Monday, February 18, 2019

Pazz & Jop 2018

 Albums:
10. Kids See Ghosts: Kids See Ghosts (GOOD/Def Jam)
The key moment here is a reverse Louis Prima sample sending Santa back up the chimney. Because despite references to Lacoste, Loewe, Miuccia Prada, Herzog & De Meuron, and Art Basel, a feeling of deprivation pervades this Kanye West/Kid Cudi entry in GOOD Music's line of EPs. In short (24 minutes to be exact), here's yet another reminder that a hip-hop life of luxury can cover up a lot of pain. What lifts it above standard-issue sad sackery is a generosity inherent in the myriad weird sounds and the latest tour through Kanye's sample bank. Most generous element: the 24 minutes.

9. Tal National: Tantabara (Fat Cat)
My favorite hectoring disco of the decade remains Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran, recorded a mere 2,500 miles away from this Niger collective's latest, greatest album. But both provide shelter from a decade-plus of EDM's drop abuse. Finally - dance music with no give to it! "Est-ce que tout le monde vous êtes chauds? Vous êtes prêts? C'est Tal National sur la place! On y va!"

8. Parquet Courts: Wide Awaaaaake! (Rough Trade)
Ok, sure, their lyrics are self-righteous. But it took about 15 listens to notice because this is where these hard-working Americans reach for broader appeal without compromising their punk 'n' roll one iota. Funk moves and keyboard textures and beer hall choruses and Danger Mouse's sparkly production all help the (I'd say) righteous anger go down. And yo - doesn't the world's currently reigning greatest English-singing/lecturing guitar-bass-drum combo deserve to be self-righteous?

7. Gazelle Twin: Pastoral (Anti-Ghost Moon Ray)
A pungent counterpart to the Parquet Courts album, Elizabeth Bernholz's latest slab of electro art-stomp out-Fever Rayed Fever Ray this year. Funny sometimes, enraged always, these hymns for the international underclass of precarious laborers evoke a world where "it's the Middle Ages but with lesser wages." It begins with Bernholz sarcastically intoning "much better in my day" 46 times in 2:50, a barn burner I will play/post upon encountering any empty nostalgia. It ends with a truncated, sardonic take on the traditional British army recruitment song "Over the Hills and Far Away." All throughout, hard work is no virtue and synthetic sounds wrack your nerves. Manna: when Bernholz maintains the Baba O'Rileyisms of "Little Lambs" into the next track with a only slight key change.

6. Cucina Povera: Hilja (Night School)
A pungent counterpart to the Gazelle Twin album, Hilja is what might happen if the KonMari Method were applied to an album. Or if an album were recorded at the end of the world. Or maybe the beginning of the world. Much of these spare, searching tracks sound like water chants from the dawn of humankind. Glasgow-based, Finland-born Maria Rossi's recitations seek life in spooked-out spaces. But for all its otherwordliness, the sonic signature feels rooted in a precarious present. Thoughtful definition of cucina povera provided. "A style of southern Italian traditional cooking associated with precarity and making-do."

 5. Eartheater: IRISIRI (Pan)
Alexandra Drewchin's Eartheater project reminds me of a more songful, less shticky Lisa Suckdog. Here a pitch-challenged b-girl, there an ethereal space sprite, she persona-plays as a matter of course because "this body is a chemistry mystery / these tits are just a side-effect." Her ubiquitous harp glissandi find the outer limits of the universe. And she brought along my favorite art-music gals (Odwalla1221) for the flight.

4. Kali Uchis: Isolation (Virgin)
"But why would I be Kim? I could be Kanye." And right before that, a Smiths reference! So damn right she could be Kanye with an album of such bent, what's it say here on Discogs, "contemporary R&B, neo soul, bossanova, reggaeton, trip hop," whew.

3. Double Dee & Steinski: Lesson 4: The Beat (https://ddsteinski.bandcamp.com/)
The only time I get oldmanyellsatcloud.jpg with young folks (I hope) is when I remind them that it took me *three years* to find a bootleg of Doug DiFranco and Steve Stein's world-turning 1985 EP The Payoff Mix/Lesson Two/Lesson 3. But now I feel all old man again because this 40-years-aborning follow-up elicited virtual tumbleweeds. Over eleven minutes of funk tumble, "Lesson 4" strings together the voices of preachers condemning the demon beat of various popular musics. But the three-minute "This Music" might be even better. Some dorky music expert claims to know a little bit about hip-hop (I think). But the mixmeisters take him to school by filling every nook with their sample wizardry.

