Sunday, June 23, 2019

Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails' "The Last Black Man In San Francisco" at SIFF Cinema: Jun 21 - Jul 11

Directed and produced by Joe Talbot based on a story by friend and collaborator Jimmie Fails, this directorial debut by Talbot, pivots off of life experience into a elegiac, and haunting story of America's transformation and the displacement of the urban west coast working class. In the case of Fails, his fictional avatar Jimmie lost his home in the titular city, but has found residence in the cramped Oakland home of the grandfather of Jonathan Major's character, Montgomery. This story is told through their dual vantage, in what Manohla Dargis calls, "an indelibly beautiful story of love, family and loss in America", from two childhood friends turned filmmakers, "‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’: Lost in a Dream City". Drifting from East Bay to city proper, Jimmie moves across the landscape of the two cities. Revisiting the metropolis of his once-home, waiting interminably for buses that never arrive, skateboarding from one corner of the two cities to the next, investing himself in his work at a San Francisco nursing home, he is forever in transit, with rare moments of stasis and rest. The home which his family lost decades before is revisited again and again as a destination out of reach, but still accessible in Jimmie's obsessive upkeep and maintenance of it's grounds (much to the chagrin of it's San Francisco Boho residents). As though perseverance, ritual, and patience will eventually lead the house back into his hands.

Against these weekly rituals, the film is a plaintive and expressionistic American odyssey, filled with rapturous, surreal and melancholic moments that define the lives of both Jimmie and his faithful artistic friend, Montgomery. Working through a deeply invested work of his own, Montgomery is a playwright and illustrator who's observations of life in Oakland are channeled into a work of fiction that seems to be manifesting the dream of the movie itself. The cumulative "Last Black Man in San Francisco", is a kaleidoscope of surrealistic jolts, impassioned cries for justice, class conflict, community marginalization, and a resonant hallucinatory beauty that almost watches as though it moves directly out of Montgomery's mind into the viewer's. Funded under executive producer Brad Pitt's Plan B banner, and A24 Distribution, the work of the "The Minds Behind 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'", swept critical attention at this year's Sundance Festival, in this, "Joe Talbot’s Bittersweet, Unforgettable Debut". More than just a question as NPR's feature suggests, 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco' is About Who Belongs in a Beloved City", the film acts as a deeper observation on the effects of extreme wealth stratification on the cultural fabric of a historied place, which once harbored a wider body of peoples, communities, and wealth and culture classes. David Fear's review for Rolling Stone more explicitly refers to the film as the work of two Bay Area filmmakers delivering a rage-filled valentine to the city they love, "‘Last Black Man in San Francisco’: Race, Gentrification and an Instant Classic". Because, as the film's protagonist himself states after overhearing the conversation of two aspiring careerists while riding public transit; "You don't get to hate (San Francisco)," Jimmie says, "unless you love it.". This being the key to the dream kingdom of Talbot and Fails, and our admission to their impassioned "Elegy to a City".

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Comet is Coming "Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery" & US Tour: Jun 13 - 20

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings' mining of jazz's cultural memory is informed by his numerous concurrent projects; the ensemble Sons of Kemet, its splinter trio The Comet Is Coming, Melt Yourself Down, Afrofuturist outfit The Ancestors, and as a guest player with the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra. So there is possibly no better player in contemporary jazz more equipped to lead a quartet exploring the fringes of the territory once mapped out by post-Bebop, Afrofuturist and spiritual jazz luminaries, Charles Mingus, Pharoah Sanders, and the aforementioned Sun Ra. Nowehere in Hutching's numerous settings is this more evident than in Sons of Kemet's "Your Queen is a Reptile" of 2018. The central quartet of Hutchings, Oren Marshall on tuba, and both Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford on drums, is aided by a rotating cast of contemporary jazz players including Pete Wareham, Eddie Hick, Moses Boyd, Maxwell Hallett, and Nubya Garcia in their ranks. The album was a first for Impulse!, the legendary and influential American jazz label that was home to Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Freddie Hubbard, and Bill Evans at the peak of their 1960's output. So these are the largest of shoes to fill. This adds another weighty dimension to Hutchings’ relationship with American jazz, placing him among the players whose legacy he’s endeavoring to subvert, deconstruct, and expound upon.

