One of the innumerable dangers of filming a documentary on the remarkable resilience of the octogenarian women who are essentially illegal squatters on their own land in the “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear accident site is that taken out of context, it plays right into the hands of rightwing extremists and Fox News – and for that matter, the nomenklatura left over from the Soviet regime who mismanaged the disaster. “Look, that clod from Kiev just drank from the Pripyat River that runs right past the nuclear plant – and he didn’t die! And he says the water tastes better than it does in Kiev!”
Holly Morris and Anne Bogart’s new film The Babushkas of Chernobyl makes its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival at 11:45 AM today at the Regal 14 and repeats there at 6 PM Wednesday, June 17. On the surface, it’s a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit. It’s also a chilling study in the psychology of denial. It’s a surreal, funny, and very disturbing portrait of the strange characters who’ve gravitated to the deadliest place on earth outside of Japan. It also raises the question of whether subtle, objectively inclined show-don’t-tell filmmaking leaves itself open to dangerous and potentially deadly misinterpretation. On one hand, the film’s only egregious inaccuracy is quoting one journalist’s claim that thyroid cancer is the only form of the disease that’s been definitively linked to the calamity. On the other, is it safe to leave it to the viewer to possibly assume that since a few hundred subsistence farmers can survive on toxic land and fish from a toxic river for thirty years, we can, say, build luxury condos across the street from Three Mile Island?
The women portrayed in the film are touching, and endearing. They’re all widows. They’re as dirt poor as villagers in the third world, yet they hang on, socialize with each other when they can, distill moonshine, drink a lot, sing ancient folk songs and celebrate the seasonal village holidays centered around the harvest cycle. And they’re batty. The most articulate of them – a first-responder on the fateful night of April 26, 1986, when Reactor #4 exploded – credits her vegaquarian diet and regular use of herbs for her longevity. Another brags that the women who snuck under brush and through barbwire to return to their ancestral land are more robust and longer-lived than their contemporaries who were evacuated scores or even hundreds of miles away and never returned. A physician in the area – who, in one of the film’s most most chilling scenes, keeps his thoughts under wraps even as he measures significant levels of cesium poisoning in one of the babushkas – credits the power of positive thinking, people content to be in their homes rather than miserable in exile.
The exclusion zone itself is a misnomer. Until the past decade, the other reactors at the Chernobyl plant were in use. In a twist of considerable irony, the area is now a dumping ground for nuclear waste from other area plants. Scientists regularly visit to gather samples and assess the longterm consequences, and there are regular guided tours. The film’s most surreal character is the chipper young tour guide. Like many of the area workers, she’s fond of the babushkas, visiting them and sometimes bringing provisions. How does she react when confronted with the risk of contamination from the spread one of the old women has put in front of her? “Eat and drink only the minimum,” she blithely observes in her fractured English, munching on a pickle that may well be coated with cesium, strontium or even plutonium isotopes that are virtually as lethal as they were the night the reactor blew up.
The film’s greatest strength is when Morris and Bogart let area workers speak. Doctors and scientists shake their heads:”These people are not living in reality,” one laments. Death lurks in the background everywhere: what’s implied but never addresed is that the “liquidators” sent in to collect and bury the most lethal debris, and the emergency personnel sent to the plant, were dying off fast just months afterward. And while the contamination isn’t spread evenly over the area, “safe” spots on the forest floor lie inches from soil that pins the needle on the geiger counter.
That clod from Kiev who drank Chernobyl river water – whose illegal camping trip in the exclusion zone was modeled on a popular video game – described the area as a “postapocalyptic romance.” It remains to be seen how long the romance will last for him beyond its fenced-off perimeter. If there ever was a documentary that screams out for a sequel, this is it.
Earlier this evening Marc Ribot played a live score to the Charlie Chaplin film The Kid at Symphony Space. What was most remarkable was not how perfectly synced Ribot’s aptly acoustic solo score was to the action, or how attuned it was to the filmmaker’s many levels of meaning, or how artful the variations on several themes were constructed. Believe it or not, the show wasn’t completely sold out: there might have been a dozen empty seats, which is awfully unlikely when Ribot plays the Vanguard or the Poisson Rouge. The good news is that this performance isn’t just a one-off thing: the edgy-guitar icon is taking the score on the road with him this year, so it’s a safe bet that if you missed this concert, you’ll get other chances to see him play it here on his home turf.
