Flamenco update

It’s been nearly a year since I posted about being swept away by Belen Maya in Carlos Saura’s “Flamenco”.  Maya and her young Malaguena dance partner, Rocio Molina, recently performed their latest exhibition of Flamenco energy, “Mujeres”, at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass.

Due to good fortune (who says 2009 is unlucky?) the stars aligned, and my wife and I made a quick getaway/pilgrimage to the East Coast to see the show.  We and our friends were not disappointed. Experiencing in person the tremendous accomplishments of these two women is something I find akin to the feelings I sometimes get while watching this year’s Tour de France every morning: here are athletic artists at the top of their form, giving every moleculue of their body and soul to their craft.  And there is the danger that the young artist presents to her mentor, as well.

Once again, I am out of my league as someone who knows absolutely nothing about dance.  But you cannot avoid being affected by the physical and emotional confrontation of these two women, or by the music of the cantaores and guitarras who back them up.

You can’t really describe these ephemeral passages of sweat, anger, motion, and despair, with a bit of happiness.  After coming home, I got around to reading Alastair Macauley’s words from the New York Times review.  There was an extract that resonated with what I cannot put out of my memory of that June evening.  “[Rocio Molina's] shoulders are on the high side, but there’s no undue tension in them or in the neck.  Just the side tilt of her head or the isolated roll of one shoulder can be unexpected and delectable. Her neck and shoulders can yield creamily, and her head falls back, ecstatically.”

We were seated two rows away from those amazing shoulders.  The roll of Molina’s shoulder and her twisting fall can be frightenting as well as delectable.  The photo (from a performance in Malaga) captures a little of Molina’s mood.

Fados, a film by Carlos Saura

Fados, a film by Carlos Saura

In the meantime, Saura’s latest film, “Fados”, has come and left the Bay Area too fast for me to catch it, even though the reviews for it had an eerily similar mention of the fado performers’ power and intensity, caught by Saura’s unflinching lens.  Maybe it will come back to town or to PFA.  I’m there as soon as it does.

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Scott Walker: 21 Century Man

From Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

From Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

All right. I admit that I lost track of Scott Walker after “Make It Easy on Yourself” (Bachrach/David, 1965) and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (Crewe/Gaudio, 1966). I don’t think I ever picked up copies of Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 or Scott 4, and I know I didn’t follow his cult-like discovery by the punk and electronica movements in the UK during the 80s, 90s and 00s. I feel a kindredship to Scott, because I kind of dropped out of the music scene (I was a vinyl addict during the late 60s through about ’71) until my kids became channel surfers in the mid 90s. So it was one of my favorite films of the decade (Steve Zissou) that got me interested in Scott again. On that Bowie-filled beautiful soundtrack (“Queen Bitch” by Bowie and a dozen outstanding performances by Seu Jorge) is Scott Walker’s (autobiographical?) “30 Century Man”. Fantastic.

Then I’m trolling for recommendations for my Netflix queue and up pops “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” by Stephen Kijak. Made in 2006, and released for about two weeks on the big screens in the Bay Area this past winter, the film, like Scott, is an unsung gem. I don’t like current documentaries much–they either appear too slick for my tastes, or have subjects that I get more interested in through reading rather than watching.

This film gets it just right for me, though. Scott Walker as a subject is just plain fascinating: here’s a musician who’s an avant-guardian and a poet, so listening to him talk is a joy. He also seems to be an honest guy. In some of the fine archival footage from the 60s (when Scott “Walker”, real name Engel, was the bass player of the fabulous Walker Brothers), he says, “I’m not interested in making money, I just want to make good music.”

And the visual style of the film meets the seriousness of its subject.  The lighting, film and sound editing, and framing of the interviews and studio sessions is of consistently high quality and tone.  Not as stylized as Errol Morris’s “Fog of War”, not as overtly packaged as, say “The Corporation” or “An Inconvenient Truth”.  Just a pleasure to look at creative people struggling and ultimately enjoying themselves, so we do, too.  [Which reminds me, please watch "Helvetica" and "Objectified": two nouvelle-doc films about design which are similar in subject and style to "30 Century Man".]

