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by Bill Gibron

6 Sep 2008

The notion of returning to your roots is at the core of every life crisis. Getting back to the comfort of the past, to the people who supposedly know you best and longest suggests a security that, sadly, is just not there. No, going back home in an attempt to find the same old acceptance, happiness, personal insight, and situational ease proves the oft cited maxim against the possibility of doing same. In Troubadours, a rousing indie effort focusing on this very subject, we learn that connectivity and the friendships forged in same can be just as destructive as the traumas tricking you into taking the trip back.

Art Stone left his father’s farm with big, broad shouldered dreams. But all Chicago provided was a series of dead end opportunities and a broken heart. When he catches his girlfriend in bed with another man, he finally slips into depression. At the behest of his buddy, he heads back to his parent’s property, eager to work the land and basically find himself. But Art soon runs into his old gang, a group of farm hands and menial laborers who use the world around them as an excuse to get drunk, get rowdy, and get in trouble. With his heavily religious relatives looking down their nose at him, and a new girl turning his head, Art must decide what’s important - a return trip to the city to seek his fortune, or the role of tripwire troubadour in a one horse town.

The brainchild of three outsider filmmakers - Tom Galassi, Tom Synder, and Adam Galassi - and tinged with the kind of kooky experimentalism that both electrifies and irritates, Troubadours (new to DVD from Facets Video) takes its sweet time telling a rather intriguing tale. It wants to explore how post-modern machismo has been mitigated, Fight Club style, by a society that stresses getting in touch with your feelings and a more therapeutic way of dealing with decisions. Within this collection of types - the radical, the flag waver, the nonconformist, the raging conservative - we see snippets of the way the world works circa 2008. Amidst the pain of misspent youth and a growing need for maturity, our hero stumbles bravely along, looking to understand himself by coming to terms with the people who played a part in his formation.

As Art, Tom Galassi gives the kind of performance that seems almost invisible at first. He is all reaction, letting others speak for him or even suggest a psychological path to explore. His responses color in the character nuances, allowing silence and stillness to speak volumes. Similarly, the way in which he interacts with his pals provides equally important insights. We can see how Chad’s confrontational stance protects him from outside criticism, while the fate of others rests firmly in their lost boys grasp. There is a clear undercurrent of arrested adolescence here, of boys being boys for no good goddamn reason, and when the filmmakers let the festivities go on too long, Troubadours stumbles. When they keep it to conversations, the movie often amazes.

There is also a nice use of local color here, the Southern Illinois farmland providing a nice bit of forgotten Americana. Equally effective are the insert shots of the landscape, the unique approach to capturing the countryside - almost piecemeal, if you like - giving the film a wonderful somnambulistic edge. The music also aids in creating atmosphere, though the reliance on shoe-gazing groups like My Morning Jacket and Devil in a Woodpile frequently feel like outtakes from 1994. As directors, the two Galassis and Synder tend toward intimate set-ups and random quick cuts. The upside to such a presentation is that the film feels true and very authentic. The downside is that we often experience a kind of creative whiplash. There are definitely times when it’s tough to get our bearings.

Another aspect that may cause some concern is the obvious decision to rely on improv to flesh out many of the scenes. As part of the DVD package, we are privy to outtakes and deleted scenes which show how frequently off base this material became. Still, these added features do expand the viewing experience, especially when the subject of the music comes up. Perhaps the only thing missing here is a full length audio commentary. Tom has a unique past (he was part of a regional company of the Blue Man Group), and many of his costars come from similarly interesting backgrounds. Besides, their narrator presence during the film could help explains some of the narrative hiccups and the use of certain symbols (the ringing cellphone, the monkey mask).

