Saturday, December 21, 2013

Aztec Camera, Love (WEA Records, 1987) and Dreamland (Sire/Reprise Records, 1993)

Alongside Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche ’85 and The Blue Nile’s Hats, Aztec Camera’s 1987 album Love is one of my three favorite albums of all time.  That all three acts hail from the United Kingdom, and that two of the three hail from Scotland in particular, is probably no coincidence.  Brits have long adopted soulful American musical forms, then perfected and polished them to a fine and glowing sheen.  This is still true today, but it was especially true back in the 1980s.  (Next on my list of favorite albums, in fact, would be 1988’s Idlewild by Everything but the Girl, yet another soulfully sublime ’80s U.K. outfit.)  I’m sure these albums stand out the most to me because I was coming of age during exactly the years when they were all released, a time when the world of popular music seemed fresh and inspiring to me, a time when my world itself felt as if it were expanding rapidly and magically outward.

The Scottish singer/songwriter Roddy Frame formed Aztec Camera in 1980 when he was only sixteen.  I’ve never bothered to look up the story behind the band’s enigmatic name, preferring, as Iris DeMent once wisely sang, to “let the mystery be.”  By the time Aztec Camera’s third album Love was released in 1987, Frame was the sole remaining member of the group.  From that stage onward, he worked with various carefully selected session musicians when recording his albums.  The nine pristine songs on Love benefit greatly from this approach, most notably with the powerhouse, R&B-spiked background vocals provided by such singers as Mtume’s Tawatha Agee and the late Dan Hartman.

At this point Roddy Frame was considered a certified popstar and something of a heartthrob in his native U.K.  The album Love was crafted with this in mind and also easily transcends that image.  As the album’s title almost cheekily makes clear, the thematic through-line is obviously nothing earth-shaking, and Frame’s lyrics dutifully follow suit, equally lovestruck and lovelorn.  He’s singing to the screaming girls in the audience, after all, but he’s also singing back to the pop music of the past.  Nor does Frame’s musicianship disappoint.  His boyishly warm vocals fit the matinee idol aims, while his agile guitar playing on the swooning opener “Deep & Wide & Tall” and the funk-infused “One and One” prove that he’s way beyond some random boyband leftover.

A few of the production credits are a bit surprising, too.  For instance, David Frank, famous for his work with the ’80s pop/dance duo The System, helms two of the album’s breeziest tracks, “How Men Are” and “Paradise.”  “How Men Are” captures the album’s mood especially well (“It’s called love / And every cruelty will cloud it ... / ‘Cos it’s a lie that we have ceased to believe / We’ve said goodbye but it won’t take its leave”).  The album’s pinnacle, however, is definitely the more pensive “Working in a Goldmine,” built around a shimmering slow-drip of a groove, as Frame muses over trying to hold onto love in the fast-paced touring life of the music business:

“Waiting on the last train
Flicking through the highlights
Livin’ in a suitcase
Positively uptight ...
‘Cos I believe in your heart of gold
Automatically sunshine
Glitter, glitter everywhere
Like working in a goldmine.”

It’s appropriate, then, that Aztec Camera’s 1993 album Dreamland begins with the following words from its opening number, “Birds,” nearly a kind of clever self-parody:  “‘Hey baby baby bring your love to me’ / Repeats the radio relentlessly .... ”  Frame had mastered not only his line of work by now, but also his sense of humor about it.  (Actually, an intervening Aztec Camera album titled Stray was released in 1990, and though I do admire that one, too, I don’t find it as perfect or as streamlined as Love and Dreamland both are.)  The most significant move on Dreamland, nevertheless, is Frame’s distinctive choice of producer, the celebrated avant-garde Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who endows the album’s eleven songs with the gossamer, dreamlike soundscapes that its title promises.

Frame’s cascading guitar introduction on “Black Lucia” swerves noticeably in the direction of Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins, whose albums had begun to find quietly mainstream notoriety by the time Aztec Camera’s Dreamland came into being.  “Spanish Horses,” one of the album’s most instantly recognizable cuts, dances in another direction altogether, with Frame’s nimble acoustic guitar work taking on practically Flamenco inflections.

