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Jaki Liebezeit, in later years, drumming in London

German drummer and percussionist Jaki Liebezeit, formerly of the band Can, has passed away. He was a real powerhouse behind the kit with metronomic precision, creative fills left and right, and an inherent sense of groove. In Can Liebezeit was a perfect foil for the band’s far-ahead-of-the-curve, almost utopian mixture of funk, psychedelic rock, jazz and avant-garde sensibilities, and (later on) disco. I have known and been acquainted with quite a few music obsessed people and almost all of them would rank Liebezeit’s drumming as being in a class all of its own. Those prime Can recordings are a well of sorts that people return to again and again, occasionally wondering how a band could be so cool and pull it off seemingly with ease–Liebezeit’s drumming and percussion was the glue that held it all together, and it remains a joy to behold. After Can, Liebezeit kept drumming. These subsequent projects are also worth investigating, but he could have done nothing else and his reputation as one of thee great drummers would have been well established. Jaki will be missed, but his work behind the kit will continue to live on. R.I.P.

Leonard Cohen live in Tampa, Florida

Singer-songwriter, poet/novelist, dapper ladies’ man, and perennial cool guy Leonard Cohen has died at the age of 82. It’s difficult to eulogize someone whose music has meant so much to so many people, over several decades, but I will say a few things. First, his debut LP, 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, is required listening. Cohen made plenty of other music that’s worth delving into, but if for some bizarre reason you haven’t heard that first album, it’s probably not a bad idea to stop whatever you’re doing, hunt it down, and give it your undivided attention. Second, while he wrote, recorded, and performed a tower of fine music, “Dress Rehearsal Rag” in particular stands out to me as song like no other, a cinematic trip through the psyche of someone suffering from a severe form of quiet desperation. There’s something elemental about it that reaches the sublime and somehow makes it seem a lot more urgent and productive than the vast majority of dirges a person is likely to hear, including most of those that would fall under the banner of “angry tough guys with their amps cranked up” sort of music. Lastly, I was fortunate enough to see Leonard Cohen and his band live in October of 2009, at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, and it was a stellar experience. He could have phoned it in and much of the audience probably would’ve been flattered by his mere presence, but instead Cohen and his band pulled out all of the stops and gave it their all. From top to bottom, they cared about putting on a good show and it meant a lot to everyone in attendance. Here was an artist in his mid-seventies skipping onto the stage, kneeling to sing “Hallelujah,” revisiting “Everybody Knows” and over two dozen other songs from his back catalog with the verve of someone with his entire life ahead of him. It was quite inspired and something I’ll never forget. Rest in peace, L.C.

Director of photography Raoul Coutard

Earlier this week saw the death of French cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who left an indelible mark on many key francophone films of the Nouvelle Vague and beyond. Coutard’s shooting style was at times unorthodox and a marked contrast to that of the traditionally lit and blocked “cinema du papa”—he had a lot to do with why films like Pierrot Le Fou and Shoot the Piano Player became hallmarks of Sixties Modernism and would still seem so novel and fresh in the following decades. Coutard shot, among other things, Costa-Gavra’s Z (surely among the top ten overtly political films of the 20th Century) and Philippe Garrel’s The Birth of Love (which I’d rank as one of thee great films of the 1990s…just impossibly charming). And of course that only scratches the surface. The New York Times published a nice obituary here. Rest in peace, Raoul.

The book cover of Edward Baron Turk's Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema

Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema by Edward Baron Turk, 1989, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0 674 11461 2 Available here.

