Overlord

Monday, 30 April 2007

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #382: Stuart Cooper’s Overlord.

I was contacted by a NYC marketing firm to review Overlord, which was released on the 17th. So hey, free DVD. This is the second time that someone has happened along my movie reviews and asked me to do one for them. I must be doing something right. Incidentally, this film will be shown at the Cleveland Cinematheque in October. Catch it if you can.

Overlord has an interesting cinematic niche. It is composed, in significant amounts, of World War II stock footage [mostly from the Imperial War Museum]. This footage has been seamed together with plot-oriented shots that were deliberately cinematographed to look like stock footage. John Alcott [Kubrick’s regular choice for cinematographer] was in charge of this, so quality is expected and delivered. The story follows a young British man who is dutifully making his way toward the war, culminating in D-Day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that does such a good job putting its main character in context with the events in the world around him.

The film has an objectivity and a subjectivity that rub against each other like flint and tinder. The objective vector concerns the mind-bogglingly vast resources and activities associated with the war effort; from civilians fighting fires after air raids to dive bombers going after battleships and destroyers, to the mustering and transportation of troops troops troops. It is like an 80 minute version of a Frank Capra “Why We Fight” minus the forced jovial voice-over and editorial propaganda. The film is bookended with long, wordless sequences of this action; in the beginning it immerses the viewer, but by the end it has a completely different flavor.

This whole element is so dense that without the subjective angle to balance, a viewer could easily become overwhelmed. Tom Beddows adds the human element. He begins the film as a man with regard for the act of defending his country that has likely been passed down by Tom Beddows, Sr. who fought in the First World War. By the end, this regard has been steadily degraded through disgruntlement and cynicism; Beddows becomes completely nihilistic [burning his letters to home]—all before he’s left Britain. This correlates with the intercut objective stock footage elements. The dehumanized war machine dehumanizes. It is a bit reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex, sans humor.

I should clarify what I mean when I use the word objective. The clips themselves are documents, with only the most vestigial resonances of propaganda. The way they are used by Cooper is not objective, they are meant to wind the internal springs of Beddows to their breaking point. Cooper’s motivation is a product of the Vietnam era; looking at World War II from this perspective is quite interesting. The training sequences, and Beddows transformation into near roboticism become a bit sinister; almost as if someone of complete indifference has planned each element in the dehumanization process. In the end even Tom Beddows dreams are tinged with an indifferent regard to the death he knows is coming. It’s not surprising that the war gets to him before he gets to it.

Criterion Essay by Kent Jones.
• Criterion Press Release with links to many reviews and other press information in a .zip file.
• Clips: 1 and 2.

Chiara Giovando and Daniel Higgs

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Chiara Giovando and Daniel Higgs Last night was the first real night of summer for me. Filled with music, familiar faces and late-burning eyeballs. Asterisk Gallery had a fairly impromptu show featuring Chiara Giovando and Daniel Higgs [lead singer of Lungfish]. Ha Ha La was the first act, a sort of Daniel Johnston with a dash of Sigur Ros and [when-used] Jesus and Mary Chain guitar. Ted Flynn played next, a bit more standardized rootsy sort of set. I took some video. My bro Wasco played next, his Scarcity improvisational experiments remain intense. Here’s his entire set, split in two for YouTube. Part 1, Part 2.

Andrew Klimek was next, and he did things with balloons and guitars that are likely illegal in several countries. Chiara Giovando and Daniel Higgs were last, and hopefully enough donations were given to help them on their way to Pittsburgh. The duo was mindblowing. I would have taken video but my camera wasn’t up to recording in the dim light. Banjo, violin, a capella, mouth harp and what I think was a spring drum gave a world-folk vibe to their set, but this retro-hippie-ness was distinctly juxtaposed with lyrics that showed a definite punk edge. It ended up being more mature than both, an affirmation of love in contest with worldly experienced cynicsim.

There were cameras [including mine] all over this show. Sometimes I wonder if people are more interested in imitating Lou Muenz [including me] than watching the show.

I hitched a ride over to Duck Island to see Seers and made it home close to 2, I think. I saw just about every person that I care to see in the Cleveland music scene last night. We’re all anxious to get out and be some rock, I think. Maybe I’m just projecting.

Free Haircut

Thursday, 26 April 2007

I got an unexpected free haircut today from the ladies who run the Gentlemen’s Barber Shop in Tremont. Apparently they’ve gotten some business from my Tremonter posting about the place. I tried to talk them out of it, but there was no dice. They wouldn’t even take a tip. I’m just glad to know that I helped out a local business. I finally got back a few pieces that I took to have framed at Kelly-Randall Gallery awhile back. I got an unexpected 20% off there since I’m a resident and have gotten several things framed there now. Living in Tremont has its unexpected perks.

One of those perks is not nearly gagging from steel mill sulphur first thing in the morning after leaving my apartment though.

Paul Robeson: Outsider – Body & Soul/Borderline

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #371: Oscar Micheaux’s Body & Soul and Kenneth MacPherson’s Borderline.

Body & Soul

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Paul Robeson and Oscar Micheaux are legendary, so I was eager to see what they could do in collaboration. Body & Soul is Robeson’s first screen appearance, and quite an opening act. The story is about a archetypal hustler who’s hustle happens to involve being an archetypal black preacher. There’s hypocrisy, drunkenness, rape, and murder; just from the preacher! The film is strong throughout, but passes the strength between Robeson’s complete transformation into a Jekyll & Hyde character and Micheaux’s facility with shot selection, cinematography and editing. Body & Soul are typically bound together in mutually positive terms [e.g. Good for body & soul.] but in this film they are opposing forces. An easy analogy can also be made: Robeson as Body; his physical presence completely magnetic. This leaves Soul for Micheaux, who is able to intimate violence with a shot of shoes walking through a door, or an inter-title that simply says “Later.”

