Sound Unseen 2006 is trimmer, but uneven

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Everything about this year’s earlier-than-usual Sound Unseen Festival pointed to cost-cutting measures. Most of the films were shown at the much smaller Bryant Lake Bowl Theater, save for a few select films at the Riverview Theater. The number of films was scaled back nearly by half (from over 30 in 2005 to 17 in 2006), while the glossy booklet handed out last year was replaced by a small City Pages insert.

There were advantages of the Festival’s slim-down. The wealth of films at last year’s festival made it impossible to see all the films, necessitating tough decisions on what to see and what to skip. Only rarely were films simultaneously playing at different locations this year. There were disadvantages, however. While the cinematic variety remained, the overall quality of the festival and the films chosen was a bit more uneven. There were also drawbacks with screening films at the Bryant Lake Bowl. More on that later.

Tour documentaries were well represented at this year’s festival. Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin’s documentary _loudQUIETloud_, chronicling the Pixies’ 2004 reunion tour, opened the festival and was to one of its best-attended films. Dallas Hallam’s _Let’s Be Active: Keep the Buzz off My Fuzz_ follows a group of performers around the Midwest as they explore and embody leader Jarrett Mitchell’s philosophy of “Let’s Be Active.” The film tends to drag, but is full of entertaining van hijinks and good performances. Mitchell, a kind anarchist-crackpot-philosopher-performance artist-cum-raving-gym-teacher, begins each show with a speech about the necessity of, in his words, “living until you die.” Many of the musicians take him seriously and Mitchell deftly blurs the line between seriousness and tomfoolery, as when he begins a lecture on “social sculptures,” the artistic creation of interconnected personal relationships, and finishes with a contest to see who can chug a beer, eat a can of corn, and smoke a cigarette the fastest. Featuring the sludgy minimalist-inspired music of The Shadow Government and singer-songwriter Jenny Hoysten, whose altar-ego “Wolfie” (the name comes from the plush wolf mask she dons) makes numerous appearances, the standout of the documentary was William Elliot Whitmore. Possessing a haunting voice somewhere between Johnny Cash and Tom Waits, Whitmore’s words explore the darkest regions of birth, love, death, and everything in between that makes life worth living, all above plaintive banjo and guitar lines. He’ll be opening up for Lucero later this month at the Triple Rock, a show not to be missed.

_Wasted Orient_ is, unfortunately, a vapid sketch of the Chinese punk band Joyslide. The band, and the film’s director Kevin Fritz, seemed resistant to connect punk, historically a music that resists dominant cultural mores, to the context of Communist China. Given the late arrival of punk to China (beginning in the late 1980s), Joyslide presents a pastiche of the major punk scenes: members sport t-shirts of the Germs, the Circle Jerks, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash and most of their songs start off with the Ramones’ “1-2-3-4.” Unfortunately, the band only seems to embrace the most nihilist ideas of punk. Over the course of the film, one of the members asks the camera why [director[ would want to make a film about Joyslide. The film had me wondering the same thing, especially given the number of punk bands in China that consciously engage with punk’s position in the political economy of modern China. While the four members of Joyslide spent much of the film getting wasted, the film wasted an opportunity to explore the cultural impact of punk music in modern China.

Byron Hurt, in his film _Beyond Beats and Rhymes_, has no trouble connecting music to politics. With the protracted subtitle “A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture,” Hurt seeks to interrogate the place of masculinity in one of the most globally dominant musics today. Hurt proceeds to question the masculine ethos that dominates hip hop, from the cultural of violence to discussions of hip hop and homosexuality. The strength of this film are its interviews: not only those with rappers across hip hop’s history and popularity spectrum, including Talib Kweli, Chuck D, Jadakiss, and Mos Def. Many cultural critics and hip hop historians, including Kevin Powell, Mark Anthony Neal, Michael Eric Dyson, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, that provide ammunition for Hurt’s diagnoses and arguments. Hurt talks to hip hop heads from around the country, including those spending spring break at Daytona Beach. There’s a gaping hole in the film, however: artists who generally buck these hyper-masculinist trends, such as The Roots or Common, are not discussed in the film. It also leaves out much larger groups who could be seen as embodying the problems that Hurt analyzes, such as the Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, and Outkast. By the end, one gets the sense that all hip hop is like Hurt says it is. These problems aside, the film should serve as a call for greater questioning of hip hop’s problematic relationship with masculinity.

