Monday, February 21, 2011

DIG! with Brian Jonestown Massacre & Dandy Warhols


As I sit here about to write I have on the Brian Jonestown Massacre playing through their copious amount of tracks available on Youtube.  This is not to say that I won't try and buy an album, or two or four or whatever.  Because after a film like DiG they're more than on my radar, they're the kind of group that has the creative energy and rocking 'damn yes' spirit that I'll want to listen to every song of theirs I can, if only once a piece.  And yet I would be remiss to admit that until the film, with just very vague feeling, I had never heard of the group outside of hearing their work without their name (i.e. featured in Broken Flowers in that scene where Lolita walks around naked in front of Bill Murray).

It would be nice to go on about that, or try and pretend it for them or the Dandy Warhols, the other rock and roll band featured in Ondi Timoner's first documentary Dig! (or DiG! if you gotta get into it), that I've been listening to them for years.  I could even try and make it like in Scott Pilgrim vs the World, with the line "They're first album was better than their first album."  But that would be a little too hipster-ish for me, wouldn't it?  And, frankly, there is plenty enough to around with the bands on stage.  And it's not that they are trying to be hipsters... at least at first, and not so much with BJM.  The film is a tale of how they became known, more or less, in the music world, and how they had their highs and lows but did make it... at least to the point of a documentary director putting it altogether and garnering more attention than before.  Like from people such as myself.

See... hip!
But besides preferences with the bands- I probably lean more towards the experimentation and freedom in the vocals and sounds from Anton Newcombe's mindfuck-brainchild before Courtney Taylor and the Warhols - what about the film?  It's a tale of two bands, almost like a tale of two brothers who come from the same kind of music scene in Portland, Oregon, and set out in California to make music and make names for themselves.  What one comes away with is that the two bands had mutual respect and distaste, depending on the time of day and what song of theirs they were playing for the other.  There's a rivalry that is playful but with a tinge of "Fuck you, dude", as the Warhols play for Anton Newcombe their upcoming (would-be) first hit single "Not if you were the last junkie on Earth".  Anton just sits in a kind of dumb-silence, yet hears every word and lyric.  He finds it pompous.  So his revenge?  "Not if you were the last Dandy on Earth."  SNAP!  CRACKLE!  SINGLE!

There is also a sense of an odd camaraderie between the bands, and they sometimes jam together, yet they also keep at a distance.  Some of this is just by their birthplaces and upbringings; it should be easy to make a psychological portrait of Anton Newcombe, but it is essential to who he is, a guy from a broken home, without a father, and a mother who couldn't give a shit.  Newcombe eventually does look like a crazy douchebag hipster in the burgeoning success of his group with their record label, but at the same time he doesn't fake who he is.  The Brian Jonestown Massacre, as fronted by him, are contentious and low-rent, recording their first few albums in squalor in a house provided by the record company and without furniture and only supplied with amps and heroin (this, I should add, is a reason why the BJM finds the Warhol's song amusing, since they really are on heroin... and probably don't get the message of the song).

... No, scratch that in the last paragraph; it's mostly BJM who is contentious and low-rent, and one of those ego-maniacs that you think are mostly rock and roll myth but here is front and center.  The band seems about ready to break up (and sometimes does) every other day, and the confrontations in the audience carry the similar vibe of the Sex Pistols; for all of the merits of their songs and talent (and it's more than possible that Newcombe is a better songwriter and more adventurous than Rotten or Vicious ever were) the audiences would mostly come to see what psycho-shit would happen on stage.  And, of course, Newcombe would never disappoint such wanting fans - though he would, many times, his beleaguered bandmates, most of him come off pretty cool as he usually gets pissed and throws tantrums as a 'genius'.  For all of the good songs they could write and play, and there were a lot, many stage shows would break down and become nightmares.

Compared to them, The Dandy Warhols would seem to be by the looks of the documentary (which, arguably, is more fair to them than to Newcombe and his group, though not by mistake) like a true-blue pop band.  Courtney, who narrates the doc as well, comes out and flat admits that the band comes form well-adjusted backgrounds and childhoods.  This may be why there is a slight Amadeus vibe between the two stars of the two bands, albeit that's where the comparison should end (that would be giving too much credit to Newcombe as a nouveau Mozart).  Newcombe has talent, burning through him, and for all of his dickishness he can pick up any instrument and just play it and come up with songs that for the most part kick ass.  The Warhols appear to have great tunes too, but have to work harder at it, and get swept up due to them being groomed as pop-stars by Capitol Records into the bad machine that is the Record Industry circa late 90's.

It may be dated by now due to how much the industry has changed, but it's never less than interesting to see how Courtney and the Warhols break it down.  This is where the bulk of their drama comes from, dealing with the record company execs who don't do enough with the potential of their record and singles, and not returning any calls after their first single doesn't go huge.  There is a nice moment, however, that Timoner is able to capture where there are two sides shown regarding a music video shoot for their 'Junkie' song: is Courtney a primmadonna for screaming about this or that with regards to the video according to the director of the vid, or is the director just a DIVA douchebag who doesn't know how to do something truly creative with their work?

