Sunday, April 14, 2013

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Filmfest

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Filmfest is rolling once again. Hurray!
Charles Lloyd: Arrow into Infinity
Charles Lloyd is commonly referred to nowadays as a jazz legend. If you live long enough, and continue to produce great music even intermittently, the same fate might be yours.
In Arrows Into Infinity, director Dorothy Darr tells the story of  Lloyd’s youth in Memphis and his musical coming of age as an up-and-comer in the sixties, during which time he became one of the two or three most popular jazz artists of his generation on the strength of albums such as Forest Flower (1966), recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Forest Flower isn’t a “cross-over” album, however; it’s straight-ahead progressive jazz tending toward the harsh, noodling abstractions, and it sounds good even today.
It won the hearts of an entire generation of rock-n-roll fans who were looking for something beyond three-chord rock.
Lloyd continued touring for a few years (I heard him at the Guthrie in the late sixties), with a crack quartet that included wunderkind pianist Keith Jarrett. But in time he grew disenchanted with the crass commercialism of the music industry and increasingly enamored of “non-prescription” drugs; he withdraw from the scene to his property in Big Sur to study meditation, perform with local poets…and tour sporadically with the Beach Boys.
Lloyd remerged in the 1980s, recording with prestigious European label ECM and performing with a succession of small groups alongside Michel Petrucciani, Jason Moran, and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, among many others.
In the course of the two-hour film, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Handcock, and other musicians heap praise on the reedman, and Lloyd himself is often on the screen either performing or talking. As he matures we can see him changing from a young genius with an Afro in a perfectly pressed suit, carrying a heavy burden of unknown provenance on his shoulders, to a wizened elder in a canvas fishing hat absorbing life’s challenges with a light heart.
The film’s live footage is top-notch. Its chief defect is inordinate length. Several segments could be eliminated entirely—for example, the one involving Ornette Coleman. The two have little in common either stylistically or temperamentally, and they never played together (as far as the film lets on.)
By the same token, in one segment young bassist Rueben Rogers takes five minutes to say, basically, “With Charles you might not know what to play but you gotta jump out there and play.”
But the material is so consistently good that 30 seconds could easily be cut from almost every segment.
We can attribute the high quality of the personal footage to the director’s close association with the subject: Darr in Lloyd’s wife. But this fact also, perhaps, precludes the exploration of controversial aspects of Lloyd’s career. Meanwhile, Lloyd’s increasingly thoughtful and even meditative style is difficult to convey in one-minute bites with narrative voice-over.
As I write these words, I’m listening to “Tales of Rumi” from Lloyd’s album Canto (1997). Now that I know more about Lloyd’s career, and have seen him dance, and met his wife (She was present and graciously answered questions after the showing) it sounds even better.
The film will be repeated on Wednesday, April 17, at 9:20. You can get tickets here.

Earlier in the afternoon I caught a film that may set a new standard. The Last Time I Saw Macao is the kind of film that gives the phrase “art film” a bad name. Set entirely in the port city of Macao, the Las Vegas of the Orient,  it tells the story of a transvestite night-club performer named Candy who summons an old friend from Portugal because she thinks she’s in danger and he’s the only one she can trust. The two have entirely lost touch, and it seems odd that the narrator, whom we never see, would make a trip half way around the world on the strength of such a flimsy plea from out of the blue.
We never see Candy either--except in a lengthy introductory lip-synch. The film consists largely of shots of the decaying and occasionally glamorous city, men carrying bird-cages around, missed phone calls, and rendezvous that never take place, due to the traffic and the poor navigational skills of the narrator, who seems not to have a map of the city anywhere within reach.
His friend is in mortal danger, yet after wandering the streets for awhile he laments: “I thought I knew where Candy’s apartment was…”
The birds, we surmise, are to be used for a New Year’s festival organized by a gang of thugs. One or two of the couriers are murdered unceremoniously in dark towers for reasons that remain obscure. Yet the scenes of violence are as remote as, and even more stagy than, the rest of the film. There’s not a shred of tension or romance, not to mention suspense, in sight, and the documentary shots carry less visual interest by far than the snapshots my sister brought home from Vietnam a few weeks ago.
The signal merit of the print we saw is that the final reel didn’t have subtitles. We not only couldn’t see the main character, we couldn’t tell what he was saying.
I walked out well before the end, along with quite a few other viewers. The management graciously allowed me to exchange my ticket for another film, due to the subtitle malfunction. And to show them there were no hard feelings, in my newly found free time I went down the hall to the office and renewed my membership.
Yet while we were standing in the hall outside the door to the theater I heard one young woman say to her friends, “I love this film. I don’t care what the characters are saying. It’s all so arty and visual.”
Go figure.

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