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So, the three best films from the upcoming Sydney Film Festival that I’ve seen in advance are all about police. This is surprising to say the least, since I’m pretty much over cop movies. But maybe my suspicion of this way, way overcooked genre is what fuels appreciation for reinterpretation. Or maybe these are just three intelligent and ballsy and unmissable takes on the mentality of law enforcement in contemporary times from three disparate locations around the world.

Rampart – Writer/director Oren Moverman’s deconstruction of the LAPD’s notorious cowboy culture is a brave and scintillating indie drama in the form of a noir thriller. On the surface it’s a fictionalized commentary on the scandals and lawsuits that rocked the brutality-prone department in the 1990s, but the film works on a much more personal level than standard “ripped-from-the-headlines” fare. Co-written by James Ellroy, it gleefully heads right to the dark side and stays there. Woody Harrelson’s powerhouse starring performance as the swaggering, paranoid, dysfunctional Officer “Date Rape” Dave Brown has to be seen to be believed. Rampart isn’t the first film to portray a conflicted man of violence with a disarmingly human side, but the way the screenplay strings us out, helplessly fascinated with this scumbag’s deteriorating professional and personal lives, is masterful. It’s also surprisingly human and oddball, especially in depicting his interactions with his unorthodox family. The weirdly touching scenes between Brown and his punk-rock artist daughter almost belong in another movie (something by, say, Terry Zwigoff or Alexander Payne), and that will put off some viewers, but to me they add resonance to Date Rape’s dirty capers and drunken meltdowns. The great supporting cast features one star after another (Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Robin Wright Penn, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube! an uncredited Steve Buscemi!) in gritty, sometimes ugly roles. The restless, fluid cinematography and editing are breathtaking. I never did get around to seeing Moverman’s 2009 feature directorial debut, the Iraq War drama The Messenger (also starring Harrelson and Foster), but now I’m kicking myself.

Policeman – Maybe the most underrated film in the festival, this is an astonishing debut feature from Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid. Comparing and contrasting the lives and destinies of a squad of elite antiterrorist cops with a group of militant anarchist Jews in contemporary Jerusalem, it comments on the culture of violence we’re all caught up in; it’s a dispatch from a post-Occupy world at war with itself. Though the events it depicts are as outrageous as some kind of near-future apocalyptic comic book, it also creates the bracing but queasy sensation of watching something that’s really happening – which is a rare thing, but exactly what you want from this kind of fiction. The central thesis is that Israel is the “Western” nation with the biggest disparity between classes – a conflict “ripped from the headlines” to be sure, though this movie defies conventional formula in every scene. The ace cinematography makes great use of open, sunbleached landscapes and alienating postmodern urban spaces alike. The style has the feel of a Romanian or Iranian new-wave film, with long takes, a meandering narrative and unorthodox editing – and the sound design in particular is outstanding – but it also has the gut-wrenching suspense of a superior action thriller. Can you tell I’m excited about this movie?

Polisse – This verité-style drama, co-written and directed by Maïwenn, formerly a one-named starlet, now a formidable one-named French auteur, is centered around the cops assigned to the exhausting and demoralising child-protection service in inner-city Paris. Polisse hits hard but with a deft, unpredictable touch, and ultimately puts itself in company with Laurent Cantet’s The Class as a powerful portrait of contemporary France. It matches that film’s tense, incisive, rapid-fire dialogue and psychological insight, with many of its seemingly continual onscreen arguments taking place between haggard adult authorities and suspicious or difficult children, and exploring racial conflict and child abuse with refreshing honesty. To this knotty recipe Maïwenn adds street-level police procedural grit and salty black humour, leavened with surprising bursts of comic release. Despite, or because of, its desaturated, handheld realism it’s a good-looking film too. The acting of the ensemble, including JoeyStarr, an apparently famous French rapper, is suitably excellent.

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Vivid

Last week I covered the Vivid Sydney festival for inthemix and its sister website, FasterLouder. Vivid is billed as a festival of “light, music and ideas.” It’s most obvious component is visual: a number of buildings in the waterfront area of the city around Circular Quay, including the Sydney Opera House, are lit up each night during the festival with often spectacular colored lights and projections. But it also features some truly adventurous live music programming over eight days, all of the gigs taking place in the various rooms of the Opera House. (This aspect of the event is known as Vivid LIVE.) I reviewed five shows in six nights. It was demanding but fun. I’ve gathered all five reviews here into one post.

Saturday 26 May: Efterklang with Sydney Symphony

Approaching the Sydney Opera House on a chilly Saturday night, I get my first look at the light show that will grace its iconic “sails” throughout Vivid – the illusory spectacle of a gigantic woman lying on the roof, restlessly rolling all over it and idly knocking about its famous tiles. It’s strangely alluring. The projection is more elaborate than I remember from previous editions – a fitting harbinger for the elaborate music I encounter inside.

The Danish band Efterklang are in town for a performance specially commissioned by Vivid LIVE. Acclaimed for their lush, complex “indie chamber pop,” the group were invited to world-premiere songs from their unreleased fourth album, Piramida, at the Opera Theatre with the Sydney Symphony.

The Piramida Concert, as it’s called, is an excellent way to kick off a week of Vivid gigs, which tend toward the arty, the adventurous and – inevitably, because it’s the Opera House – the orchestral. It’s easy to make fun of the overweening ambition that can lead a pop performer to take on a posse of string players, but it’s actually produced some of the most memorable live music of recent years, from Portishead to Björk to Sufjan Stevens (who performs here later this week).

As the theatre hushes and the half dozen guys in Efterklang take the stage with the 30-plus members of the Symphony, the swirling sound that begins to reverberate in the room (indeed, the band’s name means “reverberation”) is suitably impressive, ethereal and autumnal – somehow crisp and delicate at once. The band’s stuff is a bit like Sufjan crossed with Arcade Fire – playing the flighty experimentalism of the former off the earthiness of the latter, with the moodiness of both – but the orchestra takes the material and shapes it into something effortlessly large and profound and timeless. A chorus of three female singers adds a subtly angelic touch; the sound is enhanced by electronic keyboards and effects, a welcome contrast to the classical instruments that seems perfectly natural. (The further we go into the future, the more electronica devours every other kind of music, but that’s another story.) Geometric shapes projected behind them (the album’s title means “pyramid”) add to the atmosphere.

