[6 June 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“A fucking sushi restaurant? You gotta be fucking kidding me,” smiles Le’Von Webb, “Like, what does that have to do with rock and roll?” The singer for the Knives stands on a rooftop, many more rooftops and a couple of palm trees visible behind him. He’s got his head shaved close and his arms crossed, arms that are covered with tattoos. He’s remembering what it was like way back in 2002, when Bang Sugar Bang bassist-vocalist Cooper and Silver Needle bassist Johnny 99 were finding venues for bands in Los Angeles.
This saga is the focus of In Heaven There Is No Beer, screening this week at LA’s Dances With Films. The takes up an appropriately DIY look and attitude toward its storytelling. In addition to bands on grainy-framed stages, fans in parking lots, and flyers on walls, it offers a range of talking heads, who appear in around the city—in radio studios or record-shelf-lined apartments, on sidewalks and in front of curtains decorated with skulls, on rooftops. They provide the the film with a decidedly speedy history, shaped by fast cuts from one observation to another, cuts that assume viewers will keep up.
No sooner does Webb laugh about Zen Sushi, than Ronnie Barnett of the Muffs, wearing dark-rimmed glasses, yellow dress shirt, and striped sweater, offers another view. The site, he says, “was laid out perfect for this club. You had a big middle area that had a bar and you could socialize in.” the camera walks you through his mini-tour, the light slightly green (at night) and the guests are drinking beers and nodding in mid-conversations A hand reaches forward to push aside a camera as Barnett concludes, “And then you go into the room, with the bands and it really lent itself to what was going on.”
What was going on was music, loud, smart, and perpetual. The persistence of the search for a place to play, to organize—however loosely—to gather and share experiences, to create a community. This sort of ethos, the effort to assert independence and also a collective identity, characterizes another documentary at the Festival, Porter Erisman’s Crocodile in the Yangtze. Both films are “defiantly independent,” as Dances With Films’ banner proclaims itself, when it comes to their stories of unlikely successes. They are
Both films use familiar means to tell these stories, interviews and some haphazard-looking footage, mostly clips of shows—whether for lively club audiences or enthusiastic company employees. Erisman’s film focuses on his experiences with Jack Ma, a child of the Cultural Revolution turned English teacher and then turned China’s first internet entrepreneur and founder of Alibaba.com. (“This is the story in my own words, as honest as possible,” he narrates near film’s start, “Of what I learned from a teacher and his country.”) Back in 1995, the story goes, Ma believed that China could be part of the dotcom booming that China, via his own mightily capitalist vision. The Chinese government resisted helping out on the first project, a search engine called China Pages, “reluctant to partner with an English teacher,” Erisman notes, “especially “In the sensitive area of media and education.”
When China Pages doesn’t work out, Ma rethinks his approach, finding ways to make his product vividly commercial. The film tracks the steps to Alibaba (conceived as, er, an “Open sesame to global trade”) methodically, with Erisman’s voiceover recalling events or introducing clips. Here’s Ma and 17 friends in his apartment, you learn, over a shot of a small space filled with people nodding earnestly. Ma explains his idea: “First, we need to position Alibaba as global website, not just domestic website. Second, we need to learn the hard working spirit of Silicon Valley… the 8 to 5 spirit.” For Ma and his employees, this means… hard work. The film doesn’t explain much about what this work is, but it does celebrate Ma’s insistence on teamwork, and especially his decision to challenge eBay.
Ma describes his competition as a “shark in the ocean” and his own company as a “crocodile in the Yangtze river. If we fight in the ocean, we will lose, but if we fight in the river, we will win.” This means catering the product to Chinese tastes and habits. Whereas eBay enters the market assuming its strategies will be one-size-fits-all, Ma’s team comes up with cartoony graphics, pop music appeals, and a product that’s free. Alibaba goes the route of Yahoo and Google, inculcuating in its users a sense that they need and want Alibaba, even before they quite know what it is.
Erisman’s film pretty much promotes the story as Ma tells it, briefly noting setbacks in order to set up remarkable triumphs. The film spends little time on the contexts of China and, no small thing, the sharky waters of international corporations, except to say that Ma figured out how to maintain a set of “Chinese” values while taking aim at eBay. When, eventually, the company secures a California office, millions of dollars in investments, and—of course—an IPO, the dream seems fulfilled. “We will make it,” Ma tells his team, who bounce and dance in response, “Because we are young and will never, ever give up.”
No one will ever invest millions on Kiss or Kill, but the story in In Heaven There Is No Beer is also one of struggle and triumph. The film offers, quite literally, a list of bands who appear at the club (and also appeared at its earlier incarnations, at Mr. T’s Bowling, the Garage, and Zen Sushi). Over brief bits of performance footage—say, the Dollyrots, Midway or Silver Needle—witnesses describe their experiences or characterize the bands with pithy adjectives. The Letter Openers had a charismatic leader, Bang Sugar Bang was “like this Greek orgy of rock and roll,” the Randies were “like the Go-Gos but with more rock.” KXLU DJ Sam Cramer describes the King Cheetah as “this three-piece that sounded like an orchestra.” She goes on: “The first time I saw them on stage I was like, ‘I feel like I’ve just been raped, raped in a good way, like, they’re so rabid, it was so awesome.” The phrasing suggests—like the rest of the film—that experiences at Kiss or Kill have been memorable.