Beyond the Multiplex

The Beastie Boys' fan-shot concert film: For frat guys only? Plus: Matthew Barney's latest ... starring Bjork and a whole lot of Vaseline.


Andrew O'Hehir
March 30, 2006 5:00PM (UTC)

An "authorized bootleg" concert film by a hip-hop, jazz-funk, hardcore punk band. A low-budget detective film that injects Dashiell Hammett's trademark hard-boiled sensibility into a Southern California high school, circa 2006. An enigmatic, nearly wordless spectacle set aboard a whaling ship, from the man anointed the greatest artist of his generation. And then there was the really weird movie I saw this week, in which Jiang Qing, aka Madame Mao, returns from the grave to visit the discos of Shanghai and defend her beloved propaganda operas of the Cultural Revolution.

It's spring, and I hope the flowers are out wherever you are. They're sure as hell blooming on the indie-film calendar, and with the festival season just starting and new releases rolling out by the bucketful, the main danger right now is missing Something Really Good. So our backlog of nominations for great little movie theaters in unlikely spots will have to wait. Weep not, gentle readers, for the Parkway of Oakland, Calif., the Dipson Market Arcade of Buffalo, N.Y., or the Bookshelf Cafe of Guelph, Ont.; their day will come. (As always, I welcome new suggestions.)

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Onward. This is one of those weeks that, like the big new shopping center out on Route Whatever, offers something for everybody. As Dr. Johnson once observed, when you grow tired of watching intriguing but flawed films made by overly ambitious, egotistical people, you grow tired of life. OK, he didn't quite put it that way.

"Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!": Everything they do is funky like Lee Dorsey
Various levels of hype have been applied to the Beastie Boys' mostly fan-shot concert film, "Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!" -- yes, it's the only title in film history to include both a semicolon and an obscenity, a Beastie touch if ever there was one. Shot by 50 different audience members all over New York's Madison Square Garden during an October 2004 show, "Awesome" has been dubbed an "authorized bootleg" and the first-ever full-length concert video of the blog generation.

Never mind all that. Handing out a bunch of video cameras to fans was a predictable, if imaginative and highly contemporary, extension of the fan-performer feedback loop that characterizes so much of pop culture over the last 40 years. And of course two more things had to happen: The group actually had to get onstage and play, and then somebody had to edit that 100-plus hours of raw video, much of it undoubtedly pretty rough going, into a movie.

That somebody was Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (under his longtime alter ego identity, Nathanial Hörnblowér), and what he's come up with, after a year of editing, is pretty much the state of the art in concert films. It captures, first and foremost, a house-rocking performance. If you like or admire or even just tolerate the B-Boys' peculiar mixture of old-school hip-hop, self-mocking Catskill shtick, beer-bong party music and New Age sincerity, "Awesome" delivers all those commodities with relish.

Despite bouncing around between what seem like infinite points of view, "Awesome" never feels incoherent, or at least no more so than the subjective experience of being in the Garden that night presumably did. Sometimes we're right next to the stage, watching MCA (Yauch), Adrock (Adam Horovitz) and Mike D (Michael Diamond) strut around in semi-retro emerald-green Adidas jumpsuits while their legendary DJ, Mix Master Mike, works the turntables.

Sometimes we're so deep in the nosebleed sections that the band members are distant, pin-size icons and the action is all around us; the dude in the maroon USC cap flowing the lyrics to "Hello Brooklyn" or "Pass the Mic," or the girl in the spaghetti-strap top who eerily echoes Mike D's dance moves. (Later, when the band announces its last song, she, or possibly someone else who looks like her, will scream into the camera: "Last song? That's bullshit! I need more!") Seeing this movie in a big theater full of fans will really be fun.

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In fairness, a significant proportion of the actual concert footage, and nearly all the backstage material, was shot by five professional videographers with D.V. cameras. Yauch essentially uses the fan videos to create the sweaty texture of crowded concert-hall reality, as well as for comic effect. There's the guy who films his bathroom break, in considerable detail. There's the overly enthusiastic fellow who tells everyone he meets, "Hey, this is for the DVD! Come on, everybody! Get excited!" (No one seems terribly impressed.)