Sakamoto’s influence feels most palpable on a song like “Sister Ann,” underscored by a synthesized lull that pervades every layer of the music, as well as Frame’s vivid, imagistic lyrics:  “When days are just a trail of clothes / Slung over poetry and prose / A red reminder of the things I owe / A songbird silenced in the settling snow ... / I stood inside of something I’d outgrown.”  The penultimate track, “Valium Summer,” is my favorite song from Aztec Camera’s catalog (including the terrific solo albums that Roddy Frame has released under his own name since retiring his Aztec Camera moniker after 1995’s Frestonia).  “Valium Summer” is one of those rare pop songs that invites you into its melancholy spell and then never quite releases you, allowing you instead to trace the musicians’ own emotional shifts from moment to moment:

“Where the streets just sparkle silently
And leave the lovers to the night
Remembering how they came together
With such violence
Felt so good they did it twice
Too early for September songs
But much too late for love to bloom .... ”

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if The Act of Killing wins the Oscar for Best Documentary.  It should certainly be nominated at least, unless it’s the kind of documentary that travels too close to the edge to receive that sort of mainstream awards-ceremony attention.  This brave and deeply powerful film — which both re-enacts and comments in detail on the government-sponsored massacre of thousands, perhaps millions, of suspected Communists and ethnic Chinese throughout Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 — is directed by American-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (who currently lives overseas), and is executive-produced by master documentarians Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

I knew Josh when we were both in college here in Boston nearly twenty years ago now, and we went out on a couple of dates back then.  I remember how smart and precocious he was, easily drawn to the bizarre, and always unassumingly dressed in all black:  from boots to jeans to t-shirt to leather jacket.  I recall how he had scrawled a variety of slogans and snippets from poems across his dorm-room walls.  He told me at the time that he was interested in the act of politically infiltrating certain kinds of spaces.  For instance, he had attended an “ex-gay” camp just to gauge the atmosphere and see what actually happens there, and to what sort of people.  His student films were totally offbeat and distinctively envisioned, and I knew that he’d probably do something important and fearless someday.  With The Act of Killing, he most definitely has.

Josh’s work on the film began a decade ago, when he was commissioned to make a documentary series about globalization and Indonesian culture.  He learned to speak the language that way, and he was also introduced over time to his film’s subjects, the men of a paramilitary organization called Pancasila Youth who had carried out the 1965 - 1966 massacres and still boast about the killings with pride to this day.  Many are now employed and protected as officials of the Indonesian government, often terrorizing victims’ families into not discussing or publically acknowledging the crimes.

Oppenheimer noticed that whenever he met and interviewed these men, their telling him about the murders was never enough; they wanted to show him how and where they’d committed their crimes.  Sadly, some in Indonesian culture still regard them as heroes.  At one point in the documentary, we see a handful of these men paraded onto the set of a nationally televised talk show, where their killings of long ago are reverently applauded by the host and the audience.

It’s partly for this reason that Oppenheimer has said the film is not about Indonesia’s past, but rather about Indonesia’s present.  His focus in the film is a man named Anwar Congo, who executed by hand over 1,000 of the killings in Medan, North Sumatra.  Though his age (and grandchildren) have somewhat softened and tamed him, Anwar makes for a chilling figure.  He’s happy to demonstrate for the camera, on multiple occasions, how he strangled his victims with wire, in order to minimize the loss of blood while they were being killed.  He stages these demonstrations in the very same locations where he originally committed the killings.

For anyone with a shred of conscience, which Oppenheimer was clearly aware that Anwar Congo still possesses, such re-enactments will eventually begin to exact their own psychological price.  But the true genius of the film is how much further it carries the scope of the re-enactments themselves.  (And it’s worth noting that the filmed re-enactments were funded by grants from academic and human-rights organizations.)  The templates for the re-enactments are often classic Hollywood film genres:  Westerns, gangster flicks, film noir.  The most elaborate re-enactment features the original members of Pancasila Youth pillaging and burning down an entire village.

I haven’t stopped thinking about how trenchantly effective this device is since I watched the documentary a week ago now. The Act of Killing is a film in which the medium of film itself forces the documentary’s subjects into a gradual confrontation with their own sense of morality, especially in the case of Anwar Congo.  In the film’s pivotal gangster-based sequence, Anwar plays the victim who’s being beaten by his scenery-chewing sidekick Herman Koto, and yes, Anwar is eventually blindfolded and subjected to his own death-by-strangulation-with-wire technique.  The perpetrator has willingly backed himself into his own gruesome corner, one that he can barely muster the energy to stagger away from thereafter.  Early in the documentary, Anwar excitedly claims, “No other film has ever used our method,” and he’s absolutely right about that.