“Who invented the cinema?” In some circles the answer to this question is still disputed, but the first instance of the film as we know it is generally considered to be Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (original title: La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon). In the wake of this breakthrough effort, the Lumière Brothers’ home country of France has spawned a wealth of inspired cinema. To say the least. However, despite plenty of auspicious films pre-dating and following it, what film historians refer to fondly as “The Golden Age” of French cinema lasted no more than 15 years—from the start of the 1930s until, roughly, the end of World War II. Many cinephiles are likely to have their favorite relevant directors—anyone from Jean Grémillon, to Julien Duvivier, to Jean Renoir, to Jacques Feyder, to René Clair, to Jean Vigo, to name a few. But it’s difficult to talk about this era at any length without bringing into consideration the films of Marcel Carné (1906-1996). By all accounts Carné’s filmography was marred by unevenness. And during his life, most famously in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, he was tarred and feathered as more of a “craftsman” or taskmaster-type director than a full-on “artist” or semi-autonomous auteur. And yet, despite his ups and downs, and despite falling in and out of favor with the critical establishment, few astute film buffs would deny the late Frenchman’s best work.

Carné first made waves in the 1930s taking cues from German Expressionists like F.W. Murnau and films like Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, arranging tableaux that were often bathed in light and shadows, inscribed with a palpable sense of atmosphere that could be very foggy and damp. This brooding visual aesthetic was married with sharp dialogue and dazzling scenarios penned by expert-level screenwriter Jacques Prévert. Along with production design by Alexandre Trauner and the help of some of the most capable screen actors of the day, the Carné-Prévert partnership resulted in a series of cool moody classics often characterized by melancholic longing, engaging twists and turns, doomed love, and a uniquely French strain of fatalism. These films have been described by many as examples of “poetic realism,” though it’s to Carné’s credit that everything but his first film Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche was about as far removed from documentary film production values as can be. From the onset, Carné’s most celebrated film, Children of Paradise (original title: Les Enfants du Paradis), was destined to go down in history. Made during the Occupation, at times covertly, it was released just after the war and hailed as a pièce de resistance of not only French cinema but French art in general. Children of Paradise adeptly mingled “high” and “low” culture by way of portraying 19th Century French theater, its performers and patrons, while homing in on an elusive seductress and four disparate suitors who vie for her affection. Though Carné’s career didn’t end there, the near-universal appeal of the film was never quite repeated and his last popular success was 1958’s The Cheaters (original title: Les Tricheurs), an excellent film that unfortunately has yet to receive a proper reissue in the English speaking world. Lamentably Carné’s fall from critical grace in the post-war era and eventual inability to get new projects off the ground made some declare him, in later years, France’s greatest “living dead” filmmaker.

On the subject of Marcel Carné, his career, and the changing historical milieu in which it took place, there’s little likelihood of finding a more worthy book than Edward Baron Turk’s Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema. It might not be the final word when it comes to rating the films in question (if such a thing were to exist), but Turk’s book does stand as a doorway of sorts through which anyone interested in the subject should feel compelled to pass. There comes a point at which doing such a worthwhile era justice requires going beyond the received wisdom of “ambient data” and the readily available, pre-existing literature. In other words one has to dig much deeper, comb through lots of French-language ephemera, watch a lot of cinema hidden from public view, and interview the people who were there, including the director himself. Reading through Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema it’s not hard to tell that Turk did just that.

It should be noted that Turk’s evaluation of Carné’s life and oeuvre does sometimes seem more psychoanalytically inclined than I would normally care for. And at times he almost seems too critical of the better films discussed, most of which I tend to like in very broad, affirmative terms (having seen mountains of cinema that pales in comparison). But none of this matters. The great thing about reading Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema is that even if the reader doesn’t see eye to eye with Turk on his assessment of a given film, the writing is so informed and detailed that she’ll be learning new things at every page. On that score it’s an invaluable resource.

To account for all of the material covered in the book would be difficult. But here are a few things I learned about and found interesting: how Carné got his break working as an assistant director for Jacques Feyder, whose wife Rosay treated the young protégé like a surrogate son; how Carné fatefully met Jacques Prévert whose early screenplay L’affaire best dans le sac caused such an outrage, when it was filmed by his brother, that Pathé ordered all prints of it destroyed; how Carné was gay but unlike his peer Jean Cocteau he wasn’t quite “out” and this lead to certain tensions, in his life and in his work; how 1946’s Gates of the Night (original title: Les Portes de la nuit) — my personal favorite of the Carné-Prévert films — was a commercial flop upon release, due most likely to it being set during the Occupation, which French audiences were largely anxious to forget about; how Carné’s elaborate production aesthetic and careful methodology came to be regarded as outmoded and overly extravagant by the new guard of French filmmakers represented by Cahiers du Cinéma, whose low-balling of Carné’s work at the time has affected its stature to this day; how François Truffaut, once one of the most vocal attacker’s of Carné’s work, in said publication, lived to regret this and eventually tried to make amends, keeping in touch with the filmmaker and his new output, and once famously declaring “I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise.”

