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Wednesday, Jun 4, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

The Dandy Warhols
The World Come On [MP3]
     


N.E.R.D.
Everyone Nose [Streaming]


Coldplay
Viva La Vida (Live) [Video]


Love Psychedelico
Standing Bird [MP3]
     


From Bubblegum to Sky
Even the Sunbeams [MP3]
     


The Baseball Project
Past Time [MP3]
     



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Wednesday, Jun 4, 2008

This clip taken from a 1981 documentary titled Imagine the Sound is a rare document of one of the avant-garde world’s greatest piano players, Cecil Taylor. Most footage that has been released of Taylor is of him with one of his illustrious bands - known for blowing the hats of and outraging any devout be-bop player and/or critic. But the reason this video needs to be revealed is because it gets down to the very core of Free Jazz in it’s essence.


With Free Jazz, many times people will claim is just a series of random notes or a giant wall of noise. But in fact, its anything but these absurd claims. As not only jazz music, but other genres of music have seem to have lost the true meaning of “improvisation” - Taylor reminds them that it is a reaction to feeling and emotion. This is something that can’t be taught within our school systems and only those that stretch to understand it, will be satisfied with its rewarding attributes.


Watching Taylor from the director’s point of view above the piano shows him nearly talking to the piano. He’s having a conversation with it rather than just playing it - sometimes there are moments of silence, at others its as if the room just crowded and the conversation picked up. Unfortunately, the representatives of the jazz world in 2008 (see Wynton Marsalis) are taking us so many steps back, that jazz in the mainstream world is becoming obsolete - its being talked about like classical music is talked about, as if its an art form that can be taught in schools.


There are remaining soldiers out there such as David Ware, 8 Bold Souls, Matthew Shipp, and even some of the veterans such as Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and even Cecil Taylor himself. We must place them outside of the realm of the term “jazz” and bring them in with our alternative world. They should be playing with the slew of avant-rock bands out there creating a buzz, to an audience that would actually give them a chance. Free Jazz is still as free as it ever was, it just needs to take that freedom down a different road.


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Tuesday, Jun 3, 2008

I’ve pushed aside all scheduled content today to post what I think is the funniest book-related story I’ve read in ages. It involves distinguished author Ian McEwan coming up slightly rosy-cheeked upon finding out his new, unfinished novel actually lifts a scene from the works of Douglas Adams.


Does anyone else think that is just the most perfect thing?


The story goes that at a reading at Hay Literary Festival in Wales, a member of the audience remarked that a scene McEwan recounted was very familiar. The scene involved a man on a train eating a bag of chips. The man is shocked to see another passenger eating from the same bag, and making no effort to disguise the fact. A confrontation occurs, and when the man leaves the train, he finds his unopened chip packet in his pocket.


After some investigation, McEwan discovered the scene appears in Douglas Adams’s 1984 book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. The story is apparently a famous urban legend, only instead of chips, most tellers (like Adams) give the traveller a packet of biscuits.


The Australian points readers here to a short film, called Cookies, based on Adams’s scene.


McEwan’s new book is not due for publication for another two years and is reported to feature climate change as its central theme.


 


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Tuesday, Jun 3, 2008

I’m reflexively skeptical of elaborate menu copy—the lush descriptions of the novel combinations of ingredients (often hyperspecified—not just cucumber but compressed English cucumber) and unfamiliar modes of preparation for which loan words from French are required. Part of this is because this sort of language betokens expensiveness. I start to suspect I am paying for the sumptuous prose, which has set itself as mediating screen for the food, rather than for the food itself. Eating is inherently a democratic activity—everyone has equal claim to being right about what they like—but these menus are trying desperately to obscure that fact, make dining into a region of insecurity, identity formation, and class distinction.


But a larger part of my problem is that these menus make me feel stupid. I don’t have the vocabulary necessary to understand them, and autodidact that I am, I hate to ask for explanations. Confronted with the incomprehensible descriptions that I can’t really ignore, I often feel like a provincial rube, and I feel like this is by design—I’m the sort of person the restaurant wants to feel excluded so that the target audience can enjoy their distinction a little bit more. I don’t aspire to be sort of person who seeks that form of distinction, so I end up feeling completely alienated, annoyed at the existence of people who are impressed with ostentatious gastronomy; and my mouth refuses to taste what’s there in the food as a way of expressing my very pointless protest.