Still, in a genre which typically renders itself stagnant by an overreliance on self-indulgent and absorbed strategies, the open ended and loose feel of Troubadours definitely wins us over. By the time we realize we’ve just witnessed another manboy making up his mind about life, we are awash in a sea of good feelings and genuine emotion. There will be some who find this well meaning meandering to be more or less an unfocused experiment in homespun hedonism, but that’s part of Troubadours’ charm. While it may be impossible to return to your past, a fine cinematic experience out of the attempt is obviously possible. The Galassis and Synder understand this all too well.

by Jason Gross

5 Sep 2008

Not surprisingly, no one at the RIAA wanted to get interviewed for a Wired story that shows what a miserable failure their download lawsuit program has been so far.  Basically, the labels have poured millions of dollars of legal fees into this fiasco and the end result so far has been relatively meager settlements which don’t recoup their costs and only serve to try to scare off other downloaders who don’t used label-approved sites.  That tactic hasn’t worked either as this type of downloading is actually increasing.  And of the money from the settlements that the RIAA gets, none of it goes to the artists whose songs are involved in the case.  These highly questionable lawsuits (which as the article notes may backfire when some major decisions come down soon) no doubt fuel the impression that these labels are evil and don’t deserve the business of the public.  All of which means that the end result is that they’re not curbing anything.  And yet another chapter in the pathetic suicide of the majors is written…

by Rob Horning

5 Sep 2008

Rob Walker links to this long, compelling post by Rhodri Marsden about the difficulty musicians have in making money. Marsden paints a picture of the misery of pre-internet record distribution, when warehousing middlemen absorbed the brute facts of consumer indifference, to contrast that with the current state of affairs, in which the internet lets bands track their own sales metrics. That blessed space of ignorance of the marketplace, which once bred fantasies of stardom, is now gone.

Now that we’re put in touch directly with our audience and that distributors can be completely removed from the equation, and replaced by MP3 aggregators who (a) don’t need warehousing space for your MP3s, (b) will put them into a range of online stores for a flat fee and, crucially, (c) don’t care whether you’re brilliant or whether you’re bloody awful, we have exactly the same problem selling the music as the distributors had. Just because the songs are available to buy, doesn’t mean we can sell them—in the same way that (and excuse the often-used analogy) installing a landline doesn’t mean that the phone is going to ring. And we can’t blame the distributors any more. The only people that are left to blame are ourselves. And that hurts.
It hurts because web technology lets us see exactly how many people are listening to our music. We can see the MySpace hit counters spin round, with the total number of listeners for each track. Our stats pages on our blogs show us how people arrived at our page, which country they’re from, even which web browser they’re using. We’ve got information about the reach of our music that we couldn’t have dreamed of 10 years ago, and it tells us that thousands upon thousands of people have their ears open, and they’re listening. But, by and large, and with a few exceptions, we can’t fucking sell music to them. And we’re starting to obsess about it. We can’t stand the fact that we have 2,739 friends on MySpace, several of whom have posted highly encouraging messages such as “thnx 4 the add”, and yet none of them are prepared to dig in their pocket, or Paypal account, and just send us a few quid – despite the fact that we’ve poured our heart, our soul and our cash into the whole endeavour.


So lots of people may be listening, but these listeners, when consuming music on the internet, are not shoppers. They are not in a mode where they are browsing for something to spend money on. Instead, they are paying for the music by paying attention, and that’s all they are willing to give, and really, that should be enough, considering all the competition for it.

As Marsden points out, despite the hype about the long tail and Web 2.0, the internet doesn’t give musicians new ways to make money. It creates conditions in which musicians are paid instead in a different currency, recognition, and whether or not this has any value depends on the context one’s working in. If you need to sell music to feed yourself and pay rent, you are not cheered by the number of views your song’s video has received. But if you are making money through some other job and make music for a feeling of cultural participation, the clicks count.

