Friday, June 12, 2020

Kesha, High Road (RCA/Kemosabe Records, 2020)

On her latest mind-blowing doozy of a pop confection, High Road, Kesha Rose Sebert comes out full-on as a true BFF of the gay community. Not that Kesha hasn’t always been an outspoken supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, because she’s been about as outspoken and supportive as an artistic ally could ever be. But because of the consistent vocal and songwriting presence of Kesha’s close friend, the gay musician Stephen Wrabel — who writes and records his songs simply as Wrabel, and who co-wrote nine of the fifteen tracks on High Road — Kesha’s recent album makes her an official honorary member of our community now. High Road is my favorite album of the year so far, and it’s also the gayest album of the year by a mile, too, in all of the best possible ways.

I’ve long thought that Kesha is pretty much a pop genius, and I’m not at all using that description lightly. Her songs are so fun and so smart sonically and lyrically that they place her on an entirely different level than most of her pop peers. Listeners who write her off probably just don’t have a thorough understanding of the intricacies of popular music, or they just think that pop music isn’t intricate in the first place. Sorry, but they’re all wrong, and Kesha’s High Road is in part about why they’re wrong. It’s also about survival, tenacity, fucking up, having a blast, questioning religion, coming clean, rising above the bullshit, loneliness and friendship, having sex with a stranger, crushing all negativity, endless cycles of forgiveness and resentment, growing up without a father, heartbreak, artistic persistence, being misunderstood, understanding, letting off steam, and most important of all, just getting down.

Just as the album’s themes are that damn all-encompassing, so are the album’s sonic romps through musical genres from unabashed pop to hip-hop to folk to country to gospel to big-band to house to hi-NRG dance to silly novelty songs complete with beeping ’80s video game background flourishes. From the album’s opening throwdown on “Tonight,” Kesha is clearly harkening back to her earliest hits intentionally on every level. Wrabel raps about calling Kesha up on the phone (“Bitch, we goin’ out tonight / Bitch, pick up your phone”). Kesha raps back in a hilarious response, and the punky flow of her lyrical acceleration is irresistible: “OK, we’re goin’ out tonight, don’t wanna stay home / I got my girls to call the Uber ‘cuz I can’t find my phone.” It’s a tiny mishap, a brief missed connection that opens up into a wild night of partying euphoria, “the best night of our lives.” From that point onward, we know what we’re in for, but the album nevertheless remains as unpredictable as all art is.

Then the percussive throb of “My Own Dance,” co-written by the awesome Justin Tranter, launches us off into the album’s most fabulous single, “Raising Hell,” which rapidly transforms itself from a church-basement piano intro into a reggae-spiked barn-burner of a dance-club cut, with Kesha “all fucked up in my Sunday best... / Bitch, I’m blessed” (“Hallelujah / I’m still here, still bringin’ it to ya ... / Mama raised me well / But I don’t wanna go to heaven without raising hell”). In Kesha’s religious universe, the only real place to find salvation is on the dancefloor. “High Road,” the album’s title track, is a double-entendre about having the decency to ignore our culture’s ever-escalating, social media-driven immaturity, and getting a bit high to ignore it when you need to. She also tosses in the finest sharp-pointed put-down of her storied career: “Could a bitch who’s dumb write a Number One? / More than one? More than two? More than you!” “Shadow” follows up that thought with a swift directive to leave Kesha — who’s already had to deal with a whole history of shady characters — to her sunshine and blue skies, in some peaceful land that’s far from darkness. Clearly, we could all use some of that sunny place right about now.

After “Honey” chronicles Kesha’s smackdown of a former female friend who betrayed her trust by dipping into her “sloppy seconds,” “Cowboy Blues” and the slow-burning “Resentment” anchor the album with a country-lite diptych of a centerpiece. Wrabel joins Kesha for a handsomely homespun duet on “Cowboy Blues,” a searching-for-love song that cleverly and delicately deconstructs all other love songs in the pop canon: “They say you know when you know / What do you do when you don’t? / They say in love, it’ll happen if it’s meant to happen / What do you do if it don’t?” Kesha wonders whether a cute Nashville dive-bar cowboy dressed up in shades of blue might’ve been the one she was meant to have kids with (“Did I fuck my whole life up? / Did I miss my one true love?”). Sturgill Simpson and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson both pitch in memorably and hauntingly on “Resentment,” which Kesha endows with as much gorgeous gravity as anything else to be found in her catalog, as she contemplates what emotion could be even worse than hate after being carelessly hurt by someone. So what does Kesha do? She moves past that contemplative midsection of her album to pursue some new lovers on the up-tempo pairing of “Little Bit of Love” and “Birthday Suit.”

The sublimely sexy “Kinky” and super-sweet “BFF” might be my favorite two songs Kesha has ever recorded. “Kinky” traces Ke$ha (as she’s billed on the track-listing for the song) pursuing a hot gender-blending, no-rules threesome where “Boys kiss boys kiss girls kiss girls / That’s how it’s meant to be.” (Yes, the benevolent spirit of Prince himself is absolutely looking out over this song.) And the pretty little chimes of “BFF” find Kesha and Wrabel trading off the most moving set of lyrical glances between a straight woman and her gay male best friend since probably the great “Moon River” scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “The day I met you we got drunk in the backyard / With our friend Drew / I remember we had our first slumber party / We were both feelin’ blue / A few months later, right before I went to rehab / You gave me my first tattoo / It was a hard time, a really fuckin’ dark time / Thank God I found you.” In terms of setting up a scene, I think it’s probably the best opening verse of any pop song from the past five years or so.

