Buena Vista Social Club and Calle 54

This past weekend I watched the Buena Vista Social Club movie. I had never seen it before for no good reason. I loved the album when it first came out, had it on repeat(n) for months. The Amazon reviews for Buena Vista also referred to Calle 54, a film about Afro-Cuban jazz directed by Spanish directory Fernando Prueba (La Belle Epoque), who is a big fan of Latin jazz. Many of the Amazon reviewers liked Calle 54 better. I thought that judgement was unfair – they were quite different films.

In Buena Vista, director Wim Wenders shows the shabby beauty of late-90s Havana, and the joy and skill of the musicians’ performing and interacting. The movie cuts among travelogue scenes; stories of the musicians in their 70s-90s who were stars in the pre-revolutionary “son” style, returning from obscure retirement, and snippets of music footage. The highlight of the film is a blazing performance of ”El Cuarto de Tula” led by singer Ibrahim Ferrer.

The story telling is implicit and simple on the surface. On the one hand, translating into words cheapens the effect (triumph of the human spirit, universal language, ageless zest for life). On the other hand, the musicians are portrayed as characters in a fable. It’s the way they are interviewed and tell their stories, “I was born in poverty, in a mountain town.” It’s in the way their material and social circumstances are portrayed – jazz pianist Ruben Gonzalez no longer owns a piano and plays at a gym for competitive gymnastics hopefuls. Singer Ibrahim Ferrer continues the folk spiritual tradition as he gives daily librations of rum to his santeria altar; the image is a carving given to him by his mother. A PBS “making of” essay has an interesting perspective about the fable-like quality of the musicians’ stories – as entertainers and performers of folk-derived popular music, they contributed to the mythical flavor of their own stories.

The language and class barriers make a difference. You can see it in the way the musicians talk about Ry Cooder. Ferrer is surprised that a song he tossed off as a warmup was recorded and used on the album – “Ry Cooder liked it.” Throughout his career, Ry Cooder has searched for great music as a student and seeker, and collaborated with musicians from a variety of traditions in various parts of the world. He endured a lot of hassle from the US government in making this film, and tries pretty hard to stay in the background in Buena Vista, instead of taking center stage, white-guy-hero style. Part of the reason the Buena Vista album is great is Ry Cooder’s musical sensibility. Either I am a philistine vulnerable to his accessible cross-cultural raidings, or Ry Cooder has a great ear for affecting music, perfect songs, and clear, unsentimental production. I’m not going to dismiss the movie on political correctness grounds. Still, the economic and political situation shows in the relationships; Cooder is obviously the person giving the Cuban musicians the opportunity to play again and to travel.

The movie has very little overt politics (at the end of the movie, it shows revolutionary slogans on the walls, which have clearly failed to deliver). This is a strength and a weakness; you know that some combination of US and Cuban government activity has contributed to the musicians’ hardships, but you don’t know what or how. The portrayal of Havana has a faded romanticism; which, to be fair, isn’t distinctively colonialist on Wim Wenders’ part, he applies his romantic view of landscape equally to European cities viewed from the eyes of strangers (Wings of Desire) and dusty, declining American rural towns (Paris, Texas).

Unlike Buena Vista Social Club, which highlights the music but places the characters, landscape and story ahead of the music, Calle 54 shows complete, extended musical performances. This makes it less of a filmic work of art, but allows viewers and listeners to get more of the music and the musicians.

Calle 54 doesn’t have the same language and class barriers that affect Buena Vista Social Club, and represents musicians in a different set of circumstances. Calle 54 highlights a set of musicians active in Latin/Afro-Cuban jazz — the flavors of carribbean-jazz fusion that evolved along with early jazz, flowered in new york in the 40s and 50s, in the 70s alongside the salsa craze, and continues until today. Most of the musicians in Calle 54 had continuous careers, with ups and downs. Gato Barbieri had retired for apparently mostly personal reasons, but had already returned to performing by the time the film was being made.

Prueba is from Spain; the film is in Spanish with subtitles. He interviews the musicians, who, in snippets in the movie, and especially in an excellent DVD add-on, talk about their careers and the history of the music they play. In separate interviews, the musicians share similar answers, about the African traditions and rhythms that are the foundation of the music, and the bidirectional networks of collaboration among US and Carribbean musicians that formed this fusion.