In the unlikely event of anyone wanting my advice, it would be to stop worrying about selling recordings. Just give them away. Let them go. Put them online for free, and tell people that they’re there. And if, against the odds, you’ve been given some cash, you’ve managed to release an album commercially, and you see that someone has posted it on a blog for readers to download – for god’s sake don’t get angry. Don’t see it as being down £20. See it as being up 20 listeners. Yes, your music might conceivably have been stolen, but there are no police. So get used to it. And now you’re freed of this burden, pursue all the other things that you want from being in a band – writing songs, rehearsing, doing gigs, building relationships with other bands, going on wallet-busting tours, receiving unmemorable blowjobs. Because seriously, you’re almost more likely to get a blowjob after a gig than sell an MP3. And remember – just because music doesn’t make you money, certainly does NOT mean that it’s worth nothing.

The point is that the intense commercialism of our society prompts us to measure the worth of things by their saleability, by their price tag, and it encourages us to regard the value of our effort as residing in a paycheck rather than in the work itself. But making art is its own reward; it’s a considerable luxury to be able to have the time to do it at all. It’s extremely unsympathetic when artists then complain that the people who spend their own precious time acknowledging other people’s art (instead of, say, making some of their own) are somehow ingrates because they won’t pay for the chance. Popular music, a social art whose power rests in its ability to be shared, ultimately doesn’t lend itself well to becoming intellectual property.

by Matt Mazur

5 Sep 2008

Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, all kinds of strange things happened to me, ranging from transcendent to downright dire. I sat next to the freaky Marilyn Manson at a screening, unbeknownst to me, and when the lights came up I audibly gasped in fear. I was shoved, stalked and harassed by a homeless, deranged drug addict who made me miss seeing legend Max Von Sydow speak live at a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (thanks!). I somehow also managed to thoroughly embarrass myself in front of hundreds-strong crowd by asking a director a question he didn’t particularly like and openly scoffed at to the crowd, following a film screening that no one else in attendance particularly liked.

Whether it was being propositioned by streetwalkers while asking for directions (honest!) or simply making the rookie mistake of choosing the most aesthetically pleasing, yet highly torturous footwear I own over something sensible and proceeding to trek several miles, for several hours like an idiot, last year’s festival was a genuine learning experience.

Crippling blisters, bleeding feet, and terror in the streets aside, Toronto’s festival days are mainly exciting and fun, so here I am again, white boots at home in the closet where they belong. I am ready to spit out thousands and thousands of words that will be, for those of you actually keeping track, part “blog”, part actual film criticism. I’ll have to just get over the fact that some people don’t really care what I am wearing (though I have brought the Holy Gay Trinity of Gucci, Prada, and Miu Miu along to help this year), but, since everyone is so up in arms lately about the differences between a “blogger”, a “film critic”, and being a “fan” lately, I feel like I now have extra audiences to please. Again, thanks.

I will try desperately to keep the focus on the films, but in such a spontaneous climate filled with zany film industry comings and goings, who knows what will happen? All I know is I am writing about anything and everything that crosses my path, because, let’s face it: Toronto can get crazy at festival time.

This year, I was mostly jazzed to come back for the year-end prestige films that seemed to eminently loom on the filmic horizon, and after being so completely blown away by the sheer multitude of high-profile releases my prior trip to the Toronto Film Festival offered me, it seemed a logical assumption that all of these hugely anticipated films would make their debuts at Toronto. Chatter amongst most bloggers and movie devotees I know centered (in fact, it still centers) largely on the following films:

Doubt. The Reader. Australia. Revolutionary Road. Grey Gardens. The Road. Milk. Frost/Nixon. The Young Victoria. W. The Soloist. Body of Lies. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Cheri. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

This group of 15 movies seems to be the heavy artillery brigade of award contenders that will be trotted out come trophy time. These are the juggernauts that Oscar prognosticators have on their “major nominations” maps, which feature the biggest, brightest stars. In other words, they are the flagship prize-winners and powerhouses that Toronto is generally known for launching.

Guess what? None of those will be included in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival’s program. Not a single one.

