Taking some time off to reset and refresh. Will be back in a few weeks.
Author: Chris Kriofske
Salem in Springtime
October may be an ideal time to visit Salem, Mass., but only if you adore navigating your way through the massive throng of tourists descending upon “Witch City” in the weeks leading up to Halloween. Myself, I prefer this town (less than 20 miles north of Boston) just about any other time of year (that’s not bone-chillingly cold outside.)
One Memorial Day in the mid-00’s, I took the commuter rail from North Station to Salem primarily to visit the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). This newer wing above was completed a few years before.
However, PEM dates back much further. This 19th Century structure houses a Maritime Art exhibition, one of my favorite sections of the museum mostly because where else are you going find so much of this stuff?
After PEM, I walked a few blocks over to the long and narrow Derby Wharf.
Although a modest square tower lighthouse sits at the end of the wharf, its chief attraction is the Friendship of Salem.
It may be a 1996-built replica of a 1797 vessel (one can view a model of the original at PEM), but it’s still a beautiful ship.
As one walks along Derby Wharf, signs of Salem’s industrial past and present are apparent.
This coal-powered station would be demolished and replaced by a new natural gas-fired one a decade after this was taken. Perhaps the small but colorful sailboat perched in front of it here was a premonition of sorts.
In addition to all of its witch-related culture, Salem has its share of historic buildings, like the 1815-built Custom House, located across the street from Derby Wharf.
Also spotted from Derby Wharf: while not as old, the pink house above is just as interesting a structure to me.
I could post a separate essay entirely devoted to Salem signage. For now, I give you the Russian Aid Society which I can’t find much about online. Salemites, does it still exist?
I know this business still exists–it might be the city’s most infamous and posted-on-social-media landmark, even if a “bunghole” is, according to Wikipedia, “a hole bored in a liquid-tight barrel to remove contents” and “not to be confused with Bumhole.” Still funny if you know the Beavis and Butthead reference, obv.
Closer to the center of town, the Pequot House is, alas, another recreation, built in 1930 to represent life in the Colonial era. It no longer seems to be open to the public.
So, if you do go to Salem in October, plan ahead and take the commuter rail but remember that spring is just as nice of a time to visit (and far less hectic to boot.)
Mix: Let’s Break Out The Lancers!
When I was young, my parents weren’t particularly fancy in regard to what they drank (at least before I got them into vodka martinis in my mid-late 20s.) After work, my dad often enjoyed a bottle of Michelob poured into the tall, narrow glass while on holidays and other special occasions, my mom favored an inexpensive table wine—most often, Lancers Rosé, a Portuguese variety which came in an opaque, slightly chunky, burgundy-colored bottle. I recall this as a ubiquitous presence in our house up through the ‘90s when I was considered old enough to imbibe along with my folks. Still, given its classic design, Lancers felt more like a 1970s remnant; I suspect it accompanied many a fondue pot or a helping of Steak Diane sautéed in an electric skillet.
This mix could provide the soundtrack for a Lancers-soaked dinner party my parents or their friends might’ve thrown in the years immediately before my birth. Roughly spanning 1967 to 1973, it conjures a comfortably bourgeoisie, non-rock (or at least soft rock) vibe—unhip, if you’re less charitable, if not positively square. Without fully lapsing into Muzak territory, some of these smooth sounds are directly from my parents’ record collection of the time: Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66 (crafting a magic carpet ride out of a Simon and Garfunkel folk-rock standard), The Fifth Dimension (somewhat forgotten gem “Last Night I Didn’t Get To Sleep At All”) and of course Burt Bacharach, both as a solo artist (“Pacific Coast Highway”) and on tunes written with Hal David and made famous by Dusty Springfield (“The Look of Love”), Herb Alpert (“This Guy’s In Love With You”) and Dionne Warwick (“Amanda” from The Love Machine soundtrack is a bit of a deep cut but its arrangement is Burt at his baroque best.)
Other selections I remember hearing on the radio (in particular, Milwaukee’s still-on-the-air WMYX-FM), albeit a decade or so after their heyday include Mason Williams’ groovy symphonic rock instrumental “Classical Gas”; Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” (the classiest singer-songwriter crossover hit this side of vocal-soundalike Carole King); “We’ve Only Just Begun”, arguably The Carpenters’ best, most melodically complex single (written by 1970s mascot Paul Williams); The Spinners’ syncopated-yet-still-like-buttah “I’ll Be Around”.