Yauch and his band mates use this film to make fun of themselves and their audience in roughly equal measures, and I guess that's fitting; if any band represents the now-aging demographic raised on MTV and "The Simpsons," it's the Beastie Boys. But there's nothing knowing or mocking about the overall dance-party atmosphere here, or the sheer entertainment value. The Boys go from those 1988-style Adidas outfits to tuxedos (for a jazz-funk instrumental interlude), then back to rap before closing the show the way they began their career, playing three-chord guitar rock (with a dedication of "Sabotage" to George W. Bush).

There's also no element of mockery in the impressive, mind-altering arsenal of 21st century editing tricks Yauch has up his sleeve; the director of "Jimi Plays Berkeley" could only dream lysergic dreams about stuff like this. We go right into the wood grain of the bass guitar during the instrumental number, dude! Suffice it to say that at certain kinds of parties during the 2006-07 academic year, certain guests will sit through this film three, four, maybe five times.

I'm no judge of these matters, but clearly at this stage the Beastie Boys aren't the cutting edge of rap or rock or any other field. Their once-revolutionary status as the only authentic white rappers has been consolidated into its own peculiar niche; judging from this concert, their audience is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly wholesome in a beery, post-collegiate kind of way. As critic Nelson George long ago observed, the audience for chart-topping rap acts has always been whiter than most outsiders supposed, but in the case of the Beasties, most of their black audience has grown up or moved on to newer performers.

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Sometimes, though, performers and artists become more interesting after the heat of novelty has faded a little. "Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!" offers a half-accidental career overview of a band that blended punk sincerity and brash, materialistic hip-hop attitude from its creation, and so captured the imagination of a middle-class audience that was never sure, from one moment to the next, whether to fight, to party, or to find some way of combining the two. I don't know where they'll go next or whether they're still relevant. But who cares? After this movie, the Beasties and their fans, camera-totin' or not, are left drenched, exhausted, delighted.

"Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!" opens March 31 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with more to follow.

"Brick": Moll takes a powder; shamus goes after all the tokers, reef worms and two-bit yegs in his burg
Rian Johnson, the 32-year-old director of "Brick," was delighted when I told him there'd been a walkout during a New York critics' screening of his film the previous day. This definitely isn't normal; after all, people like me are basically getting paid to sit through movies. If you get up and leave, it's because you're really having a bad time.

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"Life is too short!" the woman had announced loudly as she stormed out. (I didn't tell Johnson that part.) Now, we're not talking about some movie that is willfully obscure or glacially slow or thematically impenetrable; Johnson hasn't remade Visconti's "Ludwig" or Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev." In some ways, he's done something more mannered and artificial than that. "Brick" is set in a high school, in Southern California, approximately now. And it's a detective movie, borrowing its clipped, slangy dialogue (see above) and archetypal plot structure from Dashiell Hammett's fiction and classic film noir.

If you're wondering how the hell that would work, well, you really have to see it to get it. Johnson won a special jury prize at Sundance last year, and there's a general sense in the movie world that he's the real deal, an unusual talent who's launching his career with a film that some will love, some will hate and nobody will forget.

Here's the thing: "Brick" isn't a joke or a postmodern narrative gambit, although it might have started out with some of that flavor to it. Instead, as Johnson explained to me, it's an engrossing fantasy picture that in some ways gets close to the feeling of teenage life, even though it bears almost no relationship to its reality.

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Johnson made "Brick" in his hometown of San Clemente, Calif., shooting on old-fashioned 35-millimeter film with a budget of $500,000, and capturing the anonymous breezeways and hallways of a suburban high school as a kind of mythic geography. Against this landscape, a high school student named Brendan (marvelously played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is our tough, lonely, wounded shamus, pursuing a good girl gone bad named Emily (Emilie de Ravin), whom somewhere in his heart he still loves.

