Steve Reich – Writings about Music

One of the highlights of the winter was hearing a number of Steve Reich pieces performed at the annual New Music Festival here in Winnipeg. Reich was the guest composer this year and he won the crowd over by his enthusiastic response to the performances of his work and by his graciousness to the performers themselves.

I’ve been listening to Reich’s music for some time now, having first heard his Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ sometime around 1990. I suppose I read about his work in Melody Maker or the NME where his name was often invoked to explain this or that tendency in the electronic music of that time, whether it was the matter of a direct sample (the Orb, if I remember correctly, sampled Reich’s work) or just as a vague high-cultural influence.

I recently read Garry Neill Kennedy’s The Last Art College: The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design 1968-78, which features an almost week-by-week account of exhibitions and events held at the college during the time that it emerged and established itself as one of the key art colleges in the world. I scanned the timeline to see if Reich had ever come to town, but, despite the fact that the college had connections to many in Reich’s NYC milieu, including Philip Glass, it doesn’t seem as if he did. Nevertheless, the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design did publish (in coordination with NYU Press) a short book by Reich in 1974, Writings about Music, as part of “The Nova Scotia Series: Source Materials of the Contemporary Arts.”

I didn’t find the book in one of the many used bookstores in Halifax, but stumbled upon it in the remainder bin at the McGill University bookstore in Montréal sometime in the mid-90s. I remember thinking how odd that it was there at all, let alone for the criminally low price of $2.99. That’s my copy above, complete with the residue of a missing price sticker on the cover. Had it been sitting there for a couple of decades since its publication in 1974? Or had it been rediscovered in some warehouse and sent out only in some desperation to sell it instead of pulping it? It’s never been reprinted, so it’s a bit of a rare bird.

The best thing about the book are the hand-written explanations by Reich himself of some of his earliest pieces. This one for “Slow Motion Sound” is a gem:

But there’s also Reich’s early manifesto “Music as a Gradual Process” and a number of photos of early performances, including the one of “Four Organs” that graces the cover and this one of Reich performing “Pulse Music”:

Although Reich’s music has changed over the years, there’s still a way in which he remains committed to the principles in “Music as a Gradual Process.” Written in a bold, declamatory style common to the manifesto, this piece remains striking and powerful. My favorite line in it, and one that surely informs, consciously or unconsciously, so much electronic music produced since Reich’s experiments is this one:

Though I may have the pleasure of discovering musical processes and composing the musical material to run through them, once the process is set up and loaded it runs by itself.

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Films – 10 for 2012

While I had no trouble whatsoever coming up with a dozen LPs to populate my 2012 year-end music list, I struggled here to find ten films that I felt good enough to include.

Part of the problem was that I saw fewer films this year than in previous years. I watched about 110 films in 2012 of which about 40 were from 2012. But as much as I like to blame myself, I think things are also getting worse in terms of film distribution. The opportunity to see good films in the cinema is decreasing year-by-year, and, as much as I appreciate the Cinematheque here in Winnipeg, they are limited by the conservatism of distributors and unable to mount the kind of large-scale retrospectives that people in the UK, as a result of the BFI and its affiliated regional cinemas, get to enjoy. Streaming services promise much and deliver little: iTunes selection is spotty and Netflix Canada is more or less a total embarrassment. If you’re looking for yet another reason to hate the Canadian government, their inability to craft modern copyright laws or regulate the digital spectrum in a way that benefits people rather than corporations should infuriate you immensely.

Politics rants complete, the list below is probably distinguished by a whole bunch of omissions. There are a few major things out there that plenty of people seem to like, but which I haven’t seen and would probably not trouble this list even if I had: Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012, USA) and Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012, USA) come first to mind.

There are other films which I am keen to see, but which probably won’t get any kind of North American distribution: Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012, Portugal), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2012, Turkey), No (Pablo Larrain, 2012, Chile), The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012, Denmark), A Royal Affair (Nickolaj Arcel, 2012, Denmark), Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012, Brazil), Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012, UK), and, for the second year running, Lawrence of Belgravia (Paul Kelly, 2011, UK). 2012 is, cinematically, still more in my future than it is part of my past.

