Fragmented Fish March 2011

You may know Jose Mojica Marins better via his signature a black cape, top hat, excessively long fingernails (which measured three feet at one stage), or perhaps from his moniker Coffin Joe. He’s one of the most unique and provocative filmmakers Brazil has ever produced. In fact he’s responsible for Brazil’s first ever horror film, 1964’s At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul, in which Coffin Joe (Marins himself) searches for a women worthy to bear his child. It’s unbelievably excessive. It actually begins by warning the viewer to go home, then admonishes them for not and warns them they will now suffer. As an undertaker, Joe openly flouts the religious beliefs of the day, eating meat on holy Friday, and steals wine from gravesites. He also bullies and torments townspeople who are all terrified of him. During the making of this film Marins apparently split the crew into two, working in 12-hour shifts, swallowed 20 amphetamine pills he bought over the counter and worked for 96 hours straight. He eventually had a nervous breakdown, was hospitalised and reports that after this experience ‘life became a little strange.’

It’s all included in the 4 disc Coffin Joe Collection (Umbrella), which also contains 1967’s even more excessive This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse. Again Joe is out to further his bloodline, which he does by kidnapping a bevy of beauties and putting them through sadistic tests to determine who is worthy. Whilst Joe cuts off people’s fingers, pokes them in the eyes, stabs them with Jesus’ crown of thorns and enacts all manner of antisocial behaviour, his treatment of his harem is something special. Waiting till they’re sleeping he sends an army of tarantulas and studies their reactions. Apparently the actresses weren’t particularly thrilled with the spiders crawling over their near naked flesh so Marins got them drunk It was at this point he began his infamous screen tests which usually involved spiders, snakes, scorpians, or being buried alive He wanted his women brave, or at the very least not wanting to quit everytime he brought in a box of spiders or waved a gun around.

1969’s Awakening of the Beast is truly something else, a tome to be whispered about in tones usually reserved for the likes of Arrabel or Jodorowsky. It’s very much a product of the 60’s focussing on the drug problems in Brazil, but it is incredibly surreal and highly sexual. It was banned in Brazil for 20 years. You can see why in the first 3 minutes. It’s amazing, self indulgent and demented.

Of course the Coffin Joe character would continue to appear in subsequent film and TV projects, as mentioned in the doco The strange world of Mojica Marins. Yet Marins never really capitalised on the phenomenon, living a frugal existence in Sao Paulo. In fact during the 80’s he was reduced to making porn, creating a sensation for some coital action with an actress and a German shepherd. Participants, including Marins seem to view this experience with an almost whimsical nostalgia, but then that’s the world he exists in, defying and challenging social conventions, disturbing and unsettling his audience with gleeful abandon. And though he has something like 14 unfinished projects, in 2008, some 29 years after he had completed a previous film, he made Embodiment of Evil, the official third part of the Coffin Joe trilogy. It’s not in this collection but the stills look, well, wrong.

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Fragmented Frequencies April 2011

In 1971 a twenty eight year old double bass player and freejazz enthusiast called Gavin was working on a documentary film about people sleeping in rough in London. Trawling the streets they came across a bunch of winos and bums. So they began filming. At one point they broke into a drunken song, which was duly recorded for the film. Another tramp who didn’t drink also started warbling. This song was never used in the film, though somehow Gavin ended up with the recordings. When he got home he quickly realised both the emotional depth of the music and more importantly that this particular song was in tune. So he decided to orchestrate it. The song is Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, and Gavin is of course Gavin Bryars. Repeatedly looping a couple of verses, he extended the tune to almost twenty six minutes, slowly and subtly bringing in the orchestration, which actually added an additional (almost cinematic) gravity to the song, but really it served to highlight the fragility and damage of the singer. Yet despite the trials and tribulations there’s a real sense of hope and optimism here, and it’s made all the more poignant by the almost naive hopelessness of the singer. With material so raw, there was a real danger that Bryars could have overcooked it, sensationalising the material, yet as we cycle through the waves of the song, he builds density slowly, gracefully, highlighting the pathos of the singer and the song, without ever feeling like he is competing. Bryars of course had form, a couple of years earlier he produced The Sinking of the Titanic, a modern classical piece that is based on accounts that the final tune the band played before they drowned was a hymn. The tune at about 25 minutes feels like it is sinking under water, descending into washed out drones and submerged strings. The effect is uncanny.

Novelist Michael Ondaatje (The English Painter) speaks of Bryars ability to put ‘slapstick’ and ‘primal emotion’ alongside each other, his ability to make the listener approach sound from a completely new angle, with a ‘third ear.’ And you would need one when listening to Portsmouth Sinfonia, an ensemble he founded that mixes professional musicians like Brian Eno playing unfamiliar instruments with complete novices. They have a few LP’s out, murdering popular rock or well-known classical tunes. They’re both despairingly hilarious and very slapstick.

On Sunday the 1st of May at Anytime Place in Brunswick, on the 40th anniversary of its premiere, Barnaby Oliver and Steph Brett, in association with Dreamland Recordings, present a live performance of Bryars’ Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Whilst the original tune went for about twenty-six minutes, the organisers have elected to take some liberties, viewing their approach as something of a ‘bootleg’ performance.
“Bryars always stretched the duration of the piece to the limits of whatever recording medium was available (first vinyl, then cassette, then CD),” offers Barnaby Oliver, “and I’m taking it even further, to 2 hours plus. I’ve always been interested in long-duration performances – impractical as they are, they can take you to places that are otherwise unreachable.”

