have a certain level of conviction. Most are about people I believe in but which many others (uninformed, in my opinion) might find to be cranks or kooks. Well, to each his own but it's my site and I don't want to hear any crap about someone I think has dedicated their life and work to bettering the world. I really don't. I mean, if you have a problem with someone who spent the better part of 40 or 50 years working to make the world safer or fighting for justice but they upset your political platform and thus you don't like them then, really, fuck you, what have you done?

See what happened there? I got hostile and we weren't even talking about one of those documentaries which is precisely why I don't talk about those documentaries. Well, outside of with my wife, I mean. When I do write about a documentary it's generally because it has a decided mission but a politically neutral stance. Like my review of Countdown to Zero. I didn't like it and gave it a fairly bad review. Politically, the movie goes right down the middle, not blaming or indicting either side, simply laying out the case for better protection against nuclear terrorism. In this mission, I believe it fails. Now, normally, here at Cinema Styles, I avoid bad reviews. I like to focus on promoting music and films that are worthwhile and of which I think more people should be aware. I'll probably never review an album I don't like and rarely ever a movie I don't like. For the most part, I'm not here to protect you from seeing bad movies but to share with you what I think are the good ones.

Sometimes, however, I'm not comfortable keeping quiet, as with Countdown to Zero which, I felt, fed misinformation to the viewers in an effort to unnecessarily frighten them and was disappointed because it is such an important topic and was dismayed that it got such slipshod treatment. About a week after watching it, I chose another documentary to watch, one I felt would bring my documentary experience back to form. I chose the Oscar winning Inside Job, about the fiscal crisis of 2008, directed by Charles Ferguson who made the excellent No End in Sight in 2007 about the disastrous post-war non-plan with Iraq. No End in Sight was replete with interviews from inside and outside the White House and gave an illuminating look at what happened. I was hoping for the same with Inside Job but unfortunately, didn't get it.

Still, there are similarities to the balanced nature of No End in Sight. For instance, it lays blame for the financial debacle equally at the feet of the Clinton and Bush administrations. It does a good job of stating that policies enacted under Clinton, furthered by Bush and exploited by Wall Street helped sink the economy in 2008. And it goes even further towards being fair and balanced. At the end, after seeing 90 minutes of crooked cabinet members under Clinton and Bush and dozens of disreputable money brokers, all responsible for the debacle, we get a kind of "where are they now" montage in which practically every goddamn one of them is serving in the Obama administration! What was it Pete Townsend said? "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

So this all sounds good, right? Wrong. It's not good and there's a reason it's not good. Because unlike Ferguson's earlier effort, it's not illuminating, it's incriminating. Ferguson's style of documentary filmmaking apparently underwent a fundamental shift from No End in Sight to Inside Job and the shift was from using information and knowledgeable sources to clarify a situation, as in No End in Sight, to using a only few knowledgeable folks while mainly focusing on attacking the bad guys "60 Minutes"-style and offering a large amount of commentary in the narrator's script. The narrator is Matt Damon and, I don't know why, this somehow makes it worse. I don't say that because I dislike Matt Damon but because he delivers the narration like a sage passing judgment rather than a neutral, informative voice.

To make matters worse, the concepts at play are not easily understood by any measure and while the documentary throws in an analogy here and an animated 1-2-3 diagram there, it consistently backs away from clarification to go on the attack.

To be clear, I have no problem with attack journalism. At its best it exposes frauds and shames con artists but a documentary attempting to put the complex pieces of a decades long downslide into criminal financial behavior on the largest scale imaginable isn't the place for it. What the people need is clarification, not "Ha! Take that, shithead!" when Ferguson says, "Are you serious? Did you just say that? I have information right here that proves..." etc. And he does! Don't get me wrong, he does have the information and he does throw it into the faces of these men of very questionable moral standing. But so what?! What the viewer walks away with from the documentary is the misinformed belief that this crook or that crook just got roasted and was, thus, somehow punished, but we still don't quite understand any of the actual details. Well, except that Larry Summers is King Asshole. I'll give that to Ferguson. That much is clear. Summers = King Asshole.

