Mix #02

New mix on Mixcloud. Here’s the tracklist:

01. Brian Eno – Fickle Sun (III) I’m Set Free
02. Here We Go Magic – Collector
03. Grizzly Bear – Mourning Sound
04. Arto Lindsay – Each to Each
05. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Love’s Refrain
06. Solange – Cranes in the Sky
07. Dirty Projectors – Up in Hudson
08. Negro Leo – I Have No Light that Shines Inside Without You
09. Fleet Foxes – Third of May / Ōdaigahara
10. Kassel Jaeger & Jim O’Rourke – Wakes on Cerulean B
11. Animal Collective – Man of Oil
12. Radiohead – True Love Waits
13. Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister – Venus
14. Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space


The erotic humor of Sergei Eisenstein


Alexander Gray Associates has a show on called Sergei Eisenstein drawings 1931-1948 (closes February 11). The objective title conceals a revelation: the collection of drawings – many of them, in America for the first time – consists almost entirely of humoristic sketches of (literally) graphic sexual nature.

The downplaying of this sensational fait divers masks a history of oppression: while humor had been dramatically drained from the director’s work since the social caricatures in Strike (1925), forcing a more monolithic tone to his body of work, the drawings have been long kept hidden by heirs, in order to “preserve” the artist’s reputation. Some of them have ended up in books in the past few years, but the selection of over 80 works on display at AGA reveals a whole different facet of the artist that provides not only contrast but also adds significant complexity to one of the most interesting and decisive artists of the 20th century.

What is materialized in the drawings is rarer than it might seem: Eisenstein enjoying an unrestrained freedom of imagination. Such freedom results in an explosion of thematic irreverence that transcends the director’s known bisexuality, embracing bestiality, anti-clerical iconography, imperialism, slavery, sarcastic art criticism (as seen in the picture selected to illustrate this post), poetic symbolism and the politics of gender, sexuality and race.

The complexity of subject is made more striking by the simplicity of form: while the drawings show an eclecticism of style – from Gauguin to Picasso to Heckel to Amerindian art – they all share a remarkable restraint in trace and color, often working with simple lines and a strictly binary palette, foreseeing his use of color in the part 2 of Ivan, the Terrible (1946, but not released until 1958). The combination of such basic approach to form – one of the short series, especially centered around representations of men and women, relies mostly on blue and red, and the normative use of the colors as conventions (men as blue; women as red) add interesting meanings to drawings where gender is either absent or purposefully concealed – with a cartoonish humor, sometimes underlined by captions, is challenged from within by the explosive nature of what’s being represented and how it reflects the author’s vision on themes his work and the mythology around the author have irresponsibly subsumed as mere formal value.

More than the films, the drawings witness an artist who’s generally suspicious, or even daringly critical, of any kind of programmatic certainty – a feeling that could only be intuited from the gaps of his film work – and who was eager to experiment art and life with a lack of restraint that history (both public and personal) failed to accommodate. The erotic drawings are, therefore, Eisenstein at his most political.

Song 23: 23rd Psalm Branch (1968), Stan Brakhage


As artists, critics and curators struggle to find the best vantage point in a context of global sociopolitical regression, the Anthology Film Archives presented the series Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome: Coping with the Election, with the intent to “remind us that the struggle to maintain a humanist, progressive society is a perpetual one, that civil liberties and social justice are ever-fragile, and that the cinema represents an important means of grappling with, creating a dialogue around, and at least striving to change the status quo.”

At a time when cinephilia and film criticism seem to have their standards burdened by urgent social demands – the critical rehabilitation of a filmmaker such as Ken Loach via I, Daniel Blake being a flagrant example (among many others) of the popular demand for a “political art” that confirms rather than questions the spectator’s moral comfort – the AFA presented one (of many) eloquent counterpoint with the rare screening of one of Stan Brakhage’s lesser-known feature masterpieces: Song 23: 23rd Psalm Branch (1968) – sadly, the only screening of the series I could attend.

