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ANOTHER NOT REVIEW: A Physical (Handicap) Theater – at the Festival Future Composé and the Williams Syndrome Opening Piece

June 11, 2018
bradspurgeon

Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel in Si Ce N'est Toi.

Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel in Si Ce N’est Toi.

PARIS – If theater is about emotion, intellect and the physical world, then there is clearly a powerful formula to be harvested from the approach that is behind the festival called “Futur Composé” – running in several theaters and institutions around Paris from 8 June to 1 July – the opening play of which I attended on Friday at Le Carré du Temple. “Si Ce N’est Toi,” is a very personal piece by Marion Coutarel, inspired by her brother’s diagnosis in his 40s of Williams Syndrome. The festival and its association, were created 18 years ago – and this is its 10th edition, as it runs every other year – to allow an exchange between handicapped people (mostly autistic), and others who are not handicapped, and to bring them together on the stage and through other artistic events and activities – such as singing, writing, painting. The striking thing about Coutarel’s play was nicely put to words by a psychiatrist I spoke to afterwards: “In some ways, the people who are supposed to be handicapped look much more naturally alive in their role on the stage than those who are not.”

It was with a huge variety of emotions, on many different levels, that I watched this piece of 1 hour 20 minutes: On the one hand there was an education about an illness I had never heard of – Williams Syndrome – on another level was the actor on the stage before me who is afflicted with the illness, and on another was the actress, author and director whose brother inspired the show. But it truly did make me question the very nature of what it means to be “handicapped.” And in this way, the play is a challenging and worthwhile venture for the spectator. I left the theater – a 250-seat auditorium in the 3d arrondissement – feeling happily enlightened and uplifted about a part of our world that I knew so little about, and now will never see the same way again.

The play comes in the form of a sort of story-telling acted out by the three main characters, Coutarel, Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel. The latter is a dancer and choreographer, who plays the role of John Cyprian Phipps Williams, who was born 16 November 1922, a New Zealand cardiologist who discovered the syndrome in 1961, while he was still quite young. As part of the story, we learn also of the strange, eccentric life of this mysterious, multi-talented doctor who apparently disappeared for years and was presumed dead – until he made contact with the author of a book about the poet Janet Frame, asking that a relationship he had with the poet please not be mentioned in the book!

But the most intriguing performance of the story is that of Auriane Vivien, who is affected by the syndrome. And it is here where I was the most touched by my questions about what constitutes a handicap. Vivien, who has played the role several times over the last year elsewhere in France, was – as the psychiatrist noted – perfectly at home on the stage. In fact, had it not been for some of her physical characteristics matching those of the typical case of Williams Syndrome, it might have been impossible to know whether or not she was truly affected by this disease.

This was a theater of personal exploration, especially for Vivien and Coutarel, as the author wrote the piece in order to try to come to terms with her own brother’s illness. Williams Syndrome affects about 1 in 10,000 people, and is characterized by certain physical attributes – notably the shape of the face and head – but also often by problems with visual spatial tasks, and, unfortunately, frequent heart problems. People with this genetic syndrome often have some moderate intellectual deficiencies as well, but other things are above average, for instance, they often possess a high musicality, often having absolute pitch. It is often marked also by an outgoing, friendly personality; which is something that is really touching in the circumstances as well.

The play takes a form somewhere between a recounting of personal history, self-questioning, demonstrations of what it is to have the syndrome, and even occasionally feels like a university lecture on the topic. But it was highly choreographed, and much of the physical interest comes from the contortions and movements of Taffanel, whose physical traits might actually lend themselves to questioning by anyone who did not know it, as to whether or not he himself suffered from the syndrome! Ultimately, the play’s main interest for me was, in fact, this questioning that it made me do about what exactly is that thing that we like to call “normal.”

* Not Reviews: This is a format I use on this blog to write about the music I am listening to, the books I am reading, the shows or films or other things that I do that are often in the habit of being written about by critics – book critics, music critics, theater critics, cinema critics, etc. And my feeling has always been that I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about book critics and how fiction writers themselves should not be writing criticism of other writers, in the spirit of the phrase: “You can’t hunt with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” My idea is just to talk about the books, plays, films and music I listen to or see. Talk about the way it affected me, everything and anything it inspires, but not to place myself on any kind of judgmental pedestal as critics are supposed to do – or are at least notorious for doing.