Another of the Pancasila Youth members who’s interviewed in the film is worth mentioning, too: Adi Zulkadry, perhaps the most articulate, outspoken, and frightening of the documentary’s interviewees.  Defiantly unapologetic about his past crimes, he gets into a heated argument on camera with Oppenheimer as they’re driving together in a car.  Zulkadry throws out the old line that history is written by “the winners” and says that he’d be glad to be put on trial at the international court in the Hague because then “I’ll be famous.”  To prove his hegemonic point, he challenges Oppenheimer, staring directly into the camera, and rhetorically asks him why the mass genocide of Native American Indians in the United States was never punished either.

From this point onward, the film becomes increasingly nightmarish and surreal, and it also cuts much closer to the bone.  Some dreamlike song-and-dance numbers are interspliced with the brutal re-enactments in artfully hyperrealistic counterpoint.  But Oppenheimer knows that his job for nearly the entire time is to be an alert observer.  We never see him on screen, though we do hear his voice a few times when he’s directing, responding to, or sometimes interrogating his subjects.

At the most profound moment in the film, after Anwar requests to watch a video of the gangster re-enactment on his television (with his two young grandsons sitting on his lap), he remarks that he does feel what his victims felt, almost as a way of trying to convince himself of his own sense of empathy.  Josh calmly (yet incredulously) replies that, no, Anwar does not feel what his victims felt because he knows that he’s only acting for a film, whereas his victims knew that they were being killed.  The film’s climax, in which Anwar physically acknowledges but cannot expurgate his guilt, is excruciating and unflinching.

The Act of Killing will no doubt alter the game rules for the documentary form, opening it up to an intense, imaginative realm that’s never quite been approached. It’s among the most indelible explorations of moral accountability I’ve seen.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark at Paradise Rock Club (July 15th, 2013)

It’s been three years since I’ve written a concert review for my blog, so it’s time again for me to crank out another one of those.  On Monday night I was totally excited to see OMD perform, having been a fan of their music for the past three decades now.  Even so, I’d have bought a ticket solely on the strength of their latest album, English Electric, one of my favorite CDs so far this year.  The songs are a futuristic throwback to their astoundingly good ’80s catalogue, with a number of the best tracks even stealing bits and pieces from their early hits, so an evening of live music with the duo is an ideal way to tie it all together and bring things full circle.

The crowd was understandably older than I’d usually expect to find at a pop band’s club show.  A scattering of younger listeners drifted around the venue, however, including one guy standing next to me who said that he’d never heard OMD’s music until earlier that day, when he listened to their songs online for a few hours in his office and decided to attend the concert.  He said he was there for the “’80s techno,” and I doubt that he left disappointed at the end of OMD’s 90-minute set.  Andy McCluskey (on vocals and guitar) whirled around the stage in jeans and a white button-up shirt, while Paul Humphreys (on keyboards) played the deadpan Chris Lowe supporting role dressed all in black.  The pair offered up a generous sampling of their classic crowd-pleasers like “Tesla Girls,” “So in Love,” “(Forever) Live and Die,” “Sailing on the Seven Seas,” and an encore of “Electricity.”

I was perhaps most excited to hear OMD perform 1981’s “Souvenir,” one of the most perfect electronic pop songs ever to come out of the United Kingdom.  Interestingly, it was also the only song of the night that was sung by Humphreys.  “Souvenir” segued sensibly into “Night Café,” probably my favorite song on English Electric, which borrows several different sonic elements from that earlier track; McCluskey mentioned during its introduction that the lyrics of “Night Café” were inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper.  The other songs featured from English Electric sounded equally fantastic in a live setting, especially the euphoric opener “Metroland” and the propulsive “Dresden.”  I also loved how electronic interludes like “Please Remain Seated” and “Atomic Ranch” were effectively woven into the set-list.