In case you haven’t seen the film, the 1921 silent flick is very sweet, with plenty of slapstick, irresistible sight gags, Chaplin’s signature populism…and an ending that’s awfully pat. But Ribot didn’t go there: he left off on an enigmatic, unresolved note. To his further credit, he was most present during the film’s most lingering, pensive moments: when there was a brawl, or what passed for special effects sizzle in the early 20s, Ribot backed off and didn’t compete with the vaudevillian antics. His 2010 album Silent Movies (which includes the main theme from this score) is considered a classic of noir composition and rightfully so: Ribot can build toward symphonic levels of menace out of the simplest two-note phrase. Maybe because he was playing completely clean, without any effects, he used more notes than he usually does when playing film music. And the moods were considerably more varied than the rain-drenched, reverbtoned, shadowy ambience Ribot’s cinematic work is known for.
The opening theme here was a characteristic mix of jarring close harmonies and a little Americana; as the characters were introduced, Ribot hinted at flamenco and then ran the gamut of many idioms: enigmatic downtown jazz, oldtime C&W, plaintive early 20th century klezmer pop and eerie neoromanticism, to name a few. Familiar folk and pop themes peeked their heads in and quickly retreated, but in this case the crowd – a multi-generational Upper West mix of diehard jazz people and families out for an especially cool movie night – found the action onscreen more amusing.
A bucolic waltz, a brooding hint of an insistent, repetitive horror melody, allusions to Irving Berlin and of course the noir that’s part and parcel of so much of Ribot’s music shifted shape and repeated when one of Chaplin’s various nemeses – especially Walter Lynch’s no-nonsense beat cop or Edna Purviance’s angst-driven mother to the foundling Chaplin adopts – would make a re-entry. And much as some of these themes would begin very straightforwardly, Ribot didn’t waste any time twisting all of them out of shape. Chaplin’s smalltime scam artist and his ward never have it easy in this timeless tale, and Ribot kept that front and center all the way through. Ribot heads off on yet another European tour soon; watch this space for future hometown dates.
It must be as much fun for the museum staff to watch people watching Stonemilker – the new virtual reality piece by Bjork and filmmaker Andrew Huang at MOMA’s PS1 in Long Island City – as it is for the viewers themselves. Not to spoil the experience, but there’s more than one Bjork in it and she might be somewhere other than in front of you. Which makes for a, um, head-bobbing good time.
It’s a music video, and you’re in it, at the very center. Vertical movement won’t change your perspective much but horizontality will (although the stool you’re sitting on will limit that, probably for the better). The irrepressibly puckish Icelandic songstress/environmentalist is backed by a lush string orchestra in this rhythmically tricky, epically enveloping neoromantic art-rock piece. Its gist is that she wants to “synchronize emotions” with you. The scenery fits the music: it’s more majestic than your typical beachy scene. Bjork is as playful and fun as you would expect, and she gets right up in your face. And turns out to be considerably more petite than she seems onstage.
The 360 Bjork experience continues daily through May 17, Thursday through Monday, noon to 6 PM in the dome at MOMA PS 1, 22-25 Jackson Ave. in Long Island City. It’s about a ten-minute walk up Jackson Ave. from the Vernon-Jackson stop on the 7 train; those on the G should take it to 21st/Van Alst. LIC residents get in free; otherwise, it’s $10/$5 stud/srs, or $5 if you have a MOMA ticket from the previous two weeks. While you’re there, you should also check out the many current-day revolution-themed video installations as well as Simon Denny’s LMAO satire of technosupremacist mythmaking, The Innovator’s Dilemma, and Samara Golden‘s surreal, vertigo-inducing, three-floor cutaway The Flat Side of the Knife.
