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PopMatters Gauges the Heat at NXNE 2005: In Remembrance of Music Past

In Remembrance of Music Past by Robert Wheaton - NXNE's film festival showcases three attempts to document music at different stages and from wildly different backgrounds. But they all come from the same place.

PopMatters Gauges the Heat at NXNE 2005
In Remembrance of Music Past

NXNE's film festival showcases three attempts to document music at different stages and from wildly different backgrounds. But they all come from the same place.

by Robert Wheaton

Nostalgia is the dominant emotion in much filmmaking about music. The primary impulse of many biopics, musicals, and documentaries is to memorialize music or musicians who have had a significant impact on the filmmaker's life. Too often this has its own dangers: the rare biopic that does not sag with pacing problems suffers because it cannot establish any critical distance from its subject. But the mode can be uncannily beautiful � from the elegiac rhythms of, say, Clint Eastwood's Bird, or the smoke-filled purism of Robert Altman's Kansas City.

It's hard to imagine anyone attempting to invoke nostalgia with hip-hop's pointless and callously violent mid-'90s East Coast/West Coast feud. But it's only one of a number of disingenuous tactics undertaken by Booker Sim's Tragedy: The Story of Queensbridge to persuade you that the story of rapper Tragedy Khadafi is worthy of film-length analysis � and, indeed, that his story encapsulates the experience of Queensbridge, the largest public housing development in the United States.

Director: Booker Sims
Release Date: 23 January 2005

The film is billed as "a documentary about the world's largest housing projects, with the richest legacy in hip-hop". For this to be true the viewer has to accept several tortuous turns of logic. The first is that Tragedy's life is a more instructive window onto the Queensbridge experience than, say, that of Nas, whose 1994 Illmatic LP is for many the definitive hip-hop statement about life on the New York projects. Tragedy, the film asserts with mind-numbing repetition, is more original, more genuine, and 'realer' than Nas � and that these qualities make him more representative of Queensbridge. Indeed, the conceit is that he somehow is Queensbridge, and that his experience is a more interesting and insightful way to approach the housing complex than, for example, spending time with more than five of the actual residents. Indeed, it is the absence of people not in Tragedy's trusted inner circle that starves this film of any genuine perspective, and highlights the tortuously macho bubble from which it examines the world. Apart from his stepmother, who spends most of her screen time bizarrely and shrilly insisting that Nas is not worthy of comparison to Tragedy, there are no women present in the film at all.

Tragedy is also the executive producer of this film, which should serve as a warning of the charmless and slavish hagiography that it is. The film follows Tragedy's life in chronological sequence, from a childhood spent with his junkie mother through teenage membership of the legendary Juice Crew, incarceration, the 1990 release of Intelligent Hoodlum, and his later role as mentor and sometime producer for Capone -N- Noreaga, Mobb Deep, and founder of the 25 To Life label.

With predictably generous access to Tragedy and his entourage, Booker Sim has assembled a great deal of material, and very little of it is any good at all. Sim doesn't have footage of Tragedy being arrested the day after 2003's Still Reportin' was released, so instead we see him driving around the city the previous night, occasionally in sight of police cars as he and his friends get snacks. The dramatic reenactments of his childhood are lifeless � even the scene in which he is tied up by his mother to prevent him from escaping the house. Worse, the interminably dull meandering of Tragedy's associates is deeply self-indulgent, revealing the absence of a good editor. Capone is particularly bad, endlessly mumbling � apparently drunk or stoned � in front of the camera, brandishing a gun that most of the audience must be desperately wishing he would turn upon himself.

There are some powerful � if derivative � moments: the opening montage features some striking sepia photographs of Queensbridge cross-cut with night photography. Early on, the film's palette is grimy, over-exposed, blurred; it feels cheap and dated, and perfectly complements the impressionistic evocation of the mid- to late '70s. But the film's central suffusing weakness � even as a biopic � is that there is no critical distance from the subject, essentially making the entire film a vanity project. There are some completely pointless moments that reek of nothing but nostalgia for its own sake. Why do we need to see Tragedy voicing over 1996's "LA, LA" while gazing mournfully out over the New York skyline? The objectivity of the narrative voiceover disintegrates to the point that it could easily be the strutting bluster of Tragedy himself: "Snoop Dogg and the Dogg Pound attacked the East Coast". Critically speaking, this approach is a disaster, but it also kicks the legs out from under the films dramatic moments; we are so close to Tragedy's perspective throughout that even the death of his mother has no differentiated emotional impact.

