Russian Ark & Buena Vista Social Club: Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive

I saw Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. The first film was part of the ongoing series Guided Tour: Museums in Cinema. The second one closed the long-running series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.

But they had an interesting thing in common. Both were shot digitally at a time when that was unusual, and when the arguments for sticking to 35mm were far more compelling than they are today.

Both films were projected digitally off of 2K DCPs. Considering the low resolutions of the cameras they were shot with, 4K would have been pointless.

Russian Ark

Sokurov’s 2002 dive into European art and Russian history is easy to admire but difficult to love. Technically speaking, it’s an astounding achievement. And while it’s often beautiful and exciting, it sometimes feels aimless and pointless.

I saw Russian Ark once before, on DVD, soon after it’s theatrical release. This was my first time seeing this big-screen movie on the big screen.

The film provides a tour of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, one of the largest museums in the world. The Winter Palace–the home of the Czars’–is just one of the Hermitage’s six main buildings. Sokurov creates a fantasy fiction around the complex. An unseen narrator (perhaps a ghost; certainly the camera’s eye) and an early 19th Italian diplomat walk not only through the museum’s space but through its time. As they move from one room to another, they find themselves in different centuries. They meet people in modern clothes (some playing themselves) and others in powdered wigs. The diplomat joyfully joins a 19th century waltz. The last Czar’s children play in their home, not knowing their horrible fate.

Sokurov shot the entire 96-minute film, minus the credits, in one unbroken take. The logistics must have been insane. The camera wanders through a gallery that looks like a modern museum, with students and tourists examining the art. Then it glides into a magnificent ballroom, with hundreds of costumed extras laughing and dancing. And then it glides on to something else. All those people had to be ready on cue. The lights had to be set up correctly. One mistake and the whole thing would have had to be shot again. The final film is actually the fourth take.

It’s hard to pace a single-shot film properly. Without editing, you can’t remove the slow parts. Russian Ark occasionally has its slow parts.

When things slow down, you can study the paintings, the sculptures, and the bright and uniquely costumed extras. But the best digital camera available in 2001 (when the film was shot) lacked the resolution and color depth needed for enjoying such spectacular eye candy. I suspect it would have been a better film if shot today. Shooting a single, 96-minute take on film is quite simply impossible.

Much as I admire Russian Ark, its flaws keep me from giving it a better grade than B. But that’s an upgrade. The last time I graded it, based only on a DVD, I gave it a B-.

The PFA will screen Russian Ark again today (Sunday), at 5:30.

Buena Vista Social Club

Too many recent music documentaries make the same mistake: They focus on the musicians and ignore the music. You’re lucky if you get one song played from beginning to end.

Wim Wenders didn’t make that mistake in 1999 with Buena Vista Social Club. He puts the songs front and center. You fall in love with the music, and thus become eager to meet the brilliant musicians who created it.

I saw the film theatrically soon after its release. So Saturday night was a revisit.

In 1998, Ry Cooder went to Cuba to find a group of musicians that had played brilliantly together in the 1940s. He brought them together, recorded an album, and eventually took them to Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, he brought Wenders with him to record all of these events.

Music takes up most of the film’s 105 minutes. We see the Club performing live. We see the musicians recording in a studio. When the music isn’t playing, the musicians tell us about themselves–the poverty they grew up in, how music saved them, and life in general. Their stories are moving and funny.

We see a fair amount of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, nearly 40 years after the revolution. But that’s only background. Wenders sticks to the music and the musicians.

The digital cameras Wenders used for this film were far inferior to the one that shot Russian Ark. In fact, it was standard definition–a pre-HD video signal blown up to a big theater screen. But for Buena Vista Social Club, that wasn’t really a serious problem.

This was my first screening in the new PFA theater that really showed off the new Meyer Sound audio system’s capabilities. It was excellent.

I give Buena Vista Social Club an A-.

