Making horror movies less scary

 

Backcountry, a horror-survival story about a young couple whose camping trip ends poorly, has opened to good reviews.  Manola Dargis of the NY Times says of the couple: “It’s diverting, unnerving fun watching their descent, at least for a while.”  She couldn’t be more right, although it’s  not just for awhile, it’s for the entire movie, and that is why people go to see horror movies.

Films like this would be genuinely terrifying if you could put truly imagine yourself in the shoes of the main characters, sharing their experience in an unmediated way. This would not be entertainment.  To make the horror palatable, writers and directors let you in on the secret beforehand, tacitly informing you of their awareness of your ambient anxiety.   Movies which stray from this awareness, think Hitchcock here, are rightly seen as more frightening.  Modern “hardcore”horror movies seem to me to rely on the viewers startle-reflex.  The insidious nature of Hitchcock is the intentionality with which he keeps you off-base.  You never expected to be frightened by an ever-increasing flock of birds perching on playground equipment did you?  Why would you?

But in Backcountry, as Dargis points out, you know from the moment the boyfriend refuses a map in the ranger’s office, that ill will befall the couple. In a sense that the couple deserves their misfortune.   When a bear finally attacks, you saw it coming, and at this point are watching to see how graphic the scene will be. It creates a mediocre meta-experience: not experiencing the horror itself (which would be too disturbing),  but instead the experiencing the drama as a correlate of level of DEPICTION of the horror.  How far will the director go? Films like this are considered successful if director goes slightly beyond what the audience expected. But expect it they must.  In filmic language this is done through details like an axe being left too far away to be of use in defense, or by a person accidentally cutting themself before swimming in shark-infested waters.

To me this is a stale pattern, and the solution is to cover subjects which are less inherently horrifying, but cover them in a way that is more realistic.  Less foreshadowing, fewer tropes, more randomness. Loss and lack of control.  The opportunities for this are endless – you could make a horror movie out of an unexpected divorce.   However some incidents, like Timothy Treadwell’s death audiotape in Herzog’s Grizzly Man, are just not for popular entertainment.

A Star is Boring

 

 

The real story of 2018’s “A Star is Born”  is how its stars, who play stars, are unable to do anything but imitate how someone would behave when they achieve stardom, rather than expose their own “lived” experience.

Bradley Cooper’s gives the portentous advice ” Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag,” even as he is directing a movie with nothing new to say.  It’s a timid note-for-note copy of it’s predecessors.  He has even artificialized his voice, it’s a gravelly octave lower. in order to better imitate a burned-out rock-star.

And he’s imitating only the good parts.  With the exception of a couple of pasted-on jarring bouts of bad behavior, Jackson Maine is the most courtly “self-destructive drunk” ever seen.  Have you ever known a real alcoholic?  They are ANGRY.  They are bloated.  They lie.  Not once and then tearfully apologize, they lie all the time.  They don’t black out in a hotel room and spring up the next morning to laugh and quip over room-service breakfast.  That’s not what a blackout hangover looks like.

Gaga however does show some realness, but not about her character.  It’s about the earnest of wanting to do a good job as an actor.  We see her caring about pulling out the right emotions.  And in a way that’s endearing and makes us want to care for her.   But it’s not what an ingenue propelled to stardom would feel.  Instead she would be subject to roiling welter of emotions: being caught up in her new power, feeling like an imposter, having a sense of vanquishing her naysayers, worrying over how long it would last, experiencing both appreciation and resentment for the fact that the launching of her stardom was due to her partner.   These are all missing, instead the script has her character put on the cloak of success with ease, with a few shouts back to her goombah muckety-muck adopted family of commercial-ready livery-cab drivers.

Unless we see these real, and often conflicting emotions, there is no way to care about the characters or to root for them as a couple.  Cooper and Gaga seemed to be saying their lines in a soap-opera-esque fraught way, with the occasional burst of emotion that seemed more to do with the novelty of movie-making than with how they relate to each other.    By the end one grows weary of Jackson Maine, there was no real dark side to him. So his efforts at redemption seemed superfluous.

Imagine if he had been a real bastard, and yet we still cared for him. Or if Gaga’s ego had blown up but she was able to cast it aside and return to humllity when the chips were down.   That really would have been “having something to say.”

 

 

 

Has success ruined Marc Maron?

marc maron in designer jeans

 

Marc Maron’s redemption from life in the lower-middle tiers of the comedy world began in 2009 with his podcast, “WTF”, done from his garage in Highland Park, a hipster-friendly neighborhood in Los Angeles.

“WTF” features a musical intro that features the sound clip “Call off your dogs!” which is, I think, originally shouted by Heathcliff, the tortured hero Wuthering Heights, although of course the idiom goes back further than that.   Maron like Heathcliff feels continuously under attack, by the memories of his own neglectful upbringing, by his own demons, but mainly by the successes of others.

As a showbiz professional Maron had the role of the ultimate “Insider’s outsider”, eclipsed by the good fortune accorded to his peers: Louie CK, Sarah Silverman, Denis Leary, and anyone who made it into the cast of Saturday Night Live.  But unlike most carefully-calibrated celebrities, he was mad as hell and going to tell you about how angry and jealous he was –  an extremely compelling point of view in a society that says that as long as you pursue your dream, you will end up a winner (see blog post “Not tickled by the magic feather“).

Here then was the worst nightmare of our national myth:  that you can try your best, be pure of heart, but due to bad luck fail miserably as you watch others, perhaps less talented and dedicates, succeed.  Maron feels instead the more ancient truth of Psalm 73:3 “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

Who wouldn’t feel sympathy hearing about his struggles to understand being rejected by the pasha-like Lorne Michaels in favor of the lesser lights that have made up the cast of late-stage Saturday Night Live?

Marc Maron shared the struggles in his personal life as well: his difficulty maintaining relationships, his lack of male friendship, a certain weirdness with food, and loneliness on the road.

But his fortune slowly started to change.  The podcast caught on.  He hosted, and often reconciled with, many of his former comedy buddies who had since become luminaries.  This made for dramatic “podio”.

More success followed, spots on NPR and a development deal that resulted in his show “Maron” on IFC and Netflix.  the series follows his own life: Maron lives in a little house in Highland Park, with cats, doing podcasts and kvetching. His character is  entertainingly unapologetic about not living up to the mainstream requirement of being an “alpha male”, and there are some funny moments when he makes a go and fails at doing traditionally male activities: retrieving a dead raccoon from a crawlspace (he doesn’t know what a crawlspace is), and dressing up in a gaudy Los Angeles Kings jersey in an attempt to get into the spirity of watching a hockey game with Ray Romano.

As the show develops we begin to see something different from the rough-edged persona from the “WTF” podcast, instead a carefully-curated character who is not only quite successful but fiercely competent, a bit prissy, and perhaps a little entitled.  Maron lives in a beautifully-appointed, carefully-landscaped house, with tastfull mid-century furniture and Pottery-Barn-style paint jobs.  His wardrobe changes frequently and would make Ira Glass jealous: hipsteresque Western shirts with pearl buttons, up-market boots and jackets, and designer jeans (see his New York Times article “My Desperate, Stupid, Emotional Hunt for the Perfect Pants“).

Maron’s social life becomes lavish as well.  An attractive woman 19 years younger sends him a fan email with a photo of her vagina, she then picks him up at the airport for a “sex-fest” and later becomes his girlfriend.  A pretty single mom picks him up in a coffee shop when his much younger barista sex-buddy is too busy for him.  A realtor insists on being “taken” up against a grand piano in the  empty house she is showing.  And Maron is often accompanied by a coterie of less-successful male comedians.  He hires a very funny, Maronesque young assistant (Josh Brener) who worships him and wants to be him.

This is a very different dynamic than the disheveled man we imagined behind the mic, doing his podcasts after a cat food run.  The factors that made the podcasts interesting (and they weren’t always, there are plenty of boring ones) began to become less apparent on the t.v. show Things like figuring out the degree to which his lack of success was due to personality flaws versus bad luck or fate; enjoying see the example of another man, my age, dealt with loneliness and a feeling of “not fitting in”;  and finally seeing how someone who was in the popular culture navigated how his personal life should be integrated into that culture.

The last issue as an example, the interplay between his personal life and his onstage performances,  became reduced in the t.v. show to a plot-advancing devices with little nuance, e.g.,  Maron alienating his new girlfriend by revealing aspects of their relationship in public.  This may have indeed occured, but it’s treated in such a broad comic way that seems very different from his more confessional radio style.

As this interesting outsider voice becomes muted, there becomes less to talk about and the episodes become more confabulated:  there is a pot-smoking sequence with David Cross (whom I love) where he gets Marc’s parents high, resulting in a sodium pentathol-like effect where they reveal their caring side to the tune of a sitar playing in the background.

To his credit the issue of success is occasionally addressed through interplay with his less-successful buddy comedians (Andy Kimmler and Dave Anthony).  There’s a revealing episode at the end of Season 2, where Marc and his friends make a trip to a trailer park in the desert to check on an older hack comedian who has stopped answering texts.   It turns out he has suffered a heart attack and died in his trailer, after writing the setup – but not the punchline to the joke “I can’t stand magicians.You know what would be a real trick?”.  The comedians struggle with how to finish the joke (my favorite punch line “You know what would be a good trick? If someone could stop this crushing pain in my chest”.) just as much or more than they struggle with their feelings about his death.  During the long period while they wait for an ambulance Marc is ribbed about an upcoming appearance on the Charlie Rose show and is forced to admit that he is now a cut above, but insisting he has not become arrogant about it.

Inevitably the show is going to have to explore whether Maron’s success, getting what he wants, makes him happy.  It’s easy to say that it won’t, that he’ll be like Karl Knausgaard, grumblingly collecting accolades. That would certainly be in-character, however the degree to which the show can honestly address this issue, even if it means exposing artifice in his previous “pure” persona, will determine whether the show stays interesting.

 

 

Cabaret Revival? – “Nein danke”

Here’s a short list of actors who have reprised Joel Grey’s role as the emcee in “Cabaret”: Alan Cumming, John Stamos, Michael C. Hall, Doogie Howser, and now Alan Cumming II.  They do a version of this:

alancumming

michael_c_hall_cabaret doogie_cabaret stamos_cabaret john_secada

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A louche, drippy, supposed sensuality.   What the role calls for is more of this:

Cabaret-joel-grey-26347153-462-329

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

joel_gray_manic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grey’s manic clown-from-hell, who takes you places you-know-not-where.

This is because the parts of “Cabaret” that take place outside of the KitKat Klub are ominous and depressing.  They include the strangulation of Weimar Germany by creeping Naziism and a doomed romance between a Jewish greengrocer and the landlady Fraulein Schneider.

Alan Cumming seemed tired and disengaged at the matinee performance I saw recently.   Part of this is just style, watch the energy level change when Joel Grey takes over in this performance at the Kennedy Center in 1998:

The only way to counter the heavy tediousness of the main story, is to witness the spectacle of this talented freak-pixie and his bawdy backup group.

From what I can tell Alan Cumming’s performance was  was exactly the same down to the gesture as in the 1998 show.  I was also inordinately bothered by his pronunciation in the song “Money”, he says “Money makes DE world go around…” when all German speakers that I know would say “Money makes ZE world go around”.  Seems minor but nobody caught that?

At the Roundabout theater, you are seated in a replica of the Kit Kat Klub, which is fun.  Michele Williams hit the notes but was shrill.  My recommendation is to see the 1972 film “Cabaret”, for which Joel Grey rightfully won an Oscar for  Best Supporting Actor.

 

 

Pleasing our mothers, our fathers

generation-war-1671546017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

— SPOILER ALERT.  There are spoilers in this review.  —

“Generation War” is a 5 hour epic that follows the lives of 5 young Germans throughout the course of World War II. Originally titled “Our Mothers, Our Fathers”, it had a successful run as a miniseries on German t.v.

