Friday, 29 July 2011

The Tree Of Life (2011)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Music: Alexandre Desplat (plus Smetana, Preisner, etc)
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Given the cosmic scope of this film, some people may be surprised at how much of its power comes from its evocation of childhood and a sense of place. But this is not to reduce it to a simple ‘coming-of-age’ story; like the best of the American avant-garde – Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence, Stan Brakhage’s ‘Dog Star Man’ – the connection is made between locality and a wider historical and geographical scope, shading into myth the diurnal activites which many take for granted, risking overbearing over-statement, sometimes macho romanticism, but ultimately winning, through risk, through running the gauntlet between absurdity and genuine insight, a genuine respect, testing the margins of one’s art. This is not, though at times it comes close, a nostalgic romanticisation of 1950s suburban American childhood – for childhood is shown with all its little dramas and crises, its pulls and tugs in different directions, its simultaneous aimlessness and boredom and sense of unlimited wonder and unbounded excitement – a treatment of childhood that doesn’t reduce children to mini-adults, but entwines their experiences with those of the adults who raise them, which takes their experiences seriously, which recognises the universal resonances in their barely-articulated or conceived notions, musings, wonderings. There is a sense of awe at life here, a sense of palpable joy, but childhood is not an Eden, and this is not a regressive vision. Well, let’s revise that, Malick’s worst tendencies are simplistic, regressive, naïve in the worst way – it’s these that allow him his grandest moments, which could not possibly come off if they possessed even a hint of irony or lack of belief – and it’s also these that allow such mis-steps as the rather trite finale, in which Sean Penn’s architect has a vision of the after-life, wandering a beach with his family, still in their 1950s guise, thus effecting a reconciliation with the sense of loss that now plagues him in his adult life, at the peak of material success (shiny house, shiny office, the money his father always strived for but never quite made). Now he (and his mother, who had earlier mourned the death of her son and asked that age-old question of God, or the life-force, whatever you call him/her/it) can come to terms with the death of his brother and his sense of childhood as a magical time of harmony with, and exploration within, nature, which he now betrays and grows distant from in an artificial environment of glass and steel. The problem here is really the banality of the images – for a film-maker whose logic is so often visual (dialogue being reduced to whispered voice-over and half-caught mumblings, the tail-ends of conversations – one might say that dialogue takes place through glances, through the raising and lowering and moving away of eyes, the shifting dynamics of facial expressions and bodily gesture – a kind of dance, a choreography created from the way we relate to each other through movement every single day), to revert to wispy female-angel fingers and hands up-raised to the sky, to a Georgio Armani’d Penn looking constipated while circling a 1950s memory of his family, in a kind of cross between Jack Vettriano paintings and the kitschiest of Christian art, is a huge let-down. One can see exactly what he is trying to do, and it makes perfect sense in the logic of the film as a whole – the reconciliation demanded by the film’s wide questioning at the start, that questioning that led to the ultimate out-wards pan, from the grief of a specific suburban family to the creation of the universe, and back down, the intermeshing of everyday detail and wider religious/scientific considerations. We’d been prepared for this vision from the start of the film – shots of Penn wandering a desolate landscape and then preparing to make a leap (of faith) over the edge of a cliff, down a wooden pathway/bridge, set us up for it – and after the audacity of the out-Kubricking Kubrick Big Bang sequence, presenting us with a depiction of the after-life doesn’t seem too unreasonable – and yet, and yet, it just doesn’t come off. I suppose everyone has their breaking point, that point where they can say to Malick, ‘this much and no further’ – for some, in the showing I attended, this happened as early as the dinosaur sequence (able to tolerate 15-minutes of what was, essentially, avant-garde film-making, audience patience was tested by the sudden appearance of ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’-style CGI creatures). For me, then, I suppose it was the vision of the afterlife. Nonetheless, I was still able to leave the film with a sense of satisfaction, of, I suppose, wonder – the transition from grand orchestral swellings to credits unfolding over the ambient rainforest sounds, a technique also used in ‘The New World’ is one to which, if one has gone this far, one cannot help but respond to viscerally emotionally, even as, at the back of one’s mind, it seems absurd, manipulative, clunky, whichever adjective you choose to append.

I mentioned a sense of place, and, truth be told, this isn’t precise or specific in the way that Olson’s ‘Maximus’ was (or attempted to be): I don’t believe the town itself is mentioned by name, the film’s cast being pretty much limited to a single family (one of whom, the youngest son, is only sketchily defined at best); we only catch neighbours and relatives in glimpses, as figures who flit in and out, half-registered, and then disappear again (perhaps a result of Malick’s famous editing process, in which originally substantial roles are reduced to nearly-nothing). The same is true of a sense of time (hardly surprising, given the millennia covered in an early sequence): we are not presented with the familiar trope of news reports blaring out on the radio or television to give a sense of period (that sense of pleasurable semi-nostalgia present in shows like ‘Mad Men’ or the BBC’s ‘The Hour’ (which engages much more specifically with the making of the news, the way that our understanding of history is shaped by those who report it)). That said, costumes and period detail all seem to very precise, as is, apparently, the norm for Malick. Indeed, this very combination of vagueness and exactness may be what irritates a lot of the director’s harshest critics, and which certainly irked me about his previous work; ‘The New World’ betrayed any notions of historical fidelity in the way that it settled for a romanticised, colonialised Pocahontos narrative (in contrast to ‘Argall’, William T. Vollman’s revisionist re-telling), while ‘The Thin Red Line’ registered war as a kind of vague blight on nature in a way that felt like an evasion, given the way that the particular war it addressed still exists as part of our cultural consciousness and our political history. (Curiously enough, ‘TTRL’ has more ‘contextual’ detail than John Boorman’s similarly sparse ‘Hell In The Pacific’; but is precisely this opening up beyond Boorman’s claustrophobic, two-hander confines that accounts for its failure: generic back-stories and vague, meandering musings remove from the film any primal, stripped-back power, whilst remaining too vague, and too purely Americanised, in terms of historical engagement (compare Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’, in which Japanese soldiers are for once humanised and treated as more than faceless or silent opponents). ‘The Tree Of Life’, then, gives us a sense of place as felt and lived in, rather than apprehended from outside – and, because its central premise is to do with a more general theme (the loss of a child) than the historical settings of ‘The New World’ or ‘The Thin Red Line’, it can inhabit this space with a sensuous exactness, unworried about historical niceties or political concerns. The unpredictability of Bergsonian durée; ‘subjective’ time (though time spread across several subjects, and occasionally to non-human levels); the temporal fluidity allowed, but rarely exploited, by cinema – the way that particular objects recur again and again, with differing levels of significance, not as artistic ‘symbols’ or allegorical details but as shifting images onto which differing projections and perceptions are placed (for instance, the shots of the same trees down the road, made metaphorical or symbolic or merely atmospheric at different times; the recurrence of the yellow dump trucks in the yard, at first objects of close attention in the children’s out-door play, then left, forgotten, as they grow up: objects of memory and loss and the passing of time (their association with building – and particularly, with the architectural and housing hopes of the ‘50s, presumably no accident)).

