Archives for July 2014

“Searching For Sugar Man” finds a Modern Day Epicurus.

"Searching For Sugar Man".

“Searching For Sugar Man”.

It’s hard to know which is more remarkable, the documentary Searching For Sugar Man, or its subject the musician Sixto Rodriguez.

I’ll not in any way spoil the film by revealing the many, many extraordinary twists and turns that are revealed in the course of its narrative. But broadly speaking, the story is as follows:

In the early 70s a young singer song writer by the name of Rodriguez produced a couple of albums that were extremely well received critically speaking, but disappeared without a trace sales wise. So like many before and since, he went back to his day job.

Rodriguez' debut album from 1970 is, surprisingly, a genuine classic.

Rodriguez’ debut album from 1970 is, surprisingly, a genuine classic.

Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to him his debut album Cold Fact (’70) caught fire in South Africa, selling between half a million and a million copies there, a staggering quantity given the size of the territory.

As one of the interviewees testifies, every white, middle class, would-be revolutionary quietly seething under the apartheid regime gave three records pride of place in their secretly stashed LP collection; The BeatlesAbbey Road, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, and RodriguezCold Fact.

Without giving anything away, the film is in two halves. Initially it’s the quest of one of the many, huge fans of his in South Africa who hooks up with a music journalist in the 90s, to go in search of their lost messiah. Whilst its second half reveals what happens after they find him.

When the film was nominated for the Oscar that it went on to win in 2013, Rodriguez politely declined to attend the ceremony, on the basis that he didn’t want to take any of the attention away from Malik Bendjelloul, the man who’d actually made the film.

Ordinarily this is the kind of gesture one expects from a conventionally faux modest, carefully calculating self-publicist looking to generate further air time and headlines. But what this documentary demonstrates is that not only is Rodriguez a genuinely deep thinker, almost uniquely he lives his life according to the principles he keeps. And those principles are best described as Epicurean.

The second Rodriguez album from '71, almost as good as the first.

The second Rodriguez album from ’71, almost as good as the first.

Epicurus taught that if you find yourself sitting with a piece of bread and a glass of water in front of you, and the man next to you has a large steak and a jug of wine, you need to educate yourself to focus on how nourishing and tasty your piece of bread will be, and on how wonderfully refreshing that glass of water is. Even if you know deep down that it is already luke warm.

If you can teach yourself to be ever less dissatisfied with what you have and your lot in life, you will necessarily be happier with your life as you live it.

The 4th century Greek philosopher Epicurus was extolled by the Roman poet Lucretius in the first century BC. And the rediscovery of the only copy of Lucretius’ On the Nature Of Things, and therefore our only source on Epicurus, was brilliantly charted by Stephen Greenblatt in his wonderful The Swerve, reviewed earlier here.

Well Rodriguez, remarkably, is a bona fide modern day Epicurus.

This wonderful film does, alas, have a coda. It proved incredibly difficult to finance. But against all the odds, it was eventually completed, and quite rightly went on to win both that year’s Bafta and the Oscar a few weeks later. Surely you’d think his next film would be significantly easier to finance. We’ll never know. Because six months ago Malik Bendjelloul took his own life.

Searching for Sugar Man is a celebration of an extraordinary singer song writer. And of a wonderful film maker. You can see the trailer here.

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Linklater’s New Film “Boyhood” a Real Grown-up Treat.

Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood".

Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood”.

Boyhood pulls off a rare feat. It’s a film that works and really engages despite being based on a gimmick. The gimmick in question is one of those things that must have sounded like a good idea at the time.

Take a couple of children, and a couple of adults, and film them in a handful of scenes once a year, for twelve years.

The more you think about that, the more the whole thing should have fallen flat on its face. The reason that it all works so wonderfully well is because of the way that Richard Linklater makes these kind of films, his personal ones as opposed to the ones he makes for the studio.

As we have seen in what we have to call the Before series, as by now there have been three of them (to date), Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight (reviewed earlier here), he and his actors workshop their scenes exhaustively, in a sort of anti Ken Loach manner. So that instead of being in any way improvised, the films evolve from a script that has been written within an inch of its life.

Ch ch ch changes...

Ch ch ch changes…

By the time the actors come to film their scenes, they know their characters and why they are doing what they are doing inside out. And any improvisation comes from the performance, and not thankfully from the story telling.

The main difference between Before and Boyhood isn’t so much the time frame, as it is the focus of attention. In theory at least, as the title suggests, it’s the story of a boy’s journey from seven years old to 19. Which could have been horribly saccharine.

And there’s no question that the film isn’t quite as gut-wrenchingly unforgiving of its characters as Before Midnight was, because Linklater is understandably less inclined to put his child actors through the emotional mill in quite the same way that he is with his adults.

But the reason that the film works so well is because in reality it offers a twin perspective. On the one hand there are the two children, of ordinary parents, and the way in which their lives seem to be imposed upon them from without. Suddenly they are forced to move, and start a new school, and they’ve a new father, and then it’s all over again, and they have to move and start all over, again.

