Monday, January 31, 2011

The Conversations #23: True Grit

The latest installment of The Conversations has now been posted at The House Next Door. This time around, Jason Bellamy and I discuss the Coen brothers' new adaptation of Charles Portis' True Grit, and compare their take on the material to Henry Hathaway's iconic John Wayne-starring version of the same story. We talk violence, revenge, Wayne, Westerns, the place of this film in the Coens' oeuvre, and much more. Join us at the House and be sure to comment to continue the conversation.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Town

Ben Affleck really likes Michael Mann's Heat. Like, really, really loves it. Like, it's his favorite movie ever. How do I know this? Because Affleck's second directorial feature, The Town, follows the template of Heat so closely, is so deeply indebted to its example in every way, that it might as well be a remake. Affleck plays Doug MacRay, the brains behind a gang of Boston bank robbers who run briskly paced jobs that could be mistaken for professional robberies if you ignore all the idiotic things that the script has these supposed crack thieves do over the course of the film. Heat was driven by the grudging professional respect and mutual intelligence of Robert De Niro's ace thief and Al Pacino's dogged police detective, so Affleck tries to develop a similar rivalry/bond between MacRay and the FBI agent trying to catch him, Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm). In some ways this is doomed to failure — Affleck and Hamm is simply not De Niro and Pacino, and there's nothing anyone can do about that — but the problems run deeper than that. Affleck can't develop the same epic but intimate scale that Mann so effortlessly infuses into his films, where the canvas might be sprawling but the characters within it are sharply defined. The characters of The Town lack that definition, and the relationships between them are consequently shallow. When Frawley half-admiringly calls his adversaries "the not-fucking-around crew" — after an armored car robbery that went so spectacularly, laughably wrong that the crooks ultimately escape only because the script says they must — it doesn't feel earned, it doesn't feel organic.

That's the case with a lot of things here. The Town isn't as deep or as smart as it clearly thinks it is, but it does have its charms. Affleck has a good feel for action, and his robbery scenes have energy and vigor to spare. Taken as a lightweight heist flick — its obvious cribbing from Heat aside — it's at least mildly enjoyable, and does a good job of conveying the hopeless cycle of these poor Boston guys who seem to have crime passed down to them in their blood from their equally lowlife fathers. As the Irish gangster Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite) tells MacRay's gang at one point, he looks at them and sees their fathers; he's an old guy who's been in this racket long enough to see gangs of sons replace their fathers. That's probably the film's most compelling subtext, this emphasis on the continuity of crime from one generation to the next within this cramped part of Boston that no one ever really gets out of.

Less compelling is the budding romance between MacRay and the bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), who his gang had briefly taken hostage during the robbery that opens the film. Affleck seems to be going for the unlikely but surprisingly tender romance between De Niro and Amy Brenneman in Heat, but Mann developed those characters so that they were disarmingly right together. The romance in The Town just consistently feels unlikely and silly, despite a warm and nuanced performance from Hall as her character deals with the stress of the bank robbery's fallout. The drama is, in general, rather generic, just stock bits of childhood trauma that provide the characters an opportunity for ponderous soul-baring speeches. MacRay's mother left him when he was a kid, and Claire had a brother who died when she was young, though this bit of information then becomes merely a source for the clever catch phrase that Claire uses to alert MacRay to the feds' presence in her apartment when Affleck decides to rip off the farewell scene between Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd in, you guessed it, Heat.

That's not all he rips off. The film frequently feels like a collection of scenes and scenarios from Mann's heist classic. The final robbery, at Boston's Fenway Park, degenerates into a street battle between cops and crooks, with assault rifles blaring. In the midst of this chaos, the final run of MacRay's best friend James (Jeremy Renner, giving an edgy, slightly sinister performance that deepens the character far more than the script does) feels more than a little like a recreation of the final moments of Tom Sizemore's character in Heat. In the film's final act, MacRay even develops a thirst for vengeance that drives him much as De Niro's Neil McCauley in Heat.

But this is precisely where the biggest difference between The Town and its source arises. It's obvious, from his film's denouement, that Affleck is more of a romantic than Mann. Virtually no one could watch the final act of Heat without desperately hoping that Neil makes it out alive, that's he's able to evade capture and find his private paradise with the woman he loves, away from the life of violence and crime he'd made for himself. And virtually no one could watch the final act of Heat without knowing that Neil is doomed anyway, that his mythical "one last gig" will not be his last because he's gone into hiding on some tropical island. Neil is such a compelling character, as defined by Mann and De Niro, that one always wants to see him make it, even knowing he won't, and even despite everything's he done in his life. Affleck obviously watches Heat with that same yearning for Neil's success, and this is doubtless why he decided to give his own film a kind of happy ending for his own character — as though he could vicariously live out the escape and rebirth denied to Neil. Neil's desire for vengeance undid him, but MacRay is able to get his vengeance, he's able to get his escape, he's able to get his redemption by using his stolen money for good, he's even implicitly able to get his girl, who may come join him in his exile someday. Affleck is ducking away from darkness and complexity, delivering a would-be heartwarming ending in which the longtime crook redeems himself and gets away clean. It's singularly unsatisfying, and not only because of the cheesy sunset shot of a bearded MacRay looking out over a lake from his remote cabin.

What's obvious is that Affleck wanted to remake Heat without dealing with the complicated morality or deep, contradictory characters of Mann's film. The Town still has its moments, like the way James takes a sip of soda from a discarded fast food drink before making his suicidal final run at the cops: the kind of small, surprising, humanizing detail that is sorely needed in this film. The performances are largely solid, particularly Renner's James, who has an at times creepy bond with his childhood friend, and Postlethwaite as the kind of sinister, subtly nasty hood who might have fit well in one of Guy Ritchie's first couple of films. The only real exception is Blake Lively, as James' sister Krista, delivering a mumbling, over-the-top performance of such spectacular awfulness that her big dramatic moments induce only giggles. The problem with the film is not the cast, however, but the generic unoriginality of its script and the lack of anything substantial or un-borrowed to flesh out these clichés.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Films I Love #50: Cat's Cradle (Stan Brakhage, 1959)

Stan Brakhage's prolific and esoteric career as an avant-garde filmmaker is so packed with masterful works of art that it's difficult to pick a single film to represent him. The six-minute Cat's Cradle is only one of his great shorts, but it is perhaps the densest and most compact expression of what makes Brakhage's work so profound — and so profoundly moving. The film is an evocative montage of a single morning, comprised of repeating images shot in Brakhage's home: wallpaper, bedsheets, his cat, his wife Jane, himself, some friends, lamps, vases. Each image is onscreen for only seconds at a time, and yet each one has a potent sensual impact created by Brakhage's intuitive handling of light and color, and his feel for the frantic pace of his visual streams. The film is dominated by sensual reds and oranges, by images of golden light playing across a bed or a foot. Brakhage's camera dips in for intimate, hazy closeups of his wife or his cat, paying equal attention to the folds in Jane's clothes, the shadows etched into her face, or the wiry strands of whiskers projecting from the cat's cheeks.

The film is both visceral and meditative. Its rapid montage ensures that no single image ever lasts for very long; each precise yet casual framing is there and then gone again before it has fully registered. And yet the cumulative mood of the film is languid rather than frenetic, despite the pace of the editing. It creates a vivid and powerfully felt impression of a lazy morning, of lovers lounging around the house, enjoying one another's company, doing routine chores or doing nothing. The repetition of images enhances this impression: the same shots of Brakhage and Jane recur again and again, reinforcing the languor of this morning. This is a deeply affecting film, an ode to domesticity. It is sensual without being explicitly sexual; its pleasures, as in many of Brakhage's best films, are the pleasures of the world, the pleasures especially of vision and sensation.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Wind From the East

Wind From the East is a product of Jean-Luc Godard's involvement, during the late 60s and early 70s, with a collective filmmaking experiment known as the Dziga Vertov Group. The film is, typically of the films he made during this period, about ideas and simultaneously about how best to express those ideas through the medium of film. The film deals with the situation of a strike and, during its first half, methodically analyzes the different components of the strike: the workers, the radical students who encourage the strike while not quite being able to communicate in the same terms as the workers, the union delegates and other middlemen who preach moderation and compromise, the employers who demand the immediate resumption of work, the police state that suppresses the strike on behalf of capitalism.

All of these forces are allowed a voice on the film's dense, verbose soundtrack: a collage of voices constantly talking, expressing different points of view on the strike and on anti-capitalism in general. Some voices, in sympathy with socialist ideas, advocate for small measures, for small steps and incremental advances, while other voices, representing the bourgeois and the capitalist classes, say that things are already good enough, or getting better, that the strike is accomplishing nothing, that it should end already. Both of these views are contrasted against the voice of the agitator, the radical, the militant, who denounces both those who say that the work is already done and those who say that the work should proceed more slowly. Godard doesn't speak himself, but it is obvious that this last voice is representative of his own.