2. Cupcakke: Ephorize (Bigger Picture)
"Crayons" is the best-ever LGBT anthem (why, yes, we are brave for takin' anal). "Spoiled Milk Titties" is the best of the two or three songs in popular music history to make me blush. "Duck Duck Goose" and "Cinnamon Toast Crunch" are the best songs to chant repeatedly and annoy everyone in your vicinity. "Total" and "Fullest" are the best songs that should have stormed Billboard's entropic Hot 100 in 2018. And Elizabeth Eden Harris is the best damn rapper on the planet right now.

1. The Verboden Boys (Belfast Chapter): Band From Reality - The Complete Demos (Doggy Bag)
OMG! You're not into extratone, the world's fastest new genre?!? Actually, it just sounds like gabber to me, at least according to the samples provided in this useful Bandcamp Daily feature. Luckily, I scrolled down to the comments where I was informed that this album's speed setting was "absurd." Apparently part of a collective with chapters in Melbourne and Antwerp, these Verboden Boys manage to shape their noise assaults into song-like blats with discrete parts. I'll admit that some of this is mere sound effects if you admit that "Call the Police" belongs on a list of the wildest, most uncompromising hardcore punk blurs ever. 


Singles:
10. Kacey Musgraves: "Space Cowboy" (MCA Nashville)
A rejoinder to Cole Porter, Neil Young, and, let's see here, Steve Miller, Clint Eastwood, Jamiroquai, The Jonzun Crew, and, why not, Space Cowboy (Sly Stone too?). And all because there's actually a comma between the two words of the title.

9. Cassie: "Don’t Play It Safe" (Bad Boy)
Cassie Ventura hasn't hit the R&B Top 40 since 2006 when her last (and only) album-not-mixtape was released. So the heft of this sleek noir is completely unheralded. Its modest drama and moody synths earn it a place on my forever-forthcoming sequel to David Toop's disquiet storm collection Sugar and Poison.

8. Cardi B ft. Kehlani: "Ring" (Atlantic)
Such an adept already that she can make music out of sobbing to the sound of silence, i.e., the phone that won't ring. Crucial assist from Kehlani who tugs at our tear ducts. And like "Don’t Play It Safe," it's over in under three minutes. Punch out that ballad and move on.

7. Ravyn Lenae: "Sticky" (Atlantic)
Slinky-not-sticky workout from a R&B hopeful who changes vocal register every few seconds with a confidence belying her 19 years of age. Produced and co-written by The Internet's Steve Lacy who performed the same functions on the best (and funkiest) track from Kali Uchis' Isolation.

6. Lil Yachty ft. Playboi Carti: "Get Dripped" (Capitol/Motown/Quality Control)
5. Chief Keef ft. Playboi Carti: "Uh Uh" (Glory Boyz Entertainment/RBC)
For one rapper on the way up and the other hangin' in there on a raft of mixtapes, I can understand the appeal of giving a guest spot to one of the most eccentric rappers of the era. But you run the risk of having him upstage you, especially since Carti's timbre gets even more eccentric in guest mode, something akin to Fire Marshall Bill as a toddler. Keef fares better in his hyper verse. But Carti owns the track by whining the title hook amidst an envelope of backward swirls. And on "Get Dripped," both principals get stuck in a winningly obnoxious video game loop.

4. Migos ft. Nicki Minaj and Cardi B: "MotorSport" (Capitol/Motown/Quality Control)
Under the influence of Simon Reynolds' masterful auto-tune essay, I would place Culture II on my top ten today. The key was this observation from Sadmanbarty which Reynolds highlighted: "The backing vocals (not the ad libs) sound like murmurs from a Martian crypt." And now I cannot get enough of the tension between those presumably spiritual moans and the sinful ethos of never having too much jewelry, Saturday night and Sunday morning slammed together. But this lead single was an easy sell given that the two reigning queens of hip-hop go toe-to-toe here. No matter who comes out ahead, though, those murmurs throw the entire track into an epistemological tizzy. Where is thing this coming from?

3. Travis Scott ft. Drake: “Sicko Mode” (Cactus Jack/Grand Hustle/Epic)
Like bartenders who overpour and restaurateurs whose dinners double as lunch tomorrow, recording artists who offer several songs in one provide the best (but not necessarily the healthiest) consumer value. "Sicko Mode" is no Beyoncé: "Countdown." But you feel almost as drunk/stuffed afterward. (burps)

2. Doja Cat: “Mooo!” (RCA/Kemosabe)
Not since Gino Washington's 1964 masterpiece "Gino is a Coward" has so much room been discovered in democracy. Washington proved his prowess by deeming himself a coward. Doja Cat boasts she's a cow and goes viral. Both risk ridicule on their soapboxes and reap sublimity in return.