The teenage Coltrane with Zoe Graham.

The teenage Coltrane with Zoe Graham.

And on the other, there’s a guy and a girl who are finding it hard enough at becoming adults, and now they have to bring up a couple of kids at the same time. And the gap between what they’d hoped their lives would become, and the lives they are being forced to live just to make ends meet, is getting ever wider and increasingly unbridgeable. None of it is anyone’s fault. And yet they all blame each other.
All the performances are stunning. And yes the two kids Ellar Coltrtane and Lorelei Linklater are amazing. But it’s the adults Ethan Hawke and especially Patricia Arquette as the mother that gives this film its substance. The weight of motherhood is all too visible as she literally ages before our eyes.

Richard Linklater is one of the very few serious film makers working today. And Boyhood is another triumph.

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The Antlers new album “Familiars” Simmers.

The Antler's "Familiars".

The Antler’s “Familiars”.

After releasing a couple of albums on his own as The Anlters, Peter Silberman was joined by multi instrumentalist Darby Cicci and Michael Lerner on drums, and Familiars is the third album from them as a threesome.

The band have frequently been joined by fellow Brooklyn resident Sharon Van Etten on backing vocals (whose latest album is reviewed earlier here), and as you’d expect from their postal address, we’re very much in the beating heart of hipsterland here.

What makes the music of The Antlers so engaging is their very distinct tone. They craft songs of emotional honesty, naivety almost, and posit them in an expansive if minutely cultivated musical landscape. These are then given body with a succession of unapologetically gorgeous melodies that are draped in Silberman’s sweeping, elegiac vocals.

Some time backing vocalist Sharon Van Etten.

Some time backing vocalist Sharon Van Etten.

Though the results are in many ways very different, it somehow calls to mind Nixon, Lambchop’s seminal album from 2000. Kurt Wagner and his band though were more clearly defined as coming under the alt country rubric. The Antlers will only ever be listed under Indie. They just manage to be incredibly melodic without ever being saccharine. But best of all, they are unashamedly earnest.

There is little in the way of irony or distance here. All of the sophistication is invested in the music. So there’s an emotional heft to the songs that the sweeping melodies only serve to heighten. The boys from Pitchfork gave it an impressed 7.8 here

And you can see the video for their single Palace here.

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“Waiting for Superman”, when Life is Literally a Lottery.

"Waiting For Superman".

“Waiting For Superman”.

The  2010 documentary Waiting For Superman is yet another one of those remarkable and riveting films that take a mundane and quietly depressing issue, and turn it into a brilliant film and a rallying call to action. Directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth (’06) fame, this time around it’s on the American education system.

In a gloriously biased and impeccably uneducated manner, many of us have long had our suspicions about the schools over there, without necessarily knowing anything about them. This alas confirms all our worst prejudices.

For those who can’t afford to educate their children privately, and at huge expense, the only option is to send them to the public school in the district where they live. And, as pretty much everybody in America seems to know, these are all quite simply awful.

The inspirational Geoffrey Canada.

The inspirational Geoffrey Canada.

For a long time it was thought that woeful inner city public schools were merely a reflection on the areas they were located in. But increasingly people are coming to believe that it is the other way around. And that it is the quality of the schools that feed into and determine the area they’re housed in. So if you can fix the schools there, you can begin to ease the social inequality that has crippled so many urban centres.

The film follows five kids and their parents as they grapple with their passionate desire to give their child the best possible education, against their need to do so in the dreadful public school system. And you’ll never guess what colour skin four out of the five kids we follow have? Whatever about the White House, the rich keep getting richer and the poor just get blacker.

Against this bleak backdrop, and a system crippled by militant unions – thank God we’re free of that here in Ireland eh… – a number of educators, a handful of politicians, and an industrialist (Bill Gates, again) have come to focus on charter schools as an alternative to conventional public schools.

Critics of the film have claimed that it overstates how successful charter schools have been. And that only about 20% of charter schools are statistically better than most public schools. And it’s true that the film pins its narrative to those 20% of charter schools that do do better. But the few charter schools that are better are spectacularly more successful. And there’s the rub.

Because what that means is that all of those financially challenged parents who are nonetheless determined to give their kids a better chance at having a life than they ever had, are desperately trying to get their kids into one of those charter schools. And the only thing the charter schools can do to equitably determine who does and does not get in, is to hold a lottery.

Like democracy, an education is taken for granted until you're deprived of it.

Like democracy, an education is taken for granted until you’re deprived of it.

And so we watch in horror as our five children gather at their prospective schools, to attend a lottery there with thousands of others, to see whether their number will be randomly selected. And whether they will, against all the odds, have a life.

Like watching vintage social satire in a classic – i.e. early – episode of The Simpsons, your first reaction on seeing this film is, dear Lord, what a country to find yourself living in. But just as that thought is forming, you realise of course that this is the kind of country that produces film makers, teachers and parents like this.

It’s a country in other words that manages to manufacture monumental problems such as these. And to inspire the making of films like this that address them. And brilliantly so.

You can see the trailer to Waiting For Superman here.

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