One more new song is worth touching upon because it captures OMD’s current thematic focus:  the cyber-transformation of contemporary culture and the ultimate destination of the cosmos.  “Our System” may be the most ambitious song that the duo played on Monday night.  It’s about the Voyager interplanetary space probe as it moves through our solar system and continues across the universe, “only to perceive / no one there at all.”  The rhythm is even based on the Voyager’s sound recording of Jupiter’s magnetosphere, “the sort of thing that we like to write songs about,” McCluskey joked.  (By the way, his singing voice has changed remarkably little over the years.)

The moment that I’ll remember best from the night, however, is hearing the audience sing along with the lyrics of “If You Leave,” easily OMD’s biggest commercial hit here in the United States, written for the soundtrack of John Hughes’ 1986 teen movie Pretty in Pink.  Yes, I’m aware that “If You Leave” is reviled as a sell-out song by many longtime fans of OMD’s music.  And yes, I’m also aware that OMD wrote it in under 24 hours when they realized a different song they’d composed wouldn’t be the right fit for the film.  But I was thirteen when I saw the movie at the cinema, so my own associations with the first time I heard “If You Leave” soar into Molly Ringwald’s prom scene finale are inviolable.

I’ve always been skeptical about anyone who’s overly critical of nostalgia.  Marcel Proust aside, in a sense nostalgia is impossible to intellectualize because it’s purely about feeling.  A recent New York Times article on the science of the phenomenon concluded that nostalgia — which literally means “the pain of going home” — is psychologically healthy to experience.  Those who nostalgize in times of depression overwhelmingly find themselves feeling better as a result.  There’s a clear correlation to the power of music as a tool for creating good memories, of course.  When the heroine of Pretty in Pink fashions her own prom dress and decides to attend the dance alone in defiance of the rich bullies at her school, OMD’s “If You Leave” underscores her bold proclamation to her dad: “I just want to let them know that they didn’t break me.”  I certainly felt that myself in high school, and judging from the audience’s reaction to hearing “If You Leave” in concert on Monday night, plenty of other people felt exactly the same way.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

15th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 19th - 23rd, 2013)

This past week’s Provincetown International Film Festival was the fest’s 15-year anniversary celebration, so I’m happy to report that the fifteen films that I saw (plus a couple of shorts programs) were perhaps the strongest in all of the years I’ve attended the event.  All of the movies that I selected to watch this year were engaging and well-made, with topics ranging from Bauhaus architecture on Cape Cod to the acting career of Harry Dean Stanton to sexual hi-jinks on a doomed airline flight helmed by Pedro Almodóvar.  As usual for my annual retrospective of the festival, I’ll consider more closely the handful of films that I enjoyed the most, the ones that will leave me thinking about them during the weeks and months ahead.

My favorite film from this year’s festival, Kevin Schreck’s documentary Persistence of Vision, was also the film with the most unusual subject among the movies that I saw.  It’s an in-depth study of the Canadian/British film animator Richard Williams, most famous for his Oscar-winning work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the live-action animated comedy starring Bob Hoskins and the cartoon creature of its title.  Much lesser-known is The Thief and the Cobbler, the unfinished and perhaps unfinishable film to which Williams devoted over 25 years of his life.  Williams and his dedicated crew of animators aspired to make it the most accomplished, detailed, and mind-blowing hand-animated epic in film history, and had it been completed as Williams envisioned, it almost certainly would have been.

The Thief and the Cobbler, a fantasy that follows a silent cobbler named Tack as he’s pursued by an evil Grand Vizier named Zigzag, was short on story and even shorter on dialogue, concentrating instead on optically complex, almost hallucinatory imagery.  The footage from the original film that’s featured in the documentary is staggering in its dynamic level of intricacy and motion, prompting audible reactions from other audience members at the screening I attended.  One interviewee who was hired by Williams to work on his film recalls that three months of intensive drawing by the entire animation team would amount to just five seconds of screen time.

Of course, Warner Bros., the financers of the film, eventually pulled the plug on its funding, immediately terminating Williams’ work on the project. The film was then acquired by Miramax, who transformed it into a more cheaply animated, Aladdin-like movie-musical titled Arabian Knight, released to very little fanfare in 1995.  Williams, truly a master of technique, refuses to discuss the film to this day. While obviously tragic, the documentary is actually about artistic determination.  The story proves just how individual real art is, how much commitment and singularity of vision it requires, and how creating something for merely commercial ends can be ruinous.

