Best Albums of 2021, Part 3

7. José González, Local Valley

Lately, I’ve been into quieter, calmer sounds than usual; cue my age or maybe just a craving for serenity in these volatile times. González doesn’t record all that often, so his first studio album in six years is indeed a balm. He occasionally refreshes his acoustic palette, inserting a polite, thumping beat into “Swing” and veering closer than ever to jam-band territory on “Tjomme”. However, I’m still enamored with how much presence and feeling of divine inspiration he attains from the spare, guitar-and-voice settings dominating this lovely set, especially in the back-to-back awe of “The Void” and “Horizons” which glisten like mirror images of each other.

Standout track: “Visions”

6. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises

The year’s least likely event album is an instrumental suite composed by a young British electronic musician, augmented by the London Symphony Orchestra and made transcendent by 80-year-old jazz saxophonist Sanders—the first major release with his name on it in two decades. Built mostly around a recurring melodic flourish and divided into nine “movements”, it’s most powerful when heard in its 46-minute entirety. Like the two halves of In A Silent Way or four parts of A Love Supreme, play it on an endless loop and listen for new motifs and hidden treasures to reveal themselves each cycle through.

Standout track: All of them.

5. Saint Etienne, I’ve Been Trying To Tell You

Renowned for their pop acumen (any of their singles collections are wall-to-wall bops), there’s always been another side to this British trio—an experimental streak that occasionally surfaces in instrumental album tracks, B-sides and fan club releases. Their tenth studio album is the first to give itself entirely over to this side, eschewing hooks for sample-heavy tone poems built out of cuts from such fin de siècle UK artists as Samantha Mumba, Lighthouse Family and The Lightning Seeds. Although it could use more Sarah Cracknell (anything could, really), whose sighs and spoken-word interludes serve as a spectral presence, this is the most forward-looking music they’ve recorded in some time.

Standout track: “Penlop”

4. The Weather Station, Ignorance

Previously unfamiliar with Tamara Lindeman’s long-running music project, Spotify kept recommending various tracks from this, her breakthrough LP until I broke down and listened to the entire thing on a warm, early Autumn afternoon walk. While the streamer’s suggestions don’t always hit the mark, this one did, bringing to mind many female singer/songwriters I love while remaining its own thing (vocally, Lindeman’s closest to Vienna Teng, who has had little output as of late.) Ecology-minded without the preachiness (titles include “Tried To Tell You”, “Parking Lot” and “Subdivisions”), catchy without ever seeming obvious, it’s both full of simple pleasures and quietly (that word again!) revelatory.

Standout track: “Parking Lot”

Best Albums of 2021, Part 2

11. Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark

The year’s least likely reunion (more so than Kings of Convenience.) Once immortalized in a Belle and Sebastian song, this Scottish duo always sounded much older than they were (thanks to Aidan Moffat’s thick, mucky brogue); it so follows that, now middle-aged and together again after 15 years, their sly observations and spoken-word reveries snugly fit into their eclectic folk-rock like an old brown shoe, albeit one still dodging the occasional spikes of memory, aging and such newfound wonders as being moved to tears when watching The Muppet Movie with your kid.

Standout track: “Here Comes Comus!”

10. Tori Amos, Ocean To Ocean

Having recalibrated her approach a few albums back—i.e., dispensing with the hour-plus running times and overarching concepts, Amos is on a minor late-career streak like 1990s Joni Mitchell. Though her latest isn’t as incendiary or innovative as her own 90s work, it’s suffused with emotion inspired by current events (like her post-9/11 travelogue Scarlet’s Walk), only on a more intimate scale. When she strips back down to just piano and voice (“Flowers Burn To Gold”), it’s so effective and startling one regrets having ever doubting her continued relevancy.

Standout track: “Flowers Burn To Gold”

9. Lord Huron, Long Lost

The fourth album from this roots-rock quartet emanates from the speakers like an unearthed, vintage radio broadcast: brief, spoken interludes weave together country ballads (“I Lied”), rockabilly raves (“Not Dead Yet”) and Technicolor retro-pop (“Mine Forever”) full of sweeping strings, Duane Eddy-style guitar, lots of reverb and a fair amount of extra space to move around and explore within. Not all that dissimilar from the three albums preceding it, but even with its concluding 15-minute ambient drone, it feels more complete.

Standout track: “Not Dead Yet”

8. Field Music, Flat White Moon

Following last year’s Making A New World, an ambitious concept album about the after-effects of World War I that felt a little overcooked, the Brewis Brothers present its near-antithesis—song-oriented, ultra-melodic and stacked with hooks. Truthfully, it could use a few more strange detours like 2018’s Open Here (still their best) but I won’t argue with the likes of “Do Me A Favour” and “No Pressure”, the latter an irresistible, insistent single that also serves as a clever rebuke to a certain Queen/David Bowie tune (not to mention another by Billy Joel.)

