Music

Marc Ribot: Silent Movies

Two years ago, Marc Ribot's "rock" band gave us one of the best albums of the year. Now he can claim 2010 with his (almost) solo disc of film music.


Marc Ribot

Silent Movies

Label: Pi
US Release Date: 2010-09-28
UK Release Date: 2010-09-20
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Artist website
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In a world positively overstuffed with guitarists, Marc Ribot stands out. It's not necessarily because of his technical abilities, but because he can squeeze more feeling out of the three notes that make up "Hot Cross Buns" than most young hotshots can out of a complicated Bach fugue. It's been a long career for Ribot -- over 20 years as a solo artist at this point, and deriving longevity from simplicity is no game for weaklings. This is why a solo (re: no band) offering from Marc Ribot is such a welcome thing: it shows an already brilliant musician in an even more brilliant setting.

Silent Movies drops two years after Ribot one-two punched us all in 2008 with Exercises in Futility and Party Intellectuals. The former, released on John Zorn's Tzadik label, took the idea of solo acoustic guitar to an abstract, atonal breaking point, while the latter was the debut album for his first "rock" band, Ceramic Dog. Silent Movies, meanwhile, is pure, melodic solo guitar with just a twist of weird, courtesy of Keefus Ciancia's soundscapes. Heavy on atmospherics and light on histrionics, this has got to be one of Ribot's best recordings.

In the liner notes, Marc writes "This is an album of film music: some were pieces originally composed for movie scores, others for films I turned down but found myself writing for anyway, still others for projects that never existed outside of my head". By keeping the context nice and vague, we can only guess which of these numbers are from "real" scores, and which are set to imaginary films. The only specific indication that we get is Ribot explaining that he performed live music for a screening of Charlie Chaplin's The Kid earlier in the year. The track "The Kid" is a wonder unto itself, overflowing with harmonic tricks and a safely syncopated vamp that keeps the piece from committing to neither jazz nor contemporary folk, yet casting reverent glances to both. And it's something that can hummed.

Considering these 13 tracks were recorded in three days with few overdubs, Marc Ribot does an exceptional job of sustaining mood. "Bateau" gets a repeat performance from Party Intellectuals, predictably stripped of the random background noise that almost reduced the song to being a shiny apple unseen in the pumpkin patch. On Silent Movies though, it is marvelous in its self-accompaniment. "Radio" is definitely the closest Ribot comes to sounding like a canned soundtrack to an old silent film on the album, most likely the use of a certain microphone or filter on his guitar. The introduction to "Natalia In E Flat" could be the furthest he gets from the silent film mystique, just barely controlling the feedback and string noise on his guitar. "Postcards from N.Y." and "Requiem for a Revolution" both take a different approach altogether, letting Ciancia's effects set the scene before Ribot steps into the center of the sound with his unassuming yet affecting compositions. When it comes to "Solaris", I can only assume it relates to the films based on Stanislaw Lem's science fiction novel. I've read the book and watched both film versions, and trying to match Ribot's tense finger rolls to interplanetary scientists puzzling over their personified pasts is a stretch for me.

But like that matters. Silent Movies is able to take all of the disparate descriptions above and press them into one unifying album. Marc Ribot really ought to have the opportunity to score films more often, because the results can be breathtaking.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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