Daniel Lanois: Here Is What Is

Here Is What Is movie poster


Daniel Lanois is a unique musician, as gifted a singer-songwriter in his own right as he is a collaborator and producer. I originally came to recognize his name after finding it listed in the credits of many key items in The Dork Report’s formidable music collection, including Peter Gabriel’s So and Us, U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind. His 1993 solo album For the Beauty of Wynona remains an all-time personal favorite.

The feature documentary Here Is What Is premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007, directed by Lanois, Adam Samuels, and Adam Vollick. It captures the recording of the album of the same name, but also serves as a kind of retrospective and mission statement. Conversations between Lanois and early mentor (now equal) Brian Eno punctuate the film. Lanois states to Eno his intentions for the movie: to create a film about the beauty of music, not everything that surrounds it (which I took to mean hagiography, celebrity gossip, and the sometimes tedious behind-the-sceens documentation typical of the genre). Eno suggests that his film should try to show people that art often grows out of nothing, or from the simplest of seeds in the right situations, not from what outsiders might assume are the miraculous inspirations of allegedly brilliant or gifted artistes.

Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno in Here Is What IsDaniel Lanois and Brian Eno recording their new ambient masterwork, “Music for Staircases”

Lanois is Canadian by birth, but has a special affinity for the American South, especially New Orleans. He credits New Orleans for the original sensual groove that formed the basis of rock music. Perhaps intended as a visual echo of this theory, the stunningly beautiful Carolina Cerisola often appears dancing in her scanties.

Lanois details his longtime, fruitful collaboration with drummer Brian Blade. Legendary keyboardist of The Band, Garth Hudson, also joins them in the studio for some truly awesome performances. One of my favorite sequences intercuts between “The Maker” performed by Lanois’ band live in studio, covered by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, and Lanois’ band live on stage. Billy Bob Thornton, still friends from collaborating on the score to Sling Blade in 1996, drops in for a visit. We catch exciting glimpses of recording U2’s forthcoming album (since christened No Line on the Horizon, to be released in February 2009) with Eno and Steve Lillywhite.

Daniel Lanois in Here Is What IsWhich button dials down Bono’s ego?

Lanois names a primarily influence to be the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which he describes as a fairly straightforward rock trio but with ambitious, experimental production. He describes how he himself approaches production, in just one word: “feel.” He reportedly had a contentious relationship with Dylan in the studio, but the resultant albums are classics, and Dylan affirmed that “you can’t buy ‘feel.'” Another Lanois aphorism, “maximize the room,” means to make the most of what you have, rather than invite guest musicians or order up more equipment.

Here Is What Is features full performances of songs, which is especially welcome compared to two recent music documentaries recently screened by The Dork Report: Low in Europe (read The Dork Report review) and You May Need a Murderer (read The Dork Report review), which both shy away from actually showing Low perform. Here Is What Is’s visuals are sometimes compromised with cheesy video effects. The film is at its best when simply following the hypnotic movements of Lanois’ hands on his pedal steel guitar.

Official movie site: daniellanois.com/hereiswhatis

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Low: You May Need a Murderer

Low You May Need a Murderer


It may seem overkill for the so-called slowcore band Low to be the subject of another documentary feature film only a mere four years after Low in Europe, but it must be because they’re just so interesting. Filmmaker David Kleijwegt’s You May Need a Murderer could just as well be titled Low in America, as he speaks with founding members Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker at home in Duluth, Minnesota, and on tour across America in support of the Drums & Guns album. The key characteristics of that record are what most inform the film: Sparhawk’s mood post-nervous breakdown, and Low’s most overtly expressed social and political commentary yet. Low had also just adopted a new bass player, Matt Livingston, after Zak Sally’s long tenure, but he does not participate (he’s only barely glimpsed, even in live onstage footage).

You May Need a Murderer is a much more satisfying film overall than Low in Europe. Whether by their own desire to open up or by Kleijwegt’s persuasive interview skills, Sparhawk and Parker are notably more candid and direct, especially on the topic of their faith. Which is exactly what one would single out as the most interesting thing about Low: Sparhawk and Parker are a married Mormon couple that that tithe a tenth of all their income to the church. I suppose Low might belong in that rare category of bands whose music is often characterized by religious beliefs, like the often overtly Christian U2, but would never be filed under “Inspirational” in record stores. Unlike U2’s joyous hymns and optimistic calls to activism, Low’s inspirations are considerably more dark and apocalyptic.

Low You May Need a Murderer

When Low gets political they do so with a vengeance. Sparhawk is in despair over America’s economy and politics, and has long believed that the world may reach a crisis point in his lifetime (he stops short of predicting it will actually “end”). Sparhawk’s genuine beliefs gives him the real authority to criticize George W. Bush’s claim to faith. The title song “You May Need a Murderer” is sung from the point of view of one who goes before his god and asks to be used as a warrior. It becomes clear that the speaker is in effect staring into a mirror, bringing his own baggage to an imaginary conversation, and justifying his own dark impulses. Sparhawk is, needless to say, talking about self-proclaimed men of faith like Bush and Tony Blair. The song is utterly terrifying, and raises the hairs on the back of my neck every time. It may be the ultimate statement on the topic, and does not compare favorably to the similarly-themed song by Bright Eyes, “When the President Talks to God.”

