18 February 2013

He's Wasted and He Can't Find His Way Home


ginger baker, ginger baker cream, cream, blind faith, jay bulger, beware of mr. baker, beware mr. baker, rock documentaries, ginger baker documentary
Beware of Mr. Baker: Ginger Baker Does Doc

If you took away his cane, drummer Ginger Baker would be any documentarian’s dream subject. Everyone who owns an old Blind Faith or Cream record has heard him tear it up. Mad as a hatter and feisty as hell, Baker has spent the last five decades embodying the cliché of e-z living as a rock star. (And the girls do indeed come easy, and the drugs do indeed come cheap.) Thing is, Baker did it long before it became cliched, in a style that yielded high drama and plenty of breakage. 

The bellicose beat-keeper became famous for scrapping with bandmates and pretty much anyone who crossed him, to the point that few would work with him, despite his prodigious talent. As archrival former bandmate Jack Bruce once put it, “It's a knife-edge thing between me and Ginger. Nowadays, we're happily co-existing in different continents... Although I was thinking of asking him to move. He's still a bit too close."

Daring novice filmmaker Jay Bulger not only braved interviewing the wild man for a month at Baker’s South African ranch, but also chatted with family and friends, most of whom confirm the dual-diagnosis of insanely talented and demonically mental. In phoenix-like fashion, he lost and regained fortunes—and wives, homes, and even countries—multiple times throughout his life.

Beware of Mr. Baker employs a perfect balance of music, talking heads, history, archival footage, and animated re-enactments that are deftly rendered and fun to watch. Bulger interviews a small army of rock and heavy metal musicians, including Clapton, Stewart Copeland, Mickey Hart, and John Lydon. It’s amusing to see and hear this parade of pancake-makeup-ed zombies, if only to confirm that livin' the life really does accelerate the aging process. The entire film compels watching, as Baker’s life story takes a number of unexpected twists and turns, some of which involve African stepchildren and a string of polo ponies.
Ginger Baker, Beware of Mr. Baker,
photo: Miller & Maclean
Through the mayhem, Baker’s lived a life driven by bile and gusto. And lots of pharmaceuticals. Having kicked smack about 29 times may explain why he’s perennially in a bit of a mood. But despite his compromised liver, many dub Baker the consummate musician. Though he considers himself a jazz drummer, he's also laid down a whole lotta rock and Afro beats, most notably with Fela Kuti. 

Bulger has managed to uncover plenty of dirt from and about the madcap redhead, who’s now 73, half-deaf, propped up on pills, and living in South Africa with wife #4, a 28-year-old Zimbabwean hooker-turned-Internet bride. 

As a former rock critic, I’ve seen just about all the rock docs out there. This one stands as one of the best of 2012.

I’d also suggest Netflixing Benjamin Smoke, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and Tom Dowd and the Language of Music.

14 February 2013

Annie Leibovitz, Pilgrimage, at Santa Fe’s O’Keeffe Museum


Annie Leibovitz pictures, annie leibovitz photography, annie leibovitz photos, annie leibovitz santa fe, annie leibovitz images, annie leibovitz disney, disney annie leibovitz
photo: Heidi Utz
On Wednesday I received an amazing Valentine: the opportunity to attend a private reception with Annie Leibovitz on the eve of her new exhibition, Pilgrimage, at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Leibovitz describes the show's subjects as those that have shaped her view of her cultural inheritance. These are, essentially, 64 portraits of objects that signify her influences and idols, from O’Keeffe to Marian Anderson to Virginia Woolf. Many of these historical relics, such as Thoreau’s Chinese soft bedframe from Walden Pond, currently reside in museums. 

Unlike her best-known works, frequently commercial celebrity portraits, Leibovitz took these photos 
during 2009-2011 simply because she was moved to. She calls it “an exercise in renewal [that] taught me to see again.” And adds, “Looking at history provided a way of going forward.” Organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this traveling exhibit includes images from two separate trips to NM to photograph O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home, Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe’s “Black Place,” and the museum’s vault.




Annie Leibovitz Disney, Annie Leibovitz Gallery, Annie Leibovitz images, Annie Leibovitz photography, Annie Leibovitz photos, Annie Leibovitz pictures, Annie Leibovitz Pilgrimage, Disney Annie Leibovitz,
photo: Annie Leibovitz

In this mostly American cluster of subjects, Leibovitz opts for individuals residing squarely in the traditional canon—Pete Seeger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elvis, Emerson, Lincoln—as well as several iconic geographies—Old Faithful, Yosemite, Niagara Falls, and Monticello. All feel familiar and safe. Though perhaps disappointing for those of us who admire her bolder work, in shaky, turmoil-filled times, artists sometimes retreat to more reassuring traditional subjects rather than embrace an edge that feels everpresent in the environment.


Annie Leibovitz Disney, Annie Leibovitz Gallery, Annie Leibovitz images, Annie Leibovitz photography, Annie Leibovitz photos, Annie Leibovitz pictures, Annie Leibovitz Pilgrimage, Disney Annie Leibovitz,
photo: Annie Leibovitz
Some of the photos are straight-up documentation: Lewis & Clark’s compass, Emerson’s bookcases, a glass negative of Lincoln. Though predictably well-rendered, their flat, purely documentary quality offers little opportunity for transcendence and doesn't establish new contexts or ideas about their subjects. The near-fetishization of objects (which she dubs “talismans”) seems out of character, given Leibovitz’s four-decade career creating some of the world’s most imaginative personal portraits. Many prove emotionally sterile, especially when one recalls some of her groundbreaking shots (a very pregnant, very naked Demi Moore; a very Yoko-ed John Lennon). Part of what's missing is the point of view her portraits carry. Sure, there's the obvious care she took in photographing these objects, but is fondness for a subject enough? Leibovitz once stated, "Sometimes I enjoy just photographing the surface because I think it can be as revealing as going to the heart of the matter.” In this show, I wish the revelations had been deeper.

