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Saturday, June 8, 2019

Jazz and La La Land (2016)

Last week I needed some background music to help me concentrate on work. Instead of going with piano tracks from Studio Ghibli movies, I made the mistake of picking La La Land. The music is pleasant enough, but it reminded me how much I despise the movie.

When I first saw La La Land in theaters 3 years ago, I was both amused and slightly uncomfortable about all the passionate talk about old-fashioned "pure" jazz by the male lead, played by Ryan Gosling.

You see, I, too, am a fan of old-fashioned, classical jazz from the 30s and 40s. I am not saying there is anything necessarily wrong with a white man "defending" and "saving" this "dying" art form --- Jazz belongs to everyone --- although I take exception to the tiresome claim that jazz is "dying" or "dead." (Change is not death!) But the scene in which he admonishes another jazz musician (played by John Legend, who is a pianist but NOT a jazz musician) for selling out to popular music is pretty juvenile and dick-ish.

While the character, who obviously speaks for the writer/director Damien Chazelle, lectures others sanctimoniously about the "purity" of old jazz, the music he creates and plays in the movie basically slaps himself in the face, because that is most certainly NOT old jazz. In fact there is no original, memorable jazz music on the entire soundtrack.

Again, I do not hate the movie's music, composed by Chazelle's Harvard classmate Justin Hurwitz. It's catchy, light, charming, typical French Bourgeois fluff. The real egg-on-the-face point is for the character to declare his love and admiration for Thelonious Monk and then play the syrupy theme. It's like Dan Brown declaring himself the one true heir to Shakespeare.

Far be it from me to decide what pure or good jazz is. Real jazz musicians have commented on how ignorant the movie is about jazz.

The cherry on top of all this self-inflicted damage is casting a (according to the American definition) black musician to be lectured by white boy pure-jazz savior. Well I guess an anti-obliviousness pill could do him some good.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Indian Gangster Cinema

I discovered Indian gangster movies through, of all things, Shakespeare. Specifically, it was Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool (2004), an adaptation of Macbeth, that captured my fascination.

In an interview, Bhardwaj mentioned that his inspiration was the auteur Ram Gopal Varma, who broke open the genre with Satya (1998).

Indeed, Satya is extraordinary, with clear influence by and homage to Italian neorealist and French existentialist cinema. The stark naturalism is particularly striking in the context of Indian cinema where Bollywood's opulence and fantasies dominate.

Without having acquired an extensive discography of Indian gangster movies, I stumbled upon Anurag Kashyap via the TV series Sacred Games (2018), purely because I read the sprawling novel of the same title. It was more of a thriller set in the Mumbai underworld. But then I traced Kashyap to the unbelievable Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).

At the end of the Part 1 of Gangs of Wasseypur, Kashyap made an unabashed homage to the movie that every gangster movie after 1970 owes a debt to, no matter where in the world it is made --- The Godfather.

Indeed, the Godfather may not be the granddaddy of world gangster cinema, but it is the most influential and consequential, bar none. Of course, Coppola must have had some exposure to the Italian trashy cinema in the 1960s.

Not that I'm claiming one is superior to the other, but I much prefer Kashyap's gangs to Martin Scorsese's, be they from New York or Boston.

Incidentally, Scorsese's gangs of Boston, ie, The Departed (2006), were originally gangs from Hong Kong, ie, Infernal Affairs (无间道,2002) made by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.

And of course, the Hong Kong gangster genre was my original entry point, initiated in the early 1990s by John Woo.

Every country's gangster movies have their own lineage and tradition and unspoken code, and yet their shared something in their soul and spirit that no other genres do. Is it bloodthirst? Is it nihilism? Is it a chase of cheap thrills? Or is it an instinct for revenge? Whatever it is, it's universal.

Unexpectedly, more than the death, family, and revenge, the Indian gangster movies taught me the Indian sense of humor. Subtle, dark, self-deprecating, and absurdist, almost a bit like Finnish humor.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Gangs of Wasseypur

I don't feel like I should write a wholly enthusiastic post about Gangs of Wasseypur just yet, because I am still only 15 minutes into the second part of this epic. It was made as one 5-hour-long movie by Anurag Kashyap in 2012 but had to be split into two parts because of the length. But still. Holy cow! What a movie! What a contribution to the world genre of mafia/gangster sagas! (And Kashyap was not even 40 years old when he made it. Damn you!)

The first part ends with a shootout that was an unabashed homage to the death of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, with the dual benefit of Indian authenticity and absurdist black humor. The movie is organized as a series of semi-incoherent scenes cut together with the intention of concealing as much as illustrating the narrative logic from one scene to the next. One could almost hear Anurag whispering in one's ear: Forget about why and how and who, and look at the details. So many delicious, blackly hilarious, and unexpectedly emotional details. It reminds one of how life is actually lived --- fumbling from moment to moment with no premonition of what is to fall in the next scene and no understanding of what has led us to this time and place.

Early in Part 2, there was a prolonged night scene of gruesome beheading. At first I was just taken by the bloodiness with a hint of absurdity, but then it dawned on me how hard it must have been to stage this scene uncut, starting with Actor A sitting and talking with Actor B to A's severed "head" ended up in B's hand. Very clever. And a lot of scenes were done similarly, almost trying to hide its technical brilliance in gritty realism.

Jazz and La La Land (2016)

Last week I needed some background music to help me concentrate on work. Instead of going with piano tracks from Studio Ghibli movies, I mad...

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