Watching the Circus Evolve, at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain (World Circus Festival of Tomorrow) in Paris

February 11, 2018
bradspurgeon

cirque de demain prize giving

cirque de demain prize giving

PARIS – I could not believe it when I calculated that the last time I had attended the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain was 23 years ago. I did this calculation last Sunday while attending the 39th edition of this circus festival, at the Cirque Phénix on the Pelouse de Reuilly in Paris. The last time I had attended it took place in Paris’s fabulous indoor circus building, the Cirque d’Hiver, and the change of location defined a big part of the growth of the festival. But it was above all in seeing how the acts themselves had changed, transformed, grown, that defined the passage of time over those years. The only thing that remained the same was the clear, undeniable importance and innovative nature of this, one of the world’s greatest circus festivals.

In December 1994, the festival was already one of the foremost circus festivals, but was it was still fighting for a reputation, I think, and I did quite a long report on it in my newspaper, along with a focus on the history of the Cirque d’Hiver. Then, as now, the festival was all about the young, up and coming circus talents from around the world. And usually about the avant garde acts they were creating.

Cirque de Demain Taiwanese diabolo troupe

But it is the sheer baffling talent that awes at this festival today as in the past. The circus arts often are thought of us something slightly tawdry, and often not really a true art, but a cheap thrill obtained through buffoonery or minor skills of juggling and gymnastics. This festival shows how high an achievement, how much discipline mental, spiritual and physical it takes to achieve the highest level of the circus arts. Today it seems a circus artist can no longer be content to master one thing: A juggler has to be something of a gymnast, dancer, clown, tumbler, and have enough imagination to be able to communicate with the audience through more than just wowing them with throwing objects into the air.

Cirque de demain diabolo solo
Same for the trapeze artists, the tumblers, and others: Multitalented consummate artists who absolutely send shivers of emotion through us at their multifaceted shows and skills. Anyone interested in going into the circus profession as an artist, really must check out this festival to see how high the bar – literally and figuratively – may be set for the very highest levels of the art.

Cirque de demain chairs gymnast

Aside from this clear development since the early 1990s, another of the biggest developments I noticed this year compared 23 years ago was that at that time, the dominant acts, most of the acts, came from the former Soviet countries, from Russia, Ukraine, all over Eastern Europe, as well as from China. All of those communist states that had for decades poured money into developing the circus arts.


Cirque de Demain trapeze shadows

This year, act after act came from Western countries, or a large number of the performers no matter where they were from had trained in the West. Much to my delight and surprise, that included many of them having trained at the National Circus School in Montreal, Canada. Founded in 1981, that school would not have had the time by 1994 to have produced such a large quantity of performers, I suspect. But what was also interesting was that some of these performers seemed – if I understood correctly – to have come from other countries to study there.

Cirque de demain Bar Russe
There were plenty of West European performers as well, of high quality. In all, my favorite performances came from the two diabolo juggling acts, the solo artist, Arata Urawa, in the early part of the show and the group of four jugglers from Taiwan called Diaboloism. I loved the hand-to-hand performances of Tristan & Eve, as well as those of the other such performers, i.e., Julius & César. And I enjoyed the huge hoop, or Roue Cyr, performance by Vincent Bruyninckx of Belgium. The various trapeze artists took my breath away and raised my heart rate permanently as I feared for their lives so high above the stage.
Cirque de demain hoop

The festival has grown vastly in its public success as well in the last 23 years, and since it was founded by Dominique Mauclair – who died recently – in 1977. Although the Cirque d’Hiver remains myself favorite circus location, the move to a big tent like the Cirque Phénix brings a whole different dimension to this international competition – there were some 20 countries represented – with an audience on the third day of the show for the finale (which is what I attended) reaching something like 5 to 6,000 spectators. It was, in fact, the record of audience size for the festival.

Cirque de demain flippers
Another constant between 1994 and today, was that there is nevertheless a common feel to these acts with avant garde music and the effort to raise a circus act to the level of high art. That is one of the distinguishing aspects of this festival. This is not really for young children. Lasting nearly three hours and consisting of the finest, most artistic acts around, it lacks the big gut-splitting sort of act of that lower kind that children – and adults too – really love to see. But that is not, either, the purpose of this festival. It is more competition, showcase, career launching board than at strict family show.

