Arakimentari (2004)

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three star

A short, brisk documentary about Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki, Arakimentari tiptoes the same line as its subject: the division between fine art & shameless erotica. Araki, a photographer, is an excitable pervert even in his old age, rapidly firing off lofty platitudes about the visual appeal of vaginas & what it means to be an artist. The movie itself begins with the questions “What is a photographer? What is photography?” before diving head first into Araki’s unique world of daily self-documentation & bondage model photo shoots. As a total weirdo and a sexual deviant, Araki comes across here as the (much cheerier) Robert Crumb of photography.

Araki reached his peak cultural popularity in the 1990s & Arakimentari is smart to mimic a 90s aesthetic in the telling of his work. There’s a truly hip 90s NYC vibe in the movie’s long stretches where aggressive electronic music (provided by DJ Krush) plays over blindingly fast slide shows of Araki’s photography. The movie works best in these montages, allowing the art to speak for itself. Portraits, flowers, everyday objects, and muted landscapes mix with Araki’s obscene erotica in surreal bursts. Several photographers are interviewed to help provide context for Araki’s significance, but musician Björk is also included as a kind of Ambassador of 90s Cool. She explains that she found his work when she lived in London during that decade, describing what a powerful discovery it was at the time. Björk also points to the significance of Araki’s book about his deceased wife in a moment that gets a deservedly calmer, tenderer type of slideshow than the rest of his work does here.

Arakimentari is not a prying, tell-all type of documentary. It offers its subject’s life & work for review in the best light possible. It tells the story of an energetic degenerate with a photographic eye & a constant smile, without asking him to reveal too much about either himself or his detractors. Its best moments occur when the art is offered for viewing free of context, but Araki himself is an amusing character & deft storyteller that makes the rest of the run time worthwhile as well.

-Brandon Ledet

Prêt-à-Porter (1994)

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twohalfstar

Robert Altman’s follow-up to the surprisingly potent (and far superior) Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear), applies the director’s casual, large-ensemble aesthetic to the colorful backdrop of Paris Fashion Week. Altman’s typically nonjudgmental tone is somewhat absent here as characters frequently devolve into the kind of self-parody you’d expect in a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but they’re more or less charming all the same. Prêt-à-Porter is a loose, amused take on the fashion industry that tries to succeed less on having something to say and more on having someone interesting say it.

In true Altman form, the cast is stacked: Sophia Loren, Kim Basinger, Forrest Whitaker, Rupert Everett, Julia Roberts, Lauren Bacall, Tim Robbins, Lyle Lovett, Tracey Ullman, Cher, Naomi Campbell, Teri Garr, and Harry Belafonte all participate in some capacity. By filming during Paris Fashion Week, Altman achieves an even larger ensemble cast of familiar faces than usual, which unfortunately may be the film’s greatest accomplishment. I was drawn to Prêt-à-Porter when I read that even Björk had a brief cameo as a runway model. “Brief” is even a generous word for it, as she merely passes across the screen in her Mother Nature Incarnate mode, the (real life) fashion line she’s modeling having something to do with snow & wilderness. The themes of different fashion lines are a consistent source of amusement for the film as they each intensely focus on a singular, seemingly empty idea: boots, subway cars, Scotland, etc. An American news reporter with a Southern accent works as an audience surrogate as she politely navigates the vapidity of each runway show. One campaign simply marketing nudity, the complete absence of fashion, finally prompts her “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” Network moment & she storms off.

Prêt-à-Porter occupies a strange space between light ribbing and outright mockery. Parts of it feel like Altman’s fashion world version of Guest’s Best in Show, but it never completely tips in that direction. Other parts feel like an undercooked version of the everything-is-connected story Altman had told many times before in much better films. A couple hours loafing along with this impressive assortment of celebrities is not a particularly bad way to spend your time, especially if you have severe 90s nostalgia or an intense interest in the fashion industry, but it could’ve been a much better film if it pushed itself a little harder in any specific direction.

Prêt-à-Porter is currently streaming on Netflix.

-Brandon Ledet

Anna and the Moods (2007)

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threehalfstar

It’s nearly impossible to be hard on Anna and the Moods, an animated short children’s film from 2007. It’s not perfect, but it is perfectly charming. Because the title character was voiced by the musician Björk I expected a story about a young girl singer in a rock band called The Moods. Instead I was treated to a quirky, compassionate take on puberty and what The Fresh Prince would call The “Parents Just Don’t Understand” Dilemma.

Anna and the Moods tells the story of a young girl who is expected to be consistently cheerful & obedient by her family, which she does willingly until she one day wakes up transformed. No longer a sentient beam of sunshine, Anna finds herself plagued by “moodicles” (hormone-induced moods). Her image shifts from that of a precious little girl to a moody goth teen and she decides to freak her parents out instead of playing to their expectations. She smokes cigars, commits petty crimes, listens to loud music, and develops a questionable taste in boys. Disturbed, Anna’s parents subject her to psychological evaluation, where a doctor, to their horror, diagnoses her as a “teenager”. Instead of prescribing her a solution to the newfound shifts in her mood, the doctor teaches Anna how to deal with flawed parenting. The movie takes a mischievous stance on the sudden changes that come with puberty, encouraging kids to misbehave, but also warning them that their parents are going to be jerks about it.

