Saturday, August 30, 2008
It's been a hectic few days, but gratifying. Yesterday was, weirdly, a first: one of those listening sessions where you go to a label's office to hear an upcoming release. In short, I sat on a couch in a fancily outfitted lounge--gold and platinum records on the wall for Tool, RHCP, Madonna--and listened, straight through, to Death Magnetic, the new album by Metallica. Afterward I debriefed with the band's affable manager, Cliff Burnstein, who cameos in the infamous Some Kind of Monster. Then I went back to work. It was all very surreal. I'll keep mum on the record for now, but will reveal my spiel soon enough. (Hint: thumbs up.)
And I was thinking: Is this a Cecil Taylor blog? I guess it sort of is. The first post on here featured him and I've almost certainly discussed Taylor on here more than any other artist. Well, here we go again...
Wasn't feeling super-compelled to attend tonight's Taylor show at Highline Ballroom--the occasion for my aforementioned Time Out NY piece on the man--but I figured why the heck not. My bud and bandmate Tony had never seen Taylor live, so he came with and off we went.
The Highline is a cavernous, unfriendly place with "sleek" decor and drink minimums and other such extramusical distractions. I've only ever seen Negativland there before and both this and that were seated shows. I think they do rock shows there with no chairs, but who could say. Anyway, I thought it might be kind of a weird venue for Taylor, what with its huge stage and aforementioned distractions, but actually it wasn't. It was a hell of a lot better than hearing him in, say, the cramped, unclassy Blue Note. The fact that he was elevated and spotlit added a nice focus to the proceedings.
It was a solo show, the second I've seen after an '06 Merkin Hall performance that absolutely blew my mind. This was subtler, less hard-core, but it had the distinction of being perhaps the most singular Cecil show I've seen, mainly because it involved a heavy component of Taylor's vocalization and not just as a prelude or interlude, which is mainly how I'd heard him use voice before.
The concert was billed as "Words into Music," a somewhat pretentious title that just seemed like a space filler--anyone remember the "New AHA 3" w/ Henry Grimes and Pheeroan AkLaff, unseen for some time now, that may or may not still be Taylor's working band?--but in retrospect it was right to give the evening a special designation. This was, as always, Cecil being Cecil, but it was a specially tailored event. The meat of the program was an hour-long piece which built slowly and covered familiar Cecil motifs (the probing echo figure that I've come to call the Lick-- dabada DWENG-a / dabada-dabada DWENG-a DWEEENG-a; flurries of perpendicular-fingered downstabs, etc.) before segueing into a fascinating vocal-driven section, which I'll discuss below.
Taylor's mouth was miked the whole concert, even when he wasn't explicitly speaking into it. I'm not sure if this was intentional but you could hear his every grunt and groan; in short, he seemed to be vocalizing along with each note he played. Weirdly, just before heading over to the Highline, I read this passage from the outstanding section on Cecil in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business:
[This is early Taylor bassist Buell Neidlinger speaking.]
"We shared an apartment for awhile, and I had the opportunity to watch him practice, and his practicing revolves around solfège singing. He'll sing a phrase and then he'll harmonize it at the piano and then he'll sing it again, always striving to get the piano to sing, to try and match this feeling of the human production, the voice, in terms of pianistic production so that it gets the same effect. Cecil's trying to get the vocal sound out of the piano, and I think he's achieved it on many occasions. You can almost hear the piano scream or cry."
I've never thought of Taylor's piano sound as particularly vocal, but having just read about this practice method--now mind you, this is a description of Taylor in the mid '60s--the illustration of that at this show was obvious. Simply put, he mouths what he plays and here you could discern more of that method than usual b/c of the amplification.
I mentioned above a clear demarcation in the lengthy featured piece. What happened was that Cecil picked up one of the sheets of paper--I assume it contained poetry--off the piano's music rack and began to vocalize based on what was written there. For a while, I couldn't discern any English (I caught "Yuba 1, Yuba 2," etc.); it was just that strangely strangled, at times cartoonish growling and wailing that Taylor often uses to open his performances. But what he would do is a call-and-response between his voice and his one free piano hand. There was a direct correlation, almost like he was accompanying himself with an obbligato. I was fascinated to see the spoken word so integrated into the performance.