I love the stories of the interactions among the musicians and traditions – how the different African traditions contributed to Cuban music – how New Orleans musicians would come to Cuba, march in the parks during the day, and play in the clubs at night – how Dizzy Gillespie sought out Cuban musicians to forge the style, and much later gave a phone call to the young starstruck Jerry Gonzalez to fill in for a missing percussionist. Gonzalez later took the lessons to found his own Fort Apache Band. Wherever one looks, cultural collaborations are always (always) more inter-related and weirder than romantic myths.

One of the artistic tensions shown in the film is between the musicians desire to play popular dance music, and more musically challenging jazz. Big band leader Arturo O’Farrill says that he was motivated to write music by the desire to add compositional interest to the simpler structures of Cuban popular dance music; Paquito D’Rivera talks about the tension in Irakere between making hits like Bacalao con Pan and jazzier, more complex pieces. Another of the tensions is in the musicians efforts to combine traditions with integrity and interest; Prueba talks about attempts to combine flamenco and jazz with varying success.

I am no expert or connoisseur; and have no special technical or cultural background, I just listen, but to my ears the tensions result in plenty of interesting and lively music for further listening. My favorite moments were the piano duet between formerly estranged father and son, Bebo and Chucho Valdes; the Paquito d’Rivera band, the Fort Apache band. Gato Barbieri’s tone just kills but his band wasn’t that interesting to me. Eliane Elias’ piano doesn’t do much for me. I can’t tell if it’s her playing, my taste, or if my ears have been ruined by film scores and hotel lobbies.

Like Buena Vista, calle 54 is mostly apolitical on the surface. The part that seems to me like visible social commentary is the interviews of the Gonzalez brothers of the Fort Apache band, named after the rough Bronx neighborhood they grew up in. The myth in American media is that the neighborhood was an irredeemable wilderness; the reality was more complex, with lively culture, poverty, and social problems co-existing; in the DVD add-on, Andy Gonzalez tells the story of an attempted mugging at a subway station coming home from a gig, by some junkies who were after his bass, the junkies were chased off by the sight of a cop car. His brother tells a story about leading a pack of young teenagers sneaking into a local amusement park to hear a jazz band play.

in summary, Buena Vista Social Club is more of a fable, and Calle 54 is more of a music film. In part because of the film-making, and in part because of circumstance, in Buena Vista the story is largely about the musicians, and in Calle 54 the story is largely told by them. I liked and recommend watching them both, and then raiding the discographies if you haven’t already been big fans.

Wilco: I am trying to break your heart

“When you strip it down, it just sounds like a folk song.” That’s Jeff Tweedy of Wilco talking about their music early in the 2003 documentary about the making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I watched this weekend after recently digging YHF out of the garage. Tweedy is right. Pull off the sonic layers and add half the words back to the fractured lyrics, and you have accessible, good folk and rock’n’roll. The live performances of Tweedy and the band make that clear. This music is not that hard.

But YHF was off-center enough that Reprise Records dumped the band when Tweedy wouldn’t take their advice to make the music more accessible. Wilco put the recording on the internet in the iterregnum before Nonesuch, another division of Time Warner, picked it up. Internet distribution only heightened interest in the recording and helped fans stay keep up with the band before the record came out.

The Wilco saga was a fairly early sign of the breakdown of the oligopoly. The tactics to try to preserve the economic scarcity of physical distribution in an age of digital download were unsustainable. The fact that YHF is a problem at all is a problem. Jim O’Rourke, who gets a speaking part of about 15 seconds, on the other hand, who was brought in to help production, is a ringer for music that resists easy. Nobody’s asking him about commercial music; that would probably keep the documentary from being produced.

Suroweicki argued in Slate that the conventional reading of artistic victory against commercial philistinism doesn’t hold because after all, it was another division of Time Warner that picked up the record; others have observed that Reprise didn’t have to have the grace to let the band buy their contract out. Still, Tweedy and manager didn’t have to have the balls and economic confidence to reject the advice to tone down the eccentricity and up the catchiness.