The title references a lyric in Peggy Lee’s novelty hit “Is That All There Is” which I do not recall hearing in my youth; other selections fit the overall vibe but were likely too quirky (Julie London’s unlikely Ohio Express cover, Minnie Riperton’s psychedelic folk hymn), obscure (Harry Nilsson pre-“Everybody’s Talkin’”, Laura Nyro’s original version of an eventual hit for The Fifth Dimension) or ephemeral (Lalo Schifrin’s soundtrack music) to encounter in the wild back then. By the mid-70s, sophistication of this sort was quickly becoming passe in pop music—Barry White’s breakthrough single “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” is the pivot, anticipating disco excess but not above lacing its seven-minute-long seduction suite with flutes and harpsichord. It’s placed near the end of this mix, late in the evening after the Lancers ran out with a mysterious glass bowl of all the guests’ keyrings perhaps surfacing (though not at one of my parents’ gatherings as far as I know.)
Haunted Jukebox Mix #4: Let’s Break Out The Lancers!
IFFBoston 2023: 3 Narratives
Reviews for the three narrative features I saw at IFFBoston 2023. Go here for reviews of the three documentaries I saw there.
Two young Berliners, Leon (Thomas Schubert), a writer struggling to finish his novel and his friend Felix (Langston Uibel), a photographer, take a trip to a cabin in the woods near the Baltic Sea owned by Felix’s mother. Upon arrival, they discover the cabin’s already been rented to Nadja (Paula Beer), whom they first hear having loud sex in the other bedroom with Devid (Enno Trebs), a hunky lifeguard. As they all get to know each other, Leon’s the only one of the four not having much fun. Easily irritated and often unable to see what’s going on (even when—especially when it’s apparent to everyone else including the viewer), he’s fixated on his book. Meanwhile, persistent wildfires threaten to spread closer to their neck of the woods.
Purportedly the second film in a loose trilogy from writer/director Christian Petzold beginning with 2020’s Undine, this seemingly has little in common with it apart from casting some of the same actors (most notably Beer.) Obviously, this is a “fire” film whereas Undine was a “water” film; however, while the earlier film had some humor threaded throughout its sci-fi/magical realism frame, this one might be Petzold’s most explicitly comedic effort to date. Schubert’s Leon is a bumbling, near-exasperating protagonist, but still a protagonist because he ultimately has a good heart (even if his self-sabotaging behavior often obscures this nature.) His chemistry with Beer is palpable as well, even when it feels like they’re sparring partners. Actually, the whole ensemble is strong, with Uibel and Trebs evolving from second chorus members to the leads in their own story. Matthias Brandt rounds out the cast late in the film as Leon’s older, long-suffering (in multiple senses of the word) editor.
Apart from some ambiguous roughhousing between Leon and Felix, Afire starts off unassumingly, slowly building its relationships and character arcs as the wildfires remain a background threat heard about but only seen via glowing, burnished, distant skies. Like those fires, it’s a slow burn until, all at once, it encompasses everything in its path with dire consequences for some and narrow escapes for others. It’s reminiscent of a Gary Shteyngart novel in that it’s expertly constructed, caustically funny and in the end, tinged with tragedy and the possibility of transformation. Petzold’s built up a noteworthy filmography since 2012’s Barbara and Undine is a dazzling addition to it.
THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS
Pietro and Bruno befriend each other as boys in an isolated region of the Italian Alps. For Pietro and his family, it’s a rustic summer vacation spot, a getaway from Turin; for Bruno, it’s the only home he knows. The boys become close but when Pietro’s family attempts (and fails) to provide Bruno with loftier opportunities, they grow apart. Years later, as adults, they meet again following a death, reconnecting over the construction of a home in the mountains. Over time though, it’s increasingly apparent that the two men are on alternate paths. Their class differences and contrasting approaches to overcoming them inevitably leads towards fractures in their relationship.
This Cannes Jury Prize winner, adapted from a novel and co-directed by the filmmaker of The Broken Circle Breakdown benefits greatly from its natural settings, breathtaking cinematography, evocative sound design and as the adult Pietro, Martin Eden star Luca Marinelli (unrecognizable until he shaves off his beard.) Strip all of this away, however, and you’re left with a standard coming-of-age parable. As the adult Bruno, Alessandro Borghi’s performance is far less dynamic than Marinelli’s and the many bluesy rock songs on its soundtrack by Daniel Norgren blur together before long. Still, some of its set pieces are inspired—the nail-biting mountain hike with the boys and Pietro’s father, the change-of-pace Nepal sequences, the sinister splendor of the Alps in the dead of winter. The Eight Mountains is ostensibly about a friendship but its gradually slanted focus on Pietro’s trajectory rather than Bruno’s is what resonates in the end.
Paul Schrader has long established a reputation for going there, which is a major component of his sensibility and thus his peculiar appeal. Consequently, his movies work best when centered on a performance that understands how nutso the material is and can bring it across convincingly anyway (definitely Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, not so much Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper.) As impassioned horticulturist Narval Roth, Australian actor Joel Edgerton is a strong choice because he’s so adept at disappearing into a part. As he did in Loving, he convincingly adopts a specific physical appearance and voice (a plebeian, nearly Noo Yawk accent) that immediately defines his character which makes the eventual reveals about him all the more potent and shocking.