The words seemed to inspire him to explore new places. For one, since he was only using one hand while reciting, he was forced to compromise in terms of density. Sometimes, he would just sort of flap or swat his hand at the piano, eliciting a little daub of sound; other times he trilled out a brief phrase. But there was this great back and forth dance happening between voice and instrument.
And as I noted in my post on the Taylor/Tony Oxley show at the Vanguard last month, Taylor's attack continues to grow ever more caressive (I think I made that word up). Lately he seems to be massaging out the seams in his playing, the juxtapositions between his outbursts and his daintier moments. (Of which there were many tonight--i.e., dainty moments--in fact, I'm starting to think that it's less accurate to describe Taylor--as many, including myself, have--as an aggressive player who *can*, at times, summon incredible restraint and suppleness. The fact is that the overall effect is one of uncanny versatility; neither mode of playing dominates his current performances.) The more I see him, the falser the far-past-cliched "88 tuned drums" description of his playing rings for me. Much of the time he seems to want to eliminate the percussive attack, to sort of lift the notes *out* of the instrument rather than slam them in. I noticed tonight how he often raises his fingers immediately off the keys after tapping out a phrase. This concert occasionally traversed turbulent terrain, but it did so in an entirely fluid manner. I don't know how else to describe where Cecil's playing is at these days. It can be very aggressive, but its defining feature, to me, is a warm, almost pillowy sense of non-attack. I had thought to myself at the last few shows that he'd been losing steam overall--he is, after all, 79--but now I think that's an illusion. He's as energetic as ever, just more tender vis-a-vis the mechanics of playing. I don't think its an exaggeration to say that he simply keeps getting better. His playing is less kinetic now than it once was, but, to me, more integrated.
I noticed some new hand figures too, including some awesome one-fingered slides during the poetry/obbligato section and these incredibly dancelike hand-over-hand leapfrog shapes, like tumblers diving, somersaulting, weaving their bodies in and out of one another. During these moments I really felt a delight from Taylor, a sense of him choreographing new digital dances.
As for the poetry itself--things got more intelligible after that initial spate of wordlessness--it was in keeping with the mathematico-spiritual decrees I've often heard from Taylor. The man loves him some 50-cent words and this show was full of them: "Separating radium from pitchblende / Oxide from radium," "eccentrically oblique but nevertheless transparent," a reference to what I believe was air "pressing on the glottis." The latter line came during the encore, which found Taylor at the microphone in the front of the stage rather than at the piano. He's a great reader, so willfully peculiar, often elongating words, messing with their natural accents, repeating them, up- and downshifting his tempo, bouncing his body up and down while speaking: "A book printed with immovable type before 1501 / A *book* printedwithimmovabletype before1501." Yes, he actually said that, and a lot more, including his by now trusty "hypotenuse" reference and words like "incunabula." When I interviewed Taylor, he showed me one of his notebooks, and it was just absolutely inked to the brim; in other words, he probably has an inexhaustible storehouse of such verbiage. Mumbo-jumbo? Depends on your mood I guess. I don't sense a coherent thrust in these works such as a delight in the sound of weird words, which I can totally relate to.
All I know is that it's wrong to consider the voice as a secondary ingredient in Taylor's work. Judging by Neidlinger's quote, it seems to be integral to how he approaches the piano and tonight made that explicit. As I mentioned in the aforelinked article, another integral factor is flamboyant fashion: The man consistently upstages himself in that department, and tonight he had on an oversized black pinstripe shirt with a white tie and rainbow socks, and of course, his customary do-rag. As always, to Cecil, his own.
Let's hope there's more of these "Words into Music"-style concerts. This was unique and way fascinating. In the meantime, among Cecil's recorded works, Chinampas and In Florescence are both heavy on the spoken word; they need to be considered as part of the full Taylor picture rather than tangential distractions.