The album’s penultimate track, “Father Daughter Dance,” plumbs the depths of a strained father/daughter relationship better than any other song since Kelly Clarkson’s heartbreaking hit “Piece by Piece,” except that in Kesha’s song, the father is completely absent. She ponders in earnest the lifelong effect that it’s had on her and all of her other relationships (“Would he have protected me / From all the bad shit? The bad men? / Would I even be the same person?”). “Chasing Thunder” closes the album on a quietly triumphant note, as Kesha recounts her late grandmother’s story of an ageless girl who’ll be running towards a distant sky forever: “That’s the spirit, that’s the ghost inside of me / Baby, I’m not a rose, I’m a wildflower.” If Billie Holiday were still alive today, she’d be singing Kesha’s songs.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders, 1984)

It’s taken me a number of years to feel ready to write this post because I want to focus on just one scene from Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas, which for me is one of the most important cinematic scenes from the latter half of the 20th century. Since the first time I saw it, I’ve never stopped thinking about this scene; it’s always lingering somewhere on some level of my consciousness, every day and every night. The scene is in the last half-hour of the film, and it also takes up a large portion of that final half-hour. A two-hander, it starts out as a dialogue, then becomes one character’s monologue, then a dialogue again, then the other character’s monologue. The scene was written by the late great Sam Shepard, who’d also originally drafted two different screenplays for the film, loosely based on some elements from his book Motel Chronicles. He handed those screenplays over to L. M. Kit Carson, who skillfully re-worked and adapted them into the form that’s used in the rest of the film, culminating in the scene that I’ll be focusing on here. According to Carson, the scene that I’ll be writing about was scripted entirely by Sam Shepard. Viewers can probably hear the language shift stylistically into Shepard’s voice and thematic idiom as the scene unfolds, or at least I can.

The two characters in the scene are Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) and Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who were once a romantic couple; together they’d had a son, Hunter (played by Hunter Carson, Kit Carson’s real-life son with Karen Black). Here’s a brief synopsis of the film for those who’ve never seen it. The movie opens with Travis wandering out of the Texas desert, silent and haggard, after several years spent alone in the wilderness. He’s retrieved by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), and the two men drive the long distance back to Walt’s home in the suburbs of Los Angeles, which he shares with his wife, Anne (Aurore Clement). Walt and Anne were left to raise young Hunter in the wake of Travis’ sudden disappearance and Jane’s abandonment of her child. Much of the film’s first half focuses on Travis’ reunion with his son, whom he then innocuously absconds with so that Hunter can be reunited with his mother in Texas, once they’re able to find her. Wenders has remarked that the specific circumstances of Travis’ and Jane’s breakup are intentionally left mysterious throughout the majority of the film, and that mystery is finally unveiled during the film’s quiet and emotional climax, in the scene written by Sam Shepard.

Although they play fairly well with regard to the story on screen, those plot-based details, even when endowed with Shepard’s spare and beautiful writing, feel somewhat arbitrary to me in terms of the scene’s power, its resonance, and its ultimate meaning. While we certainly feel for Travis and Jane as we watch and listen to their interactions (movingly accompanied by Ry Cooder’s acoustic guitar score), it’s the particular mise-en-scène that makes the scene so important and unforgettable. The scene takes place in a sort of Texas peepshow emporium where Jane works. Midway through the film, Travis and Hunter follow her there in their car after she makes an anticipated deposit at a bank, and Travis then leaves the boy alone in the car so that he can sneak into the emporium and investigate. He eventually finds a dim hallway of numbered, blue-curtained booths, and inside each booth is a themed window (“Poolside,” “Hotel,” “Coffee Shop”), behind which solitary women appear in costume to play out a fantasy for individual male customers, who can speak with the woman via a telephone in the booth, and she can then respond through a two-way speaker inside the little themed room. She can see only her own reflection in a one-way mirror, however, not the anonymous man who’s sitting on the other side of the glass in the curtained booth.

Travis and Jane talk through everything that they left behind and why, both at length and in turn, as the material grows darker and more angular and tilts towards violence. Yet it remains just language and facial expressions, all words and memories, transformed into the visual incarnations of Sam Shepard’s fluid and broken-up phrases. Tears fall, of course, on both sides of the mirrored glass, and Wenders knowingly places his camera and audience with each character in alternating balance on both sides of the glass partition, too. At a pivotal moment halfway through the scene, after his monologue is finished, Travis asks Jane, “If you turn the light off in there, will you be able to see me?” to which she replies, “I don’t know. I never tried.” The scene works because the two actors are aware, ironically, of both the simplicity and intricacy of the dance that they’re inhabiting. Apparently, Harry Dean Stanton wasn’t sure at first if he could do it, and so he told Wim Wenders that he had to talk on the phone with Sam Shepard, who assured him that the language in the script would be enough to carry him through. The director let the actor start and stop the cameras as much as he needed to, and the filming of the scene went on all day long, until Travis’ monologue finally came out from beginning to end in one long uninterrupted flow.