Standout track: “No Pressure”

Best Albums of 2021, Part 1

15. Arlo Parks, Collapsed In Sunbeams

This 21-year-old British singer/songwriter’s debut LP is already the recipient of the kind of hype few young artists can claim, including this year’s Mercury Prize. Although far from the first to attempt an indie folk/R&B with poetry leanings (hello, Corinne Bailey Rae), her beautifully languid voice and reflective tone remain constants, complementing a dozen songs that resemble handcrafted, well-worn vignettes. Best opening couplet: “I’d lick the grief right off your lips / You do your eyes like Robert Smith.”

Standout track: “Black Dog”

14. Kings Of Convenience, Peace Or Love

A dozen years after their last album and this Norwegian duo haven’t changed one iota—thankfully so, for the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach serves them well. Whether continuing to put their singular harmonies and nylon-string guitars at the forefront or welcoming guest appearances from Feist as if it were still 2004, KON remains a timeless proposition. Not as essential as those earlier albums, mind you, but after six months of spins, almost as durable.

Standout track: “Fever”

13. Gruff Rhys, Seeking New Gods

An LP written from the point-of-view of a volcano on the China/North Korea border does not seem nearly as outlandish coming from this enduring Welsh weirdo as opposed to anyone else. The real surprise is how hooky and accessible the music is, some of Rhys’ most accomplished since his band Super Furry Animals recorded their last LP over a decade ago. On that note, leadoff track “Mausoleum of My Former Self” is the year’s most hummable song with the least likely title.

Standout track: “Mausoleum of My Former Self”

12. Lindsey Buckingham, S/T

When an artist puts out a self-titled album decades into their career, it’s usually a statement, and this might be LB’s most cohesive collection since Out of the Cradle (if not Tusk.) It kicks off with three instant classics (“I love it when you scream,” he sings on the opener), but it’s a near-perfect ten track album, folding in such unlikely flourishes as trap beats and synth-bass on some tracks and a return to his folk-rock roots on others.

Standout track: “On The Wrong Side”

24 Frames: Edward II

Moving to Boston for graduate school coincided with my coming out as gay. I didn’t plan it that way, or perhaps I did so subconsciously, seizing on a physical move to make another big change. It wasn’t an easy or swift process. Until then, I’d been deep in the closet to the point where, just a year before, I seriously considered asking out a young woman who, like me, was also pursuing a Film minor at Marquette. I never worked up the courage, although I did fall into a misguided straight relationship with someone else for a few months before facing up to my true self, breaking it off weeks before I left my hometown behind.

I expected I’d easily attain a new identity as an out gay man freshly arrived in Boston, but it didn’t happen like that. Not necessarily wanting to be defined by my sexuality, I didn’t tell anyone about it. At least I no longer tried presenting as straight or thinking it a viable option. Those first few weeks in a new city, I’d often play a private game where I’d consider all the strangers I saw in a restaurant or on the T and ask myself of each one, “Honestly, do I find this person attractive?” Every single time I spotted someone I liked, it was a guy. I could no longer deny who I was.

My classes and work-study employment provided decent excuses for not actively pursuing much of an exterior social life. I was so preoccupied with film and writing about it that I simply did not have the time to go to gay bars and clubs or check out the campus’ LGBT organization (the primary letters then considered for that since-expanding acronym), or at least that’s what I told myself. Looking back, I admit I just wasn’t ready to pursue such activities, even though I wanted to partake in them. Being over 1,000 miles away from home was enough of a tremendous adjustment to navigate.

I eventually began dating and socializing with other gay men to the point where I couldn’t imagine it not being elemental to my identity. However, that would mostly happen after completing my degree. As a Film Studies student, I explored my freshly acknowledged sexuality through films. I cannot undervalue seeing other queer people depicted onscreen in an era where Ellen DeGeneres had just come out but with few other celebs quick to follow. Even though Boston University did not offer a course specifically on queer cinema, I was exposed to the work of such directors as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman, Andy Warhol and Todd Haynes. Even more significant was Raymond Murray’s Images In The Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film On Video. Its second edition published the previous year, it proved a vital resource, cataloging the work of the filmmakers above in addition to many others. Accessing Murray’s tome was like entering another door, one leading me to artists as dissimilar as Pedro Almodovar and Terence Davies, Jean Cocteau and Piers Paolo Pasolini, Barbara Hammer and Ulrike Ottinger.

Given my age and the period, New Queer Cinema had the strongest impact on my worldview. A term coined by critic B. Ruby Rich in 1992, it encompassed recent work from gay and lesbian independent filmmakers, most of which dealt with transgressive themes and situations that offered alternatives to heterosexual culture. In other words, New Queer Cinema was proudly, unapologetically gay, fixated on such subjects as hustlers (My Own Private Idaho), AIDS (The Living End) and ballroom drag culture (Paris Is Burning). It could propose unconventional depictions of historical figures (Swoon, a take on the Leopold and Loeb murders) and serve as a medium for autobiography (essayists like Marlon Riggs and Su Friedrich.)

