Saturday, September 29, 2007
This is a fantastic collection of music from Jean-Luc Godard's films. Where else can you get on one disk music by Martial Solal, Michel Legrand, Georges Delerue, Paul Misraki, Antoine Duhamel, Gabriel Yared, plus the great pop (and very rare) song from La Chinoise "Mao Mao" by Claude Channes? It's fascinating to hear this album all the way through. Godard hooked himself up with the great film composers of his era - and also included is a little booklet with interviews with the above composers commenting on what it was like working with Godard.
Billy Nicholls is a complete mystery to me, and somehow he made one of the best British albums in 1967. Signed to Andrew Loog Oldham's record label Immediate, Nicholls wrote some uber-fantastic psych-pop songs with the great Small Faces serving as his backup band with the additional help from John Paul Jones. Oldham produced this masterpiece in what I think maybe one of his great recordings. For sure it meets up with his Stones recordings. With respect to Nicholls, I have heard that he's a buddy of The Who, and to this day he still works for the band.
Roy Wood is a lunatic. For those who don't know, Wood was a member and main songwriter for the great British 60's band The Move, and then went on to form (and made only one album with them) Electric Light Orchestra. He left them and put together Wizzard (Phil Spector on speed), and then "Roy Wood Wizzo Band." This album reminds me of later-day Prince, if that's possible. Wood plays a zillion instruments and when you think it's going to be a regular groove thing, he throws in a sitar in the mix.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
I wrote this little essay some years ago, and to this day it means a lot to me. I want to encourage everyone reading this blog to check out the Matsuda Productions home page which is full of information (both in English and Japanese) as well as tons of fantastic images with respect to silent films and its performers. The website address is:
My refusal to go to a boring useless contemporary "western" film had led yours truly to a screening of Lon Chaney's “Phantom of the Opera” in Tokyo. As I was heading toward the theater I saw a flyer with Chaney's characterization of the Phantom on it. I couldn't read the Japanese characters, so I was contemplating if this would be the showing of the horrific 1925 classic film. The one image on the flyer that had puzzled me (beside the lettering) was a drawing of a Japanese woman with a top hat and tails on. I knew there was no such character in the film, so I was perplexed with this curious image on an advertisement with Lon Chaney.
I went to that performance with great curiosity, sensing there would be a surprise waiting for my high notion of culture. That surprise evolved into the remarkable Midori Sawato. Why is she remarkable? Because she represents the link between theater, poetry, and film.
First a little bit of history. When cinema evolved into a presentation in the late 1890's, there was a narrator that traveled with the films. The narrator usually gave a lecture about the film and described the incidents on the big screen. Audiences at first needed the narrator to tell them what was being projected. As cinema developed into a more customary art, the narrator became irrelevant, as music and title cards replaced the live performer by the movie screen. Except in Japan, where the narrator was called a benshi.
The benshi system came to life during the turn of the century, when the Lumiere and Edison films first came to Japan. The benshi existed throughout the silent era in Japan - which unlike the West lasted to the mid-thirties even though sound was easily obtainable. The benshi performer had a strong presence in the Japanese film industry.
The benshi performer was more celebrated than the movie stars themselves on the projected screen. Audiences during that period were certainly not that interested in film for itself, but seeing the benshi's presentation was the main attraction. Generally, the Japanese audience are not taken with cinema.
Class-wise films were always third on the list - behind such general public activity as Kabuki and drinking. Legitimate artistic or entertainment events were live performances -and the Japanese needed a live presence on stage if they wanted to participate in any variety of theater. Audiences would have felt cheated if there was simply a film being shown. Japanese theater has this built-in Brechtian affectation where one is always reminded that you are watching something on stage. It is amazing even now when one observes a film on Japanese TV and there is an immediate acknowledgment of the actors' role, as they first appear in the production. The benshi reconstructs this practice when they discuss the actor's background during the actual performance.
In Japanese theater there is perpetually a live narrator clarifying the action on the stage. The stark Noh theater attributes a chorus chanting the minimal story line, and the Kabuki has a similar structure. What is astonishing to the westerner is not the act of retaining a live performer with the film, but that the benshi would often add their own interpretation to what is happening on the screen.