I know that is mostly irrational paranoia, and that this is the sort of situation in which I should be applying Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s dictum to reserve skepticism for the big questions—not for the ulterior motives of small-time restaurateurs. They have the benign motive of wanting to make dining into an aesthetic experience and sharing the chef’s artistry, but I don’t want to eat aesthetically, so I get flustered by attempts to encourage me to do so. I don’t want the chef to be an artist; I don’t want to be able to discuss dining as I might talk about a movie or a well-written poem. Not only do I lack the discernment to recognize the chef’s effort, but I almost feel negated by the chef’s assertion of ego into my attempt to meet my fundamental need for nourishment.


Aestheticization of eating turns something primal into something that other people can judge you for—if they can deem your ability to eat, to sustain your life, flawed, it is almost like they can reject your right to have any private sensations whatsoever. Shouldn’t some aspects of life be beyond stylization? Shouldn’t there be reserves of experience that remain direct, beyond the reach of self-consciousness, because they are so basic to our needs as humans? Do I have this backward? Are our fundamental needs the first to become complexly intertwined with society’s need to fabricate and perpetuate hierarchies? (Maybe I need to read some Levi-Strauss or something on this point.)


One’s tastes in food are extremely personal; they are perhaps the primary way to assert one’s individuality. When one surrenders fussiness and learns to trust in the sophisticated concoctions of other self-appointed culinary artists, as expressed in menu copy, one cedes a huge territory on which one can establish identity. When you buy into the complicated menu, no substitutions, no longer can you say to yourself, “I choose what I will eat, for me and me only; my force of will alone will decide what’s appropriate to stick in my body approvingly.” You are trusting instead that someone else knows better than you about those extremely intimate and ultimately inexpressible and unsharable sensory experiences you will have in your mouth and your stomach.


I have a hard time making the leap, which in many ways feels like the leap to maturity. Instead I have this narcissistic view of food (it’s all must be made personally for me, how I want it, because only MY ideas are valid about what I will eat), which requires those who make it to be anonymous, and that their methods be straightforward, transparent, and easily replicable. I want the food’s deliciousness to be a reflection of my own ingenuity for choosing to eat it, not the special genius of the cooks who prepared it.


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Tuesday, Jun 3, 2008

Don’t let anyone tell you differently - cinema is cyclical. Ever since the initial barrage of old school Hollywood studio glitter, films (and their maverick makers) have been finding a way to rebel, and then revolt against said aesthetic uprising over and over again. Fantasy like fiction gave way to neo-realism, while the old techniques of static shots and journeymen direction mandated a whole ‘New Wave’ of experimentation. All throughout the ‘70s, French filmmaking was going through its own post-modern movement. Movies focused on the problems of real people, presented in a manner that accurately - and often uncomfortably - mimicked life.


In 1981, first time filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix decided to radicalize his approach to the medium. Drawing on deliberate artificiality - and a novel by Daniel Odier (under the pseudonym Delacorta - Diva was the result. It gained instant worldwide acclaim, and even managed to become a certified cult hit in America. It announced a new approach in French cinema, labeled Cinema du look, and introduced the talents of Beineix, Luc Besson, and Leos Carax. While some saw a thread of political relevance inside the style - the subject matter usually centered on the disillusioned youth of the era - many felt this new form was more flash than finesse.


Oddly enough, it was a similar argument used against the burgeoning US independents of the mid ‘90s. Wunderkind directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky were considered brilliant visionaries whose efforts carried a gloss of uneasy emotional detachment - again, all technique and no import. Yet their influence guided cinema for the next decade, swaying many who felt that film needed a swift kick in the creativity to remain vital. After getting his start in the art video circuit, Canadian filmmaker Francois Girard applied his passion for classical music toward an intriguing biography of a legendary pianist. His 1993 opus 32 Short Films About Glen Gould brought instant notoriety, its unusual conceit reflecting this newfound desire to reinvent the form of cinema. Five year later, critics would complain about his vignette heavy time trip, The Red Violin.


Thanks to Lionsgate, who is introducing a new line of important DVDs under the “Meridian Collection” tag, we get a chance to revisit both films to see if their particular era-oriented vision still holds up over the decades. In the case of Beineix, Diva still derives a great deal of its pizzazz out of elements that now seem sort of dated. When one thinks about camera trickery and directorial flare, a film like this instantly comes to mind. On the other hand, The Red Violin is like a lush lesson in ephemeral emptiness. There are times when the movie seems so lightweight and puffy that you wait for it to simply vanish into the ether and disappear from the screen. This does not mean they are bad films - far from it. But in a format friendly dynamic that gives even the most unsung work a chance to shine, both Diva and The Red Violin have been bypassed by other, more daring deconstructions.