Also, have folks spent time w/ the solo You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To on Taylor's 1956 debut, Jazz Advance? If not, please do click the link above. It's totally odd and abstract and it's truly the blueprint for all the inspired weirdness that was to come (not to mention easily one of the strangest pieces of music I know from the '50s). Don't miss it.
Goodbye for the weekend, off w/ Laal to... Prog Day. If you check out the lineup you can probably guess who I'll be there to see.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Hello again, good people. My apologies for the hiatus. As is often the case with blogging, the days just sort of got away from me and here we are two weeks later. Lots of business on the plate, yet energized after a recent trip to Kansas City with Laal. Friends and family were seen--some all in the same place for the first time in like a decade. It was too brief.
And here I present you with what I'll label, if I may, a real piece of work: a profile on Cecil Taylor from the new issue of Time Out New York.
I have no idea how to frame this one, really. I guess one way to put it would be that I have a Post-It on my wall that says, self-explanatorily, "Dream Interviews." Listed on it are four musicians: Glenn Danzig, Trey Azagthoth (wizardly guitarist of Morbid Angel), Charles Brackeen (excellent out-jazz saxist, active in the '80s and still apparently alive though not heard from for many moons) and lastly Cecil Taylor. As of now, there is a line through Taylor's name and next to it I have written "ha!"
I did meet with Taylor, last week. We dined together near his home in Fort Greene and then hung out in his living room for a while--a long while. All in all, the proceedings lasted five hours, and I'm confident they would've lasted several more had I not simply called it quits. I'm struggling with how to put this... I guess the best way to express my feelings about the experience is that I wouldn't classify it as an interview at all, more as a monologue, or even a performance that I was witness too. Taylor responded cryptically or confrontationally or blankly to inquiries. (To be fair, he did describe himself as "irascible" several times.) This was occasionlly humorous and engaging, such as when we spoke on the phone to arrange the interview. He told me what he had been reading--including Ron Suskind's The Way of the World, which I've since picked up and am really loving--and then asked what I was working on and what I did generally at Time Out. I began by saying that I wrote mostly about jazz and rock; he quickly cut me off and asked, "How would you define rock music... mathematically?" Caught off guard, I stumbled. I think I tried to make a point (in retrospect, a wholly nonmathematical one, but hey, what're you gonna do?) about how in rock the musicians all work together in the same rhythmic structure while in jazz they all come at it from different angles. Yadda, yadda.
Anyway, so I was sort of energized by this unpredictability, but the idea that Taylor would keep me on my toes, not obeying the traditional interviewer-subject one-way-street relationship. That would've been cool, but it wasn't what happened. After several attempts to pursue what I thought would be a fun line of questioning--on the eve of Taylor's show at the Highline Ballroom, which is on Friday, I wanted to talk with him about the huge variety of NYC venues he's played over his 50+ years of local performance--I threw in the towel and just became a sponge, absorbing everything I could, in essence resigning myself to a monologic experience rather than a dialogic one. I was there, in his presence, but I ceased to become a factor. No interchange, no repartee, no nothing. I felt talked *at*, not the most pleasant sensation.
Maybe I gave up too easily, but I was rattled, and I just didn't sense that I was going to get anywhere. So I just tried to listen and watch as hard as I could. If nothing else, hopefully the piece portrays what it's like to spend an afternoon with Taylor in his apartment. Is any of this observational detail relevant to his music? In some cases, I think it is; in others, maybe it's just entertaining. He is, after all, a marvelously eccentric person.
Was I disappointed with my dream interview? I'd have to say yes. Do I resent Taylor for resisting the standard operating procedure (I couldn't even get him to sit in one place and speak into the tape recorder)? Nah. He is who he is. Cooperating with journalists isn't exactly a prerequisite for great artmaking. But when I think how often I've been able to have these really stimulating dialogues with great artists--people like Muhal Richard Abrams, Cecil's contemporary and one of the kindest, most dignified individuals I've ever had the pleasure of meeting--it makes me a little sad that this couldn't be one of those. Music journalism is, of course, nonessential to music, but that doesn't mean one enjoys that fact in the face.
