An Argentine noir classic at UW-Cinematheque, a Tyler The Creator and Vince Staples co-bill, ambitious chamber-jazz from Matt Ulery, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Emili Earhart, Scott Gordon, Reid Kurkerewicz, Caleb Oakley, Grant Phipps, Katie Richards, and David Wolinsky
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THURSDAY MARCH 1
The experience of watching If.... is something like, "oh, a classic English boarding school movie" slowly devolving to, "oh, a psychedelic boarding school movie…" finally escalating to, "OH MY GOD NO STOP!" In Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film, jaded anti-hero Mick (Malcolm McDowell, best known for his turn as Alex in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange) and his loyal friends return to their conservative education, where the prefects serve up amazing mid-20th century posh looks, just begging to be rebelled against. This movie serves as a fascinating marker of the theme of revolution in the '60s, when armed rebellion seemed an viable option against flaccid institutions that refused to die naturally. The transient freedoms of youth are forced into stark contrast with the crumbling rituals of stoic manliness, and as the school-year drags on, harsh punishments are meted out against McDowell's crew.
The film's black-and-white sequences suggest a sort of dream-life, jarring the viewer into questioning what's really happening. As Mick tastes freedom, the outside world beckons to this charismatic young man who still idealizes the role of the soldier. Enforced repression of all things sexual and the pedestaling of colonial tendencies (the school has the boys playing war-games) eventually leads to the infamous final catastrophe. Could even a British filmmaker idealize this kind of school violence today? An American certainly couldn't, and that's all the more reason to see director Lindsay Anderson's masterpiece. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Tyler The Creator and Vince Staples are both rappers hailing from the Los Angeles area, but at least on the surface, there's little to unite them sonically or thematically. While Staples made two of the most inventive hip-hop albums of the decade, 2015's Summertime '06 and last year's Big Fish Theory. Tyler is probably best known for his shenanigans, such as eating a cockroach in the music video for "Yonkers," in which he also threatens to stab Bruno Mars in his esophagus, and the gay-baiting that mars his most recent album, Flower Boy.
Tyler got his start in the hip hop collective Odd Future in the late aughts and released his debut solo album, the bleak, intrusively personal Goblin, in 2011. The album's realism allowed listeners to imagine they were in Tyler's head, a world where virulent depictions of sexual violence and lavishly crude racist, misogynistic, and homophobic language could be dismissed as unwelcome thoughts in a stark stream of consciousness. Perhaps because they lacked a knock-out single like "Yonkers" or because they failed to expand his musical vision, his next two albums, Wolf and Cherry Bomb, didn't generate much interest. With the release of 2017's Flower Boy, in which Tyler appears to come out as a gay or bisexual man, he found himself again the focus of critical attention. Because of his past homophobic language and trollish tendencies, many listeners were skeptical of his admission, pointing to Frank Ocean's roaring success on his debut album Channel Orange as the influence for Tyler's coming-out album. Few could argue, though, that Tyler had ever sounded better, especially on "I Ain't Got Time," which evokes Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On."
Staples earned modest commercial success with Summertime '06, but it signaled his depth as an artist, and Big Fish Theory makes an even more convincing case. Produced with a diverse blend of electronic influences, Fish is the most successful marriage of hip hop and electronica since Kanye West's staggering Yeezus. But while Yeezus aimed to wrench jaws and shatter musical conventions, Fish aims for the dance floors first, without sacrificing inventiveness or sharpness. Fish also benefits from the use of female vocalists like Kilo Kish, to whom Staples often plays second fiddle, and a breadth of producers approaching that of a Lemonade. Highlights "Crabs In A Bucket," "Party People," and "SAMO" see Justin Vernon, Kendrick Lamar and SOPHIE (among others) collaborating with Vince. In 2018, the rapper contributed to the Lamar-produced Black Panther soundtrack with "Opps" with Yugen Blakrok, the catchiest track on an album that's bound to make as many waves as the film it accompanies. —Caleb Oakley
FRIDAY MARCH 2
Cinematheque's annual partnership with UW-Madison's department of Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS) will kick off its four-week Friday series in March with a 35mm repertory presentation of Fernando Ayala's classic Argentine feature, Los Tallos Amargos (The Bitter Stems), originally released in 1956. Based on Adolfo Jasca's novel, this unsung '50s noir emerges as a sort of riff on Edgar Allen Poe's Tell-Tale Heart with a complex, achronological structure that would also fit right in with Cinematheque's current 1940s "Reinventing Hollywood" series at the Chazen.
