Friday, August 21, 2015

The Retrieval

The Retrieval (⅘)

Set in the back half of the Civil War, The Retrieval follows two African Americans, a young boy Will (Ashton Saunders) and his uncle Marcus (Keston John), as they are tasked to recover a bounty on a former slave who now works for the Union army. Although themselves victims of slavery, Will and Marcus work for a group of bounty hunters roaming the war ravaged countryside and recapturing former slaves. In the first scene of the film, Will is taken in by a house on the underground railroad, and shortly after he is given shelter in a shed with other escaping slaves, he immediately provides their location to Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.), the alpha male of the slave hunters.

Burrell learns of a hefty bounty on Nate (Tishuan Scott), a former slave in the employ of the Union, and while it would be difficult for Burrell and his bounty hunters to venture north, Will and Marcus’s blackness allow them to enter Union territory. Will and Marcus find Nate digging soldiers’ graves and lure him back south by claiming his brother is sick and dying and offer to accompany him along his travels. Nate doesn’t know that his brother is already dead.

No major studio would even glance at a film like The Retrieval, which is an intimate film by design and, likely, budget. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the film for the studio to wrap their heads around is the blurring of racial lines of power and oppression.  Will and Marcus are implicated within the institution of slavery despite the fact that they are also its victims, a situation that is reminiscent Edward P. Jones’s novel, The Known World, which depicts the seemingly unlikely situation of a southern black who owns black slaves. (But, of course, blacks owning black slaves is a historical fact).

I’m sympathetic to those who are uncomfortable with stories that examine ways in which blacks were used to buttress slavery, especially since even in the 21st century we have barely come to terms with white culpability in slavery. White supremacists have long pointed to black slave owners as a means to elide the simple fact that the institution of slavery was built by and for the benefit of whites. But the film attempts to address these tricky reversals. Marcus, who is presented as brash and aggressive, repeatedly refers to the outsized bounty on Nate’s head, which will be shared by him and Will. But, for extra measure, Burrell threatens the life of Marcus and his entire family if he decides he wants to stay up North.

No more than thirteen-years-old, Will easily garners the audience’s sympathies. Because of his age, Will is both more beholden to the forces of slavery and capable of escaping it, at least once the war is over. The Retrieval reminds viewers that slavery itself was beholden to the marketplace, a means to unjustly enrich others through forced labor, torture, and rape. At one point, Marcus reminds Nate of their bare economic subsistence prior to working with Burrell and his men. And Burrell, who is of course a racist himself, is able to briefly put aside his white supremacy in order to prevent one of his men from irrevocably harming the “lost property.” But because the war is nearly over, this “property” and all the violence Burrell and his men employ capturing escaped slaves is meaningless and unnecessary. The institution of slavery is lost, even if they don’t know it.

The film’s dramatic center hinges on the whether in the end Will is going to bring Nate to Burrell, a question from which the film wrings plenty of suspense, despite its subtle visual approach. The relationship between Will and Nate grows as the film progresses, and in Will, Nate sees the possibilities of a life he was never allowed to fully live. Towards the end of the film, Will convinces Nate to see his former wife (in practice if not in fact, since slaves were not allowed to legally marry). Nate had long ago meant to return and buy his wife’s freedom before circumstances got the best of him. Unsurprisingly, the reunion isn’t exactly joyous. But the scene offers a glimpse a life denied.

[From here on, there are some spoilers]

Director Chris Eska and cinematographer Yasu Tanida paint a bleak landscape drained of color. Much of the film  appears bathed in morning fog, which can be equally menacing and beautiful. The film takes place in the winter of 1864, and the barren trees speak more powerfully of the Civil War’s violence than the brief glimpses of battles, but they also signify the death of antebellum America. We know that this death precedes the beginning of a necessary transformation of the nation. In the final shot of the film, Will returns to Nate’s wife and her new husband, an image that suggests that despite white supremacy’s attempt to sever black bonds, the black family survives, reassembled in unique ways.

