27 May 2018

Bantu Native

Growing up in the patrician township of Wyckoff, New Jersey in the 60s, I had the coolest bike, by far.

I just didn't KNOW it was the coolest.  Not all the time.  

My dad had bought the bike from the want ads, finding it at a cheap price at the house of some Wyckoffian across town somewhere.  

The bike was small and green.  We, my dad and I, added a cool red banana seat (the latest thing) and stingray handle bars.   Now it was the coolest bike, for sure. 

There was one glaring oddity about it, something that, in retrospect, I should have been way proud of.  I was KINDA proud, but also very self-conscious about my bike's red rubber tires.  My dad, as it turned out, had bought some kind of weird-sized European bike or something, and the only kind of tires you could get for it were, yes, red!  

So, I rode around the tree-lined streets of Wyckoff with a combination of pride in the uniqueness of my bike, but ready to cave instantly in self-conscious self-pity if anyone dared to COMMENT on them.  To make fun of them.  

In the mean time, I loved that bike.  I loved skidding around on it, doing (mildly) daredevil stunts on it.  

I invented one stunt that I especially liked.  It required a grassy hill, preferably a wet one.   So it was great to do if it had just rained or if the grassy hill in question had just been watered, say, by the automatic sprinklers.

I'd stop at the top of the hill to get ready, to steel myself for my little adventure.  

Then I'd zoom down the slippery wet slope, and at the bottom simultaneously turn the handle bars in one direction and jam on the brakes!  The little green bike with the red banana seat would stop, that is the front (red) tire stopped, but the whole rest of the bike, with me on it, slewed around in a delicious arc, slipping on the wet grass!  

I liked this move so much that not only did I share it with my brother, Roger, and our mutual friend, Chris, but I gave it a name.

(I had a short history of giving things wacky but to me perfectly appropriate names.  A throwing knife I had I named Corpuscle because I thought that that was the full version of the shortened word "corpse."  A stuffed lamb I carried at quite an advanced age became Kindling, a word that seemed cute to me, and which was somehow related to childhood, as in Kindergarten. . .)

My daredevil wet grass bike skid I called a Bantu Native.

I had no clear idea what a Bantu was, except that they came, I thought, from Africa.  But no matter.  The term had exactly the right dash and wildness.  

Fast forward fifty years.

A few weeks ago I got online the results of my dna analysis from Ancestry.com.

Back in January I had diligently spit in a small plastic tube and mailed the kit back to Ancestry.

Part of what you get back--and the first thing most people focus on--is a neat breakdown of the strains of your ethnicity based on your particular dna mixture.  They give you percentages, so you can say I am such-and-so percent this and such-and-so percent that.  

Having done some genealogy work over the years, I was pretty clear that a majority of my ancestry came, at least at one time, from Latvia and northwest Russia.  So I wasn't surprised when my Ancestry dna sample confirmed this.   The online figures told me I was 79% Eastern European and 12% from Finland and Northwest Russia.  

Those were the majority figures, with fractions of this and that from here and there in Europe: 2% from Ireland/Scotland/Wales, with Western Europe contributing 2% as well.

But further down the page was the inexplicable figure that astonished me, the figure that is not shared by any of my close dna matches, even when they share my Eastern European and Russian blood.  There in black-and-white from the laboratories at Ancestry.com was the confirmation of my 11-year old New Jersey upbringing, the figure that makes absolutely no sense and which thrills my heart.  There it is:

2%  Africa Southeastern Bantu.

22 July 2017

Baby Driver: Sound and Silence

The second time I saw Edgar Wright’s wonderfully fun, fast, iconic take on the heist film genre, I noticed how surprisingly much of BABY DRIVER does not have music under it.   Several pivotal scenes, notably some flirty business between young getaway car driver Baby (Ansel Elgort)  and Debora (Lily James), the impossibly cute and charming waitress in Bo’s Diner (where, we learn, Baby’s mother worked while struggling to be a singer), play without backing by the songs that ingeniously drive so much of the rest of the film.   Instead of music, those diner scenes give us the adoring visuals of young love: huge closeups of the would-be lovers’ faces.  

