I've just watched the recent, riveting documentary The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz on the visionary programmer and political activist who died by his own hand last year after inordinate persecution by the US government. The film is by turns inspiring, frustrating, engaging, and deeply saddening. It's significant to mention both that it will be screened at this year's upcoming New Zealand Film Festival and that the Creative Commons version of the film is freely available for streaming and downloading from the Internet Archive. A must watch for anyone interested in the pursuit of civil liberties, social justice, the freedom of information, and technical innovation.
2014 marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of the great American writer James Baldwin (1924-1987), a major figure whose works spanned novels, essays, poems, and plays. He conveyed a sense of finely tuned rage at the ubiquitous racism in America in his essays (The Fire Next Time), wrote a memorable novel about the experiences of a gay expatriate in Paris (Giovanni’s Room), another about 1950s Greenwich Village hipsters (Another Country), and was a renowned public intellectual and spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. Reading his work for me I remember as a kind of rite of passage as his work particularly speaks to the anger, confusion, and questions of identity so characteristic of youth, but I believe his poetic resonance crosses time as well. He was a major influence on other writers, including Toni Morrison, and was a friend of such seemingly disparate figures as Miles Davis and Marlon Brando. Perhaps the fact that he lived most of his later years in France has diffused his legacy and status in America, but I was very pleased to read that several New York cultural institutions are celebrating his work with events throughout the course of the year. You can read an article covering this in The Brooklyn Rail, 7 life lessons from Baldwin’s Paris Review interview at BreakingBrown.com, and for a fascinating full-length documentary screened on US public television a number of years ago you can watch James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.
I've never been a huge fan of the indie band The National. That said, I purchased their critically acclaimed CD The Boxer some years back and was fortunate to see them play at NY's Radio City Music Hall in 2010. They are a hardworking, well-oiled band that has paid their dues but their now-patented sound becomes a tad predictable. I prefer my middle aged white melancholia from folks like Will Oldham, Wilco, or Mark Lanegan. Notwithstanding the above, I was utterly fascinated by the 2013 documentary Mistaken for Strangers directed by National frontman/singer Matt Berninger's brother Tom, who followed the band on tour for several months, having been hired for an ill-fated stint as one of their roadies. During that time, Berninger, described by his brother Matt as "a metalhead who thinks that indie rock is pretentious bullshit" collected a brilliant amalgam of footage from his handheld video camera. Although the ostensible subject of the documentary is the National, Tom Berninger takes center stage, a bumbling and loveably unprofessional charmer who leads us through the backstage worlds of medium level pop stardom while remaining grounded in reality with his absentmindedness, drunkenness, and amiable commentary. Family tensions and interpersonal relations are highlighted in due course rather than any glimpses of rock and roll debauchery. The National are no Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones on that end, largely seeming pretty well-balanced, calm, and yeah, kind of boring! Given that, this film is a terrific small indie and a must watch. You can watch the trailer above, an interview with Matt and Tom Berninger here, and if in NZ a big shout out to AroVideo good stockists of fringey cinematic surprises like this one.
A fine Australian documentary from 2003 on the American record collector Joe Bussard who has collected old 78 records for decades, amassing one of the world's greatest archives of early 20th Century country, folk, old time, blues, and jazz music (more than 25,000 records in his Maryland home). Prone to making harsh statements like "rock is the cancer of music" or that there's been "no real jazz since 1933" Mr. Bussard is definitely one of a kind. Who would have thought that a film that devotes the bulk of its time to an excitable man playing records amidst cigar smoke in his basement could be so much fun? Vinyl-revival be damned, Bussard's collection dates from the "shellac" era! You can also read a lengthy and informative 1999 profile from the Washington City Paper here.
The addictively watchable BBC four documentary David Bowie and the Story of Ziggy Stardust (narrated by Jarvis Cocker) depicts the long road leading up to Bowie’s big breakthrough persona, by way of an almost startling range of eclectic influences: dance, mime, folk, music hall, Anthony Newley, mod, children’s music, theatre (both avant-garde and not-so), and of course, early rock and roll, fashion, androgyny, gay culture, Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground. As “Spiders from Mars” drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansy comments: “I think he was trying on what can I do and what do people want, going through the trial and error period, and there was a lot of error!”
Pretty damned wonderful videotape of 1981 sessions for the Dead Kennedys' EP In God We Trust Inc. which my friends and I passed back and forth so much it was worn out and scratched to bits. The band which later had an acrimonious split was arguably in peak form at that time, energetic, witty, and loud. And how could they go wrong with song titles like "Religious Vomit" and "Nazi Punks Fuck Off"?!
Here's a documentary on the garage rock revivalists of the past several years featuring mostly US bands including the late Jay Reatard, Thee Oh Sees, Davila 666, The Black Lips, and Ty Segall. But also (rightfully) featuring the influence of New Zealand's own The Clean! In Jay Reatard's words (interviewed in the film) garage is "usually three minutes or less, as few words as possible, to convey as much emotion as you can with as little as possible." And here's a link to Pitchfork's Shake Appeal column dedicated to "garage and garage-adjacent releases." For the real old school stuff you can check out a YouTube playlist drawing from the tracks on Lenny Kaye's seminal Nuggets compilation LP of sixties garage punk and psychedelia.
Here's a link to a feature-length 1999 documentary entitled Dial H for Hitchcock on the films and legacy of director Alfred Hitchcock. Whatever your opinion of this complex and problematic figure it's unlikely that there are any other directors whom one can learn more from in relation to suspense, action, plot, horror, narrative, and the often underrated significance of anticipation.
Sonic Youth were an amazing band in their time. Well I guess I freeze them in my mind somewhere around late 80s-early 90s-—when I saw them—though they continued for many years afterwards. Thought I would post links to three intriguing films which feature the band. Charles Atlas' Put Some More Blood into the Music (screened by the UK program South Bank Show in 1989) features the formidable John Zorn too as well as interviews with Lydia Lunch, Dan Graham, Glenn Branca, etc. Director David Markey's 1991: The Year Punk Broke covers SY on tour with Nirvana (and Dinosaur Jr. among other bands) in Europe shortly before the latter band's career went ballistic. Christoph Dreher's Silver Rockets Kool Things: 20 Years of Sonic Youth presents a longer career survey for German/French television. Enjoy the noize!
The phenomenal New Zealand sound artist Phil Dadson along with Enrique Siques (Chile) and Rob Thorne (NZ) (the three are touring as X-Current) did a magnificent musical performance, presentation, and Q and A for the first year students in Massey's fine arts program today. Totally magical sounds. Dadson mentioned in his talk the great 20th century American composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) who created his own instruments and lived as a transient until his innovative music finally gained some academic recognition later in his life. Here is a link to a 2002 BBC documentary on Partch, and for more info on and sounds by Dadson, check out his website.