“There’s been no real music since World War II!” said one of my obnoxious relatives once, perfectly demonstrating that side of the family’s habitual combination of ignorance and ersatz certainty. Still, nostalgia for the music of one’s youth is always understandable, whether born of sentimental attachment or the simple fact that back then you actually paid attention to new sounds. Two just-reissued documentaries, both now available for streaming through CinemaSF’s virtual cinema program, provide fond flashbacks to rich eras in their respective moments genres of country music and reggae.
The 1976 Heartworn Highways, which was not originally released until 1981 (and then barely), provides a snapshot of the “outlaw country” movement then beginning to make itself heard. At that point talents like David Allan Coe, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Young, and a teenaged Steve Earle (just briefly glimpsed here) were too hippie-ish in personal style and too idiosyncratic in their songwriting to be fully accepted by the Nashville “establishment.” Indeed, it’s debatable they ever fully were. Though some scored hits with songs covered by mainstream stars, country music overall went in a steadily more “pop” direction that kept them critically acclaimed but commercially marginalized. Instead, they’d become forefathers of the NPR-friendly “Americana” school that many consider today’s only “real” country music.
James Szalapski’s documentary is very loose, with scant attention paid to these men’s backgrounds, careers, or how they do/don’t fit into the existing industry hierarchy. It’s so verite in its resistance to explication, you might not even realize most of what we see is indeed taking place in and around Nashville. Some of this footage was utilized in a 40-years-later sequel of sorts, Heartworn Highways Revisited, which showed that at least women had become better-represented amongst today’s coming singer-songwriters. The original film is a meandering, casual affair bound to frustrate as an introduction to some great musicians. But if you’re already a fan (or at least aware) of the primary figures here, it provides a flavorful flashback.
Menelik Shabazz’s 2011 The Story of Lover’s Rock is no doubt getting re-released because of Lovers Rock, many viewers’ favorite of the five thematically tied but otherwise separate stories told in Steve McQueen’s TV miniseries Small Axe. That episode is the least plot- or issue-driven, focusing on one night-long reggae house party in West London circa 1980. Its sometimes ecstatic emotions are almost entirely driven by the music played.
Particular attention is paid in that feature narrative to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” one of the biggest hits of the UK subgenre that emerged in the mid-1970s. Known as Lover’s Rock (or lovers rock), its tracks were more romantic and less political than much reggae then coming out of Jamaica. The documentary vividly channels that seductive groove, though you may wish for more archival footage—most of the performance clips we get here are artists seen much later at a collective reunion concert. While not a mainstream chart success at the time, the scene and its artists greatly influenced subsequent acts like UB40 and The Police, while also developing strong pockets of ongoing fandom abroad, particularly in Japan.
Other worthwhile new streaming releases are likewise documentaries, albeit of very recent vintage. They take disparate looks at art, as well as the art of living—particularly when one treats or regards life as a work of fiction.
Black Art: In the Absence of Light
The museums may be closed (again), but you can get your Black History Month fix of relevant art with this latest from veteran documentarian Sam Pollard, whose excellent MLK/FBI and Mr. Soul! were also recent releases. Here the topic is African-American visual artists primarily of the last fifty years, working in various media from oils to ceramics. The jumping-off point is “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” a trailblazing retrospective curated by recently deceased artist/art historian David C. Driskell, which began its popular and hugely influential tour of US institutions in 1976. Hitherto there had been no such major survey—and scant representation of individual African-American artists in museums or commercial galleries at all.
Pollard highlights latterday insights as well as memorable images from an older generation that was part of (or at least witnessed) that show, including Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, Richard Mayhew and Fred Wilson. Among younger artists, there’s emphasis on Radcliffe Bailey, Kara Walker, Jordan Casteel, Theaster Gates, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald—the latter two famously commissioned to do the official Portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, respectively.
The film also touches on the role of celebrity collectors, welcome recent changes in museum curation and acquisition (i.e. it’s no longer all about dead white guys), the impact of a controversial Whitney “Black Male: Black Male Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” exhibit in the mid-90s, and the ongoing importance of The Studio Museum in Harlem in nurturing talent and shaping culture. Fast-paced and engaging, Black Art is the kind of movie about art from which you emerge with a long list of artists you whose work you’ll want to see a great deal more of. It’s premiering on HBO Tues/9.
M.C. Escher: Journey To Infinity
An artist who found himself becoming extremely popular late in life, at a point when African-American ones were still struggling for any recognition at all, is late Escher. He died almost half a century ago, at age 72, but lived long enough to be thoroughly flummoxed over his embrace by “hippies,” rock stars (he sniffily turned down an album-cover commission from Mick Jagger), and merchandizers of such consumer objets as black-light posters. (Which latter seldom asked permission to use his images, then horrified him by reproducing them in psychedelic “colors so shrill they hurt your eyes.”) The trippiness such patrons found in his attempts to “express endlessness within a limited plane” baffled Escher, even if it brought wealth after a lifetime of financial struggle. He thought his ideas far less mystic than reflective of hard science, sometimes claiming “I’m not an artist, I’m a mathematician.”
Robin Lutz’s documentary is a straightforward bio-tribute largely told in the subject’s own words (from notebooks and journals), occasionally filigreed with animation of his tessellated and perspective-toying graphics. A serious man, a bit of a misfit both professionally and socially, he lived in several European nations with his mentally unstable wife and their children before WWII forced a return to his native Netherlands.