Reviews in the U.S. have been mixed.  David Denby in The New Yorker says “…it may be clunky, even embarrassing, but it’s certainly never dull.”  I’ve seen this same line of exculpation so many times in reviews, perhaps resulting from the desire by the reviewer not to come across as too negative.  Rarely are movies described in the opposite way “….graceful and meaningful but certainly quite dull”.

The main knock on “Generation War” in the U.S. has been that it sanitizes the German war experience avoiding difficult questions about what level of culpability ordinary German citizens had in the rise of Hitler and the atrocities that followed.

This criticism has been less apparent in Germany.  “Der Spiegel” magazine described it as “a turning point in German television”, and claims:

“Germany apparently remains eternally wounded, dependent upon the healing power of remembrance. Germans must live with their trauma and occasionally reopen the wound to prevent it from festering.”

“Generation War” does everything it can to avoid reopening the wound.    It focuses on the collective conscience of a group of 5 tolerant, young, liberal friends, while ignoring the national conscience and the national character that lead to the ascendence of the Third Reich.   The film uses the trope of good Germans versus bad Germans, creating sympathy for these ordinary people against whom so much is happening.

Here is our wacky, close-knit group of protagonists:

GW_black

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remind you of anyone?

friends_black

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The level of character development remains on a “t.v.” level as well, as if there were just half an hour to get to know them rather than 5.  They fall into conventional types: the responsible upstanding one, the sensitive poet, the chanteuse, the “good girl”.   Yes, there is even a Jew.   To be played by David Schwimmer, perhaps, in the American version.

What follows is fairly predictable.  The sensitive one becomes a stone-cold killer (because of his sensitivity) ,  the good girl hardens, the chanteuse sells out, the responsible one becomes disillusioned, and the Jew survives (this is not “Shoah” after all).   In the end the remaining survivors gather at the bar where we met them in the opening scene, to toast their fallen friends.  Unlike “The Deer Hunter” they do not break out into patriotic song.

It’s a near-impossible task to capture the German experience of WWII.  The most successful German war film that I’ve seen is Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot”, precisely because its scope is limited to the experience of life onboard a German submarine.  It should be noted that “Das Boot” too, pits “good” German protagonists against evil Nazis, the difference is that the characters in “Das Boot” begin disillusioned by war.   The opening scene also takes place in a bar, with nervous submariners drinking to the point of vomiting, not innocently clowning and posing for group pictures.   

“Generation War”, if done correctly, would evince a greater tragedy than “Das Boot”, look how far the characters fall, they are all compromised and disillusioned by the end.  But the script is so hackneyed, the direction so obvious (long draw on a cigarette = deep thinking) that we see the end hours before it arrives. The final scene in “Das Boot”, on the other hand, is truly shocking, and we empathize with the characters, despite their mordancy, partially because of the extraordinary plot device of being trapped in a submarine with them (just as being trapped in a stuck elevator would encourage commonality) but also because we have seen them be brave while knowing they are both doomed and compromised and so is everyone else.  There is an unforgettable scene where we witness the German sailors watching men jump from a ship they have just torpedoed, on fire and begging for help.   No one is innocent, and a redemptive story about the perpetrators of the second Great War must proceed from this fact as a starting point in order to be taken seriously.

“Generation War” has been praised for its war scenes: typically shakey-cam speeded-up jittery cuts.  These seemed to be done by a different director, not so of course, and while riveting (“certainly never dull”) this technique evoked that “Sopranos” strategy  of interjecting bursts of violence to “juice” the audience when things were getting heavy or dull.   It also reminded me of U.S. war movies – “Generation War” has been described as a German “Band of Brothers” – which function as action movies, shocking the moral reflection out of the viewer and pouring in platitudes about cameraderie.  The message is always “bad things happen to good people, but at least we have each other”.