1. Childish Gambino: “This Is America” (mcDJ/RCA)
This is pop too where a song can get refracted into discourses without end. That "This Is America" seems designed to engender that effect matters only insofar as the ploy works. On that front, the sometimes Donald Glover succeeds. The song's most life-affirming aspect is that a black man has inspired a cottage industry dedicated to interpreting his ambiguities and, with a # 1 hit, he can enjoy all that money grandma told him to get. Miraculously, however, "This Is America" succeeds as music too. I fell in love with its rumble on my brother-in-law's shitty car stereo before I saw the discourse-multiplying video and I continue to discover all manner of pleasures in its supposedly skeletal mix. And it's all about refraction in the end. Like "Sicko Mode," song gets refracted into several songs, a form suitable for a new Gilded Age in which American workers get refracted into flexible labor, most definitely including the rapper/actor/director/writer/etc. up top.

Albums:
1. The Verboden Boys (Belfast Chapter): Band From Reality - The Complete Demos (Doggy Bag)
2. Cupcakke: Ephorize (Bigger Picture)
3. Double Dee & Steinski: Lesson 4: The Beat (https://ddsteinski.bandcamp.com/)
4. Kali Uchis: Isolation (Virgin)
5. Eartheater: IRISIRI (Pan)
6. Cucina Povera: Hilja (Night School)
7. Gazelle Twin: Pastoral (Anti-Ghost Moon Ray)
8. Parquet Courts: Wide Awaaaaake! (Rough Trade)
9. Tal National: Tantabara (Fat Cat)
10. Kids See Ghosts: Kids See Ghosts (GOOD/Def Jam)

Singles:
1. Childish Gambino: “This Is America” (mcDJ/RCA)
2. Doja Cat: “Mooo!” (RCA/Kemosabe)
3. Travis Scott ft. Drake: “Sicko Mode” (Cactus Jack/Grand Hustle/Epic)
4. Migos ft. Nicki Minaj and Cardi B: "MotorSport" (Capitol/Motown/Quality Control)
5. Chief Keef ft.  Playboi Carti: "Uh Uh" (Glory Boyz Entertainment/RBC)
6. Lil Yachty ft. Playboi Carti: "Get Dripped" (Motown/Quality Control)
7. Ravyn Lenae: "Sticky" (Atlantic)
8. Cardi B ft. Kehlani: "Ring" (Atlantic)
9. Cassie: "Don’t Play it Safe" (Bad Boy)
10. Kacey Musgraves: "Space Cowboy" (MCA Nashville)

New to me:

Loud Sun: "Teen Pyramids" - Mysterioso dream chug with lyrics that mention Tom Petty. But who does that filtered voice remind me of?!?

Minihorse: "Slow Song" - Deadpan cover of a song off the first Sleater-Kinney album, all the better to highlight S-K's songwriting genius.

Spiny Normen: Spiny Normen - Never-released mid-1970s hard psych from Houston with ooky Mellotron hooks. Even the flute works. Fall in love with "Arrowhead."

Oh Yes We Can Love: The History of Glam Rock - Where the new, intermittently incredible All the Young Droogs collection burrows deep, this five-disc 2013 box treats glam as a mode instead of a genre, casting a hair net from Noël Coward to Goldfrapp. Includes a track from Gay Dad's hyperbolically underrated (not an oxymoron) Leisure Noise.

San Francisco Disco Preservation Society (https://sfdps.org/https://sfdps.org/) - A repository for historic live DJ mixes, some reaching deep back into the 1970s. They're up to 209 right now and the ones I've heard have done what great mixes always do - introduce me to new classics or  recontextualize old faves in the mix. The best so far come courtesy of DJ Wendy Hunt. Her Live At Prelude - One Car Crash 10-14-80 contains an astonishing mixing moment at 54:25 when she lays the superior Disconet remix of Poussez!: "Never Gonna Say Goodbye" over Kano: "It's a War." The most eclectic is Old Disco - May 20, 1981 which moves from power pop (The Elevators' "Girlfriend's Girlfriend") to Broadway-bound DOR (The Quick's "Sharks Are Cool, Jets Are Hot") to str8-up new wave (the Night Version [!] of Duran Duran's "Planet Earth), then a few masterpieces (Yarbrough & Peoples' "Don't Stop the Music" into Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" into Billy Squier's "The Stroke"), then twenty minutes of disco ludetopia (Magnifique's "Magnifique" into "Lime's "Your Love" into ABBA's "Lay All Your Love on Me") and, towards the end of the evening, it climaxes where it must with The Skatt Bros.' sado-disco chestnut "Walk the Night." And more!

