French Clements

The Bullet Vanishes

In Reviews, Village Voice Media on September 23, 2012 at 8pm

How do you escape a noose? Could a gun shoot without bullets? Can you remove a chopstick from an empty wine bottle without touching the bottle?

Forensic parlor games form the backbone of Lo Chi-leung’s The Bullet Vanishes, a drama set in an industrial town in 1930s China. It’s stylish like Amélie was stylish, with those dewy-yet-crisp graphics celebrating the proletariat. Here, the crooked boss of a bullet factory—is there any other kind of bullet-factory boss?—compels the Russian roulette death of a worker. (This movie is obsessed with Russian roulette.) The worker’s ghost, the rumor goes, is what’s firing those invisible bullets avenging her forced suicide. When two charming detectives are sent in to detect stuff, the movie comes to life with their antsy, noose-escaping, quasi-vaudevillian kinetics. The factory boss tries to throw them off his trail, grimacing from atop a ginormous zoot suit. No dice. Also, no sense. You don’t attend movies like this expecting narrative clarity, which is good, because the writing whizzes past key plot points like a bullet past an earlobe. The boss is guilty, obvies, but remind me why that other dude is responsible, too? And why should I care that the fat guy’s ring was found in the ashes of the house fire? Whatever, the climax is a slow-motion explosion. An explosion at a bullet factory!

This review appeared in several of Village Voice Media‘s syndicated publications on August 29, 2012.

Bucky Meets the Bobos

In Reviews, SF Weekly reviews on May 7, 2012 at 7pm

“And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out” isn’t only a terrific Yo La Tengo album from 2000. It’s also a pretty good description for the output of the visionary Buckminster Fuller, who died in 1983. Fuller’s 60-year attempt to shape the future defies summarization, blending colossal failures and head-scratchers (borrowing from Yo La Tengo, let’s call those “nothing”) with massive, globe-trotting success (the inverse of “nothing”).

Explaining the life of a kooky, brilliant man — he lectured without notes, and once gave a 42-hour talk titled “Everything I Know” — requires its own kooky brilliance. And we found exactly that this week at SFMOMA, watching The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, a “live documentary” by Sam Green, the Bay Area-based filmmaker. Green, upon receiving MOMA’s commission for a one-night-only film on Fuller (“Oh yeah, the dome guy!” he recalls thinking), called on Yo La Tengo to write and perform its score. The event coincided with “The Utopian Impulse,” an SFMOMA exhibit, on view until July 29, examining Fuller’s impact on the sustainable-design boom that began in the Bay Area decades ago.

I repeat: we’ve got the polymath inventor who brought geodesic domes to the masses, a filmmaker known for exploring obscurities, retro-chic concepts in sustainable design, plus freaking Yo La Tengo. If all that sounds like a particularly awesome broadcast of Radiolab, well, it felt like one too.

Hey, what do you think a “live documentary” would look like? I wouldn’t have guessed a PowerPoint presentation, but I’ve also never seen PowerPoints as affecting as what Green showed and narrated into a microphone, flipping between still images and film clips gleaned from the Dymaxion Chronofile. That was Fuller’s name for his immense personal archive, which is now held at one of Stanford’s archives and totally accessible for public perusal. (The Chronofile happens to be the largest single-person archive in the history of the world. Think about that.)

Only a few minutes in to the hour-long show, it was pretty easy to forget that we were watching a humble, low-tech duet of images and music. I could only focus on Fuller’s sentimentalist, all-too-human charm. Add Yo La Tengo’s warmly propulsive rhythms, and I felt wrapped in my favorite blankie, ready for story and nappytime.

And story we got. In his charmingly wry drawl, Green addressed Fuller’s early and late tragedies. His daughter contracted meningitis and died; he almost committed suicide by jumping into Lake Michigan (but had a mystical vision instead); his famous Dymaxion Car, which got 30 miles per gallon and held seating for eleven, crashed at the very entrance to the 1933 World’s Fair, killing its driver; his well-known dome for Montreal’s Expo 67 caught fire and sat there looking like junk for a few years. But, as Green pointed out, “failure breeds progress.” So we also learned of Fuller’s goals for the world, or as he called it, “Spaceship Earth.” Throughout the 60s and 70s, Fuller’s utopian impulse came to define a generation that doesn’t look too different from the one I’m in: we’re all trying to do more with less. He sought to improve the lives of everyone (he was literally talking about everyone) through schemes to prevent the over-accumulation of resources in one place over another, “so that no man can take advantage of another.” Hell of a guy! I can’t help wondering how he’d see the trajectory of Spaceship Earth today.

Yo La Tengo, set up on the stage’s side opposite Green, did exactly what soundtrack artists are meant to do: show off the work they’re backing and not their own talents. They de-emphasized melody and stuck to rhythms and little dissonances, and ultimately found a tenuous, inspiring resolution. (Asked about plans for recording and releasing the music we heard, bassist James McNew said, “you had to be here. And we’re glad you were here.”) The band’s hyper-competent fluidity mirrored the timeless charm of Bucky’s interactions with pretty much everyone in the world.

In one excerpted film, Buckminster Fuller Meets the Hippies, Fuller is seen in his trademark black suit and Clark Kent glasses, lecturing to a dirty, hairy crowd at Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. He held a toddler on his lap, and listened patiently to a fantastically tripped-out dude with a beard who rattled off a series of cascading associations — inspired, I think, by geodesic domes and the consistency of the universe — and summed it all up with “Zap! Star of David.”