Subtleties such as these emerge because of the way the film was shot – as Brad Pitt (acting as Malick’s mouth-piece for the publicity circuit) notes, this involved improvisation, shooting on the fly, getting actors to inhabit a space (in terms of actually renting an entire block, rather than shooting in a studio), to inhabit their costumes, wearing them all day, to be inside a certain mindset – so that the film can be stitched together from tail-ends, from glimpses, from the moments, beyond the big show-downs and speeches on which dramatists and film-makers normally focus, that actually constitute a large part of the way we interact and relate and judge others’ character.

Thus, without having to be restricted to narrative and the self-consciously dramatic, we actually get a much better insight into the way life develops as we live it, which mitigates against the heavily archetypal qualities which sometimes threaten to turn the characters into ciphers (particularly the idealised mother, who stays just the right side of the irritatingly angelic and opaque (Pocahontos fell the other side of the line in ‘The New World’)). Archetypal qualities are grounded in observable and universal detail – the mother dressing a child's wound, the father helping with first steps – to sometimes breath-taking effect: early on, we witness a scene in which a baby's face is placed right up against the screen, before focussing on a leaf blowing away across the pavement – more effective in experience than in description, perhaps, it imparts a sense of almost trance-like wonder, a pre-linguistic coming-to-consciousness, those first encounters with the world. This is what Malick is after in almost all his work (those paradisal scenes of swimming in the sea in ‘TTRL’ and lying in the grass in ‘TNW’), but here one feels that he has really succeeded in capturing it, in seeing with what Brakhage called ‘the innocent eye.’ Because all this is placed in the context of growing up, of the very early ways in which one places oneself, and is placed, in the world, it has a specificity to it that the forest or ocean idylls of those earlier films lack: and the visual puns/ correspondences within this wealth of observed detail connect to wider thematic concerns without over-burdening their freshness or reducing them to clunking metaphors. Thus, pointing to the sky is at once looking for/at God (and is explicitly described as such – “that’s where God lives”), but it is also the simple mechanics of throwing and catching a ball or climbing a tree (things that most boys do); throwing a stone through a window at once illuminates an element in the brothers’ relationship (the elder boy, taking after his more aggressive and macho father, throws the stone almost as a dare to his milder, younger sibling), part of a sequence conjuring up a sense of darkness and the possibility for violence (playing with guns, toying with war), and simply an observation of child-hood games – something that many kids will have done, at some stage. One thing can be, or suggest, many others: objects passing through consciousness, creatively perceived (in the sense that, for Merleau-Ponty, perception is creation), one thing triggering the thought of another, shifts and links and loops; the self as a part of the world, as something created from the world, rather than a self-contained observing entity, detached from it. For the most part this is done without resource to the magical realist tropes one might expect (which I’ve always found tend to rather domesticate the subversive potential of magic, irrationally arranging rather than rationally deranging the senses) – except for one particular incident, all the more powerful for being the only such occurrence: that sudden moment where, as a bed-time story the mother describes going up in a plane, we see illustrative footage of the ride, and then we see her (in her mind’s eye? in the children’s? in both?) levitating, floating, arms spread wide, next to the tree on the suburban lawn. If perception bases itself upon which is actually there – trees, lawns, roads, people – imagination allows for elaborations, variations, added to this: thus, the long loft, an attic room with a light-filled window, is seen through a child's perspective as extra-elongated, and the adult standing there with the child becomes extra tall, stretched, a giant in a vertically-confined space. Of course, that move towards ‘the light at end of tunnel’ has several connotative layers (the light one sees when one first bursts into the world as a new-born, or on opening one’s eyes in the morning – or, in this film, the occasionally-glimpsed cosmic light that might be equated with the life-force of the universe) – but it doesn't become a concrete symbol, staying instead as part of a network, a patchwork of shifting images, criss-crossing over and resonating with each other in a kind of non-linear, non-schematic dialogue. This allows the narrative structure to remain somewhat loose: we could view the entire main portion of the film as enclosed between Penn's going up and down the elevator, initially grieving for the death of his brother and the loss of his child-hood, and finally reconciling all this with a vision of his loved ones, united again in a heaven-like space. This would make the 1950s sequence the specific remembrance of a particular character, though, which is not how the film works, overall: and to try and trace particular ‘arcs’ or particular memories to particular characters will often prove a fruitless task, one that goes against Malick’s whole method in the film. As a reaction against the subjectivity of narrative or authorship, we come across this technique in ‘The Thin Red Line’, where various voices mesh and weave around each other (and in the suggestion that we are all part of a single human soul); and here, that extends to camera-work – the camera is not the (male or otherwise) gaze but the eye of a baby, a boy, an adult, a god. Though the film is very much the product of one man’s consciously grand vision – ‘this is how I see the world’, by Terrence Malick – the working methods used (improvisation, spontaneity, non-scripted interaction between actors) ensure that it remains collaborative, and the movements across consciousnesses and subjectivities and viewpoints almost bring to mind Stewart Home’s criticism of ‘bourgeois subjectivity.’ (I’ve just been reading Home, which is why he’s been slotted in here – of course, he would detest the religio-mystical quality of Malick's vision.)

This use of the camera to open up inter-subjective spaces and to move across vast spans of real and felt time is an at times dizzying affirmation of cinema’s potential – beyond genre and beyond (straight-forward, linear) narrative – and is coupled to an equally strong use of sound, the use of classical music at times suggesting something operatic, balletic. Cutting down on the now-expected Malickian voiceover (though it's still there, whispering away – “Brother. Mother. It was they that lead me to your door,” etc, etc) means that a lot of the film, though full of sound, is not dialogue-dominated. I don’t know how one would describe this: (once again) wordless opera, ballet? In fact, it’s a consciously cinematic use of sound, a real exploration of the medium’s sonic possibilities, of the conjunction of music and image – thus, scenes sweep by on bursts of musical rhythm, not as mere accompaniment or montage-style, but through a looser emotional sweep. And yet they often seem chosen for quite precise reasons: the various bits of piano music by Bach and Couperin that pop up now and again come from the father’s frustrated ambitions as a concert pianist rather than simply performing a decorative function – they exist half-way between the narrative and the ambient. Probably the most memorable musical ‘set-pieces’ involve the use of Smetana’s ‘Moldau’ from ‘Ma Vlast’ (the original piece a tone-painting of a river, and thus entirely appropriate to the film’s frequent recourse to images of water), playing alongside the exhilaration of young children running and jumping round their neighbourhood in what feels like one continuous sweep; and the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Preisner’s ‘Requiem For My Friend,’ soaring out during the Big Bang scenes. The latter, once more, fits for more than just its swelling emotions– remember that this whole sequence is framed by the mother’s cry of anguish at the death of her son, and the use of a setting of the Requiem Mass seems entirely appropriate. For some, this may seem presumptuous – the origin of the universe ‘framed’ by a single human death – and I’ve even seen it compared to the joke in Charlie Kaufmann’s ‘Adaptation’, where Kaufmann can’t decide how to open his story about orchid-hunting, and in a maniacal brain-storming session decides to go right back to the beginning of time. Yet it is that kind of framing that is crucial to Malick’s vision: in an original draft of the screenplay, the final afterlife scenes expand out to show the death and re-birth of the entire universe, only to come resting back to the apparently un-important grieving of one character.