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Best Films of 2018

10. La Flor (Mariano Llinás)
Across three days at the New York Film Festival, nearly 15 hours of alternately infuriating and exhilarating art damage. 
9. Night Pulse (Damon Packard)  
Packard is a national treasure and his latest conniption fit takes on the Poppy Bush Interzone, particularly 1991. Characters include Dick Cheney, USA Up All Night host Rhonda Shear, Julia Roberts, Kim Fowley, Sade, Janet Jackson, William Friedkin, Geddy Lee, and "the drummer from Roxy Music." Subjects include the poppy fields of Afghanistan, the Illuminati, the death of the CD, multiplexes, the Los Angeles riots, and the DuPont Family (I think). The genre is the psychological thriller as told by unnaturally lit, Snapchat-cured dialogue spewers stuck in digital loops and endless chase scenes. The feel is paranoid, nerve-wracked, stuck. The message (or one at least): Even the Keepers of the Matrix are in a (the?) Matrix. 
8. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami)
The Iranian master's final film. Or photograph. Or animated photograph. Or magic lantern show. Or screen saver. Or stereogram. Or...
7. Nightlife (Cyprien Gaillard)
Eternal thanks to the Gladstone Gallery for the United States premiere of Gaillard's 2015 eye-dazzling 3-D meditation on race, nature, and cross-pollination, all scored to a gut-wrenching sample of Alton Ellis' "Blackman's Word" repeating "I was born a loser." 
6. Wishing Well (Sylvia Schedelbauer)
My favorite film at the New York Film Festival brings cinema back to (one of) its origins in the novelty of motion pictures with still and moving images pulling at one another as they tumble down a vortex. It's such a generous vision that the title is as much a verb as a noun. 
5. Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada) 
It plumbs deeper into the subjectivity of its black male principal character (Daveed Diggs, superb) than Sorry to Bother You, bursts with more ideas than BlacKkKlansman, and, like Baby Driver, is a de facto musical to boot! There are several corny moments but this ranks with Mikey and Nicky as one of the most pungent explorations of male friendship on film.
4. Dead Souls (Wang Bing) 
Grim, artless, displaying little confidence in film's ability to testify, Wang's 495-minute record of the forced starvation of "rightists" in late-1950s China stands as one of cinema's great testimonials.
3. Avatar - Flight of Passage (Walt Disney Imagineering, LEI,  Weta Digital) 
I had to be dragged kicking and bitching last summer to my first trip to Disney World in over 25 years. But this 4D flight simulation through Avatar's Valley of Mo'ara damn near justified the grotesque expenditure. It takes the irrational enlargement of cinema to a tumescence undreamt of in the surrealists' philosophy. Next attraction: Josef von Sternberg Land. 
2. Eniaios IV, Reel 2 (Gregory Markopoulos)
The Museum of the Moving Image unleashed one sliver of the Markopoulos' 80-hour monument, a 40-minute re-edit of his 1967 Bliss (shown below and also screened in the program) alternating flashes of light with black leader at unpredictable intervals and reorienting our concepts of previously self-evident truths of weight and, especially, height. As with so many avant-garde masterpieces, part of the immense pleasure lies in learning how to watch it.
1. The Films of Betzy Bromberg
Anthology Film Archives' retrospective introduced a filmmaker unknown to me whom I now rank among the greatest ever. I downed four punkish shorts from 1977-1981 and three recent feature-length films and all were astonishing. But a Darkness Swallowed (2006) is quite possibly the most gorgeous film I've ever seen. Confounding the ears as much as the eyes (and kicking off a major Creel Pone obsession immediately after), it begins with a brief meditation on two old photographs and then plumbs down into a universe of increasing abstraction. The lasting effect is one of wonder about the worlds lurking beneath our immediate perception.
Most overrated film of the year:  
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay) 

Saw it in 70mm and never again need to see it in that format:  
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Two excellent films with awful endings:
Burning (Lee Chang-dong)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