As one might gather from the above (which only scratches the surface), Marcel Carné’s career had all of the makings of a compelling “rise and fall” type narrative arc. Reading about his later years — when the director had outlived most of his contemporaries, but couldn’t get funding to make a new film, despite being highly honored for past achievements — it would be easy to conclude that said arc is emblematic of a minor kind of tragedy. However, reading about the exciting fashion in which many of Carné’s films were made, and then watching the better films themselves, the more dominant narrative that emerges is one of triumph over adversity, a case of finding dignity and poetry in uncertain times. For mapping out this terrain, in matter-of-fact detail, it’s hard not to find Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema an essential film book.

The front cover of Raymond Durgnat's book Films and Feelings

Films and Feelings by Raymond Durgnat, 1967, The M.I.T. Press, ISBN 0 262 54016 9 Available here.

As its title suggests, Raymond Durgnat’s Films and Feelings isn’t concerned with establishing an inflexibly “objective” account of the many movies discussed within it. Instead the book seems to place more of an emphasis on mapping out how these films, and films in general, make the author (and likely many other viewers) feel… which is no doubt more fertile territory. In a 1969 review of the book in Film Quarterly, Ernest Callenbach aptly notes that Durgnat’s criticism could be said to endorse the position that “a film is not what is on the screen, but what happens between the screen and the viewer.” As a consequence of this Durgnat is cut loose from “the idea that criticism is an evaluation of a fixed and finished ‘object.’” Despite this underlying principle, however, Films and Feelings is not the kind of film book governed by an overriding thesis. Instead it functions as a window into the late film critic’s vigilant sensibilities as they relate to a wide array of films and their perceived import, in turn addressing tangential issues concerning (among other things) film style, auteur theory, and spectatorship.

But the preceding paragraph probably makes Films and Feelings sound a lot less fun and occasionally humorous than it really is. To read the book is sort of like being a fly on the wall during a long, inspired lecture by the kind of cool Marxist college professor who’s just as critical of academic sophistry, snobbery, and stuffiness as he is of unstimulating cinema. Thinking of why I find Films and Feelings worthwhile, it’s much less the case that I agree with Durgnat’s opinions and share his political outlook than I enjoy reading a book so densely packed with ideas! In the interest of doing the book justice here, it is necessary to quote some passages of Durgnat’s prose, so here’s a handful of choice excerpts…

Concerning the perennial “content vs. style” debate:

…The question whether style is more important than content is a misleading one. Style is simply those pieces of content which arise out of the way the artist makes his basic points. These may (as often in painting and poetry) be only a pretext, a wire on which to “thread the beads”. If style is “manner of doing”, then we can say that the way a thing is done is often a way of doing a different thing. To say “sorry” superciliously is doing a different thing from saying “sorry” courteously or servilely, etc. Certain tones of voice make “sorry” mean: “Look where you’re going, you clumsy imbecile.” “It ain’t what you do it’s the way you do it.” “Le style, c’est l’homme.”

Concerning the traditional differences between Hollywood and European cinema:

Although many of Hollywood’s directors are auteurs it is quite possible to speak of an overall Hollywood “style”—in that, whether the narrative is fast […] or slow […] there is a certain tautness, a spareness of intention, a lack of distraction from the principal story points. There are none of the asides one finds in, say, Renoir or Becker, and which European directors generally are more inclined to entertain. Hollywood would never have invented such “European” ideas as the temps-mort, or the stylistic potpourri of Truffaut. American films seem to be enclosed by their subjects, and the dramatic tensions are calculated with a Protestant rigour. European directors often deliberately relax the story so as to dwell on the sprawl and irrelevance of “off-moments” (which after all constitute 80 percent of life).

