“Sometimes it’s good to forget the past so you can live in the present,” says the doctor examining the amnesiac (Robert Rees) who’s just wandered in from the beach to find refuge at the Greek island vacation hideaway belonging to strong-willed, stubborn proprietress Eleni (Katerina Misichroni). In debt up to their ears, she and her brother are at their wits’ end trying to stay afloat amidst crushing EU-imposed austerity, against the sobering backdrop of an ongoing refugee crisis. It’s the most subtly revealing moment, among many, in Vladan Nikolic‘s acerbic new comedy, Bourek.
It’s an unselfconsciously poignant, uproariously funny, profoundly relevant and bittersweet tale set in a charmingly bucolic Mediterranean milieu. Baggage Battles’ Billy Leroy stars, bringing some real depth to what could have been a stock Ugly American role in a way that evokes late 50s Brando without being imitative. On the advice of his televangelist friend (a deviously deadpan cameo by Paul Sevigny), Leroy’s W.C. (full name: William Cody Rupperts) has brought his petulant, restless girlfriend (Christina Aloupi) and a pile of cash to Khronos to witness the apocalypse.
Not to spoil anything, but be aware that nothing is as it seems in this film, one of its strongest assets. The other is the nonstop humor, some of it very broad, some of it far less so. Branislav and Sergej Trifunovic play a couple of hilariously boozy Balkan brothers sleeping in their rented Deux Chevaux, hell-bent on stretching their 27 remaining euros as far as they can and getting laid in the process. A stoner ex-baker (Marios Iouannou) lands on the beach, hash joint in hand – “It’s Turkish tobacco,” he relates in one of the film’s funniest moments – and joins the party A pretentious Berlin performance art duo (Jason Grechanik and Mari Yamamoto) linger on the fringes and spar with W.C. and his pouty lady. Meanwhile, Eleni has to contend with her failing business and her brother who desperately wants to sell to a smarmy speculator with ulterior motives.
Inspired by her new boarder and his childlike enthusiasm, Eleni decided to do an oldschool direct mail push to her fellow islanders. Suddenly her business starts to take off, an unlikely stone-soup cast of beach characters pitching in, notably Al Nazemian, who nails the bittersweetly surreal role of an obsessively Yeats-quoting Syrian refugee English teacher.
Then an unexpectedly catastrophic moment threatens to derail the venture. The ending comes as a surprise, considering how much foreshadowing leads up to it. A lot is left unresolved – will there be a Bourek 2, maybe? – and a lot of questions are left unanswered, but that’s part of the film’s appeal. One of its more vividly sobering messages is that sometimes less is more; sometimes making the best of that is the only option, but not necessarily a painful one if you follow your muse: hope against hope in an era of displacement and destitution.
And the musical score is gorgeous, a mix of brooding Greek, Serbian and Romany-flavored themes played by Theodore – Thomas Konstantinou on oud, bouzouki, guitars and lutes, Konstantinos Meretakis on multi-percussion and Elias Sdoukos on viola – plus songs by the trio of Sky Wikluh on keys, bass and guitar, Petar Trumbetas on guitar and bouzouki and Iva Pletikosic on vocals. The film – in English and several other languages, with subtitles – premiere is on April 29 at 7 and 9 PM at Cinema Village, 22 E 12th St., with a Q&A with the director and cast members afterward.
The idle classes have been embarrassing themselves in song long before the Strokes or Bon Iver ever mumbled a fractured lyric or two into their phones’ memo banks. Xavier Giannoli‘s hilariously snarky black comedy Marguerite, now showing at the Angelika and the Paris Theatre, 4 W 58th St., explores that dynamic in a Roaring 20s setting, something akin to the Coen Brothers in French.
The film draws its inspiration from Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite whose childhood success as a pianist was counterbalanced, grotesquely, by her utter ineptitude as a wannabe opera singer. Where Jenkins largely performed for her fellow one-tenth-of-one-percenters at society functions, Giannoli’s fictional Marguerite Dumont (a spot-on, beaming, sincerely delusional Catherine Frot) warbles, off-key to her special cercle, who only tolerate her since she’s the one footing the tab for lavish soirées at her château.
Enter music critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide, in a role that never gets the chance to resolve a couple of potentially tasty subplots), vaulting over the castle wall with his wingman in tow. Realizing that Marguerite is missing something upstairs and that she could be played for her money, Beaumont writes a fawning review. Spurred by this unexpected critical reaction – and then by several which are not exactly glowing – Marguerite fixates on putting on her first big public performance. Meanwhile, her long-suffering husband (a devastatingly deadpan Andre Marcot) is equally dead set against further public embarrassment, resorting to one subterfuge after another.
To further complicate matters, Beaumont hooks her up with a has-been operatic tenor ( Michel Fau, in a hilariously foulmouthed, louche performance) as a vocal coach. At this point, it looks like he and the grifters in his entourage are actually going to get Marguerite to pull together a set and get through it in front of a real audience. Even her husband grudgingly admits that she’s not as bad as she was when she first fancied herself a diva.
It’s here that Giannoli’s satire kicks into high gear. You want to root for Marguerite, the outsider who only lives for her art, mangled though it might be. But every time she tries to justify her hobby-gone-wild, she falls flat on her face. She may play the wide-eyed innocent, but underneath she’s a bored dillettante and a classist pig. Likewise, as hubby’s attempts at sabotage become more and more farcical, it becomes clear that he’s not about to sacrifice any business scheme or schmoozing to placate his increasingly erratic wife.
