Çarşamba, Mayıs 23, 2018

Optical Atlas Interview with Bill Doss

For years I ran a website called Optical Atlas, dedicated to the music of the Elephant 6 collective (Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, of Montreal, and on and on). I retired the website in 2010. Sometime after that, my renewal notice for the domain name came through – to the wrong email address – and what I had hoped would be a permanent archive of E6 interviews and old news items instead has become a link to several dubious dating portals. However, I do have a backup, and though it’s a labyrinth to navigate, I’m uncovering many things I’d either forgotten about or had long since given up for lost. So what I’d like to start doing is reposting some of those old materials here on my personal website, so they can be available to those interested in these fantastic musicians.

To start, here is an interview that means a lot to me. Bill Doss of The Olivia Tremor Control, The Sunshine Fix, and The Apples in Stereo passed away on July 30, 2012. I always had a strong connection to Bill’s music. In the OTC, he would answer all of Will Cullen Hart’s avant-garde, head-warping travelogues with crystal clear 60’s-inspired pop – it was exhilarating to emerge from the tangled, ominous Black Foliage of sonic collages into the sunny clearing of Bill’s Beach Boys-inspired “Hideaway” or “A New Day.” The two proper Olivia Tremor Control albums, Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage Animation Music: Vol. 1, remain high watermarks of the E6 collective, right alongside In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

 This interview was conducted on July 15, 2006.


“So long Seku, goodbye Wren.” Whisper these lyrics to a true fan of indie pop and watch the fellow buckle at the knees. That the words actually seem to reference Egyptian mythology and William S. Burroughs is almost beside the point; when sung by Bill Doss on “Hideaway,” they embody the pinnacle of psychedelic pop bliss. For six years or so Doss split singing/songwriting duties with Will Cullen Hart in one of the most critically acclaimed indie bands of the 90’s, The Olivia Tremor Control (critically acclaimed in hindsight, anyway, as these bands always seem to be best appreciated just after they’ve split up). The Olivias released two albums and a handful of singles, and with each release seemed to be drawing into tighter and tighter focus a concept of what pop music ought to be: a dream-like space you could occupy in your headphones. It was rumored, or just misunderstood in certain circles, that they really wanted to put out a film of their Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle, perhaps to star Yoko Ono. When Optical Atlas asked about this, Bill Doss replied: “Well, it does say ‘unrealized’ right there in the subtitle. Some pipes you see and some you don’t! We always put Yoko on the guest lists at all our shows because well, you never know…” The follow-up, Black Foliage Animation Music: Volume One, combined the ever-refined pop songs of Will and Bill (and now Peter Erchick) with vast experimental landscapes. The band never officially split, although they performed a “farewell tour” in 1999 (a brief reunion tour strode the countryside last year). Hart launched Circulatory System, and Doss began recording under the name he used for an early Elephant 6 cassette release, The Sunshine Fix. Age of the Sun, on Kindercore/ Emperor Norton, is a pop fantasia on the title topic. Green Imagination, while still a bit trippy, stretched his sound with the addition of a children’s choir and a bit of soul. Following a successful tour as a member of The Apples in Stereo while opening for The Strokes, Bill Doss agreed to talk to Optical Atlas about the tour, the reunion shows with Olivia Tremor Control, and a new direction for the Sunshine Fix.

1) I love Green Imagination, and the addition of the Georgia Children’s Chorus on a few of the tracks (“What Do You Know,” “Runaway Run”) really adds to the Sunshine Fix sound in a unique way. How did you become involved with the group, and what was it like working with them?

I had always wanted to have kids involved in my music and the song “Runaway Run” seemed like the perfect place to do this. My wife, Amy, actually set that up for me through her boss. He is involved with the local Presbyterian church here in Athens and the Georgia Children’s Choir is part of that church. So, he put in a call to the choir director and we met and went over the songs so that they could make sure there was nothing too off-color for the kids to sing. I was worried that the song might be too difficult for children to sing but to my surprise, the material they were warming up with was far more complicated than what I had for them! In fact, they learned and perfected the parts so quickly and with so much time left that I decided to also have them sing the refrain on “What Do You Know,” which wasn’t originally planned. The director even had us all go into a classroom to discuss each line of the lyrics individually so that the children could completely understand what they would be singing. This was a little uncomfortable because of the lyrical content. I wouldn’t say that the lyrics are anti-God or anything like that–quite to the contrary–but they are definitely not pro-Christianity or even pro-organized religion. They more refer to a oneness that is expressed better in religions like Taoism. I think ambiguity helped mask that fact. Either that or the kids were down with the Tao! My goal now is to have the kids sing every song on my next record and me not sing at all. I prefer the sound of their voices to mine!

2) What was it like to spend some time on the road with The Apples in Stereo? Are you involved with their new record?

Robert [Schneider] and I have known each other for a long, long time – since the early days of high school. In fact, our band, Fat Planet, though not my first band, was my first real band in that the people could actually play, and that really pushed me to get better. So now, playing in a band with Robert for the first time since then, not counting one-offs and the occasional recording session, has just been incredible. It has the carefree feeling that you can only get when you are young and think that you are going to take over the world someday–and maybe someday we will! Plus, our voices really blend well together. There are only a handful of people who I really enjoy singing with and I would have to say that Robert is at the top of the list. I must also commend Hilarie [Sidney] too. Even though this is the first time she and I have sung together, it’s effortless to blend voices with her. She is quite an amazing singer as well and pounding the hell out of the drums at the same time! Quite a feat! Not to mention that all the Apples are super great people to hang with. As for the new album New Magnetic Wonder, Robert came down to Athens recently and brought his entire set-up–computer, mikes, and a rack of mic pres and compressors and set them all up at my house. He was in town for a couple of weeks and we did a lot of overdubs–mostly singing–and had a great time. Will Hart was involved on a track as well. We all hung out and just had a fantastic time getting high and making up stupid parts, some of which actually made it onto the record! The creative energy was unbelievable.