Still, Master Gardener can be more than a little silly and calculated. For a while, after the big reveal occurs, there is a jolt in that it could go in a number of directions. The one it chooses is a redemption-for-an-abhorrent-past narrative, which has been done to death although Edgerton’s commitment to the story and the part does some heavy lifting. Quintessa Swindell is adequate as his young mentee, but as her great-aunt and his employer, Sigourney Weaver is something else: a prickly, wealthy matron out of a classic Hollywood picture that might come off as a caricature without Weaver’s authoritative take on and comfort with the role. Ultimately, it’s her and Edgerton’s presence and ease with being a little nuts keeping Schrader afoot on the tightrope he’s walking (if barely.)
IFFBoston 2023: 3 Documentaries
I saw three documentaries and three narrative features at the 20th(!) Independent Film Festival Boston; here are reviews of the former; check back here in one week for the latter.
LOVE TO LOVE YOU, DONNA SUMMER
She’s rightly remembered as “The Queen of Disco” but even that royal moniker only hints at Donna Summer’s talent and star-power. Blessed with a stellar voice and physical beauty to match, one could assume her success as a singer was also a case of “right time, right place”, adapting to and then defining a dominant musical genre of her era. This documentary, co-directed by her daughter Brooklyn Sudano celebrates Summer but also works diligently to present her as the multifaceted person she was. Most recall her as the woman who orgiastically moaned “Love to Love You Baby” and belted “Last Dance”, but she was also an innovative artist whose contributions to her hit singles and elaborate concept albums far exceeded that primary impression—cue the footage of her vocally coming up with the mechanical electronic rhythm that would define her seminal synth-pop opus “I Feel Love” or the many transformative live performances which she often approached with the meticulousness of a serious actor.
Constructing the film with an extensive assortment of archival footage (both visual and aural), first-time filmmaker Sudano runs the risk of incoherence; at times, the final product does feel a little scattered, stuffing so much content into a feature-length frame. I suspect her co-director, Roger Ross Williams (an Academy Award winner for Life, Animated) provides crucial support in shaping it into a mostly satisfying trajectory. One of their most distinct and effective decisions is to relegate all modern-day interviews to audio only (similar to the recent docuseries 1971: The Year that Music Changed Everything) which keeps the focus laser-sharp on Summer and also preserves the audience firmly in her own time frame (she passed away from lung cancer in 2012.) The only real glimpses of the present are shots of Sudano sifting through all of her mother’s artifacts—less an indulgence than a loose framing device expressing her personal connection to the material.
In the Q&A after this screening, Sudano mentioned that she didn’t want to make a puff piece or a Behind The Music-style overview; the film certainly doesn’t shy away from darker moments of Summer’s life, nor does it gloss over such controversies as her becoming a born-again Christian at the dawn of the 1980s. Also addressed is the backlash she received from the gay community over homophobic song lyrics that spiraled into rumors distressing not only her fanbase but also herself. But that self was alternately (and often simultaneously) a glitzy, commandeering diva, a campy goofball, a devoted but visibly exhausted mother, an introspective wanderer. Similarly, this ambitious, near-exhaustive portrait is a love letter, a critical assessment, a fanciful but also far-reaching collage. Like its subject, it leaves a mark. (Premieres on HBO May 20.)
Best friends Silva and Estefania (nicknamed “Beba”) are two teenagers in Laredo, Texas. They engage in typical activities for their age: hanging out at the convenience store parking lot, sneaking past the gates of vacant or abandoned homes, sitting at the Rio Grande peering across the border to Mexico. Beba, an aspiring musician, is an illegal immigrant, so the view is bittersweet; if she and Silva were to cross the border it would jeopardize her attempts at getting her work papers. The girls’ pro-abortion activism is also poignant once their personal experience regarding it comes into view.
Co-directed by its subjects, Hummingbirds is purposely casual—lackadaisical, even. Sections of it nearly resemble a video diary, yet the subjects rarely break the fourth wall so it’s closer to cinema verité, albeit a self-reflexive take on that non-narrative subgenre. It took me some time to process how substantial this approach actually was (I wasn’t surprised at this screening when two boomers sitting in front of me walked out early on), but I think I get it—anyone can turn a camera on themselves (now more than ever) and call it “art”, but this approach allows one to observe and absorb specifics of community, camaraderie and causes where the personal and political are deeply linked without getting spoon-fed their implications. With considerable candor and charm (and some open-endedness), Silva and Beba could make a sequel in a few years, potentially turning this into their own take on Michael Apted’s Up series if they so desire.