The film's soundtrack essentially tells its story, subverting the conventional narrative expectations of the cinema. Its images, related only tangentially to this tale of strike and conflict, instead depict a pastoral rural setting through which various characters wander, dressed up to symbolically embody the various voices of the soundtrack. There is a bourgeois woman in a frilly dress, carrying an umbrella to shield herself from the bright sun. There is a union representative, a compromiser, dressed in a bold suit that makes him look like a reject from the Sgt. Pepper's photo shoot. There is a policeman or army officer, dressed like an American cavalryman in a John Ford Western, with his musket and his saber and his horse, a real Hollywood icon of law and order. And there are the young radicals, the students and workers in their shabby clothes and long hair, opposing these forces of suppression and status quo. The whole thing has an aura of playfulness that belies the dead-serious ideas being expressed in the film. When the militants fight with the cavalryman, it's staged as a play cowboys-and-Indians battle, like kids waging pretend war, the bullets never hitting anyone, the sword never slicing anyone up. When someone does bleed, it's the bright red paint that Godard favored — along with an equally bold blue — in title cards and mise en scène alike in many of his films from the second half of the 60s on.

Godard's playful references to the Western are made most explicit during a segment in which he declaims and analyzes the filmmaking theory behind his radical films of the late 60s and early 70s, opposing this filmmaking practice to Hollywood's "realism." In contrast to radical filmmaking, the voiceover declares, Hollywood works on the assumption that an image of a horse is not only the same thing as the horse, but is in fact better. Godard, drawing on Magritte's infamous painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe, says the opposite: this is not a horse, this is not reality, this is not a real Union soldier, this is not an Indian. His joking deconstructions of Hollywood plots and characters in earlier films had already hinted at this point, and here, by toying with genre and narrative in only the roughest and most casual of ways, he is definitively rejecting the idea that what we see on a cinema screen should be taken at face value.

In another scene, Godard parodies the conventional understanding of cinema as a source of spectacle and entertainment. A man breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera in Italian, his words translated into French by the female narrator, describing the dark space of the theater and the people in it. The man ends his monologue by coming on to a pretty girl in the back of the theater, asking her to join him in his splendid rural surroundings. This is, as Godard sees it, the essential nature of the cinema, an act of seduction, asking audiences to believe in the space of the screen so completely that they wish to enter it.

Godard is suspicious of this cinema of seduction, but in some ways he can't help recreate it as well. His images are at times calculated to produce boredom, to focus attention on the words pouring by on the soundtrack: static images of youths lying in the grass, their faces obscured by protruding shubbery, or endless takes of people trudging slowly through open fields. Godard is critiquing the pictorial sensibility, the presentation of images as beautiful, but his own images are often beautiful as well — one suspects that Godard's aesthetic sensibilities frequently sabotage his theoretical embrace of ugly or functional images. At times he deviates from his subjects to film the leaves on trees nearby, a move dating back to 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, in which he wondered aloud why it was necessary to photograph a woman if the tree swaying in the breeze behind her was equally interesting.

Later, he stages a scene in a field of pink flowers that might have come from a Monet painting: a bourgeois woman sitting with umbrella over her head, chatting amiably with a man standing nearby. The two figures, particularly the woman, are obscured by long green stalks topped with pale pink buds, the kind of pointillist field of flowers beloved by Monet. On the soundtrack, the female narrator applies various historical and fictionalized names to the two figures, positioning them as representatives of bourgeois oppression: a white woman who falsely accuses a black man of rape and gets him lynched; a scientist who develops napalm to destroy Third World lands and people; a German Communist who urges moderation in responding to the encroaching Nazi threat before the Second World War. One of the names given to the woman in the image is the wife of Monet (although with the wrong name), along with a (presumably fabricated) description of her opposition to worker activism. Coupled with the pastoral beauty of this very Monet-like image, the message is obvious: beauty is to be distrusted, and the bourgeois people framed within such lovely images are often actors in racist violence, in fascism, in the suppression of the working class.

Interestingly, though the film is all about getting beyond the abstract and the theoretical into practical action, Godard really only runs into trouble when he tries to advocate for specific action, which for him at this point means revolutionary violence. Gone are the back-and-forth debates over violence that marked his La Chinoise, from a few years earlier. The advocacy of violence here is direct and troubling, complete with practical advice for militants — avoid leaving fingerprints — and images of homemade explosive devices constructed from various consumer goods. Godard does nod to Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers — which earlier in the film he'd criticized as an unforgivably Western take on Third World struggle — in his direct images of bourgeois businesspeople and children shopping or traveling, but the disconcerting advocacy of random violence is never resolved by counterarguments as it often was in Godard's other films. Allowed to stand alone as it here, it's the clearest example of Godard's theoretical ideas existing in a vacuum where priorities and relativities are obviously skewed.

Elsewhere, though, the film is simply fascinating and complex, deeply engaged in dealing with the question of how to represent class struggle, how to deal with questions that aren't fully resolved even for the people taking part in the struggle themselves. As with most of the Dziga Vertov Group films, Wind From the East is in part about its own process of production. At one point, in a convoluted meta maneuver that's hilarious in its boldness, the narrator talks about how the next scene is a document of a conference that was called for the purposes of deciding how to film the next scene, with the subject being how to film an assembly of socialists and the ideas they present. Then the scene plays out exactly as described, with overlapping voices only occasionally resolving into an identifiable phrase, in French or Italian, while the camera spins around, revealing the sound crew, filming the trees, showing images of Stalin and Mao, panning among the students sprawled out in the grass at the gathering. The scene consists of filming the discussion that is intended to decide how to film the scene, a kind of filmmaking paradox that Godard obviously finds delightful, and invites us to find delightful as well. As the narrator says, the voices are confused and the ideas are not necessarily fully developed, but they're trying to move forward, trying to express complicated ideas and incite change.

That describes the films of the Dziga Vertov Group in general. Although in practice the "group" generally consisted of Godard and his collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin, the theory of the DVG was intended to create a whole new practice and ideology of making films. Wind From the East is thus constantly calling into question the methods of Godard and Gorin as well as the methods of Hollywood cinema. The narrator often speaks in the second person, as though talking about the filmmakers: always "you," encompassing everyone in the failures and limitations of the film. When the narrator describes images of apartment blocks and suffering working class people as enforcing the bourgeois order, she might be describing 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, with all its similar images of towering urban buildings representing the alienation of its characters. Godard, who broke from his own past and his own oeuvre after 1968, is consistently looking forward in films like this, trying to start over from scratch. If he doesn't always succeed, as the film itself frequently and explicitly acknowledges, the results are rarely less than fascinating anyway. Wind From the East is a rich, complex work, a work of bold ideas and slapdash, often goofy aesthetics, approaching the cinema not with a reverent aesthetic sensibility, but with an anything-goes mentality that promotes experimentation and risk-taking on every level.

Friday, January 21, 2011

I, An Actress

I, An Actress is a short film made as a kind of screen test for one of filmmaker George Kuchar's acting students during a filmmaking workshop. The student, Barbara Lapsley, is given a page from a ludicrously melodramatic script, set opposite a dummy draped in a coat with a curly wig to represent her husband, and then set loose to read her lines. The whole thing quickly degenerates, however, as Kuchar himself steps into the frame as the director, instructing his actress in how to read her lines and how to act, constantly urging her further and further over the top, towards more and more outrageous behaviors and line readings. Kuchar, nebbishy and overwrought as he careens into the frame after virtually every line from the actress, encourages her to caress her breasts as she acts, or to fall on the floor and kick into the air, or to throw her arms spastically around the dummy and kiss its "shoulder."

He is driving her towards a performance of sheer camp awfulness, in other words, and she's all too eager to go along with it, laughing uproariously, slurring her lines through clenched teeth with a cigarette sticking out from between her lips like a whistle, spitting out the script's hilarious melodramatics with mock venom. "When I cheat it's not for sex, it's for revenge," she sneers, then can't help but giggle. Later, as she falls down at the dummy's "knees," she's even goofier as she barely manages to snarl, "aren't you used to women on their knees, Harold, or are you only used to women on their backs?" It's glorious fun, especially whenever Kuchar's on camera, coaching the girl by acting out her part himself, showing her how to pose seductively, how to fall on the floor, how to eke out every bit of fun from this role. As an actor's workshop, its main message seems to be not to take things too seriously, not to actually worry about talent or believability. Instead, Kuchar keeps casually disrupting whatever hint of artifice there might be in this scene, never allowing the actress to get into the part; she probably doesn't ever get to deliver more than two uninterrupted lines in a row throughout the whole scene. He races around the small set, acting things out, guiding the actress, shouting instructions to the camera operator. The whole thing quickly becomes less a screen test for Lapsley, gaping and giggling at all this chaos, and more a demonstration of the sheer joy of moviemaking, the hands-on fun of the director in dictating what happens on a movie set.