Cirque de demain flags
Oh, yes, and on that point, it is also worth pointing out that there are no animal acts. This is purely the side of the circus that is involved in great human achievement, not the P.T. Barnum fascination with animals and oddities. Speaking of which, as I left the festival, I wondered to myself how it is that with the health of the circus act so clearly incredibly high – higher than ever before, dare I say? – how is it that over the past year one of the greatest of all circuses with more than a century of tradition, still was unable to succeed and had to close down forever? Did Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey depend too much on the old idea of the circus? In any case, my feeling is that the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, after 39 years, still has decades more to go, and I can’t wait to see how it all evolves in the future….

A Crowning Moment at the Café Retro Open Mic in Copenhagen

March 26, 2017
bradspurgeon

Café Retro

Café Retro

I had almost reached my limit at the open mic I attended that I last reported about on this blog, in Copenhagen, but the temptation to try another one that was sitting as bait before my eyes was just too great. It was Thursday night, I had a film to attend until around 8 PM or so, and then another film to attend at 10 PM or so (see my previous post about The Inertia Variations), but I had heard some intriguing things about the Café Retro open mic. And I had therefore, a period of an hour, basically, between when I could arrive for the beginning of the open mic, and had to leave for the next film. So I decided to see if that hour could be filled with my fourth presence behind a mic at an open mic in Copenhagen in seven nights in Denmark. Eureka! And boy did I not regret the effort and gamble to go….

My experience at the previous open mic was so bad, waiting three hours to play one song, that I worried that I had already seen the best of the open mics in Copenhagen, and why push my luck. But, in fact, during that previous open mic I had met some Spaniards who had told me that the Café Retro open mic – which I had heard of elsewhere – was really a cool, different, open mic that was worth trying. So I pushed myself, going to the place in the heart of downtown Copenhagen without my guitar even, and hoping for the best.
Another Henrik Berg at Café Retro in Copenhagen

I had been told that the Café Retro was a non-profit establishment in which all the people working were volunteers. The money the venue earns goes to various social projects in Africa. That in itself sounded promising – but who knew?

So I found the place with no problem, entered, and discovered a really neat atmosphere of small rooms or cubby holes, coolly decorated, and an upper mezzanine floor where the open mic takes place. It was cozy, cool, and clearly made for both listening, munching, drinking and socializing. I arrived at precisely 8:30, and I was introduced to Henrik Berg, who runs the open mic. I told him that I was really keen to play. He outlined to me the program for the night: He would play a set until 9 p.m. and that would be followed by a feature act – or was it “acts” – until 9:30, at which point the open mic would begin.
Henrik Berg at Café Retro in Copenhagen

I told him that I supposed that ruled me out, since I had a film to attend at 10 p.m., and even if he put me up as the first person in the open mic, it was doubtful I could play precisely at 9:30 and still get off to the cinema…. He said of course we could do that. Then he gave it a little thought and said, “Listen, I have an idea: I will play my set until 9 p.m., then I will slot you in at 9 in between me and the feature act. Then you can get out of here after that, easily early enough to get to your film.”

I could not believe my ears! What openness, what consideration. There are so few open mic MCs that know how to be flexible. And so many times when I have been in similar straights, they say: “Come back next week.” And they say this despite me telling them I don’t live in the country, I’m just passing through and may never return. Not Henrik. His way of dealing with me was consistent with what feels like the entire zeitgeist of this volunteer organization and its great staff.
Onimo at Café Retro

I then set another hurdle for him, telling him that my guitar was in my hotel. “No problem, use mine.”

So Henrik played his set, and he immediately introduced me, and I got up on stage at 9 p.m. and found myself behind a fabulous, fabulous sound system, with lots of reverb on the mic, and his guitar – a Takamine – sounding great and feeling as good to play. And there I was, up there in that perch above the ground floor looking down, and looking also over at the clients in the various cubbyholes of the mezzanine.
A final Henrik Berg at Café Retro in Cph

And so began a close to half an hour set for me as I played song after song of mine with Henrik giving me the thumbs-up from the floor below, indicating I could continue…. I have not felt that good at an open mic for a very, very long time. And I managed to leave just after 9:30 and arrive in plenty of time at the film, which I was therefore feeling completely relaxed and enthusiastic to see.