The Retrieval was given a small release and earned only $50,000 in its theatrical run. (It’s now streaming on Netflix). But I think it’s a necessary addition to a recent spate of 21st-century films that examine slavery and the Civil War. Alongside discussions of Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, and Django Unchained, we must make room for The Retrieval when thinking of how the present attempts to make sense of the past.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dark Force Rising

Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn (⅘)

The second entry in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, Dark Force Rising, opens up shortly after the events of the first novel and the battle of Sluice Van.  Zahn takes this opportunity to splinter the characters, so that we follow a handful of different narrative threads: the criminals with a code of honor, Mara Jade and Talon Karrde, go on the run from Admiral Thrawn, Luke chases down the batty Jedi Master Jorus C’baoth, Han and Lando encounter a general from the Old Republic turned independent freedom fighter, and Leia negotiates with longtime Imperial mercenaries, the Noghri, to prevent them from coming after her and her unborn children.

Tying most of these disparate plot threads together is the Katana fleet, a lost fleet of starships that, if recovered, have the potential of shifting the balance between the New Republic and Admiral Thrawn’s imperial forces.  The Katana Fleet consists of two hundred Dreadnaughts, precursors to the Imperial Star Destroyer, and years prior to even the Clone Wars, its crew was infected by a virus that caused insanity, leading the crew to fling the compliment of starships out into the void of the galaxy.  (Along with unstable Jorus C’baoth, the madness of the crew of the Katana fleet makes insanity something of a recurring theme in the series).  As a MacGuffin, the Katan fleet bends each plot thread together by the end of the novel, although, because this is the second novel in a trilogy, plenty goes unresolved.

Dark Force Rising improves on its predecessor in most ways.  The multiple plots make sure that the narrative moves swiftly as we bounce around the galaxy catching up with what our characters are getting themselves into.  The sequel also provides Leia with a more satisfying role than Heir to the Empire.  In what is arguably the most interesting plot of the novel, Leia takes a Noghri captive to his homeworld where she uses her role as ambassador to try and convince the Noghri to abandon the Empire and join the Republic.  Leia must navigate the unique culture of the Noghri while also avoiding detection by Imperial forces.

Too often Leia gets scant attention, but she’s actually the highlight of the novel.  While tense negotiations with an alien race might not be the most visually interesting story in a film, it’s well tailored for the medium of a novel.  In fact, the role that the Republic has in keeping the peace is granted renewed attention.  In another wonderful moment in the novel, Luke must mediate between two seedy businessmen, and during the negotiation, he muses to himself that this must have been one of the central roles of the Jedi Knight.  With an exception of the opening of Episode I, we never really see the Jedi Knight as keepers of the peace, and it’s smart of Zahn to acknowledge this purpose.  (It’s also interesting to see how the prequels change Zahn’s timeline.  At one point it’s suggested that the Clone Wars occurred fifty or more years ago, but according to Episodes I-III, it’s probably more like twenty-five or thirty).  

Zahn’s great strength as a storyteller is his ability to plot out ways in which dueling characters continually think they have the upper hand until they don’t.  In fact, the strategizing reaches its wonderfully absurd peak with the character of Thrawn who studies a culture’s art in order to learn how they think and in turn how to defeat them.  At its most exciting, Zahn’s novels are like the sword fighting scene in The Princess Bride in which Bonetti is counteracted by Capo Ferro which is cancelled out by Thibault and then undermined by Agrippa.  These moves and countermoves are what makes the Thrawn Trilogy exciting, and by the end of Dark Force Rising, it’s easy to become eager to know who, in this interplay of strategems, gets the upperhand next.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Ciccone Youth - The Whitey Album

Ciccone Youth - The Whitey Album (⅘)

Did the eighties ever have a present?  At this vantage point, it’s impossible to imagine the eighties--with its puffy sleeves, big hair and synth rock--ever existed as a living, breathing era.  It seems as if the decade of New Coke was nothing more than a nostalgic fever dream.  I remember the boom of eighties nostalgia in the early aughts (clubs even had 80s themed nights back then), but Ciccone Youth’s 1988 album, The Whitey Album, makes a case for 80s nostalgia before the decade even ended.

Ciccone Youth, as their name implies, is a one-off side project of the art-punk, no-wave band Sonic Youth.  And while Ciccone Youth retains the band’s caustic experimentation, it’s distinct enough from their regular albums to justify the name change.  Listening to The Whitey Album, I can’t help but think that the band is commemorating the decade from some far off future.