Covered in The Guardian's "The British Jazz Explosion: Meet the Musicians Rewriting the Rulebook", Hutchings acts as a pivot around which numerous players move through the scene. One of the more striking paths away from the central core of jazz tradition is his The Comet is Coming. In the three years since their 2016 homage to homage to cosmic jazz, "Channel the Spirits", they've also been brought under the wing of Impulse!. With their debut for the label, "Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery", the group take a startling turn, with much of the album sculpted in post-production, highlighting the shifting mixtures of drummer Max Hallett and keyboardist Dan Leavers. A focal shift of influences also corresponds, weighing more heavily into 70s progressive and Krautrock, namely the territory mapped out by King Crimson, Amon Düül, and Belgian explorers Univers Zero, the tracks contained here transmute between abstract introductions, fractured rhythmic passages and dramatic heights of orchestrated synthesis and fusion. Hitting the North America for a monthlong tour this June, they'll be bringing their fierce hybrid from the contemporary British jazz scene to venues on both sides of the continent.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

"How We Killed Expertise" and Why That's a Giant Problem | Politico

Three notable pieces appeared this past year in the pages of Foreign Affairs, Politico, and The Federalist, on the ongoing marginalization of expertise in western society, and America in-particular, its causes, and consequences. In the first, and most significant, "How America Lost Faith in Expertise: And Why That's a Giant Problem", Tom Nichols tackles the notion of "How We Killed Expertise" for Politico's The Big Idea series: "Average Americans have never much liked eggheads. That’s not a bad thing in itself: Americans are a skeptical but level-headed people - or were until recently - whose common sense and ingenuity allowed their nation to achieve great heights in science, diplomacy and the arts, while never displacing the ordinary voter as the deciding voice in affairs of state. But recently skepticism has curdled into something more toxic, even dangerous. Donald Trump explicitly campaigned against experts, calling them “terrible” and saying he didn’t need them. As president, he seems determined to prove that experts are unnecessary to the running of a superpower - winging important conversations with foreign leaders, issuing an executive order without advice from his own Cabinet and picking a radio talk-show host with no background in science or agriculture for the top science position in the Department of Agriculture."

"How all this happened, and why it threatens our democracy, is a complicated story. Even Alexis de Tocqueville took note of the American distrust of intellectuals in the 19th century, and it only deepened with the social and political traumas of the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, globalization and technological advances have created a gulf between people with enough knowledge and education to cope with these changes, and people who feel threatened and left behind in the new world of the 21st century. As a result, the implicit social contract between educated elites and laypeople - in which professionals were rewarded for their expertise and, in turn, were expected to spread the benefits of their knowledge - is fraying. Americans live increasingly separate lives based on education and wealth, part of a decades-long “big sort." What is qualitatively different today is that ordinary citizens seem increasingly confident in their views, but no more competent than they were 30 or 40 years ago. A significant number of laypeople now believe, for no reason but self-affirmation, that they know better than experts in almost every field. They have come to this conclusion after being coddled in classrooms from kindergarten through college, continually assured by infotainment personalities in increasingly segmented media that popular views, no matter how nutty, are virtuous and right, and mesmerized by an internet that tells them exactly what they want to hear, no matter how ridiculous the question."

Nichols's previous piece, "The Death of Expertise" in the pages of for the Federalist, makes for complimentary reading in unison with the above Big Ideas entry. He further plumbs the role of the web-enabled consumer and layman, and their assertion over trained professionals, credible news institutions and journalists who have dedicated their lives to experience, knowledge and research in specialized fiends: "Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy. I fear we are witnessing the collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers - in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live."

"Some of it is purely due to the globalization of communication. There are no longer any gatekeepers: the journals and op-ed pages that were once strictly edited have been drowned under the weight of self-publishable blogs and social media posts. There was once a time when participation in public debate, even in the pages of the local newspaper, required submission of a letter or an article, and that submission had to be written intelligently, pass editorial review, and stand with the author’s name attached. Even then, it was a big deal to get a letter in a major newspaper. Now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong. All of these are symptoms of the same disease: a manic reinterpretation of “democracy” in which everyone must have their say, and no one must be “disrespected.” This yearning for respect and equality, even - perhaps especially - if unearned, is so intense that it brooks no disagreement. It represents the full flowering of a therapeutic culture where self-esteem, not achievement, is the ultimate human value, and it’s making us all dumber by the day. Thus, at least some of the people who reject expertise are not really, as they often claim, showing their independence of thought. They are instead rejecting anything that might stir a gnawing insecurity that their own opinion might not be worth all that much."