No End in Sight didn't have the attack moments. No End in Sight had Richard Armitage and Robert Hutchings and analysts and directors and soldiers, all under the Bush administration speaking openly and honestly about what went wrong. It was, in the best tradition of documentary filmmaking, illuminating. It took the people directly involved and let them tell the story without vitriol.

But a lot happened in the documentary world between 2007 and 2010. A personal, more polemical style came into vogue, and Ferguson seemed to think that was the best way to do his next effort. To be sure, he's not doing a Michael Moore impersonation (thank everything that is good in the universe for that) but, this time, flash and fireworks dominate over substance and clarity.

Inside Job isn't without merit but it fails at its core task of providing illumination into the events, circumstances and financial convictions that led us down the road to disaster. It's entertaining enough, what with it's "Gotcha" moments and book-cooking revelations, but I'm not looking for cheap revenge entertainment, I'm looking for a serious reflection upon a worldwide crisis. The information's there but the style works against it. It comes off as a gussied up version of an old Mike Wallace interview on "60 Minutes" and when the final shot of the Statue of Liberty blazes across the screen while Matt Damon tells us "some things are worth fighting for" you can't help but feel Andy Rooney should've narrated the whole thing all along.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sweet Relief

Recently, I reviewed Télépopmusik's album Genetic World on these pages and Angela McCluskey, the lead vocalist with the softly powerful voice, was kind enough to write me and ask if I could help out with something she feels strongly about. It's called Sweet Relief and it's been around since 1994 when it was founded by singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. From the site:

Sweet Relief was founded by singer-songwriter Victoria Williams in 1993. Victoria, while on a career-making tour with Neil Young was forced to drop off mid-schedule after experiencing unexplained debilitating symptoms. A long and painful diagnostic process revealed she had multiple sclerosis.

After her diagnosis, a group of friends assembled an all-star album of Victoria’s songs, Sweet Relief, which alleviated much of her medical debt. Vic, knowing that there are many musicians like her - -unable to afford medical expenses and compromised in their ability to work- - donated some of her proceeds from the album to found Sweet Relief Musicians Fund. The name of the fund derives from a song of Victoria’s, Opelousas (Sweet Relief) and the fact that we do provide sweet relief in the form of financial assistance to many musicians who would otherwise be in untenable predicaments

It's something I understand from experience. I used to belong to AFTRA/SAG but couldn't find enough work to reach the minimum amount where the union pays the health insurance and couldn't afford my own. Eventually, work outside of the arts provided a stable income and health insurance but the vast majority of artists don't find fame or fortune and can't get any coverage. I'm good friends with a terrific jazz pianist right now who can't sustain a living with music despite his talents.

Sweet Relief takes donations from people inside the industry and out to help the people who have provided so many with so much for so little. If you are a musician, like me, know a musician or just love music (surely there's no one that doesn't, right?) take the time to give whatever you can to help those with debilitating illnesses who don't have the means to take care of what the heart and soul cannot.

And to help you get there, here's a video of Here Comes the Sun, sung beautifully by Angela and arranged by Paul Cantelon. The list of folks helping out with the video is an impressive one and I urge you to go to the Vimeo site as well to read the info. Then purchase the song through one of the provided links to help bring needed funds to Sweet Relief. Thanks in advance and enjoy the music.

Here Comes The Sun by Angela McCluskey (benefiting Sweet Relief) from Bernadette/Capture on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

When Music Kills the Mood

Last October my wife and I had an awful experience with a silent film, a modern score and an idiot emcee. It was, to date, our only bad experience at the AFI. The AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD is a place we visit often to take in classic Hollywood and world cinema and whenever I mention it here, it's usually glowing. But this time, we took in Nosferatu the night before Halloween and things didn't go as well. We had avoided it in the past (it plays every year) because it felt like one of those rare AFI events that pulls in the dilettantes, the folks who aren't really classic movie lovers but think seeing what they perceive as an old creaky silent with a counter-intuitive modern score will fill all kinds of awesome ironic longings in their cold, smug souls.

And we were right. That's exactly how it felt.

We felt surrounded by people who didn't know the first goddamn thing about F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu, Max Schreck or silent films period. I'm not saying that is who we were surrounded by, just that it felt that way. I'm sure there were many classic film lovers there, like my wife and I, feeling the same thing we were, which was, to wit, "Who are all these interlopers?" Kind of like on St. Patrick's Day or New Year's Eve when all the amateurs come out to throw up on the bar floor and the real drinkers stay home or on Christmas and Easter when all those parishioners who didn't bother to show up on any other Sunday of the year suddenly pack the house.