Murray’s book also introduced me to Derek Jarman, a British painter-turned-filmmaker whose cinema alternated between revisionist histories and experimental memoir. On a June Saturday afternoon, instead of checking out my first Pride Parade in the South End (which ended up postponed due to flooding rains), I watched Jarman’s 1987 feature The Last of England, rented from the Hollywood Express in Cambridge’s Central Square where one could get five films for five nights for ten bucks. After the closing credits rolled following a young Tilda Swinton cutting herself free from a wedding dress against the maelstrom of Diamanda Galas’ otherworldly siren song, I suspected I’d found a subject for my master’s thesis. I was just astonished by this perplexing, sensory-overload barrage of cross-cutting, dystopian landscapes, queer imagery (an early scene where a male hustler humps a Renaissance painting certainly imprinted itself on me) and the director’s own childhood home movies, all of it cohering into a savage indictment of Thatcherism, nationalism and a decaying empire.

Jarman had died from AIDS a few years before at the age of 52; The Last of England was the first film he completed after receiving his diagnosis and it’s a turning point in his oeuvre. Up until then, he oscillated between arty home movies and larger-scale features like Caravaggio and a gloss on Shakespeare’s The Tempest that ended with veteran chanteuse Elisabeth Welch serenading a chorus of sailors with the 1933 torch song “Stormy Weather”. The Last of England synthesized these motifs into something bolder, angrier, more political yet intensely personal. From there, knowing he was living on borrowed time, Jarman worked at a furious pace, completing five features in as many years comprising some of his most urgent and innovative work.

I thought of making The Last of England this essay’s focal point, but I already covered it in exhaustive detail for my master’s thesis, which considered it, along with The Garden (1990) and his final film Blue (1993) as an informal trilogy where fiction and memoir intersect, blurring the notions of one’s art and life until they appear inseparable. Rather than go back to that well, I’ll consider Edward II (1991), fittingly the second Jarman film I watched and one I have not previously written about in any great detail. If The Last of England was an introduction to an entire filmography I immediately wanted to devour, Edward II vindicated this desire with its unusual, inventive approach to literary adaptation.

One of 16th century English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s major and final works, Edward II focuses on the relationship between the titular King and his favorite nobleman, Piers Gaveston and how it led to both of their murders at the arrangement of military head Roger Mortimer. It had endured as a stage production up through the present, but Jarman was the first (and to date, only person) to attempt a feature film of it. While Marlowe’s prose subtly acknowledged the intimacy between Edward and Gaveston, Jarman’s adaptation places it at the forefront—gleefully, defiantly homoerotic, his Edward II is a story of a King (Steven Waddington) and his male lover, Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan), the threat it poses to the straight establishment headed by Mortimer (Nigel Terry) and Queen Isabella (Swinton) and the ensuing seizure of the throne by said establishment, whose murders of Edward and Gaveston are equated to hate crimes.

The notion of lending an explicitly queer slant to Marlowe’s prose is expected coming from an openly gay filmmaker/activist in 1991. From his casting of hunky actors to play his two queer leads to the inclusion of such imagery as two naked men engaged in sexual intercourse in the background of one scene for no reason germane to the plot, Jarman holds nothing back in this regard; in an era where the sight of two men lying in bed together on the TV series Thirtysomething provoked mass indignation, being so out, loud and proud felt more daring and radical than it might now.

Where Jarman goes beyond the shock of queerness is in his fearless deployment of anachronism. Present in his work all the way back to “Stormy Weather” and the contemporary dress in Caravaggio (to mirror that artist’s use of anachronism in depicting biblical figures), Jarman is not a slave to period or text. Purists and traditionists likely decried Edward II for sheathing its characters in white muscle T’s, pajamas, leather jackets and World War II-era fatigues. In one scene, Edward and Gaveston appear to be dressed for the set of Reservoir Dogs (sans sunglasses) one year early; in another, Edward and his brother Kent (Jerome Flynn) return from a game of tennis, rackets in hand, decked out in white polo shirts with matching towels around their necks.

Edward II’s production design (from longtime Jarman associate Christopher Hobbs) favors a minimalist approach: spare sets consisting of stone walls and dirt floors, its characters bathed in light and shadow. These spaces are strewn with such unexpected contemporaneous objects as a Christmas tree surrounded by presents, an electric hanging lamp, a board meeting table complete with water pitcher and drinking glasses and a battery-powered robot and portable Walkman for young Edward III (Jody Graber) to play with (not to mention a Coke can, its placement intentional unlike the Starbucks cup in Game of Thrones.) Isabella sits in bed with a cold cream mask over her face while Mortimer lies next to her, reading Unholy Babylon: The Secret History of Saddam’s War. The latter is telling, along with the proclamation Edward is coerced into signing to send Gaveston into exile: a quick shot reveals the date on it as 1991 rather than 1311.