I think this scene is timeless because it’s about how human relationships operate. Not just romantic relationships, but all relationships. And not just our relationships then or now, but always, both intimately and distantly: in person, on the phone, disembodied in typed text or on video via a computer screen, in a cinema, on television, on a stage. In office cubicles, classrooms, motel rooms, in cars on highways, moving separately or together in the same direction or in opposite directions, branching out endlessly across the miles. Even when we’re face-to-face, we speak to each other through invisible mirrors and panes of glass, through the tinny circuitry of wires, because we can never fully know what it’s like for another person inside their own room, inside their own mind, inside their personal history of their own experience. We see each other and don’t see each other in our tiny theaters of desire — backed and packed with torn tinfoil and pink tufts of insulation — and empathy is a trick of the light. That our experiences in human relationships dovetail and separate, for minutes or for decades, is one of the reasons why art exists. We play our lonely roles and we watch each other play them, trying our best to respond with our own performance, yet we know that’s ultimately what it is: that we’re alone together inside our truthful approximations, inside those scripted spaces that surround us, which we enter by parting heavy blue curtains, picking up the receiver of the phone, turning on or switching off the lights.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Some Thoughts on Cinemas

One morning a few years ago, I woke up from a dream that I’d been watching a movie at a little cinema in Harvard Square. The layout of the cinema felt very real to me. The entrance and ticket booth were located at street-level on JFK Street. Downstairs from the box office and concession stand were two long skinny auditoriums behind two slim doorways that sat side-by-side. Despite how familiar the space seemed to me within the world of the dream, I wasn’t sure if it had been an actual place or just a fabrication of my sleeping mind. When I was awake enough to start thinking about it more deeply, trying my hardest to remember something that now seemed to be long gone, I reached over to grab my laptop from my bedside nightstand.

I searched online and found only a few ghost-like traces — a brief mention of it on somebody’s film blog, some photos of old print ads for the theater — to prove that this cinema in my dream had indeed once existed: it was called the Janus, and I’d frequented it semi-regularly when I worked in Harvard Square in the mid-1990s. The Janus permanently closed its doors before that decade had ended. I can still recall quite vividly that I’d watched Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia there with one of my first boyfriends, a tall and handsome Mormon guy from Utah who was then a graduate student at Harvard. Of course, Tom Hanks went on to win an Oscar for playing a gay man who died of AIDS in that movie, a film that’s very much of its era in that the AIDS epidemic remained a serious concern among gay and bisexual men at the time Philadelphia was released. I’d also seen Tim Robbins’ movie Dead Man Walking at the Janus, for which Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for playing a nun who counsels Sean Penn’s death-row inmate before his execution. I was young then back in my twenties, and I remember crying a lot during both of those movies.

One day I also took a long lunch break to head over to the Janus to watch my very first film starring Alain Delon, René Clément’s 1960 French thriller Plein Soleil, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. I became fairly obsessed with seeing all of Alain Delon’s early films after that, and young Alain Delon remains my favorite face in cinema to this day. I was fortunate in that I’d grown accustomed to subtitles during high school, when I convinced a friend to go with me to see our very first foreign film, 1990’s Cyrano de Bergerac with Gérard Depardieu, at the gorgeously restored Esquire Theatre in the downtown Clifton neighborhood of my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. That same friend returned to the Esquire with me the following year to watch Isabelle Huppert as the title character in Claude Chabrol’s adaptation of Madame Bovary.

Because I remember all of these kinds of details so well, it’s a mystery to me how I could have forgotten about the Janus in Harvard Square less than two decades later, and that only one of my random nighttime dreams could have returned me there. Why had the experience of seeing movies at that little cinema engraved itself so deeply in my memory that I may not have recalled the place in waking life, but the dreamworld was able to transport me back to it? Plenty of people have written about the relationship of movies to memory throughout the past century, but I think my dream speaks to something that’s equally important: how the special cultural ritual of moviegoing shapes our minds via the spaces in which we encounter art, and how exactly that ritual puts us in close physical proximity to films that we carry forward with us, to the extent that they intimately surround us, whether we fully remember those spaces or not.

This is especially worth thinking about now since my fear is that this significant cultural ritual at present is in the process of gradually becoming lost over time. I’ve read several in-depth articles recently that examined various demographics among cinema fans and concluded that the younger generation of filmgoers — those who are currently in their twenties or teenage years — don’t really go to the movies like we did when I was their age. They might go to see a movie every now and then, like a superhero blockbuster, a romantic comedy, or a popular horror flick, but most younger people don’t “go to the movies” as a matter of routine anymore. Obviously, the internet and online streaming have changed all of that, and it’s easier to stay at home and watch most films for little to no money in the comfort of a living room or bedroom.

Cinemas are trying to attract patrons in various ways lately, adding benefits like roomy “luxury” reclining seats, specialty concession stand items, and alcoholic beverages, while raising ticket prices to levels that make less and less sense for customers to pay, considering that movie audience members can turn out to be annoying or disruptive more often than they’re quiet and considerate of people around them. As often as I’ve been in a cinema auditorium that’s more than half full over the past few years (and I’m someone who usually watches two or three movies at the cinema every week), I’ve been in an auditorium that’s totally empty except for myself almost as frequently, so that I’ve gotten to have some nice private screenings, an indication that cinemas are now an aging business model that probably won’t remain sustainable anymore at some point in the near future.

I also remember David Lynch, about a decade ago now, saying that he’d been in a cinema recently and didn’t think it felt like movies would really be at home in moviehouses for too much longer. I hope he’s not right, though it does increasingly seem like cinemas will become more of a cultural novelty fairly soon. I think they’ll always be around, especially in urban areas, but perhaps in a more limited and rarified capacity, just as record stores of all sorts started to disappear after the advent of online streaming and digital downloads, which have now saturated global culture in a far-reaching and widespread way. As usual, community gets subsumed by consumerism.

