Sunday, February 2, 2020

Mati Diop's “Atlantics” at The Beacon Cinema: Jan 31 - Feb 6 | Bertrand Bonello's “Zombi Child”, Kantemir Balagov's “Beanpole”, Céline Sciamma's “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, Patricio Guzman's “Cordillera of Dreams” and Pedro Costa's “Vitalina Varela” at SIFF Cinema: Feb 7 - Mar 5

In last year's cinema overview, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody tackled what is probably the most significant factor in the contemporary landscape of moving pictures; “It has been a banner year for movies, but you’d never know it from a trip to a local multiplex, or from a glimpse at the Oscarizables. The gap between what’s good and what’s widely available in theaters is wider than ever,“ he wrote. Continuing the argument in his "The Twenty-Seven Best Movies of the Decade" selection Brody asserted; "Not only do a small number of blockbuster movies dominate the industry’s economy, but the sheer fact of popularity is multiplied and amplified online. Crowding out coverage of less-popular yet ultimately more significant movies at precisely the moment when, because these movies get scant distribution and are often virtually hidden on streaming sites, critical attention is all the more essential to their recognition." For evidence, the skeptic needs look no further than the work from hundreds of writers, critics and programmers seen in Film Comment's 50 Best Films of The Decade selection, which go some way to form what can be considered a global critical consensus. The mechanics of this gulf between the consensus described in the pieces above, and what's widely available in domestic theaters and the dominant streaming platforms, is precisely surmised in Dennis Lim’s excellent supporting article, Films of The Decade: “The Termite's Return”.

Lim observing; “While distinctive work is emerging all the time, especially on the margins, and therefore easy to overlook, many of the institutions that determine what gets made and shown still function as forces of homogenization, from film schools to the funding bodies and development labs that are sometimes attached to the very festivals that serve as showcases for the end results of this often highly professionalized process. Ours is an age of fatiguing overload but also of numbing sameness: too many movies, too many film festivals, too many reviews, too many opinions, too many lists, too many hot takes and think pieces that turn complicated issues into cultural talking points and empty posturing - all of which amount not to a lively discourse but a reinforcement of conventional wisdom (or worse). The abundance of the age is deceptive and it masks both structural limitations and systems of control," He writes. "The brave new world of digital streaming promises instant access, but choice is a pernicious myth when entire swathes of cinema are conveniently forgotten or actively suppressed (as is happening with Disney’s continued withholding of 20th Century Fox titles from repertory theaters). Everything is market-tested, only for us to be told that what people want is more of the same. The late-capitalist logic is seamless: what we get is not, as advertised, plenitude, but its precise opposite, a narrowing of options to an algorithmically determined menu and a simultaneous impression that no other options exist.” Evidence to the wider abundance, and richness of the content on offer globally that is not seen represented within such an environment, is reinforced by the hundreds of contributors to The British Film Institute's own annual affair that is Sight & Sound's 50 Best Films of 2019. Look also to Cahiers du Cinéma's Top 10 Films of 2019, The Guardian's 50 Top Films of 2019, Film Comment's Best Films of 2019, and Best Undistributed Films of 2019.