Some have been bumped to 2009, and some are probably still not even all the way finished yet, but one thing is certain: the most anticipated flicks of the year will be released mainly to theaters first, rather than to festivals. Cinema enthusiasts will just have to wait a little longer to get word on these buzzy releases. Most entries premiering at Toronto this year, instead, will actually be auspicious North American debuts, rather than world premieres. Many are still desperately seeking distributors. A large handful will have already been shown at Venice and Cannes, and many still will be shown next month at the New York Film Festival.

Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling was nixed by Toronto because star Angelina Jolie decided to stay home with her newborn twins, rather than hauling her celebrity across the continent, out to Ontario, to stump for the flick (how’s that for punishing a working mother?). Curiously, the New York fete will feature The Changeling. With or without Angelina, we still don’t know, but at this point, we’ll take what we can get –- film aficionados (me included) are damn-near chomping at the bit to see if the Cannes buzz is to be trusted.

Speaking of Cannes, this year it looks as though the “international” will be forcibly inserted back into the festival’s title: films by such intercontinental auteurs as Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Walter Salles, Agnes Varda, and Wong Kar Wai pepper the schedule, and in place of the more high profile English-language releases (like last year’s buzz-gobblers Juno and Atonement), there are several smaller indie releases that don’t really compare: does anyone honestly care about the new Guy Richie gangster idiocy, or Kevin Smith’s lame-brained Zack and Miri Make a Porno? Nope.

Last year’s slate featured almost every single important film, presented with luscious sound and perfect picture (Toronto’s technical elements are sublime), by all of the most important directors of the season; the only Oscar prospect that didn’t play in Toronto last year was probably There Will Be Blood. So, I was, many ways, disappointed in what was being offered for 2008, after being so consistently blown away by the sheer volume of star wattage the previous year (as were so many other film fans, festival patrons, and other journalists I know). Of course, when a film critic whines, it makes the Baby Jesus cry.

When I began my plan of attack by writing out my ridiculously awesome schedule, I realized I had become one of those jaded, shrill, complaining industry types that I had run afoul of so many times last year and despised so much (all that was missing was a ubiquitous BlackBerry surgically attached to my ear and a steady stream of complain-y epithets). I discovered that the line-up, despite it’s rather, um, cozy feeling, was going to be filled with an excitingly quiet fury and a divergent, thorough intelligence. In other words: get over it, Mazur!

Coming to this fest is exciting. It’s an adventure. It’s also a privilege. Crazy, random things happen at events like this and to be so close to the action is literally energizing -– you would be surprised at how late I can stay up, how many films I can see in a day, how much I can write, and how little I eat; it’s as though I am a beautiful fern existing on air and films alone. This year, organizers and programmers have taken careful consideration to assemble some of the best hidden gems you haven’t heard about (yet), but should definitely familiarize yourselves with, pronto.

Last year, I saw only one film on day one, Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster. This year’s first day began with a scheduling snafu, born of my inability to read press conference dates properly and my insistence on drinking one too many tequilas at a random Irish pub in Toronto’s Gay Village, somewhere on Church Street.

I had to scramble to find something to occupy my time, and unfortunately landed at the screening for the Argentinean Liverpool, a film from director Lisandro Alonso that I didn’t know the first thing about. I followed that rueful misfire with Olivier Assayas’ newest, the invigorating Summer Hours (which will be given the full treatment in another blog as I will be speaking with the esteemed Mr. Assayas later this week), and, finally, I was supposed to see Brick director Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, which stars Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, and Rinko Kickuchi, but because of a major screw-up on someone else’s part, I was put in the wrong waiting line and got shut out. When I got to the right line, the other press and industry folks standing there were rabidly jumping the line, yelling at each other, and generally acting like petulant school children. So, in place of that film, and all of the uncontrollable nonsense being allowed in the rush line, I had a lovely meal of venison with mushroom au jus and fried gnocchi at a Leslieville lounge called Barrio.

Liverpool (dir. Lisandro Alonso, 2008, Argentina/France/The Netherlands/Germany/Spain)

But now, it’s time to get on with the single, lame film review of the day, and to do that, I will need to bring out a massive chopping block, and immediately put the offender out of it’s misery: Liverpool is a challenging film that is full of subtle ideas that wants to be an important art-house film with a maverick indie pedigree, but it just doesn’t work, it barely entertains. I can’t see this playing to even the most staunch crowd of independent film fans and it going over well.

