New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: film

An Intuitive, Eclectic, Spot-On Live Charlie Chaplin Score by Marc Ribot

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.

Josephine Decker’s Menacing Balkan Noir Film Butter on the Latch Opens This Week

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.

Art and Craft – A Deviously Entertaining Documentary with a Killer Soundtrack

[republished from Lucid Culture, New York Music Daily’s sister blog, which frequently covers film, art and other events besides music]

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.

New Documentary Film Chronicles Martin Bisi’s Legendary and Endangered Gowanus Recording Studio

[republished from Lucid Culture, New York Music Daily’s sister blog, which from time to time covers film and theatre along with jazz and classical music]

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.

The New Documentary Brasslands Chronicles the Woodstock of Balkan Music

Every year the small town of Guca, Serbia hosts what’s more or less a Woodstock for brass bands, over a hundred thousand spectators drawn to witness what might be the world’s most exciting music festival, a battle between groups from throughout the region as well as from around the world. The Meerkat Media Collective’s new documentary, Brasslands traces the journey by New York’s first Balkan brass band, Zlatne Uste (fractured Serbian for “golden lips” – as viewers find out early on, it actually translates as “golden mouth”), relative upstarts competing against acts born and raised on this music. The documentary is beautifully filmed, funny and insightful even as it fails to deliver much of the very thing it promises: exhilarating Balkan music. For that, fans should be directed to the soundtrack, a mix of some of this era’s most explosive brass tracks.

Somebody, maybe several people in the collective – who wear pretty much every hat in the filmmaking process – has a spot-on sense of irony, especially when it comes to American cultural imperialism. This is driven home via unstaged sight gags, many of them priceless. One particularly cynical comment by a member of Zlatne Uste concerning the implications of the new international competition, in which the band will participate, comes true. Zlatne Uste’s self-effacingly slim hopes contrast with the edgy charisma and gallows humor of South Serbian trumpeter Dejan Petrovic, standard bearer of a four-generation Balkan brass legacy who at 25 leads the festival’s current champion ensemble. What does he sound like? “Fast…like a motherfucker,” a Zlatne Uste member says with as much respect as jealousy. Getting less camera time is Demiran Cerimovic, whose Western Serbian Romany music is considered, as one commenter puts it, to be keeping it real while the “white” bands are commercializing the genre.

In many respects, this is a standard band-on-the-road doc. Viewers get an overview of Zlatne Uste’s career: their origins in Balkan music camp here in the US, their early travels to Guca, and brief cameos by several band members, all of whose connection to Balkan music exists strictly out of love of it rather than via any ancestral or linguistic background.

Political context is sometimes addressed head-on, sometimes glossed over. Still-simmering ethnic tensions, fueled by enormous amounts of alcohol – at one point, a participant points out that everyone at the festival is completely loaded – sometimes spill over. The Clinton administration’s 1999 involvement in the Yugoslav civil war, raining down bombs packed with depleted uranium, lethal for millions of years – is still widely resented throughout the region, and Zlatne Uste are sympathetic. Prejudice against the region’s minority Romany population is addressed early on and then pretty much skimmed over, and that’s too bad: Cerimovic is an intriguing personality who deserves more screen time.

It’s good that Petrovic gets plenty. An intense, thoughtful and relentlessly driven individual, he spends most of his time on the road and has dreams of getting off the wedding circuit and taking his show to the next level. Fittingly, his most riveting moment on camera is during a trumpet solo, delivered with stunning delicacy and nuance in contrast to the music’s typically riotous sound.

Maybe because there were so many people involved in the direction of the film, it has a scattershot, uneven quality, a movie made by committee rather than the realization of a single, purposeful vision. As a result, much of it is compromised, likely in the literal sense of the word. Early on, there’s footage from Golden Festival, the annual concert that Zlatne Uste puts on at Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn, which draws an international cast of bands and participants and is arguably the most exciting New York concert of the year. The film doesn’t even bother to mention it. As the competition draws near, the story could be gaining momentum, but the focus jumps from one topic to another like a VH1 episode trying to cram as much as possible into three minutes thirty seconds before the commercial. Time spent watching Zlatne Uste goofing off during a break in rehearsal could have been utilized for an actual song by the band, or maybe some background on the history and state of the music today, neither of which is addressed at all. That the winning song at the festival would be presented not in its entirety but as an excerpt is execrable. The filmmakers’ most baffling decision is to include their own utterly forgettable, minimalist musical score, which makes for several jarring segues.

Given the opportunity to dive into their subject matter – and who wouldn’t want to? – the collective seldom ventures far beneath the surface. As an introduction to the music, it’s fascinating, but Balkan brass fans are left wanting a whole lot more. A DVD is available; the film will also be screened on September 22 at 7 PM at Drom as part of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival.