Sunday, July 21, 2013

Terra Form

With a recent run at the Kyoto International Manga Museum in, uh, Kyoto, I thought this would be a pretty decent time to talk about Katsuya Terada; an artist I have long admired, and whose most recent book, Katsuya Terada 10 TEN-Ten Year Retrospective, just showed up on my doorstep.  As a companion to his recent exhibit (that unfortunately, I wasn't able to get to), the book acts as a kind of omnibus of his work in the past, let's say ten years.  Though not as expansive as the still-fresh feeling Genga artbook from Katsuhiro Otomo (you really need to hold that book in your hands to grasp it's weight; no pun intended), this book is still a wonderful introduction to Terada's work for the uninitiated, especially for the price and availability (though not accounting for import prices once this book is gone, TEN is still much easier to find overseas than many of his previous works).
Born in Okayama, Japan, Katuya Terada's first work recognizable to foreign audiences would probably be his illustrations for Nintendo Power Magazine.  Though I'm not sure if he was ever properly credited in the magazine, fans of his work now can easily go through so many of the back-issues (well, as easily as you can get your hands on 80s-era back-issues of Nintendo Power) and recognize his work immediately.  He employed many of the same techniques then as he often does now, using minimal line work and color to illustrate scenes that the games could only imply, and his domination of space and anatomy imbues such simple and effortless looking drawings with a weight and depth as unique and unmistakable as anything he has done in even the past ten years.  That isn't to say that he doesn't have a diverse body of work; in fact, though instantly recognizable as any of his work is, his range as an illustrator is surprising.  He is just as comfortable, it seems, crafting intricately detailed, digitally-painted fantasy illustrations as he is with clean-line or hatched, black and white ink drawings.
In addition to his Nintendo Power contributions, Terada has also contributed designs for several other videogames and anime productions, including a special edition strategy guide for Dragon Warrior and promotional materials for the Detective Saburo Jinguji series.  Most famously, Terra contributed character designs and promo illustrations for Blade: The Last Vampire, an excellent anime production from 2000 directed by industry veteran, Hiroyuki Kitakubo (not to be confused with the series, Blood + and Blood-C, or the 2009 live-action remake).

Even his sketchbooks delight, and it is no wonder that he has also given himself the alias, Rakugakingu (ラクガキング), meaning graffiti, sketch, or doodle king; Rakugakingu is also the name of an artbook he released in 2002, totaling 1000 pages taken from his sketchbooks.  The pages of Rakugakingu are thin and translucent, and being able to see through them gives this voluminous tome the feel of a real life sketchbook, and it's great to see the design of the book reflect the contents within.  In a recent interview, Terra commented on the book, saying, "Even when I did Rakugakingu, I thought, well it's just scribbles so it need to be 1000 pages.  We're charging money so it needs to feel worth it".  His attitude towards what he feels comfortable charging money for is reflected in his output of work, and his books often exhibit some kind of interesting design or value to them; whether it's a collectable, durable cardboard sleeve and packaging justifying it's sum, or just keeping the book price low through smaller size and multiple printing techniques, his printed material is always as much of value as it is entertaining (again, it would have been nice for TEN to have been a larger production, a la Genga, but for the price this book was released at, making it available to a wider audience that may have missed some of his previous artbooks was obviously the key issue going to print).

One of my favorite releases of his so far was 2008's Viva Il Ciclissimo, a two volume, joint project between Terada and Katsuhiro Otomo (who has to be mentioned on this blog at least once per post, apparently), centered on the Giro d’Italia cycling tour.  The first (hardback) book is centered around the tour itself, filled with beautiful illustrations from both artists, chronicling not only the tour itself, but some really wonderful moments of imaginative daydreaming that only the two of them could create.  Both artists being avid cycling enthusiasts, the second (softcover) book is full of sketches and ideas, and the looseness of the presentation is fun and exciting to look through, and it keeps the reader pouring over each single drawing, eagerly in anticipation of what awaits them on the next page; and while the first volume is split in two, giving each auteur equal measure (as well as their own opposing covers), the second is a mishmash of ideas, even including Hiroyuki Kitakubo, properly illustrating the enthusiasm many Japanese illustrators have for professional cycling (who knew?).  There was even a neat little cycling bag featuring an illustration by Terada thrown in with the early limited edition printings of this book.

Though I'm not really as much of a fan of his comic works than I am of his illustrations, I would be remiss if I didn't mention his Monkey King series, published by Dark Horse in the US.  While I don't realy dislike it, what I enjoy in illustrations is not always what I enjoy in comics, and his ultra-detailed digital illustrations don't work for me as much; my feelings are much the same for guys like Alex Ross, who, although are great painters and draftsmen, just use too many colors on a page and it always appears as if they worked on a painting, and then made it fit onto a page with other paintings; they lose the sense of flow a page should have, and while each individual painting is great, they have only managed to fit more than one on a page and I find it incredibly difficult to focus on any real action (basically, one has to readjust what their looking at in each panel).

I know this article seems a little fragmented or less focused than some previous posts, but to be honest, that is kind of Katsuya Terada.  The man has managed to be incredibly prolific while also being in so many different illustration fields.  I wish, in a way, that this article was purely images, but even then, it is hard to grasp the full picture of what Terra is capable of.  The most I can recommend is that if you are interested in his work, or you find anything of his striking, find his work.  He has more out there than even I am aware of, and he always surprises me with something I never knew existed.  He has a wide range of interests, and he does a wonderful job of taking advantage of his position to include those interests in his work, so I find it hard to believe that there is someone out there that can't appreciate his work on some level.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Beautiful Summer Sounds Of Marcos Valle

It's summer in Pittsburgh.  The snow drifts are gone.  Instead, the pothole-pocked streets are heavy with a haze of humidity.  We don't get much Spring here.  There is no gentle acclamation to sunlight. The cold that permeated and collected in our bones over the course of an 8 month Winter is bleached out in a matter of days.

One thing that helps make the abrupt transition easier is to adjust the soundtrack. We've worn down another copy of Slint's dirgy masterpiece Spiderland, and it's time to shake our atrophied limbs about and feel the vitamin D coursing through our translucent veins again.  It's time to sweat off our extra, insulating pounds with something upbeat and, dare I say it, happy.
If you are looking for the soundtrack to summer, there may not be a more perfect fit than Marcos Valle.  The Rio de Janeiro artist's catalog is full of feet-shuffling rhythms and breezy melodies, and it's infused with an adventurous, experimental spirit, keeping it from being pandering and tame.
Coming up through Brazil's music scene in the mid-1960's as a Bossa Nova performer, Marcos Valle was a respected artist in a style that was beginning to fade.  The political climate in Brazil was volatile, with a newly asserted military dictatorship and widespread poverty, disconnecting Bossa's airy soundtrack to Rio's idyllic beaches from the mood of the people.  By 1968, the Tropicalia movement was born, infusing traditional Brazilian music with Rock n Roll, the more turbulent sound better reflecting the country's tension, and, although Marcos Valle was not a part of the Tropicalia movement directly, he was aware & inspired by it.  For his self-titled 1970 album, Marcos Valle, filled out his session players with the heavy psych-rock band Som Imaginario who embued his still rather traditional sambas with hard-edged flourishes of complexity. The resulting record marries the sweet, dancing mood of the care-free Bossa Novas, carried on the mellifluous melodies of Valle's Portuguese, with the playful, challenging energy of the 60's youth revolution.  Heard in the tasteful touches of fuzzed-out guitar, American R&B choruses, and disembodied piano notes. Over the next 4 albums for Odeon Records, Valle continued to make rich, exciting, soulful music, helped by great musicians including psych band O Terço and the legendary jazz fusion band Azimuth.
When I was first introduced to Marcos Valle by amazing musicians and Brazilian music enthusiasts BusCrates and Nice Rec, it was through MP3s, because his records on the Odeon label were impossible to get here in the United States. They fetched second-hand market prices in the $200-300 range. I even came across a copy of his 1973 'Previsão Do Tempo' album and the disparity between my wallet and the price tag burned the image of its cover into my subconscious want-list forever. The already bold image of Marcos Valle submerged underwater is still there when I close my eyes, but, luckily for all of us, the record and 3 others from the same period in Valle's career have been lovingly reissued by Light In The Attic Records! These pressings are beautiful in gatefold sleeves on thick vinyl with extensive liner notes. From experience, these sorts of reissues will dry-up within a year or two and then command second-hand market prices nearly as steep as the originals.
If you are having a hard time deciding between Marcos Valle (1970), Garra (1971), Vento Sul (1972), and Previsao Do Tempo (1973), I would recommend Garra as it contains some of Valle's most infectious songs.