23rd Psalm Branch articulates the formal principle of dissension – the word that Jacques Rancière would later establish as the principle of politics in an order established by a consensus: “the political is what disturbs this order by introducing either a supplement or a lack.”[1] It is then not only a film that concerns politics, but a political film, a work of art that operates as politics and that stands not only as a witness, but mostly as an active agent of history.

The first layer of dissensus concerns the very expectation of what we’ve come to know as a Brakhage film: 23rd Psalm Branch is surprisingly topical. While its conclusions and formal allusions are open to different readings, its overarching theme is more clearly defined than in most of the filmmaker’s work. At the same time, the surprise that comes from such clarity is totally in sync with Brakhage’s general ethos: to establish successive patterns to the edge of recognition and then break them, reestablish them, start again as something new… a permanent challenge to the status quo, including its own. The combination of direct clarity (of vision) and unrestrained mobility (of thought) makes the experience of watching 23rd Psalm Branch one of endless richness – something very few films (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; Mario Peixoto’s Limite; Godard’s Adieu au Langage) have managed to achieve.

According to P. Adams Sitney ­– quoted in the program notes – 23rd Psalm Branch was made in direct reaction to the Vietnam war. However, the event can only be traced in the film indirectly, working mostly as a trigger for a deeper investigation on more extemporaneous issues, such as war, violence, the process of civilization and the role images play in such a context. Vietnam might be the root of the film, but here it is only the paradoxically unseen tip of the iceberg. There are no easy answers; as usual with Brakhage, the film operates on both a sensory and an intellectual level: the images articulated on screen take hold of the human optical apparatus in order to activate and generate thought. The films of Stan Brakhage require the viewer to think with their whole body.

The film is established as a succession of dissensual operations that expand the meaning of the images on screen in multiple ways. It begins with shots of a passing landscape that are interrupted by staccato images of war, most likely taken from newsreels. The operation connects different times through the memory of a place, as if a specific space couldn’t help but carry the memory of everything that’s happened there. It also expands the official nature of journalistic images with the personal handwriting of Brakhage’s own journal-films – the steady close-ups of mouths agape both shake and are shaken by the handheld frenzy that faces the landscape. Blinking blocks of red and brown are interpolated and sometimes juxtaposed with black and white stock footage of death and oppression, adding color to the distanced images of the cadavers and the abstract moving crowd, soaking the earth with the color of blood… but then the images of death contrast with images of birth (an intermittent shot recreates Courbet’s L’origine du monde) and life: while Brakhage handwrites the words “I can’t go on” halfway through the film, familiar shots of the director’s children running on a field or peacefully asleep reconnect the end and the beginning, hell and heaven as two sides of the same coin.

The film is a collection of unexpected opportunities for contrast and dialectical clashes – often resorting to actual split-screen compositions, as well as dissolves and other modes of multiple exposures of the film stock – that keep unfolding new layers of the original theme, alert to the deceiving nature of apparent clarity. A film that operates as politics, but also one that operates as philosophy. Explosions melt into peaceful clouds that dissolve again into the vantage point of the cockpit of the bomb-pouring plane; graphic reality blooms out of moments of near-abstraction; bird’s-eye views of a city coexist with still lifes of pebbles and rocks; macro and micropolitics are tied together, as the line between exceptional events and the mundane reality gets lost in the fog; the compositional similarity between the liturgy of religion and the crowds that celebrate fascism are all subsumed in the campfire firecrackers that wrap the film – both biblical and pagan in its symbolism – and find one of its most touching representations in one of its many extremely personal title-cards: “Peter Kubelka’s Vienna” – the same town that was once home for Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky, Tito and Freud is identified here by the way less familiar name of the great Austrian artist, who was one of the director’s closest friends, and who brings along jazz concerts, lively bars and an explosion of warm colors.

