Monday, November 30, 2009

Moving Midway

The documentary Moving Midway went completely under my radar when it came out in 2008, but I caught up with it on DVD over the long holiday weekend. This anything-but-simple story about moving a North Carolina plantation house is about as good a portrait of the contemporary South as I can imagine. Full of unexpected twists, ironies, and racial tensions, it's also just the sort of thing that Hollywood would royally butcher.

Hollywood's long and curious love affair with the South, and particularly its portrayals of antebellum plantation life, is a preoccupation of filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire, a New York-based critic and cousin to the owner of Midway Plantation. Whether it's the romantic fantasy of Gone With The Wind, the Southern Gothic terror of Deliverance, or the outright racist revisionism of Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has had difficulty telling Southern stories without distorting the picture, either patronizing or demonizing its subjects. Moving Midway, probably because it was made by a Southerner who had the added advantage of being related to most of his subjects, is refreshingly free of caricature (that's not to say that there aren't some molasses-thick accents and charmingly eccentric behavior on display), stereotyping, or exploitation. The film portrays a series of very distinct individuals rather than a collection of "types" or a strange, massed "other", and is therefore capable of surprising us with the way people speak, behave and interact.

The discovery of a whole line of descendants of the family's slaves and their subsequent participation in the film and the events surrounding the house relocation provide Moving Midway with some of its best moments and a compelling second storyline to add to the titular drama. The interactions between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of their masters is, as you would expect, fascinating to watch and somewhat fraught with tension. Southern cordiality reigns, but there's clearly a lot going on beneath the surface on both sides as a result of the history involved.

Dr. Robert Hinton, an NYU professor, North Carolina native, and the first of the slave descendants to become involved in the film (eventually supervising all the historical research), plays a key role, giving voice to the mixed emotions stirred up by the contemplation of the house and its history and expressing concerns that might otherwise be left to simmer unspoken. In one memorable moment in the film (at a Civil War reenactment, no less), Hinton has the perfect rejoinder when he hears the old saw about the War being more about "states rights" than slavery: "States rights to do what?"

Besides issues of race and the Southern legacy of slavery, Moving Midway illustrates some very fundamental questions about land, property, and history. What meaning does a historic house have without the land it sits on, especially a plantation house? When a new strip mall or housing development is named after the previous occupants of the land it sits on, is this a fitting honor or a cruel and tasteless, if unintentional, insult? (The film shows one housing development that was presumably named after the 18th-century slave patriarch of Midway Plantation, Mingo.) Almost all of the broader questions raised by the film are related to the central, specific question at its heart. Namely, is the decision to move Midway right or wrong? Cheshire shows us various points of view on this question, as well as the Fitzcarraldo-like feat that is the actual move, but wisely leaves us free to come to our own conclusions.

If you rent Moving Midway, don't overlook the additional interview segments included as bonus features. The segment with Algia Mae Hinton, the Piedmont blues singer and banjo player who is featured on the soundtrack, performing for the camera while sitting (though definitely not sitting still) in her comfy chair in sweat pants and socks, is several minutes of pure joy.

Monday, November 23, 2009


[Warning: this post contains Unnecessary Capitalization.]

After seeing The Fantastic Mr. Fox, in which Wes Anderson applies his by now overly familiar bag of tricks and tics to an animated Roald Dahl adaptation and succeeds beyond all expectation, I naturally got to Looking Back and Taking Stock of the filmmaker's Career So Far. This is what I came up with:

Anderson has made three more or less completely successful films out of six, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and Mr. Fox. The other three each contain some great things, but none of them quite Achieve Unity. Look back at the filmographies of some of the Great Directors, and I think you'll agree that .500 is a solid average*.

*Of course, you might also point out that many of the Great Directors of the past were cranking out movies at a much faster clip, making the occasional Indifferent Effort inevitable. To which I might rejoin that the faster pace of movie making in the Golden Age of Hollywood prevented directors from overthinking, thus helping to produce the scores of relaxed, effortless-seeming masterpieces we treasure today. In the end, though, Wes Anderson would have been as out of place working in the Studio System as Howard Hawks^ would be in today's Hollywood.