‘The Tree of Life’ is, in part, a very loose adaptation of the Book of Job, in loose thematic content if not in overarching narrative: hence the film’s opening epigraph, God’s response to Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" I’ve tended to see that argument as a dodging of the question – ‘how could you do this to me, a good man – how could you allow the death of my family, the destruction of my possessions, the disease of my body?’ countered with, ‘well I don’t have to explain myself to you, I can create worlds and galaxies’ (though if one was in that position perhaps one might feel the same way – power corrupts, and all that…). As a statement, it possesses (doesn't it?) a rather hectoring, bullying, braggart quality. In part the problem may be that faced by Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’ – when theological arguments such as these are placed in the mouth of a personalized God, a God who functions as a quasi-human character in a story, they come to seem unfair, petty, vindictive. Malick solves this problem by refraining from presenting a personal God (he probably doesn’t believe in that kind of religion anyway), instead offering up some sense of a diffuse life force (which is why the ministering female angels in heaven, like spa attendants, is a bit of a misstep) that animates creation, a wider context which doesn't strip life of its value, but which allows us to accept things in the over-arching scheme of things, without becoming completely passive or fatalistic because of this (the obvious comparison here, for me, would be Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Starmaker’). The dinosaur scene, though it caused titters and a walk-out in the screening I attended, does succinctly illustrated Malick’s theme of ‘the state of nature’ vs. ‘the state of grace’ - here, the dinosaur chooses not to kill his prey but to love and leave to live (as, towards the end of the film, Pitt's sacking allows him to reconcile with his son and to realign his priorities). Perhaps it’s too crushingly obvious, too sentimental – Malick seems happy to attribute destructive impulses to humans, but rarely extends these out to the natural world, which remains paradisal and idyllic. And yet, as Jason Bellamy suggests, the implication that the dinosaur’s first impulse is to violence, and that the act of kindness, or curiosity, whatever motivates it, is something beautiful and unexpected – the birth of morality as a sudden, un-explained transcendence of the kill-and-be-killed struggle for survival – is more than just romantic naivety: "What I find interesting is that a filmmaker known for romanticizing nature would equate it with violence. It seems to me that Malick is implying that violence is our default setting, and that those who can rise above nature, rather than succumb to it, are extraordinary."

This choice between ‘nature’ and ‘grace’ may be laid out too baldly for some, but its weave into the film’s main, 1950s Texas segment, is generally fairly subtle – yes, the mother (grace) may be a little (more than a little) idealised, but she isn’t perfect (for instance, the suggestion that she doesn’t really stand up to the father’s disciplinarian awkwardness, working instead by stealth to educate her children along a kinder path), while the father, for all his anger and his antagonism, is capable of feeling great love for his family, and of feeling great sorrow and loss and guilt at not being able always to express this love. In part, it’s the social expectations of the time that cause him to follow ‘the way of nature’ – given the way that a combination of social Darwinism, consumer lifestyle pressures, the American dream, and imperial/ Cold War ambition would push a moderately-successful 1950s businessman into macho poses and roles (though always wedded to good ol’ family values; hence the conflict, between the love one is supposed to feel for one’s family and the suggestion that one can do and be anything one wants, superior to the inanities of this domestic sphere). Violence (as in the scene where Pitt tries to get his children to hit him, teaching them to fight and be ‘real men’), a go-getter mentality, shading over into envy (Pitt’s complaints about never having quite enough money, whilst eyeing a neighbour’s larger house and grander lawn), pushing your way to the top at other’s expense, even hate; these compete with kindness, a sense of wonder and satisfaction (rather than “find[ing] reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around[…], and love is smiling through all things”), obligation to others, love. Music might be considered as on the side of love, culture, developed emotion and sensibility, etc; thus, Pitt’s abandonment of a possible musical career is a betrayal of his better impulses (though music still allows him to commune with his son, as they play a piano and guitar duet). And yet, some element in the music – the pursuit of technical perfection, of being ‘the greatest’ – shades into the ambition of Pitt’s other career; hence, telling his eldest son a story about Toscanini’s perfectionism, recording sixty-five takes of a piece and still not being satisfied – always, “it could have been better.” Music becomes the pursuit of an elusive technical goal, rather than a communal sharing or an expression of social life – ‘culture’ that can be tucked away into the side-boards of a pristine suburban home as if it were bone china or candle-holders – the stentorian sounds of Brahms blaring out overbearingly during a family dinner. It can be possessed, locked up, compartmentalized (the son’s invention of DJ-scratching, making a record of pristine piano music turn woozy, skip and swoon out of its temporal lock-step, is at once an expression of freedom and a frustrated realisation that this world of ‘culture’ and creativity is lost to him, as it is not lost to his musical brother); similarly, that scene early on, when a young son strays over the property boundary into the neighbour’s yard – never mind that they are both part of one long, un-broken stretch of grass, that the line the father frantically points out – ‘look, see that line, see that line’ –isn’t actually there, that there are no such lines in the natural world. Property, owning things, locking them up, is something that runs completely contrary to the children’s fluid world of play, running through the neighbourhood, through the woods, over the road and into the garden, the camera swooping and diving with them (or that scene where Pitt leaves on a business trip and the children and their mother run riot through the house, chasing each other round in a kind of joyous parody of his disciplinarian bouts of fury). ‘Perfect’ suburban houses become prisons, little tins of family argument, husband vs. wife: we witness one such dispute in the family home; and then, a few moments later, a similar tiff through the windows of the next-door house; but even the wide-open spaces that one might expect to provide a liberating contrast, filled as they are with modernist light, cathedrals of technology and ‘progress’, lack something – either they are packed with stultifying industry and noise (Pitt can hardly hear the news that his son’s died over the roar of aircraft engines), or they are empty, gleaming, vacant (as in the vertiginous sky-scrapers in which Penn works). This may be overly simplistic – there is, at times, a real sense of excitement at the possibilities of technology (Pitt’s an inventor, with a long list of patents, his job allowing him to travel to China by air, and to boast of this to his children); and it’s hard not to feel awed by the shots of sky-scrapers, their glass-and-metal interfaces between open sky and light-filled interior, those exhilarating tracking shots along enclosed walk-ways, those moments when the camera assumes the position of a human, craning their neck upward at these nearly-unbelievable structures. Even having Sean Penn mope and mumble in the foreground does little to diminish the power of such spectacle, and whether this is Malick becoming enticed by what he sees at the expense of intended thematic treatment, or whether another example of his contradictory attitude towards progress, nostalgia, nature and technology, one is struck by the fact that he could just as easily turn his eye to city-scapes (à la Francis Thompson’s ‘New York, New York’), as to leaves and trees and grass and curtains blown by the wind.

