27 December 2006

a novel by William Gay
deep in the tall pineys...
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First of all – when you name a thing, it can somehow limit the scope of that thing. For instance, when William Gay’s writing is labeled ‘Southern gothic’ by reviewers, it’s possible that a potential reader who has never particularly appreciated that genre might defer experiencing what could very well be a lifechanging literary experience. Know this: nobody writes like William Gay – and in the case of his work, it’s more an instance of the genre being absolutely exploded by the depth and scope of his art.

In Twilight, Gay lays out what in the hands of most other writers would be a simple tale of good-versus-evil. A brother and sister suspect that the local undertaker has cheated them in the burial of their father – a steel vault that should have surrounded his casket is, when they dig it up, missing. Following her hunches, Corrie Tyler convinces her brother Kenneth to join her in exhuming other deceased citizens of their rural Tennessee town – and what they find exceeds her wildest grim imaginings. The undertaker, one Fenton Breece, has apparently made a practice of desecrating – oftentimes obscenely – the bodies of the departed entrusted to his benevolent care. Corrie is determined that Breece should pay for what he did to their daddy – and Kenneth manages to purloin a bit of evidence – a bundle of…shall we say…incriminating photographs – from the trunk of the grim digger’s car that the two believe should convince him to cough up a hearty (in the day, 1951) bit of cash, in reparation and punishment.

Breece, however, disagrees – and while he consents to Corrie’s proffered bargain, he has other plans in mind for the siblings. He enlists one Granville Sutter – a local convicted murder and all-around doer of evil deeds – to retrieve the evidence and silence the brother and sister. What ensues is a wild ride, both for the protagonists and the reader. Sutter is easily the most evil character that Gay has thus far created – and, I would venture, one of the vilest one is likely to come across in literature of any age. He thinks nothing of killing – be it man, woman, child or beast – and he does so on a semi-regular basis, whenever it seems to him that killing is required. He pursues Kenneth Tyler into, through and out of the Harrikin – an area of abandoned mines, concealed shafts offering a deadly drop to a quick end for the unsuspecting traveler, ghost towns, dilapidated shacks populated by some truly unique, unforgettable characters, abandoned mansions, and unfettered overgrowth that would stymie even the most seasoned woodsman. At one point, Kenneth muses that in the Harrikin even a compass would swing to some false true north of the wilderness’ own devising. Many people – and farm animals – have wandered in and never come out.

The situations and people that Kenneth encounters in his flight from Sutter and toward justice are not placed in the story on a whim – each incident, each meeting awakens something new in the boy, something that is vital to his growth as a human being, something that encourages him to cling desperately to everything that makes his humanity real. Many people don’t experience these sorts of things at this intensity over the course of their entire life – imagine the impact on a person who goes through them in the course of a few days or weeks. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
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Gay knows the area in which his books are set – and his characters – like the back of his hand, and he respects them both very deeply. The eccentricities of the land and the people who try to survive on it are played out to the fullest – and none of it ever comes across as caricature or condescension. His writing style always wraps me up as if I’ve been somehow transported to another world – another reviewer below likened reading William Gay to taking a drug, and I have to agree that’s an apt description. This story is as dark as dark can be (I certainly must say), but once I started it I couldn’t put it down. There is evil and violence here – but there is also wisdom and redemption and hope, so don’t be too afraid. I’ve read everything he’s published more than a few times, and I never tire of his work – give me more, please, doc…
I can also recommended William Gay's other books highly:
In wartime, where is the real insanity…?

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This film, by Kosovo ‘painter-director’ Isa Qosja, is the first film to emerge from that country since the war in 1999 that left the region devastated and reeling. Co-written by Qosja and Mehmet Kraja, Kukumi follows three unlikely protagonists – Kukumi, Mara and Hassan, inmates of a mental hospital – through the tattered physical and emotional landscape that remains as the fighting comes to a halt. When news of the signing of the UN-sponsored peace accord comes over the radio, the soldiers who have been guarding the hospital can’t abandon their posts quickly enough – they hop into jeeps and whatever other means of conveyance they can commandeer and leave nothing but their settling dust behind, along with open gates and a bewildered group of patients left to fend for themselves.

