Thursday, April 18, 2019

"Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990" and Light In The Attic's Japan Archive Series

One of the great unmined veins of popular music of the postwar era spans the Japanese underground of the 1960s and 70s, all the way up to the crest of the New Wave in the late 1980s. This year sees a series of compilations unearthing gems from these largely overlooked movements and scenes. First and foremost among them, Light In The Attic's Japan Archive series, inaugurated in late 2017 with their first volume, "Even A Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969-1973". Exploring the late 60's and early 70s protest era through the music of such pioneers as Yellow Magic Orchestra's Haruomi Hosono, jazz songstress Maki Asakawa, ragged garage from Hachimitsu Pie and the influential pop-folk of Happy End. The New York Times feature, "The Hidden History of Japan's Folk-Rock Boom" details the musical players and ethos of this explosively political time in Japanese history. Following on the first edition, the second and third volumes arrive this spring and summer with a sublime assembly of Japanese "interior music" on, "Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990", and later this summer, the rarefied City Pop sound is to be collected together on the "Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1975-1985".

In the excellent liner notes supplied by Visible Claoks' Spencer Doran for the edition, he rightly sites that ambient music in Japan started, much as it did elsewhere, with Erik Satie, Marcel Duchamp, Morton Feldman, John Cage and their 20th century contemporaries being taught in university courses attended by these then-young electronic pioneers. By bridging modernist and postmodern modes of composition with the then-concurrent forays into "musical furnishings" supplied by Brian Eno, their ideas about background, modes of attention, functionality, and the abstracting of authorship came to the fore. These were to then intersect with the timing of notable advances in technology. In the hands of this generation of electronic pioneers, hardware manufactured for the consumer market was to meet culture-specific notions of environment and sound. The arrival in the west of of this assembly of "Lullabies for Air Conditioners: The Corporate Bliss of Japanese Ambient", as Simon Reynolds points out, couldn't be more perfectly timed. Just in recent years, labels like Palto Flats, WRWTFWW, and Doran's own Empire of Signs have unearthed rare and much sought-after gems, "Telling the Musical History of Japan's Ambient Era". A trio of these recordings have garnering a degree of attention rarely seen for such works of quietly eccentric minimalism. Yasuaki Shimizu's masterful electroacoustic pop heard on "Kakashi", the refined sublimity of Hiroshi Yoshimura's "Music for Nine Post Cards", and the incomparable micro-percussive soundworld of Midori Takada's "Through the Looking Glass", have finally made their way to western ears. The particularly long and circuitous course Takada's music has taken is explored by The Guardian in their, "Ambient Pioneer Midori Takada: 'Everything on this Earth Has a Sound'".

Almost as a companion to the Japan Archive edition, the UK Culture of Soul label have issued their own overview of City Pop and J-Boogie. As a second showcase of a sound that expressed the optimism and exuberance of Japan's 1980s economic boomtimes, "Tokyo Nights: Female J-Pop & Boogie Funk" is focused more explicitly on the women-led bands and female solo artists within these concurrent genres. Both compilations present a music which took in influences from Caribbean reggae and disco, Pacific Island exotica, American R&B and boogie, and a fixation on technological futurism. Look no further than Hosono, Shigeru Suzuki & Tatsuro Yamashita's album Pacific, for evidence of the riches to come of this techno-exotica fusion. Having established themselves in electronic solo and group efforts of the decade before, producers like Tatsuro Yamashita, Toshiki Kadomatsu, Hiroshi Sato, the hugely influential Haruomi Hosono (who is himself going through a reissue revival in the west), were quick to embrace the latest studio equipment and technology. Their roles on both of these collections are as producers and engineers on a staggering multitude of albums. More than just working behind the scenes, these producers generated the thematic character and mode of much of this decade's sound. It is a sound to a time of economic success in Japan; urban lifestyles of indulgence, and the taste for nightlife, produced glitzy discotheques and a soundtrack to this new, lavish era. Epitomizing these attitudes, City Pop emerged as a sonic expression of the imagined neon wonderlands dotted with sandy beaches and metropolitan skylines.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Streaming for Cinephiles 101 Part II: The Criterion Channel

A follow-up to the previous post on online cinema alternatives to the dominant commercial streaming platforms, this second part focuses on this week's launch of The Criterion Channel, and their first month of programming. Which includes, among a vast body of other content; "The Criterion Collection and Janus Films’ ever-growing library of more than 1,000 feature films, 350 shorts, and 3,500 supplementary features, including trailers, introductions, behind-the-scenes documentaries, interviews, video essays, commentary tracks, and rare archival footage. It will also feature a constantly refreshed selection of films from a wide array of studio and independent licensors including Sony Pictures, Warner Bros, Paramount Pictures, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Lionsgate, IFC Films, Kino Lorber, Cohen Media, Milestone Film and Video, Oscilloscope, Cinema Guild, Strand Releasing, Shout Factory, Film Movement, and Grasshopper Films. Additional licensors will be added in the coming months." Launched in response to last year's announcement that , "WarnerMedia Shutting Down FilmStruck Streaming Service", which in the process, "niche markets" that institutions like Time Warner once looked to supply, were discarded in favor of an eye exclusively to mass market profit margins. The FilmStruck "Streaming Service that Places a Big Bet on Cinephiles" endeavor between The Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies being the most recent casualty of narrow-minded market concerns like those detailed in Vanity Fair's, "FilmStruck, the Cinephile’s Answer to Netflix, Is Shutting Down". This is one of the factors involved in how Amazon and Netflix will continue to consume the streaming market and come to dominate our options for content... when media conglomerates like Fox, Disney, AT&T and Warner Brothers merge... alternatives for such "niche markets" as AT&T describes them, disappear... and everyone loses.