To that end, the cinematography dances and bounces along with Kuchar's frenzied improvisations and instructions. At one point, he tells the camera operator to move in on Lapsley, and the camera frantically zooms in, at first seeming like it's going to center on the actress' bust until the cameraman perhaps realizes, belatedly, that Kuchar meant her face. It's one of many funny, absurd little touches that add a bit of sexual frisson to the film's crude pseudo-documentary aesthetics. Of course, part of Kuchar's coaching is to continually urge his actress into sexually compromising positions, like kneeling beneath the dummy, her head buried in its coat, so that as the camera probes in the composition makes it look like she's giving the dummy a blowjob. Later, the obvious subtext of Kuchar's continued insistence that she lie on the floor and kick up at her husband in anger is that this position will cause her skirt to ride up and her underwear to show. It's all completely ambiguous: is Kuchar exploiting a student, or is she in on the joke, contributing to a sly satire of the ways in which filmmaking is a sexual power struggle in which male directors control and dominate female performers? Certainly, the film's flippant tone, and Kuchar's habit of stepping into the female role himself, posing flamboyantly and feeling up his imaginary breasts, suggests that the latter is the case.

Either way, of course, I, An Actress is a fun, frequently hilarious short spoof, a ridiculous parody of Hollywood moviemaking that turns melodrama into farce, reveling in the nuances that can be suggested through supposedly "bad" acting.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Andrzej Zulawski's Diabel (The Devil) is a messy, baroque, jagged film, all sloppily chopped up and ragged, dripping in blood and grime. It is unrepentantly, unceasingly ugly and vile, wallowing in the filth and degradation of a world in which morality and ideals mean little, and in which everyone seems either half-mad or already fallen into the abyss of insanity. The film opens with its chaos already in progress, at a convent that is being stormed by soldiers. Everywhere, women are screaming, fires rage, gunshots ring out, and the whole place seems more like a mental asylum than a home for nuns. Zulawski is thrusting the audience into the middle of things, signaling that this will be a film of madness and horror, and this bracing introduction is stunning and effective, even if eventually the unrelenting hysterics and shrill pitch of the film will become more tiring and numbing than harrowing. Into this chaos wanders a mysterious man in a long black cloak (Wojciech Pszoniak), who kidnaps a nun (Monika Niemczyk) and breaks a political prisoner named Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski) out of a holding cell in the convent. Jakub had been arrested as a conspirator in a plot against the monarchy of Poland, a leader in an apparently failed revolution, but now the mysterious stranger urges him away from the convent, back towards his home, accompanied by the nun.

When Jakub arrives home, however, he finds only madness and devastation. His sister is insane and is apparently betrothed to their half-brother Ezechiel (Michal Grudzinski). His father is dead, having committed suicide in disgrace and insanity; Jakub is told that in the old man's final months, he'd mistaken his daughter for his wife and raped her many times. Jakub also finds that his mother (Iga Mayr), who'd long ago abandoned her family, was living nearby as the madam of a brothel. The final injustice is the realization that Jakub's fiancée (Malgorzata Braunek), believing him to be dead after his arrest, had married his former best friend, one of his fellow conspirators in the revolution. Everyone in the film seems to be mad or half-mad, possessed by horrible spirits. The film is shrill and loud, with a hectoring, hysterical tone. The performances are pitched in only one key: everyone is constantly screaming and crying, tearing at their clothes, falling to the floor and thrashing around, shivering and shaking, laughing like lunatics. It's as though the whole world was an insane asylum — or as though Zulawski had assembled a cast of epileptics to act through seizures and convulsions. What's compelling for fifteen or twenty minutes quickly becomes exhausting; everyone Jakub meets acts in the same dazed, distant manner, then falls to the floor and thrashes around while screaming.

Although it's obvious that Zulawski is trying to create a portrait of a world gone mad, seen through the eyes of a man who finds only degradation and horror everywhere he goes, the uniformity of the film's tone and the repetitiveness of its incidents quickly become boring. Zulawski can only eke so much shock value out of his bloody, horrible scenarios, as the stranger leads Jakub on a guided tour of the wasteland that has become his life. The man urges Jakub to wallow in this devastation, and to react to it with murder, using a razor provided by the man at key moments. It is obvious, from the film's title, that the stranger is a metaphorical devil perched on Jakub's shoulder, always showing up whenever Jakub needs a little push to commit the next atrocity, always providing another little nudge towards evil and sin. The stranger wears Jakub down until he is totally weak and defeated, unable to resist any act — and it is only then, in one of the film's cleverest conceits, that the stranger reveals the very base, very human motivations behind all this horror and ugliness.

This very human devil is, in fact, the most interesting aspect of the film. He is a sniveling, cowardly figure, not at all intimidating or frightening. He is jittery and nervous, like the low-level clerk he's referred to as at one point. He is a servant rather than a leader, an anxious fly buzzing obsessively around Jakub's head, whispering in his ear, planting seeds of ideas and letting them sprout into actions. Zulawski cleverly does not give this "devil" too much power, does not make him imposing. He is a base, pathetic creature, a parasite who feeds on the weaknesses of others — and he finds plenty of weakness to satiate him. Towards the end of the film, the aimless Jakub asks if the world is really so ugly as he believes it to be, or if it's actually beautiful. The stranger praises the world's beauty in ineffectual terms, then purports to demonstrate its beauty through dance — but his dance is as spastic and chaotic as everything else in the film, a lame testament for the world's beauty from an ugly, pathetic man. The film puts little stock into art in general: Jakub comes across a troupe of performers and actors, but they are predatory and aggressive, with the troupe's gay leader trying to rape Jakub. The troupe's performance of scenes from Hamlet only mirrors back to Jakub the themes of betrayal and familial dysfunction that he finds everywhere he turns in his own life. Later, he says he finds comfort in the arms of the woman who plays Hamlet's mother in the play, but this is a short-lived pleasure that ends in more violence, and in any event it can only be linked to Jakub's own incestuous "punishment" of his own mother.

There is, doubtless, an allegory hidden within this film somewhere, if one could dig through its layers of blood and dirt. It is a film about the corruption of humanity, about how an idealistic young man who wishes to fight for his dreams is instead twisted into an instrument of violence and terror, serving interests contrary to his stated ideals. Zulawski apparently intended the film as a response to a very specific incident involving student riots in Communist Poland, but it can just as easily be taken as a general statement on the destruction of ideals through temptation and exploitation.

That is, if one can get past the film's exhausting hysterics. Zulawski conveys the disconnection and dazed state of Jakub effectively through his fragmentary editing, through which the young man often seems to be leaping spasmodically from location to location: one moment he might be in a springtime forest, the next passed out on a snowy hill. This disjunctive editing is effective at adding to the film's destabilizing feeling, and also lends a supernatural aura to the film's "devil," who often seems to appear out of nowhere, always in the right place. The editing winds up being one of the film's most compelling elements, however. Diabel as a whole is simply too shrill, too repetitive, too silly in its theatrical overacting and constant fits of contrived "madness." It opens in insanity and maintains the same fevered pitch throughout, which over time dulls whatever effect Zulawski was going for. Diabel is sporadically interesting, often visually provocative, but ultimately inconsequential.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is a ghost story told with the calm and patience of a prosaic tale of country living. The film concerns the final days of the titular protagonist, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), an old farmer suffering from a kidney disease. He's visited by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and in his last days Boonmee's remote farm is haunted by ghosts of his own past, as well as visions of alternate lives both past and future. The film moves at the tranquil, languid pace of lazy afternoons with nothing to do, and this quiet grace allows the frequently outrageous and bizarre elements of the story to blend seamlessly into reality, to appear as natural as the background hum of insects or the gentle murmur of the wind.

The film is certainly awash in surreal elements, presented with that deadpan nonchalance that characterizes much of Weerasethakul's work. Boonmee is visited by both his dead wife, Jen's sister Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), and their son Boongsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), the latter of whom reappears as an apeman, having long ago wandered off into the jungle to commune with the mysterious "monkey ghosts" that inhabit the dense forests surrounding Boonmee's home. Huay appears without fanfare, simply fading into existence in an empty seat while the family is eating dinner. At first she's a kind of cinematic ghost within the frame, a hovering reflection where there is no mirror, a faint photographic afterimage layered within the film stock. But as she fades in, she becomes tactile and physical, as real-looking as the non-ghost people sitting around her, and the scene loses its subtle air of unreality to become simply a prosaic family dinner again, a group of people sitting around talking and reminiscing. It's a subtle point: within the cinema, everyone is a ghost, an image, and no figure is any more "real" than any other. Weerasethakul allows the film's ghosts to be as physical, as concrete, as the living people, just as he allows past, present and future to coexist without separation.