Leibovitz’s real talent is bringing people to life in interesting contexts. While documenting relics of the famous is necessary, such denotation seems well beneath her creative imagination. Yes, some of these objects do hold a certain cultural and historical resonance. But the question is, what do we gain by looking at them now? Her response: "These are pictures of people to me. It’s all we have left to represent them. I’m dealing with things that are going away, disappearing, crumbling. How do we hold on to stuff?” As the Digital Age increasingly overtakes us, and tangible objects seem threatened with extinction, I've sometimes asked the same question. I think back to the very analog life of my schoolbooks and marvel at how far away it can seem. But is the answer embracing the tight confines of the traditional Western canon, a trip among whose much-vaunted artifacts may feel like a return to an airless classroom?
Annie Leibovitz Disney, Annie Leibovitz Gallery, Annie Leibovitz images, Annie Leibovitz photography, Annie Leibovitz photos, Annie Leibovitz pictures, Annie Leibovitz Pilgrimage, Disney Annie Leibovitz,
photo: Annie Leibovitz
That said, several images do stand out. One is a close-up of Emily Dickinson’s embroidered white dress. Though simply two buttons, a hint of collar, and a swatch of fabric, the shot has a great immediacy and resonance. When combined with the image of pressed flowers from the poet's herbarium, the Belle of Amherst instantly enters the room. Another more complex image portrays Elvis’ elaborate burial site at Graceland, processed in saturated colors, with its cemetery stones glowing blue. Its playfulness feels so very authentic to Presley's projected identity and campy residence. A third fine shot is the considerably more humble abode of Jacob Lott—its striking, yellow-leaved tree and laundry line powerfully conveying place and season.


Maria Chabot, Georgia O'Keeffe, camping, O'Keeffe photos NM, Georgia O'Keeffe Musuem, Santa Fe
Maria Chabot, O'Keeffe breaking the fast
After viewing most of Pilgrimage, I wandered into the next room, where the ongoing Georgia O’Keeffe and the Faraway: Nature and Image exhibit still hangs (thru 5/5/13). I found myself more drawn to some of the marvelous shots of O’Keeffe and partner Maria Chabot hiking and camping in the northern NM wilderness. This proved a great contrast to Leibovitz’s photos, in which state-of-the-art lenses and colored filters tended to violate the historicity of the objects. Whereas the O’Keeffe exhibit’s original b&w Polaroids, shot in 1961 by Chabot, Todd Webb and Tony Vaccaro, seemed more genuine in the moment. Much of their charm derives not only from the novelty of seeing O’Keeffe unposed in these settings, but also from the age of the photos themselves. There's a harmony and internal verisimilitude among photographic medium, subject, and place that’s lacking in many of Leibovitz’s shots.


It’s hard to know how much of a role the Smithsonian played in Leibovitz’s choice of subjects and method of photographing. Obviously when an entity that large is involved, subject matter will be directed and edited. This factor also seemed to come into play with the photographer’s recent series of Disney-fied portraits, which hurt me to look at. I'm not sure why a photographer of her caliber would want to perpetuate such an insipid part of our culture. Annie Leibovitz may well be tired of doing the portraits she’s best known for. But I hope in the future she returns to getting inside and underneath, rather than dwelling on the surface. 

Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage opens at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, on Friday, February 15, 2013, and runs through May 5, 2013. The exhibition, which first opened at the Smithsonian in January 2012, is touring 8 museums nationally. For dates and places, check
here.

10 February 2013

Walking Through

photo: Heidi Utz

Portland, OR



Detropia: Detroit's Postindustrial Decline


detroit documentary, Detroit Michigan, Detroit film, documentary film, Detroit jobs, outsourcing, Michael Moore, abandoned buildings, urban blight
Detropia
As I watched Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s new documentary, Detropia, last night on the small screen, I wished I’d seen its lush cinematography in the theater. Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson have created a film awash in arresting, apocalyptic images—eerie reminders of Detroit’s rise and fall as America’s premier manufacturing city.


detroit documentary, Detroit Michigan, Detroit film, documentary film, Detroit jobs, outsourcing, Michael Moore, abandoned buildings, urban blight
These days, the city has come to symbolize the collapse of the American Dream, the country’s decline and how bad it could potentially get, as job loss has forced 1/4 of the city’s population to leave in the last decade. Some say that nearly 1/3 of the city’s land is now vacant, due to home foreclosures and resultant demolition. This represents an area the size of San Francisco. Detroit is a graphic illustration of what happens when corporate greed takes over, as Michael Moore forewarned 24 years ago in Roger and Me. And despite lots of ideas being floated, so far there’s no real workable plan for how to revitalize what once was a vital and fascinating city.

detroit documentary, Detroit Michigan, Detroit film, documentary film, Detroit jobs, outsourcing, Michael Moore, abandoned buildings, urban blight
Unfortunately, as many reviewers have already noted, what could have been a great film is marred by too many fragmented plotlines that are never resolved. Some of the local characters are compelling, but the star is really the built environment, as lovingly shot as a Garbo close-up.



detroit documentary, Detroit Michigan, Detroit film, documentary film, Detroit jobs, outsourcing, Michael Moore, abandoned buildings, urban blight

The canvas includes myriad abandoned buildings, graffiti, walls, crumbling facades, homes being demolished, and skylines that bear the scars of postindustrial decline. Here is the graphic evidence of exactly what does happen to cities and people’s lives when corporations send jobs to Mexico. Detropia cinematically illustrates the premise of Chris Hedges’ and Joe Sacco’s fascinating book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (see my review on 9/3/12).