Concerning a film’s presentation of experiential insights:

We have come a long way from the “literary” conception of a film as “explaining” or “analyzing” people’s psychology. The film’s job is not so much to provide “information” about the characters’ minds as to communicate their “experience”, whether intellectual, emotional, physical, or a blend of all three.

Concerning Vittorio De Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves:

But “cold and plain” is the key. The streets down which the workman searches for his stolen bicycle have a bland, callous indifference to the desperate individual. In endless successions, skeins of terrace houses, lofty apartment blocks, become symbols of a society built out of privacy, indifference and a human “absence”. De Sica’s sense of Rome reflects his curious blend of Franciscan sentimentality and Marxist hard-headedness. And the “coldness” of his films prefigures Antonioni’s, whose evocation of “alienation” transposes this critique of capitalism from the proletarian-economic sphere to the bourgeois-spiritual.

Concerning a film’s use of “non-professional” actors:

Unlike the “legitimate” stage, the cinema can accommodate complete amateurs (to whose authenticity or spontaneity the director can contribute the necessary artistic control) and it can accommodate actors who can’t act in any real sense but have an emotional vibrancy of some sort […]. But if the popular cinema can manage without actors, it couldn’t manage without personalities…

Concerning so-called “pure” cinema:

Ever since the cinema began, aestheticians have sought to define “pure” cinema, the “essence” of cinema. In vain. The cinema’s only “purity” is the way in which it combines diverse elements into its own “impure” whole. Its “essence” is that it makes them interact, that it integrates other art forms, that it exists “between” and “across” their boundaries. It is cruder and inferior to every other art form on that art form’s “home ground”. But it repairs its deficiencies, and acquires its own dignity, by being a mixture.

Reading the above quotations, it’s not hard to tell that Raymond Durgnat gives the cinema a lot of thought here. To reiterate, the value of Films and Feelings is not so much that the reader is compelled to agree with the author at every juncture, but rather that the book puts forth a host of insights to brush up against and negotiate oneself in relation to. And in addition to providing a lot of “cultural commentary” or opinions, the book often functions as a fount of information. One example of this is the chapter entitled The Cinema’s Art Gallery, in which Durgnat rates a variety of documentaries concerning visual artists of note. Working my way thought it the first time, I couldn’t help but read it while in tandem checking out various clips of the films on Youtube, which in turn lead me to “discover” Living One’s Life, Evald Schorm’s excellent cinematic portrait of Czech photographer Josef Sudek.

All in all Films and Feelings has a lot to offer. Its main drawback is that it doesn’t cover cinema after 1967, but for most cinephiles that shouldn’t be a deal breaker. And of course it helps to have seen a number of the movies featured in the book before reading about their nuances, though personally speaking I was able to follow most of the book despite not having seen many of the titles discussed. Is Films and Feelings the film book to end all film books? If such a thing were to exist, not quite. But having said that, it contains multitudes, and is, at the very least, a worthy addition to any film buff’s bookshelf.

Some clouds in the Midwest, in September of 2016.

In the past few months I’ve felt inclined to read more film books than usual. This is likely because at its best I view movie watching as a form of engagement, and additional reading can up the ante a bit, serving as a springboard toward appreciating films on a higher plane. Or maybe it just feels like a worthwhile pastime to learn about intriguing movies and related individuals that have been consigned to a rather neglected status as far as much of the world is concerned. Either way, I’ve found that, overall, delving into more supplemental reading than usual has had a nourishing effect, and it’s been fun.

However, not all films books are created equal! Indeed, some can be very dry or so steeped in the theoretical that reading them becomes more of an exercise in engaging with critical theory than it does in thinking about cinema and its possibilities. Other times a writer’s ability to string a sentence together is fine but his or her taste or personality leave something to be desired. Suffice it to say it is that special author and film book that get the balance just right.