More overtly crowd-pleasing but equally enjoyable was Twenty Feet from Stardom, which carefully traces the history of female background singers and won the HBO audience award for Best Documentary Feature at the fest.  Finely directed by Morgan Neville and filmed in warm tones that seem to match the singers’ harmonies, the movie tells a rousing tale of talented women who are so often overlooked in the music industry, yet who always give both live and recorded music its spirit and its backbone.  Some very renowned musicians — Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder — offer their thoughts on collaborating with and being the beneficiaries of such powerhouse back-up vocalists.

One point that’s made clear early on in the film:  the overwhelming majority of these women, most of whom are African-American, started out singing in the church.  Whereas musical success is usually defined by the star-system of being a solo artist, background vocalists reach back to their musical roots by focusing on singing as a form of community.  Sometimes lightning strikes and one can become famous as a background singer, like the wonderful Lisa Fischer, who has toured with The Rolling Stones for two decades, or ’60s Phil Spector protégé Darlene Love, whose “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” remains a holiday standard half a century later.  Startlingly, Love found herself on the outs and cleaning homes for a living not too many years after that 1963 classic became a hit.  One of the film’s most moving moments occurs when she remembers telling herself that she needed to find some way to return to singing professionally and the music world that had meant so much to her in her younger days.

Despite its undeniable value as entertainment, Twenty Feet from Stardom contains some political and feminist messages as well.  Claudia Lennear, who sang background for Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, and Stephen Stills, insists that her work as a back-up vocalist in the politically charged era of the 1970s was her way of being an activist, both as a woman and as an African-American. Táta Vega, a veteran session singer for everyone from Elton John to Madonna, laments that her career as a solo artist was stalled because she’s a larger-framed woman in a business that’s fixated on body image, but also says she’s grateful that staying out of the limelight probably kept her from dying of a drug overdose.  And a fixture in the current generation of younger background singers, Judith Hill, mournfully recalls Michael Jackson’s sudden drug-related death that happened just before she was set to embark with the celebrity on his final world tour.

Turning to the narrative features from this year’s festival, I feel compelled or even obligated to comment on Reaching for the Moon, a biopic about the prominent 20th-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop has long been one of the authors whose work I’ve admired more than almost any other writer’s.  She’s known as a kind of perfectionist and a poet of great restraint; she often subtly evoked her emotions in her writing rather than expressing them outwardly in her life.  Because of my own image of her and my own relationship to her work, I knew in advance that my views might not always align with what the film presents. There are some embarrassing moments when the screenplay falters or strains, but overall it represents quite successfully a woman whose enigmatic life and reticent persona are difficult to render in any medium.

Poets’ lives and careers tend to be relatively uneventful, so the trick here is how to capture the viewer’s attention without sensationalizing the more biopic-worthy aspects of Bishop’s biography: her alcoholism, her lesbianism, and her reserved approach to her longtime friendship with fellow poet Robert Lowell, who occasionally showed an unrequited romantic interest in her.  Lowell (portrayed by Treat Williams in the film) plays a limited and functional role of support in the movie, in two scenes that somewhat flatly bookend the story. Miranda Otto’s Bishop is capably performed, by turns brittle and wild. Her inevitable voiceover readings of several of Bishop’s most famous poems are skillfully delivered, if also a bit uncomfortable to hear recited in this particular context.

The narrative centers on the years in the 1950s and ’60s when Bishop wound up living and loving in Brazil, almost by accident.  Glória Pires is superb as Bishop’s Brazilian partner, the self-trained architect Lota de Macedo Soares.  She endows the character with a feisty directness and gravitational pull towards Bishop that seems authentic to what recent books about the couple have suggested about her.  The film picks up its pace when Lota decides to break off her previous relationship with another woman to pursue Bishop, after Bishop’s admission that she’s often mortified when reading her own poems. It’s as though Lota realizes that Bishop needs her in order to survive, which becomes a cruel irony by the time the film reaches its dramatic climax.

