Thursday, February 27, 2020

Jazz '34

Director Robert Altman

JAZZ  ’34 - made for TV                   B                    
(aka:  Remembrances of Kansas City Swing)
USA  (72 mi)  1997  d:  Robert Altman

A curiously neglected film, originally made as a PBS Great Performances series for television, the only one Altman ever did, coming on the heels of his film KANSAS CITY (1996), a fictionalized gangster story set during the Great Depression when Kansas City was the center of the jazz world.  The jazz music was so integral to the film that Altman decided to make a special tribute film using modern day musicians recreating the look and sound of Kansas City in the 30’s.  As Altman grew up in Kansas City, he wanted the music to be authentic to the period, where the film is a recreation of a live jam session at the Hey Hey Club with predominately black clientele, becoming a mock documentary.  For whatever reason, the film never had a theatrical release and has never been seen in Chicago until recently when a 35mm print was screened by the Chicago Film Society (Jazz '34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing).  Prior to this, the only available version of this film was released on vintage VHS copies, as it was never transferred to a DVD (though there are pirated bootleg DVD’s made from VHS prints), though the film may be viewed in full for the shortened TV release on the Internet, Jazz Jazz Session In Hey Hey Club YouTube (55:06), while an extended (additional 15 minutes) theatrical version with three additional numbers was made for anticipated screenings that never happened.  It uses some of the footage that was edited out of KANSAS CITY with a brief introductory narration from Harry Belafonte, who played the owner of the club in the earlier film.  There are interlude sequences between the musical numbers that include voiceovers about the city’s vibrant jazz scene, though it’s unclear if he’s quoting actual sources or using mythical dialogue, but he modeled his film on an earlier ten minute short entitled JAMMIN’ THE BLUES (1944), Jammin' The Blues (1944) | Lester Young Oscar Nominated Short YouTube (10:20), featuring tenor sax legend Lester Young in a small combo band, including both slow and up tempo numbers, also the voice and dance steps of Marie Bryant, allowing the musicians to play in a casual setting, documenting their extraordinary artistry without any embellishments.  Of course the most famous in all of cinema is arguably George Cukor’s one-take shot of Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954) singing HD 1080p "The Man That Got Away" Judy Garland - A Star Is ... YouTube (4:38) in an intimate, after-hours (and all-white) setting that smolders with searing emotional poignancy. 
In this film, featuring three tenor sax legends, Lester Young is played by saxophonist Joshua Redman, Craig Handy plays Coleman Hawkins, and James Carter plays Ben Webster, while Geri Allen plays pianist May Lou Williams.  Using the sets from the earlier film as well as vintage cars and period costumes, Altman captured these live performances on three 35mm cameras, much of it used in his earlier film, but heard in extended versions here, filming fifteen different musical numbers, culminating in an infamous recreation of the battle of the saxes between Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.  Altman certainly captures the look of the 30’s, where the free flowing drinks and crowded all-night clubs are in stark contrast to the depiction of rural desolation during the Depression, where it feels like a parallel universe all its own, or like a time warp, but Kansas City was run by political boss Tom Pendergast who controlled the political machine and the racketeers led by John Lazia, with an open alliance with organized crime who kept the drinks flowing during Prohibition, allowing them to run the after-hours clubs and brothels, with as many as 50 to 100 nightclubs in operation at one time, perhaps the largest concentration anywhere in America.  Jazz had a reputation for attracting customers, particularly black clientele, who at that time represented about 15% of the city population, yet jazz and blues were cultural institutions for urban blacks, becoming the bedrock of the city’s nightlife, most of which was centered around 18th Street and Vine.  In the late 20’s, Count Basie got his start with the Bennie Moten band in Kansas City, a big band attempting to rival Duke Ellington, introducing a bluesy style that was described as the Kansas City stomp, where one of their songs, Jazz '34 | Kansas City Band "Moten Swing" YouTube (3:18), which Basie actually took credit for, became commonly described as Kansas City Swing.  Charlie Parker, a city native who would have been around 14 during this period, likely heard many of these jam sessions, sitting in later in the decade, ushering in his own era of hard-driving bebop in the early 40’s. 

What’s uniquely different here for an Altman film is the lack of open space, feeling tightly congested, all crammed into a single room, with little camera movement, offering the same look throughout, which may grow cumbersome.  While there is no plot, a running commentary between songs does add an impressionistic glimpse of various memories and reflections affiliated with the times, but they are completely overshadowed by the music which dominates the film, one of the few jazz documentaries on record, given a personal flavor by this director.  While they play old traditional standards, they use modern era techniques, which includes a contemporary sensibility, where an understanding of jazz fusion reigns supreme, with women flirting with the men, all in their faces, with the place jam packed like a juke joint, as musicians are placed all around, some waiting their turn, while dancers will flare up out of nowhere, creating a combined, combustible energy, while at other times the place is near empty, creating a slow and easy mood, with some musicians fast asleep on chairs.  Dressed in fine suits and pork pie hats, cigarettes are always dangling from someone’s mouth, yet the free flowing jazz is contagious, with the camera fluidly moving from one musician to another, highlighting instrumental solos from a sax, clarinet, guitar, trumpet, bass, or piano, zooming in on close-ups while also pulling back for the collective ensemble as a whole.  Yet the overall competitive ferocity is the catalyst for the driving rhythm of the film, which reaches its peak in a fierce showdown between legends, a cutting contest, captured here in all its glory,  Jazz '34: Final Battle | Kansas City Band "Yeah Man" YouTube (7:04), with Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins going toe to toe with one another, with the crowd in an orgiastic frenzy, hanging on every note, creating a memorable recollection of the spirit of the times, a nostalgic tribute to the heyday of jazz in America.  As shown here, it’s the only game in town when all other businesses have dried up, with Altman capturing what he remembers about those times.  While it feels hastily edited together, the synchronized sound does not always match the image onscreen, where it comes across as an idyllic recreation, like in one’s dreams, as the camaraderie is too perfect, where everyone is joyously paying attention, their emotions riding on every note.  That’s just not the way it is, but in this brief musical reverie, which may be emblematic for a jazz heaven, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, at least in Altman’s mind.     