Competing with conductor Matthew Coorey for space on the crowded stage, dressed in a salmon-coloured dinner jacket and jeans, lanky lead singer Casper Clausen is an impossibly twee but surprisingly charismatic frontman. His mincing steps, comic gestures and infectious energy (comparisons to David Byrne are unavoidable) provide an effective balance with the earnestness of the intricate music. His voice is powerful for such a skinny frame, reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. He and bassist Rasmus Stolberg both sport bowties and possibly un-ironic moustaches, and occasionally sip something out of mysterious metal bottles that rest on the stage. “They’re so Danish,” my friend says. And proud: at one point Clausen reminds us that Jørn Utzon, legendary designer of the place, was Danish too. This fact is also highlighted in the press material, so it’s clearly an important touchstone for them, and a reminder that the Opera House is one of the world’s great buildings.

The performance sags around the middle, some of the songs becoming unsatisfyingly thin and middle-of-the-road. On the one hand ,the more successful numbers come across like orchestral or experimental constructions with pop elements woven in. These seem to be the ones arranged by collaborator Karsten Fundal, who is sitting in the audience (and eventually gets a bouquet of flowers chucked at him by the playful Clausen). The less successful ones reverse that formula, feeling like pop with an orchestra added, and get bogged down with overly cute choruses or melodies that don’t quite click.

I can’t help but be more interested in the Symphony. I’m not exactly qualified to critique them, but the overall effect of the sound is naturally hypnotic. The highlight of the concert is a two-part piece called “Vælv,” written by Fundal alone rather than the band. During the second part, the band leaves the stage entirely and the Symphony launches into a powerful extended movement that swoops and soars and flutters in layered lines of melody like something by beloved 20th- century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. (An instinctive comparison, but it sort of makes sense, as Vaughan Williams innovated the practice of adapting folk tunes for large symphonies). The piece is ravishing, and earns the biggest applause of the night.

The closing number, “Monument,” is pretty good too, and features some terrific film projections – black-and-white footage of an expedition in some icy northern sea that suggests a narrative tying in with the music. It would have been nice to see more of this during the rest of the concert. As the performance winds down, the crowd is rapturous, demanding a couple of encores and eventually lavishing a standing ovation on the Danish dudes and the Symphony alike. The Piramida Concert did not hit every mark for me, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday evening, and it’s impossible not to admire it as a musical achievement. Good on Vivid for making it happen as an exclusive one-off right here in Sydney.

Sunday 27 May: Seekae

Day three of Vivid, and I’m again headed down to the Opera House. I must say I’m not tired yet of the light shows that pulse and dance on building façades all around the Quay and in the city beyond – some simply colourful, some truly enormous and dazzling – and I don’t think I will be. If you ask me it should be like this all the time. Easy to love this town on a night like this.

There’s more local love in store, as Sydney electronic exemplars Seekae are performing in the Opera Theatre. It’s my first time seeing the trio live, and I’m pretty keen as I’ve heard nothing but good. The band have built up quite a following in the past couple of years among fans of thoughtful electronica; it’s their first hometown gig in a while, and it’s reputed they’ve put together an extra-special show to match the upmarket setting.

As Seekae are joined onstage by an eight-piece string ensemble, I recall the Efterklang/Sydney Symphony concert last night, and I marvel at all the energy and ambition put into all the Vivid gigs this week. I do wonder if I’ll be seeing Seekae in their proper element, or whether the occasion will overwhelm their music. But this is what a festival’s all about – taking risks, experimenting in public, making weird connections and seeking (if you will) elusive magic.

Not that Seekae play it safe anyway – the music is adventurous as word of mouth has advertised, offering a plethora of different takes on contemporary electronica, sometimes venturing into dark, glitchy, abstract territory reminiscent of Casino Versus Japan, and then back out again with bright little jewels of burnished, shimmering electro-pop à la Dntel or Caribou, with energetic bursts of Four Tet-like brilliance to tie it together.

There’s a welcome live feel to the proceedings, especially with the dynamic drumming. The string ensemble add an impressive dimension, but as I noted at the Efterklang concert, I am easy to please when it comes to orchestral manoeuvres. Despite the complex feel to the sound, there’s a buoyant sense of fun to the proceedings. I could do without the dubsteppy stuff, but hey.

One thing: the band are dressed as casually as if they were playing in a garage, with rumpled jeans and sneakers. Nothing wrong with that; you gotta admire their unpretentiousness, but come on – if you were booked to play at Sydney Opera House, wouldn’t you want to dress it up a little just for fun? Maybe put on a funky vest, a cowboy tie, some mascara – or all of the above?

The “uptown” setting at first seems to inhibit the audience, mostly twentysomethings who probably don’t find themselves in the Opera House on a Sunday night all that often. They’re unable to get up and dance, of course, but they’re also a bit shy about making lots of noise. However as the night goes on, it’s a relief to realise the trappings of the theatre have lent a special vibe to the gig. Whereas at a club the crowd might be standing with folded arms and doing the white-boy head-nodding thing, or milling about and looking at their phones, tonight all attention is focused on the music (especially as the band don’t have much showmanship as such). Rather than being dull or restrained, there’s something cozy about it. The music envelopes the room completely – the acoustics are perfect, of course, and aren’t too loud. It’s like sitting in a comfy place with friends and listening to an entire album on some really awesome speakers.

That clarity is both good and bad; it reveals the flaws in the music as well as its strengths. Seekae’s songs sometimes feel incomplete or half-formed – lots going on, lots of ideas, but lacking the killer hooks and transcendence that characterise their influences like Boards of Canada or Gold Panda. And the show feels a bit cerebral at times, especially in the polite setting, especially with the string players – like a really ambitious music student’s thesis performance, except the booze isn’t free.

The performance has its ups and downs too. The string players abruptly get up leave the stage about halfway through the show without taking a bow. It’s awkward, and disappointing at first, as it seems to derail the whole idea of the special theatrical gig. But in fact, having the stage to themselves loosens the band up a bit – as if they were trying a bit too hard with the traditional instruments looming behind them – and they come up with some of their best moments afterwards. The baby grand piano at stage left figures prominently in the quietly beautiful songs at the show’s heart.

Two terrific new numbers feature delicate vocals accompanied by haunting synth lines, coming across with a bit of the soul and mystery of James Blake. Apparently vocals are new to the Seekae game, but I was impressed. As things wind down, the show picks up with fan favourites from acclaimed albums The Sound of Trees Falling on People and +Dome that are more funky and tuneful. The reception from the crowd is warm. The guys in the band have said that this is their biggest gig ever, and they deserve kudos for having the guts to try out some new sounds on such a stage.

What Seekae sometimes lack in melody, they eventually make up for with atmosphere; and their verve, confidence and willingness to take chances are all the more impressive given their unassuming demeanour. This show did not blow me away, but the key thing is they may have made a new fan. These are some extremely talented, genuine young dudes and they’re going places. During a week when we’ll be checking out plenty of world-class talent at the Opera House, Sydney should be glad to claim them as their own.