Moving on – the film’s treatment of violence, appearing as it does in a context much less explicitly concerned with historical conflict (in comparison to ‘The New World’ or ‘The Thin Red Line’), comes across as that much more convincing for being ‘domesticated’; I’m thinking of the scenes in which the gang of boys go around pretending to shoot guns and launching firecracker-strapped frogs into the air ('do you think he flew to the moon?'), as a kind of innocent and naïve, though perverse, experimentation ('it was an experiment', one of the boys actually says – the way killing a fly is a mixture of sadism, curiosity and play); an implicit mirroring of a more knowing adult impulse to destruction (the cold war, the space race, the development of biological and nuclear weapons, Dr Strangelove territory). It’s crucial to the film that this is rejected (whereas, in ‘TNW’ and ‘TTRL’, natural paradises were destroyed by fire and bullets and battle) – thus, after the elder brother betrays his younger sibling by making him put his finger over the end of a BB gun, then firing it, he offers him the chance of revenge – hit me with this piece of wood – which is eventually rejected, sulking and sorrow turning to smiles (just as he refuses to hit his father earlier in the film) – anger turns to softness, distrust and confusion to reconciliation and acceptance. This worms itself into the film’s very structure: the staging of small crises and reconciliations within a larger scale – layers within layers (the ‘framing devices’ of (1) the mother coping with her son’s death, (2) the grown son coping with the death of his brother, (3) the ‘nature’/ ‘grace’ conflict, and the way all these envelop and bracket the smaller incidents of a 1950s childhood). We have levels and parallels both within the smaller narrative and the cosmic one.

This sense of the small in the large, and the large in the small (‘everything is connected’ – hence the closing shot of a bridge) is present even in the way the big bang/birth of life sequence is put together – ‘large-scale’ footage of galaxies exploding, forming, expanding, and microscopic details of single-cell organisms reproducing, both possessing a similar awe-inspiring effect – the wonder of the very large and the very small – that Blakean notion (“a world in a grain of sand”). Significantly, Doug Trumbull, who worked with Malick on the visual effects for this sequence, was consciously working with the home-made legacy of avant-garde film (even going so far as to ‘sample’ an excerpt from Scott Nyerges’ short ‘Autumnal’) – the DIY feel, the physical quality of things, like the way Stan Brakhage constructed his great meditation ‘The Text of Light’ entirely from filming through ash-trays. Trumbull:
"We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be. It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business. Terry didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like. We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.”

Trumbull’s sequence is, perhaps a film-within-a-film, an avant-garde light-show which Malick has somehow managed to smuggle into an ostensibly Hollywood picture – though I would argue that it is still central to the whole picture’s philosophy and thematics. Certainly, its level of abstraction (though we do know vaguely that its images are supposed to ‘represent’ something – galaxies, nebulae, great explosions of gas and energy) is far greater than that of the 1950s sequences, which are sometimes quite rigorously put-together. Many of the details in the main part of the film cluster around particular elements – earth, air, fire and water, in fact. Thus, we have scenes of planting and burying in the soil; of gazing up to the sky, watching the wind billow out curtains and leaves; of lighting candles for the dead (as well as for a general sense of loss, of not having used life to its full potential); and, most frequently, scenes of water – spraying the lawn with a garden hose; baptism; bathing; children wading next to a local river; dinosaurs encountering one another millions of years before, perhaps on the same river; more generic shots of crashing waves; the origin of life in the oceans. If trees provide the film’s central metaphor, or image-cluster, then water is what enables trees to grow, enables life to begin and to expand and to flourish; this perhaps explains the decision to set the afterlife vision on a beach (half-way between land and sea, evocative in some sense of la creation du monde – and after all, remember: “Then he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.”) Thus, the birth scene, where we witness a boy swim out of a water-filled bedroom (home/womb) – out into the world – might seem rather clunkily metaphorical and unnecessary if subjected to subsequent scrutiny, but in the flow of things it's audacious and resonant, given the film's preoccupation with home and with environment and with dwelling; given too the way it draws out of the child-hood home a sense of first engagement with profound issues, vaguely or incompletely articulated because this is how that first engagement tends to unfold – an intuition, an inkling, an uncertain thought, subsequently elaborated, fantasized upon, speculated about.

One could say that Malick has been building towards this film, if not for the entirety of his career, at least in his most recent pair of Hollywood films – ‘The Thin Red Line’ and ‘The New World’ both share the obsession with trees and water and light – and ‘The Tree of Life’ surpasses, and synthesizes, these films, giving their obsessions an evolutionary and scientific *and* religious basis, water as there at the origin of creation, as having a deep connection with the human physical organism that is not merely pretty or fanciful or vague or simplistic. The film’s approach to science is perhaps more imaginative than rigorously scientific, but that’s to fall for the too-easily re-inforced notion of ‘the two cultures’ that still hangs over much discourse today, to the detriment of both art and science. (Similarly, the way that ‘The New Atheists’ condemn religion out of hand, blanket-brushed out of ‘rational’ discourse, the extreme end of the Enlightenment project (which, as Adorno and Horkheimer noted, concealed within itself the very barbarism it sought to overcome) – and the alliance of this approach with the right-wing politics that increasingly dominate western discourse (for instance, the way that ‘Islam’ is considered a monolithic entity in a way that Christianity never would be, and thus reduced to a simple ‘other’ or enemy (or the way that this is done with religion in general, in some circles – hence, Richard Dawkins’ proposal to exploit religious civil war in Africa as a means of promoting secularism). ‘Observable facts’, figures, statistics, impartiality, objectivity – as if these could exist absolutely, outside the realm of human interpretation and the framework of particular social and political systems and processes – as masculine certainty, as the American Cold War mentality once again, trumpeted against ‘effeminate’ questioning or uncertainty or problematisation.) Consider the work of artists like Brakhage, Jim Davis, or Jordan Belson – the way that their films could be at once ‘fanciful’, mere plays of pretty light and shadow and son-et-lumiere effects, and at the same time could get the heart of cinema itself, to image-making, shadow-play, our relation to light, notions of space and time and the nature of consciousness and perception – at once handmade and possessing much in common with the most advanced scientific hypotheses – should prove an inspiration to both artists and scientists, and a chastisement to those too-simple binary positions which seem to be many people’s default settings in the ‘educated western world.’ While Malick works in more of a ‘mainstream’, narrative mould – his films (or ‘The Tree of Life’, at least) existing, perhaps, in a happy medium between the non-linear, the abstract, the purely visual, and plot, characterisation, etc – the spirit that infuses this latest project does recall that of Brakhage, Davis, and Belson – if not while watching the film, certainly in thinking about it after – and the fact that he has managed to, not so much smuggle, but trumpet this into Hollywood (this film doesn’t pretend to be something other than it is, something easily marketable or bankable) – should thus be some cause for celebration.