Why would Jarman retain Marlowe’s prose and historical figures but essentially set it in the present? Granted, the uproar over Edward and Gaveston’s relationship is all too applicable for 1991. Despite some recently acquired cultural inroads, relatively little had changed since then in terms of public perception of homosexual attraction and companionship. When adapting a historical work, often the most illuminating route one can take is to explore and accentuate its relevance for modern audiences and what they can learn from it. In Edward II, Jarman spotted themes, situations and behaviors with a clear analogue to his own life and his treatment by the press as a homosexual and person with AIDS. Much of his later work is a rebuke to Thatcher and policies born out of that period like Section 28, a legislative designation prohibiting “the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities” that was in effect in the UK from 1988-2000.

Jarman’s reaction to such oppression and censorship becomes Edward II’s most memorable anachronism. After Mortimer arranges Gaveston’s murder, Edward and his cohorts clash against the nobility in the guise of a gay rights demonstration. The protestors are portrayed by actual members of OutRage!, a UK gay rights group “committed to radical, non-violent direct action and civil disobedience”, fighting for “sexual freedom, choice and self-determination” for all queer people. They are depicted standing up to a riot-gear wearing police force, chanting in solidarity and carrying a big white banner reading “Stop Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men.” It’s a relatively brief scene but a pivotal one: it bluntly but effectively drives home the close parallels drawn between the present and the past.

Such a big swing could come off as pretentious or dour. Fortunately, Jarman’s predilection towards camp leavens the film’s weightier stuff—see Gaveston and Edward celebrating their reunion by dancing a ramshackle tango or Edward III reclaiming the throne near the film’s end, tromping around to Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” on top of a giant cage holding a decomposing Mortimer and Isabella. Even darker moments, such as Isabella murdering Kent by literally biting into his neck and sucking his blood, vampire-style (Swinton’s decades-early audition for Only Lovers Left Alive?), while shocking, retain a gallows humor in their absurdity.

Occasionally, they also prove rather moving. Before Gaveston’s exile, he and Edward meet up. We hear the opening minor piano chords of Annie Lennox’s version of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”, recorded the year before for the great Cole Porter tribute/AIDS charity album Red Hot + Blue. In time, Lennox herself appears in person, off to the side, serenading the lovers. Hair close-cropped in a pixie cut almost as pale as her skin, she resembles a wraith as the couple embrace and bid each other bittersweet farewells. It’s a scene of pure fantasy but gender-bending icon Lennox’s plaintive appearance complements the song’s spare, piano-and-accordion arrangement, while the occasional tremor in her tone, along the melody and lyrics of Cole’s composition render the proceedings exceedingly poignant.

Jarman’s Edward II concludes by rewriting Marlowe’s ending: instead of death by hot poker from the executioner Lightborn (Keith Collins), whose time guarding Edward is a framing device throughout, he tosses the poker into a pool and gives Edward a tender kiss. We see both scenarios, in that order, with the second a revisionist history akin to Quentin Tarantino’s later work (albeit on a much smaller scale.) However, Edward II’s final shot is a pan across the OutRage! protestors, now silent, frozen in time as Edward’s voiceover reads Marlowe’s prose: “Come, death / and with thy fingers close my eyes / or if I live / let me forget myself.” During the film’s production, Jarman’s health was deteriorating to the point where it was uncertain whether this would be his last feature (he lived to complete two more.) As a potential goodbye to his art and his audience, it drives home the notion that Edward’s fight against homophobia and fear is as relevant and urgent as Jarman’s own and that of his friends and fellow queer people.

No matter who or what we are, we tend to look for representation in popular art, to see people onscreen who are recognizable, even similar to us, finding someone we can relate to and that the rest of the culture can also see. In this phase of my coming out (and coming of age in general), I looked to the work of queer filmmakers as a text and a guide, a way to feel less isolated or alone. Jarman, in particular, was fearless in putting and revealing himself onscreen; he also made a continual effort to show how queer people had been around for centuries, telling stories about their presence and importance, using his “cinema of small gestures” to bring these figures out of the shadows and into the light. While I took a film course the previous year called Ways of Seeing, watching Edward II (and the rest of Jarman’s filmography) for the first time felt to me like being seen.

Essay #8 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #7: Meshes of the Afternoon.

Go ahead to #9: McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Local Color 2021

A few fall foliage photos from the past few months. Some of these are already on my Instagram.

Centre Street, West Roxbury
Rose Kennedy Greenway, Boston
Jamaica Pond, Jamaica Plain

Millennium Park, West Roxbury

Russell Orchards, Ipswich
Commonwealth Mall, Boston
Somewhere within a mile or two from my home.
The view from my backyard.