Far more corrosive in its implications is the film's treatment of Tragedy's politics. The conspiracy theory and argument-by-association that passes for educated cynicism among the truly uninformed is given full voice. Tragedy asserts that the Bush administration lied about Al Queda's role in the 9/11 attacks, reasoning � if that's the word � that "we know that they lie: Watergate, the Oliver North jump-off", and that "the same things that go on in government go on in the hood." Several montages accompany Tragedy's lyrics: cities (presumably Beirut) in flames, images of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Muammar Gaddafi. To call this radical chic would be to insult those people who manufacture Che T-shirts for tourists and misguided students. Tragedy is given free rein to ignore the problems of crime, poverty, and racism � the real problems that bedevil public urban housing in the States � in favor of machismo posturing about 'war'. All of this is an embarrassment to the memory of figures like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rapp Brown; the Black Panthers were articulate and well-read figures, even the disturbed and dangerous personalities among them like Eldridge Cleaver. Nostalgia for such voices has always been at the heart of hip-hop's claims to political relevance, but it is done little service by absurd and frankly obscene claims that "Queensbridge Projects are Kuwait, LeFrak Projects are Iraq, Long Island is Lebanon, Brooklyn is Baghdad, the Bronx is Bosnia."

Tragedy was shown alongside JJ Villard's charming "God is so Close Now" and Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World, a flamboyantly literate and manic take on Stalinist propaganda films, matinee adventure caper, and messianic religion. Against the depth, complexity, and charm of those shorts, Tragedy offers little to disguise its essential status as a dressed-up MTV biopic.

* * * * * * * * * *

Director: Jefferson Root
Release Date: 6 September 2003

Kathleen Olmstead and Jill Riley's The Hard Facts of a Rock 'n' Roll Crush is an amusing, pithy, and poignant short film, with a sure sense of the local and of intimate. For the most part those are the same qualities that Jefferson Root's Mix Tape aspires to, here enjoying its Canadian premiere. If Tragedy attempts to construct a documentary from uncritical nostalgia, Mix Tape attempts a drama from a similar position, with its low-budget celebration of cassette tapes and the mixes made by lovelorn and smitten young men.

It's obvious what Mix Tape aspires too: there are echoes of Kevin Smith's Clerks � a collection of profanely witty side-characters working low-end jobs � and the heat-loss model of relationships of, say, David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls. But the film's production values are hopelessly amateurish, a tendency that spills over into the writing. The characters talk across one another in an attempt to sound insouciant. There's one moment at which this works: a bartender, who resembles Chris Penn, obsesses about tape brands and model numbers in the manner of a character from Reservoir Dogs. As parody or character sketch, this would have worked, but most of the characters sound similarly out-of-place, as if they are auditioning for a part in an Elmore Leonard adaptation. What's more, the camera is habitually too close; the resulting feeling of intimacy jars when paired with the dialogue's artificial distance, making it seem self-conscious and needy. The acting isn't perfect, but the cast do what they can with the film's structural problems � the expository material that comes too late, the unprepared-for change of heart of a major character. Scenes don't so much end as they do elapse.

For its flaws, there is something extremely likable about the film. A handful of genuinely amusing and charming moments offset the missed opportunities and contrivances by which, for example, a character ends up with a girl's phone number written on both hands. The clunky production � poor sound recording, actors stepping across one another's light � in many ways echo the ghastly physical properties of the cassette tape itself. The film successfully evokes the noise and clatter of the plastic cases, marker pen and card labels, the fragility of the magnetic tape itself, the boxiness and clunkiness of the medium.

The film is a period piece � set in 1999 � and while many of the details are right (the size of portable phones, for instance), at some point it becomes too self-conscious: in 1999, would a film buff volunteer to show a girl his "video collection"? There's something slightly off about the choice of period, too. The film is set at the last possible moment at which the mixtape could be nostalgically invoked, since the cheap prevalence of CDRs and mp3s has made home-made mixes � digital mixes � even more ubiquitous than before (if, perhaps, less endlessly obsessed-over).