Striking out in an independent endeavor, it was announced that "Following FilmStruck's Closure, Criterion Collection to Launch its Own Streaming Service". Their new streaming platform arrives this week, with GQ being effectively ahead of the game, "The Criterion Channel Is Here for All Your Cinephile Needs" compiling a viewers' guide to, "Everything Coming to The Criterion Channel as it Launches This Month". We are now seeing resources of Criterion Channel's kind coming to fill an essential role, almost in response to the sparsity found elsewhere. In a span of the last decade it has become increasingly clear that "For Cinephiles, Netflix Is Less and Less an Option". And don't think to go to Hulu or Amazon as an alternative, despite their claims. The dearth of classic, arthouse, international festival highlights and award-winning and critically lauded works being available to view on these dominant streaming resources is sorely apparent. The diminishing of both quantity and diversity on the Netflix in particular has been accelerated by the phasing out their once voluminous physical media catalog. For a microcosm, look to the fact that less than 1/15th of "Spike Lee's list of 86 Essential Films" are available to view on Netflix. The per-capita is even more poor when one examines any of the selections made in the global poll of 900 critics, programmers and academics for the British Film Institute's, "The 50 Greatest Films of All Time". This is a small segment of the components that have contributed to, "Why Netflix Lets Movie Lovers Down, and What to Do About It". As a product of this combined effect of market dominance, while simultaneously offering a lack of content on Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, resources like Fandor, Mubi, and the short-lived FilmStruck became the online destinations of choice for discerning film lovers. Facilitating particularly valuable programming and distribution, these independent streaming platforms have stepped into the international festival arena. The fruits of their curation and criticism offered throughout the year in their respective digital magazines, Notebook and (the now shuttered) Keyframe. To date, "Mubi: A Streaming Service with a Ticking Clock" has come out on top. Unlike the "Streaming Rabbit Hole Worth Falling Down" represented by the services of Fandor and (the then) FilmStruck, each offering a vast catalog of thousands of titles, Mubi instead watches as an online cinema of sorts, with a new featured film every day. At its inception, The Criterion Channel looks to be offering Mubi the healthiest and most desirable kind of competition; complimentary, rich, far-reaching, and expertly curated.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Claire Denis' "High Life" at SIFF Cinema: Apr 12 - 25

Thematically variegated, from explorations of masculine camaraderie, observations on the post-Colonial landscape of both Africa and Paris, to sharp edged gender relations, neo-noir thrillers, and strange science run amok, Claire Denis' filmography navigates the spaces between traditional narrative and more structurally adventurous cinema. Consistently fashioning an interplay of the gravitational pulls inherent in the corresponding genres. Denis is herself a complex and irreducible intellect, as made clear in recent interviews on both gender representation in Cannes, and the wider field of women artists, "Claire Denis: ‘I Couldn’t Care Less About the Weinstein Affair'". As well as speaking specifically on her most recent film, it's unusual subject matter, and science fiction as a vehicle for plumbing themes of sexuality and violence, for the Irish Times, "‘We are Normal People. Even Though We are French’". Recent representations of her craft can be seen in 2008's masterpiece on class, race and urban life, conveyed through light and motion that was "35 Shots of Rum", and 2014's pitch perfect neo-noir, "Bastards". The latter bringing it's audience deep into the nightmare of one family's decomposition from the inside with it's contact with power, corruption and an immoral elite. In a sense all of her work can be seen as, "Family Films of a Very Different Sort". Another constant of her work, one that she shares with the best of her peers, (think David Lynch, Steve McQueen, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang) is the elliptical nature of it's narrative and visual structure. Looping back on itself, projecting ahead, fusing impression, experience and dream, these structural and thematic signatures are abundantly detailed in Nick Pinkerton's Claire Denis interview for Film Comment and Senses of Cinema's "Dancing Reveals So Much: An Interview with Claire Denis".

A crowning point from Cannes 2017, she delivered a subtly pointed observations of contemporary French life in, "Let the Sunshine In". This elegant, eccentric relationship comedy of ideas on middle age, expressed itself with an almost inscrutable sophistication, "Un Beau Soleil Interieur: Juliette Binoche Excels". Taking a typically dynamic about-turn, Denis then delivered "High Life" the following year after its long gestation. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, this most recent entry in "The Fearless Cinema of Claire Denis", represents an even deeper plumbing of genre, as it, "Takes Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche on an Erotic Space Odyssey as a Mesmerizing Look into the Void". Along its course, bridging such improbably collaborators as Icelandic media artist Olafur Eliasson and an early draft of the screenplay by Zadie Smith. Initially intending Philip Seymour Hoffman in its lead role, "High Life" is the second collaboration with Eliasson after 2014's "Contact", and stands as Denis' explicit foray into hard science fiction. In form for the director, "Claire Denis Talks on Her Long Path to Filmmaking", offering insight into the project's development, the inhospitable nature of space, and the film's themes of sex, control and confinement, "Claire Denis on High Life, Robert Pattinson, and Putting Juliette Binoche in a “F*ckbox”. The film's multifaceted tensions succinctly delineated in Charles Bramesco's Toronto review, "High Life: Orgasmic Brilliance in Deepest Space with Robert Pattinson" for The Guardian; "Denis proposes the erotic drive as the fuel to use when there’s nothing left to live for. In the negative zone beyond the stratosphere, depicted as a physical glitch humankind was never meant to explore, severe isolation returns the brain to its basest biological capacity. Every day is a battle to stay sane (less apparent among Denis’ feats here is that she has casually constructed a remorselessly honest look into the psychological ramifications of incarceration)."