movies

The Magic of Kumar

Image © 2017 Gregory Briggler

Around the Christmas of 1996, I went to the Cosmic Cup in Dallas to see the local band Little Jack Melody and his Young Turks. It was an intimate concert in a place that had the feel and dimensions of a living room. Little Jack sang and played tenor banjo. On stage there was quite the menagerie of instruments: harmonium, tuba, cornet, drums, and saxophone. The crowd sat on cushions on the floor, and we were occasionally asked to sing Salvation Army arrangements of Christmas Carols. That was a crowd favorite except for a white-haired atheist who chose to try and ruin the fun for everyone else instead of voting with his feet. It was a benchmark concert of my five years in Texas.

Mixed in with the proto-hipster crowd were promed-up Indian teens who were there to support the Amazing Kumar. Short, white haired and wearing a sweater vest, he performed magic tricks, spun plates and entertained as part of the evening. I only discovered he was the owner of the place while researching this post.

The next time I saw Kumar Pallana was in 1998 on the big screen.  I often drove from Denton to the Inwood Theater in Dallas to watch independent films. There was Kumar on screen in Rushmore, a film by Wes Anderson exploring the life of an overachieving, under-performing private school boy. Anderson is from Houston and so had a special place in the hearts of arty Texans. The film was witty and awkward and charming and silly. I felt like I was at the genesis of something great. And then, there was the Amazing Kumar on screen! I had before seen him in the flesh. He wasn’t just another film person, but a magician I had first seen in a tiny restaurant in Dallas. My adventure – the move from Arkansas to Texas, the seeking out of art and music and films – had brought me close to people who were making movies. Through slight of hand, Kumar connected my real life to the movie on screen- an Amazing trick!

Of course, I still watch Wes Anderson’s movies. He is one of the most interesting filmmakers, forgive me, of my generation. Everything on screen is polished and just-so. We haven’t met yet, but we will eventually. I want to share a Pimm’s Cup with him and talk about that Texas to New York shift he made. That we made. We’ll toast together someday and talk about music, the big D and the big Apple.

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Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part Four)

A still from “Crossroads” (1976)

Go for the films! Notice his use of Rock and Roll of all kinds. “Three Screens Ray” (2006) is a film triptych which pulses with love, death, desire, silliness and light. A live version of Ray Charles’ “What I Say” accompanies the film and echos through the exhibition by the comings and goings of slightly embarrassed museum goers. It is the most overtly sexual film in the retrospective. After watching, the music “bleeding into” the gallery is a constant, musical reminder of the big ideas in Conner’s head.

“Looking for Mushrooms” had many iterations, but the one shown here is from 1996. Again, the music is by Terry Riley. The footage is in color and was shot mostly in Mexico by Conner. One of the versions of the film included a song by the Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows”. I think you can see the affinity between the images and music in both versions. The gallery notes mention a cameo by psychedelic guru Timothy Leary. It is a beautiful film to experience. Even with the galleries outside crowded with Sunday morning museum visitors, I shared the experience with only one other viewer.

It’s hard to believe the seven minute musical portrait of the beautiful Toni Basil “Breakaway” (1966) was made in the 60’s and not a few weeks ago at the House of Yes in Bushwick.  To accompany the movie, he plays her song Breakaway forward, completely, and then backwards, completely. The transition is a light touch after a fade out. The beat -unlessened- goes on, and the intensity of the images grows for this film portrait.

Personal energy is the subject of “Breakaway” and an equally powerful energy is the subject of “Crossroads”(1976).

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The flickering film shows the same 1946 Pacific ocean nuclear test over and over filmed from many different positions by military planes and warships. As if Conner had chosen the location himself, the test was performed with a wink over the shoulder in the Bikini Atoll. The film has music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley, but it is the sound which caught my attention. The rumble of destruction sometimes begins with the image of the explosion. Sometimes the sound continues as the explosion begins again.

Again and again, Bruce says:

Behold what we have done.

Behold the power,

the cacophony,

and the fury.

The navy ships

that won the great war

bob

like driftwood

In a timid circle.

We –

great and small.

 

Behold the image on the screen

as the film rat-a-tats through the machine.

Isn’t it awful!

Isn’t it amazing!

Our nature-

best and worst.

 

This is the final post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

Movie Music: Dead Men (1995)

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photo credit: © Gregory Briggler

Some times music chosen for movies plays against type and that makes the movie better. Dead Man Walking, Oscar bait for Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, is clearly made better by an unusual soundtrack. In the case of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, it can make a great movie grate.

What made Dead Man Walking so exceptional was director Tim Robbins use of music that didn’t have any cultural association with the deep South setting or even the United States. Instead of the boring, second-rate-slide-guitar-go-to of most films set in the exotic, gothic (hot, humid…) South, Robbins went with something exceptional. The music featuring the amazing, piercing voice of Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, tabla and sitar, adds a lens of otherness. The beauty of the story shows through because the music removes tired stereotypes which allow the larger questions of the movie to come into focus. The worth of all is a people problem. It is not only a Louisiana problem or a United States problem.

The horribleness of Dead Man’s soundtrack cannot be overstated. The music is a Neil Young vehicle and in my memory consists of one electric guitar, one chord, and one chorus effect pedal. The stoic, solitary guitar is supposed to create an emotional connection to the enveiled main character, John Milton, played by Johnny Depp, as he wanders toward nothingness in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, the lonely guitar sounds stumble into the frame like an unwanted busker on a crowded subway car when you are reading a good book. The attempt to set a mood without orchestra swells and french horns playing open fifths is admirable but fell well short of effective.

(This post is the first in a rolling series about movie music.)