The benshi would incorporate their own unique dialogue to the film, even changing the storyline to enhance their own definition of what is occurring on the screen. The remarkable component of this practice is that the benshi is utilizing a finished film and operating with that material as a springboard for their own story. If there is a scene in the film of a beautiful moon, the benshi may use that image to recite a poem about the lunar landscape, or some other classification to describe their center of attention besides the actual narration of the film.
Compatible to assemblage art, the benshi treats the completed film as found footage to attach their own cultural terminology to the images. The benshi is known to focus their attention on the background scenery, such as the weather, location, architecture, and clothes. In essence, they are reediting the film for the audience as they sit there. Not by cutting the actual movie, but by having their audience's watchfulness drawn away from the actual events in the film.
Being a poet and always feeling close to the cinema, this to me was the utopian meeting ground - poetry to inspire film, not the other way round! To the general public, film is usually treated on a higher ground than poetry. More people go to films than readings or buying poetry. Great poets have used cinema as a source for poetry, but never has poetry been demonstrated in such a translucent flow from screen to benshi's mouth.
This presentation of a story-teller - which in itself is an ancient Asian tradition - merging with a 20th Century art form, is intriguing in its cross-cultural interpretation; which poetically causes another translation of what is, or how we, the audience, see cinema.
The artistry of the benshi makes the emotions transparent. This spectacle is similar to an Italian opera and not knowing Italian. One wonders if it is actually crucial to comprehend the language of the opera or benshi, and to be moved by the tradition and beauty of the native speaking voice: a voice that cannot be restricted in dissimilar cultures.
Watching Phantom of the Opera with a benshi had a pronounced aftereffect on me. For the first time I had witnessed an organic relationship between live theater and film. In the past, I had seen performance artists performing live with video or film, but the results were always forced and seemed to be insincere in their undertaking. The benshi however, with its long tradition of Japanese narration, seems as simple as breathing.
The Japanese language in itself for the benshi is furthermore crucial. I was wondering if it would be as effective if it was in English. This I decided was not the principle of the performance. The issue is that the benshi, whether it is a foreign or Japanese film, is putting their own culture into the performance. They comply with the presentation on the screen, which they unmistakably bring to their own revelation and culture when interpreting of the film. The Japanese language has built-in cultural aspects that are not translatable into English.
Midori Sawato is the last professional benshi. She shares her great revolution in not only loving films, but working with them. She is like Charlie Parker, in that she abducts a melody (film) and expands the medium onto another sphere. Benshi is not officially an art form: the presentation is looked upon as outright entertainment. When I do go to a benshi performance, the surroundings reminds me of the circus. There is a side-show aesthetic connected with the medium. The subject matter is not the circus itself but the classic nature of the entertainment seems turn of the century and small-townish.
After her pre-World War Two introduction music, Midori Sawato leaps onto the stage and makes a traditional speech about the film and nature of the show. She then sits herself down by a small table with a low light on the stage left of the screen. The audience consistently sees the performer even when the film is on.
In a voice that is comparable to "exotica" singer Yma Sumac, she portrays each character with a different pronunciation. Though not understanding Japanese, the music in her voice expresses more than the feelings and humor of whatever is happening on the screen. A great benshi performer never takes away from whatever the big screen offers, but enhances the viewing of the film and fills it with textures and layers of interpretation. Though ironically enough, the benshi performance is dying, the craft itself gives film a "a living" presentation and to one who was new to this beautiful process, there was a feeling of fresh air being pumped into the hot sticky cinema house that warm spring night in Tokyo.
Many thanks for ALT X for publishing a slightly different version of this essay.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Jean Paul Yamamoto will be doing a show at The Echo.
Check out the band's music at : http://www.myspace.com/jeanpaulyamamoto
For visuals: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXfKMxu4gvU
Saturday, September 15, 2007
I wrote this little essay on one of my favorite films: Louis Feuillade's "Fantomas." The DVD came out in France as well as in the U.K. I strongly recommend that you, the dear reader, pick up a copy. It's an amazing film in so many ways. Anyway I want to thank Alt X for first publishing this essay on their website. I got a lot of feedback and coverage due to them publishing it. Thank you.