Just last weekend, I went to a small-town cinema in Wellfleet on Cape Cod to see the movie Sonic the Hedgehog (believe it or not), during the film’s opening weekend. It was the 7pm screening on a Sunday night before a Monday holiday, and including myself, there were seven people total in the audience: a dad with a young son and daughter who were about 8 and 10 years old, a brother/sister pair in their early teens (whose parents were in the auditorium next door watching Parasite), and a young military guy in mud-spattered camouflage fatigues sitting by himself along the aisle.

That cinema in Wellfleet has the same kind of long skinny old-school movie auditoriums that the Janus in Harvard Square had back in its heyday. While it was a bit of a sad sight to see this slight scattering of people spread out in the dark auditorium, it was also reassuring that some parents were still taking their kids to the movies at a cinema these days, trying to hand down a tradition that had no doubt been important to them during their own childhoods. Even in a light-hearted movie like Sonic the Hedgehog, there were scenes worthwhile enough to enjoy and lessons to be learned. Whether those kinds of cinematic moments will still be learned from and enjoyed within the walls of a movie theater for many people in our culture a generation or so from now remains to be seen, yet it’s a dream that’s worth keeping alive.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Five Favorite Films of 2019

Looking back over this past year in movies, I feel like 2019 offered an unusual and interesting assortment of films overall. My visits to the cinema at least twice every week throughout the year were also more unpredictable because the movies that I’d most anticipated seeing often weren’t as great as I’d hoped, while several films that I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing quite as much challenged my initial expectations in some welcome and surprising ways. Those that ended up striking me the most and lingering in my memory were a cool mix of independent and mainstream fare, even as someone who doesn’t think coolness is especially remarkable.

My favorite film of 2019 was Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria), probably his best movie since All About My Mother two decades ago, and clearly a kind of semi-autobiographical retrospective of his own personal and artistic life. The various recollections in the film are vivid and indelible, to the extent that watching the movie alone in a big cinema with only about five other people in it felt like it put me in a warm and pleasant trance for a couple of hours. I’d left work a little early that afternoon, which probably heightened that feeling a bit, too. The movie follows a later-in-life filmmaker, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, in one of his finest performances), an avatar for Almodóvar himself, as he reflects back on the earliest days of his childhood in a small Spanish village with his father and young mother, Jacinta (Penelope Cruz, earthy yet luminous). Salvador starts some new writing based on those reflections, almost as if the memories are an escape from his many ailments due to aging, which he begins to numb with doses of heroin as a sort of self-medication, until his assistant and physician intervene.

The potentially quite dangerous introduction to that drug arises from Salvador’s reconnection with Alberto Crespo, an actor from Salvador’s early film Sabor, who’d become estranged from Salvador for years due to Alberto’s own reckless drug habit. There’s a sad and hilarious scene where the two men do a Q&A by phone for a screening of Sabor after the film’s been reissued, though they’re almost too high to answer any of the audience’s questions. Another key reconnection of Salvador’s in the film prompts an extraordinary scene in which he talks late into the night with the man who was his lover long ago in 1980s Madrid, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia, unassumingly sexy). Federico had also fallen out of Salvador’s orbit due to substance abuse, but then cries while watching a scene about himself in a play of Salvador’s that he happens to attend by chance. Now married to a woman and raising children, Federico has only wonderful remembrances of his years with Salvador. I’ve always been mesmerized by scenes of gay/bi lovers reconnecting years later, and this is one of the most heartfelt and expertly crafted dialogues between gay/bi male characters from any film in the past decade.

Amazingly, that’s within the context of a film that also includes some gorgeous recollections of Salvador’s childhood tutelage of an illiterate, scorchingly hot local houseworker named Eduardo (César Vicente, totally stunning), whose subplot includes an important picture that he draws of Salvador as a boy while he’s artfully installing tiles into Jacinta’s primitive kitchen. Young Salvador’s moment of realizing his attraction to men when he sees Eduardo bathing is both archetypal and perfectly calibrated, given how overdone such scenes can feel these days. By the sublime end of the movie, which reveals that we’re watching a film within a film at that point, all of these details made me feel like Pain and Glory is an absolute gift. (For a powerful and precise distaff version of another filmmaker’s similar coming-of-age tale from this past year, also be sure to check out Joanna Hogg’s excellent film The Souvenir.)

In the vein of space-based movies like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Ridley Scott’s The Martian that I loved during the past decade, James Gray’s Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”), my second favorite film of 2019, owes its greatest debt to Stanley Kubrick. Its distinctive tone is both deep and lofty. In a recent Washington Post Q&A panel with the film’s star, Brad Pitt, as well as two space scientists from NASA, the director said that he modeled the movie’s father-and-son narrative on the myth of Odysseus and Telemachus. Pitt’s astronaut, Major Roy McBride, is the Telemachus figure journeying to find his rogue astronaut father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), to try to bring him home, once Roy has learned that his father didn’t die during a space expedition but is hiding alone in a far outpost of the solar system aboard a space station known as the Lima Project, somewhere in the rings of Neptune.