Focusing on the discussion of the rise of the "expert consumer" as a force in the marginalization of expertise, Andrew Keen director of the Silicon Valley salon FutureCast a technology columnist with CNN, author of "Digital Vertigo" and "The Cult of the Amateur", also makes for essential reading. He elucidates expertise's diminishing role in public discourse as a byproduct of the environment of the web's self-broadcasting culture, where amateurism is celebrated and anyone with an opinion can publish, post, or change an entry on Wikipedia. Producing an environment wherein the distinction between trained expert and uninformed amateur becomes increasingly blurred. Regardless of how unsubstantiated, lacking in credible references or citation, and ill-informed these opinions may be. When anonymous posters on social media and videographers, unconstrained by professional standards or editorial filters, can alter the public debate and manipulate public opinion, truth becomes a commodity to be bought, sold, packaged, and reinvented. The resulting conditions making the the ego and self-image of the consumer central to any discussion, resulting in the further rejection of other equally, or more qualified opinions, as Eleanor Catton puts it, in her investigation on "Literature and Elitism": "The idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion - not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood. We are led to believe that our brand loyalties are the result of a deep, essential affinity between the consumer and product - this soap is “you”; this bank is “yours” - and social networking affords us countless opportunities to publicize and justify these brand loyalties as partial explanations of who we are."

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Joanna Hogg's masterful "The Souvenir" at AMC 10: May 31 - Jun 13

Resembling in some ways the cinema of the French auteurs Eric Rohmer and Claire Denis, themselves of differing generations and sensibilities, Joanna Hogg has delivered a film of muted, intimate riches. Earning it some of the highest praise of any film in recent years. Reporting for, Monica Castillo cites the film's depiction of a troubling romance and it's divisive qualities, particularly among contemporary audiences unwilling, or unable to parse such contradictions; "From its Sundance premiere, I heard grumblings about its main character, Julie, and the frustrations some felt with her decision to stay in a clearly toxic relationship. For me, “The Souvenir” is perhaps the most empathetic movie to capture that kind of bad romance, the way it seeps into every aspect of your life, the way it changes your behavior, how you hold onto the memories of good times when things get rough and how after it ends, you're a changed person. “The Souvenir” doubles as a reference to the unseen but still painful bruises you can get with a relationship as rocky as theirs. Some days, I miss those rose-colored glasses, but I have the bruises to remind me why I took them off in the first place." Plumbed in her interview with Film Comment, through Hogg's architectural eye for shots, pacing and structure, the film delivers a rarely judgmental observation on the joys and heartbreaking pain of these contradictions.

Shifting in tone from suggestively ominous, to rapturously romantic (as in the sequence of a brief sojourn in Venice), to the simple pleasures of time spent listening to music, conversing with friends, working on art in the late hours, to heart swellingly romantic moments bracketed by the everyday mundane and the tragically nihilistic. "The Souvenir"'s breadth of dramatic scenarios is harmonized by a minor-key tonal palette, often asserting a hushed, cloistered reality over the proceedings. These are most tangibly described by the intellectually searching, sometimes bruising, sometimes supportive plumbing of life between it's protagonist Julie, and her troubled, compromised, philosophical romantic partner, Anthony. More than just, "A Great Movie About a Bad Boyfriend", as the title of A.O. Scott's review for The New York Times implies, their shared synergy, conflicts, aspirations and humiliations initially are found to pivot around Anthony's undisclosed and secretive life troubles. Punctuated by the arrival of postcards as stopgaps, implying the passage of time and shifting relations between its protagonists, the structure is largely linear, with brief poetic digressions voicing moments of inner reflection. Over time we witness Julie begin to break loose from the constraints of these influences, as her denial gives way to necessary recognition and an, "Opening Up the Privileged World From Which She Emerged". Through loss and pain, coming to recognize herself outside of these external conditions, we see a decisively different course for her own art and pursuit of identity. The cumulative effect of this great film of small moments, is Joanna Hogg's "'The Souvenir' is a Masterly Coming-of-Age Portrait", that invests great belief in its audience and the unguarded candor of experience lived.