This article was written by Andrew Burger, a good friend and co-owner of 720 Music in Pittsburgh, Pa, a record store that specializes in hip-hop, funk, soul, jazz, and world music (he's also the owner of probably the best record collection I've ever seen).  Andrew knows more about records than anyone else I know, and when I asked him for some help writing an article on some foreign records, he graciously obliged.  Look forward to some more posts from him in the future, and keep an eye on the labels to see which posts are from him; in the meantime, I suggest you trust him and check out these records.  He was the one who introduced them to me, and they've been among my favorite all year.  Check them out at Light In The Attic Records, and check out 720's Online Store and Discogs Page (and if you find yourself in the Pittsburgh area, make sure to stop in!).  Andrew also owns and operates The Harmony Society, an excellent record label whose catalog is continuing to grow; among others, The Harmony society released, earlier this year, a split 12" record that included Tokyo, Japan's 9DW, who is also responsible for some excellent records on his own Catune label.  Lastly, make sure to keep up with Andrew's record-buying exploits on his own blog, Stupid Scientifical (it's in the links section, as well!).

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Estival du Look

 Now that summer is in full swing, and seeking the solace of shade and a moderate amount of air conditioning, I have begun revisiting some of my favorite films from one of my favorite periods in French cinema.  I am really not entirely sure what attracts me to this era of, in all honesty, some pretty esoteric, albeit relatively surface-driven filmmaking; I wasn't even alive when some of these films were made, and I generally hate most other mainstream, style-heavy films from the 1980s centered around a youth counter-culture making the transition into adulthood, a la St Elmo's Fire, or some other such bullshit, but maybe it's a case of finding the right film at the right time of my life, though it's even more likely that many of these films were just much better made and/or adhere to a more reasonable aesthetic for me that falls in line with my interest with what was going on in film and comics in Hong Kong and Japan as well.  Eeeeiiiither way, some of these films were great, some people thought they were garbage, but I really like them, and I can't help but think about them when the weather gets unbearably hot.
So, I think it's a good idea to talk a little bit about what was called Cinéma du look before getting into any of the films, as the name itself came much later than the actual films; so it wasn't as much the case of directors trying to adhere to a film movement at the time as it was a specific critic's way of describing director Luc Besson's aesthetic and how his "surface-over-substance" style of filmmaking was similar to two other directors with whom his films shared "the look."  The critic was Raphaël Bassan, a French film journalist who encouraged and specialized in experimental cinema and film history, and who even experimented in making three short films, himself.  He coined the term, Cinéma du look, as a way to compare the films of Luc Besson to those of Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax, in, I believe, his 1988 article, Three Neo-Baroque Directors: Beineix, Besson, Carax, from Diva to Le Grand Bleu in which Bassan urged that the three directors be taken seriously by critics.

Bassan also recognized similar themes throughout their films, and it was their young, alienated characters that were said to have been representative of the young, marginalized populace of the time in France.  It's no wonder, then, that the films were successful in terms of reaching a younger audience searching for more substance to their pop culture, even as the films of these directors were very much influenced by pop culture itself, taking inspiration from fashion photography, TV commercials, and music videos.  It is, perhaps, more interesting to see some of these films getting critical praise from more established critics, such as Roger Ebert, who in his review for Beineix's Diva, wrote:

"It is one of the best thrillers of recent years but, more than that, it is a brilliant film, a visual extravaganza that announces the considerable gifts of its young director, Jean-Jacques Beineix. He has made a film that is about many things, but I think the real subject of "DIVA" is the director's joy in making it. The movie is filled with so many small character touches, so many perfectly observed intimacies, so many visual inventions from the sly to the grand that the thriller plot is just a bonus. In a way, it doesn't really matter what this movie is about; Pauline Kael has compared Beineix to Orson Welles and, as Welles so often did, he has made a movie that is a feast to look at, regardless of its subject.