1971: You’ll Never Be Free

As this current year is its semicentennial, I’d planned on crafting this playlist long before the Apple TV miniseries 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything dropped. While one could make a similar argument for any single year (indeed, I’ve read a book about 1966 and have seen others for nearly every year in-between), this series made a solid enough case, from Sly Stone to The Rolling Stones and unexpected deep dives into Gil Scott-Heron, The Staple Singers and Bill Withers, not to mention ample coverage of Tapestry, Bowie, Joni, Elton, Marvin, etc.

Even over eight hours, a few things are bound to fall through the cracks. Thus, my inclusion of lesser-revered ’71 gems such as the epic opener of Serge Gainsbourg’s masterful concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson, the climactic, penultimate track of British folkie Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, novelty hits from Redbone and James Brown and the best song from Leonard Cohen’s Songs Of Love and Hate, a proverbial “difficult third album” I’m just beginning to appreciate years after first struggling with it.

All that, plus three out of four ex-Beatles (sorry George, “Bangla Desh” isn’t up to snuff) and AM radio gold from The Fortunes (a fake Four Seasons sounding better than the real thing at this point) and the Carpenters (Karen’s slipping-into-darkness reverie was made for something like “Superstar”.) I could’ve spotlighted Al Green’s strangely jubilant “Tired of Being Alone” or Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” (from the indelible opening credits of Harold and Maude), but, even if you’ve heard it (or seen Goodfellas) a million times, Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” retains its one-of-a-kind spark: with a groove as insistent as the one in “Hot Pants”, it’s a frenzied declaration of lust/love from a madman wailing “WE CAN MAKE EACH OTHER HAPPY!!!” repeatedly into the void. I still love that this was his follow-up single to number-one ballad “Without You”.

My 1971 Spotify playlist:

24 Frames: Meshes Of The Afternoon

I didn’t need to go to grad school for Film Studies; while I hoped such an undertaking would lead to a palpable career in the same way earning a degree in Nursing or Library Sciences could, I suspected all along this was not a practical, much less lucrative path to take. Even in the video store era, I could have avoided so much student loan debt by renting five or ten tapes a week and reading all the significant film theory tomes in my spare time; I might’ve emerged with a similar comprehension of, to reference the title of one of those books by Bruce Kawin, How Movies Work.

Still, I have no regrets putting in the time and money to earn what many would deem a most frivolous degree. It not only pushed me out of my hometown and forced me to learn how to live as an independent adult, it also significantly altered my worldview. The primary advantage to any arts/humanities graduate study is curation: when inspired, professors and instructors serve as guides to which art one should consume, how one should absorb it and what one can understand from it.

My second semester at Boston University played out similarly to the first. Excluding Introduction to Video Production, an elective required of anyone not in the Film Production tier of the program, the courses I took were genre-defined: one a broad survey on world cinema called International Masterworks (a loose sequel to last semester’s American Masterworks), another on Neorealism in Film (a concept that proved to be rather openly defined by its instructor) and finally, an overview of Avant-Garde Cinema. As with Neorealism, this was also broadly demarcated, though simpler to identify by default of often being short, experimental and what 99% of the public might categorize as weird.

It should come as no surprise that Avant-Garde Cinema ended up one of the more illuminating film courses I ever took. Unlike Ways of Seeing from the previous semester, this had barely anything to do with the instructor, regrettably. An experimental filmmaker herself originally from Quebec, I never questioned her knowledge of the subject; she just had no business teaching a class. Her lectures were erratic to the point of coming off as scatterbrained which proved a death knell in providing much sense of engagement (though the undergraduate male students who regularly sat in the front rows were certainly engaged by her busty figure. Not that I myself could’ve delivered a better lecture at that point, but still.)

Happily, the films she screened for us were enough. Given that experimental film in general and shorts in particular were difficult to find in that pre-streaming, pre-YouTube era (and to a lesser extent, remain so today), the cornucopia of cinema we consumed over the semester was in retrospect astonishing—a treasure trove of rarities, obscurities and stuff you couldn’t rent from local indie-friendly chains like Videosmith and Hollywood Express, much less Blockbuster. Most of it was even projected on 16mm (and occasionally 35mm) film. We’d usually watch an average of four titles per two-hour class, two times a week.

We saw so much stuff: for starters, abstract animation from Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren (the latter’s Begone Dull Care visualizing an Oscar Peterson Trio recording with colors and kinesis), the surrealism of Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, the rapid montage cutting of Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera and the queer pop art of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger (the latter’s Scorpio Rising practically inventing the music video.) We took in both the challenging formalism of structuralist cinema (Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow) and the more accessible, if still out-there pleasures of such one-of-a-kind auteurs as Chris Marker (best known for the short La Jetee, which inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys), Bruce Baillie, George Kuchar and Guy Maddin (who attended class in-person for a screening of his film Careful!)

