Reviews

Television

Robert Horning
Television

Television

City: New York
Venue: Irving Plaza
Date: 2003-03-22

Going to see any band 25 years past their heyday seems a dangerous proposition. After so long a break one might question their motives, wondering if their touring has more to do with additions they'd like to put on their houses or children they'd like to put through college than any reinvigorated interest in their music. We worry that the performance will be entirely perfunctory, and we will be left feeling faintly like suckers, having bought into hype and nostalgia. Part of what we pay entertainers for is the illusion that they enjoy entertaining us, that they enjoy what they do. We pay them to be convinced they would have done it for nothing. Theoretically, going to see Television play Irving Plaza at this point isn't much different than seeing Blue Öyster Cult play some county fairground. After all, both are somewhat difficult '70s art rock bands, exploring esoteric lyrical concerns while showcasing phenomenal guitar work (both worked with Patti Smith, too). The difference lies in reputation: because of their late '70s New York provenance and the critical hyperbole that credits them with reinventing the guitar solo and revolutionizing instrumental interplay on their essential album Marquee Moon, Television retain a cache of cool and an aura of relevance. Now there's no reason to believe that Television have reunited for anything but the opportunity to finally reap some financial rewards for their brilliant '70s work, whose influence and reputation continues to grow. While there might be some justice in our literally paying Television their respect by seeing them play now, there is reason to fear that is all we are doing: that we are attending not their revival but their wake, and all we will see is the moribund shell of a band beloved for their lively, dynamic idiosyncrasy. A band on a reunion tour has always already been ossified by reams of critical opinion; they have been reified by their own reputation, and it becomes almost impossible to see their performance as anything but a rote enactment of those well-ingrained expectations. When a band cashes in on their reputation the audience's reaction is largely predetermined by the band's legend. At least when one sees Blue Öyster Cult, one has a sincere, spontaneous impression of what's happening, for better or for worse. But regardless of what Television actually played, it was hard to hear anything but the critical pieties -- the guitar work was magical, startling; the soloing was breathtaking, revelatory. Such declarations have lost their descriptive value; they have been so often repeated that their relation to the truth has become unverifiable. Whatever conclusions we can draw from what we saw at Irving Plaza are bound to be haunted by critical clichés. The familiar claim that Richard Lloyd is the more technical, conventional player, while Tom Verlaine the more ambitious and challenging soloist, was borne out, though it's clear once you remove them from the CBGBs context how much they both owe to British folk-rocker Richard Thompson, in their rich tone and their fluidity up and down the fret board and across the strings. The two occasionally traded licks, but thankfully this was rare, as these hackneyed call and response sessions seemed more an obligatory effort to live up to their own press than to generate any authentic musical excitement. More typically the songs were structured to give them each their moments in the spotlight. Throughout, Lloyd contributed the melodic hooks that define their most well-known songs ("See No Evil", "Venus", "Marquee Moon") and was granted occasional opportunities to rifle through scales dexterously during his solos. Verlaine, on the other hand, worked more with space, silence, harmonics and other various accidentals, pursuing a kind of bowed instrument sound effect as he controlled his guitar more with the volume knob than with a pick. He seemed to be searching for a swelling, vibrato-less sound that he didn't always find. Unlike Lloyd's, Verlaine's solos were unpredictable -- for every time they surprised with their beauty there was another where they startled with their clumsiness. His finest moments occurred during "Little Johnny Jewel", where the improvisational reaches he made were consistently rewarding. Verlaine's singing remains the same, preserving his unusual inflections and intonations, but the backup vocals croaked out by Lloyd and bassist Fred Smith were off-handed and way off-key. This mattered little; it seemed to stress the point that as far as the band was concerned, guitar playing was paramount, everything else merely the necessary bridges to their extended instrumental excursions. The extended songs worked, too. They never seemed indulgent; they seemed genuinely compelling, though I can't say how absorbing I would have found them if they were an unknown band. Part of what made their meanderings so interesting was watching how they dealt with the foregone conclusion of their brilliance. For their encores they played "Glory", an underwhelming track from their inferior Adventure album, and a surprisingly conventional version of the Count Five's garage rock standard "Psychotic Reaction". This conclusion might have been unsatisfying if the band's apparent exhaustion wasn't matched by the audience's, who by that time, after nearly 90 minutes of relentless virtuosity, had probably heard enough. Seeing Television perform ultimately felt like going to the museum. What we saw was undeniably excellent, but somewhat stultifying nonetheless. All the expectations we had were inexorably confirmed without surprise or provocation. And even had they wanted to provoke or confound us, such is their reputation that it might not have been possible, so willing were we to forgive or reinterpret what we heard in the aura of their storied greatness. Valéry wrote that the museum was where our culture put the art of the past to death. One might say now that the reunion tour is where great bands of the past put themselves to death, re-enacting the closed book of their achievements for a crowd delighted and comforted by the safety of a sure thing.

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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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