What follows here and in the subsequent two blog posts is a discussion of three of the best titles I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. By no means should this be construed as having been drawn from a comprehensive sampling of what’s out there. Rather, what follows is just a small handful of film books I happened to encounter recently that have stood out as being far too full of interesting content to go unmentioned here.

The front cover of Nikolaj Lübeckers book, The Feel-Bad Film.

The Feel-Bad Film by Nikolaj Lübecker, 2015, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978 0 7486 9799 Available here.

Last August, in keeping with his regular habit of turning his friends on to various media and cultural events that he deemed significant, the late, great Dave Monroe of Milwaukee, WI brought this curious book to my attention. Dave emailed me (and a dozen other friends of his) a PDF of its introductory chapter, mentioning that he’d enjoyed the book in its entirety. From the onset the title of Nikolaj Lübecker’s book sounded intriguing, as if drawing a line in the sand—The Feel-Bad Film… was this not an unspoken genre? Well, maybe not a full-on genre, but at the very least a category of cinema. Witness, for instance, the countless Hollywood movie trailers proclaiming the polar opposite, that their latest offering was “the feel-good hit of the Summer…” Surely it stood to reason that the existence of a such a thing as a feel-good film implied its antithesis. But what of it?

Lübecker’s book, as I would discover a little less than a year later when I purchased a copy and promptly read it, is a thoughtful examination of a largely recent corpus of work made by filmmakers who deliberately aim to engender feelings of displeasure in the viewer. According to Lübecker these films usually tend to either create an atmosphere of unease (as in the case of Alain Resnais’s brilliant Muriel or the Time of Return or Todd Haynes’s more recent film Safe), or they escalate discomfort to the point of rendering the film experience a downright assault on the spectator (as in the case of Michael Haneke’s rather deplorable Funny Games, “unwatchable” titles like Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, and Godard’s classic feel-bad detour Weekend). For Lübecker a hallmark of the feel-bad film experience is that it subverts traditional notions of Hegelian mutual recognition, often attacking the viewer through her body in order to get to her mind. Though the individual works can vary widely in content and approach, a common characteristic of a feel-bad film is that it presents the grounds for a Hollywood-style catharsis and then ends up deadlocking its realization, which of course yields frustration in the viewer. The most typical sensation here tends to be one of claustrophobia, which often goes hand-in-hand with mounting unrelieved desire.

In his chapter on Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Lübecker correctly notes that what makes von Trier’s film patently feel-bad — not to mention highly manipulative — is that it sets up a protracted narrative arc leading toward the inevitable desire for a catharsis, then it finally enables the catharsis but at the very end mocks the viewer for identifying with it, drawing attention to what von Trier deems her inner svinehund. The ultimate feeling the film leaves is one of disappointment, perhaps chiefly with oneself for having partaken in it. Lübecker traces the roots of the feel-bad film experience back to the more confrontational strands of the historical avant-garde, though he seems to suggest that a disproportionate amount of feel-bad cinema has sprung up within the last fifteen to twenty-odd years, which indeed seems curious.

One of the many interesting revelations in the book is the author’s assertion that labeling a film “feel-bad” isn’t to place a qualitative value judgement on it—just as feel-good films can range from the saccharine (Forrest Gump or Mr. Holland’s Opus) to the sublime (Alice in the Cities or Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday), feel-bad films run the gamut as well, from the ineffective or just plain awful to the successfully articulated. Lübecker also rightly notes that the existence of feel-bad film experiences should never lead us to confuse the ethical sphere of the movie house with that of the real world outside it—something that both those in favor and against such works of art can easily forget. The author also observes that the existence of feel-bad films isn’t unhealthy and rejecting them outright can be similar to denying problematic contemporary realities, and sometimes even lead to unforseen disastrous consequences.