Interesting that it was Howie Klein, the music exec turned political blogger, whose ouster led to Reprise rejection of the record. Among other things, Klein has been one of the curators of the wonderful “Late Night Music Club”, a virtual fireside chat with youtube clips across wide range of excellent and interesting music irrespective of fashion and nominal genre. Communities like NLMC are taking the place of the radio playlist for music discovery, and that’s for the better.

In the Lefsetz Letter an entertainment industry lawyer makes the nostalgic argument in favor of the role of massmarket hits at creating common public consciousness. But the trade always was too high, in segregation, genre-focus, overplay, and the loss of cultural context in a narrative focused on hits. (Not to give Lefsetz a hard time; reading his blog, he is otherwise in favor of digital distribution and taking advantage of the long tail.)

Maybe we’ll eventually get a good “digg” for aggregating and voting up digital plays, which can play the role of a zeitgeist track. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, since it wouldn’t prevent people from discovering long-neglected performances on YouTube and discovering wonderful stuff through the playlists of friends and acquaintances. Network math works like that – there’s still a tall head in the age of the long tail – it’s just that you can get to the long tail now and you couldn’t before.

p.s. interesting that the Wikipedia definition of Playlist is now dominated by digital tools and the digital definition.

Thank you for smoking

Thank you for smoking is a satire of the sanctimony and hypocrisy of the anti-smoking crusade. The anti-hero is Nick Naylor, uber-flack for the tobacco industry, played by Aaron Eckhard with a cat-that-swallowed-the-canary grin. The movie sets you up to root for the spinmeister as he talks his way out of jams in board meetings and press conferences, and charms talk show audiences, elementary school kids, a congressional hearing, and his hero-worshipping young son. Our trickster anti-hero outsmarts santimonious opponents including Senator Finisterre, a sourpuss Vermont legislator whose birkenstock sandals and desk covered in maple syrup flasks (everyone is bought, the question is who’s paying the bill); Finisterre’s hapless nerdy aide; and an attractive, conscience-free journalist who will do anything to get an expose (played by Katie Holmes in a fine display of starlet non-acting).
The best part of the movie is the sharp script, adapted from Christopher Buckley’s novel. The second best part is Aaron Eckhart’s pr guy who can charm almost anyone into believing that smoking is a statement for personal freedom. The third best is are the sets and setup; the sinister burger joint, with leatherette benches and toxic-looking burgers fries and pies, where Naylor meets his counterparts in the alcohol and firearms pr; the black man in pink suits who put the coffin of Robert Duval’s tobacco executive in the ground, leaving him with one last mint julep (evil and entitled to the end); the wood paneling and styrofoam ceiling in Naylor’s office.
In trickster stories, you root for the clever, glib bad guy, and he is run out of town in the end. You know he’s going to come back; there is an endless tension between smug authority figures and wily, anarchic rebels. The filmmakers leave the trickster triumphant. The moral promoted by Naylor — and by the director in the DVD aftermatter — is a libertarian message to “think for yourself.” And I think that libertarians are played like fiddles by corporatists who use the rhetoric of enterprise and individual freedom to promote policies that make the world a lot worse (global warming, anyone). I liked the movie, and would rather see the trickster in his customary place.

Walk the Line

The Johnny Cash biopic starts with sentimental scenes of the singer as a young boy with his sweet, kind, diligent, protective and fun older brother. You can tell from the sepia indoors, picturesque outdoors, and thoughtful pauses that young Mr. Virtuous is not long for this movie. The fact that the doomed angel child is a cliche from Victorian literature (Dickens, Alcott, et all) doesn’t make it easier to take.
The movie is filled with such paint-by-numbers sequences. The young Johnny Cash stumbles on Sam Phillips’ storefront recording studio, listens at the back door, and has the door closed in his face. You can tell when Cash is overdosing because the camera goes out of focus. There is a strained moment when Cash’s matronly first wife meets his elegant future wife at a music awards night, and hisses at her to stay away from the children.
Cash’s father (“you’re good for nothing”) and first wife (“I don’t want you mentioning your band or tour, ever”), never have a kind or supportive word to say about anything. Clearly this chronic rejection drives Cash’s self-destruction, as anyone who reads airport bookstore self-help books would know.
The two lead actors do a good job, but the unimaginative or condescending literalness of the movie is a good reminder of what I can’t stand about Hollywood style. It’s not hatred of emotion, or even melodrama. I loved Farewell My Concubine, which featured a damaged artist, unrequited love, drug addiction fueled by rejection, beautiful photography, and plenty of tragedy per foot of celluloid. The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference.