Tuesday 29 May: Imogen Heap

UK singer/songwriter and “digital diva” Imogen Heap was invited to perform an informal sunset recital for Vivid in the North Foyer of the Opera House. Heap is known for incorporating a spectrum of organic and digital sounds into her performances via a high-tech setup, including a pair of custom-made gloves wired to let her control the music with Wii-like gestures. But here she’s limited to a baby grand piano and it’s all about the songs – specifically six songs from her latest project, Heapsongs, which she created with input from fans around the world who sent her “song seeds” in the form of words, images and recorded sounds.

At first, the session is hit or miss. It’s too cold in the foyer. The bar right behind us is disappointingly closed, but for some reason the bartender stands there for the entire show anyway. And strangely, given Heap’s trademark technophilia, there are glitches in the matrix. She’s meant to perform the songs accompanied by their video clips on three monitors behind her; it’s as cumbersome as it sounds – she has to synch with a click track in her headset, and simply starts over when she messes up a couple of times. The video feed is straight from her laptop; between songs we see her fiddling with her software onscreen.

Heap talks a lot, explaining each song, and explaining it some more. It’s more like a TED talk than a show (no stretch as Heap is a TED veteran). Her piano interpretations of these intricate digital constructions have a bizarre once-removed feeling; she describes how she sampled a classroom full of kids; we see the kids in the video, but hear only her. As she admits, we’re experiencing the songs “as they were never meant to be heard.”

But I’m soon taken in. Heap’s spacey rambling, which reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s, is funny and charming, at times highly emotional. Her stories about her creative processes are pretty cool; she based one song on a fan’s recording of an unborn child’s heartbeat; another was a sonic collaboration with the citizens of Hangzhou, China.

In the end, the unplugged vibe actually works. Heap treats the piano like just another machine, and there’s something interesting about imagining about all of these sounds and contributors (Bollywood singers, birds, Slinkys) while Heap paints aural pictures to interpret them. The songs themselves are heartfelt, sometimes twee, filled with fantastic lyrical imagery that could be from Tolkien or Miyazaki. People transform into trees. Machines feel emotion. A crumbling wall speaks.

Heap’s boundless desire to share her music and herself with fans and ordinary people, coupled with her ingenious ways of going about it, are ultimately infectious. She concludes by inviting us to participate in her latest collaborative experiment. The Listening Chair, unveiled at the Opera House this week, is an egg-shaped retro-futuristic lounge chair outfitted with recording devices to gather information from whomever sits in it about what songs they think are missing from the world. It’s an idea as weird and wonderful as its creator.

Wednesday, 30 May: Karen O in Stop the Virgens

From the word-of-mouth buzz, Stop the Virgens was clearly one of the hot tickets of Vivid. The brainchild of Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and K.K. Barrett, visionary production designer for films like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, the show debuted in Brooklyn last fall before coming to Sydney Opera House. It’s billed as a “psycho opera” – a musical fantasia featuring outlandish costumes and sets, a hard-edged score and O’s famous banshee pipes. The band/orchestra includes fellow Yeahs Nick Zinner (one of the music directors) and Brian Chase, along with keyboard legend Money Mark.

Note: you can’t say “There’s not a bad seat in the house” about the Opera Theatre; the view from the balcony is awful. You have to lean over the rail to see anything at all. Before the show I look down: Virgens move about the house with trancelike motions, oblivious to the patrons as they take their seats. Onstage a Sentinel glares at folks the front row. Clearly there’s some scary interactive shit in store for us tonight.

The show kicks in with an ominous whoosh. Where to begin describing things? There’s a gaggle of Virgens and an entire chorus of Virgen Acolytes, with shimmering white toga-like costumes and platinum wigs. Sentinels in flowing purplish robes, resembling the evil Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, flank the stage, which is transformed into a numinous fantasy realm with elemental motifs of trees, snow, water and blood. O is the witchlike Narrator. They interact with ritualistic flair. Symbolic violence is constantly threatened.

The costumes are what get the attention. Karen O has already joined the ranks of meta-fashion plates like Björk, M.I.A and a certain other annoying superstar who doesn’t need any free publicity from me; this show ups the ante. The costumes are crazy enough. O flaunts many variations on the fairy-tale diva/goddess/gangster moll and sings into a bejewelled animal’s horn. The show’s visual and thematic touchstones are Maurice Sendak (obviously), Greek mythology, Dante’s Inferno, Jim Henson, Tim Burton, Disney’s Fantasia, contemporary artists like Matthew Barney, Rocky Horror, Wagner and I’m guessing various other actual operas, although I’m less educated on that score.

So what’s the story about? Beats me. The visual scheme and choreography suggest rites of passage, primal emotion and pain, universal forces like death and menstruation – but nothing adds up. Like a music video, it doesn’t really have to be about anything I guess. But it dances a bit too close to camp for my taste. There’s only so many ways a chorus of Virgen Acolytes can gesticulate wildly and writhe around onstage before it gets silly. At times the whole thing seems nothing more than an elaborate ode to the joys of fabric: the costumes, the curtains, the swathes and swatches and bundles of many-coloured fabric that are constantly wrapped around the characters and danced with and chucked all over the place.

On its own terms, Stop the Virgens delivers the goods. It’s dynamic, it’s fabulous, it’s a feast for the senses. If you’re into spectacle, noise and fabric, this is your thing. Did I mention the costumes?

But it’s lacking depth, to say the least. As theatre or opera it doesn’t work without narrative; the music kicks ass but keeps getting upstaged. The raucous curtain call at the end gets the crowd pumped, but spoils the otherworldy atmosphere and goes on for way too long. The one real, undeniable thing is Karen O’s explosive voice. The rest seems frivolous and disposable. How did the Yeahs get to the rock-opera stage already? In simpler times they unleashed a transcendent cyclone of sound with just two instruments and that voice. There’s more power and fantasy in that voice alone than in all the costume changes you can dream of.

Friday 1 June: Future Classic Studio Party with Isolée, Jacques Renault and Flume

When I get into the Studio for the Future Classic Studio Party, the place is packed and the dancefloor is lively. Sydney up-and-comer Flume is mid-set, rocking Biggie Smalls over an electro-breakbeat track mash-up style, and it’s a bit overmixed and noisy. More breaks follow, on a tangent somewhere between dubstep and G-funk. The crowd is pumped. The tracks are not bad, although some of them sound a bit like commercial R&B, but the kid doesn’t seem to want to mix tonight – relying instead on echoes and effects between tracks. And I could really do without him doing the hands-in-the-air thing like he was headlining a festival, and getting on the mic. Call me a purist.

