February Films: Ken Burns’ Jazz – “Risk”

Today’s movie was the “Risk,” the eighth episode of Ken Burns’ 2001 documentary mini-series Jazz. This episode covered the decade after the end of World War II, the period in which the new style of bebop became the most influential force in jazz – though not the only one, coexisting as it did alongside swing/big band, which had fallen from its heights during the last 1930s and early 1940s but remained popular, and the traditional styles of Louis Armstrong.

Burns chooses to organize the episode around the rise and fall of Charlie “Bird” Parker, as troubled a genius as the world’s ever seen. Hopelessly addicted to alcohol and heroin and yet relentlessly creative on his alto saxophone, Parker was one of the catalysts of bebop, along with Dizzy Gillespie – widely viewed as the public face of bebop, as well as a talented composer and virtuosic trumpeter – and, to one side, Thelonious Monk – an eccentric pianist who composed numerous brilliant tunes.

Burns weaves the stories of Diz and Monk, as well as the emerging trumpeter Miles Davis, into the episode, but comes back over and over – like a soloist returning again and again to his main riff – to Bird’s music and struggles. Parker’s music is wonderful (as is the music of Gillespie, Monk, Davis, and others) – unbearably fast, marvelously clear, endlessly inventive. Parker’s personal life is unremitting agony – repeated slides into drugs and alcohol, and finally the tragic death of his toddler daughter, which sends him over the edge to his death at age 34.

As the story of Bird and bebop, the episode succeeds. But Burns also wants the story to tell us something about race in America, and here he falls short, intermittently but unsatisfyingly mentioning, say, the Birmingham bus boycott and the young Martin Luther King, Jr. Burns misses the opportunity to set the scourge of drugs among jazz players and in the broader African-American community against the backdrop of postwar poverty – not just discrimination. For some black addicts (like Parker or Davis) heroin was undoubtedly a way to cope with racism, but the drug was also a way to cope with poverty – racism’s twin. Oddly, the episode includes a few minutes on the white Beats’ (retrospectively embarrassing) embrace of bebop as free and untutored artistic expression, but does not expand on white hipsters’ other attempts to appropriate African-American culture, such as slang or their penchant for liberation through narcotics.

February Films: Mother

I watched the South Korean movie Mother without much foreknowledge except that it was supposed to be good. For the first half of the movie, I was pretty much completely confused, thanks to a darting, incomplete plotline; strange characters such as the titular mother and her son, possibly mentally handicapped; the oddity of the setting (a crumbling South Korean town); and the subtitles.

Staying with the movie, though, I was rewarded with an amazing second hour that combined elements of murder mysteries, techno-thrillers, and even black comedies. Once all the threads of the story had been exposed, the resolution was actually fairly obvious, but still satisfying. Maybe the most compelling proof of the movie’s power was that I had several bizarre dreams featuring its characters and plot.

February Films: Babe

Tonight’s movie was Babe, the classic (fifteen year old!) movie about the heroic pig who wants to be a sheepdog. There’s not much to say about the movie except that it’s wonderful from start to finish, and that it was a pleasure to watch it with Julia and Genevieve, who had never seen it before. They loved it, despite the weirdness of seeing animals act like cartoons but not be cartoons. I can’t wait to watch it with them again…

February Films: Three Days of the Condor

Tonight’s movie was Three Days of the Condor, a 1975 thriller directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford. The movie had a classic plot – man must elude killers after being mistaken for someone – but lacked any actual thrills. I’m pretty good at suspending my disbelief when it comes to action-y movies (I love the Bourne flicks), so it’s not as if I was put off by the implausibility of the story: Redford’s CIA analyst uncovers a secret intelligence-world scheme to – get this! – invade the  Middle East to secure American oil supplies. Ha! As if!

No, I was put off by the fact that this was a pretty boring film. The fights and chases were predictable, as was the fact that Redford’s “Condor” would sleep with Faye Dunaway’s character, whom he’d kidnapped, beaten, and tied up during one phase of his escape. (The sex scene was incredibly tame.) Even Redford’s acting was hammy and uncharismatic.

Oh well. I saw eight good flicks before seeing this one. Not bad.

February Films: Anvil and Objectified

To get back to my 1-film-per-day rate, I had to watch two movies tonight, so I chose two very different but equally interesting documentaries.

First was Anvil, an amazingly touching movie about a has-been heavy metal band from Toronto. The film bottles up an incredible amount of pathos – the two main members of the band desperately want in the 50s what they wanted in their teens: to be rock starts – but it’s also surprisingly inspiring. Anvil never really becomes what it “should” (the biggest metal band in the world) but both Lips and Robbo show – and know – that it’s the journey, not the destination. Plus and so, the music is pretty great.