3) Last year Olivia Tremor Control briefly reunited for a pretty spectacular little tour to enthusiastic crowds. How did it feel to play and tour with your old band again?

It was just amazing. I couldn’t believe that so many people even remembered who we were, much less wanted to come out and see us dust off those old ditties. I always felt that we aborted the band far too early in our “career” and getting back together with the old guys felt very good. We fell right back into the music without skipping a step. It was very natural and effortless. Plus my friends Andrew Hawthorne and Kevin Evans put together some fantastic visuals and projected them behind us for some of the shows. That made it even extra special for me. I would love to re-rail that train back on the tracks for some new stupidity but that will have to come in its own time.

4) Can you confirm the rumor that you’re credited as “The Bill Doss” on the Powerpuff Girls tribute album, Heroes & Villains, because the Cartoon Network (or perhaps Kid Rhino) thought “The Sunshine Fix” might be a drug reference? And how did you become involved with this record?

Starting with the last part first, apparently Craig McCracken, the creator of the show is a fan of Elephant 6. How about that, huh? He told me that he had bought a copy of the first Sunshine Fix single (the one with the insert controversy) and liked it enough to ask me to be on that record. Then they sent me a bunch of episodes of the show and asked me to become familiar with the characters and try to inject them into my song. It was great fun! I was sitting at home watching cartoons and thinking,”I’m working! What better job could anybody have?!?” Plus, the songs were mastered (mine was mixed as well) by Mark Mothersbaugh which thrilled me to no end! As for the name change, yes, the show (or it may have been the label, I forget) thought that The Sunshine Fix was too much of a drug reference for a record about a kids show. I never intended for that name to be a drug reference but when I thought about it I could definitely see it! I’ve always liked names that have multiple meanings and I suppose that one could mean several things depending on how you look at it. So I decided to just use my real name–I played all the parts myself–and thought I’d be really clever and stick a “The” on the beginning so that it would sound more like a band name like The Pink Floyd or The Sonic Youth.

Of course it came off sounding egoistic as in I am “The” Bill Doss. So much for clever! Actually, I am one of several Bill Dosses. I recently got an email forwarded to me from a paramedic in Ohio named Bill Doss who had received a fan letter saying how much they loved The Sunshine Fix. Nutter.

5) Are you writing or recording any new material at the moment?

Oh yeah, I am always writing and recording. I got into ProTools recently and have been experimenting like crazy with it just learning the program. I have also been trying to shy away from writing 60’s-style pop songs and instead come at my songwriting from a different angle, which is not as easy as it sounds after so many years in one direction, and also the reason I don’t have a new record out yet. I will definitely get back to the 60’s thing eventually but for now I am enjoying trying to do things differently. The new stuff is darker and lots of minor keys and sadness closer to Leonard Cohen than John Lennon, I suppose. I don’t know why, actually, because my life is wonderful and I am very happy, but the darker themes seem to be coming through in the new material. I suppose it’s all part of whatever it is…and as Lou Reed said, “I just write ‘em, I don’t explain ‘em…” or some other such nonsense. Plus after writing a galling amount of songs about the sun and light, an about-face was inevitable.

6) What are you listening to at the moment that you find particularly inspiring?

Right now, I am listening to a lot of Middle Eastern Music–especially from Lebanon. Also, some old stuff from Japan. It’s all so strange to ears that are used to hearing music from the west–all wooden and tinkly. I also recently got into Paulo Conte. He is an old Italian eccentric who’s crusty and sort of Tom Waits-y and just wonderful. With any luck, I could definitely see myself growing into that sort of character. Also, since I started playing with the Apples, I have gone back and listened to that stuff again and have really rediscovered their music. I think I had forgotten just how brilliant those records are. That has really inspired and reinvigorated me musically. And of course with the passing of Syd [Barrett], I have gone back and listened to all my old Pink Floyd and Syd solo albums. It’s sad for us that he is gone but at least now he is free from any earthly pain and besides, we lost him nearly forty years ago anyway. I think that has inspired me to keep working. You never know how much time you have to do the things you want to do. To paraphrase my friend Will, it’s best to enjoy your sunny day while taking the time to waste it.


Portrait photo by Amy Hairston
Live photo of Olivia Tremor Control by Chris Yetter 

Random Pulp Art #3: Jim Steranko’s Blade Runner

Cover art for the Marvel Comics adaptation of Blade Runner, by Jim Steranko.

Perşembe, Mayıs 25, 2017

Optical Atlas Interview with Ideal Free Distribution

This interview which I conducted with Tony Miller and Craig Morris of the Lexington, KY band Ideal Free Distribution was first posted at Optical Atlas on February 6, 2007.

Early last year, around the time when Optical Atlas was just coming into creation, a pair of MP3s began to spread around the music blogs accredited to one “Ideal Free Distribution.” Not a lot was known about the band, except that they were from Kentucky and Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo was helping to mix their new record. The MP3s–which might be referred to as the “Apples and Oranges b/w Saturday Drive” single–garnered instant enthusiasm. The sound called to mind the Kinks and the Zombies, and yeah, a little Syd Barrett too. Now an established part of the Lexington scene, along with the Apples, High Water Marks, and Thee American Revolution (in which IFD member Craig Morris plays alongside Schneider), they’ve just released their self-titled debut album on Happy Happy Birthday to Me: 14 tracks of virtuoso melody, harmonies, and mellotron–more on the latter in just a bit. Morris, who wrote the majority of the album’s songs, provides guitar, drums, organ, and piano; he’s joined by lead vocalist Tony Miller and Eric Griffy on bass and electric guitar. (In the band’s live incarnation, they’re joined by Marci Schneider, Shelly Morris, Samantha Herald, Joe Drury, and Mike Grote.) On the strength of their new album alone, they’ve just been invited to play this year’s SXSW Festival. Both Craig Morris and Tony Miller agreed to a joint interview to mark the general public’s introduction to the band, a band which has actually been gestating as a bedroom recording project since 1997–which partially explains why the album is so polished and intricately worked out.

