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

bodysoul1.jpg

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

borderline1.jpg

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?

borderline2.jpg

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.