An image begins to come into sharper relief. One of a international cinema culture which the dominant commercial exhibition and streaming entities do not participate. Or when they do, it is nominally, and only with the tried-and-true as with this year's Academy Award-winning film from Bong Joon-ho. By contrast, our local independent cinemas are to be hailed for choosing to engage in this cultural consensus, and having faith in audience's willingness to seek out films that have garnered attention at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Venice, and Toronto. This next month sees a continuously satisfying run of features, beginning at Columbia City's recent addition to the city's cultural landscape, The Beacon Cinema. Their programming of Mati Diop's ruminative, supernatural and poetic post-Colonial love story "Atlantics", with it's vantage into issues of class, duty and servitude in the developing world is to be championed. As is the fact that the film was briefly freed from the confines of it's US distributor, Netflix. Another equally supernatural grappling with Colonial legacy can be seen in Bertrand Bonello's “Zombi Child” at SIFF Cinema. Bonello's film screens for three short days before their programming of Kantemir Balagov's “Beanpole" and it's depiction of the trauma of war, and the price of survival in 1945 Leningrad. Shifting time periods yet again, Céline Sciamma’s 18th Century story of a doomed love, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire", demonstrates a new mastery of a classical, almost Hitcockian style (and the channeling of classic Greek poets) which like "Beanpole", brought in another five star review from Peter Bradshaw at Cannes. Lastly for the month, SIFF has programmed two works bridging the worlds of personal essayist documentary, and the richly experimental. The most recent entry in Patricio Guzman's revolutionary cinema, “Cordillera of Dreams” envisions the Andes as a metaphor for Chile's political history. And this year's Locarno Film Festival winner from Pedro Costa is deserving of being seen for it's exquisite visual palette alone. “Vitalina Varela”'s story of mourning and rebirth continuing the Portuguese director’s observations on the impoverished Lisbon neighborhood of Fontainhas, with Ventura, and now Vitalina, as Costa's primary creative partners and subjects in a deeply saturated dramatic portraiture.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Terry Riley at Seattle Symphony: Feb 19 | The Decade of New York Minimalism

The year at Seattle Symphony began with the conclusion of Ludovic Morlot's tenure and the arrival of his successor, Thomas Dausgaard. As the 2019-2020 season commenced, under the aegis of the symphony's new Music Director, a set of final grand projects from Morlot's tenure were realized. These included the staging of Heiner Goebbels' "Surrogate Cities", and the inaugural event at the state-of-the-art Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center. This all day, all night event that opened the center was billed as a Contemporary Music Marathon, spanning 24 hours of modernist, New Music, and avant-garde composers. This month sees one of the first major contemporary programs under it's new director. Central to much of the symphony's past programming of contemporary composers has been the music of the mid-century minimalists. This particular school of minimalism began on the east coast of the United States in the early 1960s by a concurrent body of composers generally originating in and around academic and cultural centers in New York. La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass are credited with being among the first to develop compositional techniques that exploit this minimal approach, which included nods to jazz, early tape, electronic and computer music, and Indian traditions in duration and tonality. The movement later branched out to include an international body of composers including John Adams, Yoshi Wada, Phill Niblock, Charlemagne Palestine, Pauline Oliveros, Michael Nyman, and Gavin Bryars. Central to the New York scene's earliest forays of the sound's bridging of tradition and the avant-garde, were Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, John Cale, Marian Zazeela, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley's durational explorations as The Theatre of Eternal Music. A collective music inspired by and under the tutorship of Indian spiritual advisor and musician, Pandit Pran Nath. Teaching at his Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music, Nath instructed in the Raga with a express focus on an extra-methodical and austere style, with a heavy emphasis on alap and slow tempo. His "Earth Groove: The Voice of Cosmic India" would be hugely influential to this body of musicians, particularly Terry Riley.

Having spent the decade of the 1950s in academic music circles, Riley studied composition at San Francisco State University, the San Francisco Conservatory, and University of California, Berkeley, under the instruction of Seymour Shifrin and Robert Erickson. During the latter, also spending time within the body of musicians around the San Francisco Tape Music Center, working with Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, and Ramon Sender. A hiatus throughout the 1960s was spent in Europe traveling and taking in musical and cultural interests, supporting himself playing in piano bars. By the 1970s Riley had returned to the United States and found himself at ground zero for the genesis of the minimalist movement. Through their shared ventures as The Theatre of Eternal Music, alternately known as The Dream Syndicate, Riley would connect the ancient traditions of this form with the very cutting edge of western modernism. In the years surrounding his time playing under Nath, he made numerous trips to India over the course of their association to study and accompany him in performances, contributing tabla, tambura, and voice. The fruits of which would lead him back to the west coast, in 1971 he joined the Mills College faculty to teach Indian classical music. This era would be considered Riley's formalizing period, as it produced many of his most lasting and groundbreaking works. Lost or largely unavailable are many of The Dream Syndicate works, due to contentions with La Monte Young and the other musicians, but Riley's own "In C", "Reed Streams", "A Rainbow in Curved Air", "You're No Good", "Persian Surgery Dervishes", and "Descending Moonshine Dervishes", spanning the decade of 1965 to 1975, form the foundation of his profound contribution to 20th Century music. Returning to town this month at Seattle Symphony, seven years since the last occasion of Seattle Art Museum's reopening celebration in 2013 with Doug Aitken's "Mirror" installation accompanied by the outdoor performance of Steve Reich's "Clapping Music" and Riley's "In C". Concurrently, Riley will also be engaging in a series of west coast dates this spring with his son, Gyan. The master minimalist is now 85 years of age, having just recently celebrated his 40th anniversary collaborating with New York's Kronos Quartet, yet we can still expect "Performances of Joyous Futurism from this Minimalist Shaman".