Filmmaker Josephine Decker is also an accomplished accordionist, and a member of all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra. She credits the first time she saw a show by Raya Brass Band – the explosive Balkan brass jamband – as a life-changing experience. So it’s no surprise that experience would springboard what would ultimately become her first feature film, the deliciously creepy Butter on the Latch, which opens at the IFP Center, 30 John St. in Dumbo (on a double feature with her second full-length horror film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely) on Nov 14, when it will also be out on VOD.
Reduced to most basic terms, Butter on the Latch contemplates how men disrupt or fracture relationships between women (although women do the same thing to men – talk to your buddy at the bar, if you can find him on a night when he’s not off with his girlfriend). The disruptions and fractures in this film come suddenly and unexpectedly, even if the progression toward those cataclysmic events makes perfect sense as the narrative unfolds. Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence are pure dynamite in contrasting roles as students at Balkan camp, a retreat in what at first seems like an idyllic northern California woodland setting where bemused expats from Eastern Europe teach the eerie harmonies and befuddling rhythms of their native folk music to an eager cast of American kids.
On face value, Balkan camp seems like the funnest place in the world, where half the population is half in the bag by lunchtime, and where getting laid seems like part of the curriculum. Although Decker’s version maxes out the dread of its deep-woods milieu, it owes less to the Blair Witch films than to David Lynch (much of its iconography borrows heavily from both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), with a fond nod to Bergman’s Persona. The woman-to-woman dialogue couldn’t have been written any better, or more spot-on, than Sarah and Isolde (who each use their real first names in the film) improvise here. Their sometimes winking, sometimes feral, sometimes tender intimacy captures both the spontaneity and snark that Lou Reed was shooting for with the girls in the Velvet Underground’s The Gift, but couldn’t quite nail.
Ashley Connor’s cinematography careens in and out of focus, which is jarring at first, until it’s obvious that this story is being told from the point of view of a woman who literally can’t see straight. Complicating the picture is that Isolde relies on Sarah for stability, a misjudgment with disturbing consequences. One particular scene, the two staggering into the woods with what’s left of a bottle of wine as the sun goes down and then out, is as chilling as it is funny – and it’s absolutely hilarious.
Further complicating matters is the appearance of Steph (Charlie Hewson), a hunky guitarist that one of the duo can’t resist. A cat-and-mouse game with interchanging roles heightens the suspense, their interaction interspersed among what seem to be actual unstaged moments from music class or performances which help illustrate what the serious (i.e. not alcohol or sex-related) side of Balkan camp is all about. As cruel and cynical as it is surreal, Butter on the Latch is a riveting debut that solidly establishes Decker as an individual voice in 21st century noir cinema.
The soundtrack is sensationally good and appropriately haunting, with contributions by ensembles led by Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni along with Small’s own otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel and others. It’s a playlist that deserves to exist as a stand-alone album: it could convert as wide an audience to Balkan music as the initial Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares albums did twenty-odd years ago.
The tagline for the film Art and Craft is “What’s it like to catch a fake?” The front page of the film’s promo site shows notorious art forger Mark Landis walking, dejectedly hunched, away from the camera, away from his late mother’s red Cadillac, a vehicle that’s part and parcel of the cover for his dubious activities. Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman’s delightfully devious, provocative documentary opens by following Landis as he dupes yet another one of the literally dozens of museum curators he’s been fooling for decades.
Landis operates in a grey area. The FBI elects not to prosecute, since he doesn’t sell his forgeries. Instead, he gives them away. His copies – mostly of more-or-less obscure works by regional American artists – are stashed away in the collections of dozens of museums across the country. Landis describes his work as “philanthropy,” although the gift of a fake Picasso is a gift horse at best – and puts the forger on the hot seat if the piece might be sold, or used as collateral. As becomes apparent early on, Landis is crazy – like a fox. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic and required to regularly check into his local mental health clinic – who, rather hilariously, don’t seem to have the foggiest idea of who he is – he seems content with being, as they say, “on the spectrum.”