So how did the band come together? It sounds like it was in gestation for a long time, and started as bedroom recordings–is that accurate?

CRAIG MORRIS: Yes, we began recording at Eric’s parents house in 1997. We started off as a pretty jangly bunch, pretty heavily influenced by the early Who and the Stone Roses. As time progressed, we began doing more elaborate overdubs to add more depth to the sound. A lot of the stuff from this time is really fun. Some of it is wretched.

Where was this, in Lexington?

CM: No, this is our hometown of Benton, KY.

TONY MILLER: Good ol’ Benton, KY…home of “Tater Day.” Craig and Eric lived right next to each other growing up (parents still do) and I lived about 2 miles away. Craig and Eric are cousins and he used to hang out at the Griffy’s with Eric’s younger brother Alex. Eric used to bully them into pretending they were in a metal band by using tennis rackets as guitars. Craig forgot to mention how intimidated we initially were by Eric. He was a few years older and was a high school football jock, plus he had been playing in metal bands for years (we were afraid of metal too).

The first time we went down to his house to mess around, he needed to go to the store to get cigarettes, so we rode with him…he had the front floor board full of cassettes that were his own 4-track recordings. He played a few that he considered trash and it was the best music Craig and I had ever heard. That was the initial “one-up” that got us thinking harder about songwriting. Shortly thereafter, Craig retailiated with the most brilliant two pop songs ever and we’ve been competing unofficially ever since. Eric and I are a little bit behind considering the effort that Craig put into the new album.

What kind of equipment were you using back then, and was there a moment when you purchased some recording equipment that made you feel you were beginning to take serious steps to make this a recording project?

CM: We started with a Marantz cassette 4 track and a Shure SM-57. It’s hard to botch things with a 57. We really had no other gear besides my Telecaster and Fender VibroChamp, Tony’s guitar at the time and Eric’s bass. We really thought we hit the big leagues when we purchased a Roland VS880 digital 8 track. We got quite a bit more ambitious with that thing since it had more tracks, and there wasn’t as much signal loss when you bounced tracks together onto one track, like with the cassette. About 2001, I bought an M-Audio Omni computer interface and we started recording on computer. We also started getting cheap RODE and Audio Technica condenser mics, which gave us a few more options soundwise. A word to anyone reading who might be getting into recording: We do NOT use ProTools! The Windows version is the most user unfriendly program ever. Cubase, Sonar, and Vegas are much easier to use and are more likely to promote creativity rather than hold you back. To get ready for recording our next record, I’ve purchased some awesome mics and built a bunch of cool mic pres. I’ve also got a couple snazzy old compressors in the studio right now.

TM: As cheesy as it sounds now…Eric bought the most generic condenser mic around ’98 (seems like it was 9-volt powered) that, with the suspension mount, made me feel like I was Sam Cooke or something.

So when did Ideal Free Distribution begin playing live?

CM: Only when we had to. When a track was appearing on a Lexington compilation.

TM: It’s not like we didn’t try though. The odds of three musicians, with leanings toward 60’s influenced pop, finding each other in western Kentucky were astronomical…we weren’t so lucky with a drummer. We went through six drummers trying to put together a live act with no luck. It was like Spinal Tap or something…they just kept disappearing. Of course, I’m not sure where we planned on playing even if we would have gotten our shit together. There wasn’t exactly a “scene” in our area. I moved to Lexington after being away at grad school and put together a band here (The Melody Function) because I was dying to perform. Those guys became part of the Ideal Free Distribution when the UK radio station (WRFL) asked us to play a show in association with a local artists CD compilation. It was great! Our friend Robert Schneider played guitar on a couple of songs. We can directly attribute his friendship and eternal cheerleading to all the attention we’ve gotten so far.

The impression I get is that you perform live out of necessity, and you’re more concerned with how you sound on the album, is that correct?

CM: That isn’t entirely true. It’s just such an effort to get an eight piece band together that lives four hours apart.

TM: We like performing, but after 10 years of recording (and no performing), the bedroom collaborations are our first love.

How did you meet Robert Schneider? I’m aware that he’s married to Marci, but did you naturally come across each other as part of the Lexington scene? And for that matter, what was it like to work with Robert and Jason NeSmith on the record?

TM: Marci started dating Robert right around the time we finished the album. I met him at a Yo La Tengo concert around that time and then hung out with him shortly thereafter at one of Marci and Sammy’s (my girlfriend and bandmate) parties. I think that was right after he heard one of our older songs (“Kodak Stare”) that was in Marci’s music collection. It was overwhelming how much he gushed about that song. We had long ago given up on getting anyone to listen to our music and in no way did we try to get Marci to push it on him. I guess Craig got him a copy of the album shortly thereafter, which ultimately led to his barrage of promotional cheerleading, and our signing to HHBTM, and the mixing of our album.