Kukumi narrates the film, and explains that as a newborn he cried constantly for several days, driving his parents and neighbors mad, until a local woman arrived to cast a spell to stop his wailing. He remarks that he hasn’t cried since – an observation that is all the more poignant in light of the heartbreaking scenes he encounters outside the gates. Along with Mara and Hassan, he sets out into the world and tries to make sense of what has suddenly been opened to him. It’s a difficult task for anyone to make sense of war – perhaps being insane is an advantage. It’s hard to say.
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The three travelers view their world with a childlike wonder – there are things they have never seen before, things which they have understandable difficulty in understanding. From the outset, there is a conflict between Kukumi and Hassan – they are both attracted to Mara, and both express a desire to marry her – but rather than come to blows in a situation that could easily lead to such actions among ‘normal’ citizens, they take a more philosophical approach. Whether it’s because they’re merely parroting feelings that are expected to occur between men and women, or whether their feelings for Mara are underdeveloped for other reasons, they never come close to violence over her – they’re more likely to get physical in defending her from outsiders than with each other.
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They make their way to Hassan’s home village, nearby, to find that his family is less than welcoming – his sister-in-law berates his brother for even thinking about having anything to do with him, considering him to be an embarrassment to their family and a serious liability if he hangs around. Hassan’s honest delight and enthusiasm in locating his brother again is heart-wrenching compared with the reception he gets.
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The cinematography and direction is stunning – from the long opening shot that begins with a view of a man sleeping on a cot in a room in the hospital, then retreats through the window to show other inmates milling around in the rain outside the building, it’s apparent that we’re in for something very special here. The camera pans around and finds Kukumi standing in the exercise yard in the downpour. Other patients approach him, gesturing or speaking words we can’t quite hear – but only when a young woman we soon learn to be Mara entreats him with an open, waiflike smile, does he relent and pull his flute from a fold in his robe and begin to play. The melody is beautiful and haunting – it sets the mood for Kukumi’s outlook on the world, and for the remainder of the film.

I’ve read reviews that seem to think that the metaphoric aspect of Qosja’s film is too obvious, and that this somehow lessens the impact of this work – but I disagree. While the metaphor of the three being children of war, extended to embrace everyone who has been touched by the madness of such conflict, is definitely an element, I believe the film can be viewed more directly as a simple story of pain, loss and discovery – and it’s a good look at the shameful way that the mentally ill are viewed and treated by the world as a whole.

Qosja’s direction is never heavy-handed – he lets the story and the characters carry the film beautifully. I don’t know if the actors in Kukumi are professionals or not – but they give strikingly honest, believable performances, never condescending toward their characters in the least bit. There is sadness and pain here – but there is also joy, and a good dose of humor added from time to time (especially in the scene where Kukumi comes across an outdoor ceremony honoring some visiting engineers from Thailand who have come to Kosovo to aid in reconstruction).

Whether you’re simply in the mood for something different, or you’re just looking for a well-made, moving film, you should check out Kukumi. It’s another release from the good folks at CineQuest – and you can most likely find it on NetFlix, or at local DVD rental outlets. It’s a film you won’t soon forget.
Enrico Rava
the benefits of easy living…

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...the point being that getting the most out of life, and of your art, whatever that may be, is in the approach you take to life being 'easy'...not necessarily that you have an easy time of it. Anyone who has ever know anyone who makes their living as a musician knows full well that it doesn't always lead to an 'easy' life...but oh, the benefits that come through as a result...
I’ve been listening to Enrico Rava on and off for around 30 years now – I wore out a couple of vinyl copies of his 1975 debut for ECM Records, The pilgrim and the stars and very likely left some of my friends of that era with the impression that I didn’t own any other records. He had been active – and had recorded – previous to that release, but it was my introduction to his art and cemented my love and admiration for his music. He has been continuously active since the mid-1960s, both as a valued sideman and a leader – and his recordings have been consistently at the standard-setting level of quality. With influences as diverse as Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Don Cherry – and others – filtered through the unique prism of his own innate talent, it’s amazing to me that he’s not more widely known.
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After recording several albums for ECM through 1986, Rava released his work on various labels (Soul Note, Gala, Label Bleu, Philology and Enea, to name a few) before returning to Manfred Eicher’s ECM fold for 2004’s stunning Easy living, easily one of the finest jazz recordings of the decade in my opinion. Rava continues to be fearless in pushing the envelope of his music – but his creativity and sense of melody, long two of his strong points, show that his writing and playing are vital as ever.

