Friday, April 28, 2006

Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl

I had wanted to see Martel's La Ciénaga, her first feature, but had access to her second, La niña santa/The Holy Girl. Wow, what an amazing talent Martel is. But what I like the most is her use of sound, particularly as connective tissue between scenes and how she uses sound in the final scene of the film (plus the narrative and soundtrack feature a theremin! If you go to the website that's the instrument playing). I found myself unable to focus all the way through, I think it was an uncomfortably claustrophobic film, both in its emotional content and cinematic grammar. A good example is Martel's close ups with over the shoulder shots with out of focus ears of the listener or watcher and the in focus shot of Amalia's bisected face which actor María Alché invests with such teenage coming of age complexity I felt like I was under her skin (see left). The sensation reminded me of why I'm grateful to no longer be a teenager. Even with some of the tight shots Martel gives her actors a lot of emotional space to work their instrument. I realize this is an atypical experience for me as a viewer. As director Alison Anders has pointed out, popular US contemporary film structure has developed through increasingly quick edits, so actors have little time to actually practice their craft within a shot. There are of course exceptions, recent ones include Anders' own Things Behind the Sun and Spike Lee's The 25th Hour . In general character driven work encourages employment of the old adage that 70% of the success of a film comes from casting. So already you're dealing with a history that has formed outside of a film's production, gathering actors that can hold the energy of a scene, particularly a stillness which I think is an amazing skill.

Ah, but Martel, she casts María Alché as Amalia, the niña santa in question who reminds me of a young Jeanne Moreau, and a little bit of Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight, in the eyes. But the gaze of Alché's Amalia is focused in such a different manner than that of Rodriguez's Diana. Amalia is emerging from the comparatively simple focus of childhood to that juncture when girls become both beacons and attractors of various gazes forcing the refractions of a number of points of light. OK, I'm working on that metaphor. I mean to say that while Diana is emerging from a morass of confusion and anger, the discipline and boundaries of the boxing ring and what must be done within it focuses her emotions and allows her to access her core self which is more than just an embodied reaction to her father's failings and her mother's suicide. Amalia is part of her Catholic church's religious group for young girls in which the girls engage in earnest theological discussion, most recently on the subject of vocation. The stories of women's vocational calling collected by the girls featuring precipitators of mayhem and bloody deaths and other explosive encounters, with their car crash and expelling of bodily fluid symbolism, seem to speak to the conflation of the girls' erupting hormones with their search for a vocation. This is particularly true for Amalia whose surrounding world, the protracted adolescence of a mother (the amazing Mercedes Morán who was in La Ciénaga, and played Celia de la Serna in Diarios de motocicleta/The Motorcycle Diaries) and uncle (Alejandro Urdapilleta) who have raised her in the, as of late, crumbling playground of the family hotel seems to have left her both vulnerable to the whims of strangers (one in particular played with anxious normalcy by Carlos Belloso) and hungry for a higher purpose. Another fascinating aspect of Martel's filmmaking is that she doesn't believe in audiences losing themselves while watching her films, or any film. She doesn't believe that losing oneself makes for the best filmgoing experience. Instead if the film makes them reflect on their lives while watching the it that's the desired experience. I wondered if this was Brechtian influence, except she's not alienating the audience with a preponderance of artiface or by creating less than a total environment. But it was interesting to me because it was the first time I've ever heard a filmmaker posit that view of the film audience's experience. The upshot is there are some amazing performances across about three generations in this film, with the two young actors at the center of the story turning in some incredibly thoughtful work.

Welcome to my blog, Daphne A. Brook's Grace, and what my friend wanted me to write about

Ah, my first post. Welcome to, audiologo, my blog! I've been debating whether or not to start one for a while. But then I found myself posting rather long replies to other people's blogs and wanting to get all tangential and that was a sign. So here I am. We'll see how it goes. I imagine that like many others I will see if I make it to 365 days.

I have just finished reading Grace, Daphne Brook's study of Jeff Buckley's classic album Grace, the latter which I am listening to as I write this post. I have to admit that I came to knowledge of Buckley rather late. I was interviewing musician/producer/engineer/educator, Terri Winston, in 2002 for an archive on women in audio production and she had dedicated a song to him on The Blue Album, her first solo CD. I followed Buckley's name to the Grace album, then to various websites and articles. Like many I was initially stunned by his musical ability--both as a guitar player and a vocalist--and then again by his premature death at age 30. However, soon thereafter I found myself a little bothered by the ways in which fans seemingly failed to acknowledge the amalgam that Buckley had created in his vocal interpretations. Notably the absent acknowledgment of African American musics. I could hear gospel, Prince, and Al Green, some Marvin Gaye (although I think I'm alone on that association), as well as Stevie Wonder in some of the background vocal arrangements.