Though its allusive underpinnings are ancient, the film’s futuristic context — in which Roy flies a commercial airline to the moon so that he can get rocketed over to Mars — is replete with contemporary relevance as well. Echoing the current climate crisis, a series of events known as surges are causing havoc and widespread deaths around the globe; energy flares from an anti-matter power source that may be connected to Roy’s missing father are being emitted from somewhere in his vicinity of outer space. The idea of the vengeful father figure wielding his malign grip on the world bears obvious correlations to the current political landscape in several countries worldwide, too, and that contrast with Roy’s quiet and sensitive character forms the noble, wounded heart of the film and anchors Brad Pitt’s astonishingly nuanced performance. I’d argue that Pitt actually gave the two best performances by any actor in 2019: his leading role in Ad Astra, as well as his casually brilliant comedic turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, for which he’ll likely win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

What really distinguishes Pitt’s performance in Ad Astra from those of actors in similar space-themed movies is the level of detail that he endows the character’s expressions with throughout the film. Even alongside Gray’s innovative and often breathtaking imagery of deep space, the camera never strays very far from Pitt’s mesmerizing face. His character bears a resemblance to Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, in that both characters seem to repress and internalize their emotions, in order to function well in their jobs. Roy’s main conversations in the film — a movie with a motherlode of silence — occur when he responds to lists of questions asked by a computerized psychological profiling system that the government has built into his spacecrafts, monitoring his behavior throughout his journeys, while also providing a delicate and philosophical voiceover through which Pitt masterfully matches his physical performance.

My favorite documentary of 2019 was Andrew Slater’s fantastic Echo in the Canyon, about the legendary Laurel Canyon music scene of the mid- to late 1960s. Slater, formerly the CEO of Capitol Records, provides a wealth of knowledge to give the film’s audience the requisite background. A roster of famous artists who lived and worked in Laurel Canyon highlight that vital moment in the history of American music, the fulcrum point on which folk began to tilt towards rock, forever changing the musical landscape as acoustic gave way to electronic. The documentary is hosted by Jakob Dylan, who brings a relaxed and attentive energy to the proceedings. He interviews everyone from Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys to Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, and Eric Clapton, as well as all the members of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The only woman interviewed from the early Laurel Canyon movement is Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, whose appearance is both central and candid. Some have lamented, however, that other key “Ladies of the Canyon” such as Joni Mitchell aren’t even mentioned in the film, though that might end up being quite a different movie, and one that I hope is in the making.

The documentary’s interviews are interspliced with nostalgic images of late ’60s Los Angeles from Jacques Demy’s 1969 film Model Shop, which inspired Slater to make the documentary in the first place. Also featured throughout the film are live recordings from a 2015 concert led by Jakob Dylan, where a great line-up of younger artists (Fiona Apple, Beck, Cat Power, and Regina Spektor, among others) performed their favorite selections from the early Laurel Canyon catalog. Their covers are both faithful and daring, and I enjoyed them nearly as much as the wealth of information shared by the older artists in their interviews. So much valuable ground gets covered: why the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds holds such a significant place in this history, how David Crosby found himself exiled from the Laurel Canyon group “because I was an asshole,” and how seemingly marginal figures like Cream’s producer Felix Pappalardi influenced what’s come to be known as the California Sound by building sonic bridges back to classical compositions and earlier musical forms. Late in the documentary, Graham Nash remarks that in 200 years from now, scholars and listeners will still look back and study the music of that particular time and place, and I think he’s absolutely right. (I also want to add a quick shout-out to another awesome music/concert documentary that I loved in 2019, Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars, which brilliantly showcases one of his best albums in years.)

Nadav Lapid’s wildly original Synonyms was a film that I knew would earn a spot on my year-end list of favorites as soon as I watched it at the cinema back in November. The movie’s a challenge to summarize or even to convey adequately. Yoav, a handsome young Israeli man (played by Tom Mercier, whose performance is all-in on every level), turns up in Paris suddenly under somewhat unclear circumstances. Soon after his arrival, he’s dashing around naked in a colossal, freezing cold, abandoned apartment. His satchel of clothes, the only belongings he brought with him, have apparently been stolen by two other young people who live in the same apartment building.

We soon discover that they’re Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) and Émile (Quentin Dolmaire), both of whom Yoav forms a flirtatious bond with. After they find him sleeping naked in a bathtub in his frigid, empty apartment, they carry him up to their place, wrap him in a big furry blanket, and watch after him to help restore him to health. We also discover that Yoav is learning the French language by reciting increasingly angry lists of synonyms that express his frame of mind and blunt animosity towards the city. He charges awkwardly around the streets in a mustard yellow coat, refusing to look up at anything, for fear that the beauty of Paris will draw him in.

Yoav has separated himself from his family, his home, his country, his work, his culture, his religion, and his language. When Émile and Caroline ask him if he knows anybody else in France, he answers in a huff, “Celine Dion.” The frequency with which he’s naked in the film (no complaints here!) signal his rebirth in a rebellious way rather than a cheesy one. He’s akin to someone who’s trying to reboot himself as an artist, a poet really, forcing himself to subsist on tightly budgeted meals of pasta with tomato sauce that he routinely prepares for himself each day. He crashes his way into a party at a dance club, chewing on a huge free pastry while getting down; he also gets talked into posing for a videographer, but the man turns out to be a borderline porn artist who humiliates Yoav in a way that conflates his Jewish identity with his sexuality. The film’s director, Nadav Lapid, has addressed how some of these details about becoming an expatriate artist himself are autobiographical. I think that’s one reason why his film Synonyms feels so innovative and freeform, mainly because it’s an abstract re-creation of how he found his own way in the world as a filmmaker.