It was so surreal to have Robert sitting in Craig’s garage studio twisting the knobs on something we recorded! We of course are big Apples/E6 fans so it was really mind-blowing. I always remember the first time I heard the Apples around ’99. Craig got a copy of Wallpaper Reverie and I remember being initially pissed off! I thought we had a completely original 60’s influenced sound and then we discovered that there was an entire collective out in Denver doing the same thing. It was initially disappointing, but then we became fans. To have become such good friends now with Robert and some of the other E6ers is very cool.

CM: I met Robert because he and Marci (my sister) started dating. Otherwise, living three hours away, I wouldn’t have had any reason to meet and get to know Robert. I have a conspiracy theory about Robert and the music though. I think Marci was intentionally listening to our best song at the time, “Kodak Stare,” because she knew if he heard it, he would freak out. She claims it was a coincidence, but either way, I suppose it worked. It was great working with Robert throughout the recording and especially the mixing process. I now understand how to use compression and EQ, and a long list of invaluable information. Playing with him in Thee American Revolution, I learned how much fun could be a part of rocking out. Jason is such a cool guy because he didn’t run our record through a mackie console and a walkman for mastering as he threatened. I gave that guy HELL one night after the American Revolution opened for Casper and the Cookies.

One of the things I really enjoy about the album is the diversity of the subject matter, from pure pop songs to the dark storytelling of “New Madrid, 1811” to the political commentary of “Someone’s Gonna Die.” It seems like there’s nothing out of bounds for the band to tackle, but they’re all recognizably from the same album and band–they connect and have the same strong voice. Can you specifically address those two songs and what the inspiration was?

CM: Sure. On “New Madrid,” growing up in western KY near the New Madrid Fault, we are always faced with the threat of another catastrophic earthquake. Some non-scientist nut said we would have one on a specific day in the early 90’s, and everybody around was let out school and stuff! It was hilarious. But seriously, there are hundreds of rumors about the 1811-1812 earthquakes that float around our part of the country, so I began reading primary source documents such as personal journals of folks that were there to try to learn what it was really like. That’s what “New Madrid” is based on. “Someone’s Gonna Die” was me sitting around in ’03 getting pissed off at the blind stupidity of people being so idiotically patriotic (I’m patriotic, I like being American, I cheer for the US Olympic team and stuff, but I won’t cheer for a war that I don’t agree with). It was obvious to me and a lot of people at the time that the Bush administration was dying to have the fake war in Iraq (the premise behind the war being fake, not that there aren’t people dying there). In Kentucky, every idiot had everything they owned plastered with flag stickers and flag this and flag that. It struck me that any time when the masses of flags come out, some poor bastard is going to have to die for it.

Camels Have Wings

Walked past this toy store window display: just to be clear, this is a camel with angel wings and a severed giraffe head on its hump. Kids…buy?

Cuma, Aralık 30, 2016

On Steampunk “Rivets are our glitter.”

– Lord Bobbins, of Teslacon, on Steampunk costume design, speaking at the   2015 Wisconsin Writers’ Institute.

Random Pulp Art #2: The Zap Gun

Wisconsin Film Festival Dispatch

The 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival is in full force, continuing through Thursday. Although I had to cut one film last night due to major eye issues – I didn’t really want to sit through a long French crime drama if I can’t read subtitles – so far it’s been a rewarding experience. There’s been a bit of silent film (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, click for review), Orson Welles (Chimes at Midnight, click for review), a new comedy from the director of Computer Chess (Results, an unconventional and very funny rom-com with Guy Pierce, Cobie Smulders, and Kevin Corrigan), and what’s pictured below, a trio of short documentaries on three key elements of Wisconsin life: beer, supper clubs, and amusement parks. “Little America” (D: Kurt Raether) profiles the Little A-Merrick-A park, which places rollercoasters right up next to a cemetery; “Tale of the Spotted Cow” (D: Bill Roach) profiles Wisconsin’s storied New Glarus Brewing Company; and “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club” (D: Holly L. De Ruyter) finally explains to me what a supper club is while showcasing some truly fabulous decor (how could I have not paid a visit to Beaver Dam’s Pyramid on the Nile before their recent closing?).

“Old Fashioned: The
 Story of the
Wisconsin Supper

“Dinner, Drinks, and
 post-film Q&A.
Bill Roach discusses
 “The Tale of the
Spotted Cow.”

Director Kurt
Raether discusses
 “Little America.
Director Holly De
Ruyter discusses
“Old Fashioned: The
 Story of the
 Wisconsin Supper


Kyle Cherek, host of
 public television’s
“Wisconsin Foodie,”
 introduces the films.

Gene Expression Center

This is the bulletin board outside my wife’s workplace. I can’t name all the
Genes, sorry.

Pazartesi, Ekim 19, 2015

Random Pulp Art #1: The Sailor on the Sea of Fate

(In which I randomly scan things and post them here…)

This Michael Whelan illustration from the old DAW paperback – my favorite in Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga – captures the dream-like quality of an episodic novel, as Elric boards a ship that travels between dimensions.

The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards

Voting is now open for the 2015 Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards. Cast your ballot here.

“Salvage” at Fiction Vortex

My new short story, “Salvage,” is now available for your reading pleasure at Fiction Vortex, a magazine of speculative fiction.

“Salvage” is part of a collection of fantasy stories that take place in a larger world called Panidore. I’ve been quietly assembling these tales, and this is the first to reach publication. There are more, including the novel I recently completed as part of the Madison Writers’ Studio.

Fiction Vortex is currently raising funds to keep the online magazine going. Please consider contributing to the fantastic work they’re doing – more information is at Patreon.

