A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF P

Thomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P, directed and produced by the brothers Fosco and Donatello Dubini, is not so much a documentary as it is a homage to that legendary recluse of post modern literature, who wrote books such as “V” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The film is broken down into four appropriate sections: “Paranoia,” “Disappearance,” “Alien Territories,” and “Psychomania,” and its wildly mixed reviews are a bit perplexing.  One would think that a film on such a non-conventional literary figure as Pynchon would at least attempt to be fairly non-conventional in approach.  The Dubini Brothers do not disappoint there. But then, we’ve seen this type of reaction all too often.

A number of Beatles “fans” expressed outrage towards Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe.  What made the Beatles so unique and timeless was they refused to buy into their “religious base.”  Once they were elevated to near divine status, the artists’ response could easily have been to roll with what they (intentional or not) hit upon, follow the formula and keep that money machine rolling (aka: Elvis Presley).  Instead, fans never quite knew what to expect of the fab four.  The “White Album” was as certainly startling, perplexing and unexpected as “Revolver” had been.  Of course, that didn’t keep the pseudo fans from mantling unrealistic expectations on the solo Beatles’ career or from ostracizing any and all experimentation in their gods’ name (Across the Universe).

Pseudo fans from the church of Kubrick did the same thing when that usurper Steven Spielberg dared to take on A.I., possibly the most sublime and exquisite film of the last ten years or more.  The resulting film was actually quite true to Kubrick’s vision and even improved on it.  A.I. also revitalized the art and career of Steven Spielberg.

Pynchon, that vastly complex enigmatic myth, 20th century literature’s wandering saint, modernism’s yeti, has also declined much advocated canonization.  Thankfully, this film was made by true, dyed in the wool fans, not mere gold star wearing members of the Pynchon church/fan club.

Like Pynchon himself, the film is amusing, surreal, perplexing, anarchic, wry, self-mocking, speculative, subversive for the sake of being subversive, and ambiguous. One thing is for certain; A Journey into the Mind of P is hardly orthodox biography.

The bizarre score by The Residents (which surprisingly fits), impersonators, archival news footage, idiosncratic interpretations of 60’s rock, obsessive fans and literary critics are just part of this strange brew that make up the film (and literary critic George Plimpton provides the most memorable quote in the film: “He’s the sort of guy who could turn out an almanac in a week.”)

Wisely, the filmmakers do not try to decipher Pynchon’s work and instead, craft a film, inspired by Pynchon’s work.  There is even an Indiana Jones like hot pursuit of the the author, with Pynchon finally being captured on camera for the first time in 40 years (sound to good to be true?  It probabaly is).

Revealing more in regards to Pynchon’s biography, work, life details, would be the expected thing to do, so in the spirit of the film itself, ….

PIERRE BOULEZ AND THE LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY: INHERITING THE FUTURE OF MUSIC

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,” and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) Stravinsky’s “Rite,” Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,” and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is merely a stuffed-shirt academic. The students at Lucerne are, indeed, inheriting a lifetime’s worth of aesthetic dedication.

The filmmakers follow Boulez’ cue, structuring the film itself with commendable lucidity and professional visuals. It helps tremendously that the Lucerne summer festival provides beautiful location footage. Although Boulez remains an ambiguous personality, he is devoted to what he loves and, in his advanced years, he remains remarkably active in order to ensure the survival of contemporary music. Only the most jaded viewer will be unimpressed. Equally valuable is some of Boulez’ recollections on peers such as Bruno Maderna.

A delightful and valuable example of music on film that is not only an apt homage to an unquestionably great composer, conductor, and teacher, but also a homage to the younger musicians following the lead of the veteran avant-gardist. Boulez seems in no hurry to slow down and we can only hope that he will have many active years ahead of him.

*review from 2012.  Pierre Boulez died, at the age of 90, in January 2016. This was one of the final filmed documents of his work.

