Camper Van Beethoven

Cori Taratoot
Camper Van Beethoven

Camper Van Beethoven

City: Portland, Oregon
Venue: Crystal Ballroom
Date: 2004-02-17
When you go to see a cult band from your college days, a band gone for ten years, it's hard not to indulge in moody sentiment. And then there's the schizoid nature of the rock 'n' roll reunion tour. Sentimentality and cynicism (it is, you know, all about the money); emotional turmoil and automaton setlists. Everywhere I look, there are balding white men steeped in their sweaty joy. The air is addictive, the band is playing tighter than you might think possible -- but I can hardly stay here. How can you watch one of your favorite college bands reunite, and not fall into the ruthless suck of revisiting your former life? An automatic reflex -- the ability to deny and rationalize the fact that time is passing - is jerking me around. Repeatedly. So, a million times over, high-fives for the middle part of the set. There's nothing to do but jump and stomp and scream along. The anthems of surfers and punk rockers and high-school geeks ("Take the Skinheads Bowling" and "Skinhead Stomp" and the Clash's "White Riot") bring us together in a selfless riotous sing-along. Those vocal-driven loser rock rants make us a mosh pit, put us on stage, make us believe we're in the band. When CVB reunited last year, 99.9% of the world slept through it. Live performances went undetected. The snarky boys from Santa Cruz historically attracted the smaller numbers, the fringes, with their punk rock leanings, Russian folk fetishes, and heavy metal daydreams. Back then, we were all losers, but the next card coming was an ace, and CVB was our secret. The original core members -- David Lowery (vocals), Victor Krummenacher (bass/vocals), Jonathan Segal (violin/keyboards/vocals), and Greg Lisher (guitarist) -- have swallowed their collective pride and buried the hatchet. What will they play? How will they sound? Will they melt down on stage? It turns out that tonight's set is a mish-mash from the band's five records, mostly tracks from Key Lime Pie and Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, the band's releases on Virgin Records. David Lowery is stage right; he handles most of the vocals. But Krummenacher seems like the band's unspoken leader, confident and grounding, his bass lines define the band's sound. Think of The Who's John Entwistle, or R.E.M.'s Mike Mills. Revisiting the 1980s is a mixed bag. Camper Van Beethoven may not intend it, but they're forcing us to wake the fuck up. Again. Admit our own mediocrity. Admit that the Reagan-Bush years are still with us. Admit that we're aging GenXers, whatever that means. So this is fun, and not much fun, all at the same time. Here's the thing about subversive surfers who rock (with Santa Cruz in their veins and a back catalog of odd hummable tunes). You remember exactly where you were when you heard "The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon". Or "Tina". Or "Where the Hell is Bill?". You remember who you were dating, what you were listening to, who you thought you were. At the beginning of the evening, David Lowery is on stage with his other band, Cracker. His cowboy hat is turned-down, his face is hidden. (It's worth mentioning that violinist/keyboardist Jonathan Segal and bassist Victor Krummenacher join the band for their entire set.) Lowery's singing his radio-friendly "Low" -- the one with that clouded chorus ("Hey, hey, hey/ like being st-ohh-ned?") -- and the crowd moves between ambivalence and celebratory recognition. There are two audiences inside of this venue. Older fans thumb their noses at the commercially viable material. They look bored. And the Grateful Dead contingent seems to depress them, the hard-cores, old enough to remember Reagan getting shot. Cracker resonates with some slice of the crowd. Friends two-step, spilling their beer, slapping each other on the backs. I remember seeing Camper Van Beethoven perform before they broke up. It was 1989. Smart-aleck musicians on stage (screaming with over-inflated punctuation, "I... Was... So... Waaaaaasted.... I was wasted!") clashed against the backdrop of a room that felt like church, on a campus that felt distinctly Ivy League. Students ran the university's public radio station and spun Key Lime Pie regularly. Someone close to me had just died. And tonight, as we're filtering out of the venue after the second encore, I eavesdrop on the couple next to me. "Remember our friend," she says to him, maybe he's her husband, "remember how he lived in a house with Camper in California?" She looks pensive. "He was always pissed off that they made it. He still talks about it." And the fellow to my right is saying, "I remember that road trip, in New Mexico, I remember listening to them and falling asleep as we drove down that canyon." Me? I'm thinking about an old friend. He sent me a mix tape when he heard I was sad. He was living in Paris. He named the tape Songs to Be Happy To." The third song on the first side was "Tania". I mention all of this, because seeing Camper Van Beethoven now, in 2004, is both intoxicating and scrambling. I feel the shadows of a prankster. I feel my indexed memory banks being reshuffled. Something tells me I'm not alone. And like the cowpunk cerebral jesters they are, this is the bum deal Camper Van Beethoven offers. You're elated. You're transported back in time. You're old. You don't talk to the mix tape guy anymore. And music still excites you. If you've got the stomach for it, see for yourself.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

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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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