While at the Experience Music Project's 2005 Pop Conference in Seattle I heard that Continuum was just about to publish Brooks work as part of its 33 1/3 popular music series, and my interest was peaked for a few reasons. Mainly because of Brooks' sensitivity and intelligence as a thinker, her charming yet incisive honesty, as well as her lyrical way with the academic-speak. Her prose often communicates play and pleasure not always evident among theorists. In much of the work
Brooks, a professor in the English Department at Princeton, clearly evidences a sincere joy dancing with language, and a serious fearlessness in delving into the sensual and musically rigorous world of Buckley. In so doing she unabashedly shares her own love for Buckley detailing the amount of Grace album time it took to get from her home to the parking area at UCLA where she was a graduate student, as well as her experience of Buckley's reportedly transcendent live concerts (witness the prolific amount of posthumous live CD offerings during an era when major labels often only let megastar bands make live albums--of course it also takes real chops to make a live album). Additionally,
she's upfront in consulting with an actual guitarist as a result her delineating of Buckley's technical variations and guitar set up actually figure into her analysis of his creative trajectory and the formation of his various sounds. What also attracted me to the project is that Brooks, (pictured right) a professor of English at Princeton, is an African American cultural critic invested in Black Feminist Rock Criticism. while she advocates for a space being made at the predominantly white male rock critic table, she also has gone on about the business of being a Black Feminist Rock Critic who produces Black Feminist Rock Criticism and interrogates it as a model for critical inquiry.

Buckley benefits from Brooks work in this mode because along with being versed in the Robert Plant-Led Zeppelin school of vocalizing, guitar-vocal interplay, cock-rock postering and emo-man/boy emotional-cul-de-sac-prone wanderings, Brooks has also done serious work piecing together Buckley's relationship to gender and race (she cites his book collection which included "Beat and African-American poetry, sociology, folklore, Greek classics, political theory, cultural ethnographies, and historical biographies...[and] some of the most culturally and theoretically engaging works on gender and culture." [115]). This leads to some of Brook's most provocative discussion, wherein she highlights the ways in which Buckley was carving out a new geneological path for himself within rock music, one which drew not just on the canonized legacy traced by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and other white blues-based bands who point to Robert Johnson give a quick glance to Tina Turner (if at all, even though Merry Clayton's spine-tingling notes on "Gimme Shelter" is what gives that song its driving urgency, for more on Clayton see this Funky16Corners Blog entry) and keep on steppin'. Brooks gives considerable time to Buckley's female musical influences, including Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and in particular Judy Garland, Edith Piaf and Nina Simone. About Buckley's relationship to the last of these masterful vocal interpreters Brooks says:
From his scorching, bluesy rendtion of "Be Your Husband," to his chiming, experimental reworking of "That's All I Ask" with a full band, Buckley was a fiend for covering Nina Simone standards throughout his career. During the Grace sessions, he used the café studio setup to perform a heart-breaking cover of Simon'e "The Other Woman." As a white male rock artist unafraid to embrace the musical genius and influence of a black female musician, Buckley seized upon inhabiting Simone's parable of an elegant woman living in the shadows of a triangulated relationship. In his studio performance of "The Other Woman," Buckley shows he is more than capable of gently rendering in gorgeous, almost rapturous quietude the delicate beauty of this song. At the same time, he absolutely nails Simone's uniquely remarkable and sinuous vocal escalation. [123]
And then there is this
What's different about Buckley though was a matter of both strategy and context. He made use of covering Simone's material in particular in order to excavate legacies of eccentricity (such as Simone's) that have long gone underappreciated in relation to rock. All the more gutsy that he staged this recovery in the midst of early-to-mid-90s white riot rock revolution. More still, even beyond his literal Simone covers, Buckley wisely invoked methods of excess in vocalizing to make singing and the song itself matter in powerful ways in "alternative" rock culture. This is nowhere more apparent than on his Grace cover of "Lilac Wine," a song made popular by Simone in the late 60s. [125]
That made me go back and listen to Buckley's "Lilac Wine" (and "click," I totally heard the N.S. inflections) and initiated a thirst for as much Nina Simone as I could get my hands on. For me, this was quite an enjoyable and inspiring read.