So, to the list itself: my top ten of twelve as seen in twelve:

10. Detropia (Heidi Ewing/Rachel Grady, USA, 2012)

I’ve written here and here about the peculiar role that Detroit plays in the contemporary cultural imagination and must confess that I remain susceptible to the spectacle of Detroit, the images of its collapse, and the portrayal of the signs of life that remain. Ewing and Grady’s documentary focuses more on Detroit’s possible futures than either Julien Temple’s Requiem for Detroit (2010) and Florent Tillon’s Detroit: Wild City (2011), which makes it less a cautionary tale than a manifesto for alternate forms of urban community and civic renewal.

9. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA, 2012)

I’m deeply conflicted about including this at all. I continue to love Anderson’s precision and style, and have a known tolerance for the twee, cute, and quirky, but do recognize that this film is an odd ideological fantasy, an island isolated from the tumults of the sixties that puts a lot of water between it and complex questions of race and class it clearly doesn’t want to confront. Torn.

8. Sound it Out (Jeanie Finlay, UK, 2011)

Focusing on the last independent record shop in Stockton-on-Tees, England, Finlay’s documentary is a moving portrait of the community that the store supports and nurtures. The store attracts its fair share of oddballs and eccentrics and Finlay is superb in drawing these men (and they are largely men) out of their shells to talk about what music and the shop means to them. In doing so, the film becomes about far more than the on-the-ground struggles of running a small shop. It’s a document that captures contemporary life in the north of England and represents the consequences of the economic downturn, of the digital restructuring of the market, and of globalization more generally. But, these bigger issues aside, the real pleasure of the film resides in the affection it has for the enthusiasts it encounters and who open up to the camera.

7. Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (Naeem Mohaiemen, Bangladesh, 2011)

An experimental documentary about the 1977 hijacking of Japan Air Lines flight 472, the rerouting of the plane to Dhaka, and the fraught negotiations between the Japanese Red Army hijackers and representatives of Bangladesh’s military government. Drawing primarily on audio recordings of the event, the film projects the conversation as text on screen. This may not sound like it would work, but most definitely does. Interaction between the two parties ranges from tense to philosophical to comic as they try to make their positions understood to each other. The whole episode was presented live on Bangladeshi television and Mohaiemen primarily remembers being upset that it pre-empted his favorite show, The Zoo Gang. A film about memory, modernity, the archive, and the volatile political landscape of the 70s. See here for my enthusiastic response to the film immediately after I saw it as Hot Docs. Most excitingly, there more to come: Mohaiemen indicated at the screening that it is the first part of a planned trilogy of works dealing with the history of 1970s ultra-left terrorist groups.

6. McCullin (Jacqui Morris and David Morris, UK, 2012)

 

A fantastic documentary on the legendary photojournalist who, as a correspondent for the Sunday Times Magazine, shot every major conflict throughout the 60s and 70s. The strength of the film comes from McCullin himself who is a deeply thoughtful and articulate man, more than able to detail the ethical dilemmas that the photojournalist faces. It’s also a melancholic film that documents the end of an era. McCullin was let go from the Times in the early 1980s when Rupert Murdoch took over and basically decided that readers should no longer care about the news or the wider world and transformed the Sunday supplement into a style magazine.

5. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA, 2011)

A creepy film that has stuck with me. Fine performances from John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen, but what I remember most about the film are the moments of menacing stillness. It’s a film about a cult and the cult personality, but also about sisters and separation. I watched it fresh and it had all the greater impact because of the fact I knew virtually nothing about it, so that’s all I will say. Go watch it now.

4. Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjalloul, Sweden/USA, 2012)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By now, I suspect, many have heard the story of Sixto Rodriguez, who released two albums in the early 70s that found no acclaim in America, but were treasured in South Africa by liberal Afrikaaners who heard in his lyrics something that applied to their own desires for a different kind of world. This film documents the search for Sixto by a handful of South African enthusiasts who feared that the rumours of his premature death were true. It’s an extraordinary story, and Rodriguez is an extraordinary man, but what really interested me is the melancholy air of the genre itself. Is the epic search for the lost pop star a form that will lose its force or even disappear in the internet age? The film is about Rodriguez, but it is also about unavailability and a world defined by analogue scarcity rather than digital abundance.

3. Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, France, 2012)

On paper the plot of Rust and Bone seems ludicrously melodramatic: woman who has her legs bitten off by a shark whale falls in love with an unemployed guy who takes up illegal bare-knuckle fighting to support him and his son. Well, as it turns out, I like ludicrous melodrama, especially when its bolstered by such strong performances. Marion Cotillard is great, but the real revelation is Matthias Schoenaerts, whose impossible to spell last name hopefully won’t hold him back from being cast in everything everywhere.

