The Second Wave Approaches

At the beginning of November, the warnings about the dangers of Americans traveling for the holidays were as dreadful as the hanging-in-the-balance presidential election results and the authoritarian’s evil machinations in battleground states. I started to feel my energy level dissipate. I couldn’t lift weights as easily, my sense of cinematic smell and taste disintegrated to the point where I felt no reason to reach for the Roku remote to pick a film from the eight different streaming services I pay for, and I had lost the impulse to scan‘s nightly playlists, that had been an entertaining and bonding experience for me and my eldest son, locked down in Austin, Texas.

The weather turned cold, leaves were dropping off the trees in the neighborhood and things seemed more cut-off from possibility than before. My mood was not great and failures like forgetting my brother’s birthday were starting to seep into the routines that had been mostly unchanged since March 13: ordering provisions, going for a daily walk in the four or five streets of the neighborhood, and then quickly retreating back indoors.

Besides nightly cozying with my wife to watch Borgen, I kept on with my weekly painting classes (although my focus was coming and going), and waited up on November 6 to finally replace my dying iPhone (which had gone to the point of dropping from 100 to zero in 100 minutes). Finally Thanksgiving itself arrived. Isolated from our children and friends, we still went through the motions of pre-ordering a turkey and other goodies (thanks, Lagunitas Farm Stand), and procuring three or four harder-to-find items with a safe-r run to the Woodlands Market (which I always consider running the virus gauntlet) by going in just before closing time on the eve.

The day itself was the warmest of the week. We trundled the carved turkey and other bits to a local playground which was semi-deserted at 2 pm. We walked around the signs that advised that eating food and drink was prohibited, because it implies that your mask is off. Our rationale was to stay 20 feet or more away from anyone else around, eat as fast as possible, then get those masks back on. And so we did.

By now Biden had been “ascertained,” and two vaccines were estimated to be a couple of weeks away from initial distribution. On the day before turkey day, I presented my work in art class, and felt a slight burden lifted that I actually had produced work in the last eight months. On the day after turkey day, my wife and I started to make actual travel plans for September 2021, for a nephew’s wedding in Vermont and thence on to rural France, before our knees give out or autonomous systems accelerate their decline.

I finally got back into the habit of a movie every other day or so. William Wyler’s perfection of a Henry James story, The Heiress, landed with such an impact that I felt I was watching Hollywood’s golden era for the first time. Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… was equally impressive and fit the COVID mentality perfectly, where its characters mused about whether there is any point to life or relationships or art or film, or whether we just need to wait and see what our mission will be. Balthasar the donkey has it better in the season of fear.

I Was at Home, But…

So now I move to finish the last painting for my “series” class, and email my brother, and buy presents for distantly isolated family and friends, and await the CDC policy committee’s decision on what round of vaccinations I will qualify for (white male, 65-79, no known comorbidities). I’m going to get that shot as soon as I can.

My Brilliant Rohrwacher

While watching the two episodes of Season 2 of My Brilliant Friend that were directed by Alice Rohrwacher (who also does the voice-over narration for the Elena Greco character), I experienced flashbacks to the paintings of Antonello da Masina, who employed primary colors in his portraits. In at least two scenes, Rohrwacher arranges trios of actors clothed in a palette of muted primary colors. The framing of other close-ups reminded me of Picasso and Michelangelo. Whether or not the melodrama of the series engages you or not, it’s a blessing to see images like these in our frozen life sheltering at home.


COVID Journal: Online things you can do at home

While we’re all shuttered in place, it turns out that life can be busier than ever before. In this time of crisis many arts organizations, creators, and internet-savvy individuals who are sharing skills are providing us with free and fundraising opportunities to enrich our lives. I’m having to remind myself to not to try to do too many things in a single day, but the temptation is strongly there, while my wife and I sit at home, cook meals, read together, wait for packages, and try to go for walks that will keep us away from others.

With the idea of balance and calm in mind, here are some of the things I am participating in on a regular or occasional basis, or may take advantage of when things get bleak:

Live oil painting lessons with Cotswold realist painter Paul Foxton, most days of the week at 8 am Pacific time. Paul is a calming voice and a very good teacher of value, color and technique. Each day’s session is usually 60-90 minutes. Join Paul’s Facebook Art of Calm Artists group at

Live book readings, discussions and author events from the Virtual Book Channel and the Quarantine Book Club. Visit and for more information.