But hey, maybe the fault is all mine. Some journalists have elicited warm, insightful commentary from Taylor. Here's an outstanding interview w/ Miya Masaoka (at first I thought that maybe he was so open with her because she was a fellow musician, but then again, when I mentioned to Taylor that I was a drummer he labeled me a "spy") and here's one with the Times' Peter Watrous that I really enjoyed.
My piece certainly portrays a side of Taylor you won't really read about elsewhere; if that's for better or for worse, I'll leave it up to you to decide. I did what I could do with the information at hand; if any quotations seem off-topic, I can say only that they were entirely indicative of what Taylor chose to expound on. (As you'll read, the experience overall was a weirdly humorous one, even verging on the absurd.) I'll never forget the encounter, that's for sure, nor will I forget the deliciousness of the nonalcoholic cocktail Taylor prepared for me: Looza nectar (mango, maybe?) with an entire halved lemon thrown in. It was sweet, sour, divine.
There will be none of this "Now I'm turned off of Taylor's music" nonsense. I think any reader of this blog could tell you that I'm hooked for life. I'll even be there on Friday. But something tells me I won't be sticking around to exchange pleasantries.
Three records of the moment:
Graham Smith - Yes Boss (downloadable here)
Krallice - s/t (available via Profound Lore)
Harris Eisenstadt - Guewel (available soon via Clean Feed)
Also really digging on some old Ui records I retrieved from home.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
It's been a busy time, and so it remains. Off I head to the motherland of Kansas City for the weekend in Laal's company to see family and old friends and consume Arthur Bryant's and Winstead's.
I leave you with some of the best webbage I've been onto lately:
*One week ago, Leonard Lopate hosted not only Randy Newman (!)--pictured above--but Elliott Gould (!!!)--and on the same day, no less. Two of most inimitably eccentric and awesome American entertainers of the last 40 years, right there. Gould turns out to be far weirder in person than Newman--my friend Tony, who saw him speak at the current Gould retrospective at BAM, verifies this big time--throwing around endearing yet strangely phrased ideas re: his career being "all about helping the family to grow and prosper" or some such, as though it were a corporation or cult. Behold as Newman namechecks Megadeth (unmprompted!) and admits that he's been most successful "when holding Mickey Mouse's hand." I still have fond memories of his theme song for Major League. His new album is excellent too: Check the irresistible A Few Words in Defense of Our Country, and read my Time Out colleague Jay Ruttenberg's appraisal.
*Inconstant Sol is far and away the best free-jazz blog on the Web right now and there's a ton of competition. Have grabbed copious gems off there recently, including a very intriguing Baikida Carroll solo sesh, but the top find is undoubtedly this incredible Charles Tyler collection, culled from several live appearances on my alma mater WKCR. Track one features none other than Steve Reid on drums, who has garnered many deserved props for his recent work with Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, but the primo stuff is to be found on tracks two and three where Tyler duets with drummer Philip Wilson (of Dogon A.D. fame, among other triumphs). This is some of the funkiest, rawest free jazz I've ever heard, with Wilson laying down lean, harsh beats and Tyler bulling away on baritone. Check track three first: It's a masterpiece. And dig Tyler's hilarious spoken-word riff at the beginning.
*Man on Wire is an outstanding documentary. The film--about Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the WTC towers--wouldn't have needed to look as lush and pro as it does in order to convey wonder, but the production values just make it that much more sumptuous. What really killed me w/ this film was the whole notion of "What do you do after you've conquered the world?" As you see in the flick, Petit's feat was so humongously significant to him and to his coconspirators that it's almost as if they've been at sea ever since they pulled off what they refer to simply as "The Coup." And what a brilliant stroke to score the aerial ballet itself to Satie...
Keep an ear out for new recordings from the Hexa camp. I hope that this music--much of it featuring my STATS colleague JEP--does not go unnoticed and something tells me it won't. Timeless, transporting pop sentiment and atmosphericality delivered in reverie-inducing 1.5 minute doses.
Speaking of left-of-center pop enchantment, you must grab Graham Smith's newish 36-song opus here. I am completely floored by the achievement.