2. Amour (Michael Haneke,  France, 2012)

A powerful, deeply moving film that, frankly, I’m a bit surprised is getting so much mainstream acclaim. A film about dying was never going to be easy, but Haneke doesn’t sentimentalize and by keeping it so austere, he makes it all the more affecting.

1. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK, 2012)

Admittedly, I’m the target market for this film, but I’m still going to argue that it’s the best one of 2012. Set in the 1970s, Berberian Sound Studio is about a meek English sound engineer who is hired to work on an Italian horror picture. From the very moment of his arrival in Italy, he is alienated and unsettled. He watches in horror as the sounds of flesh being stabbed, seared, and torn apart is created by abusing a whole array of fruit and veg. The producers refuse to pay him and the director alternately praises and provokes him. Alone in this foreign world, his mind starts to fray and he is thrust into a world of horror, haunted by the sounds and images of the very film he is working on.

Toby Jones is terrific as Gilderoy, but the real force of the film is in the claustrophobic atmosphere Strickland creates. We, like Gilderoy, are trapped in the confines of the studio, the tension heavy and punctured primarily by the screams of voice artists mimicking victims or the aroused goblins doing the killing in the imaginary film. The soundtrack, by Broadcast, is perfect. And, on the basis of the title sequence by Julian House alone, I’m almost willing to give The Equestrian Vortex, the film-within-a-film here, a place on my list of the year’s best.

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Stayed tuned for an update to my 2011 list!

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Music – 2012

Unlike 2011, when I could scarcely summon up 10 LPs I liked enough to muster the energy to compose an end-of-the-year list, 2012 was awash with stellar releases, interesting returns, and new discoveries.

My list here is shaped by my renewed enthusiasm in hip-hop. This enthusiasm has been dormant for some time. I had always kept apace with the big splash releases and the idiosyncratic left-field artists whose worlds overlapped with the world of electronica and various forms of dance music, but this was listening at a distance rather than full-on engagement. Revisiting the work of the Wu-Tang Clan throughout 2011-12 was perhaps the initial spark that renewed my enthusiasm, but it was the voice of DOOM that really drew me back in. It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard DOOM before, I remember being mightily impressed by Madvillainy back in 2004, but it was only recently that the power and force of DOOM’s voice and the genius and invention of his words, phrasings, and flow really hit me. Listening to DOOM has led me to revisit and explore the work of both Madlib and J Dilla and, as a consequence, I was immersed in the intricate sound worlds of these artists for much of the latter half of 2012 and was amazed at the daring, the detail, the humour, and the insight of the music they created.

The internet needs another year-end list like a proverbial hole in the head, yet I can’t resist. Such exercises, as ludicrous and provisional as they may seem, nevertheless serve some kind of purpose in thinking historically and in recognizing the limits of thinking historically. My 2012 is a travesty of partiality in two senses. It is, first of all, a record not of the “best” but of things I’m partial to, and, second, it is a record of my partial gaze since I’ve come nowhere close to listening to all the recorded output of the year. The list, I’m happy to say, is kinda all over the place. There’s definitely evidence of certain predilections and fascinations, but some interesting inclusions and juxtapositions as well. Part of the pleasure in compiling it was that I discovered what I liked rather than merely expressing it. The list has, to a certain degree, taken me by surprise and this, for me, points to the worth of doing it.

12. Neneh Cherry and the Thing – The Cherry Thing + The Cherry Thing Remixes

It was the extraordinary cover of Madvillain’s “Accordian” that initially drew me to this LP and then to its remixed companion, but what kept me there was the energy and eclecticism of its arrangements and the intimacy and flexibility of Cherry’s voice. Having been in love with “Buffalo Stance” in particular and Raw Like Sushi (1988) generally, it was a thrill to hear Cherry again. She’s a unique force, operating outside the constraints of commercial pop, and this collaboration with a Swedish free jazz ensemble ends up being a pure pleasure to listen to. As Cherry sings, “Keep your glory, gold, and glitter” (paraphrasing DOOM on her version of “Accordian”), there are richer sounds and greater rewards to be found elsewhere.