THE ORDER OF THINGS
Watch repair requires a steady hand and infinitesimal patience; this documentary exudes the latter in spades and also requires it from the viewer. Alexandru, a 90-year-old Romanian clock maker, recalls his time as a political prisoner in forced labor camps of that country’s Soviet and Communist regimes. Scenes of him speaking openly about his harrowing past alternate with nearly meditative footage of him at work, a survivor whose old age is positively bucolic compared to what came before. This mostly plays out in lengthy still shots meant to emphasize a sense of place and the value of time being deeply considered rather than glossed over. It’s a beautiful, admirable documentary, but also a challenging one that I had difficulty fully connecting with. It aims for a sense of the sublime but sometimes (such as when it aspires to Jeanne Dielman-like rigidity), it comes off as pretentious.
Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia
Peggy’s Cove is a small community 43 kilometers (26 miles) south of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I was there on a bright, clear and crisp Saturday morning in October 2018.
Lobstering seems to be one of the chief industries there (next to tourism.)
You have to walk a bit from the municipal parking lot to reach the coast.
It’s well worth the walk (and the drive.)
The community sits on the eastern shore of St. Margaret’s Bay.
Many travel here to see the lighthouse, along with these expansive, scenic views.
In the years since my visit, a 1,300-square-meter accessible viewing platform has been installed, although apparently people are still allowed to walk across the rocks. If I ever return, I kind of hope to see this accordion player perched right up against the lighthouse again.
Another great edge of the world. To quote Kate Bush, “We stand in The Atlantic, We become panoramic.”
Favorite Debut Albums
Debut albums come in all flavors. Some barely hint at the artistry to come; others are solid first salvos only to be eclipsed by stronger and/or further refined efforts. Below, I’ve chosen perhaps that rarest breed: the fully-formed release that kicked off careers both fleeting and venerable and were also arguably never topped by anything else the artist would make. To be eligible, they must have recorded at least more than one follow-up. Here are ten favorites in chronological order:
Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968)
Probably this list’s most contentious choice given I’m Your Man (1988), the first Cohen I ever heard (and loved) is its equal and fully holds up despite radically different and deliberately dinky period production. Alas, this debut plays more like a greatest hits compilation than the one he’d release seven years later: credit the three songs later brilliantly used in McCabe & Ms. Miller, but there’s also “Suzanne”, “Master Song”, “So Long Marianne”, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”—even Lenny’s off-key bleating at the end of “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” still charms me.
Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983)
Maybe the most obvious choice here but this is a textbook example of a debut so definitive, so iconic that Gordon Gano and co. arguably haven’t tried to top it. I don’t know how many officially released singles there were from this, but at least five of its ten tracks are undeniable standards (“Blister In the Sun”, “Kiss Off”, “Add It Up”, “Prove My Love”, “Gone Daddy Gone”) and most nonfans would likely struggle to name more than two or three songs from the rest of their catalog.
Deee-Lite, World Clique (1990)
“Groove Is In The Heart” remains one of a handful of songs I wholly fell in love with on first listen and it’s aged beautifully compared to most hits of its era. To a lesser extent, one could say the same of its parent album. Whether skewed towards Italo-house (“Good Beat”, “Power of Love”) retro-funk (“Who Was That?”, “Try Me On, I’m Very You”) or electro-pop (“What Is Love”, “E.S.P.”), World Clique is exuberant party music with substance that also doesn’t take itself too seriously (unlike their next two albums.)
Liz Phair, Exile In Guyville (1993)
An eighteen-track manifesto seemingly untouched by the outside world, it’s a pure distillation of Phair’s raw talent. Few first albums have expressed such palpable perspective, much less a feminine one so unapologetically, frankly sexual and forthcoming. It either came out at exactly the right time or it ended up shaping the times even if it didn’t trouble the monoculture much. When Phair did exactly that on Whip-Smart (1994) and the much-maligned Liz Phair (2003), the effect wasn’t as novel or powerful.
Soul Coughing, Ruby Vroom (1994)
A truly strange band that could’ve only ended up on a major label at the height of alt-rock, Soul Coughing’s mélange of beat poetry-derived vocals, jazz rhythm section and sample-heavy soundscapes was both instantly recognizable and really like nothing else. So inspired was their debut that it gave off the impression they could be the 90s answer to Talking Heads. Instead, they ran out of gas after three increasingly conventional albums, suggesting such a notion was too good to be true even if for a brief shining moment it might have been.
Eric Matthews, It’s Heavy In Here (1995)
Whereas most 90s singer-songwriters took inspiration from John Lennon or Neil Young, breathy-voiced Matthews learned his stuff from Burt Bacharach and The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, crafting intricate, opaque chamber-pop miniatures with guitars as prominent as the trumpet solos, cathedral organ, string quartets, etc. Call it an anachronism, but perhaps Matthews was (however unwittingly) playing the long game as, nearly thirty years on, this debut sounds as out-of-time as it ever did and also as fresh, brimming with little details and nuances ripe for discovery.