Bad things happen to Emily. Oh, very bad. The drug trade has gotten out of control, presided over by a cane-toting, cape-wearing Goth named the Pin (a deliriously great role for Lukas Haas). There's a rich girl (Nora Zehetner) with a thing for Brendan, but can she be trusted? Answer: No. There are cryptic notes, strange diagrams, words Brendan doesn't understand. Maybe his trusted sidekick the Brain (Matt O'Leary) can help. Maybe he's gotta beat the truth outta some two-bit yegs. Maybe the vice principal (Richard Roundtree!) will stop Brendan first.

"Brick" doesn't work 100 percent of the time, but it's a striking achievement, beautifully shot, often hilarious and occasionally moving. I won't be able to sell you on it any better than that, and I know -- you're still skeptical. I talked with Rian Johnson, a bluff and agreeable guy with an easy laugh, in his New York hotel room.

You know, it's great to see a teen movie where nobody ever says "like" or "whatever." I guess there's one instance of "dude."

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[Laughter.] There's a "dude," yeah. You know, I didn't set out to make a teen movie. The origin point was a detective movie. I got into Dashiell Hammett's novels, and decided I wanted to do a straight-up American detective movie. The teen thing was almost a random, incidental choice at first. I was faced with a dilemma: It's hard to make a detective film today, in a straightforward way, and not have people immediately associate it with the noir tradition. So that's where this weird decision to put it in this stylized high-school world came from.

Once I made that decision, it did, in some weird, roundabout way, start becoming very much about the high school experience. That slipped in through the back door a little bit. A lot of stuff you see today about high school, even good stuff, is done from a very adult perspective. It's always presented as a less serious world than the adult world, which from the adult perspective it totally is. From the high schooler's perspective, it's the most serious time in your life. Your head's completely encased in that world, you know? Things that are objectively silly, like who eats lunch with who, who's going out with who, or who gave who what kind of dirty look -- that seems life and death to you. So even though "Brick" has very little to do with what high school is actually like -- I hope! -- it's maybe a little closer to what it felt like, in terms of the stakes than a more realistic portrayal.

Right, I mean, you went to that high school in San Clemente. Presumably kids aren't getting bumped off all the time.

Not on a weekly basis, no.

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And the drug trade may exist, but probably on a lower level than you depict.

On a much lower level, I would think.

What you're talking about is the emotional reality of high school life: It feels like life-and-death, it feels like millions of dollars are flowing back and forth, or might as well be. It has all the drama, or potential drama, of adult life.

Absolutely, and if you look at all the best high school movies, if you look at "Rebel Without a Cause" or "The Outsiders" or "Rumblefish" or even "Heathers," they do that. They put you in that head space; they don't talk down to the world that they're creating.

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You have this funny combination of stylized elements and realism. I mean, the dialogue is not naturalistic at all. But the clothing is realistic, and the relationships between the kids are mostly plausible. Your villain has this goth-wizard look and carries a cane and quotes Tolkien, which is brilliant. How did you go about merging those worlds that seem totally different?

I think if we had consciously approached it we would have gone nuts, and probably bungled it. Part of our approach was to ignore it, was not to think of it in those terms. I like to say that our job as filmmakers was to imagine that we were John Huston back in the day, had this script dropped in our laps, and then said, "OK, what are the creative choices we make to bring this to life?" You know, I forbid any of the cast from watching any Bogart noirs, because I thought it was really important to have all the choices in this movie be honest. I wanted the creation of a world, as opposed to the reflection of a bunch of old movies.

Then you've got this clipped, highly artificial dialogue, with all of these 1920s slang terms out of Hammett, if they were real slang even then. "I'm not heeling you to hook you," or calling cops "bulls" and saying "yegs" instead of "guys." Clearly, some people aren't going to ride with that. This is going to divide the audience, as I saw last night.