Outkast’s “Hey Ya” made a surprising appearance in _Cold Hearts_, a collection of Icelandic music and short films. The sight of Thórir, the chubby, white lead singer of My Summer as a Salvation Soldier, intoning the original lyrics to softly undulating acoustic guitar accompaniment, provided an intertextual undercutting of the very notions Hurt criticizes. While the Bryant Lake Bowl replaced its regular white candleholders with dark blue ones, perhaps to evoke the country’s cooler and wetter landscape, few of the films used the country as an artistic springboard. The exceptions were Múm’s “Green Grass of Tunnel” and Bang Gang’s cover of “Stop in the Name of Love,” the former exploring a digital rendering of the areas in which Múm recorded the song and in the latter consisting of a couple roaming in the pastoral Icelandic countryside. The lead singer of Bang Gang, Bardi Jóhannsson, was also featured in Who’s Bardi?, a Spinal Tap-like mockumentary. The music of other films ranged from standard indie rock fare (Maus’s “Over Me Under Me” featured a man trapped in an increasingly dehumanized daily life) to the stop-motion film for the four-organ synth pop of Apparat Organ Quartet’s “Global Capital.” While Björk was nowhere to be found, Sigur Rós’s “Vidrar Vel Til Loftárása” provided a melancholic soundtrack for a slow-motion film capturing young love between two boy soccer players. In Unnur Andrea Einarsdóttir’s “Toilet,” an immaculately sexy, lingerie-clad woman lovingly licks a whipped-cream sundae off of a lime-green toilet seat. Lacking a coherent soundtrack, and bristling with faux highbrow porn sentiments, Toilet was definitely the strangest film of the series, and possibly of the entire festival. Unfortunately, sound and video problems plagued the screening of these DVDs.

Jumping back to this side of the Atlantic, Robin and Rory Muir’s _Downtown Locals_ explores the music made in the bowels of New York City. Profiling six subway performers, each with their own talents and obstacles, the film thoughtfully humanizes those often seen only as transient visual and audible furniture for New Yorkers’ daily commutes. While the performers make clear that a license to perform in the subway isn’t necessary, much of Downtown Locals revolves around attempts to achieve official recognition through the Music Under New York program. John Del Signore performs as one of the “Mercury Men” – standing motionless for hours at a time in a silver suit – and spends much of the film theorizing about the class implications of street performer regulation. He wants his performance to be recognized as a viable subway style and even pickets MUNY when he is not allowed to audition. Julio Cesar Diaz is a Colombian man who expertly dances with homemade full-size dolls and is granted a license, although it doesn’t prevent his equipment from being stolen. The hyperactive Kenny Legagneur is a young man bent on making people happy, and making enough to subsist, no matter what busking laws he might break. Helen Stratford, a singer, accordionist, and puppeteer, feels the recognition would make her more dignified. In one of the more intimate scenes of the film, the audience sees Helen’s dejection after her second MUNY rejection. The Muirs even incorporate a police perspective. While the inclusion of officer Tony Repetti might be surprising, his opinions are not. (An ideal subway system for him would be “you, me, and the trains.”) On the lookout for busking violators, his arbitrariness in allowing a string trio yet suspicious of an immigrant drumming group gained little of my sympathy. Not that total sympathy can be given to the performers; Ron Raffel and Paul Lawrence are both guitarists who battle with drugs, with Paul kicking the habit and Ron is in and out of rehab throughout the film. In the tradition of other great documentaries about the New York City subway, Style Wars, the Muirs have captured an important feature about life underground. While the MTA can scrub the cars free of any lingering graffiti, it is much harder, license or no, to keep these and other performers out of the subway.

Watch for part 2 later this week.

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