23rd Psalm Branch overflows with moments of equal simplicity that generate extraordinary leaps of thought, never settling for the easy way out, refusing to offer the viewer any possibility of comfort: it is both beautiful and disturbing, daring as well as grounded, grand yet touchingly modest. While the imperatives of today represent the daily task of thinking of what to do next, Brakhage’s film’s only answer is that it is perhaps just as important to understand how we got here – to notice the patterns just before they are confirmed, and to foster the creativity to break them… to honor the complexity of the world and to make the work of art itself a demonstration of courage.

[1] Dissenting words: a conversation with Jacques Rancière, by Jacques Rancière and David Panagia.

Hold Up and the politics of the graceful Leviathan


Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) – both the record and the extended video – is a new version of what, by now, has made her a household name that transcends pop stardom: appropriating and repurposing icons and ideas from other artists and art forms from all walks of life, to quite literally turn them into gold. From the fan-captured videos of her hanging out with Jay-Z at Grizzly Bear or Beach House concerts in conscious search for inspiration, to the not-at-all-subtle nod to the stunning work of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in the pretty extraordinary video for the great “Countdown” (which was also full of less flagrant “shoutouts” to Jerry Lewis or the work in music videos by the Barcelona/London based collective Canada, and the list could keep going), she has blossomed into a floating leviathan, equal parts grace and gluttony.

It would be foolish to deny or resist the extraordinary ability to move and mobilize of Beyoncé, the artist and cultural icon, as it would be irresponsible to overlook the contradictions of Beyoncé, the corporation. When it comes to the artistic practice identified at least since the 1970s as appropriation – but present in the world in much more remote times, to the point of shaping Brazilian Modernism and Oswald de Andrade’s concept of cultural anthropofagy – such ambivalence is framed as more problematic. As Jan Verwoert wrote in Apropos appropriation: why stealing images today feels different: “ever since labour was divided and the abstract organization of social life alienated people from the way in which they would want to live, appropriation has been a practice of getting back from society what it takes from its members.”

But what does “getting back” mean when it comes to a corporation of mainstream culture? On the one hand, Beyoncé’s gesture lands like a belated moment of justice – a strong black woman taking over the spotlight and feeding off everything that’s been once taken from her peers in both present and past (the whole trajectory of “Formation”, from New Orleans to the Superbowl, being a great example of its effectiveness), generating what is now impressively close to a critical and popular consensus – while, on the other, the cannibalization of whatever today’s model of (albeit tamed) counterculture is by such a giant player in the mainstream brings back the normative bittersweet aftertaste of classic Hollywood and the strange practice of North American remakes.

Lemonade is the new, shinier, grander chapter in this ballet of debris: from the long payroll of collaborators and special guests to the occasional references to the music of indie acts such as Vampire Weekend, James Blake and the Dirty Projectors (whose own appropriation of r&b is now being brought back to the Knowles clan), Beyoncé and her team have mastered the craft of sanding and polishing disparate pieces until they fit together. The record and the video (being marketed as a visual album – something TV on the Radio did a few years ago, with less success in every possible term) are both far from seamless, but that irregularity is part of their nature: Beyoncé’s unrestrained shiny mess is as much her force as it is her weakness.

All of that fits our age like a glove: at a time when cultural journalism seems to have lost any sense of pedagogy and critical thought, and chose to reduce itself to namecheckers and publicists of the current zeitgeist (David Bazan on music reviewers: “So if it starts to get you down/ just pretend / That you don’t make your living / From selling advertising”), Lemonade is a battlefield being embraced as if it were a playground. In its Shrek-like (or Family Guy-like; or…) willfulness to patchwork the scope of mass culture, yet quietly change it from within by incorporating discoveries picked up at the margins of the industry, both the record and the video are full of contradictions and interesting problems that have been systematically ignored by press and critics alike – sensational accusations of plagiarism and bovine numbering of references aside.

That dilemma is condensed in the video for “Hold Up”, a song that ironically enough quotes her own “Countdown”, in clever mise en abyme, put alongside the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” by main songwriters Diplo and Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend) and other interesting samples. It’s a horizontal song, interweaving different sensibilities in one constant flow that both serves and is served by the singer. While the inspiration taken from Pipilloti Rist’s videoart/feminist classic Ever is Over All (1997) is stated here and there on specialized vehicles, frequently seasoned with the forbidden flavor of a “hidden secret” (to denounce or revel in), a thorough search didn’t lead me to a single article that would address the elephant in the room: what does she (the corporation) do with it?


