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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