The film is a clinic in “show, don’t tell” cinematography. Cullman and Grausman give the main participants plenty of screen time to explain themselves. Landis has a pity party going on, and it’s possible that he’s roped the filmmakers into his scheme (no spoilers here). As he explains, haltingly, he’s just a poor downtrodden weirdo whose only joy in life is the rush he gets when museum curators gush over him. To fortify himself on his expeditions, he carries jug wine in a milk of magnesia bottle: “I’m not going to drink this when I’m driving,” he sheepishly tells the camera. What everyone involved acknowledges, often grudgingly, is that Landis is a genuinely talented artist and illustrator. What’s hard to reconcile- and what everybody ends up asking him – is why he doesn’t simply do his own work. Landis weasels his way out of coming clean on that score.
His antagonist is Cincinnati curator Matthew Leininger, a tireless and rather tragic figure who ends up losing his job over his quest to put an end to Landis’ tricks – the art world seems to be united in their desire to avoid acknowledging that Landis, and others like him, could ever puncture their airtight milieu. That might explain why the forger gets more time in the spotlight here than they do. Meanwhile, Leininger is relentless. In a stroke of incredible irony, the tug-of-war reaches an electrifying peak when Leininger becomes involved with curating the first-ever Mark Landis retrospective, probably the biggest single exhibition of fakes the art world has ever seen. Embattled but unbowed, Leininger makes for a very solitary hero. Meanwhile, the filmmakers give everybody else plenty of rope, sit back and watch the fun.
Stephen Ulrich‘s score is another reason to see the film: as purist noir theme and variations, it ranks with the best work of Bernard Herrmann, John Barry or Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch scores. It deserves a release as a stand-alone recording. It’s Lynchian in the purest sense of the word, a series of very simple, very poignant themes and variations that perfectly match the cat-and-mouse game as it unwinds. Ulrich – who leads cult favorite noir instrumental trio Big Lazy – plays guitar, backed by an ensemble of A-list downtown New York types including Mick Rossi on keys, Andrew Hall on bass, Dean Sharenow on drums, plus strings and brass.Peter Hess’ moody bass clarinet gets some of the juiciest, most noir moments as the group moves with a brooding meticulousness through jaunty if uneasy swing jazz, bittersweet pastorales, furtive highway tableaux and the occasional detour into the raw, reverbtoned horror that Ulrich has mined so effectively throughout a career as one of the most distinctive composers in film music. Ulrich never allows a sense of resolution, leaving listeners to draw their own conclusions, just as the filmmakers do with their narrative.
The film is currently held over in New York and Los Angeles and is screening nationally: the complete list of theatres is here.
Filmmakers Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass Chronicle Martin Bisi’s Legendary Brooklyn Music Hotspot
When Martin Bisi signed the $500-a-month lease for what would become BC Studio, it’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted that the Gowanus basement space would become one of the world’s most revered places to record, to rival Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland and Rockfield Studios in Wales. Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass‘ gracefully insightful and poignant new documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio chronicles Bisi’s individualistic rise to underground music icon, via talking heads, candid conversation with Bisi himself and tantalizing archival footage of bands throughout the studio’s thirty-three year history.
Bisi recorded Herbie Hancock’s Rockit while still in his teens, winning a Grammy in the process, which brought in a deluge of work. Beginning in the mid-80s, Bisi became the go-to guy in New York for bands that went for a dark, assaultive, experimentally-inclined sound. A short list of his best-known production gigs includes John Zorn’s Spy vs. Spy album, multiple projects for Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls’ debut as well as more recent work with Serena-Maneesh, Black Fortress of Opium, Ten Pound Heads and Woman, to name just a few.
In the late 70s, when he wasn’t doing sound and stage work for Bill Laswell’s Material, Bisi could be found hanging out at CBGB and offering to do do sound for bands. “I like to be around things that are happening and this was one way to do that,” he explains early in the narrative. The Material connection led to Brian Eno putting up the seed money for the studio – although after some initial ambient experiments there, the composer pretty much backed out of the picture, something the film doesn’t address. Perhaps the space was grittier than what he’d envisioned for his more outside adventures in ambient sounds.