The same slow adjustment to strangeness occurs with Boonsong arrives. The "monkey ghosts," from a distance, are haunting and creepy figures, pure black shadows with glowing red eyes set into their faces. Weerasethakul periodically inserts a shot of these creatures in the jungle, these inscrutable figures with piercing eyes, eerie ghosts or demons who never reveal more of themselves than this shadowy outline. Boonsong appears the same way, walking up the stairs towards the family, his red eyes the only visible sign of him, the rest of his body blending so totally into the darkness that the twin red orbs appear to be floating in midair, disconnected from any concrete figure. Once he steps into the light, however, his creepiness is diffused, and he's revealed as simply a man in somewhat ungainly ape makeup. As he talks with his father, describing the circumstances of his long-ago disappearance, it is both poignant and silly and strangely ordinary: the emotions of the reunion, a son revisiting his father after many years of absence, cut through the goofiness of the ape outfit.

Weerasethakul has a wry sense of humor in moments like this. The first thing Jen says, upon realizing who the apeman is, is to ask, "why did you grow your hair out?" It's a singularly strange and funny thing to say to a guy who's somehow been transformed into a talking gorilla, and it reflects just how accepted the surreal and the supernatural are in this film. Later in the dinner, when Boonmee's worker Jaai (Samud Kugasang) arrives, he looks in wonderment at the monkey and the dead woman sitting at the table, but then he breathlessly murmurs, "I feel like the strange one here." In Weerasethakul's casual presentation of the supernatural and the mythical, it's prosaic reality that begins to feel strange. And after all, Jaai is the only outsider here, the only one who's not a member of the family. His distinction from the family is ultimately more important than the separation between the dead and the living, or between the human and the once-human.

Jaai is also an outsider as a Laotian immigrant, possibly an illegal who'd entered the country without authorization. The film is set in a border region between Thailand and Laos, and towards the beginning of the film Boonmee and Jen talk about illegal immigrants. Jen evinces prejudice against the Laotian workers, saying that they're "smelly" and that they sometimes rob and kill their employers. It's the same kind of dynamic that seems to develop anywhere that poor foreign laborers enter a more affluent neighboring region for work: they're needed for the work they do, but also mistrusted and feared, thought of as inferior and filthy, looked down upon by those who rely upon them. Politics drift gently through Weerasethakul's film, never quite becoming the focus but lightly tugging at the corners of consciousness. This examination of the nature of illegal immigration is later expanded when Jen has a conversation with Jaai, in which he reveals that he is soon leaving, heading back home to marry a girl who he'd been courting from afar. He's maintained his connection to his native country, and he knows that even if Boonmee is okay to him — though it's implied that the workers aren't paid especially well — that this isn't really his home.

Jaai's lower-class position is subtly mirrored in the later interpolation of the story of a princess and her servant. This dreamlike sequence feels like a folk tale or myth subtly grafted into the film, perhaps as a visualization of one of Boonmee's past lives. The servant and the princess fall in love, and Weerasethakul gracefully captures the forbidden tenderness between them in a scene where a group of servants bear the princess' carriage through the jungle on their shoulders. The princess, encased in gossamer layers of gauzy fabric, the lower half of her face hidden beneath a veil, reaches out of her carriage to touch the hair and bicep of the closest servant, who turns to her and folds her hand into his own free hand as he continues to haul her on his shoulder. This simple moment of physical contact, stolen secretly, feels as powerful as a kiss or an embrace. Later, the aging princess doesn't believe that the servant wants her anymore now that her youthful beauty has faded, and she sends him away by the side of a small lake where she sees her younger self reflected in the water. Then, in another of Weerasethakul's bizarre touches, she's confronted by a talking catfish who praises her beauty and eventually flaps between her legs as she wades into the water, the fish bringing her to orgasm as she drifts towards a waterfall.

This whole sequence has the feel of an erotic folk tale, unreal and ghostly. The princess and her servant are both caked in blue paint that makes them glow eerily in the moonlight. Weerasethakul, as is his habit, never explicitly connects this tale to the rest of the film, but its implications are obvious. If it's a past life of Boonmee, we're meant to wonder what part he plays in this drama: is he the princess or the servant? Or even the catfish, since the film's opening scene seems to imply that one of his past lives was as a cow escaping from its owners and wandering off into the jungle. The themes of aging and loss reverberate throughout the film, as Boonmee thinks back on his life, regretting what he's lost and what he's done, lamenting his illness and weakness as compared to his youthful vibrancy. The princess, looking into the lake, sees herself as a younger woman and wishes she still looked like that — but then she pushes her lover away, accusing him of fantasizing about her younger self. She speaks of the woman in the reflection as though she was another person altogether, as though she wasn't simply an earlier image of herself, frozen in time at a particular moment. It's as though she's disconnected from the past, disassociated from her own memories. Maybe that's why photographs, mementos of the past, are so important, why at Boonmee's familial reunion with his wife and son, he pulls out photo albums to look at with them, poring over these images of particular moments of time from the past. When we look at photos, we remember ourselves in earlier times as though catching glimpses of someone else's story, some younger person we only vaguely remember being. It's as though our "past lives" are just earlier moments, earlier ages, from the same long life.

There is a political component to memory here, as well. One of Boonmee's regrets is his time spent as a soldier, violently suppressing communists for the government. He says that he believes his illness is the payback of karma for all the men he's killed. Jen shrugs off such concerns, saying that he was only serving his nation, but she does seem proud of her father, who had apparently resisted the violence to some extent. He'd been sent into the woods to hunt people, she says, but instead he hunted animals, communing with nature and avoiding the horrors of killing. The film is subtly haunted by this violent, military past, a mostly unspoken past of bloodshed and repression.

Towards the end of the film, Boonmee describes a dream or a future vision, his words accompanied by strange still images of soldiers capturing and leashing the monkey ghosts, and citizens apparently rioting angrily, throwing rocks. (At the soldiers or the apes?) Boonmee's vision describes an authoritarian future in which the past can be erased by the government, in which those who maintain a connection to the past are hunted and captured, then made to disappear. It's an obvious metaphor for the governmental whitewashing of various tragedies and atrocities: whole cultures and groups, like the Laotians, like the monkey ghosts who may represent primitive ethnicities or cultures, can be made to disappear by the inevitable onslaught of progress and modernity. That's why the film is set in a tranquil, largely untouched rural area, surrounded by dense jungles, a last bastion of connections to the past, to rural living and agrarianism. In the film's final scenes, the characters return to the city and are surrounded on every side by signs of modernity: television sets and air conditioning, rock music karaoke, neon lights that brighten not only urban restaurants but sacred temples. Weerasethakul cleverly shoots a funeral scene from three angles: first head-on, looking at the mourners, then from behind them, looking at the altar with its banners and candles, and then, jarringly, in a wide shot from the side, revealing the previously unseen gaudy tower of neon lights that fills up the side of the temple, next to the rows of mourners. This shot disrupts the somber, spiritual tone of the funeral, introducing the disjunctions of modernity, in which the cheap and the superficial rest side by side with the serious.

Weerasethakul further examines the changes of modernization in the scenes of Tong as a monk towards the end of the film. Tong seems too restless for the monk's life, too in love with modern conveniences and appliances. But such things are infiltrating the supposed calm of the monastery as well: he describes how many of the monks have stereos and computers to send e-mails, and wishes that he had such things, too. He seems thoroughly disconnected from a life of spirituality and stoicism, and one wonders what ever made him think to be a monk. It feels like Weerasethakul's subtle lament for a culture that has perhaps lost touch with such otherworldly, mystical things. The film is partly about the increasing emphasis on the worldly and the material, and in this context Weerasethakul's emphasis on reincarnation, ghosts, rural legends and romantic folk tales is a radical assertion of the resistance of these traditions against encroaching modernity.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the culmination of Weerasethakul's "Primitive" project, which also included a pair of short films dealing with similar themes of memory, nostalgia, history and loss in this particular border region of Thailand. As the capping work of this project, this feature is one of Weerasethakul's richest films, weaving together the political, the spiritual, the fantastic and the deeply personal into a mysterious, moving, often funny account of facing mortality and confronting the sometimes uncomfortable truths of history. As such, the film looks both forward into the future and back into the past, and finds death in both directions, but even so it is not a bleak or dark work. It is instead warm and beautiful, evocative and sensual, flowing with the rhythms of daily life even as it examines the extraordinary and the shocking in both the real, violent history of the world and in the magical realms of myth, art and fantasy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My 2010 In Culture, Part II: Music

Following up on my list celebrating my film-viewing in 2010, here is my music list for the year. Unlike with the film list, I actually did listen to enough new music this year that I feel I can provide a list of my favorites from among the 2010 releases I heard. The list is ranked in rough order of preference, though the only placement I'm one hundred percent sure about is the #1 pick. These are my 27 favorite albums of 2010, a weird number I arrived at only because I couldn't stand to trim any of these fine works.