In general what makes The Feel-Bad Film book work is Lübecker’s empathetic tone and lucid outlook combined with his ability to discuss the various films in relation to concurrent issues in philosophy and current events. This is a well researched, well written book that can be appreciated by both hardcore cinephiles as well as more general viewers who just might be wondering why they’ve felt “swindled” or confounded at the end of a feel-bad film experience. It is a necessary document. High marks.

Big Joys, Small Sorrows a.k.a. New Times of Joy and Sorrow (Original title: Shin yorokobi mo kanashimi mo ikutoshitsuki) by Keisuke Kinoshita, Japan, 1986.

The last truly memorable feature in the diverse and prolific career of director Keisuke Kinoshita, Big Joys, Small Sorrows is not to be missed! A colorful, underrated Eighties Shochiku film, it lends credence to Alexander Jacoby’s assertion in A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors that Kinoshita was “one of the leading postwar exponents of the studio’s bittersweet, subtly sentimental ‘Ōfuna flavor'”—a kind of melodrama centered around domestic concerns, often geared toward women. In Big Joys, Small Sorrows the setting for the familial activity is not one dwelling or town but a steady succession of enchanting lighthouses and related peripheries up and down coastal Japan. The film’s cinematography boasts a wealth of charming helicopter-assisted establishing shots showing each toudai and its surrounding scenery in their seasonable seaside glory. In this sense Big Joys, Small Sorrows could be said to possess a secondary function as a travelogue, and coupled with the beautiful, melancholic score these shots serve as a welcome refrain throughout its 130-minute duration.

If Big Joys, Small Sorrows sounds a little familiar that might be because it’s a remake of Kinoshita’s 1957 feature Times of Joy and Sorrow, which also follows a stoic and resilient lighthouse keeper employed by Japan’s Maritime Safety Agency. In contrast to some of his colleagues, the lighthouse keeper here has a cute, supportive, but sometimes disapproving wife, with whom he maintains a mixture of deep affection and humorous low-level irritability, which often yields entertaining dialogue. Along with their children, as the years wear on, the couple relocates from one lighthouse to the next, each time being visited by the lighthouse keeper’s widower father, who’s on in years. Sometimes characterized as a burden when he visits, the grandfather is enthusiastic to see his family—partially, it seems, because he misses them and is otherwise rather listless and lonely, but also because making such jaunts seems to be an indicator that he’s not quite ready to be placed in a nursing home. In typical tourist fashion, the grandfather eagerly snaps pictures of himself and other family members in front of the lighthouses and various landmarks of note, though it’s not altogether clear what he intends to do with the photos.

Like a lot of films, one thing that seems to make Big Joys, Small Sorrows work is that it presents an appealing amalgam of emotions. Here the mixture of moods and sensibilities isn’t far removed from, say, a Late Fifties Ozu staple like Equinox Flower, though Kinoshita’s film has occasional camera movement and a more pronounced sense of humor that may or may not be the result of the characters’ less guarded behavior. The poetics in Big Joys, Small Sorrows feel looser and less disciplined but overall the film might exhibit more of a joy for living. There is one scene that feels a little clumsy and out of place—a mini-disaster sequence in which one of the lighthouse keeper’s younger associates has a life threatening experience, prompting him to finally forego his bachelorhood and pursue getting married to a woman he’d half-heartedly courted. And it should be noted that in the midst of its narrative Big Joys, Small Sorrows does put forth an uncritically patriotic emphasis on Japan’s equivalent to the Coast Guard and Navy, to the extent that if the viewer isn’t paying attention to the story the film might look in parts like a high-budget recruiting reel. Nonetheless this ship stays afloat! Big Joys, Small Sorrows is a nicely shot, well acted film devised from a screenplay that feels like it took decades of accrued wisdom to write. As of press time the film has garnered an all too modest 6.1 rating on the Internet Movie Database, which is less an accurate assessment of its charms than another sign that Big Joys, Small Sorrows is due to be reappraised. At this point, given the film’s rather neglected status here in North America, it would be fortuitous if the Criterion Collection gave it a spine number. For now, though, Big Joys, Small Sorrows is available in their Hulu Plus library, waiting patiently for new viewers to discover it.

