Saturday, February 28, 2015

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sergei Parajanov’s ‘The Color of Pomegranates’

One of my favorite films is going to be shown in Los Angeles soon: Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (Նռան գույնը, 1969), from the late, unlamented Soviet Union.  The film will be shown at the venue Cinefamily on Fairfax Avenue beginning Friday, February 20.  Because I can’t get around as well as I used to, I haven’t been to Cinefamily since it was the old Silent Movie Theatre.  But they screen such intriguing fare that I’m sure it would be worth the trip. 

Speaking of “worth the trip,” I once made the trek from L.A. to San Francisco and stayed there for a week just to be able to watch The Color of Pomegranates several times at a Mission District movie theatre.  Why didn’t I just watch it on video?  Because it wasn’t available at the time.  I was so knocked out by the movie the first time I saw it circa 1979 (at a special screening at the University of Southern California) that I wanted to write about it.  When the film was finally distributed in the U.S. by Kino International, it was booked for a screening at the Roxie.  Wanting to see it again, and wring an article out of the experience, I thought that traveling the almost 400 miles to get there was a bargain. 

The Color of Pomegranates remains one of the most unusual films that I’ve ever seen.  Ostensibly about the life of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (c. 1712-1795), the movie isn’t a standard biopic but a series of presentational tableaux and pantomime, which do little more than insinuate the events in its subject’s life story.  Writer-director Parajanov (like Sayat-Nova, an ethnic Armenian born in Soviet Georgia) cloaks these cinematic happenings in colorful and intricately designed costumes that dazzle the eye.  In the late 1970s, most Americans, including myself, didn’t think of Soviet culture beyond the gray tones of Moscow: the existence of all these other ethnic cultures beyond Russia (Armenian, Georgian, Ukrainian, Azerbaijani, etc.) was off our radars.  To see a Soviet culture brought so stunningly and enigmatically to life was nothing short of a revelation to me. 
Director Sergei Parajanov
However, The Color of Pomegranates wasn’t the first Parajanov film that I had seen.  That distinction — and what a distinction it is! — goes to his Ukrainian production Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків, 1964), which I first saw on my local Washington P.B.S. station in the mid-’70s (although it took me a while to realize that the two films had the same director).  Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was another disorienting blast of noise and color, one that pinned me to my chair in front of the TV and wouldn’t let go.  If Parajanov could direct two such stunning films, he was definitely someone I wanted to write an article about.

Here is a link to the article that I wrote about Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, the article that I went to San Francisco to write (my article uses the Russified Romanization of the director’s name: Paradzhanov — and for some reason, the periodical captions the stills from the film with the alternate title, Red Pomegranate).  The version of The Color of Pomegranates that I saw was the Russian cut that had been made after Parajanov’s Armenian edit had been taken out of his hands.  The Russian version was the only cut of the film available for viewing in the 1980s and early 1990s.  However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Parajanov’s original Armenian version became available again.  The Russian cut of The Color of Pomegranates possesses some aspects that I like, such as the division of the events into chapters that can be followed more easily, and I like the ending imagery of the Russian version better than the Armenian version.  But it’s still good to finally see Parajanov’s original vision (which I first viewed at a Los Angeles film festival in the mid-1990s).  And here is a link to film critic Tony Rayns’s explanatory article on The Color of Pomegranates, which helped me a great deal in writing my own.  (Here is also a link to the Russian version of The Color of Pomegranates on YouTube.)

One of the great tragedies of cinema is that Parajanov was persecuted by the Soviet authorities for most of his career.  After he found his voice with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, he wasn’t allowed to make another feature film until 1985 with The Legend of Suram Fortress (ამბავი სურამის ციხისა) in Georgia.  He only completed one more feature, Ashik Kerib (აშიკი ქერიბი, 1988).  While shooting The Confession (Խոստովանանք) in 1990, he took ill, and The Confession remained uncompleted when Parajanov died later that year.  The mind staggers to contemplate all of the visionary films that Parajanov wasn’t allowed to make.  At least the Green Integer Press in 1998 printed a small paperback of seven of Parajanov’s film treatments, SevenVisions, which can give us a small glimpse into the splendors of the screen that might have been.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Lion Never Sleeps

Solomon Linda
Many songs must have labyrinthine and perplexing histories, histories murky by design in order to deny their creators any rightful share of royalties.  But I doubt that there are as many songs with as mysterious a backstory as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  After that falsetto megahit by the Tokens topped the charts in 1961, it never really went away.  But the song was given new life in 1994 by its inclusion in another megahit, the Walt Disney cartoon The Lion King

As most music mavens can tell you, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was derived from the song “Wimoweh,” which had been making the rounds in the folk clubs ever since it was introduced to a mass audience in 1952 by the folk group the Weavers.  But while the Weavers presented “Wimoweh” as a traditional South African folk song, the melody that became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was actually authored by Solomon Popoli Linda (1909-1962). 