Wavelength

For every work I found impenetrable (Snow’s Wavelength, which slooowly zooms in on a window for 45 minutes was particularly torturous), I watched another that enjoyably blew up my preconceived notions of what cinema could be. Baillie’s All My Life, for instance, was nothing but a three-minute single shot of a fence flanked by red flowers and eventually a clear blue sky, all of it accompanied by Ella Fitzgerald’s ebullient rendition of the title song. That’s it—no cuts, narration or dialogue, just a beautiful tableau presented for what it is. Like Wavelength, it roughly fell under the banner of structuralist film but in a more contained, condensed package.

While McLaren, Anger, Marker and Maddin would become some of my favorite filmmakers, the one with the most direct impact on me at the time was Maya Deren. She only made a handful of short films between her 1943 debut, Meshes of the Afternoon and her death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1961; she remains obscure outside academic and experimental cineaste circles, although Martina Kudlacek’s 2002 documentary feature In the Mirror of Maya Deren surely expanded her reach, providing an eloquent summation of her life and career. One can now see most of her work on YouTube, although Criterion and Kanopy offer legal options to view some of it as well.

Born as Eleonora Derenkowska in Russia, 1917, she and her family emigrated to the United States at age five. After studying literature at New York University and Smith College, she spent a few years amongst the bohemian elite in Greenwich Village before moving to California where she met Czech-born photographer Alexander Hammid. They married in 1942 and moved to Laurel Canyon where, the following year, they’d co-direct and star in a silent, 14-minute, black-and-white experimental film.

Meshes of the Afternoon wasn’t anything like the massive, big budget productions incessantly churned out at various studios in adjacent Hollywood. It had no stars or dialogue. The locations used were primarily inside and around the filmmakers’ own home along with some footage at a Pacific Ocean beach. The plot, such as it was, resembled not so much a straight line with a discernible beginning and end as it did a loose thread forever unraveling and occasionally turning back in on itself. In fact, the whole thing eschewed the kind of logic one would find in a traditional narrative; instead, it played out like a dream, a visualization of themes and ideas made all the more personal by the notion that the primary figure and closest thing to an audience surrogate was Deren herself.

Although she appears in nearly every shot, for the first four minutes or so, she’s an elusive figure, offering only glimpses of parts of herself. It opens with her arm reaching down from the top center of the frame, gently laying a poppy-like flower on the ground. Subsequently, while alternating with point-of-view shots, she reveals a leg, her feet, her hand dropping a key. Her silhouette, betraying her short stature and wild mop of curly hair practically glides along other surfaces. It’s nearly as edifying as an extreme close-up of her eye but even that pales next to the moment we finally see her entire face, exposing her inquisitiveness and somewhat exotic, undeniable beauty—not a pin-up or a glamour girl one would see in a studio film but a figure that can’t help but exude charisma even though she’s not actively courting the camera’s attention. She’s the protagonist here, but this is her dream, her perception of the world, not yours.

As with multiple objects, the aforementioned key reappears throughout: Deren uses it to open a locked door, as one does with a key, but in another scene, she pulls it out of her mouth—how it ended up there is never explained. Later, the key returns but with the help of simple optical effects (the sort dating back to Georges Méliès’ groundbreaking silent cinema from four decades before), it turns into a knife before our very eyes—the same knife stuck in a loaf of bread that Deren discovered much earlier in the film.

Speaking of optical effects, there are multiple shots with multiple Derens, including one with her witnessing herself sitting in a chair and another where she steps into her home to find two more of her at a kitchen table; the clones regard her as if to say, “What are you doing here?” There’s also a sequence where Deren attempts walking up the home’s oft-seen staircase, but either she’s swerving back-and-forth like she’s drunk (or forcibly pulled against her will), the camera’s imitating someone doing the same, or both are happening simultaneously. Additionally, there’s a static shot where she quickly rematerializes in different positions along the staircase as if instantly teleporting among them.

Often in Meshes and experimental film in general, the emotion elicited by what images are placed next to each other is more important than whether they make any sense or result in some sort of resolution. The film’s most daring and perhaps startling sequence occurs about ten minutes in when Deren, suddenly wearing these funky globular goggles, knife in hand, takes a series of steps. After the first shot, we only see her foot, but in each of the following shots, it’s a jump cut to different terrain: a sandy beach, then soil, grass, pavement, and finally, a wooden floor inside the house. In five quick shots, is as if she’s traversing the world, or at least the one she has access to.

Meanwhile, another figure wearing a black cloak with a mirror-for-a-face surfaces throughout. At one point, Deren wakes up to see this figure standing over her, only for the latter to suddenly change into Hammid, her husband and co-director, who offers her the poppy from the opening shot. Eventually, Deren hits Hamid’s face with the knife, only for it to instantly turn into a mirror, now in shards scattered all over the previously seen beach. Is Hammid interchangeable with the cloaked figure, or is Deren in such an altered state that she is unable to discern between them? The ending further muddies this notion, as Hammid (face intact) comes across Deren sitting in the same chair as before, only she’s now dead, covered in shards of broken grass, seaweed (from the beach) and blood.