The film follows Scott through commercial success and failure over the course of five decades, and discovers that even through long gaps between releasing albums, he is constantly working to refine his dense, loud, disquieting, dissonant, nearly inscrutable sound and lyrics, a sound that (I think it was) Brian Eno describes as, “the first real music for the 21st century.” Walker claims that he still is writing “songs” just as he did in LA in 1965, but as testimonials from some of his more famous and rabid (and intelligent) acolytes (Bowie, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, the guys from Radiohead, Allison Goldfrapp, Jarvis Cocker, Dot Allison, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, ) make clear, these songs are completely and utterly unique in structure and production.

One of the nicest feels in the documentary are when these photogenic UK artists are caught thinking and reacting to bits of Scott’s music played for them by the director–not many films would expose us to that wonderful feeling we get just sitting with friends listening to great music. And Walker’s “recent” music from his last three albums, “Climate of Hunter” (1984), “Tilt” (1992), “the Drift” (2006), is great even if it’s probably painful to listen to for more than the three or four minute clips in the film. You want to hear more, but you’re probably too scared to play one of these albums all the way through. Walker himself refuses to listen to his albums once they have been mastered. Plus you can really alienate your friends and neighbors if you follow Walker’s orders from the jacket of “the Drift”: “This is an analogue recording mastered at Abbey Road Studios, London and should be played at high volume.”

It’s clear even to a low-level fanboy like me that the people I consider ultra-talented in today’s studio production scene–Radiohead, Albarn, Beck–owe an awful lot to Scott. Hey, remember how we all wanted Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood to get the Oscar for his unsettling score for “There Will Be Blood”? Hmm. Check out the violin section groaning to meet Walker’s demands in “30 Century Man”.  You can get a sense of where Greenwood picks up the Walker trail.

Some other delights: the film starts out with Walker supervising the construction of a 4 foot cube of plywood to be used in the studio as a sounding board by his brilliant percussionist, Alisdair Malloy, for “the Drift”. Later we see Scott and making use of the cube by hitting it with a mallet, dragging a trash can over the top of it, slapping it, etc. I’ll let you the lucky viewer guess what Walker wants to do with a beef back-rib rack brought straight from the butcher to the recording studio.

And if you want 60s vibe, the first part of the film has amazing videoscope (Jacques Brel and Tom Rush are alive and well and living in this film) and an interview with the man with the world’s biggest collection of Scott Walker memorabilia. A bomb went off in my Alzheimer-headed brain when this guy was leafing through playbills for Lulu, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Englebert Humperdinck, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Small Faces, Cat Stevens–those were my people! I lived Carnaby St. in my Exeter dorm room and at Sam Goody’s record store in New York.

The film includes insightful interviews and outtakes with Walker’s long time collaborators: the arrangers Angela Morley (recent obit from the UK Independent) from Walker’s amazing solo albums of the 60s and Brian Gascoigne, who explains how, fractal-like, Scott tries to find the line between harmony and dissonance; the producer Peter Walsh; Malloy; saxophonist Evan Walker and electric guitarist Hugh Burns. These segments are carefully cut in to always add to the interest and provide some background for the Walker-novice to begin to try and understand where the music comes from and what it might mean. And Scott, himself, is very eloquent, coming out of a legendary seclusion to bravely lay himself and his creative process bare to us.

Existential-poetic lyrics like Burroughs or Beckett (Scott claims that he was a beatnik before he became famous. I wonder when that was? When he was 12 years old and hitchhiking from Ohio to LA to make his first recordings?); percussive and orchestral arrangments like Cage and Ligeti; and a weird baritone voice somewhere between Bryan Ferry, Bob Dylan–those are some of the things you can find in this film.

Oh, and now I absolutely must rent Leos Carax’s “Pola X” after seeing the ordeal he put Walker through to make the soundtrack as a small side project that took three years to complete.