The thing is, after seeing this glorious mix of music and movement the first time, you’d swear that one well-chosen musical number after another played continuously throughout it.  I was tempted to write, after one viewing, that the film is essentially a 113-minute music video.  Indeed, that catches a slice of the spirit of BABY DRIVER, which saw an early version of its life in a 2003 music video of British band Mint Royale’s “Blue Song.”  In that video, played mostly for laughs, we see a distinctly British getaway car driver jiving to his song, his car idling, waiting in a parking garage while his passengers are off making hay.  The unseen heist is timed to the song, and the driver enjoys clacking the windshield wipers and the sun visor to the beat while he’s waiting.  At one point an overhead pigeon flings a slimy one on the car’s hood.  Or bonnet. Sorry, mates.

The main idea of this very simply-photographed video is beautifully recast into the opening sequence of BABY DRIVER.  An across-the-street shot of a classic Atlanta bank building is eclipsed by red bumper and fender and big black wheel of a Subaru rolling in to block it. A hand holds an iPod up against the car’s steering wheel, thumb hits PLAY.  Pairs of percussive chords play as we see each of the car’s occupants.  A young man in sunglasses and white Apple earbuds sits in the driver’s seat, while three passengers, all in black, all in shades, wait their cue.  On the young driver’s signal the robbers open doors and hit the street. . .and Baby, the driver, continues listening—and variously jiving to—his music.  The music is loud over the soundtrack, and it is driven, rhythmic, chaotic, at times funny.   The tune Baby has chosen is “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.  

We are hearing it loud because Baby is hearing it loud.  He drums on the steering wheel and on the car door, plays sweeping air violin, clacks windshield wipers and at one moment perfectly lip-syncs to the singer’s mock-announcer tones: “Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen!  Right now I got to tell you about. . .the Fabulous. . .most groovy. . .Bellbottoms!” We see as he sees scenes of gunfire and mayhem through the bank windows across the street.   The music cranks up as the action cranks up.  The three, hauling weapons and huge duffel bags, explode from the building, cross the street and into the car as Baby revs it into tire-squealing action with a growing phalanx of cop cars never far behind.

What follows is one of the film’s justly-praised driving scenes, this one just preceding the opening credits sequence.  It all unrolls to the continued assault of “Bellbottoms,” which has now amped up to become high-octane sonic frenzied craziness.  Much has been made of the film’s thrilling, palpable stunt driving, done with real cars on real streets and highways.  There is not a speck of computer fakery to be seen, we are told.

So, in that first scene we have the model for much of the film:  Baby’s music, heard in headphones or over the car radio, becomes the soundtrack to some pretty terrific driving and action as the gang flees the scene(s) of the crime(s).  Sometimes it feels more choreographed, sometimes less:  in a few scenes the gunfire erupts in rhythm to the music.  Some writers have even called this movie a musical.  

Watching the film a second time boosted my appreciation for Edgar Wright’s discrimination and restraint in how he does use music, however.   In that very first robbery/getaway scene the timing of action to music is a bit looser, played down compared to some later scenes. It is not like the characters’ footfalls as they cross the street sync to the music. Not yet. But the cutting of shots and most of the action does.  If this quality of very tightly matching specific actions to music locked the whole film, if it looked the same throughout, it would become annoying quite quickly, it seems to me.  And so, Wright structures the scenes to the music, but in different ways and to different degrees as the film’s action develops.

And of course many types of music are used to paint different moods, sometimes undercutting the action, sometimes pumping it up.  An ill-fated visit to an arms dealer unfolds to “Tequila.”  One of the heists devolves to a footrace to the weird manic yodeling and screaming guitars of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus (1971).  At a significant moment, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas sing that there is “Nowhere to run, baby, nowhere to hide," perfectly synced to the passing white lines on a nighttime highway. One of the planning meetings sees Doc (Kevin Spacey) explaining the next job while Baby is playing prodigious air piano to Dave Brubeck.  After the car-crushing scene (more on this later), when Baby is feeling the call of freedom from this life of crime and driving, he luxuriates, right there in the junkyard, to the Commodores singing “Easy.”  His “killer track,” the one he can always come back to:  Queen’s “Brighton Rock.” There is 60s soul and r&b, alternative rock, some familiar tunes, some unfamiliar ones, different cuts of some.  The soundtrack adroitly uses some 30+ songs in all. Deep analysis of the use of music in BABY DRIVER is a ripe subject.