"Song to the Siren: The Beacon Guide to 4AD" at The Beacon Cinema Jan 30 & Feb 16 | "Lost Worlds of Sex and Magic: Vaughan Oliver's Album Sleeves for 4AD"

The history of British label 4AD can be seen as a succession of distinct phases. From it's genesis in 1980 by label founders Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, begun under the distribution umbrella of the larger and successful post-punk label Beggars Banquet. Detailed by Martin Aston in his biography of the label, "Facing The Other Way: The Story of 4AD", Watts-Russell and graphic designer Vaughan Oliver in the succession of a few short years, created one of the most coherent, ageless audio-visual identities to be born anywhere in underground music that decade. This identity would spill over into striking video productions, live sets and off-kilter interviews and brushes with the often-bemused British music press, who struggled to reconcile the unquantifiable nature of the label's sound and visual identity. This month, The Beacon Cinema's Casey Moore and Tommy Swenson have curated a full two hour set of selections honoring the anomalous and rich audio-visual vanguard produced during what are considered the label's classic years, spanning the earliest 1980s to mid-1990s as, "Song to the Siren: The Beacon Guide to 4AD". Acting as a primer for entry into this world, The Quietus' "Facing the Other Way: Ivo Watts-Russell and Vaughan Oliver on 4AD Records" explored the first years of Watts-Russell's curatorial program, Vaughan Oliver's in-house design team 23 Envelope, and contributions from compatriots in the British scene like John Fryer's Blackwing Studios. The body of work released on 4AD in this first phase have proven so seminal that single albums can be credited as spawning whole subgenres in the decades to follow. Wrapped in the enveloping mystique, cryptic fonts and atavistic allusions to artifacts from a lost past that was the haute couture of Vaughan Oliver's work with Nigel Grierson, Paul McMenamin and photographer Chris Bigg. They created sculptural landscapes of photography, typeface, decoupage and decors, framing the musical inner worlds of the label's roster, The Guardian revealing "4AD: The Inside Story" of this distinctly British, European, antidote to the popular culture of the time. More than fine points in the label's chronology, The Wire's 4AD Primer is populated by the artists that most marked the label's first half-decade. Beginning their first year with singles from the mascara'd children of punk's violent sprawl. Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, Kevin Haskins and David J launched the ships of a thousand goth imitators as Bauhaus, and from across the world came the defiant rancor and country-rock doom of Australia's The Birthday Party. The label's roster blossomed into it's own the following year with the new wave stylings of Modern English and the ethereal dream pop of Robin Guthrie's coruscating guitar and Elizabeth Fraser's vocal incantations as Cocteau Twins.