Considering I probably really wouldn’t like listening to Scott Walker (same thing is pretty much said by his record company in the film), “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” does what a documentary is supposed to do: convince you. I’m convinced. Hats off to Oscilloscope Laboratories, the production and distribution company founded last year by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, for picking up this wonderful film and getting it out on DVD. If you check out their catalog, it also includes “Wendy & Lucy”, and “The Paranoids” from first time Argentine director Gabriel Medina — two other films I highly recommend.

After you see this film, get more trivia from Kijak’s blog: http://www.scottwalkerfilm.com. Enjoy!

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When you click Delete All

Because of a dire lack of nutrients, I was in the mood to remove random posts from this blog on a Friday spring fever afternoon.  Next time you try this on a WordPress blog, you might think of doing a SQL backup.  Luckily I am so word-tied that I have only posted seven articles (of dubious value) in the past three years.  These are the ones I blithely dismissed with one click of the mouse.

Google to the rescue!

Turns out that Google (and probably the Wayback Machine for that matter) is so efficient at caching the web, that I was able to retrieve all these posts, and the images and hyperlinks contained in them.  A few searches with “site:bipedsmonitor.com” and I have them downloaded to my hard disk.  So fear not, gentle reader, the posts will restored this weekend.

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Total art: Saura and Storaro

Belen Maya, in Saura's Flamenco

While I generally prefer films which are messy, with loose ends and imperfections that show that the filmmaker is trying to do more than he dare, occasionally I see one whose conception from start to finish could not posssibly be improved on.

Tonight I put Carlos Saura’s Flamenco on the wide screen–I had been trying to get a copy of his film about Bunuel and Garcia Lorca, but Flamenco was the one that Netflix had in stock.  It goes without saying that the subject of flamenco culture could not fail to be fascinating if handled by someone with Saura’s compassion, but this film, gloriously lit and photographed by Vittorio Storaro in his preferred “Univision” 2:1 aspect ratio, takes a mesmerizing exploration of flamenco’s wide spectrum of styles (”palos”) and raises it to such a heightened visual experience that the audience feels it is immersed in every scene.

After 10 or 20 minutes of watching, you begin to understand that Storaro is showing us everything in his astounding palette of technical mastery:  light, shadow, motion, framing (I especially like the light-dark, ying-yang effect he pulls off when the backdrop of his 2:1 canvas is perfectly bisected into two squares of color), composition, the human face, the subtle emotional effect of carefully calibrated hues (developed by his longtime association with the lighting gel manufacturer Rosco–he and Saura often show us the lighting grids in the frame).  All through this spectacular exhibition (which takes place in an art gallery-like space), you get flashbacks from some of the most powerful images of color cinema: the effortless dolly work from Last Tango in Paris, the stunning close-up interviews in Reds, the pale blue of The Sheltering Sky, the fireworks and dark moods of Apocalypse Now, and the formal compositions of The Last Emperor.

Check out Solea (scene 12) to get the entire picture.  It begins with a static presentation–the group like caryatids in a temple of sorrow around the cantante.  The dancer (we don’t know it yet) in Mayan profile in the foreground of the group.  Then the dancer rises, the light goes to a dark grey, and you see her flesh, black hair, her striking pink and green dress, the pink shoes, the only light beaming upward from the solear (hot spot) on the floor, like footlights in the 19th century.

Or scene 15 (Tangos).  The pale blue lighting makes it feel as though this performance is happening at the end of an all-nighter with the dawn just beginning to break on the troupe.  This time, three women singers in turn are lit directly from above, heads and shoulders glowing with energy to match the intensity of their jealous pleas (”If you want to come, then come/and if not, tell me to go”).  All of a sudden, without warning, the camera is spinning full circle as if in a trance.