Absolutely. No question. The purpose of it for me, in narrative terms, was a very practical one. It's to establish very clearly that this was its own world, that it wasn't supposed to be any sort of realistic interpretation of the high-school world. On top of that, it was just incredibly fun to write and for the actors to perform! Going back to "Rebel Without a Cause," or going back to real high school, having your own language has always been a key part of being a teenager.

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In terms of the way audiences bounce off it, I knew in the writing stage that this would not be a film for everybody. In my mind, that's what little indie films should be. You know? They should be movies that don't have to be for everybody, that can try something interesting without being afraid that everybody's not gonna fall in love with them.

For me, it's one of the most exciting things about putting the movie out there. I love hearing from people who have the type of reaction I hoped for, who really loved it and can dig their hands into the language, and who feel about it the way I feel about movies I love. But I also love hearing from people who hate it, who come away from it and react, like, "ugh," like it's just not their thing. That's fun for me too, actually, because all my favorite movies are somebody's least favorite movie. I love movies that tend to divide people.

You've talked about the influence of the Coen brothers on your work, and specifically "Miller's Crossing," which isn't exactly their best-known work.

That's how I got to Hammett, actually. I was a big fan of that movie, and that's what led me to his books. Or take a film like "Barton Fink," or Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love." That's exactly the kind of movie where if they had adjusted it so everybody loved it, it just wouldn't be what it is.

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Now, other than Richard Roundtree as the vice principal, and a couple of scenes with the Pin's crazy mother, which I won't give away, you keep the adult world out of the film entirely.

Obviously that was a conscious choice. It's like "Peanuts," the comic strip. This is such a strange world, where the audience is trying to get its bearings. I was afraid that if a rational adult perspective was in there, you'd grab ahold of it like a life preserver. Our whole kick was to put your head in this world and not let you out. So besides the mom, who is nuts, and the vice principal, who's as much a part of this world as the kids are -- who's playing by those rules -- we kept the grown-ups out of it.

It took me a while to realize that Brendan is like the classic detective-movie hero. He dishes out physical violence and he absorbs it. I guess when he takes on five guys and kicks their asses, I realized we weren't in a regular high school movie.

That's just so central an element of the genre. The guy has to absorb an absurd amount of physical abuse and keep moving forward. I felt like if we even took baby steps toward making this a more realistic high school world, that might turn into a slippery slope and we wouldn't be able to do anything in the movie.

In this mode of storytelling -- Hammett's "Red Harvest" is the most extreme example -- it's not like the Agatha Christie mystery, where the detective is intellectually piecing everything together. There's a line in this movie: "We've shaken the tree. Let's see what falls on our heads." He's jumping into this world, pushing into it like a fist, creating chaos and then seeing where everything lands. That loss of control, throwing yourself in and getting punched around and breaking down, that comes straight out of classic detective fiction.

I'm guessing this wasn't the easiest film to get made, based on a pitch. I mean, what did you say to people?

Can you imagine? I still don't have a clean way of summarizing it. It was a six- or seven-year project to get this made. I wrote the first draft of this right out of film school in 1997, and we shot it in 2003. Even people who really got the script and liked it recognized that it was such a delicate central conceit that if it was handled even slightly wrong it could be godawful. And because I was a first-time, untested director, that proved a huge barrier to getting people to open their pocketbooks. Eventually we figured out the least amount of money we could make it for on 35mm. Then we passed the hat and scraped together money from friends and family. Like, my agent's father invested some money. And then we shot it with a small crew of friends down in San Clemente in 20 days, for $500,000, and I cut it together on my Mac in my apartment.

That's impressive. But of course you could have spent a lot less and made it on digital video, right?

I felt like the central conceit of the film asks so much from an audience already, so I wanted to create a rich visual world to draw them in and help them believe in it. Ultimately I think that format vanishes in the face of good storytelling. But there's nothing like the look of film.