So I highly, highly recommend the Café Retro in Copenhagen. I also, generally, highly recommend Copenhagen for people looking for one of the best open mic scenes in the world. I could have played just about every night, I think. And I will confirm that soon with a new Thumbnail Guide for Copenhagen’s open mic scene….

Four open mics in seven days, I could not have dreamed of anything better when I set out of the CPH:DOX film festival the week before….

Breaking Through the Inertia with The Inertia Variations – a Look at the Creative Process through Matt Johnson, of The The

March 25, 2017
bradspurgeon

The Inertia Variations

The Inertia Variations

COPENHAGEN – For the 15 years prior to the film “The Inertia Variations,” musician Matt Johnson, the lead guy in the British 1980s-90s band, “The The,” had not performed any music, had not finished writing any songs – although he had started a lot of them – and for many years had even ceased to touch his guitars at all. That sounds like a lot of inertia. His absence from the music scene has resulted in his Wikipedia entry referring to him as “the reclusive” Matt Johnson.† But in this new film, made by his ex-wife, Johanna St. Michaels, – which had its international premiere at the CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen Thursday night – while we see that he is certainly something of a loner, not only has he been occupied with many other projects – photography, writing those unfinished songs, working on a book – but above all, creating a radio station in his home in London that broadcasts the old-fashioned way – with an antenna – to try to communicate with and inform people about politics in a way that they are not exposed to in the mainstream media. So how reclusive can that be? And for that matter, how much inertia could it all entail?

In fact, questions of inertia are woven throughout the film, with much existential questioning in the many different perceptions of himself both by others and from within himself about who he really is and what he really wants to do in life, and they make up the main, driving thrust behind this film. It remains interesting from beginning to the end through what amounts to raising such universal questions about the creative process and the question of identity that affect us all.

The film centers around a 12-hour nonstop, live radio show from his home station – Radio Cineola – during the British election, and clearly, for Johnson this aspect of his life is the most important thing at the moment. Obviously, for fans of The The, and for his former – and to a degree – his current, wife, there is the lingering question: “When will you make more music?!” Part of Johnson himself clearly wants to create more music too. The film shows that there is even an aching part of him that has been wanting to continue to create and play new songs for a while now. But he can never finish anything, and part of him, he says, is quite lazy. Others say it too. And in some very bizarre ways, we see codes he creates in his life to make it simpler that could also be considered a form of laziness: He shows off, and explains, that he always wears the same type of pants and shirt, a whole series of which he has had tailor-made for him to avoid having to make a choice on what clothes to wear (this reminded me of Steve Jobs, by the way). In fact, this “lazy” part of his personality echoed in my mind the comical Oblomov character from Russian literature.

But what the film ends up making very clear, and what really becomes its focus, is the horrendous battle that Johnson appears to be undergoing with what a fiction writer would call “writer’s block.” And there is a touch of what he himself wonders about in a conversation with his father: A fear of both success and a fear of failure. Given that The The was a successful band with music that has profoundly affected generations of fans – even if it is far from being a household name, and the songs themselves never broke into the popular global consciousness – Johnson has a reputation to live up to if he is to “replicate” the kind of success he had in the first couple of decades of the band, before his split from music.

The Inertia Variations trailer

Part of him is happy living the clearly comfortable life he has. He has all the material needs anyone could want, he has lots of recording and playing equipment in his home; he has the radio station (with the science-fiction-like antenna that he mounted on the roof of his building); he apparently owns the whole building, and he is constantly fighting against developers who want to buy it to put up more high-rises – referring to himself as a conservationist. He is also a bit of a landlord, renting out parts of the building – it seems. He still has projects involved with the rights to The The. This is a full, and to most people in our world, enviable life.

So for me, the film is, above all, the story not only of a man’s creative process, but also of the difference between his own creative needs and expectations of himself, as opposed to the expectations that others have of him. That takes us back to the idea that he is a recluse just because he is no longer making music.

But, I feel, the key to understanding him lies in the book-ends of important deaths in his family: The death of his brother, Eugene at age 24 in 1989 he said changed his view of life, and affected him profoundly. It seems to have affected the momentum of the band, The The. And 10 years later, his mother, heartbroken with Eugene’s death, died. That coincides with the final The The album, NakedSelf, in 2000.