Thursday, August 07, 2008
[This post was accidentally published before it was done, so please refresh and make sure you're viewing the latest version before proceeding.]
I heard Tony Oxley with Cecil Taylor at the Vanguard about three weeks ago on July 15, 2008, exactly one month after Oxley's 70th birthday. When I think back on the show, what strikes me most is how *little* Oxley played and yet how he still had a completely equal role in shaping what went down. Over the years he's evolved into a wizardly player whose two great features, as I see them, are superb rhythmic choicemaking and--and this is the biggie--a combination of timbral exoticism and timbral clarity. In other words: In any given composition--think of that term spatially--he knows what tiny detail will enhance the overall layout, exactly where it ought to be placed and exactly what it ought to look like so as to catch the eye. The latter is crucial, Oxley is a master TIMBRALIST, a curator of only the oddest, most ear-catching sounds, the ones that--in his words CUT THROUGH a given piece of musical matter. (Take a good look at the kit above: tiny hi-hats, plastic woodblocks, mutant cowbells, little bongos: yielding a symphony of metallic groans and wispy clicking, all combining not into something so boring as a Drum Set, but into a groaning, clicking, swishing, rattling contraption, approximating a uniquely poetic and subtle sort of entropy.) Honor rock musicians too late in their lives and they may be onto some lackluster twilight, but as I've seen in the past year checking out Muhal Richard Abrams, Sonny Simmons and Bobby Few, the best improvisers and jazz players only improve over time. (I remember my lifebro Jeff once saying that to me and years later, I'm agreeing with him in a big way.) Oxley is such a dude, majorly, and hence my attempt to make sense of a very diverse and heavy-duty discography:
It Cuts Through: A Tony Oxley mixtape
(The title I've chosen comes specifically from this brief but outstandingly detailed interview with Oxley. The inquisitor, Alyn Shipton, comments on the incisiveness of the percussionist's sound choices and Oxley responds with a perfect summation of the philosophy behind his maverick timbralism and exotic homemade kit:
"Cutting, it cuts through; no matter what you're doing it will cut through. So I think a lot of drummers should think about that because when they're playing time and they're shoving this on the wherever, usually two and four..., it really needs to have a different sound and the cymbal they're playing on in order to mean anything. And you can't blame the engineer can you...? Maybe you should think about that before you get to the studio or before you start to record, think about it in terms of music rather than reproduction.")
The mix is ten MP3s in a zip file, with ID tags ideally formatted for iTunes use. It's a long compilation, but I hope, worthwhile and illustrative especially of a few basic principles of Oxleyana that--before I started investigating further--weren't clear to me even as a longtime fan of his work. Here are annotations and the tracklist follows:
1) Most freejazz/freeimprov fans know Oxley as THE BEST collaborator, the one who somehow can inspire giants as diverse as Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and Derek Bailey to some of their best playing. In the realm of free improv, it would be hard to think of a player who has helped so many different musicians to sound incredible. So yeah, his approach is so subtle and supportive that it's easy to overlook that he's also an amazing *bandleader*. Through his important major label (yeah, weird right?) works of the late '60s and early '70s, through his Incus works of the decades that followed, he showed himself to be an outstanding deployer of improvisers. Many of the works on records such as Ichnos or Tony Oxley (a.k.a. 1975's Incus 8) don't necessarily sound like fully fleshed-out compositions, but there is a very present sense of a guiding hand, of a predetermined conceptual frame that gives Oxley's leader records an edge over a lot of just-show-up-and-hit freeimprov sessions. On the mix, "Never Before or Again" from the aforementioned self-titled record is a great example of this. Oxley was drawing from essentially the same pool of players as another incredible percussionist/free-improv-shaman of the time, Spontaneous Music Ensemble's John Stevens, but he was charting his own path. Both were engaged in a space race of sorts: Whose ensemble could listen hardest? Whose could leave the most space? Whose could most closely approximate the movement of a single organism? (Stevens may have won the top prize on SME's Karyobin, but all the entries as prizeworthy in this particular bout.) Oxley's bandleading efforts grew sparser over the years, but check out The Enchanted Messenger from '94, where he leads a whole orchestra in some expertly plotted jam-outs (Though I could do without Phil Minton's free-scat vibes, personally.). It's not represented on the mix, but it's out there to be heard.