Frank Zappa doc forces you to Eat That Question

B- Documentary

Directed by Thorsten Schütte

Early in this documentary on the legendary musician and provocateur, Frank Zappa insists that you can’t possibly know someone from an interview. It’s artificial; it’s unpleasant; it’s only two steps away from the Inquisition.

And that captures the film’s biggest problem. We hear a lot of Zappa’s words, but they’re public words. We don’t hear his private words, as we did in the Marlon Brando doc, Listen to Me Marlon. Nor do we hear from the people who knew and loved him. Fortunately, Zappa always made an interesting interview subject–blunt, opinionated, impossible to pin down, and often obscene. But still, this film never lets us see what made him tick.

Frank Zappa hit the cultural radar as the 1960s became what we think of as The Sixties (although there’s one TV clip with Steve Allen that appears to be from the 50s). With his long hair, his big mustache, and his vocabulary spiked with words that polite people didn’t say in those days, he seems to be the ultimate hippy–although he despised that word and preferred to be called a freak. He talked about artistic integrity and criticized American materialism. But he didn’t do or approve of drugs (other than tobacco–you rarely see him without a cigarette), and his tunes were often too complex and sophisticated to dance to. He also composed classical music.

Director Thorsten Schütte didn’t shoot new footage for Eat that Question, and if he interviewed anyone for this movie, it didn’t make the final cut. The film lacks a narration. Almost the entire runtime is made up of archival footage of Zappa performing or giving interviews. The rest is Zappa rehearsing, Zappa making TV appearances, and Zappa testifying before Congress attacking censorship. The entire film is pillarboxed in the pre-HDTV 4×3 aspect ratio in which all of these performances and interviews were shot.

Fortunately, the film has a good deal of concert footage–something that many recent music documentaries lack. Aside from the enjoyment of the music, these scenes show us how closely he controlled his band, The Mothers of Invention. Long before Bruce Springsteen became famous, Zappa was very much The Boss.

Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, less than three weeks before his 53rd birthday. At that point in his life, he was concentrating on classical music– selling out concert halls in Europe while Americans thought of him as a has-been ’60s rocker.

Frank Zappa deserves an excellent documentary. Here, he gets a merely good one.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

A- Music documentary

Directed by Morgan Neville

In the year 2000, cellist Yo-Yo Ma decided to take his musical career in a new direction. He gathered up musicians from various countries, all experts in their own cultures’ music, and created The Silk Road Ensemble. The idea was to find the beauty in their different traditions and create something special out of them.

Documentarian Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies20 Feet from Stardom) captures the enthusiasm these talented performers have for their work. While it looks at their problems and suffering (which are significant), it shows the consolation they find when playing–especially together.

The film follows the ensemble and several of the individual musicians within it, creating a study of world music, its importance, and what one has to go through to create it.

Not everyone approves of such musical mixing. Many members of the ensemble were criticized in their native countries for “diluting” their cultural heritage. Never mind that art constantly evolves; there are purists everywhere.

The musicians that Morgan focuses on include the Iranian master of the kamancheh, Kayhan Kalhor; Ma calls him his brother. There are others. Wu Man plays the pipa–a stringed instrument from her native China–and in one scene plays an electrified one. Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato shows the charisma of Bruce Springsteen as she merges her Galicia musical roots with just about any genre–including rock.

And then there’s Yo-Yo Ma himself, who comes off as a modest, self-effacing, nice guy. Like Buster Keaton, he never really chose his career; fame found him as a seven-year-old prodigy. It’s given him incredible success, but at a price. He tells us in the film that in the 35 years of his marriage, he was on the road 22 of them.

Of course, Ma’s travails pale in comparison to those of the musicians who came from truly oppressive countries. Kalhor had to leave an Iran increasingly intolerant of artists who didn’t toe the line. Wu Man suffered in Communist China. The film becomes surprisingly political when discussing these issues. Damascus-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh cries about the losses among his family and friends, all because of the current war in Syria. He boils in anger at the refugee crisis, as Neville shows us the crowded, snow-drenched camps where people are freezing to death hoping to be admitted into a safe haven.