The titters and the walk-out that occurred during the screening I attended – and the fact that so many critics see fit to mention the dinosaur scene as if it made the whole film fail or seem ridiculous (though that absurd/ brilliant balancing act is perhaps what makes this such a great film) indicates something important: you have to be with Malick on this one – to go with him the whole hog, to walk with him where he choose to go. Afterwards you can analyse and criticise and decide whether you do or do not want his vision (and wanting it doesn't mean that you have to agree with it or buy into it or be converted or whatever it is people are afraid of – he's not a polemicist, not an evangelist, not a preacher, but an explorer, exploring some ideas and sensations that he no doubt holds very personally, his belief system, well not system, his core beliefs, up there for you to see) – but you need to go with him for the duration of the film, for two-and-bit hours, try to do that. It's not as if I'm a total devotee; I find ‘The Thin Red Line’ and ‘The New World’ rather lacking if I'm honest – perhaps it was seeing this in the cinema that made it into such a grand and provocative thing; something about the communal experience and the sense of someone really wanting to explore important issues, and not in an overly schematic or hectoring way – yes, saying ‘these are big things’ – life, death, the rest of it – but grounding them in the mundane or the brief observed detail, in observations of life as it is lived. After the walk-outs, fairly early in the film, everyone else sat through to the end, through the credits, until the projection had completely finished, not because of any particular point of interest or polite sense of obligation, but because it felt like part of the experience, it *was* part of the experience, like those long silences at the end of a piece of improvised music, the held collective hush that film could be, the mass communion rather than the bashing into submission with noise and gizmos and sex and violence mashed and then the nervous laugh or the loud guffaw and the trooping out quick-fixed, superficially elated. Last word goes to Roger Ebert:
"Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine."

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Starring: Aaron Stanford, Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan
Music: Tomandandy (Thomas Hadju/ Andy Milburn)
Director: Alexandre Aja
Screenplay: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur
Director of Photography: Maxime Alexandre

As I’ve mentioned before, in a post on the far-superior ‘28 Weeks Later’, one cannot view horror-remake/pastiche projects such as ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ without an acute awareness of the fact that Aja and his ilk have grown up with '70s grime-horror in their blood. They want us to know it – they flaunt that influence as a badge of honour, in the same way that certain bands will name-check Captain Beefheart; the way that, goddam it, Bill Clinton will name-check Peter Brotzmann, with off-hand, aw-shucks wonder. What I’m trying to say (and this is why that Clinton reference fits – I’m well aware that he’s not claiming to play his sax like Brotzmann) is that you can name-check anyone you want (not even as the usual trick – the politician (Gordon Brown) pretending to like some popular band of the moment (the Arctic Monkeys) – you can genuinely like them, as I’m sure David Cameron genuinely likes those '80s bands whose music comes in part as a reaction against the very political philosophy that Cameron now rams down our bleeding mouths every single day); you can even turn it a very fine pastiche of their work, but if all that remains is a kind of recycled homage, we’re not really getting anywhere. Now influence consists at once of absorbing/ building upon the lessons of one’s predecessors, and reacting against them. One could thus see the original version of ‘Last House on the Left’, for example, as a more ‘realistic’ reaction to the stylized/ historicised settings of Hammer horrors, or the contemporary, but comic-strip-oriented sensibility of ‘it came from outer space’ monster and red-scare flicks, and George Romero’s ‘Martin’ as a commentary on vampire movies as delusion (“there’s no real magic…ever”), from within the ostensible trappings of a contemporary vampire movie. In the case of Aja and crew, though, the contemporary elements tend to feel rather more like surface trimmings added to the essential core of ’70s movies – a few cutesy political references/ ‘resonances’ to make the more liberally-inclined audience members grin with smug and quickly-forgotten self-satisfaction/righteousness - and then, more noise, more thunder, more blood, more gore for everyone else. Despite its reputation, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is not an especially violent film, in terms of what is actually shown – but psychologically, of course, it’s totally draining, its impact coming as much what you don’t see as what you do. Aja’s tendency to leave nothing to the imagination, meanwhile, is good for a few quick and immediate scares – but, as for lasting unease/disquiet, forget it. This is what you deserve, so this is what you’ll get: the instant rush as opposed to the slow burn, the product of a synapse-firing computer age. These films are the product of assimilation, of forgetting – even the return of the repressed as the mere recycling of tired old clichés, incorporated into the viscera of an instant-porn, instant-food sensibility: thrills on tap, connected always to money and exploitation, a digital sheen smoothed over old stains - the money shot, whether it be pure ejaculation or a severed heard or limb or torso, it doesn’t matter – that, and then the lapse into lethargy and sofa-fried-potato slump, or regimented sports-fanatic/ fantastically-busy-businessman shtick – too much to do or nothing doing, in either case papering over a void, like the crack in the wall into which Harriet Andersson stares and wishes to step, in ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’. Hell, let's leave Bergman's religious angst alone, 'The Hills' isn’t supernatural horror, in any case – ghosts, repression, the past, all of that, it’s there, but clothed in pseudo-scientific credit-sequence image-jumble (mutants as the result of nuclear experimentation, a curiously retro anxiety, complete with ’50s pop song-soundtrack and preserved American model town/ nuclear-testing site.) Maybe that’s what mainstream movies are about now, anyway – the digestion and regurgitation of a history of film that seems to have stalled into cheap digital s(t)imulations (watch Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards impersonation in 3D at yr local corporate multiplex, then get the blu-ray HD super-surround-sound tie-in home-system viewing-experience (and don’t forget the T-shirt…)), searches for significance hoisted onto ’50s pop-culture models (‘The Dark Knight’ as a combination of pop-kitsch with ‘artistic’ or even ‘philosophical’ intent), and easy-snack genre-staples: the action movie as an increasingly machine-dominated world of graphix and hyper-real super-violence (hello, Michael Bay; and hello, James ‘Avatar’ Cameron as well, you won’t get out of this, because your veneer of sub-new-age-liberal-Hollywood-faff and ethnicky-piped-soundtrack doesn’t pull any wool over eyes – we all know (do you know too?) that it conceals the very same techno-sadism), the romantic comedy as an increasingly facile assertion that everything’s gonna be alright (Kit Withnail: “To quote the psychologist Oliver James: “the Beatles’ hit ‘All you need is love’ really showed how warped our thinking had become by the end of the 60s”. This is a message we see throughout the media – if your life is bad, find love, and nothing else will matter. Consider for a moment how many falling-in-love films there are. Thousands? Now, how many seizing-the-means-of-production films are there? Alright, in a less Marxist idiom, how many films show a just society and eradication of poverty as the plot’s climax. Ten? Less? How often have the messages of the romantic films been, “lots of things are not going well but none of them matter now because I have the girl/guy”?”)).

