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Category Archives: Other Art

The late Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller

Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller has passed away, at age 78. Müller was of international renown and among the most skilled in his trade. He was the kind of cameraman and technician who elevated every film he worked on, and whose compositions have been seen and adored by millions. Not all of the viewers who’ve seen his cinematography would know Müller by name, but many of them would no doubt recall, for example, the Southwestern American vistas and neon-lit roadside oases of Paris, Texas as if they had experienced them firsthand. Indeed, Muller’s cinematography could be so vivid in conjunction with the storylines of the films he worked on that it made audiences feel as if they were right there.

I was first impressed by Müller’s sharp camera work in my early twenties, when I rented a spate of VHS tapes of seventies Wim Wenders films from Video Visions in Milwaukee. Even though the format and film-to-video transfers didn’t do the films justice, the films themselves could still be appreciated as consummate works of art. Am talking here about The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (which was recently restored but has yet to be reissued on DVD or blu-ray disc), and the loose “Road Trilogy” of Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road (essential cinema that was restored prior to being reissued by Criterion in a super-cool boxset). If you haven’t seen this work, I implore you to give it a go, regardless of what you might have heard or might think of Wenders’s work in general. These films are worth seeing for Müller’s imagery alone. More than any other director of photography I can think of, Müller was adept at filming actors in cars with a freshness of perspective that could make the viewer feel like being in the passenger or driver’s seat, primed for adventures along the highway.

Müller also did fine cinematography on films by Jim Jarmusch (whose work I usually like), and he shot movies like Repo Man, Saint Jack, and Barfly, which aren’t quite as good but can be approached as interesting curiosity pieces. And of course that only scratches the surface (as a I often say in these short-form eulogies).

One Sunday evening in the Summer of 2017 I happened to wake up rather late. Checking Facebook I noticed a friend of a friend mention that Until the End of the World was going to be shown in the middle of the night on Turner Classic Movies. They were set to screen “the director’s cut.” Yes, the version of the film that clocked in at nearly five hours long. I had never seen it in any form, but had gathered it had its flaws. I didn’t have any obligations the following morning, so it seemed worth staying up and watching. “Why not?” I figured. The full version of Until the End of the World turned out to be frustratingly uneven as it progressed, showing a lack of focus as it began to feel more like an endurance test than a movie. However, it wasn’t without its charms and had some good scenes here and there, especially during its second half. One thing that eased the long sit and kept me from giving up on it, as the plot seemed to spin in different directions, was the cinematography by Robby Müller. Characteristic of his work, the film looked great. Very colorful and pristine, lending the proceedings an inviting tenor they could have easily lacked in less capable hands.

Still from Until the End of the World

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It is not everyday that I encounter something on the internet worth passing on to everyone, but today is such a day. A French blog has unleashed a series of photographs by one Stephane Fontana that painstakingly reveal what various locations in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou look like fifty-three years later. I love this sort of thing. It doesn’t hurt that Pierrot Le Fou has been a favorite for nearly twenty years and was a formative influence on my conception of what a film could be. Some of these images and locales along the Riviera are practically seared into my DNA at this point. The original post, which is very much worth seeing, can be viewed here. Excellent work!

The legendary Art Bell just passed away at age 72. As far as radio hosts go, Bell was to paranormal subject matter what someone like Vin Scully was to baseball. If you’ve ever had an interest in aliens or U.F.O.s, the infamous Men in Black, ghosts, cryptids, remote viewing, telekinesis, the Simulation Hypothesis, the Mandela Effect, out-of-body experiences, the Akashic records — not to mention more scientifically legitimized subjects like theoretical physics, “futurism,” or cosmology and astronomy — there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of Bell’s shows Coast to Coast AM and Midnight in the Desert. And you might have tuned in over the years. If you did you probably heard some eyebrow-raising interviews with such people of note as the never-dull Terrence McKenna, authors like Jim Elvidge and Robert Anton Wilson, scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku, remote viewer Ingo Swann, ufologists, and… self-proclaimed time travelers. As a person unfamiliar with the shows might rightly assume, there were, naturally, several charlatans, especially during the call-ins. But that’s part of what made Bell’s forums for fringe subjects so entertaining. They were like all-you-can-eat buffets for all manner of strangeness, ranging from the true, to the plausible, to the hypothetical, to the completely bat-shit insane. If you were in the mood for it you could be alternately puzzled, informed, petrified with terror, intrigued, filled with laughter, and so on.

Though I’d known about them for a while, I only started listening to Bell’s broadcasts in the last several years, via archived files available on the internet. What struck me almost immediately was Bell’s penchant for being a great talker. He instinctively understood how to keep the conversations alive, asking just the right questions, knowing how to draw out the most tantalizing information from his interviewees. Art Bell seemed like a cool guy, a real mensch. And he had a great voice for radio! In an era in which all too many radio hosts have shrill and/or off-putting ways of speaking (I’m looking at you, Alex Jones, and countless “shock-jock” morning DJs), it shouldn’t be taken for granted when a talk show host puts his guests and listeners at ease. I often got the impression that Bell could more than meet his guests halfway, humoring even the least believable of them as a form of courtesy, even if he didn’t completely buy it.