The film vividly captures Bisi’s sardonic humor and surprising humility but also a fierce pride of workmanship and sense of place in New York history. All of these qualities inform the grimness that underscores the story. Bisi’s “blood is fifty percent coffee,” as Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, one of the more colorful interviewees, puts it, and that intensity fuels plenty of the film’s more memorably twisted moments. As the story goes, Bisi kills a rodent with a dumbbell during a Swans session and gets credit for it in the cd liner notes. Thurston Moore pulls a rather cruel practical joke on Lee Ranaldo during a particularly tough Sonic Youth take that ends up immortalized on vinyl. Fast forward about twenty years, and Viglione takes a ball peen hammer to the wrought iron stairs on the way down to the main room, the results of which can be heard on the recording of the Dresden Dolls’ Miss Me. Plenty of time is also devoted to the studio’s role as a focal point in the formative years of hip-hop in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
The film winds out on a rather elegaic note, as Bisi and the rest of the Gowanus artistic community uneasily await the opening of a branch of an expensive organic supermarket, anticipating a deluge of evictions and gentrification as the neighborhood’s buildings are sold off to crowds of yuppies and trendoids. The talented drummer Sarah Blust, of Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Marmalade, eloquently speaks for her fellow musicians in the neighborhood, with a resigned anger. In the film’s climax, Bisi goes out into a snowstorm to pay his first visit to the new store: the scene is priceless. In addition to its aisles and aisles of pricy artisanal food, this particular branch of the chain is especially twee: it sells used vinyl. Bisi’s reaction after thumbing through the bins there drew howls from the audience at the film’s premiere at Anthology Film Archives.
There’s a long wishlist of stuff that’s not in the movie. Admittedly, a lot of it is soundguy arcana: how Bisi EQ’d the room; his trick for mic placements in the different spaces for various instruments; or the magic formula for how he achieves such a rich high midrange sound, his signature throughout his career, in what appears to be a boomy, barewall basement milieu. What’s also strangely and very conspicuously absent is even a single mention of Bisi’s career as a solo artist. A distinctive songwriter, composer and guitarist, his work as a musician has the same blend of old-world craftsmanship and outside-the-box adventure that marks his career behind the board. Other than a playful few bars behind the drum kit – which he appears simply to be setting up for a session – there’s not a hint that he even plays an instrument. But Bisi seems ok with that. Maybe that’s the sequel.
Over the past several years, photographer/filmmaker Philip Grossman made several trips to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in Pripyat, Ukraine. Notwithstanding the Soviet Union’s bungling attempts to downplay the disaster and evacuate the area during the crucial first few hours of the April 26, 1986 meltdown at Reactor #4 there, considerable documentation of the disaster’s aftermath exists. Filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko took a camera into the disaster site in the days afterward: he was dead within the year. One hopes that Grossman either used an unmanned drone (as film footage he’s taken there seems to indicate), or that he at least had sufficient protective gear, if such a thing even exists. To say that the matter-of-factly haunting and foreboding full-color images he’s assembled are a heroic achievement is an understatement. Many of them, as well as a film of the area as it looked in the spring of 2011, are currently on display at the Wald and Kim Gallery, 417 Lafayette Street, 4th Floor through June 28. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM to 6 PM; ring the fourth-floor buzzer.
Grossman’s photos both underscore a familiar narrative and open frightening new ones. The army of half a million “liquidators” enlisted by the Soviets to secure the area and clean up the worst of the toxic wreckage may have actually amplified the disaster’s effects many times over by stripping metal from abandoned buildings and vehicles and selling it for scrap, effectively poisoning an unknown and probably significant amount of the Soviet steel and aluminum supply. Grossman’s shots, particularly of the interior of homes and municipal buildings in the area, reconfirm this deadly harvest. The same applies to the random bundles of metal beams and building materials lying around, seemingly for the taking (let’s hope that a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand years from now, when all this material is practically still as deadly as it is today, that people will know to leave it where it is).
