Monday, February 25, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #212 - Beaches of Agnès (2008, dir. Agnès Varda)

          “I’m playing the role of a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative, telling her life story. And yet it’s others I’m interested in, others I like to film.” So begins the autobiographical documentary Beaches of Agnès with the words spoken by director Agnès Varda herself, on the cusp of turning 80 years old, over images of her walking barefoot on a beach. And as if to demonstrate that she’s more interested in filming others, the very next sequence finds her and her crew setting up a group of mirrors on the beach (a simple and not belabored metaphor for looking back, reflecting on her life and work), and before she says anything about herself she’s introducing her crew in spoken “credits” over their reflections in mirrors. But after this, she begins to set up and review photographs of herself as a young girl, talking about time spent visiting beaches with her family. And then we’re off on a chronological tour of her life in a fairly normal documentary fashion. That is, we would be if Varda could ever make a fairly normal documentary.
            She receives word that the new owners of a house she use to live in would allow her to come visit and film in the home, but as quickly as she’s there talking about her childhood, she’s off on a tangent again, digressing into a detour that indulges her curiosity about the new owner’s train collection, her interest in him as a person and what interests and compels him overriding the need to tell her own story. And so it goes - the film revisits periods of her life and digresses repeatedly into eddies and detours about other things as they strike her, sometimes for only a shot or two with a comment, sometimes for a short sequence before looping back to her own story (and work). But we still get plenty of Agnès - her youth during wartime, reflections on her parents and siblings, and before long, her films themselves. And Jacques Demy - especially Jacques Demy.
            Varda started work as a professional photographer before she decided to make films - as she notes: “without experience, without having been an assistant before, without having gone to film school” - beginning with the 1954 film La Pointe Courte, an assured debut that shows a strong eye for composition that is one of the hallmarks of her work. That film formalizes the discursive mode that would later be more thoroughly integrated in her work by separating the film’s documentary approach to showing a fishing community in southeastern France and the narrative story of two lovers within that community. It flip-flops between narrative and the documentary, but these two modes would be intertwined throughout her career, with her documentaries often featuring staged sequences and humorous asides (as in the charming Uncle Yanco, a film about her eccentric uncle she meets living in the U.S., or in a whimsical interlude in Beaches of Agnès itself, where she recreates her film company's office outside and has her co-workers doing their jobs on a sandy beach recreated on the street), and her narrative films almost always featuring the realistic digressions and sidetracks like those noted above. The film is also considered a precursor to the French New Wave cinema of the early 60s, five years before either Godard or Truffaut had features out.
Early on as the New Wave was bubbling up, Varda met Jacques Demy in 1958; they married a year later and, despite ups and downs, separations and reconciliations, remained married until his death in 1990. Their lives are intertwined personally, and professionally with Varda directing Demy's autobiographical final script Jacquot de Nantes, completing the filming only weeks before Demy's passing. Since his death, Varda has largely worked in documentary, circling often around her own life and Demy's, with 1993's The Young Girls Turn 25 a touchback to Demy's earlier The Young Girls of Rochefort and 1995's The World of Jacques Demy a direct tribute to his works. After this, Varda began to look to her own life and experience for documentary material - she'd done it before, with Uncle Yanco and others, and in Documenteur, a narrative film reflecting on events of her own life and separation from Demy while in the States.
