Sunday, May 02, 2004

The real war . . . ; Joe Henry's Tiny Voices

Two fairly brief observations this late night/early morning that will also take care of the movie and music entries for this weekend.
Among the movies that Larry lent me in this most recent batch was the 2-disc DVD of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947; dir. John Huston; starring Humphry Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett).  Because of all the Bogart films I've watched since Larry began lending me films to watch, Huston's name, as either writer or director and sometimes both, has appeared with some frequency; so, when I saw that the bonus disc in this set contained a tribute to Huston's work, I watched it.  I quickly realized that he had been little more than a name to me, though I liked his version of Wise Blood because it is just as odd as Flannery O'Connor's novel is.  At any rate, I learned a LOT from this documentary.  The main thing I learned was that, as we Texans say, Huston was a sumbitch as a man, but (as presented in this film) he never compromised when it came to his art.It spent considerable time on the war documentaries Huston shot during the Allies' campaign in Italy in WWII and one, called Let There Be Light, that dealt with soldiers returning from Europe.  This last one was truly amazing and disturbing, for it dealt not with triumphant soldiers returning from having fought the last war my nation feels there was no question about as to its justness, but with the physically- and psychically-wounded.  One clip shows a man so traumatized by battle that he can barely stutter out his words.  He fights it, and the more he fights it, the worse his stammer becomes, thus frustrating him even more.  Even now, 60 years later, it is difficult to watch.  But what might be even MORE difficult to watch is what happens when a doctor gives him some sort of injection.  The man almost instantly relaxes, then begins repeating, louder and louder, "I can talk!  Oh God, I can talk!" and then breaks down and weeps and weeps and weeps.  I can only assume that most of the film is like this--unflinching in showing the viewer what even a morally-justifiable war can do to its soldiers.  Who knows what direction, if any, the Army had given him about what to shoot?  Whatever the case, this apparently was not what it had in mind; the Army declared it to be "anti-war" and forbade its being released, declassifying it only . . . in December of 1980.  Huston's response: "If I ever shoot a movie that's pro-war, just take me out and shoot me."In this country, we are wrestling with images of war: pictures of flag-draped coffins last week; and, just within the past few days, images of Iraqi prisoners being humiliated and threatened with harm by U.S. military police (who, it turns out, are under the command of the military but are actually contract workers who not only appear not to be subject to prosecution under military law but, due to a provision in the just-passed Iraqi constitution protecting those who work for the provisional government, can't be prosecuted under Iraqi law, either), as well as the refusal of ABC affiliates owned by the Sinclair Company not to air last Friday's edition of Nightline in which Ted Koppel read the names of all U.S. servicemen who have died in Iraq.  Not just the images themselves but, more accurately, how to contextualize them as viewers: what they say about war generally; what they say about this particular war; what they say about us as a nation when our ideals are cruelly violated by those supposedly fighting to create a nation conceived according to those very ideals.  Some of us are so intent on presenting this war in the best possible light that what gets overlooked is the fact that, just or not, war has its costs in suffering and death and, in the victors' more bestial moments, humiliation of the enemy.  Huston's film drove that point home so forcefully that someone feared it would taint even the rightly-earned victory over the Axis powers.  Apparently, even the good fights need sanitizing.
Now to Joe Henry's Tiny Voices.  Henry has 8 previous albums to his credit, and he was the producer of Solomon Burke's recent comeback album, but Tiny Voices is my first exposure to his work.  It is hard to describe this man's music.  I told Susan that it reminds me of a cross between a just-out-of-tune jazz band and an off-kilter circus band, sort of.  But that's not quite it, either.  The arrangements feel very improvised, spontaneous--or, more accurately, as though the band is still working out the arrangements.  But the songs have definite verse-chorus structures to them, thus keeping them from feeling as though they're going to fly apart.  The result really IS like nothing else out there that I know of: a strange space between jazz, folk and trip-hop editing.  An updated Captain Beefheart, but without the psychedelic lyrics?  Maybe.I like this music. Sonically, it has real depth to it: many of the songs have a low-frequency rumble in the mix reminiscent of the vibration a turntable's tonearm would sometimes pick up and transmit to the speakers, thus making this music sound "old."  Also, the arrangements are such that, due to the editing, the band feels larger than it actually is.  It'd be interesting to see them perform live. But despite the freshness of this band's sound, I can't help but feel that it's a bit mannered.  They don't actually PLAY like this; editing work in the studio achieves this spontaneous-sounding sound.  Some bands don't even bother trying to sound spontaneous--Steely Dan immediately comes to mind--but you don't mind because that sort of calculating (6 hours of working on the 30-second fade-out for "Babylon Sisters," for example) is part of their point.  At the opposite end you have something like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, each of whose tracks, except for "Flamenco Sketches," is a live first take (and the cut of "Flamenco Sketches" that made the album is a second take).  Joe Henry wants the precision of Steely Dan but the spontaneous feel of Davis and is thus calculating in two directions at once.  It's his sound, and the results are well worth taking a chance on hearing for yourselves, but I do have to admit that I catch myself wondering just how it got made, and that does detract from the listening experience.
Those wishing to see the comments for the original Live Journal post can go here.

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