Live yoga sessions with New York techie Erik Hinton. Schedule varies. Subscribe at

Art and commentary from museums around the world are being shared daily under the Twitter hashtag #MuseumMomentOfZen. I have only begun to explore this resource, but one of the deepest and most thoughtful I have found so far is from the US National Gallery of Art. Their account is

The de Young Museum is doing live curator discussions on their Facebook page, called “FB Live”:

More and more film makers and distributors are sharing free access to works that were only visible through DVD purchases or at limited runs in museums and art-house cinemas. Others are offering downloads or time-limited screenings for a donation to help out closed cinemas and their laid-off workers. Here is a sampling of films I have found and watched or hope to see.

The Green Fog, directed by Guy Maddin.

Helvetica, directed by Gary Hustwit. The first of Hustwit’s documentary films on design and designers that he is releasing here:

La Vendedora de Fósforos (The Little Match Girl), directed by Alejo Moguillansky, courtesy of El Pampero Cine. Streaming at

Turns out that The Little Match Girl is one of a bunch of recent Latin American films that are now streaming. Argentine critic and curator Diego Lerer has the list on his Micropsia blog.

“Circle of Quarantine”: 10 Downloads of your choice for $49.95 from the catalog of Oscilloscope Labs. Many of Oscope’s films are on Kanopy, but there are gems here such as Madeline’s Madeline, River of Grass, L’Attesa, etc.

Kino Marquee, from Kino Lorber. Their initial screenings are of the fantastic Brazilian film Bacurau, directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho. I guess you visit one of their sponsored donees to actually purchase virtual tickets. These are Film at Lincoln Center (New York, NY), BAM (Brooklyn, NY), Jacob Burns Film Center (Pleasantville, NY), The Little Theatre (Rochester, NY), Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Riviera Theatre (Santa Barbara, CA), The Frida Cinema (Santa Ana, CA), Denver Film / Sie FilmCenter (Denver, CO), Belcourt Theater (Nashville, TN), Loft Cinema (Tucson, AZ), Austin Film Society (Austin, TX), Wexner Center for the Arts (Columbus, OH) and Aperture Cinema (Winston Salem, NC). If you like the Austin Film Society, here’s where to purchase a $12, five-day pass for Bacurau:

Virtual Cinema, from Film Movement. Currently offering screenings of six films that would have been in theatrical release. New films Corpus Christi, directed by Jan Komasa, The Wild Goose Lake by Diao Yinan, Zombi Child by Bertrand Bonello, and Advocate by Rachel Leah Jones. And restorations of some that I really want to see: Bruno Barreto’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976);The Killing Floor (1984), directed by Bill Duke; and especially Luchino Visconti’s L’Innocente (1976).

Update on April 2, 2020:

Grasshopper Films and Magnolia Pictures have now joined in, offering tie-ins to art houses with Pedro Costa’s latest Vitialina Varela and new Romanian film The Whistlers, respectively.

On April 21, Neon pictures has joined in the video streaming-with-fundraising movement.

Shared film clubs are popping up, with links to suggested viewing. One local example is the California Film Institute‘s new website, CFI Selects:

Her: A Gentrified Blade Runner


Update: Of course I’m not the only one to get upset about Her’s Los Angeles.

Her is a movie as we know about a near future where interactions with operating system helpers, our “OS”es, displace those with our fellow humans, until they have no more use for us. This line of thinking, which runs from the Velveteen Rabbit to I, Robot, is well trod, and Spike Jonze adds a well-thought-out story to the canon.

What I found more fascinating than the CHI (computer-human interface) plot was Jonze’s depiction of the future of Los Angeles. Having just seen Thom Andersen’s critical film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the credibility gap between Los Angeles’s ever-widening economic inequality over the last 70 years and its portrayal in Hollywood film, walking into Jonze’s 21st century Southern California is an even more disorienting and disquieting experience.

Our hero, Theodore Twombley, lives in Beverly Wilshire City (a proxy for Los Angeles’s westside) and works either there or in a simulacrum of Downtown Los Angeles (the One Wilshire building and other towers still standing in this near future). These cityscapes bleed together, so that from higher up there is a vision of Sao Paulo-like skyscapers that extend to the mountains and to the sea.  Gleaming highrises are linked by windswept, uncrowded elevated walkways. Along these paths are gaudy security cameras mounted on every lamppost. By 2060 or whenever, the clunky-looking camera mounts would most likely be a thing of the past, so I guess these are here to assure the public that the L.A.P.D. has things under strict control.