Then, while the film was being made, another of his brothers died – in January 2016 – and this was Andrew, the artist who did some album covers for The The and other bands. Matt was actually working on a book with Andrew, and is clearly shattered. It is this death that drives Matt Johnson to actually, and finally, once again, finish a song. A song for Andrew. The film ends in a deluge of emotion as Johnson finally performs the song, at his home in front of people, in front of the cameras, on his radio, in what was his first public performance in 15 years. And it is shocking just how good the song is, and how his voice, despite years without use, remains fabulous.

It also turns out that the song, called, “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” – which features the guitar work of Johnny Marr, who played with him often in the past – will be released as a single on April 22. So could it be that Matt Johnson finally managed to write a song simply because the song had to be written?  Could it be that the need to write a song for his brother overshadowed any need he had to match his own high achievements of the past that he feared not being able to live up to?  That only one thing mattered, and that was to express himself for Andrew, through a song – no matter the quality?

That, in any case, is the way that I read it. Whatever the reason, whatever the story behind the motivations and workings of his mind, this beautiful and intimate film, which uses fictional film techniques, is a tender, thought-provoking tale from the beginning to the end. The Inertia Variations is also beautifully filmed, and has a wonderful soundtrack – by The The – a real treasure, so thank goodness Johanna and Matt have managed to remain friends and he allowed her to make this film that had been on her mind for many years.

Thanks goodness also that Matt – as he said in the talk after the film – just left the concept of the film up to her rather than doing what he would have liked to do, which was to really promote his passion of the moment by putting in more about the political messages he is trying to convey with his radio station….

UPDATE, 26 March 2017: Here is a podcast of the post-premiere Q&A in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX with Matt Johnson and Johanna St. Michaels. I have kept the 15 minutes in the Q&A (which I recorded with my Zoom recorder sitting on my lap), but I have cut out the further 20 minutes of talk where the public asks questions.

UPDATE, 27 March 2017: Here is a second part to the podcast of the post-premiere Q&A in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX with Matt Johnson and Johanna St. Michaels with the questions from the audience. I had decided not to put up this portion of the Q&A – which is just as rich as the first part – but after a request from a reader/listener, I decided to put it up as well:

Actually, it is the Wikipedia page for the band, The The, that refers to him as “the reclusive Johnson”….

A Seminar, an Interview and then a long wait followed by an explosion of emotion – Day Whatever at CPH:DOX

March 23, 2017
bradspurgeon

Tjili Pop

Tjili Pop

COPENHAGEN – Just about the only really good thing that comes out of a three-hour wait at an open mic to get behind the microphone and be “allowed” to sing only ONE song because there’s no longer any time left in the evening at just after 11 PM is that you have a very good reason to want to put your whole heart and soul and physically being into the song you sing. And that is what happened to me last night as I sang “Mad World” at the Tjili Pop open mic, called Speake’s Corner, in Copenhagen.

I was the first or second musician to arrive for the open mic at 8:30 p.m., but the open mic takes place after a “concert” of four different bands or musicians from roughly 8:30 to what ended up being after 11:00 p.m., and buy the time I got behind the mic it was 11:20 and I was told that I could only do one song. All the participants of the open mic only did one song. Then, of course, my Seagull guitar failed to work through the sound system – the only place it has worked out of the three open mics I’ve done in Copenhagen so far is at the first, and best of them: CPH Listening Room. I wonder if there is a reason for that!
First at Tjili Pop in Copenhagen

Anyway, the Tjili Pop bar is otherwise an absolutely fabulous room, cramped, cool, hippie-like, and broken up into different sectors, so if you want to talk you can go to another room, away from the music room. Not that many people did!

I did managed to fill my time waiting with three beers – I really only wanted one beer and three songs, but … – and a fish and chips meal that was not bad at all.
Fourth at Tjili in cph

The place was crammed with people, and by the time I got behind the mic and belted out Mad World – I think I was the only person to sing a cover song all night, but I did that as a rebellious statement (!) – I was really not happy, and really ready to take full advantage of the pulpit and go crazy. All the alcohol helped too….

It had otherwise been a great day at the CPH:DOX film festival. In the morning I had attended a conference about the question of whether or not to serialize a documentary film – i.e., turn it into several films – with the highly experienced and interesting Thom Powers, who selects the films for several important film festivals among many other things.
Another at the Tjili open mic

I also did an interview with the man who selects the films and music for the CPH:DOX festival, Adam Thorsmark. I will be posting that interview in the form of a podcast very soon in a separate post….

