Sunday, February 8, 2015

Aleksei German's final film "Hard to Be A God" at Northwest Film Forum: Feb 20 - 23 | Aleksei German Retrospective at Anthology Film Archives New York: Jan 31 - Feb 10

One of the great films of the year, if not the decade, finally sees distribution and a miss-it-and-lose four day run at Northwest Film Forum later this month. After stunning audiences at it's premier in film festivals around the globe last year, the posthumously completed "Hard to Be a God" by Aleksei German returns heralded by a retrospective at New York's Anthology Film Archives. These rare screenings of his handful of films making for, "A Small Batch from Life’s Work". Based on the Strugatsky Brothers novel of the same name, German (who died during the film's post-production in 2013) retains so little of the original's science fiction frame that his film becomes the closest thing to a Medieval Cinema Verité documentary; mud, incessant rain, fog, tides of sewage and disease, innards, decaying structures, the ruined facades of buildings and people. A world dominated by the downward tug of gravity and matter, pulling everything into the grave. Like finding oneself inside the nightmare torrent of a Pieter Bruegel painting made real. We're witness, often in first person, to human development the protagonist's civilization has already long, long overcome, "Hard to Be a God: A Man from the Future Who Walks Through a Cultural Past".

Set during civil and religious conflict enabling petty power grabs on the part of Barons and regional lords, the film follows the armor-clad Don Rumata, who the planet's populace believes to be the baronial offspring of a Pagan God, as he makes his way through the sweaty, embittered, superstitious, farting, primitive, hysterical, stupefied, madding crowd. The extreme tumult of the setting and the viewer's vantage in the midst of the grotesque, absurd, carnivalesque misery drown out any clear grasp of Rumata’s obscurely defined mission, or what's left of it. We're witness to a Conrad-like scenario in which the 'civilized' foreigner has been eroded away by the conditions of his acclimation to the alien place and time. What remains of his identity and lost ideals roll off his tongue as philosophical musings on power, exploitation and the downward nature of influence. The ingrained awareness that nothing can save these people from themselves... but time. IndieWire's coverage of the film's premier goes some way to describe it's monumental achievement, "Why A Visionary Work Over a Decade In the Making has Dominated the Rotterdam Film Festival".

Rumata as Earth's representative of a different path taken, must endure this world divorced from it's own Renaissance, yet seemingly on the cusp of civilization winning out over barbarism. Perhaps his own presence, and the influence of his perceived Godhood is one of the factors in the perpetuation of the savagery of the Middle Ages. The film becomes a thought experiment asking us to consider what society might be today had the Renaissance never taken hold, and if as emissaries of a cultured world, we have a place, much less a responsibility in it. Or, if as it seems through Rumata's pulling up of roots and disembarking from his civil war-torn kingdom at the film's end, the degeneracy, sludge and filth of Arkanarian Medieval existence might just continue uninterrupted for all eternity. These final scenes, the first breath of space amidst it's claustrophobic deluge offer perspective, insight and in the end, resignation. A singular cognizant rumination on this understanding, a breath of comprehension within it's flailing melee and strife. It's with this statement on the Universe delivering what will come, unnoticing and irrespective of the human experience, that "The Dark Master of Russian Film", leaves the world.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Bang on a Can Marathon with Eyvind Kang, Shabazz Palaces, Jherek Bischoff, Scrape and Red Fish Blue Fish Ensemble performing Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" and Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" at Henry Art Museum & The Moore Theatre: Feb 14 - 15

The renowned day-long modern composer performance series comes to Seattle next week at Henry Art Museum and The Moore! What's come to be known as the New Music movement largely centered around late 20th and 21st Century American composers, Bang on a Can have been it's performance locus as the sound's highest profile contemporary ensemble with "A Quarter-Century Of Banging, and Still as Fresh as Ever". Their status enhanced for not only tackling some of the Century's more notoriously difficult composers, but also pieces of exceptional duration in their marathon performances. To quote, "Since the marathon's inception in 1987, it has included an astounding range of revolutionary music and musicians, from John Cage to John Zorn, from minimalism's godfather Terry Riley to Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, from the 30-voice Finnish shouting choir Huutajat to the hyper-mathematical brutality of Iannis Xenakis, from the political sophistication of composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski to the high energy strumming of Japan's Kazue Sawai Ensemble, from the eastern minimalism of Arvo Pärt to the brainy rituals of Karlheinz Stockhausen, to the turntable manipulations of artist Christian Marclay".