In “Generation War” there is a sense that those “bad things” which “happen” include the protagonists own moral failings.  These are limited to a personal rather than societal scale.  When the good-girl nurse turns in her Jewish assistant we have no sense that she was capable of the betrayal,  that she had become morally compromised and had lost the memory of her Jewish friend, Ross, uh, Viktor.  Instead the focus is on how badly she feels afterwards.  The deed is later forgiven in one of the final scenes where the Jewish nurse’s aide  returns, improbably, as a Russian commanding officer, who not only conveniently spares the nurse from rape by the advancing Stalinist troops (something I don’t think the filmmakers wanted to address) but also provides the film’s redemptive dollop by stating, in effect, “this must end somewhere”.

With all its flaws, the best legacy “Generation War” can provide is to encourage us to look at the compartmentalization and moral relativism in our own war films.  Critical praise for movies like “Zero-Dark Thirty” demonstrate how difficult it is to come to terms with the moral failings of our own society.  As it stands “Generation War” is a slick apologia, an immaculately-wrapped present by dutiful German children to their (grand)mothers and (grand)fathers.

 

 

Expectation Breakers

james-franco-alien-spring-breakers

Who would have thought that Harmony Korine’s candy-colored fleshfest “Spring Breakers” would be so unsatisfying?  But that seems to be the point.  While watching the movie I kept searching for ways to “make it work” but couldn’t.  Not as a bacchanal – I found the quick cuts clinical and unsexy.  Not as a gangster movie – James Franco was more clown than crime boss.  Not as a parody – it’s too dreamlike and not funny enough. Not even as Korine’s standard detached documentary – the characters have no depth, there are no real connections.

“Julien Donkey-Boy”, a previous Korine film also featuring dysfunctional weirdos,  offers moments of real emotional connection.  There’s a touching scene where Chloe Sevigny is pretending to channel the deceased mother of Julien (Ewen Bremner).   But in “Spring Breakers” everything is detached and suspect, you can never quite believe what is happening onscreen.  Would four naive-seeming co-eds don ski masks and rob a restaurant with squirtguns and a mallet?  Would they exalt afterwards?

Throughout the film Korine has you asking such questions.  Every time you think the film is hewing to a narrative type (coming-of-age, redemption, documentary) you are thrown off base.  So James Franco’s “Alien” character initially seems ridiculous, then briefly menacing.  The next time you see him he’s jumping up and down on a bed while holding on to two machine guns saying “Look at my shit!” in a very non-menacing, non-gangster way.  This is not an organic change, it’s just an inconsistency.

Motion in this movie is created by the scrambling of these filmic conventions, rather than through character development.  This feels unsatisfying, and throws into relief the tacit agreement we ordinarily make with films: a willingness to trade the enjoyment that comes from having unspoken conventions met – for example the revenge narrative – in exchange for accepting poor writing, no semblance of real life, and a conventional, cowardly point-of-view.

Other disruptive films, for some reason I think of atmospheric French films, simply deny the viewer the usual pleasurable sign-posts.  Spring Breakers shows them in brightly-colored glory, only to have them fade and blur in close-up.

 

 

Phillip Roth – Masked

 

proth

Phillip Roth turns 80 today.  He’s quite a pleasant fellow, at least based on the recent documentary “Phillip Roth – Unmasked” which just wrapped up at the Film Forum yesterday. One doesn’t get a sense of how dark, sardonic, and satyric (is that a word?) his writing is.

Given that he’s faced a lot of feminist criticism, it’s interesting that most of the commentators in this film are women, including Mia Farrow, who we learn is a staunch friend.  I wondered whether Claudia Roth Pierpoint, another commentator, was related to the author, that’s never explained and I haven’t been able to find out online.