Navigating labyrinthine flashbacks and voiceover narrations, this thrilling tale closely follows an insecure Buenos Aires journalist, Alfredo Gaspar (Carlos Cores), who's coerced into joining up with a crooked Hungarian expatriate, Liudas (Vassili Lambrinos), to form an illegitimate journalism correspondence course. Beyond the mounting tensions and paranoia between the two men as their plot thickens and inevitably collapses, the truest (and most complementary) draw here is the gorgeously stark contrasts in the scope of Ricardo Younis' cinematography. Masterful use of light and shadow reveal a distinctively strange intimacy in its character framing that coexists with the askew and imposing psychological dimension of the world. The shifting spaces of Los Tallos Amargos would appear to be an inspiration for Orson Welles when he adapted Kafka's The Trial.—Grant Phipps
An eclectic four-piece from Milwaukee, Body Futures recently released their second full-length album, Maybe It’s Just The Weather. The band's members come from a range of musical backgrounds—including noise-rock veterans IfIHadAHiFi and the experimental White, Wrench, Conservatory—yielding a sound that's hard to pin down. Just The Weather's opening track, “Criminal Standards,” finds brightly distorted guitar melodies and Dixie Jacobs' pop-oriented vocal melodies battling for dominance from start to finish. Conversely, “When I Took That Train” begins with a section that lays bare the band's noise-rock and post-punk tendencies, awash in white noise and electric distortion. This chaotic foundation eventually becomes intertwined with a driving melody, making for a few whiplash transitions between moods. “Right To Work"—first released on the compilation Unintimidated: Wisconsin Musicians Against Scott Walker, organized by Body Futures drummer/vocalist DJ Hostettler—introduces a more grunge-informed feel, with raucous guitar and emphatic drumming accompanying a vocal volley between Jacobs and Hostettler. Impressively, Body Futures incorporates a breadth of elements into focused and tuneful songs that storm through genre boundaries. —Katie Richards
SATURDAY MARCH 3
These three movies, somewhat underrated and forgotten now but popular and critically lauded in their day, all center around a deception of identity. In Laurel and Hardy's Sons Of The Desert, the comedic duo portray two goofy yet self-assured husbands who deceive their wives into thinking they're in Honolulu at the request of a doctor who's in on the ruse. In reality, they go to their Mason-like fraternity lodge, the titular Sons of the Desert's convention, in Chicago. During the debaucherous festivities, by coincidence, one of the frat brothers prank-calls his sister and has Hardy talk to her, only to realize that the frat brother's sister is Hardy's wife. Later, the two goofs pretend to be victims of a shipwreck coming back from Honolulu. The movie is stocked with classic body-humor, and is often considered Laurel and Hardy's greatest film, due to some particularly charming cleverness in the gags.
The silent comedy film Good References features the once-iconic Constance Talmadge, who commits identity theft because she doesn't have job references so she can take a secretary job, while still-relatable hilarity ensues. Trouble In Paradise similarly involves identity theft, but here it has a more serious, dramatic effect, as two infamous pickpockets fall in love while pretending to be bourgeois socialites, who then team-up in order to steal more money from a perfume baron with her own romantic hang-ups.
The theme of pretending to be someone you're not was a way cinema expressed what we today would call identity fluidity. Especially from a class perspective, these deceptions offer glimpses into the way people conceived of their identities as tools and abstract disguises to be manipulated to diverse ends, from comedy to stealing from the rich. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Since forming in 1996, Chicago's Eighth Blackbird have both preserved and innovated the tradition of modern-classical chamber performance. In addition to performing a century's worth of standard repertoire for their instrumentation, the sextet regularly perform and commission work from composers such as Steve Reich, Jennifer Higdon, Frederic Rzewski, and John Luther Adams. As more contemporary classical composers are splitting their time between commissions and rock bands—such as Glenn Kotche of Wilco and Bryce Dessner of The National—one might see the contemporary chamber ensemble taking on a certain rockstar quality as well. Eighth Blackbird certainly display that vitality both at the festival and in the concert hall. But they do not lose energy when slowing down, creating space, and heeding to soft dynamics and subtle shifts in sound.
Eighth Blackbird will be performing works primarily from this decade, beginning with a folk-inspired suite by Dessner. It will be particularly interesting to see how the ensemble tackles Ligeti's Etudes, a few books of intensely virtuosic solo piano pieces. Another interesting arrangement worth noting is the adaptation of David Lang's Wed, commissioned by the American Conservatory Theatre for Kronos Quartet. —Emili Earhart
Chicago-based composer and contrabassist Matt Ulery has been quietly churning out the most elegant, expressionistic, rewarding chamber jazz albums of this decade, including 2013's Wake An Echo with his Loom Quintet on Greenleaf Music. In the five years since, his instincts and predilections have led him to experiment with more vocal ballads (for Grażyna Auguścik and Sarah Marie Young on 2014's In The Ivory) and ambitious, adaptable ensembles like Loom/Large, which, at times, can feature a 27-piece orchestra as on Side A of 2016's Festival.
Bringing the the Triptych trio to Madison for this special Arts + Literature Laboratory performance, Ulery considerably scales down the approach to join up with two longtime friends, Grammy-winning violinist Zach Brock (based in New York City) and frequent collaborator, drummer Jon Deitemyer, who's also a member of Human Motion and Paul Mutzabaugh's Unknown New. Triptych appealingly fuses the eclectic sensibilities one might hear on any aforementioned record attributed to Ulery's name with a more direct sense of originating disciplines in post-bop, Appalachian/Balkan folk, Western neo-classical, and South American rhythms.