One of the many factors that keeps Rava’s art fresh is his ability and willingness to surround himself with great players, known or unknown (as far as the casual US audience is concerned), whose imagination, chops and sheer energy inspire his own. The ensemble assembled for Easy living is astonishing in every regard.
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Stefano Bollani (piano) was born in 1972 in Milan – a child prodigy, his playing includes elements of classical and pop as well as jazz. He met Rava in 1996, who encouraged him to concentrate on jazz (good advice, considering the accolades Bollani has received since), and the two have been playing together regularly ever since. Bollani’s first ECM solo recording – the curiously-titled Piano solo (‘sorry if that’s confusing…’ – Basil Fawlty) is out now in Europe, and due to be released in the US in early 2007.
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Gianluca Petrella (trombone) is from Bari, in southern Italy. Born in 1975, he is widely respected for his musicianship and innovative ideas – he has played with Rava regularly since 1997, as well as in various other groups (including Noisemakers, since 1980, with drummer Roberto Gatto). Like Rava and Bollani, he combines tradition with experimentation, seemingly effortlessly, giving the listener a breathtaking ride on a musical evolutionary carousel. His Blue Note recording Indigo4 has garnered wide praise, and is netting him some well-deserved attention.

Roberto Gatto (drums) and Rosario Bonaccorso (double-bass) complete the ensemble for Easy living – much more than ‘simply’ sidemen, they add immeasurably to the listening experience on this recording. It simply wouldn’t be the same without their contributions.

Rava’s playing has always drawn me – he’s a true artist, a master of his instrument, able to encapsulate a wide dynamic range with both power and delicacy, never sounding shrill or brash even when turning up the volume. The nuances he achieves by controlling the distance between his horn and the microphone are incredible. The pieces on this album alternate between mellow and upbeat, without ever coming even close to releasing their holds on the listener’s attention. Starting off low-key with ‘Chromosomi’, the band works its way gently through the first four tracks – the achingly beautiful ‘Drops’, conjuring images of water trickling down a mountainside (to me at least); ‘Sand’, Rava’s tribute to Duke Ellington; and the title track, ‘Easy living’ (the only non-Rava composition here), easily one of the loveliest jazz instrumentals I’ve ever heard – before kicking it up a notch with ‘Algir Dalbughi’, which is not just stunningly creative in its composition…it’s downright fun. ‘Blancasnow’ returns to a more plaintive, haunting sound – ‘Traveling night’, led off by a great double-bass solo from Rosario Bonaccorso, settles into a wonderful groove and opens up some incredible interplay between Rava and Petrella. As the title would indicate, ‘Hornette and the drums thing’ showcases not only the wind players, but the work of Roberto Gatto as well – and the album ends on another low-key note, the beautiful ‘Rain’.
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Stepping back from the quintet for 2005’s Tati, Enrico enlisted the talents of bandmate Bollani on piano and the inimitable Paul Motian on drums and percussion for a beautiful, extremely personal recording. A true trio effort, the compositional credits are split – Rava offers 6 tracks, Motian 3, and Bollani 1, with a couple of ‘outsiders’ included: George Gershwin’s ‘The man I love’ and a little ditty by a fellow named Puccini (‘E licevan le stelle’, from Tosca). It’s clear from the first notes that this album is going to be a very special listening experience – and it doesn’t fail to live up to that promise. The intimacy of this session is palpable – the first time I heard it, I could have easily believed that it was recorded for my ears alone…but of course, given the depth of feeling that’s conveyed here, it’s too much a part of the souls of these players for me to be so selfish – this should be a gift to anyone who loves great music.