Diva is just that, though.  As much as I enjoy the story, I find myself wanting to rewind the film several times just to relive specific visual moments over and over again, regardless of the rhythm of the film.  The story can almost become negligible if you want it to, and there is enough visual lyricism to keep the audience engaged even as one forgets the verbal narrative (the first time I watched the film, it actually took me a little bit to realize that I didn't have the English subtitles on, as I was watching the dialogue rather than listening to it).  Beyond any lengthy description of a thriller about a young man swooning over an Opera singer and some criminals looking for some tape with some conversation on it about something or something, the film is simply stunning looking, and is equally as stunning and fun to watch (I maintain that the latter often has nothing to do with the former).  I also want to mention that the screenplay for Diva was co-written by Franco-Belgian comics writer Jean Van Hamme, and for all the dumb film or TV adaptations of his work that are out there, I like his comics, so that's pretty cool.
Apparently, Ebert's enthusiasm lasts only as long as the characters stay dressed though, as I thought his review for Beineix's third film, Betty Blue (37°2 le matin), was focused too much on the nudity of the film rather than anything lying beneath it.  It was as if he was made so uncomfortable by certain situations regarding either nudity or the behavior of the titular character and just couldn't move on from his soured disposition.  Betty Blue is a film about a guy who lives near the beach and does odd jobs, a girl he meets, some other people they meet, some bad (and sometimes good) shit that happens, and some places they go.  It can more easily be described as a film about love.  And madness.  Or is it mad love?  I don't know, either way, it's something the French are not unfamiliar with in terms of their cinema, and it had a wonderful impression on me, and it came as no surprise to me to find that it had a similar effect on other artists I admire.
Despite sounding broad, Betty Blue feels very specific to me.  Although being part of a film movement that favored visual panache and spectacle over a more solidly-paced narrative structure, Betty Blue does something similar to what Wong Kar Wai was beginning to do in Hong Kong around the same time (there is a retrospective on his earlier work coming sometime in the near future, I swear).  Though Beineix appeared to have adhered more strictly to a script, his film, once watched, leaves the impression of seeing a real relationship take place, much in the same way Wong was able to build relationships out of a series of scenarios in which the actors were given room to breath improvisation into their characters rather than even having a script in some cases.  In some instances the film gives off an almost "you had to be there" vibe, making it an uneven product depending on the audience; on one hand, I believe film should almost always be universal, and what truly makes a great film is that anyone can find themselves relating to the characters within; but on the other hand, part of what makes Betty Blue so wonderfully appealing is that the relationship that the film paints is instantly recognizable to anyone who has experienced something similar.  The downside of this is that it is potentially alienating, and in the same way that some people will argue that stoner movies are made for people that smoke weed and if you don't smoke weed you just don't get it and you're wrong if you don't like it 'cause you don't smoke weed and maybe you should smoke weed and maybe you will see how good that movie really is, maybe Betty Blue is like that?  I like to think that it isn't, but you know, who knows?  Good or bad is an objective way to look at things, and though there are some hard facts when it comes to good film or bad film, it's hardly fair to label something as bad when you just don't like it, and unfortunately, much of "le look" was written off for just that reason.  Oh well.
Most sources I have found cite Subway as an early example in the movement, and although I would still maintain that Beineix's Diva was the first true "look", Besson's earlier film, Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle), still exhibits signs of what was to come in his career.  Released two years after Diva and two years before Besson's own Subway, Le Dernier Combat was heralded mostly as a sci-fi film, generating a cult following because of it's nearly wordless presentation.  The style, however, exhibits some of the same trappings of other films within the Cinéma du look; having virtually no dialogue, the film is forced to tell it's story entirely through it's visual presentation, and though far from the neon signs and shiny-slick city streets, the effect was no-less striking than it's later counterparts.  In fact, the argument of style-over-substance takes on a new meaning when the style becomes the substance, something else that Wong Kar Wai would end up doing even so late as In The Mood For Love, from 2001 (again, a full post on Wong will be showing up soon, along with a complete essay on In The Mood For Love).
Besson's next films, Subway (which featured Jean-Hughes Anglade, who would the same year of release, star in Beineix's above mentioned film, Betty Blue, and who would also star in Besson's 1990 film, La Femme Nikita) and Le Grand Bleu, are essentially the beginning of what critics refer to as his true foray into the genre, though I still argue that Besson has basically been making the same kind of films his entire career.  His budgets or his subjects may have have changed, but even through to 1999's The Messenger, he was still making slightly subversive films that demonstrate his signature sense of style and interest in making art entertaining; that, no doubt, is due to his continued work with composer Eric Serra and cinematographers Carlo Varini and Thierry Arbogast.  Even the mainstream, audience-dividing, sci-fi blockbuster that was The Fifth Element couldn't escape some of Besson's signature style choices, and though it even goes so far as to grift elements from Moebius and Jodorowsky's The Incal, I still see it as a victory in tricking American audiences into being exposed to European science fiction, and it remains one of my favorite films ever (I was 14 when I first saw it, and it was still a few years before I would even discover film, Moebius, Métal Hurlant, or Luc Besson).  To make another comparison to Wong Kar Wai: both Besson and Wong would embark on the largest film projects of their careers (The Fifth Element and Ashes Of Time, respectively), only to take breaks during lengthy and difficult production times and embark on shorter, simpler films that would go on to great success (though Besson's Léon was no match for the revolution that Wong would create with his highly acclaimed and genre-shattering Chunking Express).
It's hard to actually look at some of these films as an actual movement, as, like I mentioned, the term, Cinéma du look, was a retroactive term to begin with; and being an after-the-fact observer, I can only tell from what I read whether or not any of it was made with an actual intent to conform to a certain "look", though it's hard to believe that even without a name for it, there wasn't a specific trend in their filmmaking.  It's particularly worthwhile to mention the early entries (Diva, Le Dernier Combat) as something truly inventive though, even as they were derivative of so many other forms of film.  Even as it was influenced heavily from current popular culture and the New Hollywood movement of the late 60s through the early 80s, it's even harder to believe that there wasn't also a credible influence from France's own New Wave movement, especially the influence of  Chabrol, Truffaut, and Godard (Luc Besson would even name his first true female character Hélène, which was a trait of quite a few women in Chabrol's films).  It even appears as though some of the films were influencing, or at least making references to one another; again it would be Besson who's villain in The Fifth Element would share a name with with the protagonist in Beineix's Betty Blue (an uncommon enough name, I presume, that it has to be a reference).