And so Beaches of Agnès looks to sum up more than five decades of filmmaking from this unique director, who blurred the line between documentary and fiction to the point where it doesn't matter. She talks about many of her films - from the award-winning New Wave classic Cléo from 5 to 7, to her feminist mid-70s masterpiece One Sings, the Other Doesn't (due out from Criterion in May), to her terrific late-period documentary The Gleaners and I - but mostly reflects on the importance of her family, her many friendships and artistic acquaintances, her 80th birthday, and her life with Jacques Demy, circling back over and over to the most important relationship in her life, and ultimately learning to accept his passing and that of other friends she'd known over time. The feel of the work is valedictory, as though Varda was making her swan song, and in doing so talking about her work but mainly thinking about others, always her modus operandi. It's touching, beautifully shot and conceived and, yes, discursive. There are those who find her meanderings and whimsy a touch light, but I find her interest in others and her way of presenting herself utterly winning. And though this feels like a final film that she made at 80 years old, she's made some short works since its release and in 2017 released the excellent, Academy Award-nominated Faces Places just after she turned 89. And now IMDB lists a new documentary, Varda by Agnès, which received its first release only weeks ago, and described as "an unpredictable documentary from a fascinating storyteller" - sounds like she's still going strong as she moves past 90.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, February 18, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #225 - James Blood Ulmer - Free Lancing

           James “Blood” Ulmer is a guitarist filed in our jazz section, but don’t hold that against him. One quick listen to the distortion-laden soloing in “Night Lover” starting right around 3:25 and running into the tumult he’s creating just under a minute later tells you he’s as beholden to electric blues and rock guitar as to the clean, single-note picked lines that the phrase “jazz guitar” usually calls to mind. Or you could start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) with the lead cut “Timeless” and in less than a minute you’ll know that though Blood Ulmer may know and respect Wes, Django, and Grant, he’s got no use for their gentility and clean tones. Hendrix and Delta Blues are his sonic touchstones and the loose-knit harmonic freedom of his former bandleader Ornette Coleman his conceptual one, and his career - a varied mix that lands him in our jazz section because of the Ornette connection but could just as easily find him solidly placed in the blues section - is a remarkable one that continues unabated to this day.
            Free Lancing is his third released album, and one that found him signed to Columbia Records, who worked with him for three (very good) albums before cutting him loose, when the mid-1980s ushered in a different kind of jazz than Ulmer was making. Which is what, exactly? I often see this called "free funk" or "jazz-rock" or something hyphenated that suggests that its mixture of jazz, funk, R&B, blues, and rock is as hard for folks to put a finger on and define as Ulmer's polyglot guitar playing itself.
After growing up in South Carolina, Ulmer bounced around a bit before finding his way to New York City in 1971. There he played with several notable ensembles before connecting with Ornette Coleman, who Ulmer credits with helping him define the direction of his music. His debut album Tales of Captain Black (which features Ornette) set the template for his earlier recordings - catchy themes and knotty soloing, a dash of sonic chaos, mostly quick tempos - though it occupies a decidedly jazzier realm than this one. The follow-up, Are You Glad to Be in America?, with its pointedly race-conscious title track, folded more blues and R&B into the mix, though the horn section of David Murray, Olu Dara, and Oliver Lake simultaneously touched on jazz and soul, with solos and charts that hit different styles as needed. These (and his playing on Arthur Blythe's superb album Lenox Avenue Breakdown and its follow-up) brought him to the attention of Columbia Records, where he took advantage of their excellent recording facilities to make his best-sounding and most rocking record yet.
            The album kicks off with "Timeless" featuring its basic trio: Amin Ali on electric bass and G. Calvin Weston on drums, providing the galloping rhythm with Ulmer’s sharp, inquisitive soloing leading the charge, then running non-stop throughout. Sometimes his playing is delivered in a fast run of notes, or a short cutting burst that stops on a dime; sometimes he's floating more serenely over the rhythm before taking an abrupt turn back into the maelstrom. And sometimes the whole group becomes untethered, relishing in noise for its own sake before snapping back into the gallop on command. But then the sound and fury of the lead cut changes abruptly into the funky soul of "Pleasure Control" where Ulmer's vocals get as raw as his guitar sometimes, though they're not as omnipresent as his constant guitar. This track sounds like an errant outtake from some funk group’s recording sessions where they revved up the tempos, let the guitar cut loose, and brought in the female backing singers (and second guitarist Ronnie Drayton, who's along on all three vocal tracks) just for fun before getting back to the business of making slow burns. But it sounds great. And it's followed by the aforementioned "Night Lover," another burning trio instrumental that even finds a snatch of melody from Ulmer’s “Tales of Captain Black” sneaking into his soloing. We get another vocal funk cut in "Where Did All the Girls Come From," which sports the mellowest rhythm yet, then the original side-ender of "High Time" which pulls the horn section from the previous album for a funky instrumental track.