^Hawks might not be the best choice as an example here. Although he could be considered Anderson's opposite in some ways, Hawks was famously independent of the studio system and took on projects at his own pace. Still, take a look at the periods 1938-1941 and 1944-1949 in Hawks' filmography to get a sense of the tremendous streaks of creative productivity of which he was capable.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Roundup of Things Seen/Heard/Eaten Lately

Saw the Paul Motian Octet + 1 at the Village Vanguard. 2 bass + 2 guitar + 2 sax + viola + piano + drums = "Octet + 1" Though I thought the ensemble became a bit unwieldy and sagged a little under its own weight in a couple of places, this was another rewarding set of music from the relentless, 78-year old creative force of nature that is Paul Motian. If nothing else, the assemblage on stage was a remarkable sight. Motian's fruitful years with Keith Jarrett, what might be considered the second (or even third?) major phase of his career, were already behind him before some of the musicians in the Octet + 1 were born.

Many of Motian's defining characteristics were in evidence with this group: his affinity with pianists and electric guitarists (almost all his best work has been with one or both of these instruments), his deep feel for standards, the mystery and beauty of his own compositions, and most of all, the vitality and freshness of his drumming. A few songs into the set, the thought came very clearly into my head, "Damn, he's playing great!"


Finally saw the underground/cult classic video "Heavy Metal Parking Lot". The original movie itself is only about 16 minutes long, but the filmmakers have made good use of the remaining space on the DVD, loading it up with sequels (including the almost-as-good "Neil Diamond Parking Lot", related documentaries, etc, etc.

One that I found strangely compelling was a feature on a collector and record store owner with a basement literally full of Judas Priest memorabilia. For several minutes, the filmmakers just keep rolling as he slowly flips through a stack of records, essentially narrating a critical history of Priest's entire discography. What could have been a throwaway bonus feature turned out to be one of the best portraits of the obsessive rock'n'roll collector type I've ever seen.

Also recommended along similar lines is Banks Tarver's "Beautiful Plastic", a short that's available as a bonus feature on the DVD of Tarver's Guided By Voices doc Watch Me Jumpstart. It's eight minutes of Robert Pollard going through boxes of old lyrics and collage materials from his basement. There's almost as much insight about Pollard's personality and creativity to be found packed into this short as there is the full-length movie (I don't mean that as a knock on Jumpstart - it's fantastic and essential if you're a GBV fan).


Went to Geoff Dyer's reading at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. He read from his most recent book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which I've written about here, and from two older books which have recently been reissued, Out of Sheer Rage and But Beautiful. He also read an unpublished piece, a strange, funny tribute to John Berger which took the form of a deliberately stilted, cliched essay on Jackson Pollock. Dyer is almost shockingly tall and thin in person, and has the type of English manner that many Americans find irresistible, a major component of which is an effortless wit of the dry and self-mocking variety. In his readings and answers to audience questions, Dyer showed his wide range of interests: art, photography, travel, jazz, D.H. Lawrence. The readings drew a lot of laughter from the audience, and were mostly genuinely funny, with the notable exception of the moody, impressionistic pieces from But Beautiful, his book on jazz.

A semi-dramatic moment occurred during the Q&A when a young woman from Varanasi, who was sitting in the front row with her mother, asked if he had gone to the city with the intention to write about it or if the idea had come about later. Dyer indicated that he dreaded being confronted at readings by people that might be in a position to harshly judge the accuracy of the portrayals in his books (he mentioned jazz musicians, having confessed to some inaccuracies in But Beautiful), and he seemed quite relieved when the woman from Varanasi seemed to agree with him about the impossibility of "misrepresenting" a place as complex as her home city (if it's impossible to misrepresent a place, is it also then impossible to truly, accurately represent it?).


Tried the new burger at fancy hot dog joint Bark in Brooklyn a couple of times. Very good small burger, with the variety of pickled things and the "special sauce" working perfectly with the meat and bun. I only wish it was possible to get it a bit rarer - the default is medium/medium-well whereas I'd prefer medium/medium-rare. Black Iron in the East Village, where I've also eaten a few times lately, will cook their (also fairly thin) burgers to order, but your results may vary depending on who's on the griddle. Bark is more consistent, but when Black Iron is on their game I'd give their burger a slight edge.


Sorry to have missed:

Ethan Iverson/Tootie Heath/Ben Street at Smalls. Smalls is the place to see a piano trio, as I found out when I saw Fred Hersch there. Apparently Iverson/Heath/Street are playing again this winter at Iridium with Lee Konitz and Mark Turner, so hopefully I can catch that. (Very Cool Thing: Smalls is streaming the sets on their website, so I can feel a little less bad about missing out in person.)