Three fantastic explorations of space/de facto westerns:
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Sollers Point (Matthew Porterfield)
Western (Valeska Grisebach) 

Two great films, one great director:
Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
High Life (Claire Denis)

Better than even Mandy:
Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor)


Best Unearthing:
Assignment: Female (Raymond Phelan, 1966) in Anthology Film Archives' Beyond Cassavetes: Lost Legends Of The New York Film World (1945-70) series 

Other Highlights:
The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles) on 35mm at the New York Film Festival 
Show & Tell: Helga Fanderl at Anthology Film Archives
Nathaniel Dorsky's Arboretum Cycle at Anthology Film Archives 
Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)
Your Face (Tsai Ming-liang)

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Best and Worst Films of 1999

Here's a list I found of the best and worst films of 1999. Beau Travail, Rosetta, and The Wind Will Carry Us wouldn't make their way to me until 2000. No clue why my fave Jarmusch (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) is missing. Kikujiro would probably top the list today. I still loathe the moralizing final third of Eyes Wide Shut but the rest hypnotizes (the grain! the performances! the dorky sex castle! Xmas!). * means I remember not a damn thing about it.

1. Crazy in Alabama (Antonio Banderas)
2. Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Julio Medem) - This is listed with This Is My Father (Paul Quinn) but all I remember about the latter is a cameo by John Cusack as a pilot. 
3. Amerikanos (Christos Dimas)
4. Fight Club (David Fincher)
5. Black Cat, White Cat (Emir Kurastica)
6. An Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer)
7. The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)
8. Election (Alexander Payne)/Stir of Echoes (David Koepp)
9. eXistenZ (David Cronenberg)
10. My Parents Read Dreams I've Had About Them (Neil Goldberg)
 

Runners-up: 
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Jay Roach) 
Besieged (Bernardo Bertolucci) 
The Blair Witch Project (Eduard Sanchez, David Myrick)
Bowfinger (Frank Oz)*
Dick (Andrew Fleming)
Get Real (Simon Shore) - But I hate how the female best friend was shrugged off.
King of Masks (Wu Tianming)*
Limbo (John Sayles)*
Loss of Sexual Innocence (Mike Figgis)
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Omega Code (Rob Marcarelli)
The Red Violin (François Girard)
Romance (Catherine Breillat)
Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer)
The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan)
The Straight Story (David Lynch)
Summer of Sam (Spike Lee)Superstar (Bruce McCulloch)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella)  
The Winslow Boy (David Mamet)
 

Worst:
1. American Pie - I no longer recall why this was #1 but voilà!
2. The Phantom Menace
3. The Mod Squad - At a preview screening, there was a loud industrial scraping sound that made the film great for 90 seconds.
4. The Out-of-Towners
5. The Thirteenth Floor
*
6. Detroit Rock City
7. An Ideal Husband
8. Jawbreaker
9.
Mystery Men 
10. Mystery, Alaska - Directed by Jay Roach for what it's worth.
11. Happy, Texas - At the press screening, the reels were out of order. A fascinating experience of a terrible film. 
12. The Dinner Game*
13. Dogma
A film called Elvis Lives was listed in the Worst category. But I can find no such film released around the time. Maybe I saw him at Taco Bell.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Three Hearts for Julia (Richard Thorpe, 1943)

I watched Three Hearts for Julia only because IMDb claims that Joan Crawford was offered the lead role but turned it down. Not sure if that's true even though Crawford starred in Above Suspicion (my vote for her most underrated film) also directed by Thorpe and released the same year. But it makes sense since Melvyn Douglas has the lead role. The female lead (Ann Sothern) would have proven too back seat for Crawford.

The mostly negative IMDb reviews note the poverty of laughs in this screwball comedy. But even though screwball comedies feature more violence (as a result from having to live by the dictates of monogamous heterosexual romance, say) than yuks, this one is especially odd since the dictates of wartime propaganda abrade against the comedy. It would make a great double feature with Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947) in which Crawford oscillates between two men. Here, Sothern juggles three men and the atmosphere feels on its way to Daisy Kenyon's enervated milieu populated with characters pulling themselves in myriad directions only to arrive at a nerve-wracked nowhere.

Douglas plays a war correspondent who returns home to find that his wife, Sothern, a violinist in an all-woman orchestra, has filed for divorce due to his lengthy absences. She tries to be best friends with him and even enlists his help in choosing between two suitors after her favor. Sothern's blasé path toward monogamy gives off a distinctive Lubitschian fragrance. But to continue along that path would have given the MPPDA pre-Code jitters. Douglas wants and eventually gets her back via the help of conductor and Czech refugee Anton Ottoway (Felix Bressart).