Avoiding the trap of comparing bank accounts or giving into my own box-checking routine, Ever is Over All – which is now on view in New York at the New Museum, in an extremely popular retrospective of the swiss videoartist – is more modest in production scale but grander in means: the video is presented as a dual-screen installation, one of which shows a field of flowers, and the other shows the artist herself captured in slow motion by two cameras, walking down a streetusing that same flower to smash the windows of the cars parked by the curb.

It’s a work rich in ambiguities: the phallic shape of the flower contrasts with the flow of Rist’s colorful dress; its fragility is subsumed by its use to shatter the car windows, contrasting with Rist’s joyful, guilt-free slow motion walk; the apparently improvised nature of the video – the dated video texture; the jittery handheld camera work – is suddenly shaken by the appearance of a policewoman who, instead of censoring the artist, salutes her rebellion, adding a layer of fiction that contrasts with the spontaneous (?) awe of other passers-by. The political defiance of the apparent documentation of the public performance acquires the grandeur of a blockbuster, as cars are treated as mere props in a larger than life solitary flash mob. The shots are mostly medium wide, rendering Rist as ordinary: it is not her who is exceptional, but what the flower can do.

The juxtaposition of the two screens alone creates all sorts of dialectics, expanding the dichotomy of gender and normative stereotypes – female fragility, for sure, but also the mix-gender symbol of the phallic flower and all the combinations that come from the contrast of specific moments between those spheres – at the same time that it questions the very nature of the work: is this a street performance or a staged scene? The power of Rist’s piece comes from the coexistence of all these questions, which the work can only leave unanswered. The viewer is forced to question their own ability to accept; the political power of the work comes precisely from its centrifugal nature.

In the video for “Hold Up” – directed by Jonas Åkerlund – the changes made in translation from the gallery to HBO point at a substantial undermining of the contradictory potency of Rist’s landmark work. The most obvious one is the substitution of the flower for a baseball bat – perhaps a nod to Penny Marshall’s A League of their Own (1992), but at the expense of all the ambiguities of Rist’s iron flower, which combined male and female symbolism as a weapon in the hands of a woman, who used it against society, gender expectations, materialism, capitalism, etc. Another important change is in the body language present in both works: Rist’s gleeful walk – a striking source of contrast with her destructive impulse which advocates for a non-exclusive, and consequentiality non-normative, sensibility – is substituted by Beyoncé’s usual fierceness – a strong asset in itself but, in this case, a redundant one.

But the most substantial change is one of mise en scène: by cleansing the work of its improvised appearance, showering it with production value, Åkerlund/Beyoncè flip Ever is Over All on its head. The ambiguity of register in Rist’s work is out of the picture: Beyoncé enters the world of the video sashaying down the steps that allow Gods to walk among humans, controlling water and fire. It’s a strong image whose political meanings are as obvious as they are fair. This is no longer an ordinary street with (what look like and only look like) spontaneous passers-by and subverted figures of authority, but a studio environment: a street where traffic is controlled, explosions can happen to the beat of the song and we know how to look/who to look at from the very beginning. The destabilizing reactions one could spot at the fringes of Rist’s video – reactions of casual amazement that reflected the gallerygoer’s own suspension – are now marked by spaghetti western-like reaction shots (minus the baroque irony), which underscore Beyoncé as a centripetal presence, to which all attention must be channeled, and who goes out with a literal bang.

