Tag: music

The Informant!

by on Sep.20, 2009, under Movies

To many, Steven Soderbergh’s is the face that launched a thousand indies, but he’s much more impressive as the redemption of old, big, star-struck Hollywood.  I’m glad he takes the time between his major motion pictures for his experimental confections; I suspect that the linguistic investigations of Schizopolis or the cruddy longeurs of Bubble expand the palette that he brings to blockbuster cinema.

I think he shares with Tarantino an enormous wellspring of inspiration, but while Tarantino’s is his mind’s own Video Hut of Alexandria, Soderbergh’s is more of a living cinema sketchbook or laboratory. I simply no longer want to see those experiments. Full Frontal was the last straw, and its unfortunate fascination with the slippage between the lives led and lives played by Hollywood types, not all that clever a riff on Pirandello to begin with, ruined Ocean’s 12 when it was imported into that movie.

(Schizopolis underwhelmed me because I’d seen its famous “Generic greeting” scene done before — but I could never remember where. The blog While Seated jogged my memory: I’d gone to see Chicago’s Neo-Futurists perform Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind in 1991 in Chicago.)

But when he’s on, he’s on. Ocean’s 11 is, for me, the purest cinematic pleasure, drum-tight in the action and just loose enough to be sexy or funny without dropping the plot. Out of Sight is a slow and sexy crime story that maximizes the given resources of Elmore Leonard and George Clooney and even draws a shapely performance out of Jennifer Lopez. The Limey is probably the best evidence for my hypothesis about Soderbergh’s experiments informing his genre treatments: ruthlessly edited down, it’s a no-frills, sharp-angled story that relies much more upon the play between Terrence Stamp’s quiet anger and Luis Gúzman’s chatter than Lem Dobbs’ much-abused script.

Like no other director, Soderbergh has made the use of stars part of his art. That’s what makes the characterization of The Informant!‘s Mark Whitacre and his giddy, high-wire performance by Matt Damon so surprising and so much fun. Soderbergh’s great at exploiting star power — viz. Clooney — and to the extent that that’s been coaxed out of Damon previously, it’s been either his headstrong youthfulness in Ocean’s 11 or the reticent hawk of the Bourne movies. (Parker and Stone drew what is perhaps the canonical take.)

There’s seemingly no reticence at all in Mark Whitacre, the title character who moves from a “white hat” at the beginning of the movie, exposing himself to great risk in order to bring ADM to hell for its price-fixing scheme, to something altogether more complicated by the movie’s end.  Not only does he run off at the mouth to anyone within earshot, often with compromising information, his internal live-encyclopedia monologue comes up as a voice-over:

WHITACRE (V.O.)

When polar bears hunt, they crouch down by a hole in the ice and wait for a seal to pop up. They keep one paw over their nose so that they blend in. Cuz’ they’ve got those black noses. They’d blend in perfectly if not for the nose...

EXTERIOR JOHN WAYNE AIRPORT, ORANGE COUNTY – DAY

Whitacre descends the steps of the jet followed by Andreas and some other SUITS. Whitacre peels off the group.

WHITACRE

I’m just gonna hit the head here.

WHITACRE (V.O.)

So the question is. How do they know their noses are black? From looking at other polar bears? Do they see their reflections in the water? And think, “I’d be invisible if not for that.” That seems like a lot of thinking for a bear.

Whitacre’s ever-interjecting consciousness adds a note of frenzy–of monkey mind–to an already-frenetic performance. Marvin Hamlisch’s loopy and anachronistic score reinforces the mania of Whitacre’s personality. The movie is serious enough about the ADM scheme and the various powers that conspire to refocus the investigation on the whistleblower instead of the crime. But Whitacre’s characterization, ranging from chipper and corn-fed to not sane, shapes the work and gives it its real artistic stretch.

The most impressive feat of The Informant! is that it takes us up this close to its protagonist but manages to hold back critical information about his actions and intentions. We get inside his mind without getting inside his plan. (Significantly, his first voice-over, presented originally to the audience but revealed to be a speech to his young son, clues us in that his mental monologue is very much a performance.) Done poorly, this could come off as unfair or selective on the part of the director. Instead, it’s exciting, allowing us intimacy with Whitacre from the beginning yet still leaving plenty of room for suspense and revelation. The storytelling gives us an unreliable narrator verging on a kind of first-person free indirect style.

The polar bear anecdote isn’t the only Whitacre ramble about deception and perception in the animal kingdom. Whitacre tells us how the colors of poisonous butterflies are adopted by their benign cousins to scare away birds. And he tells us (talking to his son, in the first monologue) that our breakfast orange juice and maple syrup conceal good old corn. Every act of looking is looking at a lie.

Link to screenplay by Scott Z. Burns
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How to Visit the Eureka Valley Sand Dunes (and hear them sing)

by on Sep.08, 2009, under Travel

Back in college, on full moons in summer, we would drive to the next valley down, take off all our clothes, and slide down the sand dunes to hear them sing.

I’ve returned to the dunes nearly every summer that I’ve lived in Los Angeles. It’s a long haul, but it’s awesome to introduce new visitors to the dunes. And the experience holds up in its own right.

The Eureka Valley Sand Dunes are good for a visit any time of day or year, with the caveat that in the winter, the rain may wash out the roads. This is my method…
(continue reading…)

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In C

by on Aug.07, 2009, under Los Angeles, Politics, Uncategorized

Midnight in a Mexican restaurant. Two dozen musicians–3 vocalists, 3 clarinets, a violin, a cello, two on the keyboard, two electric guitars and two electric bass guitars, vibes, a piccolo, trombone, trumpet, bari sax, a few others — performed Terry Riley’s In C. And it rocked.

The promotional blog post suggested a typical modern-classical performance:

…not exactly stodgy, but irrefutably professional. (Not Ed Parker-professional. Just new-classical professional.)

This was rock-club, casual-dress, BYO-music stand. The trombonist and the trumpet shuffled and swayed together. The reed players displayed a kind of typical sweet and generous band-camp dorkiness. It looked like this:

From Wikipedia:

In C consists of 53 short, numbered musical phrases, lasting from half a beat to 32 beats; each phrase may be repeated an arbitrary number of times. Each musician has control over which phrase he or she plays: players are encouraged to play the phrases starting at different times, even if they are playing the same phrase. The performance directions state that the musical ensemble should try to stay within two to three phrases of each other. The phrases must be played in order, although some may be skipped. As detailed in some editions of the score, it is customary for one musician (“traditionally… a beautiful girl,” Riley notes in the score[2]) to play the note C (in octaves) in repeated eighth notes. This functions as a metronome and is referred to as “The Pulse”.

The freedom of each musician to advance as they wished, while respecting the injunction to keep mostly together, created an exquisite tension between predictability and randomness. The vague wash forward between movements felt like a game of Guess the Leader. But much harder to guess.

I’ve been helping promote the upcoming Beethoven Bragg concert. Describing it to a classical music writer, I felt completely out of my depth. “I don’t know if it will be of interest for exactly the same reason people go to classical concerts… Could you call it ‘folk classical’?” Maybe there’s nothing exceptional about this category, about an orchestral piece that synthesizes social context and sound to create an element of freedom. I have sat through very few orchestral pieces. But I really liked this one.

Thanks to Professor Pessah for the Juanita’s clip.

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