Although it’s not an in-depth view, I did learn some things about Phillip Roth:

 

  • He was extraordinarily handsome as a younger man and attracted women easily
  • He had a terrible first marriage and went into psychoanalysis 3 to 4 times per week, which he felt helped him
  • “Portnoy’s Complaint” was written using the model of an analysand speaking to a psychotherapist
  • He suffered from chronic back pain for years, which made him suicidal (I have since learned there is a character in “Everyman” who commits suicide due to back pain)
  • He fears death and is very discouraged by aging

So although this wasn’t a comprehensive biography, I found it refreshing to see a movie with intelligent conversation and at least a few insights.  I’m looking forward seeing “Andre Gregory – Before and After Dinner”

Down the River: The De-Evolution of Boy Scout Handbooks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve always admired the austerity and simplicity of the 8th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook (1972-76), which I read during my harrowing time in the Scouts.  The subtle greens and no-nonsense font complement the inside illustrations, which are impressionistic line drawings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a sophistication that works nicely with the simplicity of the Handbook’s messages: Be a good person.  Be a good citizen.  And the artistry of the  drawings – check out the tension lines on the boy’s pants above, how they meander outside border –  suggest a respect for the (young) reader’s imagination.  There’s a purposeful ambiguity at times: is the boy above Asian or White?  Hispanic?

Although I had a mostly-negative experience with Scouting, my Scoutmasters quit the troop and we disbanded, I continue to enjoy the magical aspirational quality that started with Baden-Powell.  The 8th edition captures this wonderfully.   The design style and artwork tell the reader “This is how things could be.” rather than “This is how things are.”   To any child growing up in the 70’s it was very apparent that the simple wholesome life portrayed by Scouting was at direct odds with the zeitgeist, which was suffused not only with the collapse of traditional values, but also with the collapse of 60’s idealism, which was an alternative set of values whose demise was particularly painful to youth due to its greater respect for children. I can remember when I very young, having “hippies” bending down to speak to me as if I were a person with an opinion, something the “straight” adults rarely did.

What a treat then, to be offered a world that both traditional values and alternative design.  And with a philosophy that looked hopefully to the future:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And in berets no less.  Yet never resorting to comic-book exaggeration, instead offering a reassuring adult sensibility.

 

Today’s Handbook, in comparison, is a 4th of July Happy Meal that someone has dropped on the ground:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing you notice is that almost half of the cover is taken up by the patriotic tableaux of a confused looking bald eagle in front of a pixelated American flag.  The eagle looks anxious, as if the inflatable boat is about to come crashing down upon its head.  The Scouts are unidentifiable as scouts, they could be any campers or just kids out on a rafting trip.

This cover reflects anxiety.  The action is down, not up to the stars.  The visual metaphor that today’s youth are being sent “down the river”, that there is no solid ground under them.  And the demographic reality is that they will be forced to prop up the aging population, with few benefits or social safety net of their own.  The eagle has good reason to be anxious.

The imagery is realistic, like a photograph.  It says “This is how things are.” which undermines the beautiful (and useful) fiction that the 8th Edition captured so tenderly and  knowingly.

For something from the WWII era, check out this illustration from my father’s Boy Scout Handbook:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here, the Scout, a Tenderfoot no less, is placed directly in the historical pantheon in between a Founding Father and an explorer.  It looks like an illustration from “Treasure Island”.   And although the collapse of civilization was a distinct possibility at the time, the tone is confident, the Scout’s identity secure.   As always though, I have to point out that the good old times were not so good for those who were different.   I doubt you will see many brown faces in these lovely drawings.

What then would a non de-evolutional edition of the current Boy Scout Handbook look like?   It’s a cliche, but today’s world is even more complex.  There is less direct disappointment than in the early 70s: you no longer see the flag-draped coffins on the evening news, there is no draft and no there are no protests.  Today’s youth are numb.

A solution would wake them up, and make use of the identity-strengthening archetypes, like the WWII edition did.   Another book from the 70’s that offered a way out from the turmoil was the “Whole Earth Catolog”.  It featured all sorts of interesting projects and facts that were clever and low-tech.   A new Scouting handbook would show kids ways to use their energy and resilience to turn reduced prospects for traditional prosperity into a positive rather than a negative.  You can see this with locavore and permaculture movements.  To get kids to turn away from the video game and build a lean-to is a daunting task.

I think a return to seriousness, as opposed to the current edition’s candy-apple style, might be a way of getting through to the younger generation.  A new type of handbook that would convey both “This is how things are” (Wake up!) and “This is how thing could be” (Use this for inspiration).   A darker, more brooding BSA Handbook is the only one that will be successful.