While the Future Classic DJs mix things up between sets, I head out to grab a drink and check out the DJs in the lounge. They’re playing some choice classics of the ’80s garage and electro-disco variety. Wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more of that inside, honestly.But when I head back into the studio, Isolée (otherwise known as Rajko Müller) is on and things have turned around. The agenda is deep as expected. He’s playing his own material, which he has years’ worth to draw on, and it’s scintillating stuff. The nice thing is the crowd is really into it – people say minimal or deep stuff is over, but get someone who knows how to rock it and see how it moves people. The interesting thing is, here on the dancefloor this stuff doesn’t actually sound very “minimal” or “micro” at all. It’s chock-a-block with gorgeous strings, playful synths and keys, tribal drums and haunting soulful vocals. It just sounds like really beautiful and well-done house with a tech edge. And thankfully he’s one of those producers who knows how to play a live set like a proper DJ – the set is smooth as butter, with terrific buildups and breakdowns that stretch out the vibe expertly.

Jacques Renault comes billed as Mr. Disco, but during the 90 minutes or so I catch of his set it’s not really disco, garage nor even old-school house he’s rocking. Instead it’s an interesting simulacrum of the bright, bold big-club house of the ’90s, the stuff we heard at Twilo or the Tunnel in a bygone era. We’re talking hard-hitting drum sounds with huge kicks and dry, untreated high-hats; power keyboard riffs and strings; predictable but totally effective buildups and breakdowns that ooze drama; sexy diva vocal samples. These days it’s hard to tell if DJs are playing this kind of stuff ironically – you know, with air quotes – or if they mean it. The reason it’s OK either way is because it’s exactly a million times more real and soulful than the horrible progressive stuff that a majority of jocks hammer; and when a party is packed at peak time, sometimes it’s exactly what’s needed. It’s a proven formula and a hell of a lot of fun.

The downside? Same as back then: the predictability, the dry sounds – after a couple of hours, it starts to sound too much like commercial club music; and makes you pine for the sinister magic of old-school and deep house. Which is why the “minimal” sound of Isolée and his ilk was so revolutionary when it first hit in the late ’90s. (Actually, now that I think about it, the dynamic between the two schools just shows the typically clever and thoughtful programming of the Future Classic guys).

But give Renault credit: he’s a really good mixer – not only smooth on the fader but making good narrative choices, alternating the diva-y stuff with (good) progressive or tech (even working in some breakbeats). He builds the vibe section by section, knowing exactly when to tease the crowd with a bit of EQ action and when to just let ’er rip. And I’m sure this was just a taste of his repertoire – would love to catch him on the next go round and hear him dig in the crates.

Monsieur Lazhar, from French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, screens in Sydney Film Festival‘s Official Competition this month. It won the City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival last year; I saw it when it opened Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October. When I first read the write-up, it sounded like a made-for-TV drama to me, and I didn’t expect much. I was surprised by how much I actually loved it. A quiet little film set in a classroom in snowy Montreal, it may have not been the best choice of film for a gala opening night on a hot beach in the Middle East. But I remember being captivated by it, and feeling temporarily swept away from my gruelling workload.

Monsieur Lazhar is a fine drama along the lines of another French-language title set in a multicultural classroom, Laurent Cantet’s The Class (2008), though Falardeau’s film is far more gentle and uplifting. Indeed, Monsieur Lazhar has shown broad appeal among audiences wherever it’s screened. Perhaps anyone can relate to its vision of adults and children working together to deal with a tragedy. It’s also a splendid production: beautifully filmed, treating its subject matter with skill and sensitivity, and marked by terrific acting from adult and child actors alike. Algerian-French comedian Fellag carries the film with dignity, his expressive features betraying a glint of humor and a well of emotion beneath his stern composure. The film addresses the complex topic of Canada’s cultural identity frankly, while keeping the focus on universal themes.

The story begins on a bleak note. One bitter winter’s morning, an elementary school teacher is found dead in her classroom. The school and the community reel in shock. In the weeks that follow, the children – all of them 11 or 12 years old – are anxious, lost; their parents perhaps more so. Specialists are called in to counsel the kids. The principal scrambles to find a substitute teacher.

As if by grace, a man named Bachir Lazhar arrives suddenly and offers to fill the position. He says he taught grade school for 19 years back home in Algeria. When asked for his qualifications, he states drolly, “I’m available now. They need a teacher, no?”

So this quiet, rather prim man begins teaching the class according to how he thinks a classroom should be run. He insists on respect and courtesy, and on silence when he speaks. His old-school ways clash with the school’s open, egalitarian approach. M. Lazhar is seen as rigid and behind the times.

The students aren’t sure what to make of the man, but their grief makes them malleable. Despite his authoritarian nature, he shows them compassion and understanding during a confusing time. Grimly, he must teach them in the same classroom where their former teacher died. He’s accused of not respecting the legacy of the dead woman. The room has been repainted in a feeble effort to improve the atmosphere, but she continues to haunt the story.

It turns out M. Lazhar has already dealt with his own woes. Early on we find out that he and his family were the victims of political persecution in Algiers; he still suffers nightmares. In this light, his patience and good humor with the children show remarkable strength of character.

We’re not surprised when M. Lazhar’s old-fashioned methods break through the limitations of the system and he finds success – the children’s grades improve, and they start talking through their grief. What matters is how Falardeau makes the formula work, finding a nice balance of melodrama and subdued realism, letting each scene feel natural however much it tugs at our emotions.

It’s a gorgeous film. The muted, wintry palette of greys, browns and pale pastels and the cold, indirect sunlight illuminate the story perfectly. One memorable scene features a series of close-ups of the children’s faces (African, Chilean and Arabic alongside French-Canadian) as they pose for school photos; their openness and sincerity speak volumes about the film’s heart.

Perhaps it can’t be like this in real life; perhaps an asylum-seeker can’t appear out of nowhere to win the hearts of a group of children after such a painful tragedy. However, in one revealing scene, the substitute teacher encourages his students to express themselves by writing fables, and the nature of this story becomes clear. Monsieur Lazhar is a kind of a fable itself.

This review was originally published on Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s website: Fables of Compassion: Monsieur Lazhar 

“An Epic Without a Dream”

Star Wars was released 35 years ago this week. On the one hand it’s like, OK. Time passes, we get older. But on the other hand, wow. To gain some perspective, just think: 35 years before Star Wars came out was… 1942.

I won’t get all into what an influence it has been on me. It’s too monumental a topic; and anyway I don’t think the cloudosphere is waiting for my contribution there. It’s kind of been done. Some other time maybe. Let’s just say it’s meant as much to me as just about anyone else from my generation. Which is to say, it changed my life many times over – and it may have saved it a couple of times too.