1. Michael Pisaro & Taku Sugimoto | 2 Seconds/B Minor/Wave (Erstwhile)
I've heard a lot of great music this year, and a good portion of it has actually been from the lately very prolific composer Michael Pisaro, an exceptional artist with unique sensitivity and grace. (More on some of his other 2010 releases below.) But nothing else I've heard this year, or in several years in fact, quite matches this amazing album, a collaboration between Pisaro and the Japanese guitarist Taku Sugimoto, who quite independently of Pisaro has for some time now been exploring similar territory of restraint and space. Pisaro and Sugimoto, working separately within very vague guidelines about pitch and pulse, have crafted three pieces of sublime, shattering beauty. I find this album, frankly, overwhelming: it is so serenely poised, so evocative, simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, so coolly meditative and yet also deeply emotional in ways I find quite mysterious. It is difficult music to talk about, and trying to parse my feelings about these pieces has been a real challenge, but I will try anyway, because I believe this is a very important record and one that should be heard and discussed.

The first piece, "2 Seconds," is based around the idea of pulse, the exploration of slow, simple rhythms built from the clicking of woodblocks, the pinging of periodic electronic tones, and miscellaneous mechanical sounds. This steady pulse grounds the piece, as the musicians elaborate on this stable foundation in small ways, always returning to the simple, plodding rhythm at the core of the music. At times, the "beat" is provided by someone turning on a blender, or a wooden chair creaking beneath the musician, or a door slamming: the outside keeps creeping in, rubbing against the austerity and simplicity of the music. At one point, a watch beeps, blending in with Pisaro's pinging tones, a reminder of the centrality of time in this music, of time as the foundation of rhythm.

For "B Minor," the musicians agreed in advance on the key of the title and then devised complementary guitar pieces, with Sugimoto offering up lovely acoustic chords and Pisaro crafting a spacious quasi-melody out of high, clean electric guitar tones. This is simply gorgeous, some of Sugimoto's best guitar playing in years, recalling the delicate touch of his 1998 masterpiece Opposite. The overlaid guitars, despite having been conceived separately, seem to communicate with one another in subtle ways, offering contrasting interpretations of the same minimal, minor-key melodicism. The final track, "Wave," incorporates processed field recordings of the sea and the wind alongside low, humming drones, all of it suggesting the hiss of the ocean, the slow pulsating of a wave, the mind-clearing drone of nature. This is music of great beauty and mystery, music as achingly lovely as it is challenging and strange. [buy]

2. Swans | My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (Young God)
This raging, roaring, overpowering album is the first studio recording in 14 years from this seminal post-punk outfit, who formed as grimy no-wave agitators in 1982 and broke up in 1997. Frontman Michael Gira has been far from inactive in the ensuing years, with solo albums, running his record label, and recording with the Angels of Light, but there's still something satisfying about this new reformation of his defining band. The album stomps and roars its way through this suite of dark, grand songs about the afterlife, spiritual yearning, and misanthropy, with Gira's deep — as in low, as in profound — voice issuing forth pronouncements as forcefully as the pulse of the music. Opener "No Words/No Thoughts" builds up a droning, surging sea of sound from repeated guitar patterns and chiming bells, while standout track "Jim" has touches of country twang winding around its slow, sinuous evocation of simmering rage. This is heavy music, intense and raw, an album that makes it seem like Gira's Swans had never left, so seamlessly does it pick up the band's trajectory from hectoring 80s noise-punks to late 90s art-rockers. [buy]

3. Terry Jennings/John Cage | Lost Daylight (Another Timbre)
This beguiling disc actually combines two very different works of modern composition. On the first five tracks of the CD, AMM pianist John Tilbury interprets five solo piano pieces by the little-known and seldom-recorded American composer Terry Jennings. These pieces are rich, beautiful melodic miniatures. Tilbury's delicate touch is familiar from his recordings of piano music by Morton Feldman and Cornelius Cardew, and he brings the same sensitivity, the same ineffably right timing, to this music. Jennings' pieces have some relation to the lengthy, minimalist Feldman compositions for which Tilbury is best known as an interpreter, but without the pulsing repetition. These pieces are lovely and accessible, with a depth and emotional warmth that make returning to them again and again an absolute pleasure.

The other half of this disc is taken up by a very different type of music, a 40-minute interpretation of John Cage's "Music For Piano," with Tilbury on piano and Sebastian Lexer using electronics to manipulate and process the piano sounds. Tilbury and Lexer developed a very inventive interpretation of this piece, using chance procedures to determine various aspects of their playing, and then further shuffling things by editing and rearranging the piece through chance as well. The result is as far from the quiet grace and fluidity of the Jennings pieces as it is possible to get. The music is still very spacious, with lengthy silences and near-silences, but here broken up by nerve-jarring bursts of noise. Tilbury's delicate touch, so crucial to his piano interpretations, is felt only in isolated moments, a solitary note hovering in the midst of a buzzing electronic tone, or occasionally in a ringing cluster of notes. More often, the piano is felt in loud wooden bangs, the reverberation of the strings inside, and other incidental noises, as the electronics process Tilbury's playing into a humming, occasionally piercing stew of electronic tones. Taken together with Tilbury's Jennings interpretations, this piece offers up a response to the delicate, unaltered piano melodies of those shorter pieces. The disc as a whole offers up a dichotomy between the unhurried, straightforward playing of the Jennings pieces and the wildly deconstructive erasure of the traditional piano vocabulary on the Cage piece. [buy]

4. Annette Krebs/Taku Unami | Motubachii (Erstwhile)
This is a remarkable duo meeting from two improvisers who are characterized by their unpredictability, their ability to challenge expectations and sidestep the usual conventions of improv language. This disc defies one to hear it as two people playing together in a room, even though that's apparently what it is — or rather, two people in multiple rooms. Krebs and Unami, mixing improvisations with recordings of various locations and sounds, have assembled a collage of sampled voices, field recordings, percussive crashes, bursts of electronic noise, shards of tape hiss and blurry rewinding, the occasional plucked guitar note, and so much more. The patchwork nature of the sounds used contributes to the sense of unpredictability, the impression that anything could happen. Voices whisper and chatter in different languages, loud crashes shatter the uneasy stillness, bits of guitar unexpectedly float up only to be drowned out by a reverberating bang, and a bassy drone briefly wells up and recedes. It's thoroughly original music, unlike anything else around. [buy]

5. Michael Pisaro | Ricefall(2) (Gravity Wave)
Michael Pisaro's collaboration with Taku Sugimoto, discussed above, was one of the most stunning albums I've heard in a long time, but it didn't come entirely out of nowhere. Pisaro has been a remarkably consistent composer whose work — often dealing with field recordings, sound/silence, and sustained tones — has seldom been less than impressive. He's had a very strong year, too, with a flood of releases of almost uniformly exceptional quality. In addition to the Sugimoto collaboration, four other albums by Pisaro appear on this list, all but one of them recorded with percussionist Greg Stuart, a frequent and sensitive interpreter of Pisaro's complex scores. Ricefall(2) is, as its title suggests, a score for rice falling on various surfaces, a simple concept turned into an occasion for a rigorous and sonically varied exploration of texture and density. The hour-long piece, performed by Stuart, consists of several distinct sections in which the rice is dropped onto various plastic and metal surfaces, producing cascades of pings and patters. The sound is engulfing and strangely beautiful, like a hail of metallic raindrops, all these harmonic overtones and little nuances of sound tucked away within the seemingly monolithic slabs of clattering, hissing noise. Listened to casually, the sound barely seems to be changing from one moment to the next, and yet within this dense drone is an inexhaustible level of detail and variety, constantly shifting and changing, revealing all the different subtle variations caused by the different interactions of the falling pellets as they collide with various solid surfaces. [buy]