While it would have been nice to get some expert outside commentary on Escher’s place and influence within modern art, Journey does illuminate the mindset that created his own unique, mind-gaming works. But you have to get past one huge error: For reasons unknown, the filmmakers decided this near-humorless Dutchman’s written musings should be read on the soundtrack by the very British, very antic Stephen Fry. It’s a horribly hammy performance that has the effect of making it seem someone thought M.C. Escher required humorous condescension in order to be palatable to today’s viewers. I’m not a huge Escher fan, but this inexplicable choice actually left me feeling offended on his behalf. The documentary is now streaming via local platforms Roxie Virtual Cinema and Rafael@Home.
A Glitch in the Matrix
It is a common delusion, one that’s taken myriad forms over the ages, to think somehow external reality is just a show or ruse that is being put on to fool the paranoid Self by some devious controlling force. This latest documentary by Rodney Ascher, who made the fascinating Room 237 (about various conspiracy-theory-like interpretations applied by obsessives to Kubrick’s movie of The Shining), probes a particularly 21st-century version of that idea. For some, it is an interesting hypothesis. For others, from a guy who killed his parents (to determine if they were “real”) to Elon Musk (seen telling interviewers “the odds that we are living in a base reality are one in billions”), embrace of this view may be more of a genuine mental health issue.
Running throughout are excerpts from a 1977 lecture sci-fi author Philip K. Dick gave in France, where he dangled the possibility that we are “living in a computer-programmed reality,” a “counterfeit reality” manipulated by unknown, presumably more-evolved Others. This concept was introduced to a mass audience with 1999’s The Matrix, a futuristic illustration of exactly that, complete with Keanu Reeves as the hero/savior who alone can wake from force-fed delusion and save…er, humanity, or something.
This particularly vivid and flattering mall-flick version of solipsism appealed to a great many people. Even 21 years ago, most of its audience had grown up playing video games; they could readily accept the (probably-just-a) fantasy that life was just a “game” or “experiment” in which they were both protagonist and cog. But deeper ingestion of this concept might lead, and has led, to people (often stereotypical video game addicts spending endless hours online in mom & dad’s basement, isolated and antisocial) dissociating from reality to a dangerous degree: School shooters for whom violence is entertainment, the above-noted fella (a huge Matrix fan) who shot his parents to death to “prove” they and everything else were just algorithms. (Small comfort though it may be, he did realize he’d been wrong about that.)
This “simulation theory” is a scary and interesting thing, one Ascher explores via a great deal of computer animation (natch), clips from movies (and not just Matrix or Dick-derived titles), plus interviews with experts as well as the afflicted (some only seen in their preferred-avatar form). However, having grown up near the end of the pre-digital age, I found Glitch’s nearly two hours an exhausting take on something so outlandish. Admittedly, in 1976 Taxi Driver struck me as very well-made yet bizarrely inexplicable. Then, within very few years, American life became engorged with real-life Travis Bickles. Perhaps this documentary will soon seem equally, unfortunately prescient in defining the primary pathology of our immediate future. It’s now accessible for streaming via the Roxie, CinemaSF and the Rafael’s virtual cinema programs.
Film About a Father Who
Pathological in a comparatively old-fashioned way is the man at the center of Lynne Sachs’ very-long-in-the-making personal documentary. (It deploys footage shot by herself, family members, and others between 1965-2019.) She is daughter to Ira Sachs, a hotelier and entrepreneur who worked as little as was needed to maintain his extravagant, globe-trotting, pleasure-seeking lifestyle. (Ira Sachs Jr. is Lynne’s full brother, as well as the slightly-better-known director of such excellent movies as Keep the Lights On and Little Men.) Some apparently called him “the Hugh Hefner of Park City.” I doubt he protested.
While he may be elderly and perhaps a bit senile now (or perhaps he’s just using “I don’t remember” as an excuse to dodge questions), few deny that he was charismatic, fun, generous, genuine in his love for people…even if his actions often caused them grief. What he wasn’t was “the stable parent” (that was Lynne and Ira Jr.’s mother), or anyone who could be counted on, least of all to be honest. “He doesn’t lie—he just doesn’t tell you what’s going on” one daughter says here. That fibbing by omission extended to his neglecting to inform his “legitimate” children of their “hidden siblings” scattered hither and yon, some left to grow up in abject poverty while he flew with the jet-set. Even the kids he was hiding such intel from were all too aware he was constantly stringing along not just wives and mistresses, but “subsidiary girlfriends,” short-term flings, much-younger pickups, et al. His bedroom should have had a revolving door.
Compromised largely of home movies covering decades, Film About a Father Who is a semi-experimental collage documentary that asks the question “How can you love people you don’t know?” The senior Sachs is lovable, by all reports, yet refuses to be truly “known,” perhaps even to himself—evasion seems utterly core to his being. His own wealthy, long-suffering mother (from whom he kept many of his children secret) calls him a kind of psychological “cripple,” his compulsive promiscuity a sickness. He’s not exactly an above-board embodiment of “free love”: He has been deliberately deceptive, misleading women and to varying degrees skipping out on the consequences they’ve then had to live with. His filmmaker daughter doesn’t see him as a simple cad. But as intriguing as this ambivalent portrait is, the viewer may well disagree. It becomes available as part of the Roxie Virtual Cinema programming on Fri/12.