Much in the way of Bauhaus, The Quietus' "The Strange World Of… Cocteau Twins" feature rightly credits the band as being so influential as to give genesis to whole genres from their sound in the following decade. In rapid consecution 4AD released the earliest experimental solo work from bands that would later come to define the era, The The's Matt Johnson produced a series of largely instrumental, experimental works and Wire's Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis released their first forays into the uncassifiable outside the setting of their rocking post-punk quartet. Soon after the floodgates opened, rapidfire singles, EPs and albums appeared from a new subset of artists influenced as much by the groundbreaking late 1970s ambient works of Kluster and Brian Eno as the edginess of punk and the growing UK gothic music scene. This stretch of years in the mid-to-late 1980's saw the label's identity achieve global recognition with the arrival of the post-punk blues, dub, funk and soul mashup of The Wolfgang Press, the grandiose neoclassical, folk and world music fusion of Dead Can Dance, Germany's edgy all-female post punk rockers, Xmal Deutschland, the gothic neo-romantic synthpop of Dutch trio, Clan of Xymox and the instrumental free-jazz wanderings of Dif Juz. 4AD's reach extending as far as to embrace traditional choral music from the Bulgarian State Radio Female Vocal Choir and their spectral Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. Sensing that more than a label identity had been generated within their shared spheres, This Mortal Coil was assembles as a collective in-house covers band led by Watts and Fryer, with a rotating cast of contributing artists both from within the label and without. The Quietus "The Strange World Of… This Mortal Coil", touches on the shared cultural intersection, yet cloistered and liminal world from which these albums emerged. Reaching beyond the sphere of underground UK and Euro-centric sounds came the label's first American undergound indies, like Kristin Hersh, and Tanya Donelly's folkic girl-rock band, Throwing Muses and the punk, surf and garage rock inspired sound of the Pixies. A culmination of every aspect of the label's aesthetic and conceptual concerns, 1987’s "Lonely Is An Eyesore" was released an a triple format media experience and still stands as the only time that Watts-Russell commissioned video work. To accompany the collection of exclusive tracks from the label's roster, 23 Envelope’s Nigel Grierson direction of the videos reflecting his love of the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, particularly his later metaphysical films, "Stalker" and "The Sacrifice". Translating to the music video format the nubilous water, grainy monochrome, natural light, motion and abstract textures associated with the photographic subjects and treatments seen on Grierson’s Cocteau Twins covers. The compilation's combined mastery of typeface, printing techniques and material decors are testament to the gesamtkunstwerk that was 23 Envelope's half-decade of graphic realizations in the unified visual identity of 4AD.

Coinciding with what could be seen as the second phase of the label's lifespan, Nigel Grierson left 23 Envelope in 1988, with Vaughan Oliver and Chris Bigg continuing to work in close partnership with 4AD under the studio name v23. Commencing a aligned yet amplified graphical temperament, the releases retained their advanced fusion of font and materials, but now expressed through a sun-blasted color palette of suggestive pop-art and neon futurism. The sound was to follow, with new signings Ultra Vivid Scene, Pale Saints and Primal Scream's Jim Beattie delivering spiraling guitar work under the Spirea X moniker. The label fast aligning itself with the burgeoning UK shoegaze, dream pop and britpop scenes of the time. The fallout of the Pixies disbanding in 1992 and linuep changes within Throwing Muses, generated their own offshoots like The Breeders and Belly. Other American acts were taken into the fold, Mark Kozelek's insular, nocturnally folkic songwriting with Red House Painters saw it's debut on the label and the equally hermetic worlds of Warren Defever's experimental His Name Is Alive made for fitting companions. The latter confirming v23's influence in cinema and visual art with a series of striking miniature worlds titled "Stille Nacht" created by The Brothers Quay to accompany a set of tracks from their sophomore album. In this time the duo A.R. Kane effortlessly carved out new musical spaces from the intersection of dub, noise rock and neo-soul, quite possibly also "Inventing Shoegaze Without Really Trying" as The Guardian puts it. Yet there is perhaps no band more reflective of the altered trajectory of 4AD's second decade than Lush. As one of the first acts ascribed with the shoegaze and dream pop labels by the British press for their profusion of bright melodic distortion and vibrantly overdriven live guitar sound, their pedigree was confirmed with their 1989 signing to the label and production work by Robin Guthrie. Journeying with the label over the course of these two perceptible phases, Vaughan Oliver and his collaborators at 23 Envelope and later v23, were a constant in the development of both 4AD and the era's independent and underground music culture as a whole. With his passing last month, pieces like The New York Times, “Vaughan Oliver, 62, Dies; His Designs Gave Indie Rock ‘Physical Dimension", and The Guardian's "Lost Worlds of Sex and Magic: Vaughan Oliver's Album Sleeves for 4AD", go some way to recognize his, and the label's unmistakable contribution to the sound and aesthetic of the zeitgeist. We can be thankful for Oliver revisiting the decade from his intimate vantage in two lengthy interviews for Print and Interview Magazine, just years before the shuffling off of his own mortal coil.