6. Pedestrian Deposit | East Fork/North Fork (Monorail Trespassing)
I last heard Pedestrian Deposit on 2004's appropriately named Volatile, an abrasive but carefully controlled noise assault. So I can't be sure if PD's Jon Borges has been slowly building towards the sound of East Fork/North Fork over the course of the releases I haven't heard in the intervening years, or if this brooding, quietly affecting album is really as much of a hard left turn as it seems to me. Whatever the case, it's a remarkable recording. Borges — joined here by collaborator Shannon Kennedy — has retained the churning intensity of his noisier work, but here he's channeled and restrained the explosiveness. Textural crackling and rustling underpins surprisingly melodic plucked string tones, while a foreboding drone slowly burbles into life, and hints of bowed cello blend into the eerie atmospherics. It's haunting, even delicate music, equally gloomy and beautiful, sinister and sweet. The overall restraint makes the moments when Borges gets noisier even more effective, like the brief stretch of gravelly noise on "Strife/Meridian," a tense burst that's more an implosion than an explosion. [buy]

7. Morton Feldman | Music for Piano and Strings Vol. 1 (Matchless)
An amazing audio-only DVD that collects new performances, by pianist John Tilbury with the Smith Quartet, of two of composer Morton Feldman's lengthy works for piano and strings. Tilbury is inextricably associated with Feldman; his box set of the composer's solo piano pieces is absolutely indispensable. He brings the same patience and careful touch to this pair of slow, mournful hour-and-a-half-long pieces. On "For John Cage," Tilbury is joined by violinist Darragh Morgan for an exquisite and slowly evolving duet, the piano and scraping, droning violin working through repetitive figures with subtle variations that introduce a sense of tension to the work. The music is uniformly quiet and fragile, but with an unsettling variability in the rhythms that subverts the meditative aspects of the music. On "Piano and String Quartet," the fuller instrumentation lends a more varied palette to the hushed string harmonies, while the piano unfurls one chiming arpeggio after another, unhurried and separated by long moments of silence and stasis. The piece is even more spacious than "For John Cage," more airy and open, and equally affecting. The recordings on this set are crisp and dry, capturing the chilly tone of the strings and the rich resonances of the piano. Decay is crucial to Feldman, and Tilbury's piano tones often hover in the air, slowly fading into silence, being absorbed by the drone of the strings. These are bound to be definitive recordings of these essential pieces. [buy]

8. Kevin Drumm | Necro Acoustic (Pica Disk)
A new Kevin Drumm album is always a reason to celebrate. A new five-disc box set from the alternately reclusive and prolific noise guitarist is something else altogether. This impressive set collects new and archival recordings, reissues of tapes and LPs, and other odds and ends, but it's not at all a haphazard grab bag of second-tier tracks. Rather, it's a potent demonstration of just how intense and focused Drumm is, just how consistent his work has been even as he's varied his style tremendously. This set collects new and previously unreleased recordings (the sizzling Lights Out and the disjunctive, jittery No Edit), a reissue of a noisy double cassette from a few years back (Malaise), a disc of archival recordings from all periods of his career (Decrepit, which includes Drumm's material from his great split LP with 2673), and a full disc devoted to a longer version of the organ drone from 2000's Comedy album. This wealth of material — much of which has more in common with Drumm's late 90s experimental guitar albums than the oppressive Sheer Hellish Miasma or any of his recent ambient/drone work — provides a valuable look into Drumm's vaults. Not all of the material here is top-notch, but much of it is, revealing the astonishing fact that in many cases, the music he hasn't released over the years has been nearly as strong as what he has. [buy]

9. Janelle Monáe | The Archandroid (Wondaland/Bad Boy)
Janelle Monáe's debut album is a dizzying sci-fi epic, an overstuffed concept album on which Monáe demonstrates a restlessly creative, genre-hopping, fun and free-spirited sensibility. The Archandroid encompasses soul, R&B, psych-rock, electro-funk, and hip-hop, but despite Monáe's lyrical references to schizophrenia and lunacy, the album itself never feels schizophrenic or disjointed. Monáe's expressive voice and eclectic, slightly goofy aesthetic tie everything together. The album is a delirious collage, perfectly balanced and varied enough that it never wears out its welcome. The overtures that introduce each of the album's two song suites recall Van Dyke Parks' orchestrations for the Beach Boys. On "Come Alive," Monáe appropriates the nervous bass pulse of the Violent Femmes for an edgy, anxious rocker. "Sir Greendown" and "Mushrooms & Roses" have a 60s psychedelic vibe, while the anthemic "Cold War" is propelled by a foundation of hard-driving drums. She's got genuine pop masterpieces in songs like "Faster" or the bouncy "Tightrope," which boasts a brisk, compact verse from OutKast's Big Boi. Whether Monáe is crooning on an R&B ballad, shouting and squealing like a rocker, or spitting out rapid-fire pseudo-raps, she's an engaging and powerful vocalist. She's also an utterly unique talent who's made one of the great pop/hip-hop/whatever albums of recent years. [buy]

10. Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet | Air Supply (Erstwhile)
It's interesting that all three of this year's great releases on the Erstwhile label (including the Pisaro/Sugimoto and Krebs/Unami discs mentioned above) have focused, in different ways, on assemblage and construction rather than straight improvisation — these three releases have augmented improvisation with compositional strategies, with editing and re-arrangement, with the injection of pre-recorded sounds. Lambkin and Lescalleet follow up on 2008's The Breadwinner with the second part of a projected trilogy. It's typically mysterious music from this duo, who use field recordings and tape loops to craft unsettling aural landscapes. The album opens with "Because the Night" and "Layman's Lament," two tracks that juxtapose a textural drone with field recordings, layering sounds of wind and bird calls into the dense electronics. Then, on the suite of three shorter "temperature" tracks at the center of the album — "69°F," "68°F" and "67°F" — the duo explore rougher, more abrasive textures, occasionally exploiting the glitchy overload of sounds that seem to crackle and split apart as they increase in volume. The rough, harsh drones of these tracks are juxtaposed against various pebble-like rustling and clicking sounds, the sounds of the musicians preparing their tape recorders and machines, clicking computer mouses, bringing the studio into the music in the same way as they bring in the sounds of nature or the way that Lambkin's house seemed to provide the atmosphere to The Breadwinner. [buy]

11. Michael Pisaro | A Wave and Waves (Cathnor)
The title of A Wave and Waves provides the breakdown of what its two thirty-five minutes pieces aim to accomplish: the first piece, "A World Is an Integer," is inspired by the sound of a single wave, while the second piece, "A Haven of Serenity and Unreachable," is inspired by the sound of multiple waves cresting and crashing in succession. Each piece is intricately scored for multiple overdubbed percussion events, and the resulting sound is tremendous: dense, detailed, incredibly deep. On the first track, the individual sounds — piano, various bowed or scraped percussion instruments, the clatter of pebbles, the crackle of leaves, etc. — build up into a massive drone that is both monolithic and infinitely detailed. Within the overall drone, there is a wealth of detail. It's a remarkable aural metaphor for the way in which a wave in the ocean can be both a totality and an accumulation of particles and parts. It is also a fascinating listen, as the sound is constantly shifting in small ways even while the overall sensation of a wave of sound washing over you is maintained. On the second piece, the sounds emerge from silence with the periodic regularity of waves crashing on a beach, reaching crescendos of rich, crackling sound that then fade back into the quiet. It's nearly as beautiful as "A World Is an Integer," and demonstrates how complex Pisaro's thoughts about nature are: he doesn't just simplistically attempt to recreate natural sounds but instead writes compositions where his ideas about the natural world are expressed, eloquently and evocatively, through the structure and feel of the pieces. [buy]

12. Michael Pisaro | July Mountain (three versions) (Gravity Wave)
July Mountain contains three different takes on a single piece, for field recordings and percussion. The first of these was originally available as a limited edition standalone release early in 2010, and it remains a gorgeous work, with the subtle percussion of Greg Stuart underlying and blending with the layered nature recordings of Pisaro. The remarkable thing about this piece is that the percussion track flows subtly and smoothly into the field recordings, so that it's continually unclear whether any given noise is a recording or a percussion part. In this way, the piece is dealing with fundamental questions about music and intentionality, about arranging sound versus playing it back as found. Is that rumbling the noise of a train going by or the sound of a bass drum? Are those chimes part of a percussion kit or are they hanging in someone's backyard, blowing in the wind? This expanded disc partially answers those questions on the two subsequent tracks, by including both Stuart's percussion part as an "instrumental" version without the field recordings, and a third version with different recordings. This demystifies (but can't ruin) the composition's blending of instrumental and found sounds, and reveals how inventively Stuart uses his drum kit to evoke natural sounds and maintain that ambiguity of sound sources. The original recording is still the most potent realization of the idea — and reason enough to consider this an essential disc — while the other two tracks seem like supplementary materials enriching and commenting upon the piece. [buy]