Pazartesi, Nisan 06, 2009

2009 Wisconsin Film Festival

This blog has been hibernating for the winter while I've been off finishing work on a novel. I wasn't planning on blogging about this year's Wisconsin Film Festival, but, well, it's been a tradition...so let's do it. Here's a quick rundown of what I saw this year.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Sacha Gervasi

I've been wanting to see this since reading a glowing Film Comment article from last year; it's a documentary about a heavy metal band that hasn't been big since 1984. And even then, they weren't so big. Canadian rockers Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner (yes, his real name) have kept the Anvil brand alive, albeit with just a small group of loyal fans, while laboring at miserable day jobs, still dreaming of one day breaking through to the big time. The film follows their last-ditch effort at success through a mismanaged European tour and a big-budget studio album (their thirteenth, with money fronted by Lips' older sister) in which record labels may or may not have any interest. Much like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the dialogue could be straight out of a Christopher Guest comedy (or, more obviously, This is Spinal Tap), were it not all real. But the film is also unexpectedly moving, as Gervasi--who toured with the band as a teenager, and has since become a Hollywood screenwriter--makes pains to emphasize that Lips' devotion to the Anvil dream has real-world consequences to his family and Reiner's, who are waiting on the sidelines for a better life.

Live from New York...: 1950s Television from the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (U.S., 1952-1958)
D: Sidney Lumet, Hal Keither, Lou Sposa

This program assembles three half-hour live television broadcasts from the 1950's, rare copies held in the Wisconsin Film and Television Archive (and shown on DVD to preserve the prints). "Danger" was an anthology mystery/suspense program; the episode screened, "Death and the Family Jewels," is an amusing film noir with a young Cloris Leachman prominently featured; but it's of interest primarily for Lumet's innovative camerawork, which does its best to bring a certain amount of style to the live format. More entertaining was an episode of "Mr. Peepers," starring Wally Cox as a nebbishy science teacher. Much of the comedy still works marvellously, although the sitcom format had a long way to go: much of the humor seems to meander aimlessly, which gives the unintended feeling of (bad) improv. Best of all was "ESP," a failed game show hosted by Vincent Price. UW Cinematheque curator Heather Heckman unfortunately forewarned the audience this would be "boring," and so I saw at least one couple leave right as it was starting. Their loss. Poor Vincent Price struggles to make the most of an unworkable concept (none of the contestants demonstrate any psychic powers, unsurprisingly--including the prize fighter, a palooka who admits to not knowing what "ESP" meant until the producers told him he had it). The series, which premiered while the game show trials were ongoing, deserves a DVD release--all two episodes, as the plug was quickly pulled. The unintended humor value is extremely high. I can't imagine that any film at WIFF this year generated louder laughter.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (U.S., 2008) * * * 1/2
D: Kevin Rafferty

Rundown of the legendary Harvard/Yale game of 1968 is deceptively simple, cutting between talking heads and footage from the game itself. But this is the best sports film I've ever seen. Despite the necessary distancing of the talking heads, despite the grainy quality of the 1968 film, despite the fact that the outcome of the game is in the TITLE ITSELF, the enjoyment and the palpable suspense of the game is translated perfectly, partly because of director Rafferty's clean technique, but mostly because it was a damn good game. First and only celebrity spotting of the festival: Mayor Dave attended. First "sensurround" experience of the festival: sitting next to me was a gentleman who attended the actual game, and helped provide me with additional play-by-play commentary. (Past "sensurround" festival experiences include watching Werner Herzog's Buddhism documentary Wheel of Time with exiled Tibetan monks, and the horror film "Isolation" next to a WIFF volunteer who was in hysterics and borderline catatonic collapse for the entire film.)

The Trap (Serbia/Germany/Hungary, 2007) * * 1/2
D: Srdan Golubović

When the son of a middle-class couple falls ill, only an expensive surgery can save his life. In desperation for the money, the wife places an ad in the paper despite her husband's protests and injured pride. But options are running out when the husband, Mladen, receives the only answer to the ad, from a mysterious benefactor who will provide the money on one condition: that Mladen perform a murder. While he agonizes over the decision, their son is hospitalized, and Mladen's marriage begins to fall apart when he refuses to tell his wife just what's been bothering him. Golubović does a fine job illustrating the "quiet desperation" of a man living through hard economic times (it's easy for the viewer to relate anyway), but unfortunately the film is predictable from its plot through its method: in every scene the viewer can anticipate what will follow--which on the one hand provides a sense of doomed inevitability, but on the other hand makes for a very plodding film. One good twist regarding the blackmailer, in an excellent scene at the climax, almost redeems the enterprise, but it's a long time coming, and all too fleeting. It's not bad, but this has all been done before, and in more rewarding or insightful films.

Our Beloved Month of August (Portugal, 2008) * * *
D: Miguel Gomes

As an (almost Godardian) experiment, this film is fascinating. Imagine a filmmaker who wants to tell a story called "Our Beloved Month of August," involving a teenage singer, her tentative flirtations with her handsome cousin, and her overprotective father. Then imagine that while the director prepares to shoot, in his research he becomes distracted by the Portuguese countryside and its eccentric inhabitants. Thus, he begins to film 2nd-unit footage without much interest in initiating the main story itself, much to the chagrin of his investors. Essentially this is the story of Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August, which does, ultimately, get to its story-within-a-story, but not before spending about half its 147-minute running time in leisurely distraction. We meet a young man who, once a year, jumps off a bridge; we watch local bands play; we go up and down the river and its surrounding hills, occasionally glimpsing the director, or locals who may or may not want to involve themselves in his film. The temptation is to speculate on what the film would have been as a conventional narrative, without such an expansive prologue, but truth is that it's the experiment which makes the film something which can't be dismissed. An endurance test, perhaps (there were many walkouts), but a rewarding one.