The most surprising personal topic to come up is Sparhawk’s apparent nervous breakdown in 2005. We see Sparhawk appearing very nervous backstage before a show, but otherwise functional. But he describes himself as having been “clinically delusional” at the point of his breakdown, and while having nominally recovered, he also cops to being a drug addict. To him, the biggest conflict these two aspects of his life have is with his religion.

Must Read: The Speed of Silence review

Must Read: PopMatters review

Official Low site: www.chairkickers.com

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Purity, Ubiquity & Legibility: Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica

Helvetica movie poster


Helvetica (the documentary film) is not about Helvetica (the typeface), per se. Rather, it’s about the arts of graphic design and typography, their practitioners, and how they affect our daily lives.

Each luminary talking head has a different explanation of Helvetica’s appeal and longevity: neutrality, legibility, perfection (unlike more ornate typefaces, it is arguably comprised of the purest state of letterforms and can’t be improved), cleansing renewal (transitioning the tacky design of the 1950s to the bold and to-the-point 60s), problem-solving, soothingness, and just plain beauty. Its detractors see its ubiquity as self-perpetuating, due to designers’ momentum, habit, and bad taste. The enthusiasm of the enthusiasts is infectious, but the movie doesn’t mock them or hold them up as objects of curiosity culled from a nerdy subculture (as does, arguably, The King of Kong).

A scene from Gary Hustwit's HelveticaThe days when typographers had dirty fingers

Thankfully for its subject matter of graphic design, director Gary Hustwit presents a highly polished work full of excellent typography, motion graphics, and editing. This Dork Reporter bemoans the tendency of many documentaries (like Spellbound and Wordplay) to use their non-fiction badge as a press pass to excuse grain, sloppy framing, and poor sound.

This Dork Reporter is a self-educated web designer, not properly trailed in the art and/or craft of graphic design. But he knows enough to applaud the film for touching upon two of the biggest aspects of typography that every layperson should internalize:

  • Know your terms: Typefaces are designs. Fonts are particular implementations of those designs. There are multiple fonts based on the typeface Helvetica.
  • Arial is a poor Helvetica knock-off commissioned by Microsoft to side-step the expensive licensing fees. It is an abomination, a blight upon this planet earth, and should be summarily deleted from humanity’s hard drives. (q.v. The Scourge of Arial)

A scene from Gary Hustwit's HelveticaWe’d be lost without Helvetica… literally

Finally, this Dork Reporter must note a major disappointment: I rented Helvetica from Netflix, and the disc arrived emblazoned with a “Red Envelope Entertainment” label. Bizarrely, there were no signs of the extensive bonus features promised on the movie’s official website. Has Netflix begun releasing “not-so-special” editions of DVDs omitting the bonus features available on retail editions? This Dork Reporter, long a relier on Netflix to help keep his DVD shelves from groaning into a black hole of overconsumption, stamps his feet in frustration.

Official movie site: www.helveticafilm.com

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

The King of Kong movie poster


First, full disclosure: I work for the movie company that distributed The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. My miniscule role in marketing the film was limited to designing the official movie site, and I am under no obligation or prohibition to write this review (which happens to be positive, anyway). Any opinions expressed here are mine alone. I mostly avoid writing about movies released by my employer. I’m making a rare exception in this case because The King of Kong has been out of theaters for some time, and my personal opinion on this blog is certainly not going to have any impact on its revenue. Having just seen it again, I have a few thoughts I would like to record here.

I would hate to be an English teacher, at any level, for one reason: the countless “it’s a metaphor for life” papers I would have to grade. Probably one of the biggest cliches of kids’ essays is to pull out that refrain, e.g. “the light at the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby in a metaphor for life.” After grading a few dozen of those I just might want to start throwing things and switch to another career, like, say for example, web design.

Billy Mitchell in The King of KongBilly Mitchell with the ladies of Namco

That said, I’m about to commit that very grievous essay sin: if anything is a metaphor for life, it’s Donkey Kong. Let’s look at the evidence:

  • Donkey Kong is an intensely difficult game.
  • The game’s god/creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, did not supply it with a predefined ending.
  • The number of levels is undeclared at the outset.
  • Anyone with a quarter can play.
  • Most people die very quickly.
  • A very select few thrive and have their names entered into history.
  • How you play, not just how long you live, determines your score. In other words, you can reach the exact same point in the same level as somebody else but have a higher score.
  • Even the best of the best players cannot “win” the game; everyone will eventually drop dead without warning and through no gameplay fault of their own. This point has become known as the game’s “kill screen.”

That list of bullet points just about covers it; Donkey Kong is so clearly a metaphor for the human experience that the film thankfully doesn’t even bother to explicitly state its themes. Kids, let that be a lesson.