There is no garbage on these “streets”.  Even entrances to the subway seem clean and efficient, with a steady stream of nearly-all-white knowledge workers moving to and fro. The subways run quietly and happily everywhere (the happy Los Angeles Metro map of the future has already been posted on today’s internet for the curious), and bullet trains can take our workers on vacation to Donner Pass for the weekend.

Her Metro Map
Her Metro Map

The people who live and work here are predominantly white and well-educated. There is one scene where a dapper black man busks with a fedora upturned for tips, and a split-second shot of a middle-aged woman sweeping the floors of Beverly Wilshire City while Theodore is not feeling too well about his inevitable break-up with his OS. And while Samantha is being given a early tour of the variety of humans who live here through Theodore’s iPhone camera, we do see one or two Latinos.

The rest are all white hipster or post-hipster young and middle-aged types. They work in what seem to be low-stress, high-paying creative endeavors, letter-writing or game-designing. And they have all gone to or talk about “Harvard”, “magna cum laude”; they strive to become the “class mom”, and if they are not lucky enough to get one of these sweet creative jobs, they can at least work as “lawyers”, so that’s OK. Luckily we can check off that there is no gender inequality in Her L.A. Theodore’s brilliant PhD ex-wife was raised in a household of “high expectations”, he tries to date a Harvard woman with an incredible CV, and so on.

These lucky folk spend their days in workplaces  colored by Deborah Sussman in pastel, so that cube workers are always seeing things through rose-colored glasses. People eat well, remembering to chew their fruit for the fiber (if you want to juice anything, juice the vegetables).  They wear sustainable fabrics in unpretentious styles (lots of sweaters and J. Crewish colored shirts).

They sport overly large messenger bags (Amy Adams’s is especially big) or gym bags or backpacks, and talk blithely to each other or to their OS through earpieces.  There are no dramas beyond those of sexual tension and marriage; apparently no one lacks for money.

What we don’t see is what happened to the 12 million or so Southern Californians who didn’t go to Harvard or didn’t become lawyers. I expect that they have been sent over those mountains to the desert and for the few who are employed as moppers, they can take the bullet trains to work 100s of miles away.

You have to wonder whether Jonze is consciously mocking such a future for Los Angeles or accepting it as the positive end result of the marriage of capitalism and technology. His is a surfer’s dream world, always looking on the positive sunny side of things, a day at the beach of the Emerald City without any economically-depressed denizens.

And I wonder if the beauty and navel-gazing aspect of the whole thing (even the OSes are expert self-analysts following the precepts of Alan Watts) has been tamely accepted by the Hollywood Industry, the folks whose children go to Harvard Westlake school and do actually yacht out to Catalina for a picnic away from the masses on a regular basis.

Thom Andersen had an interesting insight into the environment presented in Blade Runner. Where most viewers saw it as menacing, Andersen delights in the fact that the Los Angeles streets in Blade Runner are filled with real people, density and there are shops and interaction going on.

The surroundings of Her are scarily too similar to where I sit in Kentfield. The “class mom” game is being played out for real every day here, and the one percent meet in quiet cafes to talk about their marital problems; the rest of society (poverty, under-education, a future without the promise of work) is hard to see.

Los Angeles 1973 in 12 Acts

The Outside Man
The Outside Man

Last night I finally had the opportunity to watch Thom Andersen’s superb meditation on the politics, public relations and naivete of filmmakers who have used Los Angeles as a backdrop or a character in their movies. Andersen who grew up in Los Angeles, was associated with the USC film school and now is a professor at Cal Arts, created Los Angeles Plays Itself in 2003.  The two-hour film is apparently “unplayable” outside of personal screenings because it makes use of clips of more than 200 copyrighted works to demonstrate Andersen’s points about what is and is not in the frame. Obtaining the clearances for these beautiful images (including some from my personal favorites: from Kiss Me, Deadly to Zabriskie Point to The Long Goodbye) apparently would require a very large budget (perhaps AFI could step in and foot the bill?), so you have to find a time and place where Andersen might want to show the film privately if you want to enjoy it on the big screen.

However,the film is available on YouTube either as a single video, or in a series of 12, with an index to the set provided on the Open Culture website, which is the way I saw it. After watching you can see also find the complete list of films referenced in a posted copy of the script or in a Letterboxd list.  All that remains is for the book to be published, with footnotes to further reading on the history of Los Angeles’s studios, city politics and events.