Between the Folds (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Vanessa Gould

This documentary on the art of paper-folding transforms one's notions of what origami is, as we witness artists from different nations creating elaborate three-dimensional sculptures: figures with detailed facial expressions, flowers that blossom before your eyes, beasts which stand as tall as a person. Most surprisingly, we learn of its practical application to fields of math and science, from designing unfolding solar panels for satellites, or doing cutting-edge research on protein folding; which is why the art is of growing interest to professors who spend their spare time folding paper and elaborately diagramming their work. Great fun at a sold-out show (one of many this year), with director Gould in attendance. Accompanied by two animated short films on the origami theme.

Tulpan (Kazakhstan, 2008) * * *
D: Sergey Dvortsevoy

Dvortsevoy's portrait of a family of Kazakh farmers living within the same small dwelling on the dust-devil-swept steppes is most remarkable for capturing the rhythms of life: herding the sheep, singing to pass the time, eating dinner on the sandy floor of the hut, playing with a radio to capture the fleeting signal from a distant broadcast, and occasionally venturing out to try to get young Asa a wife. There's only one eligible girl left on their corner of the steppes, and that's Tulpan, who is never seen, though she advises her parents that Asa's ears are too big. Thus deemed unsuitable, Asa miserably returns to his homelife, and chafes at the idea of being just another shepherd, his big-city dreams fueled largely by his hyperactive friend Boni, who collects Western pornography and tapes it to the inside of his truck. Very similar to The Story of Weeping Camel--in fact, replete with a graphic animal birth--but with, naturally, a more adult edge.

Idiots and Angels (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Bill Plympton

Plympton's fifth feature-length animated film is, once again, done almost entirely by Plympton himself, which is still a very rare and exceptional thing--and which is why it's so unusual that there are two such works in this year's festival (the other being Sita Sings the Blues, reviewed below). I haven't seen his last, Hair High, but have been following him pretty avidly otherwise, being a fan since his first film, the surreal musical The Tune (to date, his only "family" picture). Plympton's style is unique: hand-drawn, sketchy, ribald, violent, and most of all a slow-burning surrealism, where one incident leads to another with a deliberately-paced comic inevitability. Idiots and Angels is the apotheosis of his style, and one he's been building toward since The Tune and, in particular, I Married a Strange Person (previously my favorite, now usurped). Like IMASP, Idiots and Angels follows a man who inexplicably receives strange powers. Unlike IMASP, those powers--which come in the form of angel-like wings--manage to inhibit rather than enable his out-of-control Id. Our protagonist, who begins the play as a thoroughly wicked scoundrel who follows his every lustful and vengeful whim, is pummeled into an unwilling character arc by his animate wings, which blind him when he tries to spy on a nude sunbather, and send him soaring to right every wrong against his wishes. Meanwhile, two others--a surgeon and a barkeep--want the wings for their own personal gain. Plympton has been working toward dialogue-free storytelling for decades now, and he achieves it with Idiots and Angels; it's telling that even though sound problems took out the soundtrack for the first five minutes (thanks, Wisconsin Union Theater!), the audience could follow along perfectly, and were laughing at every gag. Plympton also simplifies his elements, limiting himself to the same locations and a small cast of characters, so that only the surreal comic action becomes complex and rich, as with the best Loony Toons. WIFF Sensurround moment #2: when the ending credits began to roll, a man toward the front of the theater stood up as his pants fell down, mooning the audience--a perfectly Plympton finale.

Revanche (Austria, 2008) * * * *
D: Götz Spielmann

Alex is carrying on a secret relationship with the Ukrainian prostitute Tamara, against the wishes of their mutual employer at a Viennese brothel. Tamara is offered a chance to move up to the role of a higher-class escort for the elite, at a fancy hotel, but when she refuses, her pimp hires someone to rough her up. Alex offers her a chance to escape when he concocts a bank heist plan, but when it goes horrifically awry, he's left to pick up the pieces in a country village with his sickly, accordion-playing grandfather, and the couple next door, a police officer and his wife, who are unable to conceive. I've probably given too much away already. What should be stressed is that Spielmann is uninterested in crafting a traditional thriller, and forsakes "suspense" in favor of a documentary-style realism as he tries to access the emotional lives of the characters, and untangle the very complex moral dilemma each one faces. What makes Revanche so remarkable is that it arrives at a rare and potent emotional space, one which could never be anticipated from the setup.

Mermaid (Russia, 2007) * * 1/2
D: Anna Melikyan

I want to award this film higher marks simply for existing: it's a Russian fantasy-comedy, directed by a woman, aiming for Amelie-style imagination and romance. But it never quite pulls together, and leaves one dissatisfied, even at 115 minutes. Masha Shalayeva plays Alisa (Alice, by the subtitles, perhaps to emphasize an Alice in Wonderland connection), who was born out of a waterbound tryst, and who decides to become a mute after witnessing her mother seducing a passing sailor (her father has been absent for many years, though she still waits for him). Sent to a school for special needs children, she focuses on honing her latent psychic ability, at first by causing apples to fall from trees, and later by orchestrating much larger events, usually unintentional catastrophes (to Alisa's distress, many people die in the course of this film as the results of her psychically-enhanced Id). When her mother moves the family--which includes Alisa and her grandmother--to Moscow, she adjusts to city life by taking a job as a cell phone ad (wearing an elaborate phone costume), and eventually falls in with a man who makes big money selling plots on the moon. That is, "falls in" with him literally--rescuing him from a suicide attempt as he jumps off a bridge, and seconds before she was going to off herself in the same fashion. Enamored perhaps as much by her own legend (how she was conceived) as the man himself, she devotes herself to becoming his housemaid, while he easily bats off her naive advances and continues to stumble, somnambulistically, through his life. Of course, eventually she persuades him to see the world--and her--differently, but this happens as abruptly as the contrived crisis/climax which follows almost immediately afterward. The film feels a bit like a missed opportunity.