"This movie's so fabulously dated! I so want a t-shirt of the bald guy!"

Then came the emcee, a local dee-jay whose name I can't remember and even if I did I wouldn't mention it here because why embarrass the guy, right? See, the thing is, he didn't know anything about silent film. Nothing. He got up on the stage in his Dracula cape and, frankly, before he even opened his mouth I felt like punching him. Then, when he opened his mouth, thoughts of punching him quickly gave way to, "How can I kill him in front of all these people and somehow make it look like the self-satisfied hipster couple in front of me did it and, hey, maybe I could figure out a way to make them die too as a bonus."

Seriously, here's what he does: He takes the emaciated, skeletal sliver of knowledge on Murnau and Nosferatu he culled from Wikipedia five minutes before going onstage and tries to turn it into some kind of Richard Pryor-esque shtick. He starts giving us details in stand-up format, like this: "Oh, so Murnau is all like 'oh no you didn't! I know you're not trying to sue me, woman! [referring to Bram Stoker's widow] and so F.W.'s all like, 'Take my movie? I'm gonna slide a copy of this film under my bed, uh-huh!" So, you can probably understand the homicidal thoughts I was having more clearly now, right?

Once the movie started, it got worse. The music took over. The movie? Oh, it was there, somewhere, struggling to compete with the ear-shattering percussion and endlessly clever found objects used as instruments that made you go, "Why that's a clever use of a wrench. I wonder how they... hey, wait a minute! I'm supposed to be focusing on the movie!"

To make matters worse, my lovely wife has less tolerance for this kind of malarkey than I do and when Count Orlock is making his way up the steps in what should be a very chilling and creepy scene and the "orchestra" is bombarding the audience with a full-on percussive assault using the kind of drum fills more appropriate for a battle sequence or John Bonham solo, I can sense her sitting next to me, steaming. I can sense it because, well, she is.

"I'm at the top of the stairs now. Cue the cannons."

In a way, though, I kind of have to hand it to the "orchestra" (sorry, I can't seem to type that word without the scare quotes) for some kind of dubious achievement in that I really can't imagine anyone else doing a better job of producing the opposite mood of what was on the screen than they did. To do so would require playing "Have you Never been Mellow" during the rape scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and who wants to go there?

When it was over, the lights came up and the audience erupted in thunderous applause. The couple in front of us couldn't contain themselves and started shouting, "Bravo!" and "Encore!" and "Sundance Movie Channel!" Okay, maybe not the last one. Anyway, I briefly contemplated pushing them over until Dracula took the stage again and my wife shouted, "Run!" We got the hell out of there as fast as we could. One more second of shtick from that moron and the evening would've ended with my best impersonation of the theatre climax in Inglourious Basterds with that mother fucker standing in for Hitler.

Afterwards, I thought on the experience long and hard. See, I have no problem with modern music for old films or modern music in new films that take place in the past. I've used modern music myself for montages of classic film and a film like Chariots of Fire takes place in 1924 but has a score entirely recorded on synthesizer. No problem.

My problem wasn't that it was modern music, nor was it that it didn't entirely fit. My problem was that it felt like it wasn't supposed to entirely fit. It felt like it was supposed to stick out, so you'd remember the score more than the movie. The composers weren't interested in complementing the movie, they were interested in impressing the audience with their skills and talents and endless cleverness. And that really bugged me.

Nosferatu is a great work and would have been infinitely more effective had we watched it silently, as in truly silent with no sound or music at all. I've watched it that way before. In fact, I've watched a few silent movies that way, actually. I've turned down the music on many a silent film just to watch it in silence. It's a wonderful experience and with the best silent films, can really become hypnotic.

"Wasn't the score ironic?" "Mmm-hmmm." "We should make it our ringtone."