Meshes leaves the viewer with much to unpack and I could write a whole book about everything it contains and suggests. Instead, as with that first viewing in Avant-Garde Cinema, I’m more interested in what feelings it provokes: the mysteriousness of the house where persons and objects keep transforming or multiplying, the disquiet of having no soundtrack* to guide one’s perception, the lyricism achieved by near-constant movement (whether it’s Deren, the camera or even just the wind), the shock and terror of an act of violence.

Like Deren herself, Meshes now both seems ahead of its time (given her strong physical resemblance, it feels like a silent Kate Bush music video) and entirely out of it. There are few indicators of its era, whether purposely or not: it contains no city streets, no interiors apart from the filmmakers’ simple, mostly minimalist-designed home. It exists in a space that, while identifiable, is meant primarily to reflect the mind state of its creator. In this way, it helped to invent the psychodrama as a film genre where the creator’s psyche and/or collective unconsciousness is the key (so to speak) to understanding its themes and resolution (or lack thereof.)

It’s no wonder that the Criterion edition of Meshes begins with titles that, among other things, call Deren the “Mother of Underground Film”. One can spot Meshes’ influence on so much personal, handmade, experimental film that followed, from Anger’s focus on such obsessions as bike boys and the dark arts to Maddin’s later proclivity to name his primary characters after himself which hits a feverish peak with 2007’s “docu-fantasia” feature My Winnipeg. And while Meshes has its own antecedents such as Jean Cocteau’s Blood Of A Poet which similarly utilized its creator’s subjective point of view, it’s groundbreaking for placing the female gaze front and center—a lineage that arguably stretches through the decades to other filmmakers like Carole Schneemann and Su Friedrich or even those who took a more commercial path like Jane Campion, Lynne Ramsay or David Lynch (Laura Dern’s character in Inland Empire would likely relate to Meshes.)

All of Deren’s shorts have something to offer, even if only her second one, At Land, feels particularly close to its predecessor’s spirit. While Meshes established her as a film artist, the following years up to her early death were tumultuous. She’d soon split with Hammid, later marrying Teiji Itō (a Japanese musician 18 years her junior) and spend a fair amount of time filming Vodou rituals in Haiti for a project she never completed. Kudlacek’s documentary fleshes out such travails with great anecdotes (such as Brakhage recounting that one time she hurled a refrigerator across a room, possibly under a Vodou spell) and, in lieu of any surviving filmed footage of her with sound, plenty of archival audio recordings where her speaking voice resembles Lucille Ball’s, of all people.

Meshes and the Avant-Garde Cinema course were talismans I’d never think to seek out on my own at that age. For a while, whenever asked if I’d use my graduate degree to actually make my own films, I’d respond that if I were to do that, they’d be experimental shorts like the work of Anger or Deren. I never actually made my own films, feeling content enough just to watch and write about thousands of titles from every genre, era and country I’d encounter over the next few decades. In time, I even secured employment tangentially related to my field of study. Still, it was the thrill of discovery, of opening those new doors that encouraged me to pursue Film Studies in the first place. Meshes and other strange, obscure shorts like it vindicated that leap of faith I took in making film central in my life.

*That first screening of Meshes in class actually had a soundtrack composed by Itō more than 15 years after its initial release. Additionally, one can see (illegal) uploads of the film on YouTube with different soundtracks composed over the years. However, it is productive if not entirely decisive to see Meshes silent (as it is of this writing on The Criterion Channel) as Deren and Hammid originally intended it to be. In this case, the lack of accompaniment forces one to focus entirely on imagery and it’s enough to leave one feeling satiated.

Essay #7 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #6: Safe.

Go ahead to #8: Edward II.

1978: I Hated You; I Loved You, Too

It’s the golden age of New Wave, from heavy hitters like Blondie (“Picture This”, while not a US hit encapsulates everything great about them) and Elvis Costello to cult artists such as Nick Lowe (a year away from his only US hit) and Talking Heads (opted for their elegiac single rather than the obvious one from that year) and a few true weirdos (XTC, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Devo (whose chaotic Stones cover is the very definition of smashing “post” and “punk” together.))

Still, the above selections comprise but a small portion of what the year had to offer—you can make ’78 look especially cool by spotlighting The Undertones, The Ramones, even a reformed Walker Brothers (with the wondrous, Bowie-aping “Nite Flights”), but it’s not the whole story. Far more telling is Olivia Newton-John, the only artist who appears more than once here with the John Travolta duet “You’re The One That I Want” (honestly the only thing I love about Grease) and her late-in-the-year, lesser-remembered smash “A Little More Love”, which nearly rivals ABBA (don’t worry, they’re here too) in ultra-catchy power-rock shlock.