No surprise to see the champion of all things modern classical, Alex Ross author of the excellent "The Rest is Noise" has been following the marathon performances from their first year, at the time his "Very Big Bang" was the larger public's introduction to their distinct modus operandi, as was his reporting as the classical writer for The New Yorker in pieces like "Bang Theory" from last year. The focus often being the cross-genre and disciplinary nature of their live incarnation, "Bang on a Can Marathon Fuses Classical, Experimental and Rock" the duration aspect of the day-long performances being less what distinguish them than the diversity of their selections, "From Roars to Rhythmic Mallets, a Day for Savoring Exploration". For Seattle's performance at The Moore the night's 6 hour program will feature the music of Eyvind Kang, Shabazz Palaces and Jherek Bischoff with Scrape in addition to Red Fish, Blue Fish and Bang on a Can's realizations of seminal New Music works including the quietly groundbreaking "Music for Airports" by Brian Eno and Steve Reich's landmark "Music for 18 Musicians". Photo credit: Ayumi Sakamoto

Andrey Zvyagintsev's new film "Leviathan" at Landmark Theaters Jan 23 - Mar 12 | Mike Leigh's new film "Mr. Turner" at Sundance Cinema: Jan 30 - Mar 5 & SIFF Cinema: Mar 16

February continues to be a quality-dense month for cinema, with two of last year's greats featured prominently on both Sight & Sound and Film Comment's year-end overviews finally seeing distribution. Landmark Theatres bringing around Andrey Zvyagintsev's critically acclaimed "Leviathan" for an extended run after it's Academy Award nomination. I have been personally following Zvyagintsev since his  directorial debut, "The Return" had it's west coast premier at SIFF a decade back, and his "The Banishment" and award-winning "Elena" expanded on the strength of that original impression. Having studied under Tarkovsyk's protege, Alexander Sokurov, the richness of Zvyagintsev's storytelling abilities are on display in this spiritual and political protest against a modern-day life in post-Soviet Russia that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. The title not only a reference to the massive carcases seen on the shores of the Barents Sea, but the pervasive forces of bought and paid for government and religious institutional cronyism. Forces against which men such as the film's protagonist can only offer stoic resignation, it watches like a modern-day biblical tale of Job set within the Putin era. The stratification of a Russia literally living within the ruins of the Soviet era is both the film's dramatic and visual theme, one of stark, ruined spaces and corrupted infrastructures, "Andrey Zvyagintsev Navigates a Tricky Terrain". It's a given the current political climate in Russia would make such a film one of, "Applause in Hollywood but Scorn at Home". And much like "Elena" Zvyagintsev's newest rides a balance between polemic and mystery, tackling earth-bound social issues, but hovering around the film's expanses there is the unease of a deeper spiritual faultline running through the worldly drama. 