Much as I enjoyed The Music of Strangers, I have to admit that it
suffers from the problem so prevalent in recent music documentaries: There isn’t enough music. I would have easily sat through another 30 or even 45 minutes of this film if those minutes were of concert footage.

A+ List: The Last Waltz (also Fargo & The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp)

Talk about the musical stars aligning perfectly. The Band decides to break up. Bill Graham produces their farewell concert–a Thanksgiving extravaganza filled with some of the greatest names in rock and roll. Then Martin Scorsese, fresh from Taxi Driver, brings together some of Hollywood’s brightest to record the event.

The Last Waltz captures one of the great nights in modern music history, puts it into a historical context, and stays focused on the musicians. Keeping the 35mm cameras (one of the first for a concert film) on tripods and using very long lenses, Scorsese and his team shows us the sweat, the comradery, and the joy of performing onstage with people you know are the best.

For the excitement in the music, the joy in performance, the interview sequences that fill in the story, and the brilliant filmmaking, The Last Waltz makes my A+ list. To qualify, a film must be a masterpiece, at least 20 years old, and one that I personally have loved for decades.

Before we face the music, here are two other A+ honorees you should know about:

Now, back to The Last Waltz:

The Band had an unusual history. Before they became The Band, and then became famous, they backed up other singers–specifically Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. They went big in the late 1960s. Then, in 1976, they decided to quit.

Impresario Bill Graham turned their final concert into a very special event. Staged at Winterland on Thanksgiving and titled The Last Waltz, it included turkey dinner for the audience, an orchestra playing waltzes, and–of course–rock and roll. Guest stars that came onstage to perform with The Band included Neil Young, Joanie Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond (who looks like he’s performing in Vegas), and, of course, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan.

But enough about the concert. Let’s talk about the movie.

Martin Scorsese came to the project with the eye of a narrative filmmaker. He shot the film in 35mm rather than the documentary standard 16mm. He brought in cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and production designer Boris Leven (West Side Story, The Sound of Music); these were movie people, not music people or documentarians.

They created a visual style that put emphasis on the musicians as people. We see the performers almost entirely in close-ups–often with two or three big heads in one tight frame. You see them reacting to each other, smiling at a well-played riff, and waiting for a cue. There’s a moment when Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko (two members of The Band) watch Dylan intently while continuing to play, waiting for the cord that will signal the transition to another song.

You seldom see hands fingering guitars in The Last Waltz, except when Clapton comes on stage to perform Further on Up the Road. The song becomes a friendly guitar duel between Clapton and Robertson. Robertson wins.

In between the concert footage, Scorsese interviews the members of The Band. They tell stories of life on the road, shoplifting, working with certain artists, and how they acquired the name The Band. Many of these sequences set up the next concert sequence. For instance, a discussion on women on the road leads to Joanie Mitchell’s incredible performance of Coyote.

Scorsese wasn’t entirely satisfied with the live footage. So after the concert, he brought The Band to an MGM soundstage to film and record three songs with considerably more control. The studio version of The Weight, with The Staple Singers joining in, is one of the film’s highlights.

The post-Last Waltz history of The Band and its members is not a happy one. An attempt to revive the group failed. Three fifths of its members are gone now. But we still have The Last Waltz to remind us what music can do for the soul.

Salt Flats and Music: Tuesday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I saw two films, both documentaries, at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Tuesday. One was about the world coming to a previously isolated stretch of Bolivia. The other was about music of the world.

B+ Salero

Before the screening, Director Mike Plunkett told us that the film was “a passion project of mine. It took six years to complete.”

This exceptionally beautiful documentary looks at change from the point of view of someone who doesn’t want it, although the film itself seems neutral on the subject. Moises Chambi Yucra lives in the small town of Colchani , next to Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. A husband and father, he’s harvested salt all of his life. He cannot imagine another life for himself or his family.