The Eccentric Soul Revue (feat. the highly underrated Syl Johnson). I imagine Johnson's career and reputation was held back a bit by his being in Al Green's shadow when they were both on Hi Records. He may have adhered too closely to the (obviously commercially viable) Al mode on some of his singles, but the fact that he was so convincing in this style (which may have really been the Hi style more than the Al Green style), coming within a hair's breadth of the master himself, is a testament to his enormous talent.

Big Star at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. Waited too long on this one, and it sold out. Review here in the Voice (including a typically, unnecessarily nasty comments section).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Underrated, Underappreciated (#4 in a Series) - Pick-A-Bar

What is the most underrated candy bar? I've got it down to two contenders:

Zero, the cult classic, white fudge coated, freezable bar with Midwestern roots and some of the best-looking packaging in all candydom.

Take 5, the salt-sweet exploiting newcomer with the jazzy name.

Is Zero just getting by on its striking looks while the more homely, generic Take 5 scores with its skillfully balanced flavors and textures? Can the Take 5 be as ubiquitous as it now seems to be and still be underrated?

Clearly, more thought and research is required before I can come to a decision. Please comment if you have an opinion on this critical issue.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Workin' Over the American Songbook...With A Louisville Slugger

I think this is more shocking than the Dylan Christmas album (and probably not as good). Make sure to scroll down. The Amazon Customer Review Creative Writing Squad has already gotten busy on this one.

(via the Village Voice - following the link to the Deadspin-commissioned remix is recommended)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Droppin' (Gymnemic) Acid

The mad food scientists at the French Culinary Institute went on a freaky trip with Gurmar the Sugar Destroyer.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Poor Ian, Poor Elliott

Reduced to frosting.

Alasdair MacLean at Joe's Pub - 10/29/09

I'd assumed from the billing that this would be a solo gig, but MacLean was backed for most of his set by members of the Ladybug Transistor. They drifted on and off stage, but the full compliment was MacLean on Rickenbacker (6-string) plus trumpet, cello, and piano. The accompaniment was perfectly understated, creating an atmosphere but leaving the focus almost entirely on MacLean's guitar and voice. The set consisted mostly of the oldest and newest Clientele material, with several songs from Suburban Light (and related early EPs and singles) and Bonfires on the Heath.

I've written about the Clientele before and have seen them several times now, but I still have the capacity to be surprised at the music's effect on me. I didn't realize I was looking for this music until I discovered it, but once I did its existence seemed somehow inevitable (this must be a common feeling among Clientele fans). Alasdair MacLean's songs often contain images and create moods that seem so familiar and universal that it's hard to believe that no one else has exploited them, or at least not in the same way or with the same precision. Alongside lyrical commonplaces (autumn, a dreary weekend afternoon, rain), MacLean frequently places images drawn from his own handcrafted line of English, haunted-tree psychedelia. The blend of these strands, in varying proportions, along with the band's flexible but always recognizable sound, is what makes up the Clientele world, a parallel, only slightly offset reality where it's always raining in the London suburbs.

"Saturday", requested incessantly until MacLean finally played it (and also a highlight of the Clientele's previous NYC appearance), is remarkable in its complete and detailed evocation of a very particular mood, which it produces through an impossible-to-quantify combination of deceptively simple, common elements (does a lyric have to risk triteness in order to be really moving?). The feeling I get when these elements magically/alchemically react in a piece of music is what I'm chasing when I flip through used record bins or search online for new bands. It's a relatively rare thing, but the alchemy was happening at this show, with both new and old songs.


I only had time to listen to the new Bonfires On The Heath once before the show, but have since given it a few more listens. I'm not ready to say exactly how it stacks up against previous Clientele albums, some of which are easily among my favorite music of the last ten years, but I'm at least certain that it belongs on the same shelf. Neither a "back-to-basics" album (which I suppose would mean a return to the crude-but-effective recording techniques of the early singles) nor a move in a new direction (as the previous two were, if only modestly), Bonfires might be a good model for a mid-level band making a record in the midst of a recession and a slow-motion music industry meltdown. Made with an actual producer in an actual studio, it seems like the band (augmented only slightly with extra players) went in prepared and banged out a set of songs efficiently and without any undue fuss or frills. The result is a great sounding, cohesive record that makes the most of the band's strengths and relies on subtle touches rather than surprising, grand gestures.

Mel Draisey's Hammond organ does what a Hammond does so well if used with restraint, adds a warm retro/nostalgic feeling that oozes into the gaps left by the other instruments. At certain moments I was even vaguely reminded of Rick Wright. James Hornsey's bass might never have sounded better than it does on Bonfires. Hornsey is indie rock's most tasteful and underrated bassist (those two things are probably not unrelated). Americans may have to wait a while to hear the new songs performed by these players, though. In typical self-deprecating style, MacLean pointed out that the Clientele would be touring America in support of the new album about four months after its release here.