Morcheeba, Who Can You Trust? (1996)
The breaking point where “trip-hop” was not yet a genre to emulate but more of a happy accident, a sound stumbled upon when a DJ, a blues guitarist and a one-of-a-kind vocalist with a sweet but alluringly hazy tone all came together and their seemingly disparate contributions somehow gelled like smoothed-out alchemy. From the catchy, loping “Trigger Hippie” to the somber, hypnotic title track, it’s overall more of a sustained groove than a collection of discernible songs—a potency that they only intermittently recaptured when they later mostly eschewed grooves for songs.
The Avalanches, Since I Left You (2000)
Speaking of DJs and sampling, it took nearly sixteen years for this Australian collective to record a second album and a relatively scant four more years to release a third; whenever I listen to the first one, I can fathom why—a triumph of plunderphonics and fin de siècle attitude of “here’s where we’ve been, and here’s what’s next”, Since I Left You remains a singular point continually reverberating and a miracle of reappropriation so far-reaching it feels impossible to improve on—I don’t listen to it as much, but it’s still my favorite album of the 00’s.
Nellie McKay, Get Away From Me (2004)
This “delightful nutcase” (as a friend once correctly described her) released a debut so audacious, precocious, declarative and altogether stunning that I suspected it would be her Bottle Rocket or Reservoir Dogs (a great first effort in a career full of ‘em); unfortunately it ended up more of a Donnie Darko—one great glimpse of promise, followed by weird left turns and outright disappointments to the point where she’s settled for interpreting other people’s work, which she’s often gifted at doing. But I remember how much potential she once had.
Florence + The Machine, Lungs (2009)
Talk about the voice of a generation—Florence Welch, then in her early twenties made that very rare accomplishment of coming off as a *star* from the get-go with excellent tunes (“Dog Days Are Over”, “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”) and an arresting, bold sound entirely worthy of and complimentary to that voice. Welch remains the most promising heir apparent to succeeding Kate Bush at the High Alter of Eccentric Female Divas, even if none of her subsequent work startles or transcends like Lungs (although 2015’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful comes close.)
24 Frames: What Time Is It There?
Once streaming video overtook physical media as the primary way to watch movies at home (or (god forbid) on your smartphone), it was no longer unreasonable to think that everything could be available at the touch of a button whether via paid subscription services like Netflix and The Criterion Channel, free-with-ads platforms such as Tubi or FreeVee or not-entirely-legal uploads to YouTube, Vimeo and a horde of other websites. While finally sounding the death knell for movie rental and retail stores, streaming didn’t entirely solve that availability problem. Sure, one no longer had to rely on whether your local Blockbuster had a DVD (or if you’re of a certain age, a VHS tape) of a particular title in stock but easy access is not the same as having access to everything. Twenty-odd years ago, I kept a mental running list of movies to see that either weren’t ever released on home video, out of print, unavailable in the US (i.e. on a format other than NTSC such as PAL) or extremely difficult to find, hoping they would become available to rent and/or buy one day. Off the top of my head, it included John Cassavetes’ final feature Love Streams, Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s House (and the rest of the Koker Trilogy) and most of Theo Angelopoulos’ work prior to 1989’s Landscapes In The Mist; I still recall the glee and satisfaction with which I purchased my newly-released Criterion Blu-ray of Love Streams in 2014.
A little accessibility breeds expectations for its continuation and advancement. We’ve progressed from an age where you couldn’t own any movies to one where you could rent and/or buy some of them to another teeming with available content. This ability to watch an increasing number of titles whenever you wanted threw into relief the relatively minor amount that you couldn’t. If I could see movie A for free, why not movie B? If I had to pay to see movie B, why wasn’t movie C available at all, even for a price? No matter how far we’ve come in the rough half-century since the invention of the VCR, we are nowhere near this idea of utopian unlimited access even if what we do have presents enough content and choices that most viewers could never possibly run out of stuff to watch.
The casual viewer, on the other hand, may take for granted the current streaming unavailability of titles from Academy Award Best Picture winners (Rebecca) to cult films (Gummo, the original Dawn of the Dead) and even beloved box office hits (Cocoon, for christ’s sake!) In this project, I’ve already tackled titles that I had to access via my own DVD copy (All That Jazz) or on YouTube (To Live). As for What Time Is It There? (2001) by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, I’m thankful I held on to the DVD I purchased at a video store’s going-out-of-business sale fifteen years ago since, in addition to currently being unstreamable, the DVD is also long out of print (a better-than-acceptable used copy sells for at least $50 on Amazon), never released on Blu-ray and not uploaded to YouTube (unlike Head or the original version of The Heartbreak Kid, both of which I’ve recently watched on the platform.)