The scenes during which Bishop enters into a kind of imaginative fervor while writing poems like “The Shampoo” are effective enough, even if they’re a romanticized cinematic version of the rather dry realistic process of writing poems at one’s desk.  I’m not quite sure what Bishop would think of seeing herself involved in such a grand, widescreen production, but I wonder if some of the aforementioned mortification would factor into her reaction.  Although this biopic is a commendable effort in many regards, in a sense I think that Bishop’s poems themselves are all we really need, unless the film can help to introduce her work to a larger readership.

Finally, the best mainstream film that I saw in the festival, The Way Way Back, couldn’t be any further removed from the world of Reaching for the Moon.  A sensitive teen comedy written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar for co-writing 2011’s The Descendants), The Way Way Back is a distaff version of ’80s John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles, with Liam James in the Molly Ringwald role as Duncan, an awkward misfit teenager just waiting for something to shake up his everyday world of home and family.  The movie is more genuinely offbeat than similar teen comedies that merely claim to be, and it’s also closer in tone and spirit to those timeless John Hughes movies than other attempts at approximating them.  Some ’80s songs by REO Speedwagon and Mr. Mister on the soundtrack early in the film even tricked me into thinking that the movie is set in the ’80s, until I noticed Duncan’s iPod.

Duncan’s on a beach vacation with his mom Pam (Toni Colette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, embodying a caddish jerk like nobody else can), and Trent’s older and far more popular blond daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).  Bicycling away each morning to avoid the dysfunctions of this makeshift clan — not to mention a hilariously inappropriate neighbor played to campy perfection by Allison Janney — Duncan lands a job at Water Wizz, the local waterpark (and an actual attraction near Cape Cod).  More importantly, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with the park’s freewheeling, bohemian manager, Owen.  Sam Rockwell’s performance as Owen is an award-worthy comedic gem, layered with playful irreverence, slapstick physicality, and palpable touches of humanity as he bonds with Duncan over his feelings of outsiderdom.

Situated at the film’s gentle heart is Duncan’s wish to find somewhere that he can belong and be himself.  Among the other misfit employees and denizens of Water Wizz, he tells Owen by the film’s end that it’s the only place where he ever feels happy.  When it’s revealed that Trent’s having an affair with a friend’s wife, chairs have to be re-arranged in Duncan’s summer household, bringing the getaway and his beloved summer job to a premature close.  I’ll leave the movie’s concluding twist undisclosed here and simply say that it’s poignantly conveyed, and that it explains the film’s title in a couple of different and meaningful ways.

Overall, the festival’s films were mostly well-attended by diverse audiences.  Because this was an anniversary year, the various parties and special events, especially the closing-night block party on Commerical Street, saw even higher turnouts.  Harmony Korine, the quirky and groundbreaking filmmaker who got his notorious start at age 19 by writing the screenplay for Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids, received the Filmmaker on the Edge award for directing at this year’s festival.  During the conversations with honorees at the festival’s awards ceremony, when interviewer John Waters asked him if making edgy films requires living an edgy life, Korine said that it’s more about the life of one’s mind.  From a similar standpoint, I hope that in the festival’s future years, the focus of the discussion among filmgoers continues to be the films themselves.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Bubble (dir. Eytan Fox, 2006)

It’s time again for my annual pre-Provincetown Film Festival blog post.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a film that I saw at the festival back in 2007, Eytan Fox’s The Bubble.  The celebrated Israeli director has become known for his gay-themed films like Yossi and Jagger and Walk on Water, which focus with authenticity and complexity on relationships between men.  His films are always bold, too, keeping the sexual aspect of those relationships well within focus.  The Bubble follows suit, this time exploring a romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian man.  Several films have taken this particular “star-crossed lovers” approach in a gay Israeli context (the most recent being Michael Mayer’s Out in the Dark), but The Bubble still feels to me like the most successful and genuine effort of its kind.

The film’s title refers to its setting — the city of Tel Aviv, a relative bubble of acceptance and liberation within a war-torn desert of political strife.  More specifically, it refers to the area of the city surrounding Sheinkin Street, similar to trendy, gay-friendly Old Compton Street in London’s Soho district.  Inside this socially tolerant bubble, the movie’s four central characters emerge:  Noam (Ohad Knoller), a sweet, quiet record shop employee who also works as a military check-point guard; Yali (Alon Friedman), Noam’s flamboyant best friend; Lulu (Daniella Wircer), the free-spirited straight female roommate of the aforementioned men; and Ashraf (Yousef Sweid), the Palestinian guy with whom Noam falls in love.