The inevitable reunion pivots more on (wartime) musical logic rather than comedic exigencies, exemplifying Jane Feuer's notion, from her seminal book The Hollywood Musical, that the musical marshals the forces of American entertainment to bring a film to its resolution. Ottoway longs to do a solid for Uncle Sam. So he plans a USO concert of Americana instead of the Borodin, Wagner, and Rimsky-Korsakov of previous scenes (during which the women preposterously halt rehearsals with makeup applications and child rearing) and through various machinations, uses the event to bring the two principals together. The concert is a medley of warhorses like "Kingdom Coming" and "Home on the Range." Sothern has been playing somewhat listlessly until she sees Douglas in the wings at which point she launches into a near-lusty solo of "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad." But their reformation is made through the music - they never embrace! And given that WWII is raging, it's more important to form a community on the heels of the formation of a heterosexual couple. So as the orchestra moves into "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," the audience of military men sing along suddenly. Ottoway turns to them(/us) and the sing along blends imperceptibly into "America the Beautiful" for the last shot before the closing credits. If it feels uneasy, just wait 'til Daisy Kenyon.

Look fast for Marie Windsor in the orchestra.
 
 

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Empire (Andy Warhol et al., 1965)


Saturday, January 12 at 1 p.m., the Whitney Museum of American Art, in conjunction with their Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again exhibit, showed Warhol's silent Empire at 16fps making for a screening of eight hours and five minutes. It was one of the greatest cinematic experiences of my life. Below are some thoughts on the screening divided into three sections: the experience of the environment, the experience of the film, and the aftermath.

I. Without Me

I stayed for the entire film with two brief-as-possible potty breaks. It was impossible to determine how many people lasted from beginning to end (start to stop?) since many people filtered in and out of the extremely dark theatre. But I would wager that the core group of fellow intrepid travelers comprised about ten people, no more than fifteen. I brought several fig bars, two beef/pork sticks, and two coconut waters (thanks to Blake Gopnik's suggestion in a New York Times article detailing his experience seeing it at 18fps in 2014 at the James Fuentes Gallery). 

I was in procedural terror for days before the screening. It's preposterous to discuss authenticity in relation to Warhol but would there be any rules? Would it be a happening? Could I last? What if I fell asleep or, worse, snored?  I knew my buddy Whit Strub was going too. Do I sit by him? Could I last? 

I arrived around 12:45 and sat one seat away from Whit. We talked with the gentleman behind us for a bit. Whit later told me he was a retired Poli Sci professor who was spending his free time absorbing culture. He confessed that he would stay only until about 4pm and indeed, three hours into the film, he leaned in to us and whispered (paraphrasing), "Gentlemen, remember to tell Sparta of your heroism" before departing.

About an hour into the film, a group of twentysomethings entered. One gal took several pictures and maybe a video of the screen. Another who arrived a bit later (and whispered with a gal in the first group) sat in the row in front of us and was buried in her phone almost the entire time. I looked over and discovered that she was on Instagram (I believe) and I caught her typing the words "video [sic] of...minutes of the fucking...Building!"

It's difficult to police reception of a Warhol film especially one as environmental as Empire. But for better or worse, the Whitney set the conditions of reception as silence in the dark. No Velvets, no Woronov/Malanga wielding whips, no silver clouds. In those conditions, it would prove absurd to request reverent silence. And here, I wasn't initially annoyed by the cell phone intrusion. It could help pass the time if need be. But the Instagram harangue irked me. And when it was clear that this group was staying a while, I grew nervous about future interruptions and wanted to yell, "Do I go to your Avengers-ass movies and ruin those? No! So don't do it here!" or "Why are you even here?!?" Instead, Whit lost patience and seethed "Turn your cell phone off, please!" at cell phone gal who soon left.

I'm glad I didn't say what I wanted. During the first potty break, I ran into a guy staying for the duration too. Turns out he's a NYU professor teaching a JanTerm course called The Age of Warhol (!) (and author of the 33 1/3 on Marquee Moon I found out later!) and those were his students. He apologized for their behavior because he told them that Warhol screenings could be raucous events. I shrugged, we discussed reception for a bit, and then it was back to the Empire. 

