I Was Born a Blonde Redhead on April 11, 2018

An unpopular opinion: Blonde Redhead live-scoring a presentation of Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… was magnificent. I say this as a cinephile and Ozu fan (can the two be separated?) who generally dislikes the poor etiquette and behavior of audiences attending such shows more for the music, who generally finds the music unhelpful, distracting, unimaginative and/or overly repetitive. Moreover, a broken ankle and crutches forced me away from the near-front-and-center seats I prefer and into the worst possible vantage point for both witnessing this behavior and listening to this music.

At the extreme rear of the ground floor along the aisle – the place for ADA-designated seats – the screen naturally shares far more of one’s visual field with fellow patrons. Therefore, any time someone arrives late, gets up out of his or her seat to leave the theatre, or subsequently returns, the eye is instinctively arrested by the movement and loses focus on the film. Because this is deemed a sort of concert, presumably, people take much more license with breaking off their own visual engagement with the show, and in a house at capacity this means someone is almost always coming or going – horror and fury to a concentrated filmgoer. I quickly learned my lesson at the Alamo Drafthouse never to sit toward the back of the house – they make a big deal about the distraction of using one’s phone, but watching servers move up and down the aisles is a thousand times more irritating (a superfluous complaint now, when there are more ethical reasons for avoiding the place) – but even without food-and-drink service here the disrespect for the art of cinema was still more appalling. Of course sitting close to the doors meant also that their incessantly swinging open contaminated the ideal darkness of cinema viewing with constant peripheral spills of light.

Likewise the performance of the music – mostly broken up into discrete song forms, much if not most of it from the band’s recorded repertoire – gave many in the crowd the extremely misguided notion that it would be appropriate to clap any time a song ended or substantially changed. Not only did this interfere with hearing the music and sensing it develop in more subtle ways – all the more from the far end of the theatre – it inserted bursts of applause into scenes and moments of quiet emotion, even considerable pain, for the characters. The band may have caught onto this problem later on – sustaining notes beyond and between single pieces to eliminate the space for this reaction – but it was too little too late, for the audience had already gotten used to it within the film’s first few minutes.

As for many others in attendance, evidently, those first minutes were a struggle. Well before projection began the band had set up their Aughts-era polished soundwall rails for a train that traveled independently of what would eventually appear onscreen. Nothing about their playing changed in the slightest when images began to arrive overhead, and for quite some time no member of the group could be seen to even look up to watch what they were accompanying. This created a persistent sense that the film was more an arbitrary live show backdrop that might equally well have been music-video montage or mp3-player visualizations rather than the main event. As far as selling seats goes, this is unfortunately the state of cinema appreciation – as with 2016’s comparable event with Jerome Hiler and Will Oldham, most people (these are typically younger crowds) are probably paying to see the popular recording artist, not movies they’ve never heard of.

Those few there who happened to be familiar with silent movie screenings and Ozu would have noticed immediately the vast gulf between the timbre and pulse and tenor and image-interactivity of this music and both the vast majority of live scores and the preferences of Ozu himself, demonstrable from his sound films. Ozu’s use of score is gentle, ornamental, anodyne, often bordering on muzak, but it always seems to fit ideally with the earnestness and warmth of his approach – although, importantly, it will likely take a younger modern viewer some time to adjust to his style in sonic, visual and experiential terms. His terms have basically been obliterated from the predominant cinematic vocabulary – and maybe have never really been permitted there at all – but after a while a mature viewer comes to greatly appreciate their uniqueness. Most live accompaniment of his or any silent films plays up particular visible emotions, punctuates or underlines dramatic (and comedic) actions, and frequently adopts the musical language of the setting and era depicted, keeping up a fluid movement that carries the viewer from one scene to the next without drawing much attention to itself.

In neither of these respects did Blonde Redhead satisfy expectations, and thus widespread disappointment should have been predictable. Enthusiasts for the silent era got a fuzzy rock show, devotees of Ozu got a glossily uptempo dance-pop soundtrack, and fans of the band got forced to sit through a boring ancient foreign movie in black and white with the musicians out of the spotlight and playing old or unfamiliar material. Even as an admirer of all of the ingredients myself – at different points Misery is a Butterfly and 23 were very important albums for me, and the band dipped into each one for songs at least once – for at least a couple of reels I had to sit with the uncomfortable dissonance of this jarring sensory combination, and disappointed expectations for something I hadn’t properly envisioned in any detail beforehand – besides all the aforementioned complaints about the audience.

Several minutes in, however, I was won over. I realized that I actually liked the music minding its own business, and contributing a sharp (if itself smoothly textured) contrast to image and expectation. Most of the more intellectual filmmakers working during the advent of the sound – Soviets like Eisenstein, but experimenters worldwide as well – were not excited so much by the Bazinian “myth of total cinema” (that would now allow the documentation of sound that belonged to a reality only visual previously) but by the exact opposite capacity: the counterpointing of sight and hearing for strangely and powerfully fruitful juxtapositions. Eisenstein’s (and Grigori Aleksandrov’s) early short Romance sentimentale is an incredibly inventive example of how the coupling of what is seen with what could not possibly be heard (unmatched with the visuals, and the recording manipulated to unique effect besides) produces a riveting and shocking combination far greater than the sum of its parts.