Fantomas, My Love
by Tosh Berman
The Surrealist Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel had transmitted that he to a great extent, preferred Louis Feuillade's Fantomas serial to any of the so-called avant-garde films made at the same interval during the early Twentieth Century. Bunuel perceived the serial as an art form without the useless baggage of art attached to it.
French filmmaker Alain Resnais was quoted as saying "Feuillade is my god. I had always been a fan of the Fantomas dime thriller novels, but when I finally saw the films at the Cinematheque in 1944, I learned from him how the fantastic could be more easily and effectively created in a natural exterior than in a studio. Feuillade's cinema is very close to dreams and is therefore perhaps the most realistic kind of all, paradoxical as this may sound."
This infatuation for the physical with an additional mixture of dreams illuminates the Surrealists love for Louis Feuillade and his cinematic version of Fantomas (1913-1914). Feuillade's blend of natural exteriors and interiors with the dreamlike conspiracies comprise an inner--world, where anything can happen at any place. What seems to be the axiom is usually just an illusion. Images which seem so natural are truthfully revelations that are disturbing to the subconscious.
Ever since my father's unexpected death in a car accident, non-reality and what I feel is fundamental has become an overheated tango dance. Persons who were close friends become strangers in a matter of hours. The world has changed positions by just one incident. When I saw one segment of the five-part serial, "Juve Contre Fantomas," the film had expressed my horror and fascination with images and people, and how they can mutate mysteriously into another disguise.
The fictional character of Fantomas represents the sleeping evil which rests in our subconscious, ready to strike at a moment's notice. Obviously whenever there is a misdeed somewhere on this world, Fantomas is behind the hideous crime. A majority of the public is not aware of this fact, except for the brilliant detective from the Paris police, Juve. Only he alone can stop evil, better known in his human form as Fantomas! As a master detective, Juve recognizes that Fantomas attacks from within: meaning he detects that Fantomas exists inside the subconscious -- particularly Juve's.
Here we find the eternal theme of two brilliant (and in most cases, indifferent from the rest of society) individuals fighting for the control of...actually control itself. Good and Evil sleeping together in a bed made for sexual passion and when it manifests itself into politics - the World explodes!
In the film series and books by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantomas' victims are usually people in high society. There is an undercurrent cast of political terrorism in Fantomas' methods - kidnapping, pillaging, and killing members of the upper-class. The subject of control is very strong in the series, and the question that repeatedly comes up is: who is in supremacy, Juve (good) or Fantomas (evil)?
One wonders if Feuillade's version of Fantomas is not a politically motivated. One furthermore imagines why Fantomas and his gang only rob and murder victims placed in high society. Fantomas does not seem to be a man (spirit?) involved with politics of thought, but politics of consciousness. Fantomas steals and kills - therefore he exists!
For all we know his victims may be the living dead; perhaps only the brilliance of police inspector Juve and Fantomas can endure and the flesh (which Fantomas and Juve discard like old clothes, when in disguise) is an illusion when placed in a "real" ambiance.
Feuillade played with the real and unreal in natural settings in all of his serials. The Surrealists were the first ones to notice this quality in his work, and afterward, an even stronger influence appeared in the French new-wave films by Godard, Franju, and Resnais. There is a joy of illogical happenings in his films, which only a handful of filmmakers play with. Bunuel and Godard also show us that logic becomes boring after a while.
In writing about the Fantomas texts, the magnificent poet and critic of the nineteen-teens, Guillaume Apollinaire has been quoted as saying "that extraordinary novel, full of life and imagination...from the imaginative standpoint, Fantomas is one of the richest works that exist." The wild and characteristic vision of Surrealism which is in the novel and films were highly appreciated by the artists of that time. Besides Apollinaire, there were the poets Robert Desnos, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, and Blaise Cendrars; the painters Picasso, Juan Gris, and Magritte. All of them were fans who used the resource that is Fantomas, for their own work.
Juan Gris; "Fantomas (Pipe and Newspaper) 1915. Oil on Canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
All of these artists realized the dreamlike, irrational qualities of the Fantomas (film and book) series. Not the paint-by-numbers school of art that is currently being produced in a laboratory known as a classroom, but in that mysterious interval when the conscious becomes the subconscious. As art works are being hatched in this phantom transition, so are in a sense - the crimes of Fantomas.
