Sunday, June 26, 2005

Land of the Dead, Jazz Festival thus far

Ah, well. It might be fun if you haven't seen many of the previous Romero Dead films, or if they didn't mean much to you. Me, I'm the type of guy who, when Bub, the behaviourally conditioned "good" zombie in Day of the Dead, holds up his chain to show "Dr. Frankenstein" that he's managed to escape, wanting his "father" to be proud of him, only to discover that his father is dead -- and not living dead, either -- I literally weep at the pathos, as Bub flails and moans in inarticulate zombie grief; I weep for joy, later, when Bub gets his revenge. I weep every time I watch the film, too, which I do every couple of years; it occupies a special place in my heart. I wept not during Land of the Dead. I jumped a few times, and chuckled a few more, and had a pleasant minute or two contemplating the allegorical significance of bits of the film (like the idea of America as a walled city, protecting its wealth, conducting "raids" on the rest of the world for resources); but I also winced a fair number of times, at the woodenness of much of the dialogue, the simple stock characters, the obviousness of most of the film's set ups, and the progress of the rather simple, plot-by-numbers story, and the general cheapness of its thrills. I can't even say that it's my high expectations that caused me to be let down, despite my high regard for the rest of the series and the anticipation with which I've followed Romero's struggles to get this film financed and made: because I've read the screenplay, and was thus amply prepared for the disappointment I felt. I hoped against hope that what I read would prove to be a first draft; a hope that has been transmuted as the film flicked past into anger with myself at having spent time, thought and money on a bad film which I knew would be bad -- at allowing my hopes to dwarf my own best judgments.

I can't be bothered to enumerate the film's flaws at any length. The most obvious absurdities of the screenplay (like the question of the value of money in the world it describes) remain intact and absurd on screen. The presence of a white male hero who remains white and heroic (and doesn't end up a zombie) doesn't sit very well with the rest of Romero's films, nor the way his female characters -- previously so human, strong, and interesting -- have been reduced to the current popular fetish item, sexy-chicks-with-guns. The film cheats, too; it rewrites the rules of zombification, after one has been bitten, which once was a slow process... Plus there's... ah, fuckit, there's no reason to even write about the film seriously. Sorry, George. You made some great films in your day.

As for the jazz festival, I had another fair disappointment earlier today, as well -- I walked out of the Dave Holland concert before the opening act, a talented but not particularly interesting Norwegian/Swedish unit named Atomic, left the stage, because the acoustics in the Centre for the Performing Arts (to those package-deal ticket holders who were relegated to the balcony) were horrible. I couldn't even hear the bassist for Atomic; most of what he played registered as a low rumbling from somewhere far away, not unlike the sound of a passing train. Given that Holland, the bandleader for the main event, was a bassist, I ended up losing my curiosity for what was to come quite quickly. Worse, too, was the audience: perhaps its some weird lemming-land artefact of having that many people packed in to see a jazz show -- jazz is simply not meant to be played in venues the size of the centre -- but the dumb fuckers in the herd applauded after EVERY SOLO, which meant, given that every lead player in Atomic would solo at least once during a piece, and often twice, that each song was interrupted by the roar of applause about five times, which often drowned out what the next musician was already doing and provided unnecessary and distracting punctuation to the numbers. (I mean, it's fine and even appropriate in a jazz context to applaud solos, but its meant to be a result of an intimate bond between the performer and the audience, where the audience can't but react with joy to a particularly intense bit of playing that they've been led along by; it's not meant to be something one does by the book, out of politeness or form, every time someone noodles for a few minutes). Not Atomic's fault, I know, though unfortunately the whole point of their music seems to be to enable the players to solo, rather than to interact with each other or produce any particular mood, sound, or structure; their dedication to showing off their chops, and the audience's determination to applaud EVERY TIME, made the whole thing get tedious pretty fast. It might have been better if I could actually hear the band with any clarity. Maybe in another venue, it would have worked...

Far better (of the few shows I've seen, having been obliged by other engagements to skip Gastown) was the Marks Brothers today at the Western Front. THAT's the right size of a venue to see a jazz show at; it affords an intimacy between the performers and the audience that's necessary for live jazz to really work. Bassists Mark Dresser, who looks and dresses like someone your father played golf with (or maybe a high school chemistry teacher) and Mark Helias (he-LIE-us), who, with shaven pate, sly smile, and small ears that stick out, has a charmingly impish quality, played an interesting mix of noisy avant-jazz (like the opening piece, "Tonation" that had both bowing their basses in such a way as to produce a swirling, shifting drone, which pleasantly circled the inside of my head when I figured out that I needed to close my eyes to really appreciate it) and veritably swingin', "jazzier" stuff (which reached its most playful expression in a piece Helias announced, to laughter, as being entitled "Combover" -- going on to relay the information that apparently the Japanese call combovers "barcodes"). They played off each other wonderfully, and launched into some dizzying feats of bass-playing bravura. And although more than one of their solos also received enthusiastic whoops and claps, the audience's enthusiasm didn't seem forced or automatic in the slightest, and I was happy to join them in a standing ovation at the end: it was a wonderful set.

My only other show thus far was Ken Vandermark's Free Fall. I don't know why, but it didn't move me. Vandermark occasionally pushed his clarinet into the realm of pure sound, and the noises were satisfying; and it was interesting to see, too, that he's apparently mastered some sort of circular breathing technique. The interactions between musicians weren't that exciting, though, in the way that the best improvised music can be, where you're drawn into the experience of listening to the players listen to each other -- where one feels like one is following subtle interactions that will determine where the piece will go, and there's tangible excitement in the process, as something that didn't exist before is created. Instead, one felt that the players weren't really engaged with each other at all, were more concerned with what they as individuals were doing than with the overall journey or the shapes they suggested to each other. The patterns in the composed pieces, too, while they held your attention and were occasionally quite pleasant, neither swung particularly nor forced new modes of listening. I can't fault any of them as musicians -- I greatly liked what the pianist, Havard Wiik, was doing, in particular -- and it was nice to hear them dedicating songs to people like Terrie Ex of the Dutch agit-punk collective, the Ex (who are one of about three rock bands currently performing that I really care about and need to follow, along with the New Model Army and Nomeansno). All the same, it didn't do a whole lot for me.

Still, even if it's been a less than stellar start, I'm really looking forward to Bik Bent Braam and the Dedication Orchestra, and am very curious to hear what Roscoe Mitchell will do; plus there's the Subhumans reunion on Friday, and I'm still kind of keen on seeing Mavis Staples, tho' I wish it weren't at the Centre again...

Damn. Now that Land of the Dead has been released, I haven't much left to look forward to in the world of cinema. Tom Noonan's Wang Dang? The new Jorodowsky, if it ever gets made? Hm. Even next month at the Cinematheque isn't that exciting...

Post script: a couple of reviews that sum up how I feel, re: Land of the Dead (taken from Rotten Tomatoes, where mostly the film is getting praised)

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