If this use of music was just a mechanical exercise, however, the film might be fun, but would forever be filed under “music video.”  

But it is much more than that.

We start to feel a little depth when we hear the reason Baby is so often plugged into his headphones.  He needs to listen to music, we are told, to drown out the tinnitus he was cursed with after a childhood car accident. (“He has a hum in the drum,” abbreviates Doc, the criminal mastermind behind each heist.) Ah, that might explain the driving habit as well.  When we further learn that his mother and father were killed in that accident things get a little deeper.  Add to it that his mother was a singer who worked at times at Bo’s Diner where he hangs out and meets waitress Debora, and a few more threads fall into place.

BABY DRIVER is archetypal and iconic, following the plot and even the look of many heist films.  It will remind you of a bunch of different movies at different times.  It is a movie that is proud of its forebears, and one that honors them in its story, its characters and its look.  I kept thinking of RONIN, John Frankenheimer’s glorious 1998 crime adventure, featuring practical, on-the-street driving sequences even more impressive than those in BABY DRIVER.

(And I loved Wright’s nod to the film’s worthy grandsire, another coming-of-age-in-crime film laced with terrific music. Baby eventually gets a pizza delivery job. The outfit he drives for: Goodfellas Pizza.) 

So, you could say that there is nothing new here. But what’s new is the style, with most scenes looking and feeling and sounding as they do because we are getting them through Baby’s consciousness and through his music.

At its heart, BABY DRIVER is a coming-of-age-in-a-life-of-crime story, and it knows it.  The hard men and woman that he drives to the next job look, act, think, talk, and dress differently than Baby.  If they ever were angels, they now are distinctly fallen angels.  Baby has yet to fall, and this movie is the story of his heading, perhaps reluctantly, in that direction.  His foster father, Joe, knows it only too well, and after seeing Baby stash some more loot underneath the floorboards, tells him “You don’t belong in that world.”  The line comes back again, near the end of the film, when, after one irrevocable act, Baby says to Debora, “You don’t belong in this world.”

It was a pleasure to see a film with such a tightly-wound screenplay in terms of plot and the intricate way music drives it.  The dialogue is delightfully sharp, clever, and expressive of character.  It crackles with bad guy talk.

Early on after the first bank job, the crew meets for payment and for planning.  Griff, played by Jon Bernthal, is extra-curious about this odd duck, Baby, who clearly doesn’t fit.  He states the film’s major plot movement in a couple of lines:  “You can’t be in crime without being a little criminal,”  and, later, a prediction: “One of these days, Baby, you’re gonna get blood on your hands.”

Some of the better lines are spoken by Jamie Foxx as Bats, whose craziness keeps the rest of the crew on edge.  When they are still sniping suspiciously at Baby and someone asks if he has “mental problems,” Bats makes it clear, “I’m the one got mental problems in the crew.  Position taken.”  Bats states his philosophy with a warning in the car while holding a gun on Baby: “In this business, the moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.”

Kevin Spacey as Doc, the brains of the outfit who plans and explains each heist, gets his share of good lines, too.  His dialogue, spoken always calmly and without attitude, often harshly underlines his control over the group, and especially of Baby.  After one botched job, Doc and Baby talk in the parking garage.  Baby has finally paid off his many years’ debt to Doc, and feels he is free of the whole business now.  As an unsubtle hint of how connected he still is, Doc gestures over to a nearby car.  “You need to sunset that ride.”  In the car’s trunk we see the bloody corpse of one of the crew from the recent job that nearly went wrong.   But there is a disconnect in our minds:  this guy, JD, was not killed during the job.  Without Doc saying it, the pieces fall into place:  he himself killed JD, for leaving his shotgun behind at the crime scene.  The next scene depicts what it means to “sunset that ride”:   Baby watches the car, JD’s final resting place, being crushed into a cube at the scrapyard.  That simple line, “you need to sunset that ride,”  was not a request but an order, reminding Baby who he still works for, with the dead man in the trunk graphically demonstrating the results of running afoul of Doc.