My new musical concern Tired of Triangles releases its debut recording Up at 4 A.M. this week. I think the album represents a nice sequence that works best as a whole. Up at 4 A.M. consists of 8 songs in just under 23 minutes, with each track being a bit different than the ones before it.

The general style of Tired of Triangles, on this outing at least, is moody stripped-down solo rock geared for late night or early morning listening. A lot of the songs are oriented around simple guitar parts laced in effects with sparse vocals popping up.

While it’s a tad tempting to expand on that description and maybe wax poetic on this, the newest detour in my artistic journey, I will refrain from that here and just say that I hope you like it.

Up at 4 A.M. can be streamed and downloaded at http://tiredoftriangles.bandcamp.com

Allen Toussaint enjoying some food.

Something I neglected to mention here last week was the recent passing away of New Orleans music staple Allen Toussaint, a sharp dresser and talented pianist whose influence on RnB and funk cannot be overstated—though he worked in country, pop, and other genres as well.

As a songwriter and producer Toussaint made an exhaustive number of fine records, many of them hits that climbed the charts. His well known work with Lee Dorsey, The Meters, Ernie K-Doe, and Dr. John et al is top-shelf music and no doubt worth revisiting, but I’d like to take a moment to plug some of his lesser known work that’s just as great.

Allen Toussaint enjoying some food.

While I’m not an authority on RnB, funk, soul, and the like, I’ve spent countless hours listening to it, and for my money one of the best compilations of it I’ve ever heard is the now-defunct Grapevine label’s Northern Soul of New Orleans, Volume One (which was sadly never followed up by subsequent volumes). In addition to featuring fine songs that weren’t penned by Toussaint (like The Jades’ “Lucky Fellow” and Pat Brown’s “The Good Got to Suffer for the Bad”), this disc includes some of his best lesser know work such as Curly Moore’s “You Don’t Mean It” and Ray Algere’s “In My Corner.” It also includes the more popular “Mean Man” by Betty Harris. From start to finish Northern Soul of New Orleans, Volume One is a warm, slightly gritty, and endearing listen. One would have to be pretty uptight to hear it and not be moved.

Also of note, off the top of my head, is the excellent 2006 BBC documentary Originals: The Allen Toussaint Touch, which framed Toussaint’s life and career while he was living in New York in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It can be viewed on YouTube HERE.

Dave Monroe as a child.

Dave Monroe in high school.

Dave Monroe in one of his bands, The Prevailing Westerlies.

Dave Monroe being interviewed on the news in Milwaukee.

A few days ago, Dave Monroe of Milwaukee, Wisconsin passed away. He was 49 years old.

Dave was a friend of mine and a friend to many—a beloved, highly cultured fixture of Cream City who frequented record shops, night clubs, book stores, movie theaters, cafes, restaurants, museums, and bus stops from one side of town to the other.

To know Dave at all was to be aware of his deep knowledge of music, literature, and film, and the goodnatured, at times hyperactive manner in which he liked to talk shop. Whether it was with hardcore enthusiasts of one of his pet subjects, or so-called laymen who were curious (or even staunchly incurious), Dave always shared his interests with others and his fervor for art was contagious.

An avid collector of music, Dave developed an inextricable fondness for old 45rpm records. Indeed, one of his catchphrases was “Have records, will travel” and nothing seemed to summon warm and fuzzy feelings in him quite like laying down a Mod soul, boogaloo, Hammond jazz, doo-wop, Sixties French pop, or freakbeat 45 and letting it rip—preferably in public. As DJ Flavor Dav he spun records in Milwaukee countless times—at recurring events like the Soul Hole (his main endeavor), Rave You in Bay View, the Rhythm and Brunch, 2 x 2 4 Tuesday, various regional soul summits, and guest spots at local mainstays like Mod Night (R.I.P.) and The Get Down. My good friend Will who used to work with Dave at the Milwaukee Art Museum recalled how a woman Dave was once trying to court said to him, “When I look into your eyes, all I see are two records spinning,” and it’s easy to imagine Dave feeling flattered by that to no end. Even on his deathbed in a hospice Dave managed to have a small turntable present with various 45s strewn about. And word has it he was still trying to acquire “new old records” (as he liked to call them) while haggling about their prices up until his last few days. (You can witness the late Flavor Dav spinning some of his recent favorites HERE.)