But that’s been documented elsewhere. What Grossman has to offer that’s new is the disaster site as it exists today. The concrete “sarcophagus” built to contain the most toxic part of the reactor complex looks like a crack house, as if a good snowstorm would be enough to cave it in. Grossman’s shots of the skeleton structure for a fifth reactor, abandoned in the wake of the meltdown, are chillingly ironic. Even more chilling is a look at what’s left of the control room for Reactor #4, juxtaposed against another control room at the site that wasn’t consumed in the initial blaze. Cheapness and a cynical disregard for maintenance leap from the dust and fading plastic: how many other reactors like this are there in the world, and why haven’t they been shut down yet?
Grossman’s photos of the surrounding area show a ghost town. There are a couple of low-rent memorials; homes where the only things left are old shoes and beer bottles; a preschool full of decaying, murderously radioactive stuffed toys; an abandoned hospital, a recreation center and sleepaway camp for children. The implications are extreme: perish the thought that this could have happened in the summer and subjected even more children to the consequences. The official Soviet report of the health effects of the disaster mirrors the coverup of the early days: we’ll probably never know the full amount of casualties. The World Health Organization estimates that cancers caused by radioactive poisons released at Chernobyl killed a million people worldwide, a shocking number tempered by the WHO’s notoriously alarmist predictions. And yet, for the reliably pro-industry WHO to come up with such a staggering estimate could well indicate that the death toll so far may be even higher.
And will be in the decades and centuries to come. There are two “sons of Chernobyl,” as they’re called in Russia, on the way. The contaminants in the water table inching toward the Black Sea are expected to reach there in thirty years or so. There’s also the threat of forest fires in the area. Over the past decades, fire crews have routinely been sent into the forest there to hose down the soil to help prevent the kind of conflagration that could literally rekindle the catastrophe. Almost thirty years after Chernobyl, more than half of all wild mushrooms in Germany, thousands of miles away, remain too contaminated with nuclear toxins for human consumption. At least the Germans had the sense to make it illegal to harvest those mushrooms, or, for that matter, to sell wild game meat.
Meanwhile, the United States and other nations continue to allow the importation of vehicles and products from Japan. What’s even more troubling, of course, is that the Fukushima disaster released more lethal radioactive contaminants than every previous nuclear meltdown – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, LP-1 in Idaho and Oak Ridge in Tennesee – plus the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs, plus every atom bomb test and nuclear leak in history, COMBINED. In simpler terms, the world became more than twice as deadly on March 11, 2011. Levels of nuclear contamination in Tokyo, a hundred miles from the Fukushima disaster site, are so high that if that the city was in the United States, it would be off limits not only to human habitation but also to human traffic: the danger of spreading those toxins via car and truck tires is considered too high to risk in this country.
The Japanese response to Fukushima in many ways was the same as the Soviets’ was to Chernobyl. According to an official Japanese government website that was abruptly taken down about a week after the Fukushima calamity, only forty people were killed by the meltdowns there. But while high levels of toxins as deadly as those released at Chernobyl continue to drain into the Pacific – whether the result of leakage, deliberate dumping, or both – the carnage left in the wake of Chernobyl may only be a small fraction of the toll Fukushima may ultimately claim. Can anybody say “global extinction event?”
What’s most heartbreaking about Manfred Kirchheimer‘s practically dialogue-less 1981 documentary Stations of the Elevated is that all of the artwork featured in the film is gone forever. Some of it was sandblasted, some sent to the scrapyard and the rest of it is at the bottom of the Atlantic. Did you know that’s where most New York City subway cars have gone to their final resting place in recent years, ostensibly serving as artificial reefs, asbestos insulation and all? Fortunately, you can see all of the long-gone, distinctively New York-flavored guerrilla art immortalized when the film – the first full-length documentary on New York City subway art – screens on June 27 at 8 PM at BAM’s Harvey Theatre. Advance tix are $25 and highly recommended. What’s also hard to believe is that this screening kicks off the movie’s first-ever theatrical run (it premiered at the 1981 New York Film Festival but lacked the music licenses necessary for a fullscale release). As a special enticement, the Charles Mingus repertory ensemble Mingus Dynasty will perform beforehand – it’s a good assumption that they’ll be playing music from the film soundtrack.