As a flamenco novice, I can only assume that the marvelous performances are by the finest Andalucian artists; by cutting from one side-lit close-up of pain and sorrow in a singer’s face to another, then pulling back to show us the barely-lit silhouettes of a dancer in green against the subtly tinted light panels, then revolving slowly around the ensemble, the spectator is literally lost in the moment time and time again.

I remember reading about the choices Carl Sagan had to make in compiling an audio time capsule (the “Golden Record”) that was put on the Voyager spacecraft to take a few tokens of human civilization to any beings who might find it between here and alpha Centauri.  I can only imagine that had the capsule been made 30 years later, a DVD of Saura’s Flamenco would have made his cut.

Tiriti tran tran tran…

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Road movies: the Salles view

The Passenger (Antonioni)

The New York Times Magazine today published a reflection on the road movie genre by Walter Salles, who has directed three of the best. He mentions Hopper, Kiarostami, Antonioni, Wenders, Winterbottom, John Ford and others as masters who have pushed the genre to explore the movements of culture as well as characters. Now I have to find a copy of Iracema, the Amazonian road movie of the 70s he mentions as the “one of the most extraoardinary cinematic experiences” he has ever had. See a previous post on this site for my feelings about the road movie.

Maybe Jaman could put it up? They have a copy of Salles’ Terra Estrangeira available for rent or purchase–highly recommended, especially if you’re a fan of Fernanda Torres.

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Reality bites


If you go to the movies today, you are usually looking to have to
endure 150 minutes of flashy, overbudget, effects-heavy gimmicks
produced by the Hollywood machine. This unpleasant experience extends
even to “groundbreaking” movies, like those made by the Mexican
new-wavers Inarritu, Cuaron and Del Toro, all vying for 2006 Oscars.
Yes, they all have interesting stories to tell, leave you with things
to think about, and moments that take your breath away, but after a
while you really start longing for the simple tale told well that
perfectly describes something about a human condition without beating
you over the head.

So it was that I was recently knocked out by two very different
fables made in 2003, one from each side of the Atlantic: Ricky Gervais’
“The Office” and David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls”. As Robert
Altman proved in his most compelling works, the effect of an ensemble
cast is so much greater than that of an individual or couple, and both
these stories (even though they are made to appeal to completely
different audiences, and use different techniques) explore what happens
when you observe the give and take of a group of strangers (in the case
of “The Office”) or long-time friends (”Real Girls”) as life goes on.
Meantime the viewer is inexorably drawn in, reflecting on one’s own
experiences.

For once, listening to the “extra features” on the DVDs of these two
pieces does reveal something about why they are both so effective. They
are labors of love, not made to make box office records (surprisingly,
“The Office” did become a huge success), but because the film-makers
were smart enough to stay small.

Gervais and his co-creator Stephen Merchant (mentalist!) found a way
to channel Gervais’ obsessive need to entertain and place it within the
drab, low-cost setting of our everyday work lives. With brilliant
casting and exquisite art direction (probably the most striking aspect
of the show to me was the perfect framing of the office location
shots–made to look haphazard, there is always a dead plant in the
corner or a monkey on the coat-rack just out of focus), Gervais and
Merchant wear us down so that we must emphasize even with the boss from
hell.


Green’s ensemble is composed of film school friends from the North
Carolina School of the Arts, and as he and lead actor Paul Schneider
explain on the commentary, they approach every scene in “All the Real
Girls” with an open mind. You can believe from the gentle way that the
film unwinds that comments and ideas from the guy holding the mic boom
were accepted by the cast and director, and that just as in Gervais’
case, they were not going to settle for anything other than the best
they could do. Zooey Deschanel rises to the occasion (when she wants
to, she can give us incredibly powerful performances–see also “The Good
Girl”) and the other actors win us over.

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Zaha a Roma

Still under construction, this will be an extremely interesting
building for a number of reasons: the architecture, the concept (hey,
this IS the 21st century), and what it will do to a very backwater
neighborhood of Rome. There will now be an axis between MAXXI and Parco
della Musica (that includes the poor old Palazzeto dello Sport); who
will cut in for the next dance?

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