2) The Tony Oxley most of us stateside folk know--i.e., from the high-profile collaborations with Taylor, Dixon, etc.--could only be described as alien, nongenre, off the grid, etc. But it must be remembered that the man is also a JAZZ drummer. The mix includes "Pete the Poet" from the early John McLaughlin date Extrapolation (1969), which is also Oxley's first studio date--interestingly, his first record is with Ronnie Scott, live at the famous British jazz club that bears Scott's name. Anyone checking this out who's a fan of progressive '60s jazz will tell you: Oxley sounds *exactly* like Tony Williams here, right down to cymbal timbres and snare sound. Maybe he's a little stiffer, but I'd've been fooled hearing this blind. He's not using his--as fellow Oxley enthusiast Steve Smith termed it--mutant kit there, but check out "Body and Soul" on the mix, a collaboration with saxist Tony Coe. Oxley's swinging away in traditional ballad mode but using those inimitable Oxleyan alien sounds that can't help but cut through. Visual evidence of Oxley playing straight-up jazz on the mutant kit is here:
3) Electronics are a big deal to Oxley, not just seasoning. Check the awesome 1971 solo "Oryane" on the mix to hear how he subtly moves from acoustic to plugged-in playing. By the '90s--listen to "Quartet 2"--he was working with majorly hi-tech sonics. He doesn't play any of the electronics on that track, but he's chosen collaborators who know how to wield the juice.
4) Oxley doesn't even need to actually hit anything to bend space-time. Check out "Cavern of the Snail for Cello and Cymbals," where Oxley bows and scrapes metal and conjures weird sine-wave mania.
Here's the tracklist. Most links are to entries in this outstanding Oxley discograpy, where you can find all personnel and recording date info. All sessions are Oxley-led, unless otherwise noted. I'd suggest ordering the tracks manually if they don't show up in your player in this sequence:
1) Trio 2 (1977), from February Papers
2) Pete the Poet (1969), from John McLaughlin's Extrapolation
3) Thorn Apple (1998), from Alexander von Schlippenbach and Tony Oxley's Digger's Harvest
4) Never Before or Again (1972), from Tony Oxley (Incus 8)
5) Oryane (1971), from Ichnos
6) Body and Soul (1983), from Coe, Oxley & Co.'s Nutty
7) Quartet 2 (1992), from The Tony Oxley Quartet
8) Article Four (1991), from Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, John Surman and Tony Oxley's In the Evenings Out There
9) Cavern of the Snail for Cello and Cymbals (1974), from The Tony Oxley Alan Davie Duo
10) Crawlspace (1998), from Bill Dixon's Papyrus Volume II
*The Taylor collaboration is crucial but unwieldy on disc: Most of the time you're dealing with long, unbroken performances. Check especially Looking (Berlin version) and Celebrated Blazons, in my opinion the finest documents of Taylor's Feel Trio with Oxley and bassist William Parker. Regrettably, the sound on 2 Ts for a Lovely T, a ten CD box set of that band, absolutely sucks, with the bass sounding like a miniature violin at best. No body or presence whatsoever. The two listed above though are massive and mindblowing.
*The Taylor/Dixon collaboration encompasses probably the best recorded documentation of either player's core concept. You won't hear Bill Dixon or Tony Oxley sounding more gorgeous than they did on Soul Note in the '90s. "Crawlspace" from the mix is a great example, but so is anything from Vade Mecum, a marvelous, marvelous record. Berlin Abbozzi, from '99, reprises the trumpet-bass-bass-percussion format of that session in a live setting w/ different bassists. Sound isn't as sumptuous, but it's a very cool disc.
*Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley, the Victo record that launched 1000 contentious blog posts. Weirdly controversial record, but my view is that it's just a really solid session and not entirely unexpected given those three men's recent output. Let yourself get used to Dixon's heavy use of delay and you'll start to feel the vibe.