How fortuituous for future generations of New Yorkers that the filmmaker was out trainspotting with his camera, catching subways (mostly on the 4 and 5 line) as they rolled past, or into the Dyre Avenue station. Without Kirchheimer, there’s be far less evidence of the haphazard talent of legendary graffiti artists like Lee, Fab 5 Freddy, Shadow, Daze, Kase, Butch, Blade, Slave, 12 T2B, Ree, and Pusher, all of whom are represented. Kirchheimer wisely chose to film from spots where the trains would be moving at little more than a walking pace, and his lens lingers. Yet the effect is often akin to a series of jump cuts, tantalizing the viewer. Obviously, Kirchheimer wanted to capture as much as he could in a limited amount of time (45 minutes): to say that he scored is an understatement.
Kirchheimer’s background, other than as a documentarian, is as a film editor, which served him well here. Juxtaposed with the languid, now rather quaint (and for New Yorkers of a certain age and sensibility, impossibly nostalgic) shots of the trains in all their spraycan glory are images of campy billboards (the smoking Marlboro Man is priceless) and an upstate prison that from above bears a remarkable resemblance to the MTA train yards. The sound editing mirrors the editing of the film itself, a handful of Charles Mingus compositions cut and pasted with a rather sardonic bass solo from the composer himself front and center. There’s also a long gospel refrain from Aretha Franklin as the film winds out.
Kirchheimer has been quick to admit that he knew little about graffiti art when he began work on the film, and that the project opened his eyes to what he has termed a “scream from the ghetto.” Ironically, much as many of the deaths heads, cartoon figures and hastily painted yet stunningly lavish car-length tableaux make for a perverse celebration of civic pride. New York may have been gritty in those days, but it was those artists’ New York. Shame on the powers that be for failing to realize that and for destroying it (a sick cycle that perpetuates itself – yesterday’s cover of Metro featured a gang of gung-ho volunteers hell-hent on eliminating graffiti and graffiti art completely throughout the five boroughs). And kudos to Kirchheimer for preserving it with such a wry, keenly aware sensibility.
The New York debut of Chicago’s Sounds of Silent Film Festival Friday night at Anthology Film Archives was close to sold out and would have been if not for the monsoon. It was sort of a Bang on a Can marathon of film music. The concept, said composer and Access Contemporary Music honcho Seth Boustead, was to introduce themselves to New York audiences with a greatest-hits package from the previous eight Windy City festivals. Eleven short films, none of them dating further back than 1967, got new scores from an eclectic mix of contemporary composers, both a showcase for their talents as well as a way of getting a captive audience to witness a program of first-rate, frequently creepy indie classical music.
Writing cinematic music is not easy: it requires a broad sonic palette and the ability to seamlessly negotiate abrupt emotional, melodic and rhythmic shifts. Conducting a live ensemble to keep pace with a film without the benefit of a click track is even more difficult, but conductor Francesco Milioto kept a tight ensemble drawing heavily on the Access Contemporary Music roster on a steady course. Christie Miller’s moody clarinet and bass clarinet often took centerstage, along with Hulya Alpakin’s insistent, often menacing piano, Nathan Bojko‘s dynamic percussion leading the group into richly noir territory. The rest of the ensemble – Lesley Swanson on flute, Alyson Berger on cello, Elizabeth Brausa and Gregory Harrington on violins and Alexandra Honigsberg on viola – played with what was often a white-knuckle intense focus.
Oboeist/composer Patricia Morehead’s scores for Steve Stein’s Must Like Magic, a wry account of a magician and his new apprentice, bounced along with a surprisingly effective undercurrent of unease. Boustead’s pulsing, smartly developed theme and variations grounded Guy Maddin’s surreal, vaudevillian, early Soviet-influenced sci-fi Heart of the World with an unexpected matter-of-factness. One of the most enjoyable films on the bill, Martin Pickles’ G.M. – a snarky but loving homage to Georges Melies – got a dynamic Randall West score that went from droll to neo-Bernard Herrmann in seconds flat.