It will include over 20 Melbourne musicians including the likes of Adam Simmons, Dave Brown (both of Bucketrider fame), Tim Pledger (Bohjass) Barnaby Oliver (Infinite Decimals), and numerous more. They’ve each been given a chart of the original accompaniment to the piece and are all working alone to create their interpretation. On the night it is expected that performers may duck in and out of the music while the loop plays throughout. In the main they will be unamplified and spread throughout the space with no clear delineation between performer and listener.

Musically Oliver was attracted to the minimalist approach of the work, ‘combining very simple ideas to create something very complex,’ though there’s clearly a lot more going on. He suggests it’s about “taking someone who’s ended up at the very bottom of society’s heap, and then placing him at the centre of a piece of ‘high art’, where the performers are obliged to follow his irregular and idiosyncratic beat.”

“We all rely on something to get us through the tough times, be it alcohol, religion or whatever – in that way we’re all the same. The piece is perhaps about celebrating this common humanity – which is both strength and weakness – in an ambivalent and non-judgmental way. That realisation was what made me want to do something with the piece.”

Interview with Nicola Roberts – director of Brian Eno: Another Green World

Recently I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Nicola Roberts, director of the new film about Brian Eno. What I enjoyed about the film is that it’s a film about ideas and the creative process, not so much a chronology of his incredible body of work. I found it incredibly inspiring. You will too.

What was it that initially attracted you to Eno? Do you remember first hearing or seeing his work?

I liked Roxy Music, but it was Eno’s early solo albums I really loved best, particularly Here Come The Warm Jets and the second side of Before and After Science.

What was his involvement in the film?

Brian ‘steered’ the film by inviting us to his studio to film him in conversation with various people. Other than that, we were free to make the film as we wished.

Was there anything about him that you learnt that surprised you?

It wasn’t until I was doing my research that I realised what a sex icon Brian had been when he was in Roxy Music. I was too young to have seen them live in the early 70s when Brian was in the band and didn’t know about the presence of the ‘Eno screamers’ at their gigs, nor the volume of Brian’s liaisons.

How long did it take to make this film? And what were some of the challenges?

The film took about a year to make, on and off. The biggest challenge was trying to get the eclectic mix of interviews to cohere and to reflect the facets of Brian’s intellect.

The focus seems to be more about him as a person what makes him tick artistically and less about his imposing body of work. What were your initial thoughts when planning this film?

‘Another Green World’ aired on the BBC with a companion piece – ‘Hits, Tracks and Classics’ an hour long, off-beat music compilation we made with journalist Paul Morley to showcase Brian’s ‘imposing body of work’. It featured his collaborations with David Bowie – Heroes. Warsawa, Boys Keep Swinging – Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime, Jezebel Spirit – and with lesser known bands like Devo and Ultravox (John Foxx’s Ultravox, not Midge Ure’s).

My initial idea was to make a film about ‘loops’ as they seemed to feature so much in Brian’s music – and thinking.

There’s lots of external landscape footage throughout the film. Can you discuss why you used this? How do you believe the landscape links in with Eno and his music?

In the ambient album ‘On Land’ there’s a track caleed ‘Dunwich Beach’ – and this is the Suffolk beach you see in the film. All the landscapes are authentic places Brian would have roamed in as a child. One of his artistic ambitions is to create ‘other worlds’ in his music: we wanted to show the pastoral ‘other world’ of his childhood, a source of inspiration to him.

Despite saying he hates remembering he seemed to grant you quite a lot of access, or at the very least appeared quite open with you. Was it difficult to establish his trust?

It wasn’t difficult to establish trust: Brian had a lot of confidence in Arena, the BBC arts series for which this documentary was made and which has been running for 30 years. Brian and I met a few times before we started filming: I’d written a short treatment about how I’d like to approach the film – all about ‘loops’! – which Brian liked. These loops still have a presence in the documentary – the postman’s ‘round’, the people coming and going and sitting around his circular table.

He seems to be a man fascinated by ideas. Very interested in the intellectual rigour of his work. You interview him yourself, however so do numerous other people. Why did you use this approach?

I had no idea the film would include conversations with a cybernetician or an environmental lawyer, but this is genuinely what Brian does with his days, when he’s not producing, or working on his own stuff. He believes ‘conversations can change the world’.
The most difficult part of making the programme was the editing: it wasn’t easy to assemble the very varied conversations to reflect the coherence behind Brian’s way of thinking.

How did he react to the finished film?

Brian told me he wasn’t going to watch it, but he got a lot of positive feedback from others, who encouraged him to see it. He did watch it in the end and liked it very much.

His studio seems filled with all manner of toys, books etc. It seems like the extension of a toybox for a grown up kid. Did you get this sense?

Yep, his studio is very like the album cover for Here Come the Warm Jets. He has a collection of cigarette packets from around the world (he used to smoke) and a lot of dice all turned to show the number six. There’s a lot of 21st century technology in the room, but no television (he doesn’t own one) and an analogue record player. His vinyl albums are stashed in alphabetical order.

I found the film incredibly inspiring. A really interesting window into the artistic process. How have other people reacted to it?

It seems to have gone down well. Brian’s close friends and family have said it definitely shows the man they know, male viewers seem to have particularly enjoyed it: I think they envy him all those gadgets.