Tsai’s feature debut Rebels Of The Neon God arrived in 1992 but I’d not heard of him (not even in film school) until a decade later. In anticipation of What Time Is It There?, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, then under the expertise of programmer Bo Smith, ran a retrospective of his work. Not knowing too much about Tsai apart from rave reviews of the new film, I chose to start at the beginning. Rebels Of The Neon God concerns a young Taipei man (Lee Kang-sheng, who serves as the protagonist/muse in nearly all the director’s work) who falls in with two juvenile delinquents—a setup straight out of early Godard or a contemporary like Gregg Araki. Unlike those two auteurs, Tsai is far less interested in narrative than texture and atmosphere. Actually, this first feature has relatively more plot than most of his subsequent efforts, although specific themes and motifs one would see throughout his oeuvre are already in place: urban life, loneliness, food, sex and, perhaps more so than any other auteur, water in all of its forms (and sounds.)
I detected similarity but also a great advance between Rebels Of The Neon God and What Time Is It There? and viewed his other three features to date within the next few months: Vive L’Amour (1994), an advance over its predecessor while further eschewing such elements as “plot” or having a score, even; The River (1997) of which What Time Is It There? might be loosely interpreted as a sequel; and The Hole (1998), something of an outlier in that it interrupts Tsai’s usual urban ennui with the occasional colorful and deliberately campy (and overtly lip-synched) musical number. I’ve revisited most of these in the past few years (save The River, also unstreamable/out of print) and can detect a developmental through line of Tsai becoming progressively more minimal and sparser (save the occasional musical, like 2005’s The Wayward Cloud) with each film.
As a caveat, Tsai’s movies are not for everyone. I once likened his unique and deliberate approach to that of silent-era slapstick only slooooowed all the way down as much as possible before turning into complete stasis or a freeze-frame. While one of the chief devotees of what could be called “slow” cinema (along with Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr), things do happen in his films, often recognizable activities that we partake of offscreen: eating, sleeping, fucking, selling wares, watching movies, sitting in a public space, etc. And yet, most other filmmakers do not give these ordinary actions such raptly held attention or focus. Stray Dogs (2013), for instance contains an infamous shot of one of its characters in close-up meticulously eating a chicken dinner for what seems like infinity—an extreme example in Tsai’s filmography for sure, but not an atypical one (especially in his later work.)
Revisiting What Time Is It There? for the first time in nearly two decades, even I took some time to fully adjust to its unusual rhythms. It begins with a seemingly endless single shot of Lee’s aged father (Miao Tien) in his apartment. He slowly sits down at a kitchen table, lights a cigarette, stands up, calls out “Kang!”, sits back down, gets up again and walks down a hallway to a laundry room at the far rear of the frame. As usual with Tsai, the camera remains entirely static. It feels almost as unassuming as a Warhol screen test or a piece of stock footage nearly resembling Ed Wood’s silent B-reel of Bela Lugosi leaving his house that was inserted into Plan 9 From Outer Space to make good on the notion that the now-deceased actor “starred” in the film.
In the next scene, Lee rides in the backseat of a car with a veiled object sitting upright in his lap. He says, “Dad, we’re going through the tunnel; you have to follow us, okay?”, although we see no other passengers. Those familiar with Buddhist customs will recognize the object as his father’s urn and the other things he’s holding onto as traditional implements of bereavement. For those who are not (like me), the following scene at a mausoleum clarifies his dad’s death. From that moment, What Time Is It There? establishes itself as a film partially about grief and the different ways its characters process it. Lee’s mother expresses it forthright: per her faith, she fervently believes her husband will return in another form such as one of her pet fish housed in aquarium that Tsai often places towards the front of the frame. She’s increasingly superstitious about his return, laying out food at the dinner table for him to consume and later obsessively covering up all the windows and cutting the electricity because “he prefers the dark” (even though, as her son argues with her, the fish will die in their tank without power.)
Lee’s approach to mourning is more difficult to parse. The persona Tsai crafts for him throughout the director’s oeuvre is that of a stone-faced onlooker, like a more passive Buster Keaton (perhaps without the acrobatic comic timing.) Initially, his grief doesn’t seem outwardly apparent at all except through quirky acts of behavior such as repeatedly urinating into a plastic bag or a water bottle in his bedroom rather than using the bathroom (no concrete reason is given for this as far as I can determine.) He makes his living selling wristwatches, often standing on the street with a giant open suitcase of his merchandise, repeatedly and almost robotically banging a single watch against the metal railing behind him to draw attention. After much haggling with a young woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) over his personal wristwatch (which belonged to his father), he agrees to sell her it after she discloses she’s about to take a trip to Paris.