While the majority of the Joe's Pub crowd (packed into the small, multilevel space, all in close proximity to the stage) was enthusiastically respectful, bordering on worshipful, I was sitting next to a group of English ladies who decided about halfway through the set to have a loud, long conversation (lasting through at least 3 or 4 songs, on topics such as the amenities at their hotel, which tourist sites they were going to visit the next day, and what club they were going to after the show) that only abated when my concertgoing companion asked them (more politely than I would've been capable of) to keep it down.

It's a well known fact that the Clientele have received more respect in America than in their home country, but it was strange to see the "prophet in his home town" dynamic being played out in a New York City audience, with people actually traveling from England and buying tickets in order to ignore the music. I have no doubt that Americans remain the world leaders in talking loudly at quiet shows, as evidenced by more than one Clientele show I've been to, but it's good to see our trans-Atlantic friends making a good effort to keep up. Well played, loud mouth English ladies. For one night, you schooled us on our home court.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Two I'd Slept On

The Great Pretender - Lester Bowie

I don't remember ever laughing out loud listening to a jazz album before (and certainly not an ECM album), but I'm pretty sure I did on my first listen to The Great Pretender. This has been on my "to buy" list for a while, and I finally picked it up cheap at the WFMU Record Fair. Though he clearly had some sort of spiritual/temperamental affinity with Louis Armstrong, Bowie approached music from an angle that was a bit askew from everyone else, even from the rest of the boldly experimental AACM/BAG community he was such a central part of. His choice of material and his slyly ambiguous attitude toward it make him very difficult to neatly summarize or compartmentalize. When listening to him, his musical choices can somehow seem perverse and absolutely right at the same time. And when he's got you looking for a curve ball (or a knuckle ball or an Eephus pitch), he fools you by throwing one right down the middle.

The title track is a tour de force, justly one of Bowie's best known recordings, as it seems to contain so much of his musical spirit in one place (even featuring his wife, the r'n'b great Fontella Bass, on backing vocals). The mighty Hamiet Bluiett is here for just this one track, and the pianist Donald Smith does particularly fine work, helping lead the way through all the jumps, twists and turns of the almost 17 minute de(con)struction of the Platters' classic platter. Funny, pretty, ugly, scary - it's all those things. Bowie the mad scientist taking us on a tour of his laboratory, or Bowie as Willy Wonka inviting us along for a boat ride - you know things are gonna get weird, but a good kind of weird.

Although it's tempting to view everything after "The Great Pretender" as bonus tracks, the album is strong all the way through, wildly varied, but with no dips in quality. "Oh, How The Ghost Sings" gets into spooky feedback/echo/reverb territory, strangely reminding me of Spoon's "The Ghost of You Lingers". "It's Howdy Doody Time" would be an appropriate theme song for a version of the show where Howdy gets demented and invites Chucky to co-host. Or a version where Howdy is voiced by Paul Reubens. "Rios Negroes" is a relatively straightforward Latin groove number that nonetheless doesn't seem out of place on this album, a grab bag so unpredictable you'd be a little afraid to stick your hand in it.

Olé Coltrane - John Coltrane

I recently picked this one up at the library, and it's almost high enough praise to say that it lives up to the promise of its lineup: Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, Art Davis (it's a two bass lineup - wait for the part when they both start bowing!), and Elvin Jones. Like The Great Pretender, this is a case where the lead, title track is clearly the main event, the raison d'etre for the album. And here, too, it's a long excursion that fully justifies its length.

As is so often the case, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are standouts, propelling the tune ever forward while creating a sense of urgency and excitement that makes 18 minutes feel like 5. All the "guests" make worthwhile contributions, but "Olé" still sounds like classic Coltrane quartet material, which is a very good thing. Dolphy, Hubbard and Davis augment this classic sound, given a Spanish (Moorish?) tinge on "Olé", but don't essentially transform it. This is still the Coltrane Show.

The blues and ballads that make up the rest of the album are excellent, but seem like they belong to the period that Coltrane was leaving behind rather than the future that the title track points the way to. It's this clearly audible sense of straddling two eras that gives Olé its reputation as a "transitional" album. Still, I'd place this among Coltrane's best, a thoroughly enjoyable listen start to finish.

Bonus Links

A "Listening Party" entry on "The Great Pretender" from the increasingly excellent A Blog Supreme