OK, so there’s all that. Back to the torture-porners and the horror-specialists, and back to their heroes: Craven, Carpenter, et al, their work emerging (so says ‘The American Nightmare’) as a specific product of the 1970s, as a reaction to the defeat / 'rehabilitation' of hippie culture by the establishment. (And see here Adam Curtis on the alliance between the then-emerging computer technology and hippy, or post-hippy generation 'cool guys' who eventually became, in the nineties and noughties, the new elite, marketed as the young people's friends (producing their ipods, their mobile phones, their laptops, shaping their social world & way of thinking thru technology), perhaps socially 'liberal' (tolerant of homosexuality, multiculturalism, etc) while actually just as oppressive/exploitative of third-world labour/in league with global capitalism, as the more obviously 'enemy' authoritarians of the 1950s. (So, for Andreas Baader or for Wilhem Reich, sexual revolution was inseparable from, was perhaps even more important than previously-articulated versions of Marxist/social revolution – yet, once it's granted, the freedom to fuck simply means that fucking itself becomes a part of the system, not an act of rebellion against it – becomes yet another quick-fix drug and long-term dependency to mask un-freedom and helplessness.)) Perhaps it’s the beginnings of this process (assimilation) as well as the endings of another (the ’60s hope of revolution) that these ’70s horror films deal with, almost unconsciously, and it’s that not-even-conscious knowledge that makes them still so powerful today, endows them with something beyond the cheap thrills and seedy wrongness that gives them their immediate illicit and pleasurable edge. Fast-forward thirty years or so, and the cynicism/despair of that generation proves well-founded – the same imperialist wars and exploitation at home and abroad; the same inequalities (however well-disguised); the same right-wing extremism run rampant; the same gun-toting misogyny, sometimes even passing for feminist liberation (as in the discourses surrounding the veil, the smoothly-rolled-out justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan as the liberation of women from the grip of the Taliban (now women can be blonde and beautiful and dance near-naked in the foam and lather of a car wash!, and “music and song are returning to that devastated land”) – tinges of ’60s rhetoric wedded with the advanced capitalism of the 2000s and beyond, total assimilation/ indifference as the norm. Indifference – not revolt or joy or rage or despair, but indifference – push the envelope further, it still doesn’t do anything for us (the law of diminishing returns) – nothing is now unthinkable, in the world-wide anything-goes freak-show (cf. Mike and Kate Westbrook’s ‘The Waxeywork Show’); nothing, that is, except the overthrow of global capitalism) – hence, the increasing gore-count of the horror movie, post-the slasher craze, post-gut-ripping zombie apocalypse (the transition from ‘Night of the Living Dead’, with its sombre late 60s black-and-white images and its library-music score, to ‘Day of the Dead', with its blood-red ’80s colour and synthesizers); now, the latest thing, 'torture porn' (which is anyway only a slight amplification of the increased violence in non-horror genres – the casual blasting away of millions of assailants, the endless whiz-bang, gun-firing, exploding, ripping, shredding, titillating techno-violence of superhero movies and action films; or even the fact that characters' deaths are passed off as a joke, not once, but twice, in the supposedly 'family-friendly' gazillionth sequel to 'Pirates of the Carribean'). So if there is, apparently, nothing to react to, no envelope to push further (here’s an underground horror movie supposedly shot in one take, like a marriage between Hitchock’s ‘Rope’ and a snuff movie; here’s three hours of vaguely historically-justified torture; and so on), what to do? Go back to the past, it seems – to ‘Texas Chainsaw’ territory –grime, dirt, shacks, hillbillies/hicks, the deformed and ugly as villains (a too-easy equation of physical with moral ugliness, one might say), the young and pretty getting mutilated, a family unit fragmenting and re-constituting itself as, first scared and scarred, then remorselessly violent and vengeful.

Aja's 'The Hills Have Eyes’ tries to avoid the jaded sense of gore for its own sake through an hour-long build-up – not without gore (witness the opening scene), but mostly focused on establishing character, situation, location, etc. ('Wolf Creek', one of the better of the ‘torture porn’ movies, does this to a far greater extent, its opening half seeming to come from an entirely different film to the relentless second – an easygoing travelogue with pretty sunset backdrops that eventually turns into night-time torture claustrophobia.)) Yet this structure is in some ways rather second-hand – the plot is fairly faithful to Wes Craven's original – and in any case, is (over-)compensated for in the bloody second hour, to which we’ll come in a minute. As I’ve been re-iterating, Aja and the other horror-(re)makers/pasticheurs, have grown up with a particular kind of ’70s horror movie wedged deep under their skin, and, rather than attempting to forge something new from it, seem to wish merely to re-contextualise their predecessors for the Iraq War era (or, in the case of ‘Hostel’, in the light of Europe vs. America tensions and worries about sex-trafficking.) Of course, as horror specialists have always done, both Eli Roth and Aja have their cake and eat it – picture their work as an absurd, satirical amplification of deepest xenophobic fears (murderous gipsies, slavs, rednecks, inbreds, mutants, and disabled people), but one that also risks re-enforcing popular stereotypes, that risks the alarmist and intolerant absurdity of Daily Mail politics. Iraq, of course, provides a handy, and perhaps too easy parallel with Vietnam– another widely-unpopular, but lengthily-fought imperialist war, married to fear of the other (immigrants, mutants, 'ragheads', terrorists, what-have-you) and an emphasis on romantic love and 'family values' as a saving grace (as in the film ‘Dear John’) – all these provide plenty of material for horrific/satirically-tinged exploration, well within the bounds of genre cinema. The problem with simply re-doing and slightly tweaking what went before (more gory, more explicit in its political references) is that it no longer seems surprising, or even very reflective of society – in the age of the internet and endlessly-accessible information, everything becomes second-hand, nothing truly felt. We view the past thru a prism of movies – life is a genre cliché, politics is understood, or glimpsed, through horror films rather than, as in the 60s, through Marcuse or Marx and direct action. The result is a series of undoubtedly efficient genre pics – and sometimes, as with the afore-mentioned ‘Wolf Creek’, genuinely effective ones – but there's something rather too calculated about their endless ferocity, and, above all, their political 'commentary'.