ELVIS (1979) & THIS IS ELVIS (1981)

Elvis (1979 Dir . John Carpenter)THIS IS ELVIS (1981)

The life of Elvis Presley is the perfect American grand guignol tale that has never really been captured on film. John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) has finally been released in its full three hour European theatrical version. Some consider it to still be the best film on the subject of Elvis.

Elvis Presely in concert 1950s

Elvis Presley was undoubtedly a phenomenon. He was as poor white trash as poor white trash can get, growing up in a predominantly black Pentecostal church. Many African-Americans have accused him of stealing their music. Actually, it’s all he knew, and he treated it with reverence. Accusations of racism are certainly factual, but only from an off-color perspective. Like Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis had an intense self-loathing for his own blackness.

Elvis Presley 1956Elvis Presely and Colonel Tom Parker

Continue reading

RELIGULOUS (2008)

RELIGULOUS poster

When Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008) premiered, it predictably opened to mixed reviews. Narrated by Maher and directed by Larry Charles, Religulous is a scathing criticism on what the filmmakers see as inherent ignorance and immorality within religion.

ISLAMIC MILITANTS

Critic Brian Orndoff wrote:

Most of the ammo is reserved for Christianity. Instead of confrontations that shatter myths and raise consciousness, Religulous goes for cheap laughs, manipulating footage to make the participants resemble complete boobs. Maher has the sense to pump the brakes around Islam, treading carefully. Salient points are made about this furiously hot-potato faith, but Maher is noticeably outgunned, challenging the history of Islamic bloodshed from behind the comfort of news clips and sheepish concessions. The way the Middle East rumbles these days, how could anyone blame him?

SALEM WITCH TRIALS

Indeed, the first third of Religulous concentrates solely on Christianity. However, Maher, who wrote the film, was raised as an American Catholic, though with a Jewish heritage. Often, writing is most effective when it focuses on what one knows, and Maher seems to know Christianity. Yet, what he primarily depicts is a particular variety of fundamentalist Christianity. While polls vary in regards to the percentages of American “liturgical” Christians in contrast to “fundamentalist” Christians, few would argue that the latter comprise the bulk of stereotypes of the faith. Continue reading

CUBAN STORY (1959) AND CUBAN REBEL GIRLS (1959)

Cuban Rebel Girls poster

In the late 1950s movie star Errol Flynn owned a movie theater in Havana.  Not the beautifully chiseled Flynn from The Adventures of Robin Hood, but a fat 50 year old has-been, yellowed with cirrhosis, eaten up with syphilis and dodging numerous creditors, including the IRS, with his latest teen age girlfriend: fourteen year old Beverly Aadland. Flynn, probably feeling his self-fulfilled hour (which predictably came shortly after) wanted to sow his macho oats one last time in the thick of the Cuban revolution (clearly, he wasn’t up to it).

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Flynn, with Producer Victor Pahlen, made this pseudo-documentary about Flynn’s meeting Castro, although this meeting is only seen in photographs.

Errol Flynn with Castro

The film proclaims Flynn a sympathizer with Castro’s Batista Regime (paradoxically, he was also posthumously charged with being a fascist sympathizer during WWII).  Most likely, this was a feeble effort, on the part of Pahlen and Flynn, to cash in on being in the right place at the right time.

Cuban Rebel Girls lobby card

Cuban Story [AKA The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution] was only screened once, in Moscow, and disappeared until Pahlen’s daughter released it the early 2000s. This utterly bizarre film begins with Flynn drunkenly narrating (more like a strained slur), from a cheap office, something about “freedom fighters.”  Flynn, with long cigarette hanging from his mouth, picks up a globe to show viewers “‘where Cuba is” and then throws the globe off camera. It can be heard bouncing off the wall.  The remaining film narration (credited to Flynn, although it clearly is not) is frequently incoherent, pro-Castro, and pro-terrorist. Continue reading

Karajan, Or, Beauty As I See It: Ambitious, compelling, beautifully complex, and commendably close

KARAJAN OR BEAUTY AS I SEE IT

Robert Dornhelm’s film Beauty As I See It is a compelling, ambitious documentary on the life and career of the late conductor Herbert Von Karajan, who, more than any other musician of the twentieth century, made an obsessive, downright bizarre fetish of surface beauty in musical interpretation.