In 1939, Linda, a black South African, and his a cappella group, the Evening Birds, recorded a song called “Mbube” (the Zulu word for “lion”) in the Johannesburg studios of Gallo Records.  While the song’s compelling bass line may have been derived from a traditional Zulu chant, Linda’s falsetto improvisations above it were his own, including the tune we now think of as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  It’s the same old story: Linda sold “Mbube’s” rights to Gallo Records for a pittance, and while “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” went on to gross tens of millions — if not hundreds of millions — of dollars in royalty revenue, the song’s original author died a pauper, whose family was unable to afford a headstone for his grave. 

The twisting, turning story of “Mbube” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which includes an apparently happy ending for Linda’s grown children, was meticulously detailed in 2000 in Rolling Stone magazine by South African author and journalist Rian Malan.  His history/exposé is titled “In the Jungle” and still makes for compelling reading.  I highly recommend Malan’s article. 

Fortunately, many of the songs that shaped the history of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” are available online. 

Here is Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds original 1939 recording of “Mbube”:

Pete Seeger transcribed the song from Linda’s South African record (which was brought to his attention by American musicologist Alan Lomax).  Unfamiliar with the Zulu language (which might be expected), Seeger transcribed the Zulu refrain uyembube as “Wimoweh.”  Here is the first recording of “Wimoweh” that Seeger and his group the Weavers made for an independent record company circa 1950:

After the Weavers were signed to the major label Decca Records, they did a second recording in 1952, with orchestrations by Gordon Jenkins:

“Wimoweh” was a hit in the U.S., and the Weavers’ record was soon followed by cover versions.  Here is Yma Sumac backed by Martin Denny and his orchestra, also from 1952:

Another well-known version is by the Kingston Trio from 1959:

South African artists still recorded the song as “Mbube” (although I don’t know if any of royalties at the time made their way to Solomon Linda).  Here is Miriam Makeba’s version from 1960:

A hit in the United Kingdom was this 1961 version of “Wimoweh” by Scottish guitarist-cum-yodeler Karl Denver:

The amateur doo-wop group the Tokens included “Wimoweh” in their repertoire.  After they signed with RCA Records, the label’s producers reworked the song for a youthful pop audience, which included new English lyrics by tunesmith George David Weiss.  The Tokens’ rendition, titled “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” released in 1961 to resounding success, remains the best-known of version of the song:

Solomon Linda’s original version of “Mbube” was such a success in South Africa that the Evening Birds’ forceful style of a cappella singing created its own vocal musical genre named after the song: mbube singing.  A descendant of mbube singing is the softer style called isicathamiya, whose best-known practitioner is the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  Appropriately, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has its own version of “Mbube” from 2006:

This version by the Soweto Gospel Choir combines “Mbube,” “Wimoweh,” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”:

And the song continues to inspire.  Here is Angelique Kidjo’s version of “Mbube” from 2010:

Finally, here is a clip from a 2014 episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon:

Saturday, February 14, 2015

‘Imagine’ Another Guilty Pleasure

You know what I hate?  A movie that’s nothing but a bundle of contrivances but that wins me over anyway.  Such describes the contemporary gay-themed British romantic comedy Imagine Me and You (2005), written and directed by veteran scribe Ol Parker.  From beginning to end, Imagine Me and You is chock-full of far-fetched confabulations and coincidences that beggar belief.  Still, the film’s story creates such a fanciful “what-if?” that I find myself putting my better critical instincts into hibernation

Let’s start with the premise: The lead character, Rachel (Piper Perabo), has, for all intents and purposes, never really been in love until she’s struck by Cupid’s arrow on her wedding day, a bolt from the blue brought about by someone other than her groom — namely, her female florist.  A woman in her 20s, Rachel is very fond of her betrothed, Heck (Matthew Goode), but she has never really been passionately in love with him.  However, precisely when she’s walking down the aisle, Rachel’s brief glimpse of her lesbian florist, Luce (Lena Heady), brings down a disorienting (in more ways than one) coup de foudre that calls the bride’s life into question.  “Unlikely” doesn’t begin to describe this outlandish set-up, especially in the less homophobic 21st century, but non-fictional stories of late-in-life team-changers (such as Meredith Baxter) tell us that this kind of situation is not outside the realm of possibility. 
Lena Heady as Luce (left) and Piper Perabo as Rachel
Set in contemporary middle-class London, Imagine Me and You — with gentle, underplayed humor — tells the story of Rachel growing away from Heck and giving herself over to her unexpected romantic feelings for Luce.  But director Parker challenged himself with a task that layers this improbable premise with another level of artifice: he didn’t want any of the leads to be the bad guy of the piece.  If one were to imagine a real-world scenario of a bride who inopportunely discovers her lesbianism on the day of her “traditional” wedding, the mind would visualize scenes of deception, cheating, and flagrant lies that would likely lead to an unhappy ending (something closer to the solemn Jenny-Marina-Tim plot in The L Word).  But because Imagine Me and You wants to narrate a sunny comedy with likeable leads, Parker devises some convoluted scenes, such as Heck — via a perfect storm of circumstances — unwittingly setting up Rachel and Luce’s very innocent first “date.”  Other improbabilities include Rachel being clueless as to Luce’s lesbianism until a coincidental encounter in a supermarket, Luce helping Rachel’s primary-school-age sister with a class project without anyone knowing (serendipitously enabling Rachel and Luce to get together again), and Heck having a best friend, Cooper (Darren Boyd), utterly unlike himself in every respect. 