The expression “voracious reader” has become a bit of a tiresome cliché to describe a bookish person, but Dave was nothing if not a bibliophile. Even Milwaukeeans who didn’t have the privilege of being acquainted with him would probably recognize Dave as the ubiquitous bespectacled “man about town” who never left the house without a stack of books under one arm, and, later in life, a cane at the end of the other. While Dave did graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in Comparative Literature and Mathematics in 1990, the cut of his jib was much more closely allied with that of an autodidact than an academic. To that end he absorbed numerous compelling reads in his adult life—everything from top-shelf novels by authors like Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and his all-time favorite Thomas Pynchon, to scores of non-fiction books pertaining to cultural analysis and critical theory, to science and math texts, to fun and colorful comic books old and new. Among other things, Dave used to email his other friends and me PDFs he’d found of curious film theory titles, the most recent being The Feel-Bad Film, which I plan to get around to soon. And just revisiting his Facebook page today I noticed dozens of promising books he read and recommended that will be worth looking into in the coming months.

But while music and literature were touchstones, being a filmmaker I probably related to Dave most when it came to cinema. The early to mid Aughts, while I was enrolled as a film student, were a great time to be a moviegoer in Milwaukee. If one was so inclined, every week he could see a treasure trove of movies ranging from old domestic classics by directors like Nicholas Ray, to bad-ass foreign “art house” titles, to esoteric avant-garde works—all via celluloid prints. I was so inclined and happened to see Dave at a ton of screenings all over town. He was there at a screening of the newly restored print of Le Circle Rouge at the Times Cinema (back when they screened more adventurous selections), and he was routinely present at the UWM Union Theater for showings of great movies like Elem Klimov’s Come and See and Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. Dave was an adamant fan of mainstream hits like the Star Trek and Planet of the Apes movies, but he also absorbed a lot of cinema that many fans of such fare would find intimidating or perhaps hard to understand. One of the many humorous things about Dave is that since he had a sleeping disorder, he would often fall asleep during movies, so sometimes he would attend a showing of a movie three or four times in order to effectively see it once. It was not uncommon to hear Dave snoring at the back of a movie house if he was in attendance, and when he did just that at the Milwaukee premiere of Robert on his Lunch Break, I considered it an honor. I tried to get a picture with him that night but, ever photo-shy, Dave wouldn’t comply.

I had really hoped to see Dave the last time I was in Milwaukee, but he was too sick to make it out. Subsequent attempts to hang with him fell through. But we managed to keep in touch via the magic of the internet. And even though I could tell he was in a lot of pain and exhausted and frustrated by his illness, he still maintained a lot of dignity and wit. Which brings me to the last item — Dave was quite skilled at the internet! Yes. Sometimes social media seems like a really bad idea given the huge potential for misunderstandings, the inevitable trolling, people using it for cross purposes, the sheer amount of “noise” one has to endure in order to get to the good stuff, and the way entropy seems to win out more than half the time. But Dave’s presence on Facebook was always a welcome one, even among people who never met him. Sometimes in the “virtual world” rifts arise between people, but I got along with Dave 100% of the time. Dave was kind of like a big kid who’d endured a lot of hardship but was still able to keep his groovy interests at the forefront in spite of everything. He was fun to be around and judging by the hundreds of people paying tribute to him this week, he had a big impact on a lot of lives.

There’s a late-period Tom Petty song in which he boldly declares “I’m the king of Milwaukee!” and in my mind that title belongs to no one other than David Michael Monroe, one of the most unique people I’ve ever met.

Dave Monroe toward the end of his life.

Dave Monroe as Fred Flinstone.