OK, in Aja’s film, the transformation of a wimpily impractical mobile phone salesman into all-American instrument of revenge – he attacks his enemies with a baseball bat, and even a mini stars- and-stripes – is no doubt intended as parodic. And the film’s most interesting moment, a brief shot in which we see a bald, mutant mother figure watching television while combing a doll’s wig (unable to come to terms with her own ugliness, living vicariously through the image of perfect, half-infantilised, half-sexual Barbie beauty, for which all should strive), suggests that it’s not so much nuclear testing as the nuclear-family, or television, the drug of the nation, that’s turned her into a monster, that’s groomed her for this role (women as passive, home-bound dolts; men as ‘active’, out-door, murderers, their actions the literal manifestation of the cannibalistic tendencies (feeding off others) encouraged by the dog-eat-dog world of work). But, aside from 'Big Brain's' "you've made us what we've become" line, there’s no expansion of this – as Roger Ebert points out, the film’s killers are not “individuals with personalities, histories and motives”, but “simply engines of destruction.”

The stars 'n' stripes & a baseball bat : all-American weapons

Television, The Drug of the Nation

In attempting to adapt the aesthetics and subject-matter of '70s horror to a contemporary setting, and with the needs of a gore-saturated, thrill-seeking public in mind, what Aja has actually succeeded in doing is to create a brood of villains whose simple nastiness regresses to the cheapest monster-movie stereotype: not Frankenstein's monster, with his child-like emotionalism, not Dracula, with his caddish charm, not Romero's zombies, with their melancholic stumbles through the darkness of death, but infinitely disposable hick cannibals, cheap cannon fodder.

Consider Craven's hill-dwelling clan; consider the fact that the opening of his film includes more lines of dialogue for Ruby (the clan's little girl) than the entirety of the remake; consider the way that there's something rather exhilarating about the original brood, hippies with a macabre sense of humour who have taken to the hills, where their minds have become deranged, their clothes a mixture of raggedy left-overs from civilisation and primitivist, quasi-tribal chic - they are what straight America finds itself up against, or they are what straight America imagines itself to have fought, and defeated; paranoiac Manson family values (the clan, the tribe, the commune, breeding like rabbits) threatening the the strict confines of a more containable family unit, easier to fit into pre-ordained roles and to sell products to. Aja doesn't really give us much sense that the Hill clan are a 'family' at all; we briefly glimpse some small children, Big Mama sits watching TV, and Ruby skips waif-like through the desert landscape, but there's little sense of personal interaction or of particular relationships between individuals.

Consequently, despite the satirical touches, one doesn't feel the shock that was present in Craven’s original at the transformation of the ‘ordinary family’ (here, sexy/narcissistic teenage daughter, moody teenage son, hippy-turned-religious, let's-get-the-family-together-praying mom, and tough ex-cop dad, attempting to gain back some of his all-American manhood by going out into the desert (albeit as tourist rather than active participant in survival games)) into a ‘violent brood’. Nor do we have much sense of parallels with the mutant family, as mirror-image or horrible reversal of the norm. Our heroes’ embrace of bloodthirsty survival tactics, the revealing of the real violence at the heart of their comfortable ‘normality’ (the violence, in fact, that allows it to exist) is presented as more exhilarating than anything else: right, most of the women are out of the way, killed off in a trailer massacre – now the teenagers and the 'wimp' son-in-law can go and kick some ass! One might have thought that the scene where said wimp is mocked by the teenage boy, no less, for being a pacifist, gun-control democrat, might lead to some critique or even criticism of violence, but instead we just revel in revenge – though the ‘monsters’ are in some sense victims, their sheer physical ugliness, their cannibalistic excesses, and the whooshes every time they dart round the edges of the frame (Roger Ebert: “just as a knife in a slasher movie can make a sharpening sound just because it exists, so do mutants make swatches and swootches when they run in front of cameras”), make them simply into evil antagonists (aside from Ruby, the mournful-faced little red riding hood girl, her costume’s ‘Don’t’ Look Now’ echoes apparently unintentional), and we have no problem with them being dispatched bloodily and gruesomely. Nor do we have a problem with the ‘Straw Dogs’-style transformation of the son-in-law – the way power guitar swells on the soundtrack every time he dispatches a member of the 'family' while he takes off his glasses in semi-parodic, semi-‘heroic’ (‘cool’) fashion (said action repeated not once, but several times over, like the quips James Bond makes after he dispatches another larger-than-life villain.) I can’t help feeling that we’re actually, in some way, meant to feel liberated by this – the guy's saving his baby, after all, being a ‘real man’, so let’s sit back and enjoy the ride, alright, with no moral qualms. Craven, remember, ended his film with a freeze frame as the screen turned red on the murderous rampage of a previously benign, ‘ordinary’ man – we were meant to be shocked by this, perhaps ashamed at our own exhilarated complicity, but we were certainly not meant to revel in it. Thus, while Aja’s ‘Hills’ purports to be critical of all-American values, it ends up simply reinforcing them in the usual action/horror-movie style (see Michael Caine in ‘Harry Brown’, or Kevin Bacon (of all people) in ‘Death Sentence’) – sod it, let’s just blow the fuckers away. This is why its apparent anti-Americanism feels rather tokenistic; yes, maybe an American film-maker wouldn't have made the scene in which a wheelchair-bound cripple with a massively deformed neck sings 'The Star Spangled Banner', or another is killed by having the stars and stripes literally thrust thru his neck, but in a way such touches make matters worse – they are just a European reflex-instinct, a simulated edge of political 'credibility' to make critics stroke their beards or beads in happy appreciation. It's certainly not the fever dream that horror, or horror-tinged surrealism, is capable of unleashing – the anti-Americanism of Artaud, and, to a lesser extent, Céline', is delirious almost to the point of caricature (and such bitter attacks don’t have to come from the United States at all – we could easily include William Burroughs here). However much Aja wants us to feel it, what we have here is not delirium, not the giddy and horrific transformation of social values and situations, but genre clichés amped up to new levels of violence and noise (perhaps so that we won’t recognise them as clichés), and a facile resort to easy, glorified violence, the family unit triumphing through adversity – and of course, the expected ‘shock’ ending, as the camera pulls out from the victors’ group huddle to reveal that they are being watched through another pair of binoculars. There’s a sequel too, don’t you know.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Grachan Moncur III - New Africa

Grachan Moncur III, Roscoe Mitchell, Dave Burrell, Alan Silva, Andrew Cyrille (plus Archie Shepp on one track). Recorded August 11, 1969 in Paris.