The compact audio cassette tape was primarily a medium of the 1980s, and it was a step backwards both in sound quality and in usability. There's something slightly strange about a paean to a medium that has been replaced by something far more intuitive, easier to distribute, and more pleasant to access. Perhaps it's something about the smell of the tape. The cassette's great boon was the Sony Walkman, which dovetailed nicely with the era's rhetoric of personal choice and mobility, and its ethic of corporate self-interest.

The Walkman did much to introduce the vile aesthetics of music-as-status-accessory, a tendency that Mix Tape doesn't successfully distance itself from. Characters muse that "There's no way she's going to appreciate what you're giving her", or that their mix is a "litmus test" for a potential girlfriend. They agonize about what songs to include and how they might be interpreted. They don't talk to one another, and they can't imagine a reaction to music on its own merits, or on the basis of personal experience. Everything, instead, is bogged down in tortuous considerations about what it all might mean. If the entire enterprise seems distant, impersonal, and somehow phony, perhaps it is because none of the characters actually sit down to experience something for themselves. They're all too busy asking questions of it: What does it signify? Will it make me look good? How am I supposed to experience it? What does society tell me I should do now? In that sense, the film does a good job of recording the preening anxiety that some bring to the appreciation of music.

* * * * * * * * * *

Director: Rogier Kappers
Release Date (Netherlands): 22 November 2004

The archivist's impulse is somewhat different from that of the critic or dramatist � though it too may have its beginnings in nostalgia or, as Rob Bowman of York University has suggested, in voyeurism and exoticism. Rogier Kappers's Lomax: The Song Hunter is a documentary that follows the footsteps of music archivist Alan Lomax � best known for his work in the American South � through Scotland, Italy, and Spain. Exactly what motivates Kappers, a Dutch filmmaker, is less clear, but he has an eye for the untrained moment � a husband and wife bickering about the lyrics to a song they have not heard sung for fifty years, an elderly pianist asking for another take as she fluffs a note.

It is, in a sense, this eye for the human that makes Kappers's material such a good foil for Lomax's work. Lomax's concerns were at least twofold. First, he followed his father's mission to rescue from oblivion folk musics that were rapidly disappearing under the homogenizing spread of modern mass communications media. Secondly, he illustrated how music was fundamentally integrated into � and came from � the daily rhythms of living, rather than being a supplement to it as a thing solely of leisure or, in today's world, of commerce. He argued, for instance, that the unique musics of Scotland's distant Hebrides islands came not from the sound of the ocean around the islands, but from the rhythms of their work preparing cloth. In Spain he outlined a belief that "character of songs can reveal the character of the whole community."

While most of the people that Lomax recorded over 50 years ago are dead or have moved on without leaving a trace, Kappers uncovers enough of them to construct a warm and convincing outline of Lomax's character and his endeavor. What emerges is a portrait with many voices, something quite in keeping with the communal character of much of the music Lomax recorded. In Spain and Italy, requests to perform music produce spontaneous gatherings in which the boundaries between performance and participation become malleable. There is some charming footage of seniors dancing in town squares and in the aisles of stores. While this may be a nostalgic exercise for those involved, Kappers is careful to keep the film's character sketches crisp and largely unsentimental, leaving room for Lomax's character flaws and idiosyncrasies � his "colossal ego" and his quixotic arguments about sexual freedom.

Lomax argued for what he called "cultural equity" � that equal time in the media and in classroom be given to all cultures. "That's all we've got," he argued. "We're just culture." That call seems naive, very much a product of the archivist's instinctive quest for order. But it's refreshing to see a character presented with such unencumbered honesty; the footage of Lomax after the stroke he suffered in 1996 is both disarmingly naked and respectfully frank.

It's tempting to believe that film, with its access to unvoiced visual reactions, is a more reliable way to record music's place in culture than audio recordings alone. In a sense, it doesn't even manner how well the film is made: Tragedy is a revealing documentary, though it requires more context � the American cult of celebrity, the politics of hip-hop � than it either promises or provides. Mix Tape hints at some of the qualities of the cassette tape in spite of its own dramatic agenda. But the sincerity of Lomax sets it apart: Kappers knows that the filmmaker is always a cultural archivist of sorts, and he faces that responsibility modestly and with sensitivity to the spirit of his subjects and the music. He gives the music space, in other words, and he doesn't try to crowd its presentation or control our reaction to it. He doesn't tell us what it means, and so it means more.

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