Video: Neneh Cherry and the Thing – Accordian

11. Four Tet – Pink

I don’t have the developed technical musical vocabulary that would allow me to describe the complexity of the shifting polyrhythms that make the tracks on Pink so mesmerizing, but they are there and they provided no end of musical pleasure this year. Following on from 2010’s more comprehensively integrated There is Love in You, Pink gathers together a series of 12″ experiments and explorations Kieran Hebden undertook on his Text label. There are bits on here that might fuel the whole “Four Tet is Burial” rumour, but there are others that might lead you to believe that he’s Steve Reich as well. There are the remnants of the idylltronica that characterized some of Four Tet’s earlier work, but what sticks out  is his increasing use of voice. The hypnotic repetitions of “I remember how you walked away” in “Locked” sound like an extension of the phrases and fragments that litter J Dilla’s production. If Pink compiles the possible paths toward a proper follow-up to There is Love in You, then I can safely say there’s no wrong choice here. This is brilliant and I can’t wait to hear what comes next.

Listen: Four Tet – Lion

10. Saint Etienne – Words and Music

An album about the rush and excitement of pop music that has all the rush and excitement that characterizes the best pop albums, Words and Music amply demonstrates that Saint Etienne, twenty plus years in, still remain a potent pop force and pop’s greatest (meta-)practitioners. And if the album itself wasn’t enough, there’s a limited edition collection of unreleased tracks and b-sides, More Words and Music, that, if anything, is even better, from the gorgeous cover of Scott Walker’s “Manhattan” to the Birdie-esque “Jan Leeming.”

Video: Saint Etienne – Tonight

9. Pye Corner Audio – Sleep Games

After a string of releases on his own label, Pye Corner Audio finds a home with Ghost Box. It’s a natural match as there’s all kinds of affinities between the output of PCA and the GB stable of artists, from Belbury Poly (whose The Belbury Tales should really be on this list as well) to the Advisory Circle. Beyond all the usual hauntological explanations that would explain the power of this LP (the uncanny allure of the recent past, of residual technologies, and of the comforts and vague creepiness of the welfare state), the thing that distinguishes Sleep Games for me is its sense of the cinematic. John Carpenter is here in bits, but I really hear Sleep Games as the soundtrack for some great lost 70s Cronenberg film about the Onieric Institution, an experimental centre housed in brutalist block on a suburban campus run by a disheveled yet still robust and virile Oliver Reed.

Listen: Pye Corner Audio – Dead End

8. Daphni – Jiaolong

A companion, really, to Four Tet’s Pink in the way that Dan Snaith maps out new sonic territory and explores dancefloor possibilities. There’s the memory and legacy of Caribou in here, but it’s amped up and intensified, stripped back and simplified, in an effort to both think and feel rhythm and repetition. “Ye Ye” provides the purest pop pleasure, but it is the Daphni mix of “Cos-Ber-Zam” by Togo’s Ne Noya that stands out. Taken from an Analog Africa compilation and remixed to highlight its staggering central line, “Cos-Ber-Zam” amazes. The logic and feel of the album, incidentally, is all there in the design of the LP cover, iridescent repetitions overlapping and stretched to their limits.

Video: Daphni – Cos-Ber-Zam Ne Noya

7. Gravenhurst – The Ghost in Daylight

This was a real surprise for me this year, and may seem the odd album out among my general selections here. A quiet LP, largely acoustic and thoroughly melancholic, the Gravenhurst grew on me as the year went on. Released in spring, it’s torpor and tension struck me as more autumnal than vernal and I listened to it most in October and November when the skies were slate gray (like the album cover) and the days were growing shorter. Something in it reminded me of Bibio before his recent move to the dancefloor, all rural acoustic haunting, evocative of a natural landscape and containing the echoes of old architecture.

Video: Gravenhurst – The Prize

6. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch

It seems absurd to even include Scott Walker on this list. He’s of another realm and in a different category than the rest of everything at this point. He’s on his own, the intrepid explorer in sonic territories from which he only very occasionally sends missives home. Yet what marks Bish Bosch is its humour. As much as Walker still confronts the terror and the darkness and the deeper questions of philosophy, there’s a lightness of touch here as well. In the lead-up to the album’s release, Walker curated a selection of films for one streaming service or another and while many of the selections pointed to the kind of high European seriousness (Bela Tarr! Michael Haneke! Theo Angelopoulos!) you might completely expect, he also tips his hat (he always wears a hat these days, it seems) to the melancholic humour of everyone’s favorite dour cinematic Finn, Aki Kaurismaki. And if you hear these songs through the lens of Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana! they reveal lighter aspects and a nimble, rather than wholly sombre, world-view.