After they acknowledge their love for each other, the very considerate Rachel and Luce agree not to see each other again in order to spare Heck’s feelings.  But good-guy Heck realizes he’s in the way and willingly leaves so that the two women can have a de rigueur (for a rom-com) race to the airport in the third act, a mannered girl-gets-girl climax, and a happy ending.  Not to worry, the closing credits (set, as one might expect, to the Turtles’ “Happy Together”) extend a potential love interest to Heck, so that story thread is neatly tied up.  (Moreover, none of these contemporary Londoners smokes.  What kind of alternate universe is this?) 
Luce symbolically “marries” Rachel by placing
her lost wedding ring on her finger.
So, why do I (a heterosexual male viewer) like Imagine Me and You?  Well, for all its improbabilities, the screenplay is put together with a healthy dollop of wit.  The characters are fleshed out well enough to make their unlikely actions credible.  And the underplayed performances by the cast prevent these relatable characters from devolving into stock figures.  Therefore, simply in terms of filmmaking craftsmanship, Imagine Me and You makes for an enjoyable, elating example of the romantic comedy.  But even though it sometimes strains credibility, Rachel’s story of discovering her heart’s desire at the most infelicitous moment, but eventually overcoming herself to get what she wants, is so intriguing — and sets up a fantastical premise that I like seeing played out — that I can easily forgive its occasional artificial-feeling moments.

Darren Boyd as Cooper (left) and Matthew Goode as Heck
Although the character of Cooper, the single-minded (and somewhat simpleminded) Lothario, comes the closest to being a one-dimensional stereotype — and we wonder why the more thoughtful and considerate Heck would bother hanging around such a rake, never mind wanting him for best man — the film surprises us by showing his other side. Throughout Imagine Me and You, Cooper makes clear that he frequently hits on married women and gets them to cheat on their husbands.  But once he gets wind of his best friend being possibly cuckolded, Cooper suddenly and unexpectedly becomes a font of morality and chews out Luce for driving a wedge between Rachel and Heck.  There’s more than one side to Cooper after all: cheating spouses are acceptable to him as long as it’s not the wife of his best friend.  Also (and teasingly) the end credits show us Cooper acting all paternal with a baby.  Whose baby is it?  I’m left to guess that Cooper is the father to the baby of the pregnant Irishwoman (Sharon Horgan) who buys a bouquet from Luce and awkwardly hugs her and tearfully tells her that the boyfriend (Cooper?) will “hate” this unplanned gravidity.  But the film never makes clear whether Cooper is the father or not.

However (and I’m not the horse’s mouth on this subject), some gay critics have blasted Imagine Me and You as a make-believe palliative that assuages any heterosexual discomfort over real-life gay people and their real-life issues.  Writer-director Ol Parker is heterosexual (he’s married to actress Thandie Newton), and he chose as his romantic couple the gay configuration easiest for a mass audience to accept: two conventionally beautiful women (played by heterosexual actresses), a tactic not dissimilar to girl-on-girl porn for straight men.  Imagine Me and You is a film by heterosexual artists primarily intended for a heterosexual-dominant audience, so one can easily think of it (like The Crying Game or Brokeback Mountain) as a heterosexual film about the trendy topic of gay people, not as a gay film in any politically progressive sense of the term.

At the same time, the very fact that gay characters can be the unproblematic protagonists of a feel-good romantic movie intended for a popular audience demonstrates the enormous political strides by real-world gay people in recent decades.  If Rachel and Luce had fallen in love two or three generations earlier, their story would have likely been a Children’s Hour-style tragedy.  Instead, Imagine Me and You is the exact opposite of a “problem” play.  No individual film is going to boast a “complete” picture of a complex and multifaceted subject like homosexuality, and none should try.  The very existence of a frothy gay-themed romantic comedy like Imagine Me and You proves how malleable and accommodating the mainstream can be, despite some predictable resistance.  Popular culture must be enlarged, not overthrown.

So, to what extent does Imagine Me and You distort and misrepresent homosexuality by catering to a mainstream audience, and to what extent does it acknowledge the equality of gay people by welcoming them as fellow human beings who can populate a popular genre like the feel-good romantic comedy?  Not being gay, I can’t say for sure.  But this modest, well-crafted movie of someone who reinvents her sense of self in order to find her true love tells a hopeful story that can inspire us all — no matter how frivolous and awkward it can be in some spots.  Imagine Me and You isn’t an example of great filmmaking, but that doesn’t stop me from revisiting it over and over again. 

This European trailer for ‘Imagine Me and You’ makes the film seem more like an Éric Rohmer-style la ronde (with the four principal characters chasing after each other), instead of the romantic triangle between Luce and Rachel and Heck that it is.