Giannolli, who both wrote and directed, faithfully evokes both an early 1920s Surrealist demimonde – and its hijinks – as well as a post-WWI French upper crust trying to maintain a shaken stolidity. Snide one-liners fly fast and furious in period-perfect slang (which, sadly, the English subtitles often don’t come close to capturing). The ending is sudden and unexpected, and while not foreshadowed, makes sense considering Giannoli’s worldview, although the implication that Jenkins/Marguerite wouldn’t have made such a spectacle of herself if her husband had been more attentive doesn’t hold water, at least here. Ultimately, karma is a bitch: payback is even more of one.
On face value, the idea of mashing up Beijing opera with icily cinematic, Bob Belden-esque, post-Miles Davis tableaux might seem like a particularly farfetched exercise in hippie esoterica. But for guitarist and Chinese sanxian lute player Zhu Ma, the blues scale and the Asian pentatonic scale are peas in a pod, and he’s right. For that matter, most folk music traditions around the world have some connection to the blues, which shouldn’t be any surprise since the blues has its roots in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity itself. Last night at the Asia Society, the bandleader and his eight-piece ensemble brought those commonalities into sharp focus, throughout a set that began by making terse Western horizontal music out of ancient Chinese themes and ended with dissociative, distantly menacing, air-conditioned psychedelia. In between songs – and a slowly crescendoing, stormy live film soundtrack – the guitarist carefully and colorfully articulated his mission as both an advocate for the music of his home country and its infinite possibilities
The bandleader opened the performance on sanxian, joined by his band Pi-Huang Club – Jiang Kenan on bass, Liu Sheng on drums, Lu Jaiwei on pingtan lute and vocals, Yan Jonathan Boodhoo on percussion and gong, with Erik Deutch on keys, Nolan Tsang on trumpet and filmmaker David A. Harris on alto sax. Together they slowly worked their way up from wispy minimalism to a cumulo-nimbus peak as ornately costumed chanteuse Dong Xueping and singer Lu Su delivered stately, often otherworldly versions of the Beijing opera pieces featured in Harris’ new film, Sever, which was projected behind them. The movie, part slapstick and part surrealist Lynchian noir, is a hoot. The storyline follows a famous Chinese folk narrative, in which the rather buffoonish Guan Yu is betrayed by and eventually gets even with vixen Diao Chan by cutting off her head. The two singers play those respective roles in the film, the female lead a more allusive presence in contrast to Lu Su’s tragicomic, befuddledly Falstaffian persona, wandering a modern Beijing and slowly losing bits and pieces of his elaborate opera costume to thieves and misadventures. Anyone looking for the root source of a lot of David Lynch’s ideas ought to see this: it’s coming from a lot of the same places.
The rest of the concert brought to mind artists as diverse as Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. Playing a vintage hollowbody Gibson, Zhu Ma’s style often echoed his training in traditional Chinese music. with stately, steadily rhythmic passages that would go on for bars at a time. But he also brought to mind David Gilmour as he added savage curlicues and achingly angst-infused tension, pulling away from the center, during the most bluesy interludes. The highlight of the set was a nebulous boudoir noir soundsscape that could have been Morricone, or maybe even a Roy Ayers b-movie theme from the 70s, infused with stark Chinese motives.
The Asia Society’s impresario, Rachel Cooper, enthused about Zhu Ma being an old soul, and that’s true, but he’s also a perennially young, adventurous one. This concert was staged jointly by PS122 and the R.A.W. (Rising Artists’ Works) project of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While one might expect stodgy and doctrinaire from such a program, if this was any indication, audiences there are in for an edgy time.
On a filmmaking level, up-and-coming new director Jon Watts’ Cop Car is a clinic in how to get the most bang for the buck. With minimal dialogue and a relentless, nailbiter plot that’s all the more sinister for its simplicity, Watts wrings nonstop suspense out of a small, tightly wound cast of newcomers and veterans.
James Freedson-Jackson plays the nonchalantly type A Travis; Hays Wellford is his klutzy sidekick, Harrison. As the film opens, the two middle-schoolers are running away from home on a lark (the comedic opening dialogue, too obscenely funny to give away here, sets the stage perfectly). Armed with a single Slim Jim, they wander upon a police cruiser belonging to Sherriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon, projecting a chilling amorality via a worn but still dangerous presence that harks back to a million Old West archetypes). If you buy the premise that a couple of eleven-year-olds can steal a police cruiser without (sort of) crashing it, you’re in for a wild ride.
The cinematography draws heavily on the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple as well as David Cronenberg’s adventures slumming among the lower classes. The wide-open Colorado vistas predictably owe a debt to Terrence Malilck’s Badlands. In what ought to be a welcoming big sky milieu that turns menacing in a heartbeat, the two kids quickly establish a pattern: who’s going to get killed first? Is the arsenal inside the cruiser that will be responsible (there’s a rather heavyhanded anti-gun subtext throughout the film)? Simple lack of experience behind the wheel? Or will Bacon’s bad cop bring the incessant foreshadowing to a bloodthirsty peak?
Bacon is brilliant in his portrayal of the hypocritical Kretzer. What’s most fascinating to watch is how Bacon plays an actor: everything Kretzer is supposed to be, he’s not. His best moment of many is when he rehearses what he’s going to tell his dispatcher, to convince her to keep in touch with him via cellphone rather than the cruiser’s radio, since the kids are having a ball (for a time) with it. Whether with a slow break of a stony countenance, a hitch in an otherwise confident gait, or, finally, a smile into a feral snarl, Bacon slowly lets pure evil out of its cage. Camryn Manheim provides a brave contrast in a cameo toward the end of the film as the witness who could be the key to the kids escaping from Kretzer’s cat-and-mouse game.
The only Rotten Tomatoes moment is when Kretzer lackadaisically ignores some damning DNA evidence that no one with any basic knowledge of forensic science would ever leave behind. Otherwise, Watts sells the idea that these two clueless kids could go as far as they do on their joyride from hell. Even the ending is unsettled. The film hits theatres on August 7.
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.