Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Of Atmosphere and Dogs: Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" (1977)

By Charlotte Deaver

She guards a doorway, eerily, dog mask on her face, hand stuffed in her dog-mouth. You imagine she’s about five years old, thumb and mouth appropriately attached.

Silent, she stands in the threshold as her father lectures his son desperately, yet wisely. It’s a cutting image, surreal in its juxtaposition of the perfectly innocent but also somewhat threatening mask, and the stark realism of the interior. A tattered, bare kitchen within, and without, the Watts district of L.A. in the late 1970s. Abruptly, she runs from the scene, into her backyard, and meets a neighborhood boy. Still wordless, but more expressive with her body, she's almost coy, reaching her one arm up to grab the chain-link fence while the other arm returns her hand to the dog-mouth.

What is this magical, heartbreaking, and wondrous world we've entered? The trailer below offers some idea, and is suggestive enough, at least, of certain key qualities:

This is the first opportunity for the public to see what many agree is one of the most affecting films to emerge in the 1970s. Charles Burnett's 1977 Killer of Sheep is now playing at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue at W. 3rd Street), a long-delayed and storied release. Begun as his graduate project out of UCLA, it was Burnett's attempt to counter the proliferation of “blaxploitation” films from that period. Depicting a view of L.A.'s troubled yet vital Watts district, it follows, mostly, a day in the life of Stan, played by Henry Gayle Sanders, a man Burnett met by chance in an elevator and describes as "the saddest-looking man I'd ever seen."

Sad in many ways the movie is. But it is also joyful, celebratory, and funny as hell. I would put it right alongside Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. As a matter of fact, I shouldn't have said that, because now I won't be able to get the comparison out of my head: desolate, impoverished outskirts of a renowned city, daily experiences of a character who is denied access to anything other than the margins, soaring and plunging of the human spirit . . . But alright. I'll move on -- to breathtaking scene you can watch right here, in which Stan's wife applies make-up while their daughter sings along to Earth Wind and Fire in a cluttered room nearby. How the two look at each other towards the end of the scene is what this film, and life, are all about:

"Killer of Sheep" both captures and creates atmosphere: dense, vital, yet also despairing, a mingling of sounds, moods, minds, the material world, a long-since altered Watts, political and economic oppression, loss, anxiety, and more. Its atmosphere is one of strangely conflicted nostalgia mixed with an inevitable presentness, potent and immediate. Despite brutal emotional and social conditions, a childlike wonder prevails, evoking other great films that focus on children who have been prematurely thrust into a cruel adult world, including Night of the Hunter, Forbidden Games, The Bicycle Thief, and Au Hasard Balthazar.

Style-wise, however, it's SO different from those movies, in crucial geographic, cultural, and aesthetic ways, as the clips above indicate. That's one of the things that makes this film so hard to describe. You just can't pin it down. It's already gone. And yet so permanent, so always already there.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Long Winters, Mercury Lounge, 4.1.07

By Charlotte Deaver

The Long Winters can come across as deceptively generic. They don't jar you with gimmick or image, or ignite with raw youth. But they do balance their best attributes and integrate musical influences with such fine-tuned equilibrium that you might pass them over for something with a little more flash, more surprise.

For John Roderick, the banter-happy and charmingly well-educated frontsman, it's clear that songs matter. Melodies matter. Lyrics matter. Arrangements, textures, attitude, rhythm, energy, range, emotions, and performance all matter. And so does humor. He loves audience-play, enjoys his own and others' verbal wit and/or silliness, and yet remains focused on the primary aim: entertaining rock and roll.

Being ever the song girl, of course it was one particular tune that got me out this late on a Sunday night; "Medicine Cabinet Pirate" mixes strangeness with convention, an alluring combination. Perfectly distorted guitar riffs, a melody that you want to sing along with but don't readily understand why, odd minor to major key changes, slightly dissonant harmonies, and lyrics that suggest a lot of meaning but conclude nothing. The deal was clinched with the next song of theirs I fell in love with, the slightly wistful "The Commander Thinks Aloud."

Most of the other songs they played were new to me, though, and the set list seemed to be largely determined by the audience. I picked up their 2003 release, When I Pretend to Fall, and haven't stopped playing it yet, so next time around I'll be ready to make my requests.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb." or, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction?"

By Charlotte Deaver
Wow -- this is a great video. I saw it first on Stereogum today, watched it three times, and then several more times over on YouTube.

Meanwhile, I've been rereading Walter Benjamin's famous essay, "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and can't resist the impulse to plant it right alongside this video. In the essay, Benjamin confronts the idea of a work of art's authenticity, its "aura," tracing its basis, historically, in ritual (from cave drawings to religious artifacts, where the work of art preserves its "cult value"). Later in history, a work of art begins to also serve a different function, with increasing value placed on its "fitness for exhibition." Still, "the original preserved all of its authority," since "[t]he presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity."

Mechanical reproduction, however, as in photography and even more so, film, "substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence." Benjamin cites this as basically a revolutionary historical shift, because mechanical reproduction "emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual." Furthermore, "the instant the criterion for authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic reproduction, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice -- politics."

And then there's this crazy epilogue on Fascism which I forgot about, I think because it confused me. Fascism gives the "masses . . . a chance to express themselves? Wait, Fascism enables expression? Without changing property relations? Huh? It only makes sense in the context of Futurism, a movement centered mainly in Italy that led up to WWII, which I don't really know much about. But he specifically addresses the "Poets and artists of Futurism," who, unlike Benjamin, were anti-Marxist, who obviously believed in maintaining the traditional, capitalist economic and property system, and effectively introduced "aesthetics into political life." Hence, an aesthetics of war.

But it's this next passage, with it's brilliant rhetoric and clear-eyed conscience, that will keep me from forgetting, ever again, the epilogue:
"War is beautiful because it establishes man's dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of-metallization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation of flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others."

And so, returning to the video, its proliferation of images, image consuming image, a mis en abyme, almost. Is it effective? It makes me wonder, was Benjamin right? He's interestingly anti-nostalgic; this is no elegy for the "authentic." Rather, the mechanically reproduced image is liberating because it elevates the "masses" to the role of critic, a role that had previously belonged to an elite, ruling class. He has such faith in humanity! And in Marx! Maybe the jury is still out. I'm just not sure. I love to think that YouTube and Google and blogs and freer access to music and art are exactly what Benjamin was talking about. But then I think of the war machine depicted in the video, and I'm just not convinced that mechanical reproduction will have the positive power Benjamin imagines.