But the point is, the music took center stage, not the movie. Last year, when I saw Upstream at The National Archives, it had a beautifully fitting piano and violin score composed for it. Some found objects were used too for sound effects but they never detracted from the film and Upstream is several rungs down the ladder from Nosferatu, with or without John Ford at the helm. Afterwards, the audience asked questions and one of them was for the pianist composer himself. He was asked what he thought about certain modern "orchestras" musical accompaniment to silent films and he said he admired their talents but they were more concerned with their scores than the movie and when you're scoring a movie, the movie comes first. The audience applauded. This was before my AFI experience (though I wrote it up afterwards in November) so I clapped out of appreciation for the idea rather than because of actual firsthand knowledge. After seeing Nosferatu, I immediately flashed back to that, though, and thought, "Damn straight."

Modern music for an old movie or a period piece is not a problem. It's become kind of a fad in recent years, in fact. The problem is music that doesn't fit the mood, or the point of a scene. It's a problem that happens from time to time with even the best of movies and exploring music in film is something I'd like to do more of here at Cinema Styles. Exploring how it fails can be just as instructive as when it succeeds. For now, I'm content to avoid any modern scoring of silent films for a little while longer until I get the bad taste out of my mouth. Of course, I'll go back to others but I think the AFI's annual Nosferatu showing and me are done. I ignored my instincts and it bit me in the ass. Lesson learned.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Scrolling Movies

While I was taking a break from writing I did a lot of movie watching, as always, but I also engaged in my newest favorite pastime, scrolling through movies. That's what I call it, at least. When I say, "I'm going to going to go scroll through some movies," what I mean is I'm going to take movies I've already seen, find them on Netflix Instant, and scroll through the thumbnails until I find a scene I want to watch. Like this:

For years, my goal was to have every movie I wanted to see at my fingertips, a goal shared by most cinephiles. First there was cable, which provided a lot more availability of titles but not at one's beck and call. Then came VHS which put the movie in one's hands but the fast forward and rewinding capabilities left much to be desired. Then came DVD which constituted a vast improvement. Now scenes could be "jumped" to but, still, there was the menu screen options, the chapter listings and then having to fast forward to the particular part once you've made it to the chapter. Now, with Netflix Instant, the dream of every cinephile is coming true.

Like most cinephiles, I've watched thousands of movies, thousands. And, like most, I think of them, scenes from them, lines from them, often. But I don't want to grab a stack of DVDs, go to the tv, load them in one by one, wait for the menu to come up, jump to the scene, etc. What I want, and what I now do, is waste (only I don't think it's wasted) hours at my laptop clicking on a movie I love and going to a favorite scene. Or, hell, picking a movie I think is a pile of crap but nevertheless has a few cool moments I'd like to see again. Or just going to the closing credits because there's a piece of music I'd like to hear.

Scrolling movies is dangerous though because it really can take up hours and hours of your time, especially when you realize half the shows from your childhood are now on Instant and you can spend, oh, let's say an hour just watching opening credit sequences from them. Like Mission: Impossible. Each credit sequence shows scenes from the upcoming episode. I watched it as a kid and when I saw it was available on Instant I immediately starting going through the opening sequences. I watched a few episodes in their entirety too but mainly, I focused on the openings.

Streaming movies offer cinephiles the ability to conduct their own film seminars in miniature where a film is dissected frame by frame. The seminar can last hours (sometimes I'll watch a movie, go back when it's done and pull out scene for further examination) or minutes as multiple films are explored. And the thumbnails take all the guesswork out of fast-forwarding or rewinding, allowing the cinephile the ability to stop right at the moment they want to watch.

It can also help reevaluate a movie. Sometimes in watching a moment or two from a film I originally found lackluster, I'll discover it's better than I remembered and end up watching the whole thing. Sometimes, the opposite occurs and I realize the scene wasn't that great and neither is the rest of the movie. It almost acts as a way of keeping up on your studies, so to speak. Rather than let a false memory, good or bad, linger and fester, you can go right to the source and make sure it's how you remembered it.

Now that it's here, there's no going back. I'll continue to scroll and, from time to time, report back on a scene or a moment or a line that led to a rediscovery. The fact is, after several decades of watching movies, I've frankly forgotten a lot of the details of films I saw in the beginning of my love for film and scrolling allows me to refresh my memory, one frame at time.