Today I celebrated this quietly momentous milestone not by watching the entire trilogy in one marathon, nor by getting out my collection of original Star Wars figures (actually, they’re gathering dust in a basement 10,000 miles from here), but by reflecting on the very different initial reactions of two influential 20th-century thinkers at the dawn of this cultural epoch: Pauline Kael and Joseph Campbell.

Kael, one of the major American film critics of her era, still beloved by cinephiles for her highly passionate, individualistic and sometimes sardonic writing, famously panned Star Wars in a review in The New Yorker a few months after its release (when it had already exploded into a box-office and pop-culture sensation). Here’s the text of her review:

The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head; for young audiences Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it all over again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts – it has no emotional grip. Star Wars may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring. (Going a second time would be like trying to read Catch-22 twice. ) Even if you’ve been entertained, you may feel cheated of some dimension – a sense of wonder, perhaps. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.

All right. So it makes me so angry I can hardly see straight. So it’s the epitome of East Coast elitist cluelessness. That’s not the  point. I don’t mean to attack it as such. It’s a valid perspective. Kael clearly foresaw all the evils of the Hollywood blockbuster’s iron grip on the film business – which began immediately after Star Wars hit, and has only gotten worse and worse since she passed away in 2001. True, how one could say that Star Wars is “devoid of wonder” and “without a dream” is quite beyond me – but if you imagine she’s addressing a world where Wrath of the Titans and Battleship are taken seriously, it seems prophetic.

Still. Who would go back and change it? George may have opened Pandora’s box in Hollywood, and may have done a lot since to tarnish his own legacy (another topic that doesn’t need any input from me) but his original achievement is transcendent and lasting.

American mythologist and philosopher Joseph Campbell saw that right away. He enthusiastically argued that the massive universal appeal of Star Wars was due to the way it taps directly into ancient mythical archetypes. These primal patterns inform every story (not to mention every culture and every religion), but Campbell marvelled at the way Lucas purposefully and insightfully reworked powerful elements of mythology into such an accessible form. Since Lucas had relied on Campbell’s classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces to write the screenplay, it was a case of real recognizing real.

Campbell’s theories made their way into the mainstream via the very popular The Power of Myth, an extended TV interview with Bill Moyers conducted at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch shortly before Campbell died of cancer in 1987. It lent the saga legitimacy and informed future critical appraisals of it. (It’s probably just as well that Joe passed away before the “prequels” were released.)

Comparing Campbell’s views with Kael’s, it’s hard not to see the latter as extremely shortsighted. Campbell taught that “Myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths.” I doubt he thought Star Wars was lacking in dreams.

Here’s more from The Power of Myth, specifically focused on the meaning of the struggle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and delving into how a living mythology encourages freedom of thought:

CAMPBELL: Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute… Certainly Star Wars has a valid mythological perspective. It shows the state as a machine and asks, “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?” Humanity comes not from the machine but from the heart. What I see in Star Wars is the same problem that Faust gives us: Mephistopheles, the machine man, can provide us with all the means, and is thus likely to determine the aims of life as well. But of course the characteristic of Faust, which makes him eligible to be saved, is that he seeks aims that are not those of the machine. Now, when Luke Skywalker unmasks his father, he is taking off the machine role that the father has played. The father was the uniform. That is power, the state role.

***

CAMPBELL: Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity. He’s a robot. [I know, I know, he’s not a robot, but whatever. – Ed.] He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system. This is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes? How do you relate to the system so that you are not compulsively serving it? It doesn’t help to try to change it to accord with your system of thought. The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action. The thing to do is learn to live in your period of history as a human being. That’s something else, and it can be done.

MOYERS: By doing what?

CAMPBELL: By holding to your own ideals for yourself and, like Luke Skywalker, rejecting the system’s impersonal claims upon you… When Ben Kenobi says, “May the Force be with you,” he’s speaking of the power and energy of life, not of programmed political intentions.

On a more conventional level of writing about film, here’s an excellent reassessment of the original Star Wars by Colin Fleming in The Atlantic last year that might wash away the bad taste from Kael’s review a bit. Fleming tackles Lucas’ creation not as a myth or a phenomenon, but simply as a film, which is increasingly rare even among fans (especially among fans). With all that’s happened since, it’s hard to remember that Lucas was one of a generation of filmmakers, along with close friends Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who fought in the early ’70s to make American independent film a viable alternative to Hollywood. His naturalistic low-budget ensemble comedy American Graffiti was one of the first films of its kind and can be considered a forebear to the American indie scene. At a certain point Lucas was like the Richard Linklater or Wes Anderson of his day. I’ve always felt that you can still detect that simultaneously fierce and innocent independent spirit in Star Wars all these years later, especially compared to our contemporary ideas of what movie blockbusters are supposed to be like. Fleming nails it:

It’s the one movie out of the six Star Wars movies that you can put alongside The SearchersBride of Frankenstein, or The Wizard of Oz as an American film masterpiece. There’s a lot of talk in it, but that dialogue is not deployed merely for exposition, as it often is in the Star Wars films, but rather for fostering a feeling of place and community within the picture. Its overall look is rougher, with less chrome and gloss, and more dirt and ash. But that griminess lends the film a mood that – despite the triumphant climax – infiltrates you, rather than pumps you up. And there’s a beguiling innocence in the filmmaking that might be unmatched in the medium’s history. You get full on visual derring-do, balls-to-the-wall-style, almost as if Lucas and his crew had been granted one chance to do a movie and one chance only…

There are plenty of gutsy cinematic moments. The heartrending shot of Luke staring toward the horizon with the two suns overhead is a perfect example of how an internal emotion like longing can be made visual. We’re talking distances: a boy far removed from what he wants to be, and celestial bodies far removed from where he is presently standing.

But the film reveals its characters’ personalities in more subtle ways, as well. People hang out a lot in A New Hope. Luke and C-3PO get to know each other in a glorified tool shed; Luke and Ben bond in the latter’s hut; space chess and early Jedi training occur simultaneously as our plucky band travels from one spot of adventure to the next. We understand these individuals because Lucas had the courage to simply show them together, during their downtime. Viewed in relation to the rest of the franchise – especially the prequels – A New Hope‘s restraint seems radical.

…And as much as we enjoy being thrilled by on-screen action, and pulling for one side over another, there is nothing like feeling as though you’ve been rendered invisible and inserted into a film, relegated to stand just out of view, but privy to every breath and whisper. That’s what movie magic really is, and few films put it on display better than the first Star Wars.

The full review is here: Why the First Star Wars Is Still the Best Star Wars

The posters for Wes Anderson’s latest film Moonrise Kingdom are brilliant. But you probably could have guessed that.