From there, the film alternates scenes of Lee in Taipei with those of Chen in Paris with the watch serving as a psychic connection between the two. Lee seems to believe his father’s spirit partially remains within the watch and obsesses over it and the country Chen has taken it to. He calls Information to ask the film’s titular question (re: Paris) and buys and repeatedly views a bootleg copy of The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s landmark 1959 French New Wave film. Meanwhile, Chen wanders around Paris alone, an outsider in a land where she doesn’t speak the language. At one point, Tsai frames her on a busy moving walkway as the only figure standing still. Later, at a cemetery, she sits down a bench next to a middle-aged man who happens to be Jean Pierre-Leaud (the child star of The 400 Blows), though this fact is lost on her.
Time itself becomes a motif. In addition to Lee’s profession as a street watch salesperson and the brick-and-mortar clock store that employs him, various timepieces appear throughout the film. In one sequence, he steals a clock right off the wall of a cinema’s hallway, placing it on the seat next to him inside a theater (what the stocky, bespectacled young man silently pursuing Lee does with that clock after he steals it from him leads to one of the film’s funniest sight gags.) In another scene, he sits in what appears to be a mall at a fountain which contains a giant water wheel forever unhurriedly revolving like a clock. Later, he ends up in some sort of room (maybe a security booth?) with a menagerie of clocks both analog and digital and later still, on the balcony of a tall building manually trying to adjust (with long tongs) the hands of the clock below him on its façade.
Tsai often sidesteps Taipei’s more traditional, tourism-friendly urban landscapes for liminal spaces such as that security booth packed with clocks or the backseat of a parked, possibly abandoned car. Chen’s Parisian vacation is full of these as well: endless subway corridors and platforms, a phonebooth where with futility she attempts a conversation as a man in the adjacent booth keeps yelling obscenities into his receiver, a miniscule, red-tiled bathroom where she vomits up her dinner. Tsai renders worlds as they are (unglamorous, run-down, often grime-encased) but does so within artful, meticulously composed frames. His lengthy, static shots begin to feel like living paintings—for those receptive to such stillness, it can be like sitting on a bench or standing next to a wall, simply observing life play out before one’s own eyes no matter how little (or how much) action occurs.
Combined with a heightened sound design which doesn’t have a musical score but emphasizes such ambience as traffic noise and trickling water, What Time Is It There? invites one to extensively take in an environment rather than lose oneself in a story—which is not to say it’s all just visual and aural wallpaper. The film slowly reaches its climax as all three of its principal characters engage in some sort of sexual activity. Chen attempts a one-night stand with a female traveler from Hong Kong who walked in on her vomiting in the red-tiled bathroom; Lee fucks a female prostitute who stumbles by him as he’s camped out in the abandoned car drinking wine and eating some sort of meat on a stick; Lee’s mother, meanwhile, puts on a fancy dress at home and, for lack of a better term, “gets intimate” with the urn full of her husband’s ashes.
None of these encounters have a particularly happy ending (so to speak.) Chen fails to find much of a connection with the Hong Kong woman and leaves the hotel disappointed. The prostitute absconds with Lee’s suitcase of wristwatches, sneaking away before he awakens. When he arrives home, Lee finds his mother in bed holding the urn, unresponsive. She’s obscured by camera to a degree where it’s indeterminable whether she’s dead or just sleeping—Lee just silently climbs into the bed, embraces her and that’s the last we see of either of them. However, the film concludes in Paris. As Chen falls asleep on a lounge chair in a park next to a lagoon, a familiar suitcase last seen escaping an abandoned vehicle floats by her only to be retrieved from the water with an umbrella handle held by a man whom the camera gradually pans up to reveal as Lee’s father. He walks away from the lagoon with the suitcase in hand; standing and facing the camera, Tsai reveals a giant Ferris wheel behind him: it’s another clock-like figure, perhaps the grandest one so far. Lee’s dad turns around and walks beatifically in its direction. The screen turns to black with the director’s dedication, “To my father and Lee Kang-sheng’s father.”
This is a film not just concerned with time as a concept but also as an experience and how it is fleeting and, for us as individuals, finite. Tidy as its recurring, symmetrical imagery is, its rigor, combined with its minimalist, understated, almost meditative demeanor renders What Time Is It There? one of Tsai’s most accomplished, satisfying and original works. So, twenty years on, why is it difficult to see? One can currently stream his follow-up (and arguably far more challenging) feature Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), along with later efforts such as Stray Dogs and Days (2020). Quality and critical acclaim, however, are rarely decisive factors in regard to availability. Both the theatrical and home video distributors for What Time Is It There? are long defunct and have been acquired by other corporations. It’s unclear who currently holds the rights to the film which is most likely the reason why one can’t stream, rent or even buy it for a reasonable price. Perhaps in another year or five, a reputable distributor such as Criterion will acquire them (as they did with Love Streams) and audiences will rediscover the film. It happened to What Happened Was… (1994), a long-lost indie hit of its time that received a theatrical re-release a few years ago and eventually made its way to streaming platforms despite never having been released on DVD. For now, What Time Is It There? remains but one of many currently “lost” titles that we can only hope will find a new audience when it can be easily seen again.