Though it's easy to see how Godard's visual pinache could be a viable influence on the "cinema-to-be-seen", I feel like Truffaut was an equally dominant influence, and in particular his Antoine Doinel character.  The blending of "high-culture" with pop culture was also a common theme of 'the look, and parallels can be seen between Antoine's love of classic French literature and Diva's protagonist, Jules, with his love of opera and "high class" friends he meets.  Perhaps I'm seeing signs that I want to see, as Besson's Joan would say, but I feel like they're worth mentioning at least, as it's something that came to my mind as I watched these films (it's also maybe worth mentioning that I was familiar with the New Wave movement before I was truly aware of the Cinéma du look, so my parallels may have been drawn from my limited knowledge of what I was seeing at the time).  It's also worth noticing that our aforementioned critic, Raphaël Bassan, was also a proponent of the New Wave and it's experiment in film, so perhaps the interest he found in the Cinéma du look movement was related in some way to what I also see as the natural progression of the avant-garde film evolution in France.  Just saying.

I want to admit, lastly, that I am not incredibly familiar with Leos Carax's work.  What I have seen I have found to be very much of the argument of style-over-substance, but a true watch of all of his films is more necessary for me to properly judge them, and I didn't want to just plow through them to make it in time for this post.  Once I get around to it I will give him a more honest shot, and that might end up being sooner rather than later given my film habits lately.  Also, I know there are quite a few films I glazed over or didn't mention at all; for instance, I didn't even mention The Moon In The Gutter (La lune dans le caniveau), and that is mostly because I wasn't particularly impressed with it.  It never grabbed me the same way many of these other films did, and it's (I'm prettttty sure) entirely studio-shot visuals failed to excite me in the way that Diva, Betty Blue, and Le Grand Bleu did with their beautiful, on-location photography.  Also, there are just some that I have never seen, and again, I would rather give them their proper chance rather than just watch them to watch them.  The rest I just didn't feel like mentioning because, well, I don't know; I don't know what else to say about some of these films that haven't been said, and they mostly just didn't fit into the dialogue I wanted to present in this post.
In one final post script; it is important, I believe, to mention that in every reference to Betty Blue I make on this blog, or any recommendation I make for it, I am always referring to the director's cut (version intégrale), which clocks in at a full hour longer than the film's theatrical release.  I think it's a better film, and that's the one I feel is complete.  It's also the version of the film I watched first, and the idea of watching the theatrical version at this point seems pointless to me.