Currently showing at Sundance Cinema and later next month as part of SIFF Cinema's Recent Raves series, Mike Leigh's first period film in many a year is a biodrama as much about the man and his work as the era which he translated to canvas, "As if the Artist Put His Brush to Each Take: ‘Mr. Turner’ Aims for Visual Accuracy". Leigh's approach to the period setting is to produce a seamless environment of muted light, shrouded horizons, natural expanses and the squalor of early industrial era urban life. His success evident from "Mr. Turner"'s onset, the film opening in the Dutch countryside at last light, Turner in silhouette working on a canvas, the canal and windmill bathed in the light of the waning, incandescent sun. The tone of the scene matched to perfection by regular Leigh collaborator Gary Yershon's minimalist score that forever hovers on the edge of focus, sounding like an echo of Turner's paintings itself, "To Set The Mood In Period Drama, a Composer Paints Around the Emotions". Leigh known for his focus on the quirks and mundane dramas of everyday people, it's a pleasure to see his art translate to this intimate and quietly funny character study. Complimenting the film's attention to period realism, it's pleasures also come from the rare artist biopic that avoids the trap of mythologising its subject. Dispelling with notions that Joseph William Turner's personality, behavior or appearance might embody the picturesque, effervescent, romantic qualities of from his paintings of moonlight seascapes, atmospheric ruins or countryside sunsets, the film gives us a much richer portrait of a man. Instead we get a touching, sad, beautiful tragicomedy and class critique as Mike Leigh's vehicle for "Savouring Mr. Turner".

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Vessel's new album "Punish, Honey" & West Coast Tour with Container: Feb 4 - 7 | Pharmakon's new album "Bestial Burden" & US Tour: Jan 18 - Feb 27

Next week and later in the month, two shows of note at the done-right underground venue that is Kremwerk. The Spectrum Spools label operated by John Elliott of Emeralds has established itself as the hub of all things analog electronics, electro-kosmische and synth psychedelic, which is exactly what we can expect to hear from Container's opening set for Vessel next Thursday. "Punish, Honey" the newest released by Sebastian Gainsborough under his Vessel moniker on the Tri-Angle label is another of his collisions of melodicism, smeared noise and folded rhythm structures. His work shares company with the label’s particular brand of warped melodic misery inspired in-part as much by hip-hop’s screwed brigade as by the distorted abstractions of shoegaze. A sound epitomized in the labels roster of excellent releases by Forest Swords, Holy Other, Haxan Cloak, Evian Christ and oOoOO. It is curiously appropriate that this sound is being referred to as ‘drag’ - by degrees it all shares a weighty physicality that’s as hazily euphoric as it is crushingly abate. Or as The Guardian's Scott Wright puts it, "Inspired by Hip-Hop's Screwed Brigade, 'Drag's Heavy Atmospherics and Tormented Outlook are Pure Musical Entropy".

The third week of February sees the return of Sacred Bones artist Margaret Chardiet aka Pharmakon. After an opening set this past fall touring with the progenitors of 90's noise and Metal, Godflesh and Cut Hands she's back to perform from her newest, "Bestial Burden". Chardiet's approach to making a physical, carnally voluminous noise that harks back to Industrial music's earliest beginnings was detailed in a great interview in the October issue of The Wire. A sound the audience for Decibel 2013's "Night Vessel" showcase with Zola Jesus & Jim Thirlwell obviously didn't anticipate. Unlike much of current noise and underground tape culture's love of an obfuscated, subterranean doom, Pharmakon's music is anything but crepuscular. Decibel's unsuspecting audience was witness to a bright ultra-high definition noise, manifest with explicit compositional punctuation and performative abandon. The roar of her vocal howl mirrored by the wining, twisting torrent of contact-microphone amplified sheet metal. Her approach positioning her as a musical godchild of sorts to Japan’s performance extremophile, Masonna. Anyone who’s seen (and felt) Maso Yamazaki’s live incarnation knows what a compliment this is. Photo credit: Christopher Grady

Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne's "Two Days, One Night", Céline Sciamma's "Girlhood", Frederick Wiseman's "National Gallery" & Peter Strickland's "The Duke of Burgundy" at SIFF Cinema: Jan 30 - Feb 26

SIFF Cinema's February calendar features many of the past year's highlights (just now finding distribution). These films making the best of the year for both Film Comment and Sight & Sound, so you know you're in for the qualitative goods. Among them, the newest representation of multiple Cannes Palme d'Or winners, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne's ability to mine seemingly mundane social issues into tense, qualitative drama, "Two Days, One Night". Starring Marion Cotillard as a working-class mother who's life teeters on unraveling in the conditions of the current European economic crisis. Like all the great films by the brothers Dardenne, this is a work of seemingly straightforward cinematic realism. Their process revealing nuance and complexity of technique that translates to the screen as the audience being swept up in the drama's tide of anger, evasiveness, shame, compassion and solidarity, "The Dardenne Brothers Discuss ‘Two Days, One Night’".