Finally, I’m the last person on earth who’d ever have expected that a mainstream movie about race car driving would ever end up on this list of my year-end favorites, but James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari (released as Le Mans ’66 in the United Kingdom and some European countries) is about as well-made as this particular brand of cinematic contraption comes. With a cast led by Christian Bale and Matt Damon, the performances are stellar throughout, the screenwriting is solid and involving, and the racing scenes are as suspenseful as any I’ve ever encountered on screen. Bale plays the British racing legend Ken Miles, who’s recruited by Matt Damon’s famed car designer, Carroll Shelby, to create and drive a racing vehicle that will beat Ferrari in the international, non-stop “24 Hours of Le Mans” competition in 1966. The sponsorship and oversight of the Ford Motor Company in getting Miles and Shelby to that stage complicates matters and lends the movie much of its drama and humor, most notably Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II in one of the year’s most intimidating, hilarious, and award-worthy performances.

But it’s Damon and Bale who run away with the film as a result of their buddy-buddy rounds of virtuosity and sparring. The sidebar subplot of Ken Miles’ wife and son — who both support and revere him, while also fearing for his safety — winds up being just touching enough, without diverting energy away from the film’s central racing story. Bale has become an expert at portraying a certain type of savant character; his most recent similar foray was in The Big Short. It’s as if we can actually see what he’s thinking when his character is on screen, and it always feels like he makes us smarter in the process. He also endows his character with loads of sweetness and tenacity, to balance out Damon’s directness and practicality, which makes us feel all the closer to Ken Miles when the film takes a tragic and well-foreshadowed turn.

As somebody who thinks of himself mostly as just another guy, and who also considers himself a fairly standard-issue gay man as well, I find it interesting how consistently this list of my favorite movies of 2019 reflects those aspects of myself. I suppose that’s how we know what kinds of art we’re most drawn to. They mirror aspects of ourselves in ways that offer both pleasure and insight, while also potentially expanding our self-conceptions in the process.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

5th Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival (October 2nd - 6th, 2019)

There is probably no other art experience that I enjoy more than watching a marathon of finely made documentaries at a film festival. It’s the best way for me to feel connected to a multitude of places around the world and a diversity of variations on the human condition all at once. This year’s 5th Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival, hosted by our local newspaper, the Boston Globe, offered filmgoers a chance to engage with an immersive and rigorous form of visual journalism. The stories collected and conveyed at venues around the city were thematically wide-ranging and meticulously arranged, curated by the festival’s Director of Programming, Lisa Viola, who’s one of the best film festival programmers in the country. Her roster of selections for this year’s festival was sequenced with the kind of care and planning that editors might give to a literary anthology.

One of the most memorable of the eight documentaries that I saw in the festival, and the one most primed for mainstream attention from the media and awards ceremonies, was Cunningham, which I saw and loved in 3D no less. Directed by Alla Kovgan, this intricate exploration of the career of the late dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham is consummate and riveting, with ambitious dance sequences that rival any previously captured on film. The movie often reminded me of Pina, Wim Wenders’ superb 2011 documentary about Pina Bausch. Cunningham relies on some of the same aesthetic techniques, while raising them up to another level. The use of 3D as a way to heighten the viewer’s experience and highlight tiny details is reminiscent of the 3D approach in Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, though again, Cunningham actualizes that experience in a more overt, less subdued fashion.

At one point in the film, Cunningham mentions in voiceover that he doesn’t think of discipline as rules but as something private; it’s more like meditation, he says, and a form of dedication. Cunningham's lifelong artistic and romantic partnership with composer John Cage is foregrounded throughout the film, as is their friendship and association with the painter Robert Rauschenberg. All three artists took an avant-garde approach to their individual art forms, pushing toward absurdism and discomfort in both serious and playful ways. As John Cage argued, an encounter with art should be an arduous one that actually ends up making you happy to return to the ordinary world.

Yet the accessible present-day performances of Cunningham’s dance pieces in the film — spanning in the documentary from 1942 to 1972, and performed by the last troupe of dancers to be trained by him — can easily be admired even by audiences that may not fully appreciate dance as an art form. This is partly because a number of the dance pieces were filmed in real-world locations, from a seemingly endless subway tunnel, to vertiginous city rooftops in New York and Berlin, to a forest with trees bordering the edges of the stage. The most effective of these stunning dance sequences is also perhaps the darkest one, Winterbranch from 1964, a commentary on global violence that evokes images of war and mass destruction through the use of helicopter sounds, spotlights, and black militaristic uniforms.

At the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace from 1958, which is set against a pointillist, sloping backdrop of pastels originally painted by Rauschenberg that seems to totally surround the dancers, gently coaxes the spectators right into the world on stage. The dancers wear leotards that match the painted background, so as Cunningham commented about the piece, they’re forced to keep moving if they want to avoid blending in. I came away from the documentary understanding dance as a conscious art form in a different way, equally a manipulation of space as of bodies, and as spatially textural as it is kinetic.

It felt ironic to watch the fluid movements of Cunningham immediately after seeing a sneak preview of Matthew Orr’s Augmented, a half-narrative, half-scientific and medical documentary about robotic prosthetics researcher Hugh Herr, whose lower limbs were amputated at age 17 due to frostbite, after an ice-climbing expedition went awry in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in January of 1982. Herr and a friend, Jeff Batzer, got lost for three days in dense wilderness on the wrong side of a mountain while trying to find their way back to their cabin. Hiking through snow in sub-zero weather conditions caused both young men to lose their legs, during an era in which prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation techniques were still in more primitive stages of development.