Kind of like that hippie, I really like Fuller, and I really, really like what he was trying to do. But even after this show and its exhibit, I still don’t really understand the great man’s theories. I’m not sure it’s even possible to explain them fully, and there’s no way to know whether he’d find his efforts a success today. He’d probably tell us to keep looking, keep inventing, because only in quitting have we really lost. Zap. Star of David.

“The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” appeared at the Phyllis Wattis Theater in San Francisco on May 1, 2012. This review was written for 

Blonk: “Flababble, Jup-Jup-Jup, Hrrrrrrrrgh,” etc.

In Reviews, SF Weekly reviews on April 2, 2012 at 12pm

When idiots talk about wanting to de-fund the arts, Jaap Blonk is the kind of artist that they’re angry about. He makes wacky sounds with his mouth and throat and gets paid for it, which could mean that he’s un-American, certainly that he’s elitist. To quote a comment on one of his YouTube videos, “what the hell does this provide to society? other than nothing?”

With feedback like that, you know Blonk is on to something. (His first name, by the way, is pronounced “yop” — the guy was apparently born into funny sounds.) As part of a rare US tour (he works in his native Holland), he performed last Friday at YBCA in “Soundtracks, Scores, Interactive Animations,” continuing SF Cinematheque’s 2012 season. Appearing in the intimate Screening Room, Blonk shook us black-clad attendees to our esoteric cores.

Blonk’s avant-garde performances channel the provocatively pioneering nonsense of Dadaism. His work is tremendously complex, but his brilliance makes it easy to think the opposite. I get the feeling that if he hadn’t gone into composing, he’d have been a billionaire scientist, making good on some simple way to harness the vibration of cell phone towers as a means of generating electricity, or whatever. (Actually, I can’t prove that he isn’t also a billionaire scientist, and that this isn’t just a noisy side gig.) Since his start in the late 1970s, he’s gained a cult following for performances of his own works and of historic texts by Tristan Tzara and Kurt Schwitters, art-world heavies whose contributions, by their very strangeness and difficulty, would otherwise languish in an archivist’s drawer.

At YBCA, we got a little of the past and a lot of the present. Blonk rarely shows his visual work, so this performance was something of a coup for Steve Polta, the Cinematheque’s director. Blonk materialized, looking like a tall elvin Gumby in expensive glasses, and sat at a laptop on a table near the stage’s edge. He opened his mouth, and the do-anything spirit of 1920s Paris spewed forth in a wordless yet hyper-vocal string of quasi-obscenities.

If this sounds like he’s just making shit up, well, it soon became obvious that he’s far beyond that. Among the program’s twelve works, he investigated the possible soundings of the letter “r,” following a crazy little flow-chart he drew and displayed. (“You may follow the arrows but you don’t have to,” which I think he meant as a joke.) He slowed down footage of his flapping face (like a video version of Jowlers) and the sound that came with it—that piece was called “Flababble.” He also fed his cuneiform-like illustrations into optical character recognition software and played the scar-tissue results. And in a computer program he wrote, his voice’s acrobatics determined the course of dots and stars and bloops on the projection screen.

All visuals came from his insanely tricked-out laptop, the screen of which he continually broadcast. So before and after the art happened, we got to see the art’s back-end: the quickness of Blonk’s jumps from some obscure composition program to some fiendish media player gizmo (dude’s got enough processing power to kill a horse), flashing back over to his dashboard program, loading the scripting program, and hey, it’s a full-on sound-n-light assault. Put another way, the show’s thrill partly involved the thrill of seeing someone being very good at something that is very hard to understand, let alone be good at.

Vocally too, Blonk’s technique is incredible. His voice never wavered, except maybe once in the really hard part, when he was basically just barking a single, pitch-perfect tone for two minutes. That text, the 1924 “Lautgedicht,” is a famous one by Man Ray. It resembles a poem, the words of which (but not the spaces!) Man Ray totally blacked out in ink. To quote Blonk’s notes, “Blonk performs it with a harsh voice sound inspired by this rude act of censoring.” Uh, yeah. You could almost hear his vocal chords bleeding. The length of the black line determined the length of his bark, with satisfying consistency. He contorted his eyebrow-laden face in a reliably consistent way too. Hearing someone perform this felt at first like a luxury (because rare, historical, etc.), then like a Marx Brothers sketch, then like a calamity, then like a triumph for everyone involved. The very final shriek Blonk bit off with a satisfied little breath. He earned the indulgence. By the way, for the whole show Blonk never drank any water or even coughed, which was weird and heroic.

Work like this makes for a sly study in opposites: intellectual and guttural, unholy and sublime, frantic and liberating, punk and canonical. I realized how little attention I usually pay at performances, and how instead I wait for the performer to impress me out of semi-passivity. How busy many other artists are, always attaching sense to their medium in a never-ending search for connecting, emoting, transforming, upholding the audience’s belief system. It starts to feel a little desperate.

Blonk, in resisting meaning so arduously (or is it effortlessly?), repurposes the voice into a placeholder for “material” of any sort. His performance is an avatar for all performances, subverting and celebrating the very act of being watched while doing something creative.  That’s gutsy. It makes me think of an extraordinary passage in a poem by Man Ray, who wrote:


Jaap Blonk performed at the Screening Room at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2012.