Farewell My Concubine and Chasing Amy

When I rented both of these movies, I didn’t know that they had the same plot.
Both movies are love triangles between two men who are artistic partners and a woman with a promiscuous past who becomes involved with one of the men. One of men has an unrequited crush on his buddy.

The settings and tone couldn’t be more different. Chasing Amy takes place over a year in gritty-bohemian North Jersey and the world of aspiring comic book artists. Farewell My Concubine takes place over fifty tumultuous decades in North China, in the glamorous world of the Peking Opera.

Farewell My Concubine is an intense melodrama in a world of shocking cruelty. At beginning of the movie, a desperate prostitute brings her young son to train for the opera. They won’t accept him because he has a sixth finger on one hand, so she shields his eyes and amputates the finger. The Japanese occupation, nationalist regime, communist takeover, and cultural revolution put the relationships among the characters under unbearable strain. What I loved about this movie was the exploration of loyalty and betrayal under test.

Chasing Amy is a bittersweet romantic comedy in a mundane world of diners, little club parties, comic book tradeshows, and business decisions balancing nuances of artistic purity and commercial success. The movie is at its best when it is dramatizing GenX sexual mores, when Joey Adams and Jason Lee trade stories of bad highschool sex, and when Jason Lee and Ben Affleck slowly realize they are at a lesbian bar. Lauren Adams gets to preach the film’s moral in a PC sermon about sexual exploration and true love. Ben Affleck can’t act, but the rest of the cast and the clever dialog add up to an entertaining movie.

According to this poll, 70% of high school seniors support gay marriage (53%) or civil unions (20%). In a few decades, plots about doomed and unrequited gay love may go the way of plots about doomed women who try to get jobs.

How important is HD anyway?

Mark Cuban thinks it’s very important. Of course, he has invested heavily in high definition video content and distribution.
There’s a huge audience of people who like sports, and movies about things that explode dramatically. Presumably those are the people for whom “quality” means more pixels.
For me, long tail access and convenience are many times more important than better pictures. I could get by with crappy little pictures for a long time, if I could find the niche content that I care about.
I wonder about the size of the respective markets for mass market content with really pretty pictures, and niche content with ordinary pictures. Probably both very big. Probably the important business insight is to forget that there were once one-size-fits-all tv and movie markets.

Lovely and Amazing

Lovely and Amazing is loathesome and hateful. The characters are narcissistic and vapid and masochistic, and dull while they’re at it.
In Mostly Martha, the chef tells off her philistine customers, which puts her on thin ice with her boss who has to weigh aggravation and respect. Martha can be a jerk, but a complicated jerk with redeeming qualities.
In Lovely and Amazing, a wannabe artist shops her overpriced crafts to LA boutiques and tells each of the proprietors to fuck off when they turn her down. She has an early school-age daughter, and the most interesting story she has to tell in any social situation is her natural childbirth, followed by her story about being homecoming queen. Her actress sister asks her boyfriend to critique her body, and then berates him for not taking seriously her anxieties about flabby upper arms. She needs to get a pair of dumbbells and stop whining.
The matriarch of the family has a crush on her incompetent plastic surgeon. Her one redeeming feature is her close relationship with an adopted daughter. The movie manages to undermine that by exploiting the various possible stereotypes about an upper-middle-class Jewish woman adopting a black girl; from awkward moments about sunscreen, to hair-straightening, to a taste for fast food. The grownups, black and white, are too busy being awkward about the situation to actually be parents and mentors.
The adult women characters are all linked with cold, disapproving, deceitful men. The attempt at romantic redemption is the wannabe artist’s fling with a 17-year old. At least they share a level of maturity.
I didn’t get the feeling that the film-makers had a distance on their material. The movie is an exaggerated version of real life, with more socially clueless and floridly insecure characters facing the same traps.
Why did this movie just make me mad, when I thought that Sideways was darkly funny? The self-destructive characters in Sideways were more self-destructive — one was an alcoholic, and one was a philanderer headed toward marriage. They were further along in unsuccessful artistic careers; one was a several-time unpublished novelist, the other a soap opera romantic lead past his prime.
Maybe because the movie was more literate, in structure and dialog and pictures. Maybe because the characters showed some passion along with their self-destruction. Maybe because the characters didn’t have kids, so their idiocies did not seem as cruel. Maybe because the movie took the characters’ deceptions — of women, of themselves — more seriously.