 

Jazz gets it’s ass kicked by Korean shaman who then dies

“Intangible Asset 82” is an independent film which chronicles Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker’s trip to Korea in search of grand-master shaman drummer Kim Seok-Chul.  The title of the movie refers to the fact that the South Korean government has declared Seok-Chul to be a national “intangible” asset.  I bought the dvd after seeing a recital by Barker and some traditional Korean muscians at Lincoln Center’s “Target Free Thursdays.”

At the recital Barker tells the story of first heard the grandmaster on a rare recording.  The person who played the recording for him said something like “this is an example of awful drumming.”  Barker’s reaction was that this was the best thing he ever heard in his life and he wanted to find out all about it.

This is a great start.  He likes what other people hate, this chaotic free-form improvisatory drumming.   As a jazz drummer he must have had a degree of freedom to improvise, but nothing like what he heard on the recording.  I find that jazz, in general, despite its reputation for creativity and freedom, can often seem bland and overly formalized.  Think of how much jazz sounds the same, or of the traditionalist spoutings of this guy:

I would rather hear Koreans banging on pots and pans than Wynton Marsalis hectoring me on the classicism of Louis Armstrong.

Barker visited Korea seventeen times before this final trip, where he meets Seok-Chul just days before the shaman dies.   Along the way we meet various other shamans and traditional musicians.  We are told that the apprenticeship for being a shamanic singer is to live in a hut by a waterfall for several years, and to shout at the top of one’s lungs for literally seventeen hours a day.  Have you ever tried to shout at the top of your lungs for 10 minutes?

I wished that Barker would have taken a more questioning approach to Korean music and culture.  For example, he often describes Korean rhythms as “incredibly complex”.   The point is made several times that improvisation is based on rigorous technique and years of study.  I didn’t hear this.   As an erstwhile drummer I didn’t hear time signatures being changed, or intersecting polyrhythms, I just heard pleasant banging.  But I liked the banging, and I like the traditional singing, which was most often  like a throaty wail.  It seemed highly improvised and honest.  I didn’t see the need to justify it.

Barker seemed blissed out for most of the film, like a Deadhead (another genre I don’t get) and the soft-focus cinematography reflected his mood.  Lots of sunrises and sunsets, lights blinking on, picturesque old men in the public square, little children running.  Like a K.A.L. commercial.   My reaction to this was that I was being sold something.    Perhaps he was trying to put a sweet coating on a challenging type of music that can sound harsh and simultaneously chaotic and repetitive.  I longed for a happy traditional Korean tune.

 

Fixie WHIMPS!

hipster on a bike

“Fixies”, or  fixed-gear bicycles, are still popular amongst a certain subgroup of NYC hipsters.  Part of the appeal is the danger, in addition to not having gears, many fixes don’t have brakes and instead require the rider to either apply reverse pressure to their pedals, or to hop their rear wheel up, lock it, and go into a skid.

OK so these are some brave hipsters right? NOT SO FAST.

Try going into a skid on one of these:

Men on penny farthings in Los Angeles, 1886

The first bicycles to, in fact, be known as bicycles are now known as “penny-farthings”.  The name is based on the similarity in the ratio of the back to front wheel size to that of an English penny and a farthing coin  The wheels were large to increase speed – without a chain or gears,  the size of the front wheel limited how fast one could go.

“Penny farthings were also highly dangerous, and crashes leading to serious injuries – or death – were common. Front wheels grew to gargantuan sizes, with the biggest specimens measuring about two meters in diameter. If a rider hit a bump or any other obstacle on the road, riders were sent flying over the handlebar, a type of accident known as ‘taking a header’ or ‘coming a cropper'” – A Short Illustrated History of the Bicycle By Carsten Hoefer

Penny-farthings were ridden by the hipsters of the 1880’s, typically young men who wanted to show how dashing and brave they were.  In fact a penny-farthing IS a fixie, albeit one where you can die if you accidentally tilt over.  Have today’s riders gone soft?  I think anyone who rides any kind of bike in New York City should get a medal for bravery.