Video: Scott Walker – Epizootics

5. Burial – Kindred EP + Truant/Rough Sleeper EP

Two EPs and five tracks that add up to more than a LP constitute Burial’s output for 2012. All the hallmarks of the Burial experience (lots of echo, snippets of voice, bass rumblings) are there, but there is, especially on the latter EP, a purposeful expansion of the sonic template. The songs shift from one mode to another, showing an astonishingly diverse range of style and textures that hitherto would have been dispersed over several tracks. Still most reminiscent of that late night bus ride through south London that I’ve never actually taken, but pointing toward a more abstract nocturnal, a sonic night of soul.

Listen: Burial – Truant

4. Frank Ocean – channel Orange

I have little to add to all that has been said about this album. I bought it out of curiosity, listened to it out of admiration, and grew to love it out of sheer astonishment of the guy’s talent and vision. Sure, there are confessional elements that make it the stuff of interest, but Ocean is a tremendous storyteller as well, individual stories that are deeply allegorical, and individual incidents that reveal much about the predicament of the present. A pure pleasure to listen and the fact that it is a hit and has mainstream appeal is somehow incredibly gratifying. After years of listening to things wholly out of sync with the pop charts and the wider world of popular culture, it is frankly (pun intended) quite a thrill to have this be the thing that facilitates some provisional truce between me and popularity.

Video: Frank Ocean – Pyramids (Live on SNL)

3. Cate Le Bon – Cryk + Cryk II

To complex and compelling to be written off as a Welsh Nico, Cate Le Bon’s album and its supplemental EP brought together strains of psych, folk, rock, and pop in a way that absorbed and transcended its antecedents. Her voices allures, but it is the spaciousness of the sound, from the gothic cathedral organ of “The Man I Wanted” to the skronky free jazz-psychedelic conclusion of “Ploughing Out Parts I and II”, that distinguishes the album. Another in the contemporary line of idiosyncratic Welsh genius, following on from Gruff Rhys’s colossal Candylion.

Video: Cate Le Bon – The Man I Wanted (All Souls Church Organ Session)

Video : Cate Le Bon – Fold the Cloth

Video: Cate Le Bon – Ploughing Out Parts I and II (Live on Radio K)

2. JJ DOOM – Key to the Kuffs

I have no time for those who greet every DOOM release with the complaint that it doesn’t approximate the genius of Madvillainy. That’s perhaps an impossible task, so let’s just leave it behind and let the villain do his work. Keys to the Kuffs stands out for a few reasons. First, DOOM’s exile in the UK, a result of passport paperwork as far as I can tell, has led to several lyrical innovations, from the witticisms of “Guv’nor” to the brilliance of “Rhymin’ Slang.” DOOM still has the most extraordinary voice and delivery of any emcee and it stands out here dramatically against the electronically-inclined beats of Jneiro Janel, the JJ of the LP’s title. My favorite rhyme of the year, and not just because I spent some time in Iceland this summer, is DOOM’s “Catch a throatful/From the fire vocaled/Ash and molten glass like/Eyjafjallajokull.” I’ve no hesitation in saying that DOOM is a genius.

Video: JJ DOOM – Guv’nor

1. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes + Captain Murphy – Duality

Looser and sparser than 2010’s CosmogrammaUntil the Quiet Comes is an extraordinary exploration of inner and outer space. The tone, texture, and atmosphere of the album suggests both floating and fluttering, water and air. The standout track is “Putty Boy Strut,” but it’s also anomalous, its frenetic beats a contrast to the drift and flow of the rest of the LP. It’s the kind of album that you can be immersed by and suffused with. And, as if that wasn’t enough, FlyLo, as Captain Murphy, released a mixtape in late November that revealed a further dimension to his talents. The Os Mutantes-sampling “The Killing Joke” is a gorgeous track bolstered by a Michael Caine sample, and a few ferocious verses that announces the Captain’s arrival on the scene.

Video: Flying Lotus – Putty Boy Strut

Video: Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes

Video: Captain Murphy – The Killing Joke

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Given that I’ve already cheated and included 16 actual releases in this top twelve, I feel great shame asking for even more, but here are a further handful of releases that scraped the top ten and deserve recognition:

Belbury Poly – The Belbury Tales, Angel Haze – Reservation + Classicks EP, 1991 – 1991, Cornershop – Urban Turban, Go-Kart Mozart – On the Hot Dog Streets, Kendrick Lamar – good kid, M.A.A.D. City, Robert Glasper – Black Radio, Toy – Toy, Heems – Nehru Jackets, Django Django – Django Django, Moon Wiring Club – Clutch It Like a Gonk + Today Bread, Tomorrow Secrets, Joey Bada$$ – 1999.