As a starting point for all this filmic flare, Diva has one of the more straightforward stories. A young mail courier named Jules (Frédéric Andréi) enjoys his pseudo-slacker life on the fringes. He particularly loves opera, and the vocal work of American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). So taken is he with the ‘diva’, that he makes an illegal recording of a recent recital. Somehow, his tape gets mixed up with that of a recent police sting, and the mobsters at the center want all evidence eliminated - including Jules. Thus begins an extended chase with both police and criminals after our hapless hero.


The Red Violin, on the other hand, takes the Glenn Gould approach to narrative, using the title instrument as a thread linking several divergent storylines. When a rare example of a ‘Bussotti’ is auctioned off, flashbacks fill in the gaps in the item’s history. We see the creator perfecting his creation, watch as it finds its way into the hands of a child prodigy, and witness its part in China’s Cultural Revolution. In between, there are stop offs with noblemen, nonentities, and a particularly intense historian (Samuel L. Jackson). Not surprisingly, the delicate object has one final secret to reveal.


One of the great things about the digital format remains the ability for filmmakers to defend their work. Sometimes, the most difficult offerings have the easiest of explanations. That is clearly the case with both Diva and The Red Violin. On the Lionsgate DVDs, both Jean-Jacques Beineix (in a scene specific overview) and Francois Girard (a full length discussion with co-writer Don McKellar) are present to contextualize their craft. Of the two, the latter is far more informative. Beineix is all shot selection and memories, not so much a defense of his highly ostentatious outing as it is a primer of possibilities. Girard is more forgiving. He underscores his motives, making sure listeners understand the allusions and mythos he was employing.


Even better, we get added material that makes both films feel less calculated and more manageable. Beineix’s baby draws on a wonderful documentary revisit entitled “Searching for Diva”. In it, cast and crew expand our knowledge of the movie while making clear how much of the style was purposefully premeditated. Violin relies on more indirect guidance. One short piece outlines the auction of a rare “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivari (clearly an inspiration for the film), while another allows the Oscar winning composer of the sensational score - John Corigliano - to discuss the movie’s main theme. Certainly, obsessives will wonder why there isn’t more material here. Yet Lionsgate gives each disc just enough heft to warrant a reissue. Besides, the newly remastered transfers look terrific.


This doesn’t address each movie from a critical standpoint, however, and this is where both Diva and The Red Violin suffer, if ever so slightly. For the earlier effort, the passage of almost three decades has been almost deadly. What was fresh and reinvigorating then is now harshly kitschy and borderline camp. This doesn’t take away from Beineix’s way with an action scene - the motorcycle chase through the Paris streets is still exciting, it’s jump cut skill reinvigorating the then dying action element. Yet some of the moments where characters mope about in pre-Goth gloom, or worse, run around like refugees from a camp revival of A Clockwork Orange, come across as cheesy as an Adam Ant video. Diva still delivers a great deal of pleasure within its now noticeable knottiness, and the performances are excellent and quite accomplished. Yet this is the kind of experience that makes one wonder how current cinematic turning points (CGI, the ‘found footage’ first person POV genre jolts) will play 30 years from now. 


If The Red Violin is any indication, style doesn’t always need substance to succeed. In fact, sumptuousness can trump depth with a carefully constructed composition. The broad scope of Girard’s canvas - he moves through the centuries as effortlessly as a virtuoso’s fingers along the frets - definitely allows for a more hit or miss approach, but here the director delivers more times than he fails. The material centering on the child prodigy is highly engaging, as are the moments in Communist China. Jackson’s story may seem the weakest, but watching the actor outside his element (we keep waiting for him to break out into a string of venomous epithets) and underplaying his part is highly entertaining. There are those who’ve complained that Violin violates the whole ‘image over import’ ideal. Sadly, they seem to be missing many of the movie’s more noticeable attributes.


Indeed, it’s easy to dismiss either film for what it offers visually vs. how it plays as a thriller or a detailed drama. Diva can never shake its Cinema du look logistics, but ignoring the calculated bells and whistles, it is still a satisfying experience. So what if The Red Violin appears deeper, and less deliberate. There is still enough visual privilege to make those inclined to criticize apoplectic. Just remember that this is all part of film’s recurring reboot and all your concerns will be calmed. Diva and The Red Violin definitely deserve continued recognition, and Lionsgate Meridian Collection is a perfect way of preserving them for future debate/consideration. And there will be a great deal of both.


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