Ulery and Brock each possess an inimitable talent for crafting instantly memorable and wistful-sounding themes with unconventional phrasings and textures. And, with a nimbleness and steady hand, Deitemyer's playing energetically lifts the evocative melodies. If you're a fan of Tin Hat and Avishai Cohen (the bassist, not the trumpeter), this is can't-miss. —Grant Phipps
SUNDAY MARCH 4
Another Cinematheque selection from the 1940s with the gaslighting of women at its core. One wonders if these old movies were trying to say something progressive, or if manipulating women to get them to question reality was just a plot device the masses understood implicitly. Either way, this 1945 noir thriller by director Joseph H. Lewis is a nice and neat take on the reverse-identity-theft plot. A clever, young Julia Ross, played by Nina Foch (with no family, and no young man?!) answers a want ad for a mysterious live-in secretary job. She then finds herself waking up days later to strangers calling her Marion.
Details of a murderous plot are discovered rapidly, as Julia realizes she's trapped as the replacement wife of a randomly destructive young man who rips clothes apart for fun. His mother, played by the seriously scary Dame May Witty, is the rich ringleader who doesn't understand why she has to clean up her son's messes. (The answer: because her son is a misogynist and a sociopath.) Julia's attempts to break out of the mansion become simultaneously smarter and more desperate, leading up to a finale that includes genuinely impressive low-budget movie magic.
My Name Is Julia Ross also has a lot to say about class, from the thieving maid who looks down on secretary work as idle, to the ability of a rich family to manipulate an entire village. At little over an hour, this movie will have you wishing more features could so efficiently deliver simple, solid suspense. Bugs Bunny opens the night, with the classic, and also gaslight-y, "Little Red Riding Rabbit". —Reid Kurkerewicz
TUESDAY MARCH 6
J.I.D. is an Atlanta-based rapper whose single "Never" was notably featured on Issa Rae's series Insecure. On this epic two-part banger, J.I.D. raps about not having much growing up, rejects material possessions, and as an underdog lyrical stylist, concedes that he hasn't "come up," yet, even as he's signed to J. Cole's Dreamville records. While he rejects the current foregrounding of beat production typical of Atlanta trap by focusing the listener on his vocal craft, his beats still slap.
With production help from J. Cole on his sprawling 2017 album The Never Story, J.I.D. mixes honest storytelling about the adversity constant reminders that he's a better rapper than you can ever dream to be—from outright saying it to showing you with mind-bending word-games with a distinct nasally flow. His slew of references display an encyclopedic knowledge of his profession, while pop-culture references to cartoons like Ed Edd N Eddy sit alongside ruminations on what it means to swallow the blue and red pills at the same time, a sentiment that explains J.I.Ds eye-always-open philosophy. J.I.D.'s friends and labelmates, the rap duo EarthGang, are similarly known for their heady and honest lyricism mixed with impressive, head-bobbing production. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Journalist Jeremy Scahill is among his generation's most dogged chroniclers of American empire and the national-security and intelligence apparatus, and has done especially crucial work exposing the United States' use of private military contractors (in his 2007 book Blackwater: The Rise Of The World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army) and the excesses of drone warfare under the Obama administration (in 2016's The Assassination Complex). Scahill's brash, smart-assed approach—one that embraces radical perspectives and rejects the milder conventions of journalistic neutrality—makes him both divisive and indispensable. That's also true of The Intercept, an investigative journalism website he co-founded in 2014 with the even more polarizing journalist Glenn Greenwald.
Since his last visit to Madison, Scahill has also launched The Intercept's podcast, Intercepted, which mixes hard-hitting journalism and political commentary with surreal, mercilessly satirical audio sketches and performances from radically minded artists including Brother Ali and Narcy. Scahill speaks here as part of the Wisconsin Union Directorate's Distinguished Lecture Series. —Scott Gordon
It can be difficult to know where to start with songwriting, especially when you've never written a song before. Do you write lyrics first? Lay down a beat? Compose some chords? The answer to the question, "How do I write a song?!" should have as many answers as there are people on the Earth. So a community-based workshop setting, featuring guidance from several locally based songwriters, might be a good place to start. This seven-week workshop series, featuring Madison musicians including Annelies Howell (The German Art Students), Beth Kille, and Nick Brown, even offers students a platform to share songs developed during the course.
A good workshop isn't the place to get hard-and-fast answers. Think of it as a place to brainstorm, listen to others, receive feedback on your own ideas, and expose yourself to techniques people have been developing for decades. The workshop's six basic questions, the "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How" of songwriting, could be a useful springboard for the uninitiated, writer's block victims, and the experts looking to shake things up. Or, maybe you will discover that this is not how you want to write music, in which case you have learned something about yourself as a creator. Disagreeing with people is often the best way to learn about yourself, and this can be a productive way to approach workshops. Each facilitator will cycle out each week, which should ensure that no one approach to music becomes dogma. The choices of locally-based experts emphasizes folk music, and also features rock and pop musicians. Hip-hop and rap experts are conspicuously absent, though spoken word is mentioned. Register here: https://goo.gl/forms/xa9ybja4ZMgjQdgS2 —Reid Kurkerewicz