Frankly, by the time the film ended, I was not sure.  The Warhols had reached success, though internationally with big stadium front-headliner tours and sold out shows.  Newcombe calls them 'Cartoon characters', but then what is he?  Neither band leader, and not even some of the fellow band members, always come off as 'good' or very relatable.  This is one of the director's gifts here, even as it may split some audiences (I've come across comments that go between being truly, honestly interested, and finding it to be tabloid bullshit, or in the middle as a rock and roll train-wreck).  It's hard to gather how much work truly went into what the two bands accomplished over the course of five or six years- or more specifically between 1996 and 1998 as is mostly the time-frame of Dig - but I did leave it knowing these people and how success and status is gaged in the modern music landscape.  It's almost a given that the Dandy Warhols would make it big, if only in some capacity and by a little luck.  For Newcombe's baby BJM, it wasn't so simple.  He's so... "indie" after all.

In short, Dig! shows the kind of world that I enjoy visiting, and made me appreciate the music more than I expected, though it is still an insulated world that is "hip", maybe too hip for its own good (or made that way by the fans who are hipsters themselves).  Are their first albums better than their first albums?  Don't know, when was the last one released?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sneak peak: Werner Herzog's CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS

The thing that's being touted first and foremost, so let's get it out of the way, is the 3D, and that a director with such a maverick career (and screw McCain, THIS is a Maverick right here) would suddenly get on the 3D bandwagon.  But with this film, the 3D was subtly effective; it's not like how a lot of 3D is that's so in your face, or makes you not be able to get a good handle on foreground-background with your eyes (re: Jim Emerson/Walter Murch for more details)- but rather it's made more for the pictures on the wall to stick out, more pronounced.  Only a few times was I annoyed by a shot obfuscated by bushes or something or a hand coming to the screen.  The rest of the time it just made the surroundings more pronounced, including (my favorite) crystals on the walls.

It's a fascinating look into artistic process, though this comes after the initial thrill of getting an exclusive look at cave walls in France that contain the first found drawings by ancestors tens of thousands of years ago.  It's also how humans have always (possibly) had a need to tell stories.  The only thing keeping it from being IMAX is that... it's not really IMAX-like: it's shot on cameras that are more of the variety that are seemingly lower-grade, at least at first.  According to IMDB it was shot on a HDCAM-SR (4:4:4 SQ) and was done through 3D.  But it's strange as at times the quality does look really spectacular and crisp and clear (and Herzog and his DP Peter Zeitlinger have fun with the iris in certain shots opening and closing out the light), and others look more low-grade like what he used to shoot the iguana in Port of Call New Orleans.

Actually, more than fascinating: Herzog is trying to find in this story, and perhaps does find, the key to human expression, and what makes us human and apart from the animals.  At one point one of the scientists has a computer demonstration of the time-line between the forces on the cave walls: first came the bear, who would just scratch at the wall, and then a human who would use a stick and make a drawing up eight feet high.  Then another human would come along and build upon it (or maybe it was the same one) and make it into more images, and then suddenly there's a story being told, action happening.  I was completely absorbed in these scenes, where we see how the first moving images we're being made, sort of (what Herzog called "Proto-Cinema") and it being with animals mostly.

Mostly in that there is one illustration on these walls are animals, and there is only one human seen: the below-waist section of a woman entwined with a... buffalo.  This is another of those fascinating things about the film, learning about the way human beings saw animals and nature around them then, and how they were as much documentarians themselves as artists.  But for Herzog, this isn't quite enough for a movie, and thankfully so.  It's not 'dry' material, but it may vary for some audiences.  I could see people being bored by a few sections in the film, mostly involving talking heads going on about this or that in the cave or outside of it, more like you'd see a tour guide in a museum do it.

If I am going to have someone take me by the hand in a museum and go "here, look at this, I present it to you like so" and it's Werner Herzog, I'll go along with it.  And since it's Herzog he has his own way of making it unique to the way he sees it.  There's a haunting moment, right out of the best of his work, where one of the scientists in the cave asks for a moment of silence so one can hear his/her own heartbeat.  Everyone is quiet, the camera pans, there's also a shot of people standing still holding up a picture, and the eerie music that flows throughout Herzog's film (nay, his ouvere in general) comes through.  And there is a heartbeat heard too.  With the audience I saw the film with- packed house, special event pre-release screening- you could hear a pin drop.

The other interesting thing, or things, is what Herzog finds outside of the cave.  He finds a man who spends his life trying to find caves (or, he also sells perfumes, so this is like a hobby we're told) with his sense of smell and being able somehow to find caves - whether he's found many he doesn't really say, though his face says a lot about that we can read into.  Another fellow scientist shows how people in the Paleolithic era would hunt and shows with some less-than-adequate (but admirable) skill how to throw a spear.  Other interviewees are more straightforward, save for a moment of intrigue with an ex-Circus unicyclist who became a cave-scientist.

But most surreal-yet-perfect is how Herzog wraps up this film, which for the most part has been wonderful talking heads matched up with wonderful, hypnotic footage of the caves (sometimes in still shots, other times moving and panning around, which makes for the effective 3D I mentioned before) is the Postscript, where he shows a nuclear power plant some twenty miles away and more specifically a greenhouse.  Only this greenhouse is more of a place to house tropical green-plants and crocodiles.  And not just any crocodiles, oh no, crocodiles mutated by radiation and having albino alligator babies.  And just when Nicolas Cage's iguanas weren't enough for you... and yet it's still perfect because of how he makes it tie into what we've just seen, and how humanity is such a fragile and terrifying thing but that it can be so precious and magical and inexplicable.

It's this kind of wonder- whether or not its there is another matter- that makes Herzog the great filmmaker and storyteller that he is.  Few minds in cinema are so inquisitive, visually audacious and just... odd.