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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Hitchcock/Truffaut: The God's-Eye View; Making a Killing in Real Estate

One of the many insights in Kent Jones’ sparkling new documentary, Hitchcock/Truffaut, is the “God’s Eye View.”  For those moments of communion, Hitchcock--whose mind’s eye could roll out every impending compositional detail in a visual narrative--would abruptly reconfigure his camera angle to peer down on his actors from on high. The new vantage would shift the viewer’s suspenseful involvement with a prospective victim to bigger-picture concerns--say, the more detached sweep of the sociologist, the actuary, the fatalist.

Hitchcock/Truffaut demonstrated the tactic via the Master’s iconic overhead shots of Cary Grant attempting to outrace a menacing crop duster. It also showed residents of Bodega Bay, California  scattering like ants from descending birds. And it didn’t forget to include the second, less celebrated murder scene in Psycho, when Martin Balsam tumbled backward down an impossibly steep flight of stairs in the Victorian “Psycho House.”

For many, that murder was but an afterthought to Janet Leigh’s earlier, iconic demise during the motel shower scene, some fifty feet away. In truth, Mother Bates' Victorian refuge and the Bates Motel are inextricably connected, casting the darkest of emotionally symbiotic shadows. The former—a freakish architectural outcrop with its devious surface area --is overtly menacing: You’re not sure what secrets lie within, but emotionally speaking you can tell that “book” by its cover. (Hitchcock apparently got inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting below.)

Inspired by Hopper (Click to Enlarge)
The motel--in counterpoint to that aging asylum--was a thoroughly nondescript gathering of right angles—of  postwar 1950s functionality. (There was, of course, the ominous exception of Norman’s taxidermy.) No surprise then that the murder had all the efficiency and single-mindedness of a first-rate operating theater.

As Hitchcock/Truffaut made clear, Hitchcock was on a career-long mission to manipulate his actors (whom he likened to cattle) and to viscerally manipulate us, his audience.  So what's your pleasure? An old fashioned swipe or two of the knife and  tumble down a Victorian staircase or a surgical strafing in a well-scrubbed motel bathtub. Given the public’s overwhelming reaction, it's clear that Hitchcock took a successful knife thrust at American modernity. 

The new documentary is the best film course you never took, distilled into 77 minutes. Here's a trailer:

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A World Music Desert Island Disc: Mariza’s Mundo

Many in the Western Hemisphere, I suspect, have yet to hear Mundo, the extraordinary 2015 recording by Mariza. Born to parents from Mozambique and Lisbon, she is widely regarded as the reigning queen of the Portuguese music genre, fado. Cognate to “fate,” the form frequently immerses the listener in rhapsodic excursions of extreme melancholy.

That said, this cd is no bummer. While paying homage with great poignancy to her fado roots in three tracks, the cd explores a broad brush of emotions, including moments approaching unadulterated joy. And Mariza’s vibrato-less alto shimmers as an adaptable, nuanced instrument for navigating that full range of timbres and emotions. (An understated accompaniment of acoustic and Portuguese guitars, percussion, and backup voices on three tracks also serves the cause.)

Artistic freedom wins out

This cd, then, is a masterpiece in a broader genre where eclectic world music meets popular art songs. And it is Mariza’s first release in five years. That hiatus—she had previously spun out five recordings of new material over 9 years—has given her the time and space to curate a collection of extraordinarily well-crafted songs. (She reportedly triaged worthy also-rans).

By implication, that makes a strong case against the once rampant practice of pressuring artists to generate new recordings on a schedule better attuned to record companies than to the artists themselves. While many of us lament the decline of the recording industry, greater breathing space for Mariza and other artists is certainly a silver lining.

In any event, Mariza’s recording strategy works well for me. In my own consumption of recordings, I am typically delighted if 50% of a cd’s tracks prove outstanding. With Mundo, my personal track-o-meter is stuck on 90%.

Additional Reviews:  Nigel Williamson in Songlines
                                    Robin Denselow in The Guardian

Download from iTunes; purchase cd from Amazon here

Videos: Alma  (You Tube): link


 Paixao (You Tube): link