After the noise and chaos and fun of Anvil, I watched its opposite, the sophisticated and self-conscious Objectified, a cerebral take on the role of design in modern society. Directed by Gary Hustwit, who made the documentary about the font Helvetica a few years ago, Objectified takes a while to get going but eventually – after Karim Rashid shows up in his white-nailed glory – becomes an engrossing examination of just what “good design” means. I doubt real designers would be quite as impressed, but as someone with a passing acquaintance with the field (both as a historian of technology and as a consumer), I thought the film more than met its goal. Plus, it’s chock full of incredibly beautiful stuff.

February Films: True Grit

After skipping my movie last night – Super Bowl Sunday, when something more important was on TV – tonight I watched the 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne as, pretty much, John Wayne. While much of the acting was excellent, especially by Kim Darby, who played the teenage girl/avenger, the Duke was awesomely hammy, essentially playing a caricature of the image of John Wayne, Western Hero), which somehow actually advanced the wonderfully involved plot. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. The only thing that put me off a bit was the “G” rating, which seemed to belie the incredible amount of violence in the movie. The Wild West (or at least what was supposed to be Oklahoma) was a tidy place but one full of men shootin’ men.

February Films: Man on Wire

I wound down before tomorrow’s big race by watching an understated documentary, my fifth movie of the month: Man on Wire, a compelling study of the French daredevil Philippe Petit’s successful attempt in 1974 to walk a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center. The movie looks at Petit’s motivations, skills, and earlier feats (walking between the towers of the Notre Dame) and effectively combines actual footage, recreated scenes, and interviews to tell the story of the 1974 feat – which is hard to believe, even as you see it happening. This movie’s Oscar is fully deserved.

February Films: Exit Through the Gift Shop

My fourth movie of February was the amazing, hilarious, and captivating “documentary” Exit Through the Gift Shop, which purports to be about the British street artist Banksy and the international scene in which he works. The street art – graffiti, if you like – is mostly wonderful: funny, cutting, imaginative, beautiful. Banksy’s work stands out as especially interesting, because it’s at once so varied and so simple. The film is worth watching if only to see all this art.

Beyond that, I won’t really summarize the plot of the movie, but suffice to say that it works equally well as a straight documentary or as a mockumentary – or as both at once. (I only learned afterwards that the film might be a hoax – or that it might not be a hoax.)

February Films: Straight No Chaser

The third movie of February was the documentary Straight No Chaser, a sorta-biopic about the jazz pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. I didn’t realize, beforehand, that the film was so old – from 1988, just 6 years after Monk’s death. When I learned that, my view of the film changed a bit. On watching it, I thoroughly enjoyed the music (Monk is one of my favorite jazz artists), but thought the “documentary” elements to be rather weak – slices of what were obviously just a few long recordings of Monk in the studio, traveling, or otherwise living. These sections seemed impressionistic at best, and unilluminating at worst.

After learning that the film was finished just a few years after Monk died, though, I realized that it was meant as much to be a vehicle for seeing Monk alive as a way to hear his music – much less to get a sense of his biography, which you can’t very well do. You do get a good sense of Monk’s personal oddity, which was even more impressive and challenging than his musical oddity. Monk was, the film makes clear though interviews and footage, a deeply troubled man who suffered, it appears, from some sort of bipolar disorder, and possibly from Asperger’s or another form of autism. The circular mania of many of his tunes seem to be musical proof of his mental state. It’s a wonder, and yet not, that he produced so much immortal music.

February Films: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Tonight’s film – number 2 of the projected 28 – was another animated movie: Fantastic Mr. Fox. I haven’t seen a Wes Anderson flick since The Royal Tenenbaums, so this was overdue, and sets me up to see A Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited. Mr. Fox was really good: the spectacular animation perfectly extended a story that would have been, frankly, insipid in another or lesser kind of animation. Mr. and Mrs. Fox were wonderful characters, and their son Ash and nephew Kristofferson were almost equally engaging. All in all, this is a great movie.

Dragging My Carcass Around

I went for a long ski tonight. Thanks to the exertion and an oddly wet snowfall, things got blurry just a few minutes into the session  and continued to get blurrier until I finished. At one point, I noticed what seemed to be a glove or mitten half-buried in the snow alongside the trail.

On my next lap, I slowed down to scoop up the item, thinking I’d stick it on a trailside sign for the owner to find later. Without stopping, I picked it up (rather deftly, if I do say so myself) and glanced down at it – whereupon I discovered that it wasn’t a glove or mitten, but a desiccated opossum. The empty eye sockets and bared white teeth were the tipoff.

I whipped the carcass back into the snowbank along the trail and continued on my way, now somewhat more grossed out than I had been.

I Resemble Hugh Hefner in at Least Seven Ways

We both…

  • live in deeply leveraged houses.
  • rarely pass up tasty adult drinks.
  • refuse to admit that our hair is thinning.
  • lived in Chicago during a formative period in our lives.
  • like to eat dinner in my pajamas.
  • prefer 1950s jazz to most other kinds of music.
  • are constantly surrounded by beautiful blondes.