Monday, December 03, 2007

beta on the newsstand

For that cold toilet seat in December, there are reviews of Ricardo Villalobos, White Magic, Sightings, Castanets, and Sunburned Hand of the Man in the new Spin and a slew of stuff for Paste.

Michael Hurley
Ancestral Swamp
Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan summed up America’s kookiest living songster best: “I've never encountered anybody in less of a hurry than Michael Hurley; he always seems a second or two behind, like he's not quite seeing or hearing the same things we are.” Covered by the likes of the Holy Modal Rounders, Violent Femmes, and Cat Power, the perpetually itinerant Hurley no doubt exists on another plane entirely. Over the course of five decades, Hurley’s languorous songs have lounged just outside of blues, country, and folk, and his first for Devendra Banhart’s Gnomonsong imprint is no different. Spacy and sloooow, nudged on by guests like Tara Jane O’Neil, a fiddle snores through “When I Get Back Home,” while the electric piano on “Lonesome Graveyard” is basically somnambulant. Within his rasped lyrics, cowboys, crapshooters, and little green fellows abound (what, no werewolves this time?), making for some of the weirdest nap dreams imaginable.

Fraser & DeBolt (with Ian Guenther)
Earlier this year, a hushed cover of “The Waltze of the Tennis Players” appeared on Philly folk singer Meg Baird’s debut (warranting her a “Four to Watch” slot). Written by the obscure Canadian duo of Ian Fraser & Daisy DeBolt, it brought attention to the neglected act’s self-titled major label debut, which saw release in 1971 and disappeared soon after. Reissued on CD by a dubious imprint (and taken from a vinyl copy), it reveals not just what Canadian country music might sound like, but that the couple is painfully artless as regards their singing voices. Fraser’s is a plank-thick drawl, DeBolt’s prone to yelps. Adding to the mix is the wheezing fiddle work of Ian Guenther, which on numbers like “Armstrong Tourest Rest Home” is teeth-gnashing. The off-kilter combination works well on the woozy “Waltze,” while their cover of “Don’t Let Me Down” is particularly ragged.

*** ½
“In our daily life, there must be music.” So speaks Dominic, a 14-year-old Patongo School student in northern Uganda, about to compete in the National Music Competition. On the surface, War/Dance seems like any other competition movie: students practice, learn about themselves, then perform on the big stage, though it’s doubtful such a trip to the capital city ever involve armed escort. Patongo, situated in a refugee camp, overflows with orphans and others displaced by boogiemen rebel fighters, solace found only in music and dance. The Fines were fortunate to capture the school’s first ever foray to the festival, as well as compelling children. Tears streaming down his face in extreme close-up, Dominic recounts how he too had to kill so as to not be killed by these rebels. While the nightmarish flashbacks need not such a heavy hand (the stories are harrowing enough), the film shows how music alleviates that daily violence.

Despite The Ken Burns Effect on WWII, the story of what occurred in China’s then-capital city of Nanking won’t be familiar to most Westerners, in that it took place during the winter of 1937, two years before the invasion of Poland and four years before Pearl Harbor brought the war home. By the late thirties though, in alliance with Nazi Germany, Japan was already on the megalomaniac march, invading and toppling Shanghai before turning its bloodlust onto Nanking. This documentary (with parts read by Stephen Dorff, Mariel Hemingway, and Woody Harrelson) details how an all-out slaughter of the country’s poor populace was averted by strange bedfellows: both Christian missionaries and Nazi businessmen set up a neutral zone to stem the bloodshed of the innocent. This harrowing documentary captures the ultimate futility of such an effort (200K murdered, some 20K reported rapes in the first month alone) along with rare 16mm footage that won’t soon be forgotten.

Berlin Alexanderplatz
“(Rainer Werner) Fassbinder can only be described in contradictions…gentle and brutal, tender and cynical, self-sacrificing and egocentric.” So spoke Christian Braad Thomsen, longtime friend of the prolific, doomed Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of West German cinema from the late sixties until his death from an overdose in the early eighties. Of course, his untimely death was also one of exhaustion, as Fassbinder’s frenetic work pace --directing some 41 movies in 13 years-- would make the prolific Steven Soderburgh (not to mention most porno directors) seem lazy in comparison. His immense body of work revels in such contradictions some two decades on.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of Fassbinder’s final efforts, completed and aired on German television in 1980. It consumed Fassbinder’s creative attentions for the better part of a year, which is saying something, considering he could churn out upwards of five movies in that time span. Much more than that though, the early modernist book by Alfred Döblin about protagonist Franz Biberkopf resounded for a teenaged Fassbinder, who told interviewer Klaus Eder in 1980 that he could perceive himself within Franz, “a person who goes around for much too long trying to believe in goodness in this world…though he actually knows better.” So struck was young Fassbinder by this work that he took “Franz” as the name of his alter ego thereafter.

Set in the Weimar era in Berlin, after the end of World War I and before the rise of the Third Reich, we first meet Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) as he’s released from prison after serving a four-year bid for beating his prostitute girlfriend to death in a violent rage. It’s an instance that haunts not just him but us as well, the gruesome scene repeated often, each time with a different voiceover narration. Staying true to Döblin’s novel, which in the spirit of contemporary tome Ulysses took snatches of words from other sources, we hear excerpts from the Book of Job, Ecclesiastics, the story of Abraham, livestock reports, sexual education manuals, and Longfellow drift past.

What no doubt interests Fassbinder more than the modernist appropriation though is how a man like Franz, a malevolent pimp turned kindhearted simp, traverses this terrain. Crippled by the unemployment rate, its citizens seem to have few options: the men are either petty thieves or pimps, the women are prostitutes. Struggling to stay honest, ex-con Franz vows: “Even if the world is full of meanness, full of filth, I swore to myself, I’m finished with it.” Through the earliest installments, he keeps his word, but after attempts to peddle neckties, newspapers, and Fascist literature for an honest living fails, soon finds himself drawn back into the underworld by his new best friend, a baleful stuttering pimp named Reinhold (Gottfried John).

Pushed out of a getaway car after a heist, Franz loses an arm, rendering him an invalid, though most citizens chalk him up as being yet another one of the Great War’s casualties. His sole salvation comes in the guise of the doll-like Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), a similarly wide-eyed girl almost goofy in her innocence, even if she takes up with gentlemen callers to pay the bills. Unable to work, Franz cannot help but to become a pimp once more. Things are irretrievably set in motion and it ultimately comes to pass that his fate is not escapable.

Clocking in at thirteen episodes, with an additional two-hour epilogue that verges on the hallucinatory, Berlin Alexanderplatz makes for nearly sixteen hours of Fassbinder. Safe to say that this set is not for initiates; even those familiar with the man’s oeuvre, be it classics of 70s European cinema like Effi Briest, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, or The Marriage of Maria Braun, will still have their work cut out for them here. The pacing is deliberate and slow, the format of the television mini-series giving Fassbinder ample time to let scenes unfurl at an excruciatingly slow pace. While an awkward moment in a Fassbinder film (and believe me, there are plenty in each film) might last for but one scene, in Alexanderplatz, they unfurl at upwards of a half-hour, as imminent and agonizing as a steamroller advancing. Tropes like action and plot advancement were never Fassbinder’s concern so much as the cruelty of mankind to one another, with love itself --to quote an early film-- being “colder than death.” It’s near absolute zero in Berlin Alexanderplatz.