Sita Sings the Blues (U.S., 2008) * * * *
D: Nina Paley

A dazzling first feature-length animated film by Nina Paley, Sita Sings the Blues combines legends from the Ramayana, autobiography, and the songs of 1920's jazz singer Annette Hanshaw into an extremely personal feminist statement dressed up as sweet psychedelic candy. When I first read about this film on the Cartoon Brew blog, my curiosity was piqued enough to eagerly seek out whatever information I could find. At last able to view the finished product (and on the big screen!), I'm pleased to say that the film exceeds my elevated expectations. Most impressive--apart from the fact that this entire, studio-slick film was done by one person at her home computer--is the blending of animated styles, which dialogue with one another in charming and engaging ways. The Ramayana scenes, in which we learn the legend of Sita, her abduction, rescue, and subsequent marital discord, are illustrated by found art cut-outs, animated Terry Gilliam-style, and set to the voices of three storytellers trying (sometimes vainly) to settle on the details of the legend. These are intercut with scenes of Paley's own domestic upheaval, mirroring Sita's, and animated in a "squiggly" style of animation as if bringing to life doodles sketched into the corners of Paley's diary. Then there are the Hanshaw-driven musical numbers, the highlights of the film, which are frequent and eye-popping, animated like a Betty Boop short as visited by the Yellow Submarine. All of it is woven together so persuasively that the viewer is left convinced that there was no other way of telling the story, either Sita's or Paley's. A wonder: and you can watch it for free at the film's website.

Pazar, Kasım 09, 2008

I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse

I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (France, 1973) * *
D: Fernando Arrabal

I earlier reviewed Fernando Arrabal's Viva La Muerte (1971), a film which I defined as "angry." Here is another film by anger (to borrow the byline used by Kenneth Anger). Arrabal, a founder of the Panic movement, seems determined to outdo fellow Panic artist Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970) with a raging, nightmarish film on a similar theme. Like El Topo, I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse focuses on the calamity that unfolds when a holy man from out of the desert comes face to face with corrupt civilization. In this case, the holy man is a dwarf, Marvel (Hachemi Marzouk), who is discovered by a fugitive, Aden Rey (George Shannon), wanted for the murder of his mother - as is explained in an amusing opening newsreel interpreted into sign language for those "deaf-mutes" in the audience. Our hero actually had an excruciatingly Oedipal relationship with his mother, which has left him an epileptic, as well as a basketcase tortured by grotesque daydream/reveries of his childhood. As in a Jodorowsky story, he is unable to escape the shadow of a parent, leaving him in a state of arrested development, a sharply-dressed man of society who secretly longs to dress in his mother's underwear and relive the traumas of his youth. (Those traumas, always revisited to the sound of galloping hooves, include witnessing his mother at the receiving end of a graphic cumshot during an S&M session with a lover.) Having fled the authorities into the desert, he finds Marvel eating sand and goatshit delicacies, a complete innocent who can float into the air and perform other minor miracles. Marvel also grows out one toenail, clipping it only once a year, to store it with his others in a sack. At one point, Aden sorts through the sack to count the toenails, as one might count the rings of a tree, only to find them far too numerous. (Marvel has also lost count, and suggests he might be 10,000 years old.) Determined to introduce his new best friend to civilization, he takes the dwarf and his pet goat to the city, where they rent an apartment together. Disconcerted that there is no soil indoors, Marvel has Aden assist him in transporting bags of dirt inside to construct a garden. Absurdist misadventures follow, as Aden introduces his friend to the modern world (and the authorities continue to pursue, always one step behind). He tries to bring Marvel a lover, introduces him to eating meat in restaurants (which repulses the dwarf), and takes him to church--where Marvel performs a genuine miracle of stigmata that gets him promptly kicked out. All the while themes of incest, repressed homosexuality, and social and religious satire emerge, leading to a climax about as bloody and as memorably repellant as the one which ended Viva La Muerte. Much more so than Jodorowsky, Arrabal seems hellbent on providing a cathartic transcendence through rolling about in the grand guignol.

Taboo imagery is Arrabal's cinematic language. An erect penis is lit like a candle - which is the least of the phallic violations on display. Aden and Marvel are depicted shitting (for real) in silhouette against a desert sunset. A flower's stem is stuck into a woman's ass, to emerge coated in shit and devoured (not for real). When two nude lovers in gas masks copulate, it seems almost like a refreshing reprieve - the kind of garden-variety surrealistic symbolism which Arrabal usually tries to stampede past on the way to more aggressive imagery. While the Panic movement was partly established as an anarchic response to the commercialized state of Surrealism (thanks, Dali), I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse reminds one that Surrealism was originally intended as a weapon. This film is a weapon, perhaps more than it is a work of art, but as savage as it is, the film also feels less innovative and original than what was concurrently being created by artists such as Jodorowsky, Luis Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini - even the stylish exploitations of Jesus Franco. Perhaps it is because many of the shocks seem pointless. Perhaps it is because the plot feels unoriginal, an imitation of El Topo or Simon of the Desert, but given a psychosexual twist.

Yet it is still undeniably a "film by anger," an exorcism of Arrabal's private demons. It is a product of a unique decade in which extreme transgression became, if briefly, not just a valid cinematic tool but also fashionable. I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse still provokes outrage, which is certainly one of Arrabal's chief objectives. That it also provokes weariness, exhaustion, and even cynicism from this viewer is, perhaps, one of the unfortunate effects of witnessing an artist set on taking every concept to its extreme - and bloody, and scatalogical, and repulsive - ends. I liked Viva La Muerte. But perhaps I've now had my fill of this kind of exploration, and hunger for real poetry now, not just belabored gestures at symbolism from the mud and grime.