Actually, let’s talk about schlock (some might alternately describe it as “trash”.) I suppose I’m more susceptible to it from this period for it would make up a notable portion of the first songs I’d remember hearing on the radio in the immediate years to come. The epic sax solos of “Baker Street” and “Time Passages”, Michael McDonald’s inimitable backing vocals on “You Belong To Me”, the faux-exotic, extra-cheese samba that is “Copacabana”—all of them talismans from my early childhood, none of them at odds of ever remotely seeming hip (at least until Yacht Rock became a recognized, categorized thing in the 2000s).

Disco only further plays into this: sure, one can unironically praise the crisp, gleaming funk of “Dance With Me” or lush elegance of “I Want Your Love” or unstoppable drive of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”; however, one then must also consider “I Love The Nightlife (Disco ‘Round)” where Alicia Bridges’ campy intonation surely inspired generations of drag performers or (speaking of camp) Boney M’s inexplicable “Rasputin” (aka, “Russia’s Greatest Love Machine”), which threads both the ridiculous and the sublime more seamlessly than even Santa Esmeralda did in ’77 or Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes in ’75.

As usual, Kate Bush is an entirely different matter. If you listen to her debut single “Wuthering Heights” (not the ’86 remake on The Whole Story, my own introduction to it) or watch the music video above, you might be tempted to lump her in with all that schlock (and camp) and call it a day. But no, there’s something present within the song, within her essence, even, that transcends the very notion of schlock—an ingenuity projecting sincerity even in the most theatrical of presentations. It blows my mind that this was a four-weeks-at-number-one-hit in the UK and yet, it makes total sense that so many listeners could instantly give themselves over to it. Bush’s salvo is one-of-a-kind in how it simultaneously looks forwards and backwards, utilizing elements from the past to formulate what still feels like a whole new language.

My 1978 playlist on Spotify:

DAYS

Tsai Ming-liang’s a filmmaker who tends to make the same kind of picture over and over, like Yasujiro Ozu (to name one of his precursors) or Hong Sang-Soo (a contemporary.) This isn’t a deterrent, for nearly three decades after his feature debut (1992’s Rebels of the Neon God), he’s still unearthing inspiration in such long standing obsessions as loneliness, urban life, food, sex and, more so than perhaps any other auteur, water in all of its forms.

Since the anomalous erotic (!) musical The Wayward Cloud (2005), his work has seemingly turned more minimalist with each effort. His latest sports the disclaimer, “This film is intentionally un-subtitled”, which led me to expect even less action than his last narrative feature, Stray Dogs (2013), which had its share of endless long takes of people staring at a wall or eating a rotisserie chicken. Not that Days does a 180 on its predecessor, for it opens with another lengthy, static shot of Tsai’s long-running, now middle-aged protagonist Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) sitting and blankly staring into space over a steady rain.

Actually, quite a lot happens in the film; it just does so at a snail’s pace, occasionally approaching the repetitious style of classic structuralist cinema. When the film’s other character, the younger Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) spends ample time preparing his dinner, meticulously washing his lettuce and fish multiple times, it feels like a direct homage to the rituals incessantly enacted in real time throughout Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman… (1975).

Individual scenes with Kang or Non make up the film’s first half; a little more than midway through, the two men come together in a long sequence that most viewers will decidedly not find boring. Afterwards, we see them apart again until the final shot fades to white. Again, a deliberate structure, even if Tsai claims he pretty much made the film up as he went along, working without a screenplay (there’s so little dialogue that the subtitles aren’t missed.)

Viewers unfamiliar with or unreceptive to Tsai’s work may think, “Huh?” at all this; his devotees might also initially arrive at that conclusion, at least initially. While not as masterful as, say, What Time Is It There? (2001), given time to absorb and ponder Days, I grew to appreciate it far more. It’s a quiet and often gentle film, running through those same, ongoing obsessions I mentioned above; fortunately, they don’t yet feel stale or superfluous. Like any master of minimalism, Tsai’s still adept at taking the same puzzle pieces and rearranging them into (if ever so slightly) distinct configurations that at best inspire one to look at the familiar with fresh eyes.

300 Songs

When this blog reached its 250th post a little over a year ago, I put together a list of 250 films that I love. Likewise, for post #300, here’s a Spotify playlist of 300 songs I’ll rarely skip over whenever they appear on shuffle or the radio. Obviously, this has more than a few selections you’ll likely never hear on the radio, from the inspired lunacy of Adriano Celentano and Esquivel to relatively obscure artists like Tompaulin, Komeda and Os Mutantes. Conversely, many artists here are known and beloved by millions (Oasis, Fleetwood Mac, The Smiths, Ella Fitzgerald) while others retain devoted cult followings without ever having fully broken into the mainstream (Calexico, Jose Gonzalez, Morcheeba, Saint Etienne.)

As with 250 Films, this is by no means a definitive list of my favorite 300 songs, although tracks from nearly half of my 100 favorite albums are represented. Unlike most of my annual playlists, this one is meant to be listened to on shuffle. Pick a song you love or one that you haven’t heard but sounds intriguing to you and dive right in.