Anyway, despite my frustration with the crazy Tjili joint, I have now done three open mics in Copenhagen, and there are plenty more available. So ultimately, I am absolutely delighted with what this city has to offer in the way of open mics, and I never expected so much.

Two Films and a Second Open Mic – Copenhagen’s Mojo’s Workin’

March 22, 2017
bradspurgeon

Copenhagen

Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN – It was tight timing, but it was a reflection of just about everything else in this tightly organized festival and my trip to attend CPH:DOX and play at open mics: I had a film at 7 p.m., followed by a film at 9 p.m. followed by an open mic at 11 p.m. And despite the rain, hail, snow, freezing weather and wind, I managed to achieve all three things. (I exaggerate only slightly on the cold, horrible, depressing Copenhagen weather.) The most fun in all that? Maybe all three, the totality. From the “Sour Grapes” documentary about a wine fraud, to the snippets of a cameraperson’s filming life in the film called “Cameraperson” to the open mic at Mojo with more Copenhagen singer songwriters, it was all about as good as it gets….

The wine film was a delight, as I have a very strong interest in wine as well as in wine frauds, as one of my very first unsold novels, “Bacchanalia,” dealt with an imaginary wine fraud story in the 1980s, and was inspired by the true-to-life wine fraud over fake bottles of wine supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson. (I posted my many-times-rejected article on that very story of the Thomas Jefferson wines on my blog a few years ago.) This film is a similar, but actually much wilder story of a young Indonesian who ingratiates himself to the wine world in the U.S. in the 2000s and ends up selling 10s of millions of dollars of fake wine to collectors before being caught and put in prison. A lively story, and one of the most amazing aspects is how his victims fail to believe it is really possible that this guy did this, even once it has been made crystal clear by the discovery by federal agents of all the evidence they needed in the man’s home.
Cameraperson trailer

From that film I rushed over to another cinema – both cinemas and the open mic bar were close walking distance to my hotel – and attended the film “Cameraperson,” which is a series of outtakes and other moments from documentary films and reportages that Kirsten Johnson, a filmmaker and cinematographer, put together over her career. It includes some sad, touching moments with her mother during her final period with Alzheimer’s Disease. Johnson asks us to see the film as her version of a memoir. It is full of some very touching and strange moments of film – as for instance when she is filming a woman in the throes of anger against her mother’s suicide, when suddenly a huge mass of snow comes sliding off the room of her home outside the window, as if the mother was trying to communicate from the other side….

“Cameraperson” lasted longer than I had expected, and so I did not get out of the cinema until 22:49, and while I had planned to run back to the hotel, grab my guitar and return to the open mic, I was now faced with the reality that I would arrive at the open mic after 23:00 if I did that, and I had been told that it started at around 23:00. It took place in a blues bar called Mojo, and while it may be famous as a blues bar, the Monday night event is a singer songwriter open mic. So I was really looking forward to doing it, and decided I had better go first, without my guitar.

Besides, it was yet another night of rain in Copenhagen, where it has rained every day I have been here. Moreover, the rain was at its worst – as far as I could see – at that moment. So I walked over to Mojo, walked into this nice, warm, mainly wooden, cowboy-saloon-like joint, with a beautiful little stage across from the front door, and I found that the open mic had not yet begun.
Sour Grapes trailer

I eventually met the MC, the organizer of the open mic, Kira Martini, and she told me that it would run from shortly after 23:00 until about 1 a.m. So I had plenty of time to return to my hotel to take my guitar. I could also use hers, she said. But since it was a nylon-string guitar, I chose to return to the hotel. I immediately regretted that decision when I walked into the hail of gale-force winds and finally arrived at my hotel with soaking wet feet and jeans. But somehow I felt great that I would have the security of my own guitar.
another at mojo open mic in Copenhagen

The open mic, when I returned, was in full swing. It had a similar vibe to it to the CPH Listening Room open mic of the night before in that the audience, for the most part, was there to listen, and the performers performed only their own songs. And most of the songs were fairly quiet, personal, singer songwriter songs – as opposed to anything rockin’. The only person who decided to do a cover song was Kira, who at the request of a client, sang a famous Brazilian song, as the last one of the night (I think). It was a beautiful moment even so – and I still think there is a place for doing cover songs, even in a singer songwriter night. (Joe Cocker, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and a few others would no doubt have thought so too!)
first at mojo open mic in Copenhagen