Magritte with his "Fantomas" painting
There is a dauntless wild abandon when entangled with crime and art. The mad impulse to move from the so-called norm into another realm - is of course, an intoxicating act of creation. In this atmosphere, Fantomas is just as creative and mad as Antonin Artaud and Marquis de Sade. Both of these artists investigated their imagination and sanity to compose a weapon with words so as to antagonize society. Fantomas is a liteary creation used for the same purpose. Intentionally, the Fantomas film and books were produced only for amusement sake, but there are unmistakably undercurrents of dread, fear, anxiety, and perverse sexuality.
In Juve Contre Fantomas there are scenes which allude to bondage and S&M. In one particular scene Juve establishes a trap for Fantomas in his apartment. To protect himself from the assassin, Juve wears a truly bizarre garment consisting of spikes around his waist and arms. He then lingers for him in his own bed.
Fantomas also has a Rasputin charm over women. In one scene he is entertaining a pair of women at a posh restaurant. He also "dominates" a young lady, who is totally devoted to him and his cause. Another female is a love slave, awaiting at a large house for her master (usually in disguise) to appear. On the other hand, Juve seems to have no time for pleasure. His only passion is to catch Fantomas...And as I mentioned earlier, perhaps Juve wants to restrain Fantomas in his own bed!
The nature or lack of character is interesting, in that the "sexual" quality of Fantomas becomes stronger owing to the scarcity of a concrete identity. He is a master of disguises because of his line of work, but one wonder if this is not tied to his sexual identity. Each character he portrays is draped in fetishism. Juve is also a master of disguises, and likewise savors the changes his body makes.
Watching the film one sees a duel to make and relinquish as many identities as possible. In the beginning montage of Juve Contre Fantomas, each character (Juve & Fantomas) displays all the disguises that they will wear in the film. By the end of the film one sees identity being adjusted as simply as changing a soiled shirt. In most modern works of art, the need of identity or conscience is a source for the "lost man or woman." One thinks of Oscar Wilde's "Portrait of Doran Gray" or Luigi Pirandello's underrated novel, "The Late Mattia Pascal" which depicts the fall of one who is seduced into the conflict of good and evil. On the other hand, Feuillade/Fantomas relishes the chance to throw conscience out the window. The film is exhilarating in its love for anarchy, bondage, perverse sexuality, political consciousness and, more importantly, aesthetic revolution. Unintentionally, (which is the main ingredient for art-making) the film and novel are an inventive terrorist attack on the fear and mores of the bourgeoisie.
During the actual filming, Feuillade never used a shooting script. Andre Bazin - the film critic and theorist - wrote that "Feuillade had no idea what would happen next, and filmed step-by-step as the morning's inspiration came." The early pioneers of cinema all worked this way; it was not till the studios insisted on ideas put on paper for financial verification that things changed. Currently, Jean Luc-Godard is perhaps the only mainstream filmmaker who does not use a script, while shooting a film.
This also suggests that early cinema-making was a Surrealist technique in making art. Along with Feuillade, one thinks of the other "native" Surrealists such as Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton. Although their works were dissimilar, they contributed a suspicion on what is real and does it matter. It was not important to them to show "logic" moving from one scene to another. The early filmmakers shared a common dream occurrence where anything was allowed.
In the conclusion of "Juve Contre Fantomas" there is the magnificent image of Fantomas, dressed fully in black with a hood over his face, raising his arms in characteristic joy as he explodes the house with what he thinks is Juve still inside the structure. This is a spectacular moment and one wonders how many in the audience are thrilled with this commitment to artistic destruction? In certainty, since this was the end of the second segment out of five in the series, it ends with a large question mark (?) on the screen. This of course may center on what will happen in the ensuing segment...or is it a straightforward question to the conscientiousness of the public out there watching the film?
Friday, September 14, 2007
Saturday, September 1, 2007
Boris Vian's "Foam of the Daze" is now back in print. While the book was gone I saw outrageous prices for used copies of this edition. But alas it is yours again!
To purchase individual copies you may do so at:
AK Distributions and Books: http://www.akpress.org/
Small Press Distributions: http://www.spdbooks.org/
Amazon will copies shortly and any bookstore can order copies through Ak distribution, Ingram, or Baker & Taylor