We also get Céline Sciamma's tale of African-French urban camaraderie, allegiance and "Girlhood". Her film also watches as realist drama, but it's sense of a very modern tightness with the culture of the Franco-African banlieu girls who are its subject, make it something more. Ostensibly about a girl gang, Sciamma's focus is the film's protagonist 'Vic' as she falls in with a new circle of friends, sheds some of her inhibitions, restyles her fashions and builds the confidence to take charge of her own life. It's a honest, closely observed journey of urban teenage girlhood, with its nervous stretches of emptiness and boredom and its violent, playful, electric upsurges. Reviews from Cannes speaking to "Céline Sciamma Honing Her Art with the Near-Perfect 'Girlhood'".

The return of that most disciplined of documentarians, Frederick Wiseman is back this time with his observational-remove focused on the "National Gallery". Wiseman's roving eye and duration spent with it's subject make for a documentary that pays tribute to the gallery’s technical prowess and craftsmanship. Like all of his decades-spanning work, his subject doesn’t go unchallenged. The ugly history of its beautiful collection is noted, as are scenes of a Greenpeace protest against Shell, the decisions it faces with corporate sponsors and how to best represent itself while imagining ways to reach new audiences. Interestingly, the private preservation scenes yielding as much information as the public lectures that punctuate it, we get a very real sense of being "Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery".

Peter Strickland's filmmography to-date has been short but memorable, "Katalin Varga" was a highlight of SIFF 2009 and his sophomore feature "Berberian Sound Studio" ranked with both Sight & Sound and Film Comment among that year's best. It's postmodern exercise is both a homage to the stylistic excesses of the genre and a disquieting period piece set within Italian cinema of the 1970's, making for "A Bold Evocation of the Eras of Both Analogue Sound and the Italian Giallo". Strickland being no novice when it comes to soundwork either, particularly in relation to the more avant-leanings of Modernism's past. He sought out Nurse With Wound's Steven Stapleton for the soundtrack and engineering on his first feature after having spent the last decade in a process of discovery, immersed in mid-Century improv, early electronic music and modern composition.

The fruits of which are graphically evident, his filmmography listens like a best-of of the current British sonic explorers in the 'Hauntological' hinterlands. James Cargill of Broadcast supplying the soundtrack to his second feature and again recruiting Andrew Liles of Nurse With Wound for the sound design for the fictional film-within-the-film, the brilliantly titled, "The Equestrian Vortex". The title sequence from which stunningly realized by designer Julian House of the Ghost Box label. For his newest recruiting soprano and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira and Faris Badwan of The Horrors as Cat's Eyes, who have produced a hauntingly somnambulistic chamber music, complimentary to the film's kinky fetish of texture and form.

Sensuality, eroticism and the lure of the intimate sublime move the viewer down the twisting psychological pathways of "The Duke of Burgundy", becoming a journey deep into the territory of the atmospheric psychodramas of Roman Polanski, David Lynch and Dario Argento. This exploration of lives being tragically, inextricably, bound up in possession and control, of sadomasochism as theatrical arena, watches like "Mulholland Drive" meets "Persona" by way of "The Killing of Sister George". The culminating effect producing "A Sensual Utopia Driven by Ritual and Release". A fetish-bed depiction of the sequestered world of role-playing between a youthful paramour and the midlife angst of her employer, both becoming increasingly subsumed into their roles, "The Duke of Burgundy Holds the Viewer as Riveted and Exposed as a Butterfly Pinned to a Board".