Essay #14 of 24 Frames.
Go back to #13: The Royal Tenenbaums.
Mix: An Emm Gryner Primer
Celebrating her latest album Business and Pleasure (which comes out this week), here’s a CD-length playlist of some of my favorite songs from Canadian singer-songwriter Emm Gryner. Despite the easy rhyme afforded by her last name, it is very much a primer—proceeding chronologically, it kicks off with two tracks from Public (1998), her third album and major label debut on Mercury Records. Had they appeared two or three years earlier, perhaps “Summerlong” or “Hello Aquarius” might’ve become modern rock radio staples; however, by then, female artists were struggling to get airplay in that format. With that in mind and Universal Music’s acquisition of Mercury, Gryner was dropped from the label shortly after Public came out.
In the 20-odd years since, she has put out 20-odd albums and EPs via her own label, Dead Daisy Records (not to mention a stint in David Bowie’s touring band.) One-third of my selections overlap with her best-of compilation from 2012, including “Summerlong” and the regal, soaring “Almighty Love”, a track a figure no less titanic than Bono cited in a magazine article as a song he wished he had written. I’m surprised there wasn’t more crossover between the two track listings since one of Gryner’s greatest strengths is a knack for glorious, anthemic pop. “Symphonic”, “Young As The Night”, “Black-Eyed Blue Sky”, “Ciao Monday” (the last one’s from 2011’s Northern Gospel)—all of them are alternate world number one singles lifted by ringing guitars, effervescent melodies and Gryner’s endearingly bright and deeply emotive voice.
She’s such a talented, underheard songwriter that I was only going to include her own compositions, but it wouldn’t be fully representative to not highlight her interpretative skills. I first heard of her via Girl Versions (2001) a set of stripped-down covers of songs originally popularized by men including her radical reworking of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” (which at the time received ample airplay on WERS, a college radio station in Boston.) Later, she recorded Songs of Love and Death (2005), another covers collection, this time of Irish artists in tribute to her paternal heritage (her mother’s family is Filipino)—likely what tipped Bono off to her. It’s represented here by a gorgeous version of “Forget Georgia” originally by late 80s/early 90s Dublin outfit Something Happens. There’s also She’s Gone, a 2012 EP of Hall and Oates covers, of which the title track (a lovingly chill rendition that gets bonus points for not changing the lyrics to “He’s Gone”) is a highlight.
In recent years, she’s moved from spare balladry (“The Race”) to heavenly psych-pop (“Imagination”) to even fist-pumping EDM (how does “All The Love All The Time” only have 2K streams on Spotify?) Appearing after an extended hiatus, “Valencia”, the lead single from Business and Pleasure makes good on Gryner’s aim to craft a yacht-rock record complete with a Doobie Brothers bounce and horns sympathetic to those on Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”. Fortunately, it’s not a simulation or a pastiche, just a sincere, finely honed tune brimming with personality and hooks for days like any other track on this playlist.
Haunted Jukebox Mix #3: An Emm Gryner Primer
Marmo Overpass to Constitution Beach
Before I explored Orient Heights’ business district, I checked out Constitution Beach.
Getting there required crossing the Blue Line MBTA tracks via this suitably blue-lined overpass.
Walking up the overpass, I felt as if I was on a footbridge rollercoaster.
According to this, the overpass was opened and named for Anthony and Dee Dee Marmo in September 2001 (no conspiracy theories, please!)
One but can’t help but notice its electric blue curves.
And on the other side of Marmo Overpass, it’s the beach!
It was pretty deserted on an unseasonably chilly Friday in early May.
Although I would’ve liked to have seen more activity, I have to admit I appreciated the solitude.
At the beach’s south end sits a residential neighborhood that juts out east towards the coastal suburb of Winthrop.
I must have arrived at or near low tide.
According to a municipal sign (not pictured), the beach is officially open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, so I was only weeks away from enjoying a hot dog from Selma’s Kitchen or a cup of Richie’s Italian Ice.
Looking south towards Porrazzo Skating Rink and beyond that, the familiar sight of Logan Airport Tower. In my last post, I mentioned I haven’t had a reason to return to Orient Heights (I live on practically the opposite end of Boston), but if I ever find myself out that way again, I’ll revisit Constitution Beach (that is, if it’s not too cold and windy.)