For whatever reason, trombonist Moncur's discography has remained sparse, and, though he played sporadically through the '80s (with Cassandra Wilson and others) and has recorded a couple of albums since the turn of the millennium, one feels a sense of loss at the fact that a unique compositional voice was never given the space to develop into further areas. As a sideman, he lent his talents to a number of late-60s free jazz albums (in particular, those of Archie Shepp), but, fine as his contributions are, his is not the dominant voice that it was on his own recordings, and those of Jackie McLean. And that's because Moncur as improviser is only part of the story - his writing is not a mere adjunct to the business of getting down and `blowing free', but a crucial part of his entire aesthetic (something one also senses about his sometime collaborator Alan Shorter). In terms of his own music, then, what we have are the eerie, superbly atmospheric Blue Note dates (the quartet of `Evolution' and `Some Other Stuff' under his own leadership, `One Step Beyond' and `Destination....Out!' under that of Jackie McLean), and the often attractive, but more formulaic modal/African-inspired dates (the two albums he cut for BYG in 1969, and `Echoes of a Prayer', a collaboration with the Jazz Composers' Orchestra recorded five years down the line).

`New Africa' is the first of the BYGs, and the seventeen-minute titular track gets things under way. It's listed as a suite in four movements (a bit like 'Echoes of a Prayer'); in that case, the first 'movement' is the opening, slowly pulsing ostinato figure sounded in unison by Dave Burrell's left hand and Alan Silva's bass, with Burrell plucking out grave, mid-register chords on top. The entrance of Moncur's trombone two minutes in signals the second movement, and the two main melodies of the piece (which serve as more traditional `heads' in Archie Shepp's rendition, with Moncur, released on 'Kwanza'). The tempo quickens, Cyrille laying out sparkling, regular time on his cymbals, as the trombonist takes his solo. Given the propensity for slow, moody compositions he'd displayed on his mid-60s collaborations with Jackie McLean, it's no surprise that he relishes the space afforded by the steady rhythm-section foundation; with Burrell's on-the-beat chords and Cyrille's cymbals, he's able to tease out and develop phrases in an almost leisurely fashion - often, simple melodies that might have come from folk-songs (and indeed, he went on to record traditional Brazilian tunes on 'One Morning I Waked Up Very Early', ten days after the sessions for this album.) The problem with such a regular and reliable back-drop is that it's easy for the attention to wander; and, whereas Mal Waldron's trio recordings from the same period (such as `Free at Last' and `Spanish Bitch') take the approach to its logical conclusion, everything put at the service of the riff, dark and drawn-out, deliberate and packed with tension, with soloing as such taking more of a back-seat, here, the ostinato approach threatens to overwhelm the solos - in particular, those of Moncur, but also those of Roscoe Mitchell (who plays here in a much more `inside' fashion that one might expect from his work elsewhere, with a smooth yet piquant tone). Even in Burrell's spot, where the repeated chords momentarily let up for more linear melodic playing, things are hampered by the deliberately limited harmonic framework, which spurs the development (or lack of) of some rather aimless and, frankly dull material, with the pianist seeming to simply plonk his way up and down the instrument according to pre-set formula, rather than expressive need. The locked-in nature of the repetitive material means that it's very easy for things to meander, to drift, a problem I also find with some of Shepp's work from this period (`Coral Rock' being a prime example, as Alan Shorter's harmonically-distinctive composition and solo is bludgeoned by relentlessly hammering piano work); one senses, most of all, that it restrains Burrell, one of the most diverse and capable of free jazz players, into an unrewarding supporting role. And, while in some ways it opens up space for the horn players, it also closes down any possibility of silences or pauses in the music as a whole.

That said, there are benefits to the approach, as demonstrated on the next track, which, at under half the length of `New Africa', doesn't risk becoming too loose or baggy. Hard, concise, lapidary, `Space Spy' conveys an impression of relentlessness, seriousness, a brooding and oppressive atmosphere in which repetition is the spur of tension and uncertainty rather than familiarity and comfort. Burrell stabs out a two-note motif, like rumbling morse code, freeing up Cyrille to play more colouristically, while Moncur explores gnomic, almost fragmentary dissonances that share harmonic territory with, of all people, the film composer Jerry Fielding, who scored a number of Sam Peckinpah films in the '70s. `Exploration', as its title implies, is the `freest' track on the record; another menacing low-end melody gives way to a period of collective soloing that finds Moncur and Mitchell initially, elusively, suggesting the clock-tower chimes best known to those from the UK as the `Play Up Pompey' chant sung by fans of Portsmouth City, FC. The horns and Burrell then proceed to riff off each other, picking up, varying, developing and discarding each other's melodic figures in a sometimes sprightly, sometimes deliberately lugubrious fashion.

Another unison melody opens `When', this time more simple, song-like and hopeful, the sort of material that could easily be turned into a collective chant, perhaps at a civil-rights rally. Archie Shepp joins the band on tenor sax, and one remembers just how much spark and fizz his playing had during the 60s: the extension of pauses to create tension and uncertainty; the sudden re-entrances in a blurring, blarting blast (what Ekkerhard Jost called `staccatoed legato'); the use of particular forms of tonguing, slurring, notes trailing away after that initial fortissimo impact; the combination of languor and passion, romanticism and fury, sometimes within the same phrase; the timbral reminiscences of Ben Webster or Jonny Hodges tied to the multiphonic innovations of Johns Gilmore and Coltrane, sliding between smoothness and acidic sharpness. Moncur, for his part, blows some delicious, voice-like high notes that seem to pre-echo Mitchell's bleats, trills, and smooth melodicism, and Shepp ends the piece with some beautiful supporting harmonics that make his tenor sound almost like a flute.

In sum, though the occasional longuers mean that `New Africa' lacks the cutting-edge possessed by Moncur's work on Blue Note, and if there's a sense of opportunity missed (imagine a record that explored the collective improvised territory of `Exploration' throughout), it nonetheless remains an attractive and worthwhile album overall: certainly, an important stop-off point for those who wish to understand the trajectory of Moncur's career, and the late 60s free/modal scene in general.