I remember being amazed by the art for The Royal Tenenbaums when it first hit, and whiling away many an hour poring over not only the poster, but the soundtrack album’s sleeve and all the great material that came with the Criterion DVD. Now I take it for granted. If there’s one thing Wes Anderson is good for, it’s design. His films themselves are rich feasts of design in and of themselves, of course. (Some would argue that’s a fault or a weakness – but not me.) And it extends off the screen too. Like few filmmakers (Tarantino is one of the others), and much more like a musician (the Beastie Boys are an an example that’s fresh in my mind) or a quality independent record label (SubPop, Warp), Wes is clearly invested in making sure every single thing, every bit of collateral, associated with his films is thoughtful, special and worth looking at. Nothing is prefab or half-done. Anyone can slap a film still onto a DVD package, but Wes is there to make sure there’s hand lettering and a drawing of the boat in cross-section – if only because the fanboys who think just like he does will go, “That’s awesome.” And it has a way of extending and enhancing the alternate universes he creates within his narratives. (That’s why I’m so psyched about Moonrise Kingdom getting all this attention as the opening film at Cannes this week – it’s like the revenge of the nerds.)

The campaign for Moonrise features more terrific custom lettering (but you knew that). Here’s the French poster:

Even better is the series of character-driven “motion posters” that were released as exclusives to various websites last month. (IndieWIRE compiled them all into one blog post.) If you don’t normally follow links when you’re reading online, do yourself a favor and make an exception this time – I can’t embed these motion posters and they are definitely worth checking out. Click on the stills at the top of each poster to rotate the images and see different quotes from the film. Normally this kind of thing is a really tedious marketing tool for big-budget blockbusters, but leave it to Wes to transform it into something fresh and exciting.

Moonrise Kingdom premieres in Australia at the State Theatre next month as part of Sydney Film Festival. There couldn’t be a better place to check out a Wes Anderson film than the State, with its red velvet, marble and crazy ornate mishmash of art deco, neoclassical and just about every other style dreamed of in 1929. I can’t wait.

Here’s a great poster for the Australian release of Where Do We Go Now?, which screens at Sydney Film Festival next month. Love the gorgeous custom lettering (thankfully getting away from the usual faux-Arabic fonts). Writer/director/star Nadine Labaki is kind of gorgeous too:

More images from the film available here via Hopscotch, the Australian distributor.

As for the film itself, I thought it was very good. After tracking it since last year (it won the audience prize at Toronto, and has gone on to become one of the biggest Arabic-language hits worldwide in recent years), I was not let down. It sure is ambitious – it fact, it’s all over the place, trying to fit elements of melodrama, farce, slapstick, tragedy and even musical into one story about the increasingly desperate attempts made by the women of an isolated Lebanese village to overcome sectarian violence. But Labaki mostly succeeds in all of this; for every WTF moment, there are two or three others that are inspiring or hilarious – and I cried a couple of times. It’s certainly more edgy and daring and has a lot more to say than your average foreign title aimed at the middle of the road – you know, the ones that are usually about women and food. (Though that crowd will eat it up too.) Its ecumenical message is genuine and powerful enough to light a flicker of hope for the region and for the world. It’s a nicely made film too. Of all the reviews I’ve read, Tasha Robinson at AV Club nails it.

Decisions, decisions

It’s that time of year again. The air turns crisp, the ground is covered with pink and white cammellia petals, and it’s time to book tickets for 20 films at Sydney Film Festival with my staff Flexipass.

I’ve been the program editor at SFF for three years now. It so happens I’m one of the first to hear about the film program during the gruelling weeks of putting together the print guide. One interesting film after another appears on my radar while I’m hard at it, and I barely have time to think, much less plan what to see. Then my deadlines pass, work slows down, and there’s that delicious moment when I sit down with the guide – my handiwork – and, armed with an orange highlighter, start choosing the films I’ll be checking out in June.

OK, so I work for SFF, but this is not some kind of obnoxious insider’s rant. I’m lucky enough to have an insider’s perspective, but I’m a punter when it comes to seeing and writing about the films – most of which have only screened at overseas festivals I can’t afford to attend.

So these are the 20 films I’ve settled on, in the order I plan to see them. They are largely, but not necessarily, what I’m guessing will be the 20 best at the fest. I have to make hard choices, and some films get tragically left out because they clash with my schedule. I might hedge a bet because I know a certain film will get released or someone will get me a copy; I might be avoiding overdoing it in a certain section or genre (especially Freak Me Out, always a temptation); or it could be down to supporting Australian films over others. Screenings at the State Theatre definitely have priority. It’s a game in itself, and the end result is always a strange cat’s cradle of marked-up sessions.

The vagaries of the festival calendar mean that on some days I’ve only booked one film, while on others I have up to four to watch back to back – an ambitious but foolhardy feat which only results in delirium and confusion even in the geekiest hardcore cinephiles. But somehow things always work out – I end up skipping a screening here, hustling tickets for another there, something unexpected becomes my new favorite movie ever, and the festival always turns out to be a blast…

Always a blast

My Flexipass 20:

  1. La pirogue (Thursday, 7 June, 2:20pm, Event Cinemas) – The first full day of the festival begins for me with a film from Senegal that’s set to screen at Cannes next week and will almost certainly not get a commercial run here. To me that’s where it’s at. Not to make some hokey statement about the superiority of “real-life stories” – for starters I don’t even believe that; I like my stories to be a lot weirder than real life. But if I have to choose, I’ll take a film about African boat refugees starring unknown or nonprofessional actors over a lot of other more ballyhooed festival fare.
  2. Caesar Must Die  (Thursday 7 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, in competition here, this mix of documentary and drama is set in a Roman prison, where the inmates are staging a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Golden Bear winners have been some of my faves of recent years, and the premise just sounds cool.
  3. Killer Joe  (Thursday 7 June, 9pm, Event Cinemas) – From ace guest programmer Richard Kuipers’ Freak Me Out section, this looks to be the kind of sleazy and violent but intelligent (and even subversive) thriller I would have eaten up as a kid late at night on Cinemax. Directed by William Friedkin (!!), featuring a rumored great performance from Matthew McConaughey, this sounds like an excellent chaser for Caesar Must Die.
  4. Beasts of the Southern Wild and
  5. Moonrise Kingdom (Friday 8 June, 6:30pm and 8:30pm, State Theatre) – This is the evening at the festival I’m looking forward to most: a double dose of magical Americana screening at the truly awesome State; one from a new director (Benh Zeitlin) riding a wave of acclaim at Sundance, the other from freaking Wes Anderson. Both feature child protagonists and and culminate in third-act storms; one stars Bruce Willis and the other does not (but, hey). These were my top choices from the get, and they’re screening back to back; I can’t imagine a better double feature.
  6. Lore (Saturday 9 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – An Australian competition film is almost a must-see; but Cate Shortland’s latest has a decidedly un-Aussie setting and I have to admit I’m more curious than usual: it’s a drama about German refugee children and the Jewish kid who helps them at the end of World War II.
  7. Tabu (Sunday 10 June, 7:15pm, State Theatre) – This black-and-white competition title from Portugal is a mix of drama and adventure split into two narratives, one of which is set in colonial Africa. The wife loved it and said I should not miss it, so there we are.
  8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Monday 11 June, 4:15pm, State Theatre) – I’m a sucker for Turkish cinema, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s meditation on crime and punishment is one of the most talked-about Turk titles in years; cannot miss a screening of it at the State.
  9. The Warped Forest (Monday 11 June, 9 pm, Event Cinemas) – Another entry from Freak Me Out, this fantasy/horror piece is apparently one of the weirdest movies of recent years – and solely given the fact that it’s from Japan, I don’t see how there can be a ceiling on that claim. I picture something like a live version of Miyazaki, with elements of early Cronenberg. (Actually, it’s also a leading contender for “Film I’m Most Likely to Skip Because I Decided It Would Be Too Weird.”)
  10. The King of Pigs (Tuesday 12 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – This violent animated Korean thriller about class conflict in high school is actually screening in competition; it therefore has a cool dark-horse status (of course it’s not going to win! animation’s for kids!) that automatically makes me want to support it over other films.
  11. Postcards from the Zoo (Wednesday 13 June, 8:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – Indonesian weirdness from “maverick” one-named director Edwin, about a girl raised in a zoo who falls in love with a magical cowboy. What’s not to like here?
  12. Dead Europe (Thursday 14 June, 6:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Must-see Aussie competition title part 2; this one from director Tony Krawitz, about a guy from Sydney who digs into his family’s past in Greece only to discover ghosts and curses. Sounds all right to me. From a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap. Screening back-to-back with The Loneliest Planet (below), forming a promising double feature about travel and alienation.
  13. The Loneliest Planet (Thursday 14 June, 8:45pm, State Theatre) – Gael García Bernal stars in a story about a romantic hiking trip in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia that goes all wrong. Gael always chooses good screenplays, and this one dovetails with my cinematic fascination with the Near East and Asia Minor.
  14. Barbara (Friday 15 June, 2pm, Event Cinemas) – For a number of reasons, when it comes to choosing films I find myself drawn to almost any other region before Europe. But I figured I should get at least a couple of Euro titles in, and this one, a drama from director Christian Petzold about an East German woman doctor exiled to a country backwater in 1980, seems pretty promising for reasons I can’t articulate. It might be the haunting melancholy of the vintage Cold War setting; or it might be the promo stills of the rather cute Nina Hoss riding a bike.
  15. Death for Sale (Friday 15 June, 4:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This Moroccan neo-noir thriller about a band of small-time crooks has been praised to heaven since it premiered at Toronto last year. For some stupid reason I missed it at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where I also work and where part of its funding came from. Maybe it was meant to be, because now it’s the first in my planned triple feature about violence and honor on the festival’s last Friday.
  16. Retaliation (Friday 15 June, 6:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This 1968 yakuza “bullet ballet,” part of the retrospective of exploitation flicks from Japan’s Nikkatsu studio (celebrating its 100th anniversary) was one of my top picks anyway, but coming right after Death for Sale makes it even more obvious.
  17. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Friday 15 June, 9pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This one from Takashi Miike will conclude a possibly exhausting triple feature with lots of eviscerations in 3D. This was a tough choice, because I have no interest in seeing it in 3D – but I didn’t want to miss another epic samurai flick from Miike, whose 13 Assassins was one of the highlights of the last festival. (And as it happens, the one 3D title I saw last year, Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was also one of the best, so here’s hoping those two trends work together.)
  18. Neighbouring Sounds (Saturday 16 June, 11:45am) – This competition film from Brazil just seems to be all about the stuff I’m into lately: naturalism, meditations on architecture and urban decay, Brazilian chicks getting high, abstract sound design, waterfalls of blood, etc. Anyway I love watching the more out-there competition films in the morning.
  19. The Angels’ Share (Saturday 16 June, 8:40pm, State Theatre) – Ken Loach, booze, dudes in kilts.
  20. Wuthering Heights (Sunday 17 June, 2:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Emily Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic has gotten very mixed reviews but it sounds like strong stuff either way. Turns out I haven’t read the book, so that’s not a factor (the way it would be with, say, Jane Austen). But I like what I hear about the bleak, primal, postmodern depiction of 19th-century Yorkshire.

Animation’s for kids

Most painful exclusions (must see about taxing the wife’s Flexipass): Safety Not Guaranteed (not by choice – turns out I’m busy on Closing Night), Marley (I’m a itinual fan, of course, but I imagine I’ll have a chance to see it again), Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (easily the best title in the festival), The Parade (might be missing a goldmine of dry Balkan humor), Dreams of a Life (doco about a woman whose corpse was found in her London apartment three years after she died)Modest Reception (Iranian situationism run amok), Livid (more Freak Me Out awesomeness), Searching for Sugar Man (Sundance audience award-winning doco about “lost” ’70s soul singer Rodriguez), Undefeated (Oscar-winning football doco), OK, Good (indie psychological thriller in Freak Me Out), A Simple Life (universally acclaimed Hong Kong drama about a retired housemaid).

Titles I’ve already seen and love, like or at least recommend: Rampart, Polisse, Policeman, Headshot, Today, Monsieur Lazhar, Goodbye, Alps, Where Do We Go Now?

Stray cat rock?

We Ain’t Dead Yet

Just had my review of Planet E’s fantastic 20th-anniversary compilation published on inthemix:

20 F@#%ing Years of Planet E

I love the sleeve design:

A number of tunes on the album have Youtube or Soundcloud links embedded in the review. But since I also mention several Carl Craig and Planet E classics that didn’t make the album, but were a huge influence on me back in the day, I thought I’d link them here. I’ve also thrown in a few more favorites for good measure.

Even a short playlist of old Planet E tunes (or new ones for that matter) quickly becomes a pretty formidable collection – the range and quality of this music never ceases to amaze me. I don’t get tired of it – there’s nothing quaint or kitschy about it. In that sense it has much in common with the timelessness of classic garage and house. In general this compilation really brings out how huge C2 and Planet E have been in my life.