The film only fails at the finish line. The dénouement seemed like a grand cop-out to me. For the majority of the film, the drama plays out as an explicit criticism of ministry and an implicit critique of cultural larceny in general. The fact that Micheaux felt the need to end with a “just playin’ y’all” doesn’t indicate a failure of idealism to me, but likely a practical understanding of the reception the film would have gotten with a less fairy-tale conclusion. Nevertheless, I feel like it is fairly well neutered by the last ten minutes, much like Campion’s The Piano was spayed in the same way.

The jazz score for the Criterion release is magnificent. There’s some smooth jazz, acid jazz, chain-ganging, and gospel echoes throughout, many times marvelously juxtaposed to emphasize subtext that an audience used to talkies might typically miss.

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Oscar Micheaux’s Body & Soul: Visual Representation and Social Construction of African-American Identity
Comprehensive Oscar Micheaux
Article about the jazz score for the new print.
• YouTube clip of Body & Soul.

Borderline

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Borderline is a very different film from Body & Soul. It’s a British avant-garde film about an inter-racial love triangle. Robeson’s role in this film is much less substantive, but no less effective. This effortless efficacy is enabled by the storyline and its inevitable racially-charged confrontation. This film is fairly sophisticated, it uses montage liberally, but in a very refined manner. I’ve never seen a film where completely motionless figures can make a scene feel unutterably violent. When the storm actually comes, it is almost a relief; the subconscious clues supplied by the montage-foreshadowing turn the screen tension into real tension held by the viewer. MacPherson’s use of montage often blends with the action instead of standing separately as a sort of parable like something out of Vertov. Thus, the pop of a champagne cork and the dark stain it leaves on the wall suggests a gunshot and bloodstain, and a woman trimming a hat with shears implies the thoughts of the man playing with a knife in the shot that precedes it.

The jazz score for this film is also very good, but even without it the amount of sound present in the action of this silent film is astounding. Unfortunately the technical aspects of the film are its greatest strength. The plot is probably a bit too complicated to be effectively portrayed in a silent film, and while Robeson’s role is actualized through a single punch, the abrupt ending and nearly non-existent moral would be better suited to a documentary and not a drama. Perhaps this Modern, ambiguous ending was precisely the point, but if there is no particular point to be made, why make a movie that so desperately seems to need one?

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Screenonline synopsis and multimedia. Unfortunately the clips are only available to certain Brits.
Luxonline History.

The Children of Húrin

Sunday, 22 April 2007

As I wait for Amazon to ship me the latest Tolkien release, The Children of Húrin, I find myself disagreeing with several reviews I’ve read, in terms of placing this work in context with his other stuff. The lede in the Washington Post review:

If anyone still labors under the delusion that J.R.R. Tolkien was a writer of twee fantasies for children, this novel should set them straight.

From the Salon review:

If you’re looking for the accessibility, lyrical sweep and above all the optimism of “Lord of the Rings,” well, you’d better go back and read it again.

This idea that Tolkien’s works are mainly positive, light-hearted adventures is so superficial that it drives an amateur Tolkien scholar like me up the wall. If you judge Middle-earth by the aberrant text of The Hobbit [a tale written for his children; intentionally different from the actual Middle-earth that was first put to scraps of paper during the First World War] then I can see where you’d get that idea. The film treatment of LotR was reworked so extensively because the book was too bleak for mass appeal as a film.

Galadriel speaks Tolkien’s overarching worldview when she says

Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.

nearly verbatim from his own words on his faith. More on that here.

Tolkien’s works are thoroughly Modernist in their tone and focus. This is somewhat wry since much of the tone is taken from the most ancient Northern tales. I think that the reviewers are right in pointing out that The Children of Húrin is a bleak tale, but have made a misstep in equating it as exceptional rather than standard. Nits picked.

Musical Windfall

Thursday, 19 April 2007

I went to the Beachland tonight to see Blk Tygr and ended up with a cartload of local music. I either know enough people, or the right people enough to end up with stuff just getting handed to me. Of course, I also stopped by Music Saves and picked up three CDs I’ve been meaning to get. All told with the night over, I ended up with a Roué disc that I’ve been meaning to get for two years, Humphry Clinker’s first LP, the Land of Buried Treasure disc, the new single from The Very Knees, and a Henry James LP. Now that all of the volunteer stuff I’ve been working on is wrapping up, I’m ready to be free to go out at night to all the great shows that go on around town.

During the summer I’m going to revamp this site in order to focus more on my cultural nutrition, If what I plan goes through and I have the gumption to keep it that way, this might look more like a zine than personal ramblings. I don’t know if that is good or bad, but since O/M is over 5 years old, I think it is time for some sort of change.

Bumper Stickers

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

I don’t drive very much anymore, but the last two days I’ve been at the Tri-C Corporate College West taking a class. What I’ve noticed on the drive to Westlake these two days is a preponderance of W04 stickers, Kerry-Edwards stickers and now the odd Obama08 sticker. I’m pretty sure I’ve bitched about this before, but I can’t ascribe the remaining bumper stickers to removal-laziness. If party-line-toeing and bipartisan divisiveness is so strong among the generic citizen that people can’t let go 2.5 years after the fact, it isn’t surprising that the people we’ve elected can’t or won’t get anything accomplished.