The ensemble’s most difficult task was blending in with the original minimalist soundtrack of Steve Bilich’s haunting, accidentally 9/11-themed Native New Yorker, which won the award for best short film at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. Shot with a a 1924 hand-crank Kodak, it follows the trail of a shirtless American Indian as he makes his way to lower Manhattan and then gets to witness the horrors of that morning: the shots of all the ambulances racing across the Brooklyn Bridge, streaming dust and debrus behind them, are shattering. William Susman’s new score bookended an uneasy, Philip Glass-ish, circularly summery interlude with a marching theme that moved from murky to horror-stricken.
Another rarely screened gem was Martin Scorsese’s final NYU student film, The Big Shave, a brief 1967 antiwar parable wherein a draft-age guy starts shaving, and then keeps going long after he should have stopped, with expectedly gruesome results (one suspects Roger Waters ripped it for the Bob Geldof shaving scene in The Wall). Brian O’Hern’s music underscored it with a cruelly cynical faux-martial bombast. And Virgil Widrich’s delightfully creepy Copy Shop – Kafka meets Rod Serling – got a similarly noir, macabre, carnivalesque score from Eric Malmquist.
The rest of the music was a lot more interesting than the movies. Doug Johnson scored claymation inovators the Brothers Quays‘ homage to an earlier pioneer of the style, Jan Svankmajer with a lively, flinty, goodnaturedly wry sensibility. Amos Gillespie’s eclectically rhythmic score overshadowed a rather sentimental Michael Dudok de Wit short, Father and Daughter, Matt Pakulski doing much the same with Gus Van Sant’s abbreviated First Kiss. Amy Wurtz’s music for first-wave anime filmmaker Osamu Tezuka’s The Mermaid held the audience in check with its foreshadowing and drift toward darkness in a way that the film couldn’t. The night ended with Boustead’s Bizet arrangements for Alexander Payne’s Carmen, an over-the-top satire which has far more resonance for those familiar with the opera than for those who aren’t.
Last night violinist/composer Alicia Svigals debuted her new score to the 1918 German silent film The Yellow Ticket to a sold-out house at Lincoln Center, accompanying a screening in tandem with jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner. The movie isn’t much. A screwball tragi-comedy starring nineteen-year-old future Hollywood siren Pola Negri, it casts Polish Jews as the unlikely protagonists in a family drama concerning a question of parentage. The pro-Jewish angle was undoubtedly less of a decisively progressive move than an excuse to paint the WWI enemy Russians as cruel and discriminatory (which they were, actually). The film, newly restored, has historical value for including rare footage of Warsaw’s Jewish district – and little else. But Svigals’ score is exquisite.
In practically an hour of music, the former Klezmatic and Itzhak Perlman collaborator blended somber klezmer themes with vivid, plaintive neoromantic melodies that echoed Tschaikovsky and Ravel, particularly in one of the soundtrack’s most chilling passages, piano joining the violin in adding ominous close harmonies to a variation on the steady, pensive, minor-key title theme. The score’s dynamics turned out to be pretty straightforward, other than a brief, furtive suspense interlude and a couple of shivery, overtone-generating solo violin cadenzas that only hinted at the raw firepower that Svigals can generate in concert.
Svigals’ themes unfolded and shifted shape cleverly and memorably. A moody, apprehensive hora early on, introduced during a broad sequence where Negri’s character fends off a would-be suitor, romped back in later as a joyous freilach. The soaring blue-sky interlude illustrating Negri’s train passage to what would ostensibly be a new life as a student in St. Petersburg turned ominous and chilling in a split second, to match a jump cut. Lerner’s understatedly haunting, resonant block chords and elegant arpeggios made a poignant and intuitive backdrop for Svigals’ highly ornamented phrasing, sometimes tense and nuanced, occasionally channeling fullscale horror. Svigals has a forthcoming album of Osvaldo Golijov works recorded with clarinet powerhouse David Krakauer due out this year; this deserves to be immortalized every bit as much.