Three recent DVDs | Bleader

Three recent DVDs

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Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki—son of the great filmmaker Aki—made 2002's Moro no Brasil as an extension of his abiding love for and fascination with Brazilian culture, and it captures the musical breadth of the country with more verve and depth than just about any account short of a scholarly book. (The film shares its title with an album by Seu Jorge’s first group, Farofa Carioca.) Constructed as a travelogue, the film starts with Kaurismaki in the arid sertao ("hinterland") of the northeast state of Pernambuco, profiling the Fulnio, one of many native Brazilian Indian tribes. He then heads east to Caruara and Recife, the cities that created musical styles like forro, frevo, and maracatu. Finally, he visits the Bahian city of Salvador before winding up in Rio de Janeiro, the source of the samba music that initially attracted him to Brazil.

A few major stars are featured in the Moro no Brasil, including a pre-fame Seu Jorge, Bahian singer Margareth Menezes, embolada heroes Caju and Castanha, and Recife meta-musician Silverio Pessoa. But the bulk of Kaurismaki’s subjects are largely unknown to Western audiences, and even Brazilian ones. He devotes a good chunk of the film to traditional folk forms, and while that might suggest a kind of fetishism in certain cultures, in Brazil those old styles aren't just wildly popular among ordinary citizens, they're the foundation for nearly all of the country’s vibrant contemporary pop music scene.

 
Afro-Punk, a low-budget 2003 documentary by first-time filmmaker James Spooner, examines what it means to be both black and punk, profiling four disparate individuals who share a similar alienation despite their different backgrounds, interests, and aesthetics. It gets off to a weak start with endless talking heads talking about their personal definitions of punk, and the cliches and simplifications fly fast and furious. Yes, punk represents an identity for the disenfranchised, and while many of the subjects distance themselves from the commercialized punk music and fashion, it’s hard not to cringe at the contradictions and half-baked philosophical meandering.

Things get much more interesting when the interviewees start describing what it’s like to be a black punk. They not only stand out amid fellow punks--the scene is overwhelmingly white--but they also feel like outcasts among other blacks, who decry their investment in a subculture seen as white and alien. Interspersed amid the four profiles are a barrage of sound bites from dozens of musicians and scenesters--including members of Fishbone, 90 Day Men, TV on the Radio, and Dead Kennedys--which keeps Afro-Punk lively and brisk. Spooner is definitely a provocateur, and the film opens with text that takes issue with the metaphor behind Patti Smith’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger.” He’s out to give fellow blacks something to identify with--and challenge whites who too often make glib assumptions about what it’s like to be black. The DVD includes an interview with Spooner, deleted scenes, and commentary from the director and Damon Locks of Chicago's Eternals.

Afijn is an illuminating and deeply entertaining video documentary on the great Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg. Along with drummer Han Bennink, Mengelberg is the patriarch of the distinctive Dutch jazz scene, which is omnivorous in content and irreverent in attitude. Afjin traces the pianist’s jagged artistic trajectory, drawing on old schoolmates and fellow composers to explain his impish and doggedly original aesthetic. There’s terrific footage and photographs from early performances—including a 1960 trio gig—that sheds light on his unique mixture of bebop (especially his key influences, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk) with vanguard modern composition (old pal Louis Andriessen is one of the doc’s subjects) and Dadaist tendencies.

The pianist comes off as both engaging and characteristically oblique in the extensive interview footage, and those qualities are mirrored in the recent performances featured in the film, some with trumpeter Dave Douglas and lots with Mengelberg’s long-running ICP Orchestra. Among the DVD’s extras are Pief, a short 1967 film made by the pianist that features a cat “playing” the piano, and a lengthy performance of an old composition called “With Sincerest Regards From the Camel,” in which a carpenter saws apart a wooden chair and reconstructs it in the shape of a camel while the ICP, with special guest Anthony Braxton, plays on. The disc also includes duet performances with Douglas and Bennink, and several complete ICP tunes.

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