Anyway, I was, in the end, ecstatic about having achieved all of my goals in that very short period of time available. What an amazing week so far, at the halfway point of this visit to Copenhagen for me. Oh, the only problem was that after all the effort of going back to my hotel to take my guitar, no sooner did I finish doing my presentation of the first song than my guitar – which had worked on the soundcheck – suddenly decided to pull a temper tantrum and not speak through the pickup. We had to mic the guitar separately. But in the end, I think it sounded better that way!
Kira at Mojo

Accidental Spectator Discovers Why; Two Important Films on Hate at CPH:DOX (and Tindersticks vs. Minute Bodies)

March 21, 2017
bradspurgeon

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

COPENHAGEN – Somehow, I ended up in the wrong film at the CPH:DOX festival. I did not choose this film and it was not the film I came to see, it was not the film written on my ticket, although it was the right cinema, and the right auditorium. But then, immediately, as the film began in its strange manner, I decided that it could be a very interesting exercise to watch a documentary that I did not choose to see. And by the time it was over – even before that – I realized that it was a fabulously synchronistic thing to have had happen. The night before, Sunday night, I had seen another film that in fact fit in perfectly with this film. So I realized I had something to write about these two otherwise completely different films: They both deal with some of the biggest problems of our day – but in completely different ways – namely: Ideology, intolerance, hate, lack of love, rejection of people who are different from us, and above all, ignorance.

While I came to Copenhagen mainly to watch the music documentaries in the Sound & Vision festival-within-the-festival I was going to at least see some of the non-music films. Sunday night’s film was the first of those that I attended, the very powerful “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck, and based on an incomplete book, “Remember This House,” by James Baldwin about his relationships with his three murdered friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. The other film, where I found myself by accident, was “The Devil’s Trap,” about a man who grew up in a Christian cult that rejects anything to do with the world outside the cult. The film is by the Canadian Mitchell Stafiej, and it follows 25-year-old Lane, who found the strength to reject the church of his parents, brother and sisters, only to find that he had been permanently rejected by his family.

I Am Not Your Negro trailer

In each film, we find these problems of hate for anyone who is different, intolerance over the differences, and above all fear. Fear of the consequences of living with people of different beliefs, races, colors, creeds. Throughout “I Am Not Your Negro,” I was thinking about how the film answered for me my questions about the current situation in the United States. How could there be so much hate in this country now with Donald Trump’s (mostly white) voters asking for an America that closes out the rest of the world, refuses to accept diversity and refuses to acknowledge that human beings, in order to survive, need a moral standard that cannot include lies and hate?

Watching the “Baldwin-narrated” – an actor speaks Baldwin’s text, and the film tells the story through historic footage – of the history of black people in America answers that question of “how” can things be like this now. Because many of the white American people – not all of them – have been this way through most of their history. As is said at one point in the film, the history of America is the history of black people in America, and you can use the way black people are being treated as a barometer for the health of the whole country.

It’s a stunning, powerful film. James Baldwin was more than a front-row observer, more than a witness of that history of the second half of the 20th century. He was friends with these three prime voices in the battle for black peoples’ rights – or as King said, “duties” – and he himself, as the film shows, made some very clear and powerful statements.

I have always felt close to Baldwin as an expat writer who lived in Paris in the 1950s. He returned to the United States in the 1960s because he missed the people, then spent the decade there in the height of the civil rights battle, before moving back to France in 1970, and settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence until his death in 1987 at age 63 from stomach cancer.

Baldwin had never wanted to be taken as a “black writer” first, which is one of the reasons he moved to France – to write from outside the context of his situation in life in the U.S. During his battles in the civil rights movement, he spoke about how he was raised on the same white culture as his white countrymen and women were raised on, and only once he hit a certain age – still as a child – was he stunned to realize that he was in fact considered by the white people in the same role as the Indians were that John Wayne was killing in the films he grew up watching. He, suddenly realized in his innocence, that he was a target.

The film shows not just the past, but it shows how the problems still exist today, with an appearance or two of Trump’s face and words, and there are references to Black Lives Matter, and other current events and murdered black people.

I left the cinema feeling I understood the current situation with Trump much better – because it has so long been woven into the American psyche.