In case we’re not clear on it, Doc has a little discussion with Baby when he asks him to come back for another job.  They talk outside the fancy restaurant where Baby has taken Debora with his first paycheck from Goodfellas Pizza.  Baby does not want to do the job, but Doc has other plans.  He delivers this line to Baby in an offhanded manner, not even looking at him, never raising his voice: “Now I don’t think I need give you the speech about what happens when you say no, how I could break your legs and kill everyone you love, because you already know that, don’t you?”  Just a simple question, simply stated.  The epitome of Doc. And it is chilling.  He goes on, “So what’s it gonna be:  behind the wheel or in a wheelchair?”

There is a lovely little bit early on, where a simple exchange between Bats and Doc shows exactly who these characters are and how they each feel about Baby:

Bats: Well, ain’t ya’ll cute?
Doc: (proudly, paternalistically):  That’s my Baby!
Bats: Fuck your Baby!

Though BABY DRIVER is deftly laced with music, each scene orchestrated around a song or songs, its very structure hangs on its silences, too.  In fact, the film often counterpoints images or plot elements of sound and silence, of hearing vs. deafness.  There is Baby’s tinnitus, which in a way drives the whole film.   His foster father, Joe, is deaf, communicating with Baby by sign. But Joe shatters stereotypes of deafness by being one of the sharpest characters in the film.  He understands Baby as no one else does: with perfect clarity.  In a touching scene where Baby drops Joe off at an Assisted Living facility for his own protection, Baby speaks a message into a voice recorder for his caregivers, telling them who he is and lovingly voicing a list of things he likes, including peanut butter spread all the way to the edges.  Sound and silence.  At a couple of moments, once from a gun fired right next to his head, Baby temporarily loses his hearing, and the soundtrack becomes a world of muffled sound.  Baby is riding in a car with Debora, but can barely hear, until he puts his hand on the car speaker.  Then, loud and beautifully, he hears the song that’s playing:  it is his mother’s rendition of “Easy,” the song that for Baby means freedom.

BABY DRIVER is a film about the many ways we use music sometimes to fill, sometimes to enhance, our silences.

21 February 2016

Opera: Black Caesar

"I will now turn aside and see this great sight. . ."

For Moses it was the Burning Bush. For me earlier tonight, it was the Esquire Theatre's midnight showing of BLACK CAESAR, an amazing, brutal, and yes, operatic Blaxploitation film starring Fred Williamson.

The film, from 1973, is a straight-up gangster film played out with black characters. It depicts the rise to power of the 1950s shoeshine boy, Tommy Gibbs (Williamson), who finally becomes the big boss up in Harlem. Astonishingly, it prefigures Denzel Washington in AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), the lineaments of the plot being similar. Some scenes  echo The Godfather, which came out the previous year. But even more I found myself thinking of the classic gangster pictures of the 1930s. I later read that, indeed, the film is a remake of 1931's LITTLE CAESAR. Oooooh, of course!

The film is awash with extremely red blood, full of violence and brutality, often with pumped-up racial stereotypes and liberal use of the now-proscribed 'n'-word. Irony and raw emotionalism team together to deliver punches that are normally the soup of grand opera. Witness the scene where Tommy, now the fabulously wealthy mob boss, drives his estranged father out to the skeleton wreck of the tenement in which Tommy lived as a boy with his mother, while the father was absent. In a tense scene played out there, Tommy holds a gun on the old man while the two trade barbs about the tragedy that was Tommy's childhood.


But most impressive is the film's setup and the climax that follows from it. At the beginning, Tommy is ostensibly making his living as a shoeshine boy on the streets of Harlem. We see that even at that young age he is assisting the local mob and corrupt cops. When he goes to deliver a cash payment to the worst of these white racist cops, the cop, McKinney, beats him senseless with his billy club, breaking Tommy's leg in the process.