Named after the surname of Madonna (Louise Ciccone), the band’s only album views the decade through a funhouse mirror and then breaks it into shards.  Various genres developed in the eighties, from synth-pop to hip-hop to industrial rock, are pulled and twisted until they are barely recognizable.  The playful name change signals Sonic Youth’s trickster intentions, but hidden underneath the experimentation there is a real affection for the decade’s popular music.  

By all accounts, Sonic Youth’s Madonna obsession was real, and the two covers included on the album push Madonna’s sound to the limit but also include sincere appreciation of her stature as a major female artist. Mike Watt of Minuteman fame joined Sonic Youth for the album, and he takes full duty on the first Madonna cover, “Burnin’ Up.”  Still, it’s telling that the band chose a lesser known single to cover. (I’m not overly familiar with Madonna’s work, so I heard Watt’s cover before I heard the original).  The resulting cover is decidedly lo-fi and stripped down, mostly consisting of Watt’s barely sung vocals, some guitar, some percussion, and lots of tape hiss.  

The album’s cover, a xeroxed black and white copy of Madonna’s portrait, indicates the band’s interest in playing around with post-modern concepts of artifice and reproduction. This is perhaps no more apparent than in their “cover” of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” sung by Kim Gordon and recorded in a Karaoke machine, which at one point you were apparently able to find at your local mall.  

The song echoes the album cover’s copy of a copy aesthetic while also recalling Andy Warhol’s silkscreen process.  Importantly, when Warhol ran off a dozen copies of Marilyn Monroe, the printing process still created unintentional variations in each version. Likewise, although the cover of “Addicted to Love” is note for note the same, no one is going to mistake the Ciccone Youth version for the original.  The fact that the song was recorded in a mall on a karaoke machine dates the album to the 80s, and this context is almost as important as the music itself. Karaoke machines become prominent in the 1980s and resulted from increased economic and cultural entanglement between the United States and Japan. Furthermore, the mall in the 1980s quickly became a place for teenagers to safely flee the confines of family life, as depicted in countless 80s comedies, as well as a site for mindless consumption, which may in fact double as a critique of Palmer’s all-surface music.

But Ciccone Youth also take reproduction seriously as an artistic choice.  The highlight of the entire album is the second Madonna cover that caps off the album, “Into the Groove” (here, renamed “Into the Groove(y)”).  At first the song appears to be a menacing reimagining of one of Madonna’s more danceable numbers. The notes sound lower, the song appears to be slowed down, and Thurston Moore’s vocals are distorted.  But then a little over a minute and a half in Madonna’s vocals surprisingly interrupt Moore’s monotone, creating a sort of deranged duet.  When it’s time for the singer to hit the high notes, the sample of Madonna nearly takes over fully. It’s a strangely perfect melding of Sonic Youth’s no wave roots and Madonna’s pop sensibilities. Like many artists first employing samples, Ciccone Youth never received approval for Madonna’s vocals, but supposedly after hearing the cover, Madonna convinced her label not to go after the band. Good on you, Louise Ciccone!

Throughout the album there’s also a real appreciation for hip-hop.  The most obvious example of hip-hop’s influence comes on Thurston Moore’s hilariously embarrassing rap on “Tuff Titty Rap” (which sounds surprisingly like one of the Beastie Boys).  But hip-hop beats are employed throughout the album as well as the occasional musical stab stab.  “G-Force,” for instance sounds like an oneric version of a hip-hop beat fronted by Kim Gordon’s spontaneous prose, which appear to be influenced by the beat poets.  If this wasn’t enough, the album also bears the stamp of industrial music, and two of the strongest tracks, “Macbeth” and “March of the Ciccone Robots,” appear to be influenced by the likes of Throbbing Gristle and Ministry.  

The Whitey Album sounds like nothing else that Sonic Youth did before or since, and it’s no surprise that the new name was quickly abandoned.  For some, the absurdist nature of certain tracks, such as the pot infused ramblings on “Two Cool Chicks Listening to Neu” or the one minute of silence on “(Silence),” might push your patience, but if you spend enough time with the album, you come to appreciate these moments as the band’s trickster strategy to dismantle 80s music so that it can then be rebuilt.  Moments such as “Hi! Everybody,” which sounds like the intro to an 80s aerobic video from hell, demonstrate the band’s efforts to criticize popular culture, but there are other moments, such as the sampling of Madonna on “Into the Groove(y),” that show there’s something to be salvaged from this decade of surface and artifice.