Mostly Martha

My favorite scenes in Mostly Martha the “take your neice to work” scenes. A driven head chef at a Hamburg restaurant inherits the care of her eight-year-old neice after her sister dies in a car accident. When a babysitter finds the bereaved and hostile little girl impossible, Martha brings her to the restaurant in the evenings. The girl experiences rosemary and truffles, watches the complex choreography of dozens of gourmet dishes in progress, is charmed into eating by her aunt’s boisterous culinary rival, and learns to help out in little ways.
Other excellent restaurant scenes:
* the new Italian sous chef comes in and charms his all of his new co-workers with music and a playful style that contrasts with Martha’s high seriousness.
* Martha’s ubergeek hostility to restaurant customers – when a customer complains that the foie gras is raw, Martha replies that it is “perfekt”, cooked at 140 degrees Celsius for 3 minutes.
* Watching Martha’s boss, a tall, blond, imperious fifty-something restaurater, tolerate her prima donna employee
* The showdown: when Martha is unwilling to overtly accept Mario’s presence, he offers his resignation with the restaurant crew watching tensely; when his boss says she wants him to stay, he replies: “It’s your restaurant, but her kitchen”.
Of lesser excellence, the “opposites-attract” romance between the extraverted Italian and the chilly German; fortunately the movie ends before the battles over toothpaste tube hygiene and music volume; they win the “movie couple most likely to be divorced” award.
Interesting contrast between the adoption love story in Mostly Martha and King of Masks. Both movies have a gruff artist conveying their art to an adoptive child; in the Chinese movie, the older and younger characters take on bonds of obligation, and the love between the characters cements the obligation; in the German movie, the older and younger characters make a choice, and the love between the characters cements the choice.

Yi Yi, King of Masks, Shower

King of Masks is a heartwarming fable set in 1930s China about an aging street performer searching for a male heir to learn the family art. Shower is a heartwarming modern fable set in 90s Beijing, where the elderly proprietor of a traditional bathouse has a retarded son who helps with the business, and a non-disabled son who’s busy making money with a high-tech, low-touch version of the family business in south China.
Yi Yi is a bittersweet novelistic film in late 90s Taipei, where the grandmother is in a coma following a stroke. The doctors advice the family to speaking to her in the hope of stimulating a recovery. Her children and grandchildren confide in their mute elder; the confidences reveal crises in the lives of the various family members.
All three movies are about breaks in the passing of tradition across generations. The distance is greatest in the movie set in modern Taiwan, where the grandmother is mute for most of the film, and her descendents are forced to make their own way through the dilemmas of faith, purpose and love.
The themes are kin to the “generation gap” that affected modernizing US culture, with more affection and nostalgia for the changing old ways.
For Peterme who wants recommendations, I thought Masks and Shower were well-crafted and affecting; and Yi Yi was fantastic.

Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien

Loved Amores Perros. It gets compared to Pulp Fiction for superficial reasons (interwoven stories; black comedy; violence; first scene is a suspenseful car ride with a a bloody victim in the back seat), but has little in common. Where Pulp Fiction is ice cold, Amores Perros is passionate; it’s dark humor comes from nuances of heartbreak. Pulp Fiction is post-modern nihilist; the outcome is defined by genre. Amores Perros is more post-Catholic; the outcome for each of various characters is one part accident; and one part the fatal outcome of decisions.
Didn’t like Y Tu Mama Tambien so much, for much the reasons as the various Amazon reviewers who didn’t like the movie. The teenage boys were doofuses. The famed sex scenes didn’t do much for me. The bleak background scenes of Mexican countryside with occasional pompous voiceovers attempted to instill social relevance to a movie which would be better off honestly shallow. The final plot twist with the female character isn’t believable, and gets the storyteller out of the need to forsee the the consequences of the story.
I wish I had more film vocabulary to describe visual styles. A film class someday? Maybe some books or DVDs.