13. Sun City Girls | Funeral Mariachi (Abduction)
This is the final album from the long-running avant-rock outfit Sun City Girls, completed by brothers Richard and Alan Bishop following the death of drummer Charles Goucher. It is a perfect farewell to this endlessly inventive, unpredictable band, a surprisingly calm and focused effort that's a tribute to their musical influences and a return to the ethnic/garage/psych fusion of their 1990 masterpiece Torch of the Mystics. The album is a loose homage to film composer Ennio Morricone, whose Western guitars and sweeping arrangements are married to the Girls' incorporation of faux-Arabic chants and psych rock feedback storms. The group offers up a faithful, mournful cover of Morricone's "Come Maddalena," but his spirit is arguably felt even more powerfully as the driving force, beneath wailing nonsense vocals, of "The Imam," which as its title suggests is Morricone by way of Abu Dhabi. The band also channels Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, on "Holy Ground," a slow-burning rocker that sets the controls right for the heart of the sun. [buy]

14. Big Boi | Sir Lucious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam)
Remember when, back in 2003, Outkast's Big Boi and André 3000 released a double album of separate solo discs? Remember how everyone assumed that since André was the weird one that his disc would be the mind-blowing one? Remember how Big Boi's direct, sprawling, relentlessly fun Speakerboxxx then proceeded to blow away André's more uneven funk pastiche The Love Below? Now check out this new Big Boi solo disc, the first real new album to emerge from either Outkast MC since their 2006 soundtrack for Idlewild. Sir Lucious Left Foot is a near-perfect rap album, packed with soulful hooks and funky beats, overflowing with guest collaborators without ever sacrificing the coherent identity of the album as a whole. It's a whole album of highlights, more or less, from the raspy George Clinton guest spot on "Fo Yo Sorrows," to the moody crooning of "Hustle Blood," to the jittery energy of "Shine Blockas," to the fiery slow burn of "Tangerine," and so much more. It's all irresistibly fun and catchy, and Big Boi's verses are, as ever, marvels of creative phrasing. [buy]

15. Michael Pisaro | Black, White, Red, Green, Blue (Voyelles) (Winds Measure)
Yet another Michael Pisaro release in a year where he's been responsible for much of the best music I've heard. This one is a two-hour cassette, featuring a piece for guitar played by Barry Chabala. The choice of doing a cassette release is an interesting one, and Pisaro clearly chose a composition that would work well in the medium, taking advantage of the tape hiss and low fidelity to augment the guitar. On the A-side, Chabala plays "Black, White, Red, Green, Blue," a piece divided into several sections, in which reverberating electric guitar tones cascade out of the silence, cresting and then fading back into the hiss of the tape. It's simple, repetitive music, but the warm, rounded beauty of the sounds, and the consideration of the tape's baseline hum as a counterbalancing element, makes this a very enjoyable recording. The B-side of the tape is even better, however. "Voyelles" is Pisaro's augmentation of Chabala's A-side guitar recording with additional layers of sine tones and recordings of various forms of tape hiss. Pisaro uses different tapes and different playback systems to get various colorations of low-level noise, which blend with the natural hiss of the tape itself and provide a kind of noise floor for Chabala's guitar. The combination of the guitar's rich tone with the sizzling electric noise of Pisaro's overdubs makes for a fascinating contrast, as well as a consideration of what constitutes silence, as here the pauses between Chabala's notes are mostly filled with buzzing, humming crackles and static. (Unfortunately this very rare release is out-of-print already, though I've heard that there are plans to reissue "Voyelles" as a CD.)

16. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross | The Social Network (Null)
This remarkably effective score for David Fincher's The Social Network, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is a moody, darkly insinuating work that is especially well-suited to Fincher's chiaroscuro late-night shots of college campuses and his methodical examinations of computer programming and business deals. But even when divorced from the film it scores, this is a compelling album, some of the best music that Reznor has made, establishing a gloomy, low-key atmosphere that's seething with tension but rarely allows the violent undercurrents of the music an outlet. When it does, as on the chugging industrial grind of "A Familiar Taste" — the track that most directly recalls Reznor's Nine Inch Nails — the hard edge is sharpened by the drifting drones and suppressed menace that characterize the rest of the album. [buy]

17. Joseph Hammer | I Love You, Please Love Me Too (Pan)
This hallucinatory sound collage, released only on vinyl, utilizes looped, processed vocal fragments and shards of radio-ready pop music to create a dreamy, hazy, drifting piece of audio nostalgia. Far from indulging in the shallow appropriation of too many sample-crazed plunderphonics artists, Hammer digs deeply into a few evocative snatches of sound, drawing out the emotion in these snippets of song through hypnotic repetition. Hammer was once a member of the legendary sound art collective Los Angeles Free Music Society, as well as his avant/noise band Solid Eye, and this lineage shows in both the playfulness and the assured aesthetic he brings to this album. The individual sounds that Hammer is appropriating are unavoidably dated to various eras — notably the periodic bursts of poppy punk that are churned up towards the end of the LP's first side — but the overall effect is timeless, transcendent, and indelible. [buy]

18. Kevin Parks/Joe Foster | Acts Have Consequences (self-released)
This double disc set represents the finest work so far from these two American improvisers living in South Korea. The guitar/electronics duo makes music that is patient without being slow, spacious without edging into silence, carefully balanced between delicacy and abrasion. At times, Parks' guitar disappears into the electronic drones, blending in with the grinding machine sounds and hissing static. At other times, tonal clusters of guitar notes float up from the depths, surrounded with barbed bits of noise and static that make any melodicism seem fragile, unstable, liable to collapse at any moment. It's very tense, taut music, wonderfully restrained but with a great deal of emotional turmoil suggested in its rattling undercurrents and electric wire hum. [buy]

19. Joanna Newsom | Have One On Me (Drag City)
Joanna Newsom's second album, Ys, was an exhilarating and fearlessly experimental work from an artist abruptly coming into her own, her wildly eccentric voice darting between the grandiose string arrangements of Van Dyke Parks with playful poetry. Her follow-up, Have One On Me, is both more and less ambitious. It's a sprawling triple album that's stylistically varied and exhausting, perhaps even impossible, to listen to in one sitting. And yet it also represents Newsom stepping back, if only slightly, from the adventurous vocalizations and disconcerting arrangements of Ys. Her voice has calmed down in the ensuing years; her squeals and squeaks and croaks, previously so integral to her persona, have been tamed by changes in her voice, and she comes across now as a much more approachable singer, like Joni Mitchell (an unavoidable reference here) with just a few touches of Björk. If Ys was a bold, exciting statement of avant-garde songwriting, Have One On Me is the work of a singer who's maturing and reaching back to her singer-songwriter roots without necessarily abandoning that experimentation or boldness.

Certainly, there's nothing staid about the lengthy title track's inventive structure, the way it slowly builds towards off-kilter but propulsive crescendos where her harp is augmented by whispery flute and galloping percussion. Newsom's sense of phrasing is as distinctive as ever, bouncing off the music rather than simply coasting along with it; she fits her voice into unexpected crannies in the music, singing against the rhythms, creating sublime tension between the music and her vocals. The album rewards such close, intimate listening, and demonstrates that even if Newsom doesn't always deliver precisely what one would want from her, she remains a fascinating, restless artist. [buy]

20. Seijiro Murayama/Éric La Casa | Supersedure (Hibari)
This is an odd one, part of the miniature trend for process-oriented sound art recordings that have been coming out of Japan in recent years. Murayama plays "snare drum and objects," while La Casa, a member of the French field recording/improv collective Afflux, is credited with "microphones and field recordings." This suggests that La Casa was responsible for recording Murayama, as well as layering in various field recordings that alternately blend with or offset the textures of the drum. The album is rough and disjunctive, contrasting sequences of hushed, low-volume textural improv against grinding, near-industrial sequences in which looped sirens or the chatter of a noisy street crash rudely against the drums. At one point, as Murayama builds a rattling, metallic cymbal drone, the hiss of steam and a background humming evokes a train station, so that the cymbal's reverberations become the sound of the train squeaking to a stop. These kinds of associations, suggestive but ephemeral, there and then gone again, keep burbling up through the music, as La Casa layers and processes multiple recordings of his collaborator or cuts in the sounds of vibrant urban life. [buy]