Herr is now a biophysicist, engineer, and professor at MIT, a field that he entered specifically to develop more functional and innovative prosthetics for amputees. He and his doctoral students at MIT — in conjunction with Dr. Matthew Carty, a surgeon at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital — pioneered and revolutionized the robotics behind “neural linking” with prosthetics. The resulting surgical procedure, which sixteen patients have undergone to date, is named the Ewing Surgery, after Jim Ewing, the first patient to receive it. This surgery restores patients’ use of their limbs by re-linking neural pathways via the nervous system and muscle tissue. The surgery does usually require further elective amputation, controversially, and a bioethicist interviewed in the documentary questioned whether the surgery might also be misused in the future by those seeking to reach beyond normal human physical capabilities.

During the post-film Q&A, alongside Dr. Carty, Jim Ewing, and the film’s director, Hugh Herr said that he and his colleagues do consider the ethical implications of their work all the time, but that the potential alleviation of physical, mental, and emotional pain suffered by amputees makes it worth the risk. Herr also mentions in the film that his initial decision to pursue a career in the field of biophysics following his double amputation was due in part to discovering that another young man, Albert Dow, had died in the search to rescue him and Jeff Batzer on the mountainside when a cornice of snow collapsed, triggering an avalanche in which Dow and another friend were buried; the friend survived, but Dow did not. Hugh Herr’s unprecedented work in his field also serves to honor and preserve Albert Dow’s memory.

I was excited to see Tricia Regan’s Autism: The Sequel because I loved her previous documentary Autism: The Musical when it was released back in 2007. Twelve years later, the sequel gives informative updates about each of the five young people on the autism spectrum who were introduced in the first film — Neal, Adam, Lexi, Henry, and Wyatt — now that they’re all college-aged and becoming somewhat more independent of their families. Though Neal is still non-verbal, his segment is quite moving because he now “speaks” and shares his thoughts, with the help of his iPad and iPhone. During his interview, he types that he wants to date and feel love for someone, and since he now works for a local farm, he’s glad that the world doesn’t see him as a charity case. Lexi has moved into a group home and still loves to sing, and Henry (who’s the son of musician Stephen Stills) is pursuing a college degree in video and film production.

Adam and Wyatt — now college students at Berklee College of Music in Boston and Portland State University in Oregon, respectively — were both on the post-screening Q&A panel, along with a special cello performance by Adam afterwards. It was interesting to see how their personalities were both similar to and different from when viewers first met them in the previous film. They’re more mature now with the time that’s passed, of course, and the world has also changed since then, in terms of supporting young people with autism. Most “neurotypical” people are now more willing to accommodate and understand the special needs of those on the autism spectrum, and to help integrate them into their schools, social relationships, and workplaces with the necessary assistance. All five of the film’s subjects seem relatively content and well-adjusted to their individual pursuits. Hopefully, in the vein of Michael Apted’s beloved Seven Up! documentary series, more filmed updates on the progress of these inspiring young people will be forthcoming as they continue into their adult years.

Roger Ross Williams’ The Apollo traces the 85-year history of the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, home of the popular “amateur night” TV show Showtime at the Apollo, which helped launch the careers of many R&B entertainers over the past few decades. The documentary covers a formidable and spirited cross-section of African-American history, New York City history, and entertainment industry history, with vintage footage of performances by Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Gladys Knight & The Pips. The connective thread is a multimedia performance on stage at the Apollo of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, and though it importantly situates the documentary’s subject in a specific racial context, the film leans a bit too heavily on that material, rather than examining more deeply all the rest there is to say about the Apollo Theater itself.

As a longtime fan of R&B/soul music, I’d have loved to hear more about artists who got their start on the Apollo’s stage back in the 1980s and more recent decades, such as New Kids on the Block, Lyfe Jennings, and similar crossover acts, all of whom helped to usher soul and hip-hop into the realm of mainstream American pop music in a fairly revolutionary way. Still, earlier performers from Smokey Robinson to Leslie Uggams provide lots of fascinating memories of their days at the Apollo, and many speak of it like it was a school, where they learned by watching from the wings while such legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Aretha Franklin performed. The business side of how the theater was run back then also proves to be illuminating, including plenty of inside details about the cash flow during the years when the theater was managed by Frank Schiffman, and later by his son Robert, who’s interviewed extensively throughout the documentary.

Although The Pointer Sisters never performed on stage at the Apollo, Ruth Pointer was a fabulous artist to feature in the post-film Q&A, in conversation with Boston Globe culture writer Renée Graham. Ruth Pointer commented that even though she and her sisters didn’t play at the Apollo, she said that it was always their first stop as spectators whenever they were in the city, and that they loved the history and communal energy of the venue. Overall, The Apollo is a rousing documentary about a true New York City institution, a place that also happens to provide a prime gathering spot beneath its marquee whenever a celebrated figure from the world of R&B/soul music passes on.

Bloodroot, directed by Douglas Tirola, shares its name with a women’s collective vegetarian restaurant and bookstore in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Bloodroot is owned and operated by Noel Furie and Selma Miriam, business partners and life partners; for four decades, they’ve aimed to bring vegetarian cuisine from around the world to diners who come from far and wide to enjoy meals together at their establishment. In the Q&A following the movie, Selma mentioned that their main focus in maintaining the business has always been people, and much of the documentary recounts the diverse individuals they’ve met over the years, as well as the many women who’ve worked in their kitchen.