But Lithium has been found in massive amounts in the area–enough to make Bolivia a significantly richer country. What’s more, the government is taking steps to bring tourism to Colchani. Moises life can no longer go on as it was.

Plunkett feels considerable empathy for Moises, but he also shows the considerable advantages that come from the changes–advantages that appear to be helping the people who live there. The film contains some of the most mouth-watering images seen at this year’s festival.

Plunkett did a Q&A with the audience after the screening. Unfortunately, I had to leave soon after it started, but I caught this comment:

“I was really just struck by the landscape. If the landscape could have a voice, it would say something.”

I saw Salero at the Roxie. It was the last screening of the film at the festival. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to get a theatrical release.

A- The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Before the screening, director Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, 20 Feet from Stardom) told us that he was delighted to be in the New Mission‘s Theater 1. “I think I saw Nightmare on Elm Street 3 here.”

Since this film will get a theatrical release, I can only give a very short review here:

In the year 2000, cellist Yo-Yo Ma took his musical career in a new direction. He gathered up musicians from various countries, all experts in their own cultures’ music, and created the Silk Road Ensemble. The idea was to find the beauty in their different traditions and create something special out of them. This documentary follows Ma and other musicians as they work, play, and talk about their lives. Many came from repressive regimes and war-torn lands, and their stories are often tragic. But the beauty of making music keeps them going. The film’s one problem: Not enough music.

After the screening, Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers came onstage for a Q&A. Some highlights:

  • How the project began: It’s one of those instances of jumping off a cliff. Yo-Yo called and wanted to talk about filming a concert. He started telling off-color jokes. I said “I’ll follow you with a camera everywhere.”
  • What role does culture serve in society? In the West, we tend to take culture for granted. It’s discounted because it’s a soft influence.
  • We started talking to Yo-Yo. Then we started talking to the ensemble, and we saw how much material there was.
  • On the film’s visual style, which involved a lot of moving, swooping camerawork: Early on, we decided the camera should float amongst these cultures.
  • Advice for new filmmakers: Get good sound. It’s the most overlooked thing in film. If you have great sound you can make a great film.
  • It’s become so much easier to make films because of the technology.

The film will screen once more for the Festival, Thursday, 4:00 at the Pacific Film Archive. But don’t worry if you miss it. It will open in Bay Area theaters June 17.

Music and exercise: Friday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I caught two movies Friday, a music documentary at the Roxie and a very unique coming-of-age story at the New Mission‘s Theater 1.

B+ Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music

Like The Wrecking Crew, Soundbreaking looks at how music–specifically rock and roll–is created in the studio. But it isn’t about session musicians. It’s about the producers who control the recording, handle the mix, and provide the singers and songwriters with another opinion. It’s also about how technology changes music.

I can’t really call this a movie; certainly not a feature. What we were shown were the first two episodes from an upcoming television documentary series for PBS; a dream of George Martin‘s that he didn’t live to see completed.

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of interviews with famous and not-so-famous people, a lot of anecdotes, and a lot of music.

The first episode concentrated on the producers, and the working relationships they have with their more-famous collaborators. Some were friends. Others, such as Martin, were father figures. Still others, such as Phil Spector (no relation, although I do have a brother named Phil), are feared dictators.

The second episode looked at the evolution of studio technology and how it has changed (and will continue to change) the music. As recording devices went to four-track, 16-track, to today’s virtually unlimited tracks, musicians and producers found new ways to create sound. And sometimes they went overboard.

After the two episodes, co-director Jeff Dupre did a Q&A with the audience. Some highlights:

  • On the structure of the series: The obvious way to start would be with Edison, but we wanted to start with when recording became an art.
  • On favorite interview subjects: Annie Lennox and Tom Petty were great. It was a total privilege to meet these people and talk to them about what they love.
  • On words in the interviews that can’t be said on PBS: I’m about to go back to New York and bleep a lot of things.
  • What the other six episodes will be about:
    • The human voice
    • Electric instruments
    • The rhythm track
    • Sampling and hip hop
    • Rock videos
    • Distribution formats, and how they dictated the music.