Andersen covers the Los Angeles built environment in the first half of the film but then gradually shifts focus to the social. In his view of the history of movie-era Los Angeles, there are a series of earthquake-like events that have occurred decade after decade and that reveal how the public image of Los Angeles as portrayed in just about every Hollywood production (as well as in the movies of artists and European outsiders) has become ever more distant from the reality on the ground. He also goes to other well-know critics of Los Angeles’s built environment, David Gebhard and MIke Davis, to support his argument of the social decline of Los Angeles.

Chronologically, he relates these damaging events:

The 1920’s consideration and subsequent rejection of a regional, municipal trolley system that would have been a complement to the ever expanding influence of suburban development and the dominance of the automobile.

The Zoot Suit riots of 1943, that exposed the cruel victimization of the Los Angeles Latino community.

The 1949 Los Angeles City Council rejection of a light-rail plan, in favor of postwar freeway expansion.

The debate over public housing in 1951-53, where newly appointed police chief William Parker conspired with media and business interests in the McCarthy era to portray the public housing movement as Communist-influenced. The program was abandoned, prefiguring the further decline of poor areas of Los Angeles.

The Parker era’s step-by-step deepening of a climate of paranoia (coinciding with the Film Noir years), where the L.A.P.D. strove to meet the idea robotic, all-powerful, all-seeing ideals of Jack Webb’s Dragnet.

The Watts riots of 1965.

The destruction of downtown’s Bunker Hill neighborhood, unleashed by real-estate deals set up by the Richard Riordan administration from 1973-86.

Coincident with the sterility of downtown redevelopment was a planned further deteriorization of public transit. Andersen gives examples that were brought in a class-action suit: reductions in routes, de-publication of route maps, etc.

The Rodney King riots of 1991.

Andersen carefully observes how “enlightened” filmmakers from the Hollywood tradition realized how Los Angeles’ dream era has ended and that the social fabric is torn, but could not work outside of their privileged viewpoint and their scant knowledge about the vast plain of the Los Angeles basin, confining their protagonists’ psychological problems to the white suburban motifs of Raymond Carver (as in Altman’s Short Cuts). Finally, Andersen finds praise in the film’s last segment for the more truthful people- and family-focused work of African-American neo-realist filmmakers working in the 90s in the films Bush Mama, Killer of Sheep and Bless Their Little Hearts. He also returns again and again to the rarely seen Kent MacKenzie neo-realist picture about Native Americans in downtown, The Exiles, made in 1971, at a time when the dream mirror was really cracked.

Parallel to the main line of social commentary, Andersen does bring up the treasure trove of film stock that can be mined for archeological and historical purposes. For me, an outsider who arrived in Los Angeles in 1973 to study its architecture, and remained there until 1982, watching the film was a beautiful nostalgic journey, and the concept of nostalgia or period-piece films is a large theme in Los Angeles Plays Itself.  In particular, I now need to find a copy of Jacques Deray’s 1973 film The Outside Man, which Andersen describes as an almost perfect snapshot of the city at that moment in time. He separates the non-Hollywood films of the 70s and 80s as either “low-tourist” or “high-tourist”. The distinction for me is that “low-tourist” films play Los Angeles for laughs or thrills through stereotypes, and “high-tourist” films attempt to reveal the kitsch, the ugly and the dysfunctional parts of the basin with more sublety, using art-film techniques.

I found a few of Andersen’s grind-axes a bit humorous. He is a consummate East sider and mocks the gilded movie-industry that can’t bear to locate a movie east of Vine St unless the location is in the hills, at landmarks like Griffith Park or Union Station, or downtown with its dead-world skyways and office towers. He does admit to overcoming his East-sider prejudice against Jacques Demy’s exquisite Model Shop, on subsequent rewatching, at least. And he is repulsed by the acronym “L.A.” That kind of crankiness is widespread in the Bay Area, too, where “S.F.” and “Frisco” and “San Fran” are looked down on.  I love L.A.

I had a few great flashbacks while enjoying Los Angeles Plays Itself. And I will be adding some of these great and not-so-good films to my Letterboxd watchlist, thanks to Andersen’s teasers: D.O.A., Detour, The Night Holds Terror, The Street With No Name, Love Streams, Messiah of Evil, and Gone in 60 Seconds (the 1974 H.B. Halicki original, that Andersen describes as the best car-chase movie ever made). I don’t think I will be watching these however (you have to draw the line somewhere): The Glimmer Man, The Omega Man, Earthquake, Escape From L.A.L.A. Story or Hanging Up.

