Music

Alejandro Escovedo: The Boxing Mirror

Escovedo's brush with death yields one of his best records.


Alejandro Escovedo

The Boxing Mirror

Label: Back Porch Records
US Release Date: 2006-05-02
UK Release Date: 2006-05-22
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When Brian Johnson rasped "have a drink on me" on AC/DC's triumphant Back in Black, it was with a rueful tip of the hat to the band's late lead singer, Bon Scott, who had followed the bottle right into the grave. But like every other moment on that darkly inspired album, that invitation came with a wink and a nod, an admission that the party wasn't completely derailed.

Not so with Alejandro Escovedo, who utters roughly the same line to kick off The Boxing Mirror. In Escovedo's case, there's no one to sing a raucous wake in his honor; he's still here. And he realizes that he dodged a bullet during all his years of drinking and late nights, even after he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. As it stands, a drink could quite literally kill him, and right off the bat, The Boxing Mirror uses that sense of resigned gratitude at a second chance to forge one of Escovedo's most aggressive, self-confrontational albums.

One only has to consider the album's title, with its suggestion of a man sparring with himself, to see that Escovedo is as unflinching as ever. This shouldn't come as a surprise. 1992's Gravity and 1993's Thirteen Years dealt with both his failed marriage and the later death of his wife, from whom he had separated. No reason to expect he'd flinch from facing his own mortality, which he faced when Hepatitis C, internal bleeding, and cirrhosis of the liver drove him to collapse after a show.

So when he sings "have another drink on me / I've been empty since Arizona / I turned my back on me / and I faced the face of who I thought I was", it's loaded with meaning. There's the ambivalence towards alcohol, and to the life Escovedo had been living. There's also the sense that Escovedo, happy though he may be to still be alive, doesn't view everything through Chicken Soup for the Rocker's Soul-branded glasses. The song's title locale of Arizona also serves double-duty: as the location of his body's collapse, but also where he met his poet-wife Kim Christoff. A lurching string melody and a simmering synth line, topped by a fierce guitar solo, also prove off the bat that John Cale was the right producer to helm an album containing so many conflicting threads.

As a whole, the album veers between hard-edged Stonesy rockers and more delicate moments, befitting the ebbs and flows of Escovedo's life. He pays homage to his wife by putting two of her poems, "Dearhead on the Wall" and "Notes on Air", to music. But those aren't tender poems. "Dearhead" channels the sadness that radiates from a stuffed deer head; "Notes on Air" is equally dark, boasting manic, tortured lap steel playing by Jon Dee Graham. Escovedo revisits his own "Sacramento & Polk" (from 1999's Bourbonitis Blues), making it more ferocious in the process.

Conversely, the delicate, lovestruck arrangement of "The Ladder" sounds like it's wind-borne from some back-alley cantina as Escovedo croons, "Amongst the oaks the shapes are shifting / A shift to meld you into me". "Evita's Lullabye", properly named for its comforting sway, starts off, "As your last breath hung forever / Were you dancing behind the beat?" and only gets more enigmatic from there. The easy-going "Died a Little Today" befits the calmer, wiser Escovedo, who lets the song blossom from his own literal brush with death into a slightly larger meditation on the smaller deaths of everyday choices.

If anything clouds the reflection offered by The Boxing Mirror, it comes in the form of a couple of odd production choices. Throughout the album, Cale's production is sure-handed, guiding Escovedo to sounds and arrangements that complement his lyrics. "Dearhead on the Wall" opts for violin strains (courtesy of Poi Dog Pondering's Susan Voelz, who does wonderful work throughout the record) that could arguably be considered dated, but at least they're organic and natural. "Looking for Love", though, opts for cheesy keyboards and compressed drums that would make Duran Duran proud, with some cymbal taps that go straight to an easily annoyed part of your brain. "Take Your Place" takes flight on keyboards that don't stop until they land firmly in the '80s. It's jarring, and the responsibility apparently lies with Escovedo, who wanted to take a song that started out as a pure rocker and make it more danceable. Thankfully, we get that original version in the form of an alternate mix to close out the album, and it blows the doors off of Escovedo's preferred, lighter version.

In the end, it seems silly to bring even those few missteps up, as the rest of The Boxing Mirror is so surprisingly strong. Escovedo's career is already remarkable for its consistency, even before you consider his struggle against Hepatitis C. Highlights like The Boxing Mirror are simply a bonus. Escovedo's ability to pull off an album like this -- after nearly dying, and then enduring an arduous recovery -- is validation of every rave he's ever gotten.

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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