Feeling emboldened, I later scolded the matriarch of a noisy family. She was already seated yet felt compelled to use her iPhone flashlight to look around the theatre. "You can turn that off," I curtly suggested and they remained in silence for a respectable five minutes. Hour six saw a lot of activity: a man looking at Warhol pictures on his phone who left in a huff after I asked him to turn it off; a family with two young children who stayed approximately one minute with a father who almost killed himself tripping up the stairs; a woman who opened the door and exclaimed in loud, hilarious New Yawkese "the Empire State Building!" The NYU professor got vigilant and went to the door several times to request silence before entering.

II. Within Me

On the morning of the screening, my procedural terror morphed into excitement. And now I have difficulty recreating that terror. For the most shocking aspect of the Empire experience is how easy it was to watch. With no perversity implied, I submit that it was much more difficult for me to sit through many feature-length art films, L'enfant secret (Philippe Garrel, 1979, 92 minutes), say, or most Godard, than Empire. This is because I entered what Douglas Crimp calls, in his book "Our Kind of Movie": The Films of Andy Warhol, Warhol's time. In an section on watching several Warhol films at the MoMA Film Study Center with Jonathan Flatley (author of the superb essay "Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopoeia" in Pop Out: Queer Warhol), Crimp notes, “Jonathan and I remarked to each other after our final day’s screenings that our sense of time had been utterly altered by the experience. On the simplest level, we had become completely relaxed about how much time was passing and not at all impatient at the films’ usually long-seeming duration. We felt at that moment as if we could go on watching Warhol films for days on end and continue to enjoy the experience thoroughly.” For me, this is a warm, cozy feeling I associate with Christmas as a child or hanging out with friends I no longer see like Pope and Jean-Guy in Montréal at the start of my grad student life. There were moments when the severity, if not the sadism, of the film blew me back. But overall, it felt like a gift, an extended stay at a day spa or a fuzzily defined sense of care washing over me. I came to it but it came to me. I was genuinely sad when I saw the increased scuzziness of the final reel heralding that the end was just seconds away.

For the first hour, the image is evenly lit so that you can make out the details in the Empire State Building and see downtown to the southwest. But then the floodlights go on (less noteworthy than reported since it occurs so early in the film) and the viewer is treated to an extremely high-contrast image of the lights which makes up the majority of the film. Much more shocking is that the floodlights go off and for the last 70 minutes, the film is complete darkness save for a few lights that form a vague Big Dipper pattern. No one entered during this time but it would have been fascinating to gauge the responses to staring at a "nothing" even more extreme than the Empire State Building's floodlights. 

The true star of Empire is the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower eleven blocks to the southeast, Eve to the Empire State Building's Margo Channing. The tower features a light at the top that in real time blinks off every fifteen minutes and then blinks the number at the top of each hour. Since Empire is shown at 16fps, however, these occur at approximately 20 minutes and 70 minutes respectively in screen time. The first time I looked at my phone (apart from the first potty break at around 4:15 p.m.) was 6:50 p.m. not out of boredom or impatience but to time the blinks. These blinks were the friendliest aspect of Empire, lending the film a built-in metronome and grounding the Empire State Building's floodlights in space and time. The tower light shone the brightest during the last 70 minutes, much brighter than the faint antenna light on top of the Empire State Building which blinked incessantly but was easy to lose in the darkness. 

This Google Maps shot shows the positions of the two monuments along with the Time-Life Building from where the film was shot on the 41st floor. 
A window several floors below the floodlights remained lit for several hours. You can barely see it if you click on the picture at the top. Later I noticed it was off. But I never saw the moment it was extinguished. I call this light Li'l Window Dude. 

For a few seconds, Warhol appears and, more clearly, Jonas Mekas (along with four panes) in a reflection in the window. They turned on a light to reload the film and three (four?) times they forgot to turn it off before filming. This reinforces two realities about Empire: 1. It is not one continuous shot which would have been impossible with film. There are slight variations in each reel. 2. The film was originally credited to both Warhol and John Palmer, star of Warhol's John and Ivy (1965) and also visible in the film. And the concept of filming the Empire State Building was Mekas' idea. So the question of authorship is vexed in typical Warholian fashion.

Against the ceaseless image of the Empire State Building, the flares, hairs, and air bubbles on the film become events which the Digital Noise Reduction of a Blu-ray would eliminate (along with remaining captive to the film's duration, the best reason to see Empire on celluloid in a theatre). These elements compete with the core image for your attention, most intensely for a stretch where a ghost of the film, sprockets and all, floats on top somewhat akin to the material skidding in Little Dog for Roger (Malcolm Le Grice, 1967).