The King of KongSteve Wiebe preps for the big game

The King of Kong is a very rousing film that works best to an audience; if possible, watch the dvd with friends. From what I can gather, viewers respond to two basic things: the frankly weird subculture of professional video gaming, and the more universal story of the underdog vs. an entrenched power network. A suspicion is gaining traction that the story is too perfect, the hero Steve Wieve too all-american, and the villain Billy Mitchell too evil. The movie’s official message board features heated discussions including actual figures featured in the film, and documentarian Jason Scott has gone so far as to publish a passionate teardown of The King of Kong’s filmmakers’ ethics.

Personally, I wish the film had been more clear on a few points:

• As you can read on the above links, Billy Mitchell’s well-timed taped submission did seem fishy but turned out to be genuine.
• Most viewers (including myself) all ask the same question: how long does it take to play one of these “perfect” games? The movie finally discloses the answer incidentally near the end, as if the filmmakers weren’t deliberately withholding the information, but rather didn’t realize it was something viewers needed to know.

All in all, the subculture featured in the film is a truly unique bunch of people, and a great find by the filmmakers. Some of them may deserve a little mockery, but my favorite moment in the film goes to a Robert Mruczek, who describes how professional sports records are broken once in a lifetime, but he sees gaming records broken every day. And how exciting is that?

Official movie site: www.billyvssteve.com

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For All Mankind

For All Mankind movie poster


It was a weird experience to finally see the original film for the soundtrack to which I’ve listened to countless times. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’ Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks is a gorgeous piece of work, and very much colored my expectations of what the film would be. Having long pictured a largely abstract compilation of otherworldly lunar footage, I was surprised to find For All Mankind a more straightforward documentary than what was already in my head. (Bits and pieces from the compilation album Music for Films III also appear.)

Unlike In the Shadow of the Moon, the 2007 feature documentary on the same subject, For All Mankind exclusively uses original footage taken during the Apollo Missions, much of it by the astronauts themselves. The absence of new narration or footage rightly places the emphasis solely on the achievements of the original participants. But a drawback is that the interviewees on the soundtrack are not identified (the Criterion DVD edition includes an option to display subtitles identifying the speakers).

For All MankindOpen the pod bay doors, HAL

I have little to add to Matthew Dessem’s excellent review on The Criterion Contraption blog, or to my own thoughts on In the Shadow of the Moon. Three small observations:

  • I was completely ignorant that NASA first began spacewalks during the Apollo missions. I was under the impression they began during the space shuttle missions of my youth. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that NASA would test spacewalks in orbit over the Earth before attempting to step out of a capsule onto the moon, but: Wow!
  • The astronauts were very conscious of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Each astronaut could bring one cassette tape to play on a portable deck, and one chose Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. Another describes seeing the moon surface up close as being like something from 2001.
  • Due to the film’s nature of being comprised of original footage, there’s perhaps too much of the astronauts goofing off in zero-G, and not enough of the spectacular lunar footage. But it goes to show that even the pilots selected for being the most sane and calm people in the word still turn to excited kids when playing in outer space (with the rare exception to prove the rule).

Criterion DVD info: http://www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=54

Criterion Contraption review: http://criterioncollection.blogspot.com/2006/04/54-for-all-mankind.html

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Kurt & Courtney

Kurt and Courtney movie poster


A documentary by Nick Broomfield about the controversy surrounding the apparent suicide of Kurt Cobain.

Not yet knowing he himself will become part of the story, Broomfield holds his cards pretty close to his chest throughout. It’s not until fairly late in the film that he begins to describe his own feelings. His interviewees cover an entire spectrum of responses to the death: all the way from unambiguous suicide to unambiguous murder. Some on each side are credible, some are… to say the least, not. The only thing that seems clear is that Love is a monster, and the question becomes not “did Cobain commit suicide or was he murdered?” but rather “did Love drive him to suicide or have him murdered?”

A thick soup of inconclusive opinions, recollections and possibly lies leave Broomfield not knowing what to believe (as he reveals in a despairing voiceover). He finally comes across a journalist willing to go on the record with several recorded death threats given by Love and, dishearteningly given that he was apparently a gifted, sweet, and loving person, Cobain himself! At last, some concrete evidence. Even then, Broomfield doesn’t quite reveal his feelings. So it comes as quite a surprise when he makes a guerilla attack upon Love at an ACLU event. Of course it’s an atrocity that she’s even there, given her documented behavior towards journalists (with whom of course Broomfield personally identifies), but his sudden and very public attack is powerful and shocking. Even his cameraperson couldn’t hold the camera still.

Here’s the confessional part: I never really liked Nirvana. An interesting point about the film: unless I missed something, the word “grunge” is never spoken. Instead many individuals confidently describe Nirvana as simply “punk.” And you saw this coming: I never really liked punk. I think I have an intellectual understanding of it: the significance of its arrival and the wide-reaching spread of its influence. All true, but I don’t chose to listen to it.

So I came to the film without a full knowledge of the music and the band’s history, and without the preconceived notions of Cobain and Love fans are likely to have. So for me, the film is not really about any of those things; its larger theme really has to do with how one can lose the big picture (to use a cliche without being able to think of a better term at the moment) the closer you look, and the finer your focus. And not to mention the disturbance your gaze can cause if you press it in too close.