Noam first meets Ashraf under very intense circumstances in the film’s dramatic opening scene.  Ashraf is on a bus heading into Tel Aviv when the bus is stopped at an Israeli military check-point where Noam is working on guard duty.  During the inspection of the passengers, a pregnant woman goes into labor, and the baby must be delivered right in the middle of the road.  The frantic tension of the scene is palpable and believable.  After they exchange some subtle but knowing glances, Ashraf retrieves Noam’s dropped identification card and later takes it to Noam’s apartment to return it to him.

Eytan Fox incorporates a number of smart moves into the film, one of which occurs during the first night that Noam and Ashraf share together on the roof of Noam’s apartment building.  They’ve vacated the apartment for the night so that Lulu can spend it privately with the handsome if malign magazine editor she’s been dating.  The camera intersplices naked close-ups of Lulu and her date in bed together with identically intimate close-ups of Noam and Ashraf sleeping together up on the roof, as if to say:  young people do enjoy sex, and there’s not much distinction between gay and straight in that regard.

Ashraf decides to stay on for the duration after that first night he spends with Noam, partly because he has a chance to be himself in Tel Aviv.  He begins to work as a waiter at Orna and Ella, the restaurant where Yali is a manager.  Meanwhile, Lulu becomes increasingly involved with a group of Israeli anti-occupation activists who seek to find peace and common ground with Palestinian young people, even organizing a rave on a beach where the characters can all come together in what feels like a kind of paradise for them.

Of course, it’s not a paradise for very long.  Ashraf doesn’t have a government permit that would allow him to remain in Tel Aviv, and his conservative Palestinian family expects him to marry a woman and have children.  Further drama ensues, bringing about Noam’s separation from Ashraf.  In a very funny sequence, Yali and Lulu perform an Israeli pop song in drag in an attempt to rouse Noam from his bed and his depression after the seeming breakup.

Yes, Yali embraces his queeny side, and no, there’s nothing wrong with a stock gay character who can drop hilarious and witty one-liners about Take That, Judith Butler, and Michel Foucault.  In fact, all four characters are finely drawn and acted, and their dialogue is lucid and clever for the most part.  The screenplay does contain some overly convenient and melodramatic twists, all of which I’m willing to overlook because of the film’s emotionally precise inner dynamics.

This emotional exactitude is a fairly rare quality in movies that focus on relationships between gay men.  Noam and Ashraf are both treated with an understated sense of dignity throughout, just two everyday guys who have found themselves deeply and irreversibly attracted to one another.  Not to mention the obvious chemistry between the two actors, which helps to foster some of the most moving scenes of physical closeness between men that I’ve ever seen on screen.

And that closeness works to devastating effect at the film’s climax, during a tragic scene that’s foreshadowed by some dialogue between Ashraf and Noam early in the movie.  The morning after they’ve first had sex on the rooftop, Noam says in Hebrew, “We were explosive,” and explains to Ashraf that the word “explosive” can be used as slang for when something’s cool.  Their climactic finale that fatally echoes those words (along with a visual cue from Martin Sherman’s canonical 1979 play Bent) is filmed in a burst of light with a 360-degree, hyper-kinetic tracking shot, the perfect directorial decision for a heartbreaking scene that might otherwise be impossible to render.

Also to his credit, Eytan Fox doesn’t leave the viewer with any unearned sentimentality or simple answers in the film’s voiceover denouement (alongside a beautiful cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” by Ivri Lider in the movie’s closing credits).  Certainly for gay men surrounded by the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict, love is forced to try to persist amidst violence and persecution.  The Bubble creates a realistic fantasy that approximates what exactly that struggle must feel like.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Hem, Departure and Farewell (Waveland Records, 2013)

It’s nice to know in May that I’ve heard what will probably be my favorite album of this year. The fourth studio album by the Brooklyn-based band Hem, Departure and Farewell, sounds like a goodbye album that might not actually be one. The album’s title and several of the songs’ titles (“Last Call,” “So Long,” etc.) seem to suggest that this may be the band’s farewell. The group’s founder/songwriter Dan Messé has called it both a breakup album and a reunion album. Certainly, the album’s themes are consistent with that notion; each song draws on motifs of either leave-taking or homecoming.