*I'd very much recommend the early major label discs not represented here, "The Baptised Traveller," recently spotlighted by Destination Out, and "Four Compositions for Sextet." They're both excellent and if you like the organized freedoms you hear on "Never Before or Again," this is right in that sweet spot (and Baptised even features unison "heads" in the normal jazz sense).
As a bonus, check out a cool Oxley sesh on FMP courtesy of the WFMU blog.
And don't sleep on Oxley's marvelous visual art. I read a theory once that Dixon and Oxley's hookup was so complete in part b/c they were both also accomplished painters; no offense to Dixon, whose art is rad, but Oxley is sorta beyond. I'd totally buy one of these. Some paintings are viewable here. Gorgeous stuff, as you can see:
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
All kinds of changes afoot in work, life, music and everything. Have no idea how to begin to make sense of all I've wanted to write about over the past week or so. Have planned like 30 posts and then ditched them out of fatigue or a variety of procrastinatory excuses. It's always best, I've found, to start w/ an enumeration, so here goes:
1) Saw a really outstanding movie over the weekend: Deliver Us from Evil. I remember reading about this last year or the year before when it was playing in New York; intended to go but missed it.
I love watching documentaries. For whatever reason, I *really* love watching documentaries about outlandish or disturbing topics. (I remember I felt sort of weird telling the world that I was fascinated by the horse-ophilia doc Zoo last May.) Fortunately Laal shares this affinity. On Friday, we rented Gray Matter, a film by Joe Berlinger, most famous for codirecting Some Kind of Monster, a.k.a. "The Metallica in Therapy Doc," a.k.a. one of the most enthralling movies about music or anything else that I've ever seen. To put it as plainly as I can, Gray Matter is about a basement in an abandoned Austrian hospital where until a few years ago brains of mentally or physically handicapped children euthanized by a sadistic Nazi doctor were being kept. Sounds pretty fascinating, right? It was... sort of. The film suffered from too much Berlinger. His persistent voiceover demystified the topic. I couldn't help feeling that it was a blown opportunity to make a mindblowing doc.
Maybe the main problem with it, though, was one of access. Not to spoil it for anyone--well, okay, maybe for some--but Berlinger never gets his man, i.e., Heinrich Gross, the doctor responsible for the institutionalized murders discussed in the film, who was still alive and apparently living in or around Vienna at the time Berlinger was filming there. The whole time you're thinking how fascinating it would be to view Gross up close, to scrutinize the man who had done such horrible deeds.
Well, Deliver Us from Evil is the exact opposite scenario: The villain is not only present, he's the star of the film. By the time we meet him, sometime in the early aughts, Father Oliver O'Grady (above) has sexually abused countless children in various cities in California and has been apprehended. By some weird Catholic-church loophole, he's living as a free man in his native Ireland. So not only do you get glimpses, you get a veritable vista of this guy's deviant consciousness. Hannibal Lecter, blah, blah, blah. We're talking about extensive face time with a man who, as a psychologist interviewed in the film points out, has--and please pardon the graphic-ness here--"actually inserted his penis into an infant's vagina."
There's no other way to say this: He comes across as a mild, kindly man. His demeanor could be described as gently remorseful, calmly perplexed, confused by his deeds, as though they were sort of a curious conundrum, to be pondered but not to be reflected upon urgently. There is no sense of a man really grappling with his actions and their effects in any sort of wrenching way. At times there's almost a sense of amusement at what he's done (namely raped children; many, many, many children, some over a period of years). The rhythm of the film, its method, is to contrast O'Grady's seemingly untroubled consciousness with scenes from the lives of his victims and their families, who can only be described as existing in state of devastation, not unlike victims of a natural disaster.