Finally, there are the perceptual tricks the film plays on the viewer. During the first hour, you try to focus on one part of the building. But the grain of the film starts to mimic movement that is not actually happening, a swarm of locusts accumulating or perhaps a gas leak wafting by one area. Turn your head slightly to either side and a black rectangle follows, a canted image of the frame that has been imprinted on your retina for so long. Sometimes you couldn't get the floodlights to render depth; other times you couldn't find their two-dimensional pictoriality again. Did the building just jump out at me?

III. Us 

After the screening, Whit, the NYU prof (one of his students stayed for about three hours!), and I chatted and were soon joined by a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia. He emailed us his notes (sample nuggets: "About an hour forty five in I quietly move to the leftmost seat in the front row so that the parallax distortion of the image mimics the view of the Empire out my kitchen window" and "I dream of having an Insomnia cookie") and we shared our experiences. Apparently, someone towards the front was crying and everyone but me heard soft chanting at one point. 

At dinner afterward, Whit asked me to what extent my mind wandered during the film. I surmised it would be impossible to watch every minute of it in rapt attention. Certainly, there were moments when I snapped into philosophical mode, trying to fashion some sort of connection to sexploitation films of the era. But there were many more where I coasted in and out of lucid dreaming or kept repeating the Migos and disco I was listening to on the ride down to the Whitney. And I still remain stunned by how easy it all was, more sybaritic and opulent than some sort of severe exercise. 

Whit also noted that the core audience read as white men almost entirely including the four professors in conference at the end. Not sure how to address this fact except to suggest that the Whitney should revive the 8-hour Park Lanes (Kevin Jerome Everson, 2015) which they screened in 2016

Empire will be showing again at the Whitney on Saturday, March 9, 2019 at 1 p.m.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Random Art from the Whitney Museum of American Art and Allouche Gallery

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today: The Best Albums of 1998

I was all set to share a list found in the recesses of my hard drive of my fave albums of 1998 until I discovered it was online at MTV.com here. So here's a minor tweak and reshuffle because Come On Over was 1997 and the Kim cuts drag down A Thousand Leaves. I make no apologies for the preponderance of anthologies and compilations. The 1990s was the great reissue decade (all hail Rhino's heyday!) and 1998 fell several stories from 1997's sugar high.

1. Queer to the Core!: Queer Rock From the Vaults! (Quick Nuts) - We still have no clue who released this bootleg plucked from the bins of Atomic Records in Milwaukee. But I've never been able to shake how it epitomizes the alternately frustrating and glorious position of the queer historian. More here and still for sale cheap on Discogs.

2. The Music in My Head: Indispensable Classics and Unknown Gems From the Golden Age of African Pop (Stern's Africa) - Still my favorite African pop compilation. I reviewed it and Mark Hudson's delirious novel to which it was the de facto soundtrack for the Chicago Reader.

3. American Pop: An Audio History (West Hill Audio Archives) - And still my favorite box set ever. Gawd, its nine discs continue to educate although my one-disc distillation sieves out the poppiest (and weirdest) (and punkiest) moments.

4. Fat Beats & Bra Straps: Battle Rhymes & Posse Cuts (Rhino) - 90% of the rap I quote comes from this vicious collection of gripes and disses. Bow down to her, bitch, cuz she's the shit: Roxanne Shanté.

5. A Night On South Bitch (Max) - The finest bitch tracks comp extant. I'll see you after the function!

6. Sean "Puffy" Combs: Changing The Sound of Popular Music (Bad Boy Promo) - Cheating. But these Puffy-helmed hits honor the man who helped make 1997 the greatest year for singles since 1981.

7. George Clinton & The P-Funk All-Stars: Dope Dogs (Dogone) -The first "real" album on the list by a man for whom the importance of The Album meant precious little.

8. The Perfect Beats: New York Electro Hip-Hop + Underground Dance Classics 1980-1985 (Rhino) - Four volumes proving not only that disco never died but that 1981 was the greatest year for singles ever.

9. Suckdog: Onward Suckdog Soldiers (Tray Full of Lab Mice) - Here for the 20-second masterprank "I Knelt 2day Where Jesus Knelt."

10. Unkle: Psyence Fiction (Mo' Wax/London) - For years it had been an open question which turntablists would be the first to sample Olivia Record rockers BeBe K'Roche, to paraphrase Eric Weisbard's Jungle Brothers entry in the Spin Alternative Record Guide.

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