            The second half progresses similarly - trio plus horns on the fast funky opener "Hijack," another vocal cut in "Stand Up To Yourself," and the mellowest cut the basic trio put on the album, "Happy Time," which ends the record on a fade that insinuates they could keep on going all night if you asked them. But in between those, there are a couple more standouts of note. On the record's title track, Ulmer cuts loose with the wildest guitar playing of the record, in what sounds like slide work (but I don't think it is). And "Rush Hour," another funky, horn-accented track with a quick, staccato rhythm features an uncredited harmonica player and saxophonist David Murray taking a burning solo - or perhaps duet is more appropriate, seeing as he's entangled throughout his solo with Ulmer blurring the line between comping support and soloing on his own, a trick straight out of Ornette’s book.
            Hopefully this isn't your first encounter with Ulmer. And if it is, hopefully it's not your last. Throughout the 1980s, Ulmer continued to pump out great albums - Free Lancing is only the tip of the iceberg. Find the never-on-a-domestic CD Black Rock if you can (keep an eye on the used vinyl bins!), or the superb guitar/drums/violin trio Odyssey, which finds Ulmer exploring a country-ish vibe for much of the album. Or pretty much anything by his more exploratory jazz-centered groups Music Revelation Ensemble or Phalanx. Or one of his more straight-up blues albums, particularly those produced by Vernon Reid (and especially Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions or No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions). Or maybe his most recent album Baby Talk, a live collaboration with European free jazz trio The Thing. Are you getting the idea that you more or less can't step wrong with Ulmer? Then my review did what it's supposed to. The catalog keeps appearing and disappearing from being in print, so take advantage of this one while it's still around, and then start exploring.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, February 11, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #211 - F For Fake (1973, dir. Orson Welles)

Let’s just get this out of the way: Orson Welles was a genius. Settled? Cool.
Alright, maybe you need some more convincing. Maybe you’re not utterly compelled by his work directing, writing, and starring in the likes of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, or even the recently released, long-gestated The Other Side of the Wind. Maybe you need something headier, more philosophical, more experimental. If that’s the case, then I’ve got the perfect film for you: 1973’s essential meditation on art, hubris, and mortality, F For Fake.
You probably have some questions about F For Fake. Namely, what kind of movie is it? That’s a great question! I don’t know the answer. Here at Twist & Shout, we categorize it as a documentary. But it’s also a narrative film, with entire sections fabricated by Welles, and it also functions as an autobiography, an insight into our aging, tired, embittered auteur. (This was, after all, the last film Welles completed before he died, making it hard not to consider it a manifesto.) Most of all though, this is a metatext, a film about filmmaking. Art about art. Cinema about trickery.
Ostensibly, F For Fake is a documentary about the infamous fake artist, Elmyr de Hory, whose forgeries of Picasso, Matisse, and Renoir all landed spots in high-end galleries across the world. But Welles isn’t vindictive toward Elmyr, instead treating his subject with a certain reverie; to Welles, Elmyr represents a fundamental question for the art world - is a forger still an artist? Welles extends that question to Clifford Irving, a biographer that covered Elmyr’s story... who also, it turns out, forged Howard Hughes’s autobiography.
Amid these philosophical questions, Welles gives details of his own experience as an artist; there’s a soft, lyrical sequence in the film that finds our guide reflecting on his youth as an actor in Europe, a position Welles himself conned his way into: “I started at the top, myself,” he tells us, before adding the poignant, soft-spoken joke, “I’ve been working myself down ever since.” Welles - who I called a genius mere minutes ago - contextualizes himself as a fake, too!
But F For Fake highlights Welles as an artist at the height of his creative powers. The documentary footage is shot with all the depth and focus of his narrative films, and the editing of the film somehow manages to juggle all these various narratives with the deft ease of a skilled street magician. Or maybe he’s a pickpocket. A mime? Who’s to say? Throughout the film, you get the feeling that you’re being played, conned, tricked. And you are - but maybe you always have been, Welles suggests, in any movie you’ve ever watched.
            In case you couldn’t tell, it’s hard to talk about the fine details in F For Fake. This is a film that deals in the very abstractions that Picasso’s - or is it Elmyr’s? - work tackles. In case you also couldn’t tell, F For Fake is one of my favorite movies ever made. I’m astounded, consistently, by this film and all of its intricacies and depths and nuances; stunningly shot, Welles’s careful camera placements and focuses simultaneously reinforce and undermine thematic concerns of authorship and authenticity. These broad themes somehow still feel personal and introspective; sitting from the editing bay, Welles muses directly to us, making the showy editing feel like Welles’s own stream-of-consciousness. Watching F For Fake feels like you’re falling down the rabbit hole; at the end, you’re in Welles’s own wonderland.
