Music

Ultraísta: Ultraísta

Ultraísta doesn't feel like a great record, it feels like a template for one.


Ultraísta

Ultraísta

Label: Temporary Residence
US Release Date: 2012-10-02
UK Release Date: 2012-10-02
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When it comes to producer Nigel Godrich, it's always difficult to predict what move he'll make next. While the announcement of Ultraísta was certainly unexpected, it wasn't too surprising. Godrich had been flirting with being a band-member due to the importance of his production on records like Beck's Sea Change and The Information as well as his work with Radiohead which dates back to 1994. On Ultraísta he teams up with vocalist Laura Bettinson and percussionist Joey Waronker. The pair suit Godrich's strange electronic impulses quite well and their self-titled debut provides ample evidence to back that claim up.

"Bad Insect", the track that opens the record, has been floating around for a while now and has earned it's repeated plays and the listener's attention. Coming across as something resembling kraut-pop it does an effective job of setting the records tone and did a more than effective job heightening the anticipation for the record. The atmospherics on display are, somewhat surprisingly, incredibly bleak. There's a strange sense of melancholy darkness of an almost romantic nature that permeates throughout Ultraísta, rendering it an even more inviting affair. "Gold Dayzz" and "Static Light" both sustain and establish Ultraísta's pacing, while also revealing the bands tendency to use structures that begin to feel somewhat formulaic.

Fortunately "Strange Formula" and "Our Song" both prove more than up to the task of dismantling any notions of Ultraísta being a one trick pony. There's an exhilarating yet subtle rise/fall dynamic coursing throughout the former and a step towards greater accessibility with the latter. Hell, if you were to switch Bettinson for James Murphy, "Our Song" could conceivably be a scrapped song from This Is Happening, which is much more of a compliment than an insult. "Easier" slows Ultraísta down a little, even if it does add heavily to the atmospheric aspect of the record. However, after the pianos roll in and the song plays itself out, Ultraísta seems as if it's landed back on its feet and is ready to make a mad dash towards its end.

"Smalltalk" accelerates the record in every sense and stands out as an easy highlight, bringing to mine an amphetamine-addled Portishead. Despite how good that song is, Ultraísta's best moment may be what most listeners will gloss over or give little thought to. I'm talking about the perfect transition between "Smalltalk" and "Party Line" that occurs over a fraction of a second. There's a sudden release from a building crescendo that drops immediately into the pulsating electronic beat (soon to be joined by the records smoothest percussion track) of "Party Line". It's an inexplicably thrilling moment that serves as the perfect lead-in to the records outright best song. "Party Line" is mannered, concise, and incredibly seductive, which seems to be the combined angle the band yearns for throughout the course of the record. They finally hit it dead-on with "Party Line" and the result is spectacular.

The record closes with "Wash It Over" and "You're Out" which do prove to be two of the better songs on the record but remain a little too similar (both vocally and instrumentally) in spots to warrant too much praise. However, they do put a nice bow on Ultraísta and simultaneously represent the records flaws and strengths. Yes, Ultraísta is inventive but it overloads on likeness and similarity. There's enough here to warrant several listens and maybe even an impulse purchase but not quite enough to suggest that a follow-up record is necessary.

6

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

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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