And then the accidental part of this story with The Devil’s Trap

But the next day, Monday, I ended up by accident in this film about Lane and his family’s devotion to the cult of the Exclusive Brethren. To quote from Wikipedia, this cult is “a subset of the Christian evangelical movement generally described as the Plymouth Brethren. They are distinguished from the Open Brethren from whom they separated in 1848.”

Lane and his family, it turns out, are Canadians. They attended the church in Montreal, where Lane grew up controlled by the doctrines of this church, through his parents’ application of the codes on the family. The film, in fact, takes us across the border to various cities in the U.S. as well, including Washington D.C., where his family now lives.

The Devil’s Trap trailer


I am a Canadian, born and raised, and as I heard Lane speak, I felt I heard my friends and family – eh? So my thoughts about “I Am Not Your Negro,” and the U.S.-specific hate and intolerance came into a different perspective.

Lane tells the story of how he grew up indoctrinated by the principles of the cult through his parents in such a strict way that he felt like a complete outsider in Canadian society. (Although he never used such a national distinction.) He could not watch films, had no right to listen to music CDs, if he swore his father would wash his mouth out with laundry detergent. And when he dared decide to leave the church, his family and eventually join the military, his family not only disowned him, but refused to speak to him. No one paid much attention when he told them that he had been raped at age 13 by a church member at the church.

His parents never want to see him again. First, though, so convinced were they that there was something wrong with Lane, that they took him to the Mayo Clinic for several days of physical and mental examinations. The overseeing doctor at this respected clinic told him after all the tests that he was an entirely healthy teenager, both physically and mentally and he should not let anyone tell him otherwise. That helped him realize that despite hearing that he was mentally ill from his family for years, his inclinations that there was a problem rather with his upbringing were right.

He broke away. But the film shows how he makes a final effort to try to see and meet, and share the life he deserves with his family, travelling to Washington to see them. It is only in this culminating scene that I became entirely convinced myself that Lane was not exaggerating, or perhaps even lying, about the extreme nature of the treatment by his family. We learn through a concealed recording he made of his meeting with his brother – whom he had not seen in years – that his parents would not come and meet him, that it would be too difficult for them to take emotionally. These parents were, however, dying, feeling completely destroyed, by the departure and betrayal against the church and its beliefs, their beliefs, of their son.

In short, their cult religion, their beliefs, were more important than their love for their child. Oh, no, sorry, Lane they do love. But they would only welcome him back home and come to see him, make him a member of the family again if he accepted the dictates of the cult. Only if he sacrificed everything to the cult as they did would they accept that he was worth loving and associating with. Otherwise, he was to be shunned, closed out, shut up, disowned, considered dead.

One difference between the treatment of Lane and the treatment of the blacks in racist America is that at least it would appear that the members of the cult do not intend to actually physically kill those who are different from them, as is the case through the history of violence and hate against the blacks in America. There is, of course, the mental torture his family inflict from their intolerance and ignorance and hateful actions – but at least there is no murder, in this case.

But for me, these two films sum up the depths to which humanity appears to be going at the moment with the extremism that Trump represents. One of the most interesting elements for me, also, is that these people in the cult who hate and refuse to live with those who are different than them, including their own family members, they are from an affluent middle class. We are not talking about physical poverty here – only mental poverty. Most of Trump’s voters, while perhaps being from a lower-income part of the population, are not exactly starving and dying from exposure either. We are, in both cases, talking about people whose basic needs have been met, and now they are free to hate through extreme ideologies. Why is it that with the most common challenge facing humanity being the very survival and feeding and housing of the 6 or 7 billion of us all, we have to try to destroy one another based on ideologies and beliefs? Could fear and cowardice be the answer to that?

Anyway, this has to be one of the most run-on posts I’ve ever done, and I’d probably do much better to stick to writing about the music films at CPH:DOX. But I was affected by both of these films.

And then there was Tindersticks vs. the amoeba

To finish on a lighter note, I also attended briefly the multimedia event of the weekend, the concert by the group Tindersticks, playing at the festival headquarters while overhead some strange video showed of sped-up-motion nature shots of plants and amoeba etc., in Minute Bodies. Don’t bother asking me what it all meant. Check out my video of a minute or so of that concert, if you want to understand. Then get back to me on your theories….

Tindersticks at CPH:DOX

https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=ceZb4f0R7Uk

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