Pazartesi, Ekim 06, 2008

Don't Touch the Axe

Don't Touch the Axe (France, 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Jacques Rivette

There was, for a little while circa 2006, a bit of a Jacques Rivette revival. Rivette has always been one of the most underrated of the French New Wave directors, perhaps because his films were always more self-consciously theatrical than overtly cinematic. A touring program helped to reestablish his presence in the consciousness of film buffs internationally, screening prints of films such as Celine and Julie Go Boating (to date, his best-known and most highly-regarded film), Duelle, Noroît, Love on the Ground, and the sprawling Out 1. (Alas, when the festival came to my local UW-Cinematheque, they did not screen this last one, at 773 minutes his most legendary.) Oddly, the revival seems to have dimmed, and I'm still waiting on an announcement of some Rivette films on Region 1 DVD (ahem, Criterion?). Still, his latest film, released in the U.S. as The Duchess of Langeais, at least was released stateside, and to favorable attention, at that.

Anyone who has taken the time to come to know Rivette through his films will eventually come to Honoré de Balzac and Rivette's great affection for the author; and so it should come as no surprise that in 2006 he adapted "The Duchess of Langeais," a novella included in Balzac's collection The History of the Thirteen. Originally, Balzac intended to call the story "Don't Touch the Axe," after a pivotal line of dialogue. Significantly, Rivette restored the title to his adaptation, although, for reasons I can't quite understand, it was changed to The Duchess of Langeais for festivals and limited release in the U.S. Don't Touch the Axe is a rather savage title, which adds a bit of teeth to what will be, by necessity, a story told mostly through dialogue--a chamber drama of unrequited love, set almost entirely in the Duchess' boudoir. Guillaume Depardieu* plays Montriveau, a decorated general of the Napoleonic wars, visiting Paris with a gruff demeanor, like a seaman who hasn't gotten his land-legs; fittingly, he plays the part with a staggering gait, to imply a war wound, though he seems to move like Frankenstien's monster, and is just as out of place.** At a ball he meets Antoinette (Jeanne Balibar), the wife of the wealthy, and perpetually absent, Duc de Langeais. Finding this fish-out-of-water entertaining, she decides to play with his affections for her own amusement. She invites him to her home, wearing only a flimsy nightgown and acting the engaged audience to his life story. As she intends, he falls intensely in love, declaring that she is the first woman who has ever stolen his heart. She is, of course, being the perfect coquette, building his expectations in perpetuity without ever intending to satisfy his desires. This echoes, ironically, the tale he tells her (in the film, stretched over several nights): of being taken through the African desert by a guide who promises him that the journey will be only a few miles more, a few miles more--until they have gone too far to go back. Montriveau is also being led on, so to speak, but when he reaches that "point of no return," he decides to turn the tables.

And here is the only departure from the novella, a minor one: in the film the implication is that Montriveau decides to have his revenge upon the duchess of his own will; in Balzac's story, it is at the instigation of his friend Ronquerolles. Ronquerolles does play a role in Rivette's adaptation, but it's a late and minor part; the result is that Montriveau becomes a more dynamic character here, and more responsible for the tragedy which unfolds. Yet this is a Rivette film, arid, sometimes clinical. We are removed from Montriveau's thoughts and feelings, so that he's somewhat more mysterious than he is the novella. Balzac presents a messy character, emotionally fragile, and given to a rage when he finds that he's been so emotionally exposed by the coquette's wiles. Guillaume Depardieu, to his credit, is effective and sympathetic, but Rivette seems to hold him back. Rivette, like Godard, has always been a little reluctant for the viewers to lose themselves completely in the story--he wants to emphasize the boundary between the viewer and the characters. In the novella, there is a distinct dividing line when the point of view switches from Montriveau to the Duchess. But since we are never entirely within Montriveau's head in Rivette's film, that narrative switch is never really applied. The dividing line of interest for Rivette is the emotional gap between the two characters. Montriveau falls in love with the Duchess, and then she falls in love with him; but they never seem to meet one another. In one of the final images of the film--a rare departure from the narrative, though a minor one--we see a cinematic illustration of this divide, although to avoid spoilers I won't describe it here. Really, this is an anti-love story, and Rivette's emotionally aloof approach seems strangely fitting, even if it was not Balzac's method.

Since this is not an experimental film by any means, or at least far less so than Rivette's early works, the result is a fascinating tension between artificiality and authenticity. The dim candles of the salons, the creaking of the floorboards, the dank corridors of the abbey and the clutter of Montriveau's apartment all lend a convincing verisimilitude. But Rivette keeps the emotions in check. He makes little effort to draw the viewer into sympathy with the characters. It is up to the audience to understand the dramatic stakes. Rivette's only cinematic trick is one he's used in the past: using interstitial title cards ("The next day--" "But, the next evening--" etc.), including some with extended quotations from Balzac's prose. He's always been among the most literary of directors; what is amusing is how Rivette, in his autumn years, seems to be pushing cinema toward the form of the novel. One could say that Out 1, which takes as long to see as a novel takes to read, was an early attempt to do just this; but an evening spent with any film of Rivette's is as intimate and as oddly comforting and involving as reading a book. That Don't Touch the Axe is a wonderful film is almost besides the point; it is another wonderful Jacques Rivette film, which is more than enough.

* Guillaume Depardieu tragically died of pneumonia just a short while after I wrote this review.
** Not entirely an artistic choice: Depardieu famously had to have his leg amputated following a motorcycle accident.