And as a skeptic of sorts, that’s close to my own stance—it’s fun to entertain these things even if I don’t quite believe in most of them. Being a difficult-to-please cinephile, to me it’s more fun to listen to someone talk about how people of the future might theoretically expand human civilization beyond Earth than it is to watch a typically-stylized Hollywood movie about it. Bell created an arena in which people all over the world could communicate about this and many other subjects you weren’t likely to see being covered in the nightly news or on 60 Minutes. He dedicated much of his life to this and in doing so provided a tremendous service, especially in the days before the internet became what it is today. Art Bell will be missed by many, and those interested in a more biographical tribute should be sure not to miss Coast to Coast AM’s own eulogy to him here.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go listen to Giorgio Moroder’s “Chase” on repeat a few times.

Kaji-Pup Records, the independent label I’m associated with, has just put out its second release, and its first recording of 2018! Behold: a split between Leila M. & Tired of Triangles and Tired of Triangles, “The Drowned World” b/w “Z.F.G.”

A scan of the A side of Kaji-Pup Records' second release

In my humble opinion this is, to date, the best recording I’ve had a hand in making. It’s a rather atypical slab of wax in that the A side is a brooding soundscape homage to J.G. Ballard’s second novel of the same name, and the B side is a fuzzed-out rock track with post-punk and psychedelic leanings, not to mention a lot of moving parts and ample “attitude.”

When I have time to catch my breath I might elaborate on this release further, but for now please check it out on Bandcamp at: https://leilamandtiredoftriangles.bandcamp.com/album/the-drowned-world-b-w-z-f-g

And you can hear the tracks on YouTube as well:

Yé-yé girl extraordinare France Gall

A sincere, belated “requiescat in pace” goes out to beloved French chanteuse, and O.G. yé-yé girl extraordinaire, Isabelle “France” Gall. A natural-born singer from a musical family, Gall sold a whopping 200,000 copies of one single at the age of 16. She went on to win the Eurovision contest with a song penned by Serge Gainsbourg and soon her status as an ultra-chic Sixties French pop singer was cemented. Gall was of course known for her beautiful looks and a little “sass” (a bit of it intentional, some of if not). Naturally it didn’t hurt that she managed to work with several worthy songsmiths and musicians over the years, one of whom, Michel Berger, she married. But it was Gall’s golden voice and general goodnatured demure that propelled her career, until her retirement in the mid-1990s.

Though admittedly I haven’t explored all of the France Gall back catalog yet, my personal favorite song of hers is 1968’s “Rue de l’abricot,” which may well be the most “French sounding” post-war composition one is likely to come across. And in the right context who could resist dancing to her 1964 club classic “Laisse tomber les filles,” which reached Number 4 on the Billboard chart and still sounds like sheer seduction? Hell, I’m even fond of Gall’s “Sacré Charlemagne,” which some qualify as children’s music.

Though all of these songs may be attached to an era or series of “moments” in the progression of pop music, they make for very timeless art to me. I hope this music lasts forever.

Leila M. & Tired of Triangles, a musical duo based in Southwest Florida

Near the end of 2016 I met and started hanging out with fellow multidisciplinary artist Leila Mesdaghi. I found Leila charismatic, talented, full of good vibes, and easy to get to know, so it didn’t take long for us to hatch plans to work on an artistic collaboration of some sort. Since she played the traditional Middle Eastern instrument the tanbour (seen above), and I played the electric guitar, working on some music together didn’t seem like such a bad idea. If nothing else it was a healthy distraction from an impending Trump presidency and everything that would go along with it.

Fast forward to mid-August of 2017, and we are pleased to announce the release of a new, sexy little two-song 45rpm seven inch, “Intertwined Destinies” b/w “Crimson Gold,” seen here after being manufactured less than a week ago!

Our band name is naturally Leila M. and Tired of Triangles. This is the first release by the new Florida-based label Kaji-Pup Records. It’s a one-two punch of rhythmic songs that could be said to fall somewhere between Middle Eastern music and heavy rock. I am not 100% sure which genre boxes our music ticks (or doesn’t tick), but suffice it to say we got a big charge out of making it and then hearing the final results, so we decided it was worth taking the plunge and releasing it on wax!

“Intertwined Destines” b/w “Crimson Gold” can be streamed for free, as well as purchased on vinyl and/or digital at our Bandcamp site, at: https://leilamandtiredoftriangles.bandcamp.com/album/intertwined-destinies-b-w-crimson-gold

You can follow Kaji-Pup Records on Facebook here.

Lastly I made a spiel for Youtube in which you can hear me discussing some of the aesthetic and technical considerations that factored into this release. It is maybe a “nerdy” sort of video, but some people so far have said they’ve found it illuminating…

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.