21. M. Holterbach/Julia Eckhardt | Do-Undo (In G Maze) (Helen Scarsdale)
A lovely drone album on which Manu Holterbach uses the viola recordings of Julia Eckhardt as a foundation for explorations of texture and pitch. On the first of two long tracks, Eckhardt's droning, processed viola tones are gently nudged with little pinpricks of sound: rustling clicks and crackles, the hum of crickets, the gentle whirr of the wind. The viola remains at the center of the music, its resonances and textures creating the overall melodic drone of the music, while the other sounds nestle into its curves, darting about the edges of the drone. On the second track, Holterbach buttresses the viola with sympathetic drones sourced from various electrical equipment: hums, buzzes and sizzling tones that are tweaked and processed to blend in with Eckhardt's droning strings. The music often drifts at the edge of consciousness, hypnotically pulsing, only to surge back into wavering sheets of sound. [buy]

22. Nachtmystium | Addicts: Black Meddle, part II (Century Media)
I loved Nachtmystium's last album, Assassins, and this follow-up is more of the same while further emphasizing the surprising melodicism of this black metal band. Frontman Blake Judd has called parts of this album "black metal disco," and while in actuality the band's occasionally dancey beats and synthy melodies recall industrial metal more than Saturday Night Fever, it's still a telling quote. Judd and his compatriots are consciously stretching beyond the narrow confines of black metal, even more than on Assassins, fusing the darkness and roaring anger of black metal with bits and pieces of psych rock trippiness, pop-metal bombast, ambient drone, and whatever else they can think of. It's occasionally goofy and silly — that comes with the territory when it comes to black metal — but the band's unrestrained enthusiasm and energy goes a long way. This is a rousing, even fun record that, by combining black metal's urgency and extreme sound palette with an obvious desire to experiment and blend genres, comes up with something totally fresh and exciting. [buy]

23. Of Montreal | False Priest (Polyvinyl)
Of Montreal have been on quite a roll in recent years. Starting with 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic, this band, which once fit so comfortably amidst the 60s-nostalgic psych-pop of the Elephant 6 collective, has been steadily transforming into a hydra-headed pop/funk/soul oddity. What makes this band of oddballs so thrilling in this current incarnation (which has so far spawned five albums of fractured pop lunacy in six years) is their unpredictability. Songs like this album's opener, "I Feel Ya Strutter," might lead with an uptempo trot as frontman Kevin Barnes waxes ecstatic about how lucky he is in love, but that doesn't preclude multiple sudden left turns as the song bounces and winds along, sometimes slowing down for tossed-off neo-soul diversions or 60s pop callbacks, sometimes offering up new melodies and new backdrops for each line of a verse.

And the follow-up song, "Our Riotous Defects," is if anything even loonier and loopier, incorporating white-boy raps on the hilarious speak-sing verses: "I did everything I could to make you happy/ I participated in all your protests/ supported your stupid little blog/ bought a Bo-Flex/ wore colored contacts to match your dresses/ everything your eye caught I bought/ and still we fought/ like Ike and Tina in reverse." Blending a disco pulse with orchestral pop flourishes and Barnes' characteristically off-kilter, high-pitched vocals, the song eventually coalesces into a dense melodic drone for the unexpectedly lush coda. It's these kinds of sudden shifts and serpentine structures that make this record, like all Of Montreal's recent work, such an utter joy. [buy]

24. Taku Sugimoto | Musical Composition Series 1-2 (Kid Ailack)
Taku Sugimoto has for some time now been a fascinating figure in contemporary music, even as his music has often edged so far into minimalism that he risks seeming like he's stopped playing altogether. But his work has remained at least intriguing even in its extremes. This year he's released two new double-disc sets collecting music recorded over the past four years at the Tokyo concert series he runs, a total of four discs showcasing various aspects of Sugimoto's stripped-down aesthetics. It's a very self-conscious summation of where Sugimoto is at now, musically, and what ideas he's been exploring over the past few years. As usual, not everything hits home, but it's satisfying just to get such a comprehensive portrait of Sugimoto's compositions. The first volume is dominated by three lengthy and very minimal pieces composed for electronic sounds and household objects: extremely sparse, but "For Lightsabers," especially, with its carefully spaced bursts of sizzling noise, is a good example of Sugimoto's curiously affecting quietness. The second disc of this volume includes a pair of pieces that showcase Sugimoto's occasional collaborator Moe Kamura, whose whispery vocals add a very different element to Sugimoto's music. "Chair 2" is unsurprisingly spacious, interrupting the silence with bits of spoken word, solitary guitar plucks and brief, startling moments of melodic pop. The follow-up piece, "Modes of Thought," a highlight of these collections, follows through on that melancholy melodicism, as Kamura lows mournfully atop a tonal guitar accompaniment that is constantly threatening to melt into atonality.

The second of these double-disc sets continues the greater emphasis on guitar, and comparatively less emphasis on silence, that characterized that last piece on set 1. "Notes and Flageolets" is a gorgeous, chiming piece for five guitars, with passages of tonal guitar interspersed with the background hum of traffic noise. This is followed with a suite of 14 more guitar pieces with varying numbers of players, some pieces only a few seconds long, others lasting several minutes, some tonal and relatively active, others featuring just a few isolated notes amidst the silence. Like this project as a whole, it seems like a self-conscious summary of Sugimoto's approach to the guitar, working through the various moods and ideas he's explored with his primary instrument. The final disc is given over to two for-all-practical-purposes-identical 19-minute run-throughs of a piece with Sugimoto accompanied by a string quartet: droning and resonant, not bad but rather chilly and academic in comparison to the rest of the music on these sets. These four discs aren't the peak of Sugimoto's work — or even the peak of his more modest output in recent years — but they are yet another valuable addition to the ouevre of this confounding, maddening, thought-provoking, enthralling artist. [buy]

25. Dirty Projectors & Björk | Mount Wittenberg Orca (self-released)
This isn't quite the delirious avant-pop concoction one imagines upon seeing that Icelandic songstress Björk has collaborated with the dazzlingly complex rockers in Dirty Projectors. Björk's contributions are spaced out across this mini-album enough so that, for much of its length, it sounds like a rather typical, if somewhat more low-key than usual, Dirty Projectors disc. That's not such a bad thing, either. These gentle songs are dominated by strumming acoustic guitars and elaborate vocal harmonies between head Dirty Projector Dave Longstreth and vocalists Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian. The tunes mostly feel like stripped-down versions of the band's 2009 masterpiece Bitte Orca, although "stripped-down" is strictly relative here, and Longstreth's arrangements are as quirky as ever, as prone to detours and abrupt shifts in tone. When Björk does appear, her idiosyncratic voice is a perfect fit, cradled amidst the background harmonizing of Coffman and Deradoorian, who often provide a rhythmic component to augment the rarely used drums. In fact, Björk inhabits this sonic landscape so comfortably that one only wishes she showed up more often. As it is, it's a short and sweet little disc that leaves one wanting more. It's more of a tease than a fully developed statement, but what it has to offer is utterly charming. [buy]

26. Thomas Ankersmit | Live In Utrecht (Ash International)
Live In Utrecht is the first widely available solo release from saxophonist Thomas Ankersmit, following a string of rare and obscure discs. This is an impressive proper debut from the young Dutch musician, who processes his saxophone into near-unrecognizability on this 40-minute live set. The piece opens with a buzzy drone that suggests the tonality of the saxophone without ever quite sounding like a sax. Occasional blurts and squeaks within the shifting layers of sound betray the instrumental origins of this music, but for the most part the sax is obscured within the glitchy, slowly mutating waves. After the introductory drone, Ankersmit ventures into even more abstract territory, exploring high, glistening tones broken up by various spikes or layered with shimmering, wavery sheets of sound. This is complex, intricate music, and it's hard to believe that Ankersmit realized this so well in a live setting. [buy]

27. Yeasayer | Odd Blood (Secretly Canadian)
When I wrote up my list of the best music of the 2000s, I called Yeasayer's debut album All Hour Cymbals "an eclectic, offbeat sound that goes down surprisingly easy," flirting with "abrasive electro-pop" and "summery harmonies" in roughly equal measures. Their second album might be described similarly, though it rearranges the elements of the band's sound, skewing more towards sizzling electro-pop and downplaying some of the world music appropriations and organic pop that characterized All Hour Cymbals. This sophomore album is maybe not quite as joyously great as the first one, but it's a worthy successor nonetheless, bursting with straightahead bouncy melodies and loopy electronic flourishes that make these poppy delicacies that much more delicious. The album boasts an especially strong first half, but really it's all enjoyable: it's a consistent, infectious album that puts a lot of more mainstream pop efforts to shame. "Ambling Alp" is a clear standout, a relentlessly positive gem that sells its upbeat optimism by sheer force of its sugary electro melody. "Madder Red" takes a more meditative tone, with plaintive chanting atop a synthesized ebb-and-flow. "I Remember" sets its bittersweet, nostalgic lyrics against the swirling arpeggios of the music, which aurally suggests murmuring surf to accompany the song's memories of "making love on the sand." [buy]