The film begins with scenes of men at work in a factory-like atmosphere, in solitude. The director actually does a very good job of establishing a claustrophobic mood in the first 15 minutes, showing a maze of nightmarish industrial complexes and the stagnation of these men’s hard-working existences. The tight, locked-in feeling instantly melts away when the camera follows the alcoholic lead character Farrel (nicely captured by Juan Fernandez) outside as he catches a much-needed breath of fresh air, and we realize that the employees are on a freighter, out to sea.

The glimpses of the panoramic ocean vistas are spectacular, but fleeting in this exhilarating moment. In these scenes, the director does show a flair for being able to construct solid, well-framed shots, even if they do linger much too long. This is something that could easily be fixed with a little bit of editing room magic, though I suspect this lethargic crawl is what Alonso had in mind.

Farrel is going to home, to the mountains at the southern tip of the continent, to see if his mother is “still alive”. This is the single action that propels the story forward, and it happens so excruciatingly slowly, and paced so aimlessly, that at times, it becomes very hard to watch as there is little dramatic action taking place. Often, the camera just inches along, preferring to stop and simply capture the banal, which is a nice artistic statement, but, for viewers, can be tedious. I kept thinking “why not just make a documentary?”

Very little dialogue in this piece makes for a spare, still experience. Fernandez’s ruggedly handsome, weathered face is enough to at least intrigue the viewer, but when he’s not on screen, things fall slightly apart. What started out promising, with a rollicking original score, quickly devolved into a mediocre character study that took way too long to set up, and that’s not just American impatience speaking, either. It is extremely interesting to watch this man’s re-entry into society after (it is implied) a life spent as a ne’er do well, but a picaresque series of documentary-feeling images does not necessarily make for a pleasant film-watching experience. The director does achieve a clear sense of disconnection, as none of the characters communicate with one another, really, and most, are in many ways, isolated.

This loner’s journey to see his mother certainly has its moments. The visual grandeur being its most obvious positive characteristic, with Alonso painting imaginatively with natural light sources and robust views of the rugged countryside, but the emotional payoff is missing. Despite the flaws, Liverpool remains remarkable mainly because of its canny showcasing of a place and culture that are rarely represented on film, for North American audiences, and for that, it must be lauded for bravery. In giving us a glimpse of this slice of life, it does succeed, but in terms of either cinematic convention or innovation, it rarely moves past being a middling art experiment, and borders on being a chore to watch. Had I not been seated squarely in the middle of the theater, surrounded by people, I might have been tempted to leave.

While Liverpool is devoid of plot and largely anti-climactic, it is, at least, much different than anything else you’re likely to see this year. I’m not sure that is a compliment, but it sets the film apart from the usual fall season offerings. The ending is cheeky, and tries to be clever, but by then, it’s too late to care anymore as most people in the theater had their eyes fixed on the exits.

by Bill Gibron

4 Sep 2008

It’s as precious as oil, and just as many wars have (and will) be fought over it. But unlike the battles braved by American soldiers to keep SUVs humming on US highways, these clashes come at the price of something far more precious - the basic necessities of life. According to one estimate, there are over 1.2 billion people on this planet without access to potable water. And of that number, the UN has targeted several million with direct emergency aid campaigns. So why is the situation only getting worse? Seems like the key word is ‘privatization’, and as Irene Salina shows in her fascinating documentary Flow, those contracted to solve the problem and financially benefiting from same have only added to the misery.

Focusing on a few foreign countries - Bolivia, South Africa, and India - and then moving to an unusual grass roots challenge in Michigan - Flow is your basic no-frills tell-all. It follows the premise that all humans have the “right” to water. Not to bottled water. Not to high priced, frequently unavailable water, but pure, clean, easy to obtain, and inexpensive drinking water. With the influx of foreign multinationals who have figured out a way to make massive profits out of empty infrastructure promises, Salina shows that it is typically the poorest people, without anyone to support their situation, that often find themselves paying exorbitant prices for dirty, unavailable resources.