After much mayhem and Tommy's rise to Black Godfather status, he finally gives the bad cop his comeuppance. In a gloriously over-the-top scene, he thrashes the cop with his old shoeshine box, then brutally blacks the cop's face with shoe polish, making him sing "Mammy. . .Alabammy!" while he clubs him to death with said shoeshine box!  

Now THAT'S opera!  

19 February 2013

"Once Upon a Time in the South"

 Quentin Tarantino's outrageous, audacious slave narrative, "Django Unchained," does not at any point tread lightly.  It stomps, it romps, it blusters, it brutalizes unblushingly; it is raucous, irreverent, low, hilarious; it lies, it steals, it cheats, it manipulates; it swaggers before your eyes for 2 hours and 45 minutes, and, finally, it explodes.

It does not tip-toe or pussyfoot through the minefield of early 21st century racial politics.  It throws a bomb in and comes striding through the wreckage. 

The film has sparked controversy from both sides and from the middle and from all other quarters.  Intelligent people pour vitriol on it and on Tarantino for being racist, here, for instance.  Filmmaker Spike Lee very publicly and very loudly declared, "I can't speak on it 'cause I'm not gonna see it," continuing, "All I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors."  And you don't have to look far to find huge praise of the film, from American and foreign critics, and from the film's own stars.  Then there's wildman auteur Tarantino's own words about his work, best featured in a series of interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Root.

This constellation of controversy must be euphonious music to Mr. Tarantino's ears.  The man lives on controversy.

I'm not going to review the film aside from saying that I loved it.  You can find any number of excellent reviews of it at Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.   

Django Unchained uses the style and the tropes of classic spaghetti Westerns to tell a story about slavery in the American south.  From the credits onward it looks and feels like a Sergio Leone Western, but in terms of story, it is distinctly a Southern. Tarantino has taken all of the stories and images about slavery, from Uncle Tom's Cabin and slave narratives all the way up to Roots and beyond and thrown them all into the big double-boiler of his brain and come out with this wild and oddly satisfying epic revenge fantasyDjango Unchained is to this horrific and despicable episode of American history what  Inglourious Basterds was to The Holocaust.

There is certainly much historical untruth in the film.  But it should be clear that the film is not about the historical truth of slavery, but about what we've said and thought about slavery over the years, how we've mythologized itDjango Unchained views slavery not through the history books or passed-down family stories, but by reading Uncle Tom's Cabin in a funhouse mirror.

Tarantino gives us a huge hint what he is doing right at the beginning of the film.  We see a bleak sphaghetti-Western landscape.  As the credits unfold, we focus on a line of shackled slaves trudging through that bleakness.  A huge yellow title comes on the screen: "1858."  A beat later it is followed by another: "Two Years Before the Civil War."

Hah!  I laughed out loud when I saw this.  (I have to admit I was the only one in the sizable audience who did.) 

I have read at least one critic who decried this "mistake."  This critic clearly missed the point, Quentin's big signpost right at the film's opening, saying, "Hey, people, this story is not set in the real world!!"

That's what we have here.  If you read the excellent interviews with the director in The Root, you know that nothing in this film is an accident. Every scene, every image, every character was deliberately thought-out and considered and re-thought.  So, people, that bizarrely anachronistic title right at the beginning is saying in big letters "I am an unreliable narrator!" and "We are entering a strange world now, not our own!"

It is, very simply, the beginning of a fairy tale.  Such stories from all around the world traditionally begin with a line that is meant to transport the reader into a realm other than the everyday.  These vary from funny to nonsensical to enchanting.  Just a few:

Estonian: "Behind seven lands and seas there lived a. . ."

Russian: "In some kingdom, in some land. . ."

Hungarian: "Once there was, where there wasn't, there was a..."

Afrikaans:  "One day, a long time ago. . ."

More recently:  "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . ."

Mostly, this has come down to us through the work of the Brothers Grimm as "Once upon a time. . ."  

What Tarantino gives us at the opening of his latest film is nothing less than "Once upon a time, somewhere in the South..."