Music and movies: two of my favorite things, together. We took in four films at CIMMFest on April 14. It made for a stimulating birthday afternoon of filmgoing at the Logan Theater with Karolyn.
"The Coconut" (Nimisha Mukerji, 2011)
This 10-minute short opens on a home movie: it's 1991, and an exuberant little girl boogies while her delighted musician dad plays guitar and sings for her. Flash forward 20 years and Shani Banerjee is a struggling young singer following her dream but torn by thoughts of pleasing her disapproving grandparents, who came to the US from India in the early 60s. She's torn between cultures as well. We see her caring for her wheelchair-bound mother, who has MS. You get a lot of life, a lot of hopes and dreams, in just these few minutes. It's a reminder of how powerful "reality" could be, had it not been so completely degraded. Ms. Banerjee was at the screening.
"Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story" (Troy D’Annunzio, 2012)
The Grande Ballroom was ground zero for Detroit's very particular grassroots take on rock & roll and radical politics in the late 60s and early 70s, its own version of communal high energy, which I got a feel for from real-time reports in my cherished old back issues of Creem. As a moment that was pretty much gone by the time I was born, the scene documented in this film lives for me more in my imagination than anywhere else. I first heard the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" in 1987 on an alternative rock radio show. I can remember my friend and me air-banding to it: we thought it was a new release. In that way, Detroit in the 60s lives for me not as nostalgia but as moment that every rock & roll fan shares: that moment when we glimpsed the transcendence that would forever be our benchmark for the life force.
Born in 1971, I was raised in the bucolic suburbs of Athens, Ohio, in a time and place about as far from rough, working-class Detroit in the terminal years of Vietnam and civil rights as possible (as the film opens, the city is in flames). Still, my mom is from Detroit. No, she wasn't hanging out at the Grande: in her late 20s by then, she was a nurse in Vietnam, but the footage of ordinary people on the street gave me a sense of her hometown.
In general, though, this film is far too much telling and far too little showing. Too many interviews, shot in an unimaginative talking-head style (though occasionally projecting them on the proscenium arch of today's Grande--abandoned and in ruins--is a nice touch), not enough actual footage. And while they talk to some of the right people (John Sinclair, Wayne Kramer), I would even quarrel with some of the talking heads. It's all very well to talk to Harvey Ovshinsky from the Fifth Estate, but why not talk to someone from Creem? Dave Marsh would've been a better interview than some of those featured here. Plus, the wall-to-wall Detroit high-energy music is used mainly as background. Still, there are some great stills--I love the colorful bass-drum art of the times, seen here on the kits of Keith Moon and Nick Mason--and it's fascinating to see how bands that would go on to become distant stadium stars in the 70s (Pink Floyd, the Who) were as accesible as the neighborhood bands when they played the Grande. In short, this is worth seeing if you're interested in this era, and the glimpses it does give of the Grande experience are exhilarating enough to have me grinning from ear to ear, but I was hoping for more of a window into this world. Instead, I'm still awaiting that (eternally rumored) MC5 documentary.
"Spend It All" (Les Blank, 1971) and "Dry Wood" (Les Blank, 1973)
Fishing, horse racing, zydeco, dancing, children, food and drink: here's Les Blank's record of life in rural Louisiana in the early 70s, which is to say these films are celebrations of music and food. "Spend It All" is about the white community (the Cajuns), "Dry Wood" about the black (the Creoles).
The Cajuns lived pretty much isolated from mainstream America for most of American history. At the outset of "Spend It All," titles tell us they welcomed "runaway slaves and pirates". Crawfish, crab, chunky trout: fishermen pull it all out of the bayou. We go to picnics where the men play zydeco and people dance. Butchering a hog is a gory communal event where they use "everything but the squeal".
"Dry Wood" opens on the colorful, surreal costumes of Mardi Gras. There's a great scene at a dance with a joyous zydeco band: the singer wears a shiny gold vest, little boys huddle from an impassive little girl with all the cooty-fearing they can muster. The sausage-making scene is unforgettable. It's fascinating to see how the white and black communities share so much culture. And yet, as a portrait of a community under the yoke of racism, there is a dark undertone to "Dry Wood" that I did not feel in "Spend It All".
I was struck by Blank's eye: he often shoots so we can see the whole person in the frame, but then he can zoom in and capture a telling detail: a foot tapping, something in the natural landscape like white blooms high in a tree. These films remind us of one of the essential qualities of film: its ability to record reality. They're full of great music. As a look at the rhythms of community life, you could put them on the shelf next to "The Tree of the Wooden Clogs".
Les Blank himself, one of our great documentarians, was in the house for a Q&A after the films. The man who once shot Werner Herzog eating his own shoe, in person.
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Watching these four films back to back, it made me thing about what a great and strange country this is, to be able to encompass it all. America as battlefield. America as home.