The second track, Paul Motian’s composition ‘Birdsong’, brings to mind the beauty and tranquility of Eric Satie. Bollani issues his piano lines straight from the heart, and Motian’s percussion is so delicate that it’s barely audible – Rava lays out completely on this track…which might have been planned, but I could easily imagine him taken so much by the beauty of what Bollani and Motian were playing that he simply stayed out of it. ‘Tati’, Rava’s tribute to the much-loved French film star, follows – a tune filled with both melancholia and joy, both attributes of Jacques Tati’s art. The mood remains laid-back and reflective through the next three tracks before picking up the tempo a bit with Rava’s ‘Jessica too’ – ‘Golden eyes’ and ‘Fantasm’ slow things down a little, then ‘Cornettology’ (which I suspect is another nod – along with 'Hornette’ on Easy living) by Rava to Ornette Coleman, with its jagged yet melodic melody lines). ‘Overboard’ and ‘Gang of 5’ round out the set in fine fashion. Listeners who prefer smaller, more intimate settings such as the ones featured on Tati are encouraged to check out Enrico's excellent 1993 duo recording (on the Egea label, which is a bit like an Italian ECM, considering the quality of their releases) with the fine Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, Nausicaa.
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As if I wasn’t ‘wallowing’ enough (and very happily, I might add) in these two albums, I recently discovered Enrico Rava live in Montreal 2005, a DVD recorded at the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival – and while Gianluca Petrella (stunning to watch him play, as well as hear him!) is the only musician from Easy living to appear in the film, I have no complaints about Rava’s choice of sidemen…his judgment is right on the mark, as always. On piano for this outing is Andrea Pozza, another frequent Rava collaborator, and an incredible musician in his own right – his sense of timing, both in solos and in support, is nothing short of breathtaking. Guesting on alto saxophone is Francesco Cafiso, who delivers some absolutely blistering solos -- the rhythm section is made up of Enzo Pieropaoli (double-bass) and Fabrizio Sferra (drums), both veterans of the Italian / European jazz scene (having played with the great Italian pianist Danilo Rea, among others).

Rava leads this group masterfully and gently through a great set of tunes – 4 tunes from Easy living (‘Algir Dalbughi’; ‘Sand’ – given two very different treatments here; ‘Traveling night’; and ‘Hornette and the drums thing’), tracks from a couple of his other many releases (‘Certi Angoli Segreti’ and the amusing-but-honestly-titled ‘Happiness is to win a big prize in cash’), along with a couple of jazz standards, ‘Nature boy’ and ‘Ponciana’. Every tune is a treat, as Rava displays his melodic and dynamic mastery, making sure that each member of the group is given an opportunity to shine as well. Petrella and Pozza are especially effective, along with the aforementioned sax work by Cafiso – but Pieropaoli and Sferra are stunning also.

The joy that is apparent in the performance by these musicians, in playing together and sharing their creativity and vision, is infectious – I can’t think that anyone who enjoys great jazz would not be blown away by this document. At one point, during a beautifully executed solo by Pieropaoli, Rava gathers Petrella and Cafiso around him into a tight circle and leads them in some incredibly apt off-mic support riffing. These guys are having fun and creating beautiful, moving art while doing it – how much better can music get?

Rava’s next album with his quintet, The words and the days, is due from ECM in February of 2007 – I can’t wait to hear where he leads us next. I’m sure it’ll be a rewarding musical journey. If you’ve yet to experience the music of this modern master, I suggest you get busy – I doubt that you’ll be disappointed.
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related links :