69 – “My Machines”

Quadrant – “Hyperprism”

Paperclip People – “Throw”

Paperclip People – “Throw” (Basic Reshape)

Paperclip People – “The Climax”

Maurizio – “Domina” (C Craig’s Mind Mix)

Moodymann “I Can’t Kick This Feelin’ When It Hits”

Innerzone Orchestra – “Bug in the Bassbin” (Street Mix)

Recloose – “Can’t Take It” (Carl Craig Mix)

The Future of Music

All right, let’s get one thing straight. Below you will find a short video clip of an interview with Jim Morrison, which I’ve embedded into this blog post. Though I encourage you to click on this video and watch it, and find what he’s saying interesting, admirable and thought-provoking, as I do, this is in no way an indication that I’m a fan of the man. That I endorse the cult of personality built up around him in the forty years since his death, which I found ridiculous even as an impressionable teenager and budding music head. (In fact, I was the one who was taking the Doors out of the tape machine at the dorm party so I could rock Public Enemy, much to the consternation of the frat guys who were getting comfortably numb. Yeah, that was me. Sorry.)

I respect the Doors’ contribution to rock history. I’m still amazed by “Break on Through” and “The End” (even if I sometimes suspect Francis Ford Coppola has a great deal to do with the impact on me of the latter). I can see why their leader’s persona was so astonishing and captivating when he first arrived on the scene – coming out of the mid-20th century, when people generally kept their shirts on while singing in public, his shamanistic performance art and primal outbursts must have been like a hot knife through butter. It probably had to happen.

But I think a lot of their music was kind of lame – almost like lounge music. (I mean, really – “Touch Me”?) And Morrison’s lyrics are OK, but not really poetry (as his fans always maintain), and his poetry was pretty bad. And then he OD’d in a bathtub.

So I won’t be mewling about his grave in Paris anytime soon. But now that we’ve got that established, take a look at this video:

Quite apart from the fact that he’s exactly, eerily right about the way music would evolve a few years after his death, what I really like is that in 110 seconds he basically covers every kind of music that’s ever mattered to me, from American roots music to rock and electronic and hip hop, and ties it all together. I mean, how often do you hear someone talking about country and electronic music in the same breath? Yet that summarizes my entire music experience; it’s something I think about and puzzle over ever day, but have hardly ever found someone I can share it with. Always wondering how to explain why I hear similar things going on in the sounds of Gillian Welch and Boards of Canada, not to mention all the other kinds of music I’m passionate about from Handel to Chicago house. And yet, here it is, as plain and simple as you like, from the mouth of Jim Morrison – before it ever happened. Talk about breaking on through.

So yeah, just this once, in the words of my friend DJ I-Cue who first posted this video: “Jimmy knew the deal.”

9 Eyes

Check out 9 Eyes, the amazing photo gallery of images captured from Google Street View:

The page’s title refers to the device, basically a pole with nine cameras attached, that is Google’s weapon in its ongoing campaign to photograph… well, everywhere and everything.

In the last few years Google has dispatched a fleet of vehicles armed with the nine-in-one cam all over the world in an attempt to get as much visual data of our planet’s streets and byways as possible. Thanks to this endeavor, surely the largest photographic project in history, we can now access images of every imaginable corner of the world – and plenty of unimagined corners.

9 Eyes’ “curator,” Jon Rafman, combed through the all-but infinite archive of images on the Google Maps’ Street View function (along with other Street View blogs) and selected images for their artistic or documentary value. The results are spellbinding: a sequence of randomly made, ingeniously selected images cascading down the page one after the other with no context, no explanation, each one revealing something beautiful or bizarre or breathtaking.

After a while, the cumulative effect made me laugh out of delight and disbelief – and once or twice I even felt tears jump into my eyes. It has something of the effect of Koyaanisqatsi, the majesty and mayhem of our shared destiny presented nonjudgmentally. It seems to tell a story. But it’s a weird story.

“Google Street View is the greatest photographer ever – when paired with a good editor,” wrote a friend of mine. Rafman has brilliantly curated this project as if he was dealing with the work of an artist – or indeed, many of them. The “show” alternates between grim photojournalism – prostitutes, paramilitary forces, hostile baby gangsters on prosaic street corners – and glimpses of staggering beauty. Some of the images have the fascinating industrial forms and postmodern juxtapositions found in the work of Andreas Gursky and Edward Burtynsky. Rafman also cleverly includes lovely rainbows of digital noise to illuminate his collection.

I can’t even begin to imagine all the work that went into the editing.

Mistakes make for some of the most interesting photos. The random framing and lighting of a camera test or a drunken snapshot reveals an object or room in unexpected ways. Candids let us study weird, unselfconscious body poses. Examples have only proliferated in the digital age. I’ve often thought such photos would make a great show; 9 Eyes is the logical progression of that idea. Google Street View is a database of millions of candids.

It’s something to see some of the things that we think of doing in the street. Look at how many people are laying down in these pictures – some for good reasons (they’re hurt, or they’re drunk), but with others there’s no guessing. They look like characters in an absurdist film.

At times, a particular quality of light or movement will make a person or object seem unnatural. In one photo a group of little girls running towards the camera look like they’re floating above the ground. Some of the images are so inexplicable they seem to be dreams.

Other things you see a lot of on 9 Eyes:

  • animals
  • car accidents
  • guns
  • people flipping off the camera
  • people under arrest
  • people scaling walls
  • prostitutes
  • Segways

I love how in many cases there’s no obvious way to tell where in the world these things are taking place. It’s a testament to the underlying unity of our civilization: how similar are the corporate plazas, how similar are the ghettos.

Questions:

  • Did the Google drivers (or technicians or whatever they are; I can’t imagine they’re well-paid) ever stop to help the many accident victims seen here?
  • Can Google’s photographs be used as criminal evidence?
  • Did the drivers ever sneakily alter or improvise their routes to purposefully photograph something crazy or beautiful? Is it all really random?
  • Come on, how the hell did they get that snapshot of the gorillas?

The lack of text on 9 Eyes is one of its strengths, but Rafman provides thoughtful commentary on his creation at Art Fag City:

IMG MGMT: The Nine Eyes of Google Street View

It’s a great supplement to the gallery, with some photos that didn’t make the cut, and captions that shed different light on the images.

At the heart of his project, as Rafman explicitly states, is the question of whether any one company or entity has a legitimate claim on fabricating our vision of our world. Are all of these prostitutes and victims and people and animals doing strange things what the world really looks like? If there’s something funny or disturbing here, if it seems like art, or a hallucination – is that just a trick of the process? Is this our world, or just the world as Google sees it?

Or actually, since we’re at one more remove, is it just the world as Jon Rafman sees it? Never mind, I’ll take it for now.