"Brick" opens March 31 in New York and Los Angeles, and April 7 in Atlanta, Austin, Texas, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Matthew Barney hunts the big whale in "Drawing Restraint 9"; Madame Mao goes hip-hop in "Yang Ban Xi"
Back in the early "Cremaster" days, before Matthew Barney had become "the most important American artist of his generation" (in the now-infamous phrase of New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman), Barney used to say that his main reason for making films was to create the creepy, slimy, quasi-biological sculptures that appeared in them. Well, for better or worse -- and I'm not quite sure which it is, personally -- that's no longer the situation.

Even if the audience for Barney's long, puzzling and often gorgeous films is minuscule in commercial terms, he's now much better known to many more people as a filmmaker than as a sculptor. One could argue that his films are closer, in fact, to being sculpture than to conventional motion pictures. That sounds good at first, and is in some ways true, but it only gets you so far. After all, "Drawing Restraint 9," Barney's new movie and his first-ever collaboration with his wife, Björk, has characters, settings, special effects, some dialogue (OK, very little) and a reported production cost of around $8 million. And as he has repeatedly insisted, he's inspired more by horror movies than by "art" cinema.

Writing about Barney's films, if you aren't going to try to plumb the depths of Barney's semi-coherent, libidinal obsessions -- as Calvin Tomkins did in a wonderful 7,000-word New Yorker article in 2003 -- is an exercise in irrelevant transcription. What do you want me to tell you? That Barney and Björk play nameless Western guests onboard the Nisshin Maru, Japan's last big factory whaling ship? That they enact various odd rituals, including a wedding ceremony partly borrowed from Japanese tradition and aided by various spiny and/or gloppy objects of Barney's design?

A big Vaseline sculpture is created onboard the ship, in the trademark bisected-lozenge design familiar to all Barney acolytes. There's a supporting cast of female pearl divers, who discover a mysterious object in the ocean that could be the rotting remains of the ancient monolith from "2001." Björk herself adds that vaguely supernatural feeling she brings to everything she does, which includes her spritelike performance -- don't expect much talking -- and the soundtrack, with its minimalist throbs and quasi-tribal wailing.

God knows what any of this amounts to, really. But as a series of defined planes and sharply delineated objects -- the ship, the Vaseline glob, the ocean, the whales -- "Drawing Restraint 9" conveys an intense sculptural loveliness with something moving beneath it, maybe a sense of menace. And it's leavened, like once per hour, with a teeny dash of humor. This isn't nearly as immediately likable or showy as "Cremaster 3," but in a quiet way just as spectacular. Oh, and the title, as with the "Cremaster" films, is a whole lot more literal than it sounds. "Drawing Restraint 9" is now playing at the IFC Center in New York, with a series of national engagements to follow.

If you thought we were out of our depth there, check out Yan Ting Yuen's film "Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works," a semi-documentary fantasia about the legendary dance-opera works of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. These were the didactic, hallucinatory stage and film productions that became virtually the only permissible works of art in mainland China between about 1966 and 1976, when Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing and her associates, the infamous "Gang of Four," fell from power.

Yan is a Chinese exile who returned home, with Dutch funding, to make a movie about how the "yang ban xi" are now understood in China. Perhaps understandably, these artifacts of a vastly different ideological and economic era -- the best known are "The Red Women's Detachment" and "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy" -- have become kitsch objects, the focus of a half-horrified nostalgia, in the midst of the feverish Chinese boom.

We see extensive extracts from the movie versions, which were often personally supervised by Jiang Qing herself (a one-time Shanghai actress), and you can grasp the appeal. It's more or less like combining "Oklahoma!" "Swan Lake," Soviet-style tractor realism and a 1930s Hollywood musical in Technicolor, all at the same time. We meet the retired dancers, musicians, writers and directors behind these extraordinary creations, some of whom are being called on to revive them. For reasons never quite made clear, we see several musical numbers where kids dressed in 1992 Michael Jackson duds break-dance to sexed-up versions of the yang ban xi propaganda hits. And the film is narrated by Jiang Qing herself, who doesn't seem to grasp the disco scene of contemporary Shanghai too clearly. "Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works" is now playing at Film Forum in New York, with more cities to follow.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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