[6 May 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
Among fans of avant garde music, Marc Ribot is probably the most celebrated, revered, and influential guitarist of the past 20 years. His vast body of work is difficult, passionate, and fearlessly unbounded by either convention or genre. He has played with a stunning array of artists, from Wilson Pickett to Tom Waits to John Zorn, playing everything from traditional jazz to classical to free-form to punk to funk to soul.
Throughout it all, he has developed a language all his own, a punk sensibility behind a virtuosic mastery of craft and form, which inspires, confounds, and influences his many listeners. Ribot, then, is a fascinating musician, by any reckoning. But, is he an equally fascinating man?
The short answer is: Yes. He is mercurial, caustic, and powerfully introspective. He speaks with a mild New York accent and a whisper of pretension. He has thought long and hard about what he does, and why – and, unlike many other artists, he has instructive answers. He meditates on the nature of creativity, on inspiration, on the role of art in a world so full of horror. He wonders if noise, not silence, is the natural state. He worries that he is just piling more junk on the ever-growing garbage heap of modernity. He struggles with the idea of poetry after Auschwitz, and beauty in a time of war.
In this too-brief biographical film, French documentarian Anaïs Prosaïc aims to unravel the mystery surrounding this complicated artist. He has Ribot himself narrate the piece, through a combination of interviews and pithy voice-overs which sound not unlike carefully considered diary entries. The result is a private quality to the film, if only a glimmer of a real insight into the man at its centre.
If there is one coherent theme in the film, it is that Ribot sees himself, and above all his art, as being grounded in the punk sensibilities of the no wave movement. Ribot explains that he saw in that storied scene at the twilight of the ‘70s something true, something real, and he was inspired to follow it. But as it fell apart, becoming commercialized and blurred amid the clutter of drugs and the advent of AIDS, something fundamental was lost. It had become sterilized; the “wound”, as he puts it, was paved over.
For this is the problem with this scattershot portrait of a film – as intriguing as this idea might be, we don’t get to spend any time exploring it. As soon as a compelling idea is addressed it is gone, and we have moved away: to shots of his punk band in the late ‘80s, or to those of a more recent Cuban-influenced effort. Suddenly we are listening to his solo classical guitar; and then it is fiery rock, then droning ambient noise.
The filmmaker seems content with this vague assemblage of snippets, his intended message clearly that Ribot cannot be defined by genre or expectation, but this comes at the expense of comprehensibility. Had the viewer no foreknowledge of the artist, the film would seem little more than, at best, a confusing portrait of a weirdly interesting musician or, at worst, a pathetic study of a minor wannabe. Indeed, there is little here to suggest the influence this man has over his peers; nor is there any real indication of just what it is we are meant to be learning in watching the film. Not to mention the fact that the title suggests a thematic metaphor that the film neither addresses nor even approaches.
A lot of this could have been solved rather easily – the use of titles which inform us of just who people are and why they are worth listening to, for example, would have made the interviews seem much less random – but some of it is just bred in the bone. Prosaïc just makes too many weird decisions, and produces a wildly incomplete biography as a result. To take the most glaring example, Tom Waits, who championed Ribot and who has employed him on many of his greatest records, is never even mentioned. And John Zorn, rightly described in the film as the spearhead of the radical Jewish music and culture movement of which Ribot is a major element, is widely discussed but neither seen nor heard! You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that he was dead – but, of course, he isn’t. They just didn’t interview him.
The 52-minute feature is supplemented by a short concert film which, in allowing us to ponder the mystery of this man’s prodigious talent as he speaks to us through his art, is perhaps even more revealing than the documentary.