It’s all interesting symbolism considering the overarching meaning of the record: a journey to overcome betrayal and be born again as a new female entity, ready to take over – an attitude that is the foundation to many of the album’s strengths (such as the beautiful anger of “Sorry”, which I included in my recent mix). Such vocabulary wouldn’t be out of place in the lexicon of post-modernism which has made appropriation such a common practice in the arts. Before an end that was clearly demarcated by the Berlin wall, artists turned to the past in order to preserve moments and memories outside of time, fetishizing a common project that seemed like it could no longer be. “All of these thoughts revolve around an experience of death, the certain death of modernity and the sense of history it implied, an experience of death that is framed and fixed by the object of appropriation through the accumulation of the dead matter of hollowed out signs in the form of allegory, the ruin of language. That these terms sound like the vocabulary of gothic novels, is certainly no coincidence, since the invocation of a sense of gloom seems to have been a key moment in the discourse of postmodernism. It is, however, a gothic novel written in denial of the implications of the atmosphere it conjures up, namely the suspicion that the dead might actually not be as dead as they are declared to be and that they might actually return as revenants to walk amongst the living.” (Verwoert)

But Åkerlund/Beyoncé don’t treat Ever is Over All as “hollowed out signs in the form of allegory, the ruin of language”, but as living signs to be repurposed, made more palatable and more normative, bent to the superhero logic that has turned pop art into pop culture: a regime of cultural exception. The problem is not in the gesture of appropriation itself, but in taking the original work and repurposing it as a narrower version of itself, if not a completely opposite one. After all, “when you call up a spectre, it will not content itself with being inspected, it will require active negotiations to accommodate the ghost and direct its actions or at least keep them in check.” (Verwoert). And, if betrayed, it might also come back to haunt you in your sleep.

In Rist’s work, the power of transformation was in the affirmation of the conceptual underdog: a flower can smash a window, a phallic symbol can be claimed as a feminine weapon, a normative gaze can be turned against itself… every street can become a battlefield because it already is one. Every cell is a potential revolution. While “Hold Up”, the song, is horizontal, the video is vertical: there’s not only a clear center, but also one that cannot be reproduced.

Ever is Over All is a political work precisely because it is exemplary, while the music video is merely exceptional: there are things that can only take place in a studio, with timed reaction shots and explosions synced to the heartbeat of the 808. There are windows that can only be smashed with a baseball bat, by an entity coming from above. There are things only a superhero such as Beyoncé is allowed to do, and the rest of us can do nothing but watch, bedazzled by the spectacle of destruction. A flower is, once and again, simply a flower.


Mix #01

Starting the year with serious plans to keep the blog more active and sealing the promise with a treat: a mix of songs I’ve been listening to the past couple months. I used to make these every month at my former blog, and while I won’t promise the same regularity this time around, every now and then these should pop up.

Here’s the tracklist:

01. The Caretaker – An Autumnal Equinox
02. The Avalanches (feat. Camp Lo) – Because I’m Me
03. PJ Harvey – The Community of Hope
04. Beyoncé – Sorry
05. Paul De Jong – This is Who I Am
06. Loose Fur – Answers to Your Questions
07. Deerhunter – Breaker
08. Cass McCombs – Bum Bum Bum
09. Drugdealer – Were You Saying Something?
10. AOM – Shake It Bololo Ft. Classics of MPB
11. Oren Ambarchi – Hubris Pt. 3
12. Leonard Cohen – Treaty
13. Moses Sumney – Worth It
14. Lambchop – The Hustle

Rewatching Eduardo Coutinho


Rewatching the films of Eduardo Coutinho, like I did yesterday thanks to Flaherty NYC, is very emotionally demanding. Being in the theater, seeing him and listening to him once more brings back his presence as absence: for Brazilian cinephiles, seeing a new Coutinho film was a ritual one could count on, but no longer can.

Today, his presence acquires a different meaning: the films are sadder, more premonitory, and like Fernanda Torres says about trying to play a real character in Playing (Jogo de Cena, 2007), they rub in our faces all we’ve failed to become. It’s hard for me to listen to Eduardo Coutinho’s voice today, and the difficulty only restates how necessary it is. We must listen to Coutinho today, more than ever.