 

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Raymond Durgnat on Michael Powell

In an article published in the October 1992 issue of Sight and Sound titled “Remembering Michael Powell,” Raymond Durgnat suggests that one reason for Powell and Pressburger’s surge in critical fortunes in the 1980s was generational. Durgnat speaks of meeting Powell at a film festival around the time that the aging film-maker came back into the spotlight:

He had just begun unleashing in Anglophone critics the sorts of affection that Renoir had tapped in Cahiers du cinéma. It’s as if each generation loves, in a selected grandfather, the traditions it deplores in its fathers and simultaneously revels in the discovery of new freedoms in the very things its own fathers rebelled against.

This is an interesting quote for a few reasons. First, it, perhaps unconsciously, points out the depressing patrilinearity of film culture and film criticism (P & P were extensively taken up by feminist film critics and an important influence on several feminist film-makers, so it’s not all about grandfathers and grandsons). Second, and despite this, it still somehow nails the public persona of the elderly Powell, generated through interviews, his autobiography, and through pictures like the one above, taken, I think, from his 1978 film Return to the Edge of the World. He seems the very model of the avuncular. He, in that sweater, positively avuncles.

Durgnat, Raymond. “Remembering Michael Powell.” Sight and Sound 2.6 (October 1992): 22.

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Activities Elsewhere

Apologies for the prolonged silence here at the Forecast. I’m in the midst of teaching a seminar on cultural memory, critical theory, and pop music and I’ve set up a course website that has distracted me from my duties here. It’s an open site, though, so please do feel free to wander over if you have the opportunity or inclination. Posts there tend toward music rather than film, but beyond that the site is more or less the same mix of melancholy and indignation that probably best characterizes my posts here.

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History as written by the losers

I’m in the midst of revising an article on the 2006 film by L’Atelier national du Manitoba, Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets, for an edited volume that will hopefully be published sometime in 2013. I’ve been asked to provide some stills from the film to include with the essay and have narrowed it down to 5, which I’ve gathered below.

I cannot recommend the film highly enough, not least for the way that it captures the governing civic anxieties of the town I have called home since 2004. The paper is largely about the videocassette and the ways in which video, in all its imperfection and with all its peculiar image texture, stands between us and the recent past. Our cultural memory of the 80s/90s is mediated by video. And the feeling of video, all the signs of its wear, tear, abuse, and limitations, make memory and the act of remembering visible even as this visibility estranges us, in the digital era, from a recent analogue past.

 

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Chris Marker (1921-2012)

Terrible news today that Chris Marker has died. Very nearly impossible for me to pick a favorite of his films, so I thought I would post a random still image here from one of his relatively unavailable works, La Mystère Koumiko, which he filmed in Tokyo during the summer Olympics in 1964.

 

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“The image of happiness”: Chris Marker and Sans Soleil

The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.

I’ll be in Reykjavik in a few days time and mixed in with the excitement of visiting a new place is the memory of this image, which is from the opening sequence of Chris Marker‘s incredible Sans Soleil (1982).

The film begins with the claim that this image, taken from a bit of film shot in 1965 is, for the unseen film-maker, “the image of happiness.” It is an image to which he perpetually returns and with which he has always tried to connect other images. All efforts have failed, so he proposes to begin a film with it, which is what he does here. The narration is not first-person, but filtered through the recipient of letters from the film-maker, for whom Iceland was just a single stop in a lifetime defined by peripatetic wandering and image gathering. His continued correspondence from distant spaces structures the film and suggests that, even if this image has found its home at the beginning of this film, he continues to pursue other images that might likewise represent happiness.

It is the shortest of clips, but retains a uncanny power. Framed by the narration, which conveys all the melancholy of loss and the desire for an impossible return, the image of three Icelandic girls walking alongside a road assumes a force it by no rights should have. This could be used as an example of the power of cinema itself, but it seems more specific to the essay film, which frames the world for us in a very particular way and asks us not simply to see the images or follow an argument, but to get a sense of the limits of representation and the experience of the ineffable.

I’m not expecting any parallel experience in Iceland myself, but since watching Chris Marker films encourages you to see the world in Markerian manner, I’m not ruling it out.

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