Seven years have passed since Hem’s previous effort, Funnel Cloud, was released in 2006.  Hem’s players have been through a lot since then, including the dissolution of two band members’ marriages, as well as the principal songwriter’s descent into and recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.  Messé provides a glimpse of that struggle on the song “Tourniquet”:  “The prospectors still search for highs in the heights / ‘Til their first bloody nose which they laugh off despite / How it seems that whatever gets left in the bar / Just becomes a part of Brooklyn / And here we are.”

Back in February of 2006, I was fortunate to hear Hem perform an intimate concert at Berklee College of Music here in Boston.  My memory of the entire evening is especially vivid.  After dinner with a friend at an Indian restaurant around the corner from the venue, we walked to the concert through a slow-motion snowfall that I’ve experienced on only one or two other occasions in nearly twenty years of living in the city.  It was a bitterly cold night, but there was no wind to cause the snow to blow or drift, so it just fell unhurriedly until it reached the ground.  By the time I was in my front-row seat, I already felt like I was in a comfortably hypnotic daze.

The show was as magical as the snowfall.  I was grateful to chat a bit with Dan Messé and the band’s vocalist Sally Ellyson in the lobby afterwards, and I’m so glad that I had a chance to tell Dan in person that I think his songs are brilliant.  They both signed Sally’s copy of the evening’s set list for me.  (I still have it tucked away inside the booklet of my Funnel Cloud CD.)  Back out into that otherworldly snowfall we all went, a snowfall that felt more cinematic than realistic, which is an appropriate description of Hem’s music itself.

A mixture of folk and chamber pop, Hem’s songs somehow sound orchestral even when there’s no orchestral accompaniment.  In fact, my favorite songs from their early catalog — “Sailor,” “The Fire Thief,” “Pacific Street” — do feature an orchestra, a trend that’s continued on their latest disc.  This lends Messé’s songs the touch of classicism that his lyrics deserve.  He usually approaches his subjects through a sunny haze or across a watery distance, preferring a floating approximation to exactitude, though he does also have exactitude at his disposal when necessary.  I remember he mentioned being obsessed with Rickie Lee Jones’ 1981 masterpiece Pirates, and it’s a lyrical style that she, too, has employed for many years now.

Folk music has long been about traveling: on foot, by train, over water, in cars, along dusty country roads.  Departure and Farewell is also largely concerned with travel.  The sense of reprieve in the music is always balanced by a sense of loss.  On the opening title track, the travel is both an exterior and an interior journey: “The summer folds the afternoon, / And pins a shadow to the lawn, / And sweeps across the empty room / Where I am gone.” How do we find again the path inside ourselves when we’ve gotten hopelessly lost? That’s the band’s mission on this album.

Surprising, then, that the songs are so often rapturous, though also not surprising since melancholy and bliss are a pairing that Hem has become known for mastering.  Likewise, these songs brush up equally against rebirth (“Things Are Not Perfect in Our Yard,” “The Seed”) and death (“Walking Past the Graveyard, Not Breathing”). Hem instrumentalist Steve Curtis’ song “The Jack Pine” similarly relies on the metaphor of a forest fire to explore the end of a long romance. About half of the time, Hem’s songs come across as hymns, while the other half of the time, they lean in the direction of literate children’s songs (“Seven Angels,” “Gently Down the Stream”). “Bird Song” owes an open and faithful debt to Neil Young’s classic track “Birds.”

Beyond the midway point, the album inhabits a dream, familiar territory for Hem, but it’s a strategy that reaches full maturity here.  This maturity culminates on “Last Call,” a song that immerses itself in a drowsy, drunken high, underscored by a lilting choir and Gary Maurer’s precisely drifting guitars.  The final effect is for the band to be swept away, out into a dark and moonless night:  “Last call when the waters came / Rushing in at our feet. / Let’s tear the door from the frame / And float off down the street.”

Listening to an album like this, so rife with the complications of love and human interaction, always makes me wonder why people put up with the hassles of relationships at all, unless it’s because they’re trained to expect to put up with them.  Then they pay the penalty and the price.  Hem’s Departure and Farewell is, at its eloquently wistful heart, a record about loneliness and overcoming it.