Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"Stranger" days // Vandermark-ed

a lot of things that i found unsurpassably cool in high school--"Tropic of Cancer," for example, or smoking cigarettes--now seem passe. but Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" is not one of them. i was reminded of this over the weekend, when Laal and i checked out the new Criterion DVD of said indie film classic.

when i first saw the flick, i was struck by a million sumptuous details: the wry, eerie string music on the score; the shabby beauty of the setting; the arty fades to black after each scene. but what really got me, i must say, was the effortless sense of cool projected by the characters. the way they dressed absolutely slayed me: this kind of '20s-chic fedoras-and-suspenders kind of thing.

the leads--"Fishing With..." John Lurie as Willie and Richard "What country do you think this is?" Edson--are these sort of small-time, nobody hustlers who behave as if they have places to be and things on their mind. their hipsterfied snappy dress is really all there is to that image, but it's such a powerful, intoxicating look. it's the epitome of empty style.

i don't know about you, but for me, high school was about seeking out the dark stuff, from "The Satanic Bible" to Nine Inch Nails to the Coen Brothers to Rimbaud to Morbid Angel. and i suppose this flick sort of fit into that continuum, given its somewhat noirish tendencies. but when i see it now, i see it as a comedy, and also as a sort of discourse on personality types.

the character of Eva provides this awesome sort of counterweight to Wilie and Eddie's self-important loserdom. she's always chipping away at Eddie's tough-guy facade, asking him what the hell is up with his TV dinner and proclaiming the football game on TV to be "really stupid." she doesn't seem to be dissing for the sake of it--it's that she's honestly trying to see the value of American culture, but just can't. of course, Willie's edginess isn't helping matters.

speaking of that edge, it really struck me this time around. really the film is about how Willie's bipolar personality governs the trio's collective mood. it's actually a pretty dead-on portrait of how much social power moody people wield, and how much it sucks when they abuse that power. Eddie cowers at Willie's mood swings and lets himself be pushed around, but even Eva, who's not buying Willie's b.s., is pretty powerless to alter the bad vibes he's emanating.

look, it's really just a gorgeous, poetic movie. you know all those recent films where young, arty, shabbily attractive people sit around and yap about nothing? this is the genesis of that genre, but it displays a wry, self-deprecating warmth that you don't find in much of that later indie cinema, which always seemed to tack on a moral or some other fake closure.

the documentary on the DVD is great too. it's a portrait of Jarmusch and his circle right around the opening of "Stranger." the doc discusses Jarmusch's debut feature, "Permanent Vacation"--which looks, from the excerpts i've seen, to be a self-consciously arty, overly precious version of the "Stranger" template--as well as the making of "Stranger." probably the coolest thing is just listening to the director speak--he's a remarkably poised dude with an intense knowledge of film history and he cuts one of the most striking hipster figures you'll ever see. that silver pompadour and those fat lips; he's just like total fashion, and it's so funny b/c he never actually appeared in any of his early films.

also, via interviews w/ Jarmusch's actors--Edson, Lurie, Chris Parker from "Permanent," etc.--you really get a flavor for the weird, woolly place that was New York in the early '80s. these folks all seem slightly cracked out and wild. you get a sense that they're very much drifters, perhaps junkies, or in any event, just sort of strung out in the spiritual sense. Jarmusch sort of presides over them w/ this beatific calm, like he's the only one grounded enough to harness their creepy energy.



also went to Two Boots w/ my pal Russ to take in a screening of "Musician", a new doc on the avant-jazz everyman Ken Vandermark by Daniel Kraus. Vandermark was there and he played solo before the film. kinda burnt right now so i can't give the full story, but i guess what i'd say is the evening was pretty cool all around, but maybe nothing spectacular.

it's interesting to find Vandermark, a player known for his workaholic tendencies, as the subject of this doc which purports to depict the saxist's art as mundane labor. (this film is part of a series, along with "Sheriff" and some others, which documents the daily working lives of a variety of Americans.) Vandermark's music often carries the flavor of labor rather than inspiration: he seems to take great pains to conceptually ground his music and map out its goals, limits, structures in advance in an almost control-freakish way.

take for example his habit of dedicating absolutely every piece of music he does to another artist. many folks have done this throughout the years--Steve Lacy comes to mind--but few are as diligent and vocal about it as Vandermark. during the short solo set, he cited Albert Ayler, Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton, heavy cats all. to be honest, the way he always cites his sources strikes me as somewhat stifling, i.e., if you mention Evan Parker's name and then begin to play a shrill solo on clarinet utilizing circular breathing, it's hard to shake the feeling that you're listening to an imitation rather than a work that truly uses Parker as a jumping-off point.

something to think about: there's definitely some form of anxiety of influence going on w/ Vandermark that can make it hard to locate the soul of his music.

that said, the dude can really kick some serious ass when he wants to. i wrote on Dusted about some nice Vandermark records of a few years back here. and i really dug the footage of the Free Music Ensemble (FME) in the film, so i went back and checked out their recent disc, "Cuts", and found it to be quite badass. the group--Vandermark plus bassist Nate McBride and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love--really gets into some savage and gritty stuff on this disc. it's very turbulent, kinetic music, but with a lot of groove and heart. i'd say this and the Territory Band are my favorite Vandermark projects--the Vandermark 5 has always left me a bit cold--and i'm *really* interested to hear the forthcoming Territory Band disc featuring Fred Anderson.

don't mean to come down too hard on Ken here. just wanted to point out, for one, how that practice of obsessive dedication might not always work to his advantage...


Peter Breslin said...

Hi- As always, I enjoy reading your blog.

What would it look like to "come down too hard on Ken Vandermark"?


Anonymous said...

After seeing Stranger Than Paradise, you will never hear I Put A Spell On You in the same way.

Vandermark is high concept, but for someone who puts out so much, he has some great records.