Bob Jyono, whose young daughter was raped repeatedly by O'Grady over a period of years--she claims, in one of the film's saddest moments, that she didn't tell anyone b/c she was worried her father would kill O'Grady--is the film's moral center of gravity and a scathing counterweight to O'Grady. Simply put the dude is a wreck, or at least he is when discussing the crimes themselves. I've rarely seen a more straightforward depiction of sad, sad rage than this man's testimony. Screaming anger mixed with tears and raw, raw hurt and regret and disillusionment. This is just a straight-up wronged soul. It's a horribly painful thing to watch and the contrast w/ O'Grady's untroubled, beady-eyed recollections is almost too much to comprehend. Jyono is all tears and hoarse venom. O'Grady is a frequent grinner, a wearer of cardigans--again, a kindly old man, it seems. In short--and this is the fucked-up thing--you totally *get* why families would have trusted him in the first place. He couldn't come across as any LESS threatening.
In the special features, though, the predator comes out. I would not recommend that anyone who spooks easily watch this, but there's an excerpt from his deposition in wihch he actually does a role-playing exercise where he *talks to the camera as if it were a child he was priming for sexual abuse.* Coaxing, smiling, coaxing, soothing. "Sally, you know how much I like you right? Can I give you a hug?" I'm not sure I've ever seen a more unflinching glimpse into a disturbed mind.
Laal and I watched Capturing the Friedmans a few weeks back. That's also a remarkable, remarkable film, but totally different, dealing as it does with a question mark of guilt. If you're not familiar with that one, it's a portrait of a family torn apart when the father and his teenage son are accused of pedophilia. The evidence is sketchy and while the film doesn't take outright sides, it does view the case against the Friedmans with an extremely skeptical eye.
There's nothing to be skeptical about in Deliver Us. Oliver O'Grady without a dobut did these things and director Amy Berg takes us into his presence on a very extended basis. There's a lot of fascinating context and analysis in the film re: the clergy-sexual-abuse epidemic in general. We learn for example that priests weren't always celibate and that celibacy was a bureaucratic imposition designed to keep priests from passing property on to children. The psychologist consulted in the film systematically assails the idea of celibacy and pegs it as practically a direct cause of these horrible occurrences. Another priest consulted in the film, Thomas Doyle, stands out as an almost heroically individualistic man, advocating for "good Catholics" in the model of Jesus Christ: not sheep, but revolutionaries. Again, though, it's all secondary. See this film and you will sit across the table from a serial pedophile and have a chat. It's a type of experience few of us will ever have in life, and the awful rarity of it makes it in some weird sense a priceless encounter.
This movie and Friedmans--in which the most tangible evidence against the father is that he hoarded child-pornography magazines--made me think though: If someone is inclined toward pedophilia, isn't it better that they look at child pornography rather than actually committing the act? Or is that just as bad, given that children were harmed in the making of the pornography?
To take it a little further, what is a person supposed to do if they find themselves with a sexual preference that's not only deviant, but unlawful and potentially horribly destructive? Obviously we can all control our actions, but we don't really get to choose our desires; nor can we make them go away if we'd rather not experience them. I guess what I'm getting at is I'd be curious to hear about a person who had perhaps "cured" themselves of pedophilia through sheer will or treatment or somesuch, i.e., as though an individual had turned him- or herself in, like, "I have these desires; I need help." I suppose that is the only "right" way to handle it, but it's pretty near impossible to imagine having your inner fantasies doubling as awful liabilities. Maybe the preference is borne out of abuse or out of traumatic circumstance, but what if it's not? What if it's innate and subconscious, as I imagine garden-variety hetero- or homosexuality to be? Basically I'd like to hear from someone who's just realizing these truths about him- or herself and--unlike the terminally irresponsible Father O'Grady--is actually trying to nip them in the bud. *That* would make for a fascinating corollary to Deliver Us from Evil.
Well, that was a long item No. 1. Here are a few more:
2) As reported in Time Out NY, I very much enjoyed Haruki Murakami's new nonfiction tome, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Having religiously read most of Murakami's novels, I had lost track of the last few, but after I read an excerpt from this in the New Yorker, I was back on track. Outstanding stuff.
3) I've been on a long, steadily arcing Tony Oxley listening kick ever since I caught him with Cecil a few weeks back. More on Oxley to come...