Enrico Rava
Stefano Bollani
Gianluca Petrella

ECM Records
Egea Records

16 December 2006

Addison’s wall
The silence grief leaves behind

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As far as I can ascertain, Addison’s wall is the first film of (near- ?) feature length from director David Waingarten – the only other credit I found on IMDB is for his short Post (2003 – 6min), which is included on this DVD as an extra item. From the strength of these two works, in my opinion, Waingarten is someone to watch.
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Addison’s wall is a study of the effects of grief and the process of healing, not only on the nine-year-old boy of the title (Colton Lasater), but on his mother (Ritah Parrish) as well – both of them have been deeply traumatized by the suicide of Addison’s father. Addison’s own method of coping with his grief is to escape through silence and separation – he has not spoken to anyone since his father’s death, and his mother is just about at the end of her rope. She has relocated the two of them to a new town, in the hope that a ‘new start’ will set them both on the right path. Most likely due to her own emotional pain, she has a hard time deciding what is ‘right’ for her son in this crucial period – she wants very much to trust Addison’s own instincts in finding his own path to healing, and communicates this to the principal of his new school, asking that he be allowed to remain silent while he works through his grief. The principal reluctantly agrees, telling Addison’s mother that she will communicate to the boy’s teachers and ask that they be patient with him – she also expresses how dangerous she thinks it will be for him without counseling.

Addison is misunderstood by his teachers and ostracized by his classmates – one in particular, a bullying young thug named Marcus (portrayed by Ben Milam) who takes every opportunity to torment him, taunting him repeatedly with a threatening ‘Ssshhhh….!’, accompanied by the laughter of his cronies. In one particularly charged scene, Marcus corners Addison in the school’s makeshift library, pinning him to the floor and waving a pair of scissors in his face, saying ‘Now we’re gonna find out what it takes to make you scream…!’

Unfortunately for Addison, his mother’s own pain is clouding her judgement – despite her best intentions, we see the boy slip further and further from reality. He makes begrudging attempts to communicate with her (and with his teachers) through written notes – but the main expression of his grief takes place out of sight. When they move into their new home, Addison’s mother gives him a blanket that belonged to his father – he indicates by gesturing that he wants it hung on the wall of his bedroom. He begins spending time behind it, divorced from the outside world, expressing his hurt and frustration and anger by writing and drawing on the hidden wall. Feeling safe, hidden from view, he vents his hatred of Marcus, his (understandable) questions about his father’s death, and more. On one occasion, with a radio talk show playing in the room, he begins to write down numbers, seemingly at random, that appear to fit into the broadcast conversation immediately after he scrawls them on the wall – he begins to think he can influence events by what he writes, another step away from the real world.
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Addison begins spending more and more time away from the house – and his mother discovers, through a phone call from his principal, that he hasn’t been in school. Alarmed, she breaks into his locked room and discovers the wall behind the blanket – which of course leaves her shattered.

The film is shot in beautiful black and white – a perfect choice, I believe, that underscores the tension and aspects of unreality in Addison’s world. Black and white is a great way to draw the viewer further into the film – there is an unconscious urge to ‘complete’ the images we’re used to seeing in color. David Waingarten has obviously put a lot of care into the short space of the film (61 min) – not a shot, not a frame is wasted. His camera lingers on the faces of his actors beautifully – and the shots that are wider give the viewer a perfect taste of the atmosphere in which this story takes place. The cast is just right – any attempt to shoot this story using 'name' Hollywood actors would have been distracting. These people look and act 'real', and that's a vital part of the film. If some find the fact that the ending is ‘unresolved’, I don’t think this is a detraction at all – the subject matter of this film (trauma and healing) is something that bears further thought, and the ending compels the viewer to speculate more on the outcome than if everything were ‘tied up neatly’, as in too many films.
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Waingarten’s short film Post is a treasure as well, dealing beautifully and almost in a dreamlike way with a grown woman’s memory of the disappearance of a childhood friend. Shot in Super 8 color, with the overall effect of a visual echo, the film does wonders in capturing the events from a child’s point of view. Memory is an amazing thing, and like Nichola Bruce’s incredible film I could read the sky (see my entry for 22 November 2006), it’s represented here more like it actually occurs than like a film playing in one’s head. I was mesmerized watching it, and did so twice more in succession. Like Addison's wall, the ending is a bit open – but also like the longer film, the subject is one that cries out for more attention and involvement.

Both of these works show great creativity and talent from David Waingarten. His work on Addison’s wall has been compared to Hitchcock and Polanski – but I think this director will show with further films that he has a vision that is his own.

This DVD is available to order directly from the good folks at CineQuest (check out their other great titles also), as well as from Amazon, at a very reasonable price – if you’re not willing to take the plunge, it's available through NetFlix. You can also go the film's website and watch a trailer – I think you'll be hooked.