But what about women seeking to push gender boundaries in vocal delivery? I wondered what the model is for women. The opposite? A woman who allows herself an unbridled assertion of macho posturing and inflection. Is this truly liberating? Arguably it was for Joan Jett (but Lita Ford?) and continues to be so for The Donnas, although a lot of that posturing intimates an sexual aggressor posture: I can top you before you can top me. But I wondered about women who are attempting to traverse a parallel emotional-spiritual sensual musical path. Why don't women get the same points as men for being able to access complex emotions and exhibit a complicated vulnerability. Is it really easier for Kate Bush to write and sing "This Woman's Work" for example, than it is for Maxwell to cover it in a trembling falsetto?
Or does the parallel path call for the inverse--an intensity that is restrained and spare, with the instensity contained in the few notes used where even the recorded breath matters (which is similar to Buckley's rendition of "Hallelujah"). I was sifting through the women that were mining this terrain simultaneously as instrumentalists and vocalists and I came up with Me'Shell NdegéOcello around the time of Bitter. The album is marked by spare arrangements and instrumentation, but not a lot of bass as though the weight of the instrument would break the fragile structure of many of the songs. Of course Pastorius proved a bass can have a feathery touch, nevertheless the absence of the bass focuses the listener on the depths of NdegéOcello's lower register isolating her voice and adding to the level of intimacy in these songs that are all about that struggle. On the flip side with bigger instrumentation is Björk emoting "All Is Full of Love" on Homogenic. Again with the inclusion of intimate breath in the recording. However, Björk's instrumentation and arrangements are all behind the scenes. Björk holds the typically feminized space of the vocalist and her power is localized in her voice. For Björk as well as Simone, Betty Carter and other female vocalists who not only were unique interpreters but also wrote music, headed up their own bands, and created their own arrangements, having the voice as a primary instrument elicited the bias many, including other musicians, have against viewing vocalists as legitimate musicians instead of as band eye-candy (male or female).


So, I've been watching the whole
Buffy the Vampire Slayer series on DVD, along with much of the commentary. Why, you might wonder? Because I've been looking at race and teen narratives in visual media culture. Anyway, I'm watching "Wild at Heart" (Season 4, Episode 6, airdate November 9, 1999) when Oz (Seth Green), the young eccentric stoic who is Willow's boyfriend and a werewolf realizes that he's got to leave Sunnydale to get his dark werewolf side under control, especially since it led him to betray Willow with a female werewolf. Ah, young love. Anyway, I'm listening to the commentary which is being done by writers/producers Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon, and actor Seth Green (Oz aka Daniel Osbourne). A young Asian American man who is obviously an extra appears on the screen (pictured below right, second from the left). One after the other Green and then Whedon announce, "there's Asian Dan!" and then with seeming affection "oh yeah, Asian Dan!" Noxon chimes in and short jocular conversation ensues about how long "Asian Dan" was an extra on the show, including speculation how often he appeared on the show, and if he was ever the butt of any jokes (he wasn't). (Listen to their exchange in my May 2, 2006 audiopost.) Then they move on to the next part of the commentary. I mention this to my friend W. who says, "you have to write about that!" But I have to say I don't know what I would write.

Sadly, I'm not surprised that they're completely unaware of how offensive that labeling might be. Knowing Joss Whedon's sensitivity on the subject it's highly unlikely anyone would be referred to as
"gay (fill-in-the-name-of-the-extra)" (Whedon had writer Drew Z. Greenberg revise a scene in Season 6 where two young men were punished for loutish behavior towards witches Willow and her friend Amy by being made to make out with each other; Whedon didn't want the idea that being gay was a punishment. Instead the young women turned them into caged, dancing go-go boys). Presumably there was a "white Dan" or "Caucasian Dan" from whom "Asian Dan" was meant to be differentiated, but I never heard him mentioned in any of the commentaries. Nor did I hear mention of a "Black Dan" or "Latino Dan".

Comedian/actor Margaret Cho commented in a recent Venus Magazine interview that she couldn't understand why it was still OK for people to make jokes about Asians. I think the reasons for this are complicated, and have to do with facets of the culturally located differential resistance strategies that have been deployed at different points around Asian American visibility and citizen rights, as well as issues of fetishization within dominant culture and in some non-Asian American marginalized cultures as well that then feed into dominant culture hegemony. But I know my limitations, so that's all I'm saying W. If they haven't already, maybe someone will write about intersections between
Buffy commentary, Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts, a seemingly politically aware Asian American graffiti artists borrowing from stereotypical anti-Asian imagery to produce Adidas sneaker designs, and how European American entertainment writers, while interviewing Korean American Margaret Cho, comfortably initiate jokes at her expense about Cho being mistaken for Chinese American celebrities actress Lucy Liu and National Geographic journalist Lisa Ling. At least I hope so. (Thanks to j's theater for the heads up on the Adidas sneaker story.)

Here's another final shot of Extra Dan (far right) leaving the frame behind Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan in this scene. I can't find an credit listing for Mr. Dan, does anyone know his full name?