KARAJAN PERFECT HAIR

A billion words have probably been written about Karajan, from the adulation of Richard Osborne, who surprisingly wrote the fairly well balanced biography, “Karajan, a Life in Music,” to Norman Lebrecht, author of the intentionally provocative “The Maestro Myth” who sometimes likens Karajan to Lucifer himself. 2009 was the centenary of Karajan’s birth and, predictably, the Berlin celebration garnered intense praise and intense criticism.

KARAJAN CONDUCTING

Karajan (who died in 1989) left far more audio recordings and filmed performances than any other conductor in history. His last series of films, for Sony, were produced, edited, and directed by himself, sparing no expense. Karajan is often lit from below, like a descending deity. This was the conductor’s final valentine to himself.

HERBERT VON KARAJAN Continue reading

A LUCID & ENTHUSIASTIC HOMAGE TO A GREAT ARTIST

“Oh, I hate that man. He left his wife and children, was cruel to Van Gogh, and bedded down all those Tahitian girls. I just cannot look at his paintings.” This is a simple-minded, uninformed, dull, and predictable comment that I have little patience or tolerance for, and I have heard it countless times whenever I list Paul Gauguin among the painters I identify with aesthetically. Several films have been made about about Gauguin, yet none of them have caught his essence, at least until this documentary by Waldemar Januszczak. It is not a perfect film, but Gauguin is vividly present in it.

Donald Sutherland starred as Gauguin in the 1986 film Oviri, directed by Henning Carlson. In that film, the banker Gauguin and his wife, Matte, are on a Sunday horse and carriage ride with his co-workers and their wives. The financiers engage in shop talk while Gauguin broods. Finally, the frustrated painter taps the carriage driver on the shoulder and tells him to stop. Gauguin looks at his wife and peers and says, “You are my jailers.” With that, he jumps out of the carriage and walks off to find his paradise. A nice story but one that is a total fiction, buying into the painter’s mythology.

In actuality, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), contrary to the repeated myths, was not a millionaire banker. He was a successful stock broker. He did not quit his job. The stock market crashed and he lost his job. Gauguin, who had been a “Sunday” painter for years, felt that this was reason enough to pursue painting full time, something he had been longing to do. It was with this that his wife left him. Gauguin did not desert his wife and five children. His wife rejected him after he lost his income as a stockbroker.

Art critic Waldemar Januszczak attempts to set the record straight. “What’s to like about this man?,” Januszczak asks. “First of all, there is the art, which needs no defense. Gauguin painted some of the world’s most alluring woman and put them into several of the world’s most gorgeous pictures, but what I really like about him is that he did it for big and noble reasons.” And then, most aptly, he says, “There is always more to a Gauguin than meets the eye.” Januszczak covers those “big and noble reasons,” but falls a little short in the “more than meets the eye” comment (more on that later).

Continue reading

An Aptly Titled Boulezian Primer

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,”and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) , Stravinsky’s “Rite,”Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,”and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is merely a stuffed-shirt academic. The students at Lucerne are, indeed, inheriting a lifetime’s worth of aesthetic dedication.

The filmmakers follow Boulez’ cue, structuring the film itself with commendable lucidity and professional visuals. It helps tremendously that the Lucerne summer festival provides beautiful location footage. Although Boulez remains an ambiguous personality, he is devoted to what he loves and, in his advanced years, he remains remarkably active in order to ensure the survival of contemporary music. Only the most jaded viewer will be unimpressed. Equally valuable is some of Boulez’ recollections on peers such as Bruno Madera.

A delightful and valuable example of music on film that is not only an apt homage to an unquestionably great composer, conductor, and teacher, but also a homage to the younger musicians following the lead of the veteran avant-gardist. Boulez seems in no hurry to slow down and we can only hope that he will have many active years ahead of him