The first two episodes will play again tonight (Saturday) at the New Mission at 9:30. The series will appear on PBS starting in November.

A- The Fits

This impossible-to-categorize narrative film will get a theatrical release in June, so I’m only allowed to write 100 words about it now.

The Fits shows us the world of an inner-city gym through the eyes of pre-teen Toni (Royalty Hightower). She clearly idolizes her older brother, who works there while training to be a boxer. Quite an athlete herself, she joins the gym’s synchronized dancing team. But something strange is going on; girls are having fits, going out of control and shaking hysterically. Toni rarely talks in the film, but Hightower’s expressive face and athletic physicality says it all. Co-writer and director Anna Rose Holmer allows us to just watch and see, while being told almost nothing. It’s a very strong film.

After the screening, Holmer and Hightower came onstage for a Q&A. Some highlights, avoiding spoilers:

  • Hightower, on her working relationship with Holmer: We helped rewrite the lines because they didn’t feel right.
  • Holmer’s take: I was so excited with Royalty because I felt I had a collaborator.
  • It felt like we were making a feature-length fitness video.
  • How did this film change your (Hightower’s) life: It changed my life a lot. I was only known in Cincinnati; now I’m known all over the world.

The film has one more screening at the festival, on Monday at 9:15. But as I said, it will get a theatrical release come June.

Miles Ahead miles away from a biopic

B+ Music biopic (sort of)

Written by Steven Baigelman & Don Cheadle

Directed by Don Cheadle

Don’t expect anything like Ray or Walk the Line in this totally crazy story of Miles Davis in a turning point in his career. It’s more like a raunchy caper comedy set in the 1970s, but with great music and a few realistic flashbacks.

After five years in seclusion, Davis’ non-productive, hermitic lifestyle is interrupted by a music journalist (Ewan McGregor) hoping to get an interview . From the reporter’s point of view, the timing couldn’t be better. Davis has a tape of his first album in years, and no one else has heard it. The great musician, now strung out on coke, wants to be paid, but CBS Records won’t put up any more money without hearing what he’s done.

Then a couple of sleaze balls steal the tape, and Davis and the reporter set out to retrieve it. Their quest involves shootouts, drug deals, paying for cocaine by signing LPs, and even a car chase.

The tape essentially becomes Miles Ahead‘s McGuffin–the physical object that everyone wants and thus turns the plot. But that part of the film stretches credibility. Who would possibly think they could violently rob and attempt to kill Miles Davis, and then try to sell the original master tapes that they stole from him. It’s like stealing and trying to sell the Mona Lisa; everyone knows that it’s very hot and that you’re very guilty.

The flashbacks all turn around Davis’ tumultuous relationship and marriage to Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). These scenes are played straight, and help anchor the silly story with at least a semblance of reality. It’s only here that Davis comes off as a fully-formed human being–although not always a good one. We have no trouble understanding why Taylor left him.

Don Cheadle gives an excellent performance (has he ever given anything else) as both the charming musician who successfully charms Taylor into marriage, as well as the crazy, coked-out has-been waving a gun at anyone who gets in his way. This is Cheadle’s project; in addition to starring in it, he directed, co-produced and co-wrote it.

McGregor is a good actor with a likeable presence, but I found the casting choice worrisome. I wondered if the money people insisted on a white sidekick.

Although I like Miles Davis’ music, I came into Miles Ahead without knowing anything about his personal life. I suspect I still don’t. As near as I can tell, McGregor’ reporter is completely fictitious. Much of the rest of it smacks too much of a good story to be believable.

But that’s okay. I don’t require historical accuracy in narrative cinema.

If you want to understand Miles Davis, listen to his music (there wasn’t enough of it here). If you want to know about his life, read Wikipedia. If you want a good time, see this movie. Just don’t expect much more than a good time.