There are many villains in this consistently one-sided commentary. Executives from major names like Suez and Vivendi defend their choices while we see how aimless and rather arrogant they are. A small village in South Africa must buy prepaid coupons to access their ration. But since many of them are uneducated, they must be taught the new system. The company’s answer? Appalling picture books with cartoons, all printed in English (not the native tongue, by the way). In India, a one man revolution has taken place, local farmers and villagers able to use ancient landscaping techniques to create their own renewable aquifers. Of course, once a contract is signed with a big name business, the ‘cease and desist’ threats begin.

The West is not left out of the blame game. We are ridiculed for our love of bottled beverages, taken to task for thinking what we are getting is somehow better than what comes out of the city tap. Of course, Flow fails to acknowledge that some states like Florida have such foul tasting and tainted municipal sources that a case of Zephryhills (now owned by Nestle) is better than relying on your local government. Still, it’s shocking to see people with perfectly viable reservoirs draining Dasani after Dasani thinking they are doing something wholesome and healthier. The situation escalates when a small town in Michigan battles a big name to save its own basin.

This one struggle goes to the heart of Flow‘s purpose. When Nestle loses its court case, told they cannot simply pump as much water out from under these citizens as they want, the lawyers wrangle a reprieve. Indeed, while the appeals process chugs along for the next few years, they still operate at near full capacity. It’s the same almost everywhere you go with the exception of Bolivia. There, riots and massive demonstrations force the leadership to kick out the private companies. If the people cared, says one frustrated organizer, there’d be many more victories like this.

In fact, one of the most startling aspects of Flow is its predictions about world water needs and shortages. We learn that there may be more oil in the ground than life giving liquid to go around, and at the rate we consume, the concept of privatization will be more or less a given. Salina suggests that the primary goal of these companies is control. Money may be an ancillary benefit, but if you have the power over basic necessities, you can certainly name your terms and demands. We can already see it happening in the India case. Instead of supporting people who’ve figure out a way around their drought plagued dilemma, (via rainwater runoff) the elected officials line their pockets and undermine their efforts.

All throughout Flow are talking heads supporting the policy positions offered and criticizing those who would argue free market and outright capitalism. Some make a lot of sense. Others have a tinge of post-‘60s psycho radicalism to them. This does not mean that their ideas are any less valid, but when dealing with something so large and so crucial to the survival of the planet, the more sensible usually supplant those driven to screeds. From an aesthetic standpoint, Salina also does a wonderful job of adding ambient elements to the scholarship. On the one hand, we see the standard images of free flowing rivers and streams. On the other, music modulates the foreboding, making the threat even more menacing.

Salina makes Flow function as a wake-up call to those who take such issues as an international given. After all, how many people who run the faucet as they brush their teeth, think that they are actually wasting the equivalent of a whole South African town’s weekly supply? When we pick up that bottle of Evian, do we really understand that in some South American countries people would kill for such a source? Indeed, one of the more moderate speakers believes that, just like during other times of crisis, an informed outside constituency will rise up to rectify what commerce and corruption has shattered. For that fact alone, Flow is an important film. That it states its many positions in a powerful and persuasive manner helps to limit some of the more tired rhetoric.

And still the war rages on, winner and losers racking up the casualties as a populace cries out for some manner of justice. While films such as this may not sway the conflict one way or the other, it will at least sum up the sides involved. More importantly, Flow feels like the truth. It doesn’t have the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock smugness or self satisfaction clouding its cause. Instead, it looks at a seismic situation and allows the facts to frighten everyone into attention. Here’s hoping that once the fear subsides, some substantive solutions can be discovered. If not, this is one mêlée where, if one side loses, everyone does.

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