Télépopmusik: Genetic World

Musicians often strive for consistency. The great composers of the Classical and Romantic eras created symphonies in which they could explore an idea or theme expressed musically over the course of four movements. Into the twentieth century, American composers such as Aaron Copeland and Duke Ellington created suites like Appalachian Spring and Black, Brown and Beige respectively, to do the same thing in a modern context. Later, jazz greats like Miles Davis put together musically conceptual works like Kind of Blue and the modern pop "concept" album, in which all the songs are of a particular theme or story, came to fruition with Frank Sinatra's Only the Lonely.

Then in the sixties, rock groups got into the act and everyone under the age of 30 assumed they had invented it. Groan.

But sometimes, consistency is rejected in favor of chaotic exploration. This can work if the songs complement each other strongly or it can fall apart magnificently. Depending on who you ask, The Beatles' White Album (actually titled The Beatles) succeeds famously or fails grandly. I think it fails but I think it fails fantastically in a blazing fireball of indulgence. That is to say, I like most of the songs on the double album, though not all, and enjoy listening to them, but piecemeal. I don't think the songs work together as well as they do on, say, Revolver and they aren't meant to thematically work together like Rubber Soul (about as perfect an album as The Beatles ever did) but they do work, sporadically. And most of the time, that's fine as long as the songs that work, work well.

Which brings us to Genetic World, the 2001 album of French electronic trip-hop trio Télépopmusik. Ten years after its release it still relies strongly on one half of the album being decidedly better than the other half. The half that works, the half everyone knows, is the half with Scottish folk singer Angela McCluskey. Her vocal stylings, strongly reminiscent of Billie Holiday, work so well with the electronic ambiance and down-tempos of Fabrice Dumont, Stephan Haeri and Christophe Hetier that you don't want them to end. Sadly, they do.

It's not that the dance music contained within the walls of Genetic World is bad but that it is 1) Jarring when following a beautiful piece of longing like Yesterday was a Lie and 2) doesn't hold up to what precedes it. The music of one doesn't compare or complement the other. It's two albums, packed into ten songs (the international version is more expansive with more songs but less impressive) with each style fighting it out with the other. That can be very interesting at times, like the above mentioned Beatles, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney throwing their two distinct styles against each other on every album, but here, the dance music simply can't hold a candle to McCluskey, who not only sings but cowrites most of her songs. And that means that, frankly, the two different styles playing off of each other is less of an interesting thing and more of an annoyance.

The album begins with the song Breathe, and this song, in fact, became their most famous and successful song and still is. You can listen to it and McCluskey's alluring vocals here. Breathe takes the familiar transcendent/electronica tropes (metronomically repeating notes, programmed bass drum, underlying synth sweep) and, with the addition of McCluskey's vocals, turns it into something decidedly more.

Once this ends the album plunges straight into the title track, a bouncy, percussion driven dance number that sounds fine but completely uninspired. This leads into two more McCluskey pieces, Love Can Damage Your Health and Smile that once again lull the listener into a meditative, serene state before breaking in with Dance Me, another uninspired percussion driven dance track. Again, it's not that Dance Me or Genetic World are all that bad, just average and uninspired, which would be fine if we quickly cut back to McCluskey but this time there's no such luck. We're hit with Da Hoola, Let's Go Again and Trishika, a mix of dance, rap and screaming guitar (but not necessarily in that order and not necessarily as interesting as that combo might sound).

At the end of it all, redemption comes in the form of Yesterday was a Lie, again cowritten by McCluskey and a beautiful piece of music. After this, the album winds down with L'Incertitude D'Heisenberg, a full-on trance/electronica orgasm and the perfect ending to the McCluskey music that preceded it. The other music? It belongs on another album and one I wouldn't rush to buy but for most of Genetic World, electronica and old fashioned vocal stylings combine to beautiful effect.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Cinema Styles, Das Reboot

Cinema Styles reboots this week. The time-off is done, the R & R from blogging, complete. The reboot will be mild, no major overhaul. I simply want to incorporate more classic television into the mix as well as more music reviews than I've been doing. I cannot pretend to provide even a modicum of the extensive classic television coverage of Ivan Shreve, who knows more about classic tv than anyone I've ever come across, but I shall endeavor to do my best.

I look forward to getting back to updating here regularly, starting tomorrow. See you then.