The Art House Beat: Phil Spector, Tarzan of the Chinchorro Reef, and a Portuguese Nun
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (NWFF, Dec. 3-9)
One thing Vikram Jaynanti’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector” fails to do is provide enough information to support a verdict of either guilt or innocence of the murder charges in the case of of Lana Clarkson. The trial footage, such as it is, is obscured by invasive subtitles praising 20 of the songs Spector has produced. We are given a simultaneous feed of career and trial information, making it difficult to focus on anything in the movie except Jaynanti’s exclusive interview with the lauded producer and convicted killer. Although the interview would have been a stronger document had it been presented on its own, the additional material is so entertaining that I am loathe to complain about the atrocious job the director did of putting it all together.
Spector presents himself as an heir to such persecuted geniuses as Galileo. He sees himself as far above other 20th century artists as were DaVinci and Beethoven over their contemporaries. His bitterness toward the knighting of Elton John and George Martin is as strong as his resentment not being taken as seriously as Bob Dylan. And he states that his ability to commit himself fully to the productions of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and John Lennon’s “God” makes him better than both of those men. Much as society would like to send him to the gallows for such boastfulness, egocentricity does not necessarily a killer make.
One of the strange things about the film is that it devotes as much time to Spector’s work with the Beatles and John Lennon as to the rest of his career. It is so insistent on the primacy of these productions that one might think, after seeing the film, that he co-wrote Lennon’s magnificent first solo album. Additionally, there is no mention at all of his disastrous work with Leonard Cohen or The Ramones.
The interview itself is quite good, with moments of self-insight shining through the “I am the genius of the geniuses” rants. Even when he is eye-poppingly mad, there is a strain of rational logic behind his tirades. He skates on the edge of coherency when attempting to describe “Good Vibrations” as an “edit song,” just as “Psycho” was an edit movie. Since everyone knows that all movies and most music is put together through edits, it seems crazy to dismiss something for their use. But Spector is, beneath his poor grasp of English, making a valid point about effects that are achieved through cutting and those obtained through layering, as he describes his own method, comparing it to the layers of paint DaVinci puts on a canvass before he is satisfied with it (and dumps all the tracks into a mono mix?).
I was both delighted and frustrated by the film. Frustrated, because it is a terrible mess, almost impossible process the material it presents. Facts and anecdotes about the music and the murder are thrown up on the screen and taken down before there is sufficient time to read them. Some of Jaynanti’s editorial decisions, such as mixing testimony on the pathetic career opportunities for a 40-year old bimbo with Lennon singing “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” are reprehensible. But there is a constant chug of pleasure as Spector talks about his art while we watch what might be the sexiest ever musical performance of 1963: Ronnie Spektor lip-synching “Be My Baby.” It knocks Tina Turner’s show-busy live performance of “River Deep, Mountain High” right out of the courthouse.
The Portuguese Nun (NWFF, Dec. 3-9)
Eugene Greene is an American ex-patriot who re-invented himself as a French film director and wants to make a Fado-version of “Last Year at Marienbad,” knowing his ambition to be ridiculous. In the beginning of “The Portuguese Nun,” an actress who has come to Lisbon for a couple of days to shoot a film explains it to the hotel clerk, who dismisses it is the sort of thing only intellectuals would want to see. And he is right. The age of the art film has long since passed, and films like this, in which actors stare meaningfully into the camera to recite trite aphorisms in a hypnagogic trance, are not liable to draw more than a few ancient cineastes to the box office.
It’s too bad, because “The Portuguese Nun” is the funniest exercise in pseudo-seriousity since Woody Allen’s “Interiors.” Not only that, it offers an enchanting tour of Lisbon that should, but probably will not, help the Portuguese capitol displace Venice as Europe’s most romantic tourist destination. The city shimmers with life, love and faith, as does Leonor Baldaque, an actress who glows with an unearthly glamour although her facial features are disturbingly sepulchral, not unlike those of Marienbad’s Delphine Seyrig. As Julie de Hauranne, the actress who fits a series of near-love affairs into her sparse shooting schedule, she glows like the last ember of human flesh before the holy transfiguration.
If you think that last phrase was funny, you will love “The Portuguese Nun.” Greene has succeeded in his folly of transforming the art of the Fado into a cinematic catechism. The origins of the music are obscure, but one of the theories is that it was brought to Lisbon in the early 19th century by Portuguese sailors returning home from Brazil, where they had been enchanted by the music of African slaves. The songs are melancholic expressions of loss and the belief in an unyielding destiny, delivered in a state of sorrow that overwhelms the rational mind. When such mournful airs are translated into a screenplay, the result is a bit like a Johnny Mercer rewrite of Dostoyevsky’s “White Nights.”
Alamar (SIFF Cinema, Dec. 3-9)
It is too bad that the release of “Alamar” coincides with the controversy over Sarah Palin’s bashing fish to death on her television show, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” In “Alamar,” when Jorge teaches his five-year old son Natan how to smack the barracuda in their heads after pulling them into the boat without a net, it is simply a step in bringing the fish to market. When Palin clubs the halibut, it is an expression of repressed bloodlust craved by a civilized but still feral human being. This backwater politician, who recently demonstrated her ignorance regarding what half of Korea is a US ally, does not depend upon the slaughter of halibut for her livelihood, yet proves quite demonstrative in her enthusiasm for imitating the actions of those who still live in a relationship with the natural world that requires such brute actions. The reason I mention this is because “Alamar” is the story of a boy torn between the primitive world of his father, a Mexican fisherman, and his Italian mother living in the easy splendor of Rome. Most of the film takes place during the time he spends with his dad, learning the to live with the sea. They are a little like Tarzan and Boy, with Jane having absconded back to civilization, which is where Boy’s heart is, although he gets used to the hard life and becomes fond of doing things that once filled him with terror. An ever-present crocodile to whom are occasionally thrown scraps of fish innards represents their co-existence with predators. Watch out for the crocodile,” he warns his son. “He is getting too close and will eat you.” In the civilized world, predators are killed off to ensure the safety of domesticated humanity. In the wild, there are actions, such as clubbing a slippery, gasping, flopping, and dangerous fish, that strike the city dweller as rash, but I’ll take that to the way Greenlake’s goose population is kept under control by local authorities. There are moments of passing beauty in “Alamar; the Natan and Jorge walking along the slope of a fallen tree, the father spearing fish and crustaceans while swimming through the lustrous coral of the Chinchorro reef, and the tender way he has of catching a fly between his fingers to feed it to an African egret with whom he is bonding. But after all the pretty images pass us by, we are left pondering miserable state of urbanized man, cut off from the natural world, living in a reality construct of his own device, knowing we ourselves have become too meticulously sensitive to the barbarous way of nature to enter again into an ecological dynamic with our natural environment and thrive as a creature of the Earth.
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