Two days earlier in the same venue I had the opposite thought while watching a larger orchestra accompany a selection of films from the Oddball archives. I liked most of the films, in particular the ones I’d never before, and at the same time liked the performers, dynamic and fun and interacting well with each other and keeping up a great groove with unusual instrumentation and vocals – yet the adding of the two together came to less than the sum of the parts. Mathematically this is nonsensical, but the proper analogy here is chemistry, a term bandied about often in the arts without much detail on the nuances of particular reactions, whereby one substance added to another may be wholly or partially consumed, with perhaps unbonded material left over to the side, rather than creating always some larger substance that is pure “lossless” alloy. For this performance I could enjoy each element separately on its own terms, but too often the music seemed to mimic what actually would have existed on the soundtrack had the film been shown as intended (Dream of the Wild Horses, for example) or play up the wackiness of films that better realize this quality (and other, more tender or amusing qualities) when presented unadorned. What remained was pleasant enough, but no transcendental union.

Whereas, in the jarring forge of observational family/social drama and introspective melancholy grooves, something new and bizarre and edifyingly subsumptive was achieved. One could begin with time to attach the particular emotionality of the music – a sort of throbbing fugue of reflective alienation – to the different yet ultimately sympathetic feelings of the characters. The rhythm and texture of the audio did not work to bolster that of the images but rather manipulate the viewer’s own into a certain state of alternative receptivity, dredging up personal memories and sensory reservoirs in a thicker dialogue with Ozu’s film than is common for such accompaniment. By playing to their own strengths and predilections instead of attempting standard practice the band actually created a radically novel way to engage the spectator.

No creator has final say on how a creation should be received, if for no other reason than the fact that distribution outnumbers those who make something by those who can interpret it. Ozu’s scoring tendencies accentuate the normative, comforting effects of his stories – we all struggle to make it through work and relationships, but these are mercurial trifles, cohesion and ultimate peace will prevail – but anyone who has chanced upon a newspaper since the time of this film’s release in 1932 (even as soon afterward as, say, 1942) has noticed that Japanese and world society is hardly so pleasing and secure. Thus there is obviously something in the director’s work that he himself appears not to be accounting for, not only circumstances and realities but emotions and ironies, which are just as present in his and the film’s unconscious to a savvy or simply “future” viewer even if he cannot express them. Imagine how censors/distributors of the age would feel if he decided instead to emphasize sadness and the untrammelled social stratification and separation (probably contributing to bellicose fascism) that the finale here rather conveniently overcomes, and picture Ozu’s wallet and capacity to continue work in his field.

This experience could not have been enjoyed without the readiness to play with one’s sensory inputs and preconceptions – look at the band’s very name. The slowness of the opening scene contradicted the quickness of the playing tempo, but this could after all be a twist, a modulated form of perception of the same events that saw them as part of a continuum across time, rather than a defect. Indeed an astute viewer and seasoned Ozu attendee may soon have picked up on the much greater use of dolly shots in this work than in most of the rest of the director’s oeuvre – smooth and often rapid drifts with the boys along their dirt road to school, seamlessly intercut glides through classrooms and offices (in anticipation of Ermanno Olmi’s also brilliant Il posto) – with the help of the band’s scoring proclivities, aesthetically apposite in their own smoothly flowing rhythmic movements across cuts and scenes. Frontwoman Kazu Makino’s mostly unintelligible yet plaintive keening might, rather than talking over and against what the characters are saying onscreen, work in its cries as a dramatic choral undercurrent for their interactions and experiences, many consonantly tinged with pain, tenderness, confusion, frustration, even violence.

As if to comment directly on the artificiality of Ozu’s happy ending, the band very pointedly refused to offer positive release in their music, instead retaining the melancholy mood that aptly moans instead of smiles at the image of rich kids playing happily with poor, poor parents exalted above rich, all kids satisfied with their own, presumably forever after. This is a new and darker way to watch Ozu, but it works for anyone who secretly cannot believe in his storytelling constraints and/or wishfulness, however much one might enjoy them “straight.” This should be an opportunity to recognize the superior openness of silent film to alternative readings – nothing about the film as finished product has changed, yet everything about it has because of a distinctive choice in scoring. No movie-palace owner in the 1930s would have preferred a musical tone for an outwardly optimistic family movie that audiences might have found sad or upsetting and ironic – even if studios left the performance of accompaniment unprescribed – but for this special performance in a modern context with a one-time crowd guaranteed in advance it became uniquely possible.

The group after all was not blind to the developments and pivots in the movie, in any case; gradually one noticed songs would peak or conclude at significant moments and conflicts or important scene changes. Fights between the boys, the intervention(s) of the father, the humiliation of him during the home-movie screening at the boss’ house, the boys’ decision to eat the rice balls, and many other decisive shifts in the story were all enhanced by the band’s choices of mood and transition, established plainly with care, not the indifference that their playing format seemed to suggest. The constancy of their groove created the appearance that the film had no importance simply because most accompanists feel the need to hew so closely – often cloyingly – to the image, whereas this level of separation generated a fresh polyrhythmic quality between the film and the music, itself a frictive electricity that powered a distinct experience in welcome ways at opportune moments.

Of course I have to allow for the possibility that the same reasons mentioned above which I might have had to dislike the evening dialectically (die-a-leg-tically?) made it especially better for me than most others in attendance. Forced immobility and pain when used to strenuous physical activity, and the feeling that I was the only one in my immediate vicinity interested at all in the screen, led to a reemergent deep sense of self-pity and despair, dark but warm and bittersweet emotions that meshed with the tone of the music and much of the malaise in the picture. The strongest and most gratifying tears I ever cried poured out several few years prior during a screening of Chaplin’s The Kid when I was in a similar state following an awful, hopeless union negotiation at my then-workplace; acute suffering makes a viewer much more sensitive, maybe too much so, as if everything were a reflection or extension of the downcast self alone. But I was not thinking about my foot at all, even if it was on my mind – I was thinking about how brilliantly observed and honest Ozu’s characters and situations were, and how unjust or misunderstanding their treatment of each other was. Blonde Redhead got it too.

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