It was a surprising conclusion to rewatching one of his films, because I’ve always seen Coutinho as the most influential Brazilian filmmaker of the past couple decades – and the enthusiasm with which his film was presented last night at Anthology Film Archives tells me that he is the filmmaker the world needs now, not only Brazil. However, this feeling comes from the parallel disappointment that the aforementioned influence might have been grossly misestimated, and that all the precious things he discovered, revealed and taught have been slowly forgotten – under the sign of Bras Cubas. One of the elements that caught my attention as I rewatched Playing is something that’s been said about his work time and time again, but that seems to have claimed a terrifying political subtext: his ability to listen. 

It’s no wonder that, since his death, the world seems to be defined by a general inability to listen. Coutinho could listen. He would let people talk. He refused to judge them, oppress them, correct them or define them. He listened to them and showed interest in them, encouraging them to show him more about themselves. There’s a clear ritualistic, “balming” (like one of the characters in Edifício Master says) dimension to this process, which allowed for a true encounter to take place, during the conversation but also during the projection, that now seems to have been conveniently shunned from the polis, with results way too clear for me to enumerate.

The world is harder without Coutinho, but he’s made a lot of things easier for the world. Our job is simply to not forget.

Creepy (Kurîpî: Itsuwari no rinjin), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Japan, 2016)


And this blog awakes from a long, restless sleep to find out Kiyoshi Kurosawa had a new film playing at the New York Asian Film Festival – a film whose existence I was completely unaware of, despite Kurosawa being one of my very favorite filmmakers and that the movie had premiered not too long ago at the Berlinale. It was a very deep sleep, indeed. So I got my ticket and happily walked to the theater without knowing much about it, which in the case of Kyioshi Kurosawa makes very little difference.

After all, the whole critical platitude about his departure from horror films with the masterpiece Tokyo Sonata (2008) has always been blatantly flawed. Even if the scope of the statement gets expanded from horror to genre films, it would still be hard to accommodate works such as Charisma (1999) and Bright Future (2003) under such reductive umbrellas. In fact, Kurosawa has always been a filmmaker who complemented an unmistakable sense of style with an extreme mobility, and his films can quietly go from horror to gangster narratives, from drama to slapstick comedy, from post-mimetic symbolism to gore, sometimes taking vertiginous shifts in tone from one scene to the next, making statements such as this very hard to anchor.

Let auteristic historicism tone down the boldness of inaccurate criticism: since Kiyoshi Kurosawa was never strictly a horror director, Creepy (2016) is not really a comeback, but arguably his first feature length enterprise in the genre in ten years. What’s ironic is that, despite the common impression that the festival circuit and the press that gathers around it make of genre films still as niche productions, Creepy is most likely Kurosawa’s most illustrative film to date of himself as an auteur: the walls stained by water infiltration, the unrealistic car rides in the sky, the quiet rebellion of home appliances against the crumbling normalcy of daily life, the dry outbursts of violence that favor the echoless reverberation over the complexity of the acts themselves, the way evil is nothing but a manifestation of the ruin of the nuclear family, of the picture-perfect reality desired by the characters and calmly contemplated by his compositions… everything we’ve come to notice as frequent patterns in a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film is present here, yet heightened – its flavors not only preserved during the 10 year time-off in the genre since Retribution (2006), but intensified, as if kept vacuum-sealed.

That creates a paradox of sorts: some form of baroque minimalism. Creepy is, in many ways, a typical Kurosawa film, except the dry gunshots are louder, the décor more stylized, the car ride in the sky gets fogged by heavy clouds, the precision of the staging is even more sparse and the presence of evil is disseminated by what seems to be a superfluously busy plot. In the end, what the movie does is to restate, in slightly louder words, the power of everything Kiyoshi Kurosawa has slowly refined through the years: the unsettling nature of the peculiar way a character walks or the energy with which a dog moves in space, the invasive way a gaze peers into the camera and the uninterested resilience with which a ghost stands there, among the living. In Kurosawa’s films, horror isn’t a genre, but a redundancy, an unnecessary highlight of some of cinema’s most essential features which reactivates the disturbing ghostly quality of the cinematic experience itself.

* Seen on DCP at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2016.