Monday, February 24, 2020

2 or 3 Things I Know About Him (2 oder 3 Dinge, die ich von ihm weiß)


Director Malte Ludin


2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HIM (2 oder 3 Dinge, die ich von ihm weiß)      B                    
Germany  (85 mi)  2005  d:  Malte Ludin

a typical German story

The spelling of the letters in the last image of the film before it cuts to the end credits tells you exactly what we’re dealing with here, as a typical German family reluctantly attempts to tie the missing pieces of their family’s past together with the knowledge that dad, Hanns Ludin, was a war criminal sentenced to hang in Bratislava in 1947 as one of the higher ranking Nazi collaborators who facilitated the transportation and eventual extermination of Jews during the Holocaust.  He was one of the guys that made it all happen.  As the Nazi Ambassador to Slovakia chosen by Hitler himself to represent the Third Reich, one document alone bearing his signature is evidence of over 8700 Jews and some 500 Slovaks transported out of Slovakia for permanent liquidation in the death camps.  Despite his role, the family squabbles over how much he knew, how he couldn’t have knowingly sent all those people to their deaths, as they were believed to be in labor camps, trying to blame it all on that weasel Adolf Hitler, how he was a pawn in someone else’s game, much like the arguments played out at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals.  A review of the collected evidence suggests Herr Ludin never initiated a single act over the course of his entire career, that he arrived at his position by steadfastly carrying out the Führer’s Final Solution orders without so much as a blink.  But that’s not how everyone in the family sees it, as the filmmaker, the youngest of his six children who was only 5 when his father was executed, points his camera at his siblings, nieces and nephews, and even a few in-laws, most all of whom have favorable recollections of his dad, the most vociferous defender of which is his older sister Barbel who refuses to believe he committed any crimes, much less atrocities, believing he was a victim of the madness of war.  Her unwavering support for him is the centerpiece of the film, which also produces gorgeous never-before-seen color photos of Hitler on parade with Hanns Ludin in dress uniform smiling at his side, including a memorable photo of an infant Barbel proudly handing a bouquet of flowers to the Führer, with a treasure chest of Nazi photos signed by many of the luminaries, and with documents obtained from a Slovakian War Crimes museum that verify much of Ludin’s activities during the war. 

This project would never have taken place while their mother was alive, and as the filmmaker notes, “she lived a long life.”  We later learn through footage shot while she was alive that his mother claimed she had never heard of Auschwitz.  At first, Barbel planned not to participate in the film, which was only digging up the past in her view, hounding her father’s legacy much like a pesky investigative reporter, exposing family secrets document by document that were better off kept secret, as after all, no matter what, he was still their father, and she loved and admired him, only agreeing to participate in order to defend his honor.  When little brother asked if she didn’t feel any shame for his actions, as not a single family member ever once mentioned the words guilt or shame, Barbel claimed she didn’t even know what that was.  In denying her father’s actions, which may typify German family reactions around the country, she is not only denying family history but that of Nazi Germany as well.  The most poignant moment is the face to face interview with a Holocaust survivor, Slovak poet Tuvia Rübner, who was fortunate his family sent him to Palestine before they were all deported on Ludin’s orders as part of the final Slovakian liquidation.  So while the filmmaker’s family haggles over its legacy, Rübner has no family left at all.  Instead he reads one of his poems and also discusses his belief that evil is stronger than good, that good remains still, at peace with itself, while evil never stops moving, that it lives in a vacuum, always needing new victims to feed on. 

Of note, the richness of color in the film shot by Franz Lustig is superb, especially for a documentary which usually features grainy or poor quality digital video.  Lustig was the cinematographer in two of the more recent Wim Wenders films, DON’T COME KNOCKING (2005) and LAND OF PLENTY (2004), where the interior shots of interviews in darkened rooms with the older sister are especially impressive.  As there is plenty of dialogue, the subtitles are routinely pulled off the screen before ample time is provided to read it, while much is illegible as well, with white titles fading into a light background.  As there are multiple languages used in the film, English, German, and Slovak, this was a disappointment.  One of the biggest limitations of the film was narrowing the vantage point to this single family, like an isolated CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003) family in Germany.  Themes of historical guilt and shame are not really addressed in a universal sense, as white Americans brought African slaves to America and outlawed reading and learning, keeping many shackled, something most Americans tend to forget or have no interest in exploring, even black Americans.  Even a hundred years after our own Civil War and an Emancipation Proclamation, or monumental Supreme Court decisions, blacks continue to be housed and schooled in segregated urban ghettos while Native American Indians still live in decrepit conditions in economically starved, geographically isolated reservations.  Japan’s militarist expansionism in WWII and white South Africa’s Apartheid loom in the not so distant past, while North and South Korea, Vietnam, Serbia and Bosnia, African genocide in Rwanda, Sudan, or the Congo, all have shown an inability to face up to their own history.  Current torture and prison atrocities in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, or the government sanctioned practice of rendition continue to be widely ignored by an all too accepting American public, who may find it disturbing but do little to rebuff the maniacal power of our own President today, yet expected Germans to have ignored the fanatic racist popularism of Hitler’s Third Reich 70 years ago?  What this film shows is that denial anywhere in the world, even in the face of the truth, is a family institution that is passed down from generation to generation.