Reviews

The Wilco Book (Book + CD) by Wilco

Michael Metivier

It's clear to see that without this kind of playful exploration to rein back for their song-based work, Wilco might not be Wilco.


The Wilco Book (book + Cd)

Publisher: PictureBox, Inc.
Length: 160
Display Artist: Wilco, Dan Nadel, Peter Buchanan-Smith, Rick Moody, Fred Tomaselli
Price: $29.95
Author: Fred Tomaselli
US publication date: 2004-10
Amazon

Wherever I've been on the continuum between Wilco casual admirer and Wilco superfan (and I've been all over), my initial reaction to the release of The Wilco Book was of extreme suspicion and disbelief. With an acclaimed documentary, a string of successful albums, a book of poetry by the frontman, is the band really that good to warrant further ass-kissing in the form of a coffee-table book? Oh my sweet Jesus, etc. Upon inspection, there are a few eye-roll-worthy moments in these pages and on the accompanying CD (I'm looking at you, Rick Moody), but the overall mission here appears to be earnest exploration, not ego-fulfilling conquest. What a relief.

The Book

Insights on recording, writing, touring, gear, and all the attendant rock and roll flotsam aren't particularly interesting because they're about Wilco specifically, but because they illuminate the lives of working artists in general. Each band member chimes in with pieces of varying length on a variety of different topics, from tour bus boredom to favorite equipment to their different artistic methods and processes. For instance, Glenn Kotche writes "I think that the drum kit hasn't been explored enough outside of the parameters of groove-based jazz of rock and that it has an exciting future. In a rock band, I think as much technique should be amassed as possible and then forgotten, only rearing its head for reasons of musicality or lyrical support." This is invigorating material not just for drummers, not just for musicians, not just for Wilco.

Likewise, bassist John Stirratt talks about touring, "David Byrne is an avid bicyclist; he goes out immediately after arrival and spends all day on the bike, then arrives for check. It's that window in the morning between arrival and sound check when you have time to see the town you're in, which is a huge plus about touring, for me -- even in Orlando." This quote is accompanied by a bright color photo of backstage catering spread, complete with pita bread, Honey Nut Clusters, and M&M's. The presentation of life in a band is far from both the cynicism of Meeting People Is Easy and the exuberance of, I don't know, a KISS comic book. It's human, demythologized, and dirt real. It's a shame more bands don't have the means to put together a project like this because the snapshots and anecdotes feel like part of a conversation as opposed to manifesto. The artwork includes photography by Michael Schmelling, primarily of the band and their instruments. The artwork is attributed to the band and various collaborators, some of which is stunning. The layout and arrangement are thoughtfully done, again emphasizing the love and investment of art as life's work.

Essays by Henry Miller, Walter Sear, and Rick Moody are also included. Miller's piece, first published in 1962, in is interesting mostly because its inclusion creates links between generations as well as art forms. Walter Sear (the 75-year-old founder of Sear Sound studios) is delightful, particularly when he writes, "If I have anything to say at all about Wilco, it's Get a choreographer." Moody's piece, unfortunately, is nearly unbearable. In contrast to the mostly candid thoughts and reflections elsewhere, its analysis of five Wilco songs (one from each album) is overblown to the point of absurdity. The writing assumes a jocular tone of "hey buddy, let's rap about some tunes" at the same time it digs way too deep into songs like A.M.'s "Dash 7". I'm as big a proponent of pop songs as legitimate, essay-worthy art as anyone, but portions of Moody's essay are so extreme, they almost make me want to argue otherwise. Not exactly a high point to end this half of the review on, but I will say this: ickiness aside, as a music fanatic I still could not turn away.

The CD

The accompanying CD is obviously the big draw for completists, a collection of 12 structured improvisations, field recordings, and A Ghost Is Born almost-rans. After Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, news filtered out that its follow-up (dubbed Decibels Per Minute) would consist of these experiments. Well, it's a good thing these tracks didn't compose the next official release, but it's also a great thing that they have found a better, wholly appropriate, context to be heard. I say this because if knuckleheads freaked out over the "avant garde" flavor of "Spiders/Kidsmoke", their heads would've popped right off during "Doubt". But releasing these tracks as part of The Wilco Book concept allows them to be heard for what they are: the necessary play good musicians engage in towards progressing their sound. Is the dropped percussion doodling of "Hamami" great experimental music? Not really, no. But in the life of a consistently evolving rock band it's as important as anything else. Tweedy writes in the book, "Personally, I feel better when I'm making raw material -- sketching stuff musically, writing things in notebooks, just accumulating." The Wilco Book CD is pure accumulation, sometimes producing worthwhile pieces like "Diamond Claw" and "Pure Bug Beauty", most often not. It's fascinating nonetheless. New hire Mikael Jorgensen provides excellent notes on each track, describing the process behind recording them. One recurring exercise put Jeff Tweedy in a room alone with (usually) a guitar, unable to hear the other members. The rest of the band is isolated elsewhere, with the option of hearing Jeff's improvising or not. They play along accordingly. Whether or not the results will be played at your Christmas party this year (try it) is beside the point. It's clear to see that without this kind of playful exploration to rein back for their song-based work, Wilco might not be Wilco.

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"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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