Selma and Noel first met at a local chapter's N.O.W. (National Organization for Women) meeting in the early years of the feminist movement, during the era of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, though the writers whom they admire most are lesbian-feminist authors like Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Audre Lorde, all of whom were connected to Bloodroot over time. Though Selma and Noel had both been married to men when they met, they discuss throughout the film their own changing identifications within the context of a changing culture, during the years when the LGBT liberation movement had only just barely begun. Because I’ve been vegetarian myself for the past 27 years now, I was glad when I saw all the images of delicious-looking food in the documentary that I’d eaten lunch just before the film started!

Anyone who’s ever visited MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the former industrial mill-town of North Adams, knows very well what a unique and special place it is. Museum Town, directed by Jennifer Trainer, once a longtime employee of MASS MoCA, tells the story of how this sprawling museum, the largest of its kind in the world, came into existence, and how its mission has been shaped and shepherded since its inception. Expertly converted and restored from a complex of abandoned mills and factory buildings, the museum has hosted impressive exhibitions from major artists like Sol Lewitt and Anselm Kiefer, alongside multimedia exhibits and concerts by musicians such as Laurie Anderson, David Byrne of Talking Heads, the band Wilco, and most recently, Annie Lennox of Eurythmics. Various museum personnel — including an elderly woman who volunteered at the museum for years after having worked on its site at the former Sprague Electric Company since the 1940s — take the viewer on an in-depth guided tour through its rollercoaster history of political skirmishes, local skepticism, socioeconomic duress, and struggles for government funding that finally paid off.

African-American artist Nick Cave’s exhibition Until structures the documentary as we watch it develop from a cavernous empty space into a vast warehouse spangled with carefully arranged kitsch and glittery iconography. Cave addresses how his work bridges the gap between low and high art forms, found objects like controversial African-American lawn jockeys and assorted ceramic knick-knacks that take their place comfortably beside one another in a major museum space. Trainer’s film argues that Cave’s exhibition is a kind of metaphor for what MASS MoCA itself has tried to do over the years, bringing challenging contemporary artworks to an American audience in the rural foothills of the Berkshires.

By far the most difficult film to watch in this year’s GlobeDocs festival was Feras Fayyad’s harrowing National Geographic documentary The Cave. The entire film takes place in a secret underground hospital — really a maze-like bunker of tunnels and primitive operating rooms — in Ghouta, a war-torn area outside the city of Damascus in southwestern Syria. Warplanes routinely strafe the area with missiles and chemical attacks, seriously wounding and killing hundreds of civilians who are unable to escape or find safe shelter. These devastating attacks are perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who has been supported by Russia in continuing the destruction. The documentary’s unflinching heroine is the courageous Dr. Amani, who bravely and tirelessly manages the underground hospital despite her young age; her 30th birthday takes place during the timeframe of the film.

Dr. Amani and her fearlessly diligent team try to save as many civilians wounded by the air-strikes as possible, both children and adults, though of course saving them all is impossible, and the number of casualties escalates throughout the film as the attacks grow more brutal, encroaching at several points on the makeshift structure of the hospital itself. What we witness on screen is a total humanitarian crisis, and we should not have to live in a world where this happens to other human beings. The film, a sure Oscar contender and frontrunner, puts you right there, feeling as shell-shocked as the young doctors who work in the hospital. By the film’s end, even Dr. Amani decides that she can no longer continue her work there, slowly making her way through the rubble, on a difficult journey back to her parents’ home and, hopefully, a new and different life.

The last documentary that I watched in the festival was also one of the most moving: Tom Shepard’s Unsettled, which follows the tenuous lives of four young refugees in the LGBT community, who are seeking asylum here in the United States. The subjects include Junior, a gender non-conforming gay man from the Congo; Subhi, a gay refugee from Aleppo in Syria; and Cheyenne and Mari, a lesbian couple from Angola. All four of these young people faced violence and persecution in their home countries, though trying to settle in a city as expensive as San Francisco proves to be more challenging than they’d anticipated.

Junior, who struggles with alcoholism and depression due to his feelings of social isolation as a refugee, has trouble finding work and a stable place to live, eventually going through a period of homelessness before regaining his footing and starting to attend a community college. Cheyenne and Mari successfully apply for asylum through the long and painstaking immigration process via the court system, later resettling in Las Vegas, where the cost of living is more affordable, allowing them to make ends meet financially. Subhi finds a slightly easier path due a spoken testimony that he gives at the United Nations, resulting in a sudden wave of media interest in his status as a gay Syrian refugee, although he, too, struggles to feel fully at home as a gay Syrian refugee in the United States. Later in the film, he’s able to help his sister immigrate from Syria to Vancouver, through a refugee program in Canada as well.

Despite the gradual successes that all four of the film’s subjects eventually attain as refugees, the statistics highlighted in the documentary are very disheartening, to say the least. Only 30% of refugees are granted political asylum in the United States, a figure that the current government administration is attempting to reduce to zero. Internationally, seventy countries still punish LGBT people by law, and four of those countries still punish LGBT people by death. Early in the film, Mari says they flew away like birds, an image that the film also ends with beautifully, as a flock of birds ascends in flight through a technicolor sunset. I wonder how any government official, if they’d take the time to watch such a documentary, could fail to see the human importance of granting asylum to individuals who were refused a safe home and a life free from persecution back in their own countries?