If you love or hate Los Angeles (Andersen delights in showing quite a few apocalypse-L.A. film clips), don’t miss this film.


Great men aren’t always world movers

Roger Hooper, 1917-2010
Roger Hooper, 1917-2010

My father-in-law, Roger Hooper, died earlier today at age 93.  While I don’t expect to be eulogizing him at his funeral, I would like to note why I considered him to be a significant person in my own life and a great man in his.

Roger attended Groton and Harvard (Art History as an undergraduate, Architecture in graduate school) in the 1930s and 40s with names that have made headlines: statesmen-to-be such as JFK and Bill and MacGeorge Bundy; and influential architects like Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, and I.M. Pei.  His own father wanted him to follow family tradition and become a Boston Brahmin lawyer, but Roger had fallen in love with the Pacific and the promise of postwar California. So instead of having his name etched in hardwood in the hallowed halls of a law office overlooking the Boston Commons, he left his mark by creating his own architectural partnerships in the back-alley haunts of North Beach and the San Francisco waterfront.

How liberating and engergizing it must have been for him to explore the possibilities of modern design in wood and glass in the era when building codes were not restrictive, redwood and fiberboard were cheap, and clients could afford spectacular settings in the San Francisco Bay Area, Big Sur and beyond. Competition must have been fierce; I picture Roger winning over prospective clients with his sociability and good taste, and giving those clients a 110% effort after the contract was signed.  Listening to Roger and his architect partners, you could tell that he loved all of it–discussing the program, sketching the designs, producing the construction drawings, making decisions with clients and contractors, working with the amazing landscape architects of those times, getting the photography and publicity for the finished projects.  And there was his ongoing appreciation of great European architecture; after each of his extensively photographed trips to France, Spain and Italy, his family (now including me) would be treated to his entertaining slide shows that might go on for two or three hours. That was a great lesson for me–that you must love your calling and profession if you want to live a happy life–and certainly reinforced my own decision to go to architecture school after college.

Balancing his dedication to his work was the energy he gave to his home life.  He and his wife created and lived the Bay Area dream in Marin County, moving their growing numbers from Sausalito, to Corte Madera, to a run-down but unique Bernard Maybeck house in the then-sleepy town of Ross, to a summer place in Inverness, and finally designing and building their stunning glass-house home for the next 45 years on the top of a Ross hill.  His son and daughters grew up learning to hike, swim, sail, go horseback riding, and play tennis, all in the great outdoors of Northern California.  When I met Roger (he was in his 50s, my future bride his daughter in her early 20s), it seemed that every weekend, he was dedicated to sharing the fantastic opportunities of Marin County with his family–I was immediately recruited for small sailboat races on Tomales Bay, or asked to informal doubles matches at the local tennis club, or to barbecued steak dinners cooked on the porch of their Ross house. He enjoyed life and his surroundings, but more importantly, he wanted his family and friends to enjoy it with him.  This I also consider an important lesson.

Finally, Roger gave his family and friends important daily lessons about appreciating and enjoying the natural environment.  Because of his interest in Democratic politics, he and his wife became intimate friends with many important leaders in the environmental movement in San Francisco in the Rachel Carson era, at America’s awakening that strong political action had to be taken if the destructive effects of development and industrialization on the environment were to be reversed.  Many of Roger’s close friends in the 1960s and 70s, such as Clem Miller, Peter Behr and Marty Griffin, helped create the incredible coastal preserves of Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate Recreation Area.  Roger gave what free time he had to the cause by becoming a board member of the Marin Conservation League and a supporter of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in their efforts to channel Marin’s necessary growth into areas and practices that would create the least damage.  He passed on these important environmental values to his wife and children, who are all involved in one way or another with environmental efforts small and large.  This is another thing about great men: they don’t have to do everything, but if there is something they see as wrong that they can help right, they step in.

So I will think in awe of Roger Hooper as a great man long after his death, by looking at his architecture, his family, the open space that was saved in Marin County, and that my wife is saving throughout California in her profession as an environmental lawyer. I have no such feelings of respect for most of the conventional “great men” whose autobiographies fill the best-seller lists.  Roger’s passing leaves me with immense admiration for what he accomplished in a lifetime of 93 years, and humbles me.

Flamenco update

Rocio Molina, from
Rocio Molina, from

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.

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: Enjoy!

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…

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.