I cannot understate how much F For Fake fundamentally reshaped how I consume film, art, music, and pop culture. Welles is a charlatan, a trickster, an artist; he’s the very essence of cool in this film. So, let’s reiterate: Orson Welles was a genius. Settled? Cool.
-         Harry Todd

Monday, February 4, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #224 - Screaming Trees – Dust (1996)

            Having spent pretty much all my formative years in the 1990s, a big part of my musical upbringing revolved around mainstream radio’s changing of the guard from glam metal to “grunge” (as it was referred to at the time, though it’s pretty much just classic rock nowadays). As a die-hard metal fan all through the ‘80s I resisted this shift at first, but even I was powerless to deny the allure of these incredible bands coming from the Pacific Northwest. Much of it was still extremely heavy, yet it somehow seemed more accessible, more like the garage bands that I was used to playing in. I mean, I loved metal, but let’s face it, nobody that I was playing with at 12 years old was going to be able to rip through a George Lynch guitar solo. So it wasn’t so hard to see why this new grunge flavor rocketed in popularity, leaving metal in its dust.
One of the more overlooked bands to come to prominence in this movement was Seattle’s Screaming Trees. Likely this is because they were coming from a background more concerned with blues and psychedelic rock and less focused on punk aesthetics than many of the other bands in that scene. However, they did have all the ingredients to be huge. A monolithic rhythm section, crushing, fuzzed-out guitar tone and a vocal delivery by one of the best vocalists in the business, one Mr. Mark Lanegan. By the time their seventh album (and third for a major label), Dust was released in 1996, they had gone through a lot as a band, from in-fighting and personnel changes to substance abuse and the loss of friends and contemporaries to such addictions.
These events were perhaps where Lanegan was coming from in his songwriting, as Dust explores a gothic sensibility more akin to his later solo work. Not that the Trees’ songs were ever all that sunny, but Dust seems to capture a darkness that had previously only been hinted at. The album’s opener, “Halo of Ashes,” for instance, kicks off with guitarist Gary Lee Connor’s jangly, Yardbirds-esque opening riff which is joined by a booming, tribal drum lead-in courtesy of drummer Barrett Martin. Lanegan’s lyrics come in, immediately exploring themes of mortality and defeat. The album’s first single, “All I Know” is an anthemic blues-rock staple that stands as one of the record’s highlights. Also worthy of mention is the sweet yet macabre ballad “Sworn and Broken” with a haunting organ solo by guest player Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
Production-wise, Dust is arguably the best-sounding record by the Trees. The band tapped George Drakoulias to produce. Known for his work with many American Recordings artists like the Black Crowes and the Jayhawks, Drakoulias’ finished product was a more polished, arena-ready sound than previous efforts. To top it off, Andy Wallace (of Nirvana’s Nevermind fame) was hired to master, further adding to the album’s sheen. Perhaps this was a last-ditch effort to cash in on the grunge trend and get the Trees onto bigger tours. Unfortunately, the album’s release came just a hair too late, and the grunge sound started to become less and less relevant in the subsequent years. The Trees took an extended hiatus after that, officially disbanding for good in 2000, making Dust their final record.
It’s truly baffling to me that Screaming Trees weren’t one of the biggest bands of the 1990s. They rose to prominence at the same time as the Nirvanas and Pearl Jams of the world, they were a huge part of the Seattle underground music scene since as early as the mid-1980s and their single “Nearly Lost You” introduced them to the mainstream via the same film soundtrack as other grunge behemoths of the day, Cameron Crowe’s Singles. With all the stars in alignment at the time, superstardom seemed inevitable for them and it just didn’t happen. While this is a real shame, it also set the stage for a very lucrative solo career for Lanegan, not to mention his being a sought-after commodity for guest spots. So maybe it’s all for the best. However, I implore anyone, especially Lanegan fans, to explore the Trees’ back catalog because it is all incredible. And Dust is a hell of a swansong.
-         Jonathan Eagle