Directed by one of Björk’s former bandmates from the alt rock group The Sugarcubes, Anna and the Moods works with some hideously cheap CGI, but uses the handicap to its advantage. The characters look like snotty versions of Margaret Keane’s “big eyes” paintings and the whole picture has a bending, warped surreality to it that fits the puberty-altered mindset of its subject well. Monty Python veteran Terry Jones narrates with a perfectly measured children’s book tone that makes the movie’s less successful elements (like an unnecessary potshot at Michael Jackson) more than forgivable. It’s not a complicated or even a good-looking film, but as a short, fun trifle with an empathetic message & a sense of mischief, it’s sincerely entertaining.

-Brandon Ledet

Drawing Restraint 9 (2005)

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onestar

I recently watched & reviewed the two cinematic elements of Björk’s multimedia project Biophilia: Biophilia Live & When Björk Met Attenborough. Both films make outlandish claims about science, art, and nature that could have been pretentious drivel in the wrong context, but come across as both personal & fun in Björk’s capable hands. Biophilia is a vast, ambitious intellectual exercise, but one that never feels labored or pompous. Drawing Restrait 9, conversely, is a pompous multimedia project Björk participated in, the exact kind of pretentious drivel she avoided when her own hands were on the wheel.

The film Drawing Restraint 9 is one element of a project that includes sculptures, books, photographs and drawings. It’s a single entry in the much larger Drawing Restraint art project that’s been ongoing since 1987 and currently in the Drawing Restraint 19 phase of its evolution. It’s the work of visual artist Matthew Barney, whose now defunct personal relationship with Björk is the subject of her most recent release, a heart-wrenching breakup album titled Vulnicura. Björk plays a large role in the film Drawing Restraint 9, both composing the music & playing one of the main characters opposite Barney himself. As it is a mostly dialogue-free affair with a very loose narrative, her musical contributions are a vital aspect of the production and one of the only pleasant elements in play (until it too takes a savage dive at the film’s climax). Drawing Restraint 9 is a work of avant garde filmmaking, the kind of art that dares you to hate it. It’s a dare I accept often.

The film opens with an unidentified figure carefully wrapping organic material in beautifully delicate packages. There’s a care & precision to the ceremony that’s both suggestive of the portrayals of precise, careful ceremonies to come as well as the overall craft of the movie itself. Barney’s background in visual art is constantly on display in some truly impressive images of the dance teams, tea ceremonies, and working class fisherman that participate in the mysterious rituals of a Japanese whaling ship. Very little dialogue is provided for context of how this all fits together. At almost 80min into its massive 3 hour run time, a few, sparse lines provide a brief glimpse into the occasion & purpose of the elaborate tea ceremony that takes place aboard the whaling ship, but it’s not a story that wants to be understood completely. It instead wants to be effective visually.

The narrative-free images are not the problem. There is an entertainment value to ambiguity & obfuscation that Drawing Restraint 9 could have achieved, but it’s as if the film deliberately wanted to be devoid of entertainment as well. The climactic tea ceremony/mating ritual is a perfect encapsulation why the picture doesn’t work in this respect. As the characters played by Björk & Matthew Barney sensually gut each other with knives on a sinking ship in the film’s sole moment of action (as opposed to its endless portrayals of preparation), the music becomes aggressively horrendous. A lone male voice & an arrhythmic woodblock combine to create without question the single most unpleasant song I have ever heard in my life. The disgusting surgical gore in this scene is violent enough to get its point across without the somehow even more painful sound design. Minutes after the gore stops the song continues to soldier on, leaving an intensely bitter taste in its wake. It turns out Björk’s potent approach to music can be used for evil as well as good.

In addition to her distinctive musical contributions, it’s easy to see Björk’s fingerprints elsewhere in Drawing Restraint 9. There are themes about humanity’s inseparable connection to nature running throughout and the final line she sings is “Nature conspires to help you”, something you could reasonably expect to hear in Biophilia or The Juniper Tree. She appears on screen as the first sign of a natural image, perched on beachside rocks in furs. Aboard the whaling ship she is treated as royalty, as if she were Mother Nature incarnate. It’s a role and an image that fits her well, but like with the violent climax, any entertainment value is severely undercut by Matthew Barney’s pretentious, overwrought inclinations. The farfetched philosophy of Biophilia is tempered by a desire to entertain & include, while Drawing Restraint 9 is the result of an ego (or two) unchecked. The images Barney crafts are undeniably powerful, but utilized poorly in my opinion.

Of course, I’m admitting a bias here in this preference between the Drawing Restraint & Biophilia projects. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m typically a less artsy and more fartsy kind of an audience. The two albums Björk recorded during this phase of her career, Medúlla & Volta, are the only two she’s released in my entire lifetime that I honestly don’t enjoy, which may be part of the problem. But maybe the problem is bigger. Maybe the problem is that I hate Matthew Barney’s aesthetic (or at least think he should stick to sculptures & still images). Maybe I hate avant garde cinema. Maybe I hate all artists everywhere. I’m not sure. I do know I hate Drawing Restraint 9, though. I hate this movie.

-Brandon Ledet

When Björk Met Attenborough (2013)

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three star

At just over 45 minutes, the short-form documentary When Björk Met Attenborough is more or less supplementary material for the brilliant Biophilia Live concert film. The documentary’s central conversation between the idiosyncratic musician Björk and famed naturalist David Attenborough is philosophically stimulating, but is not all the film has to offer. The movie also serves as a key to understanding exactly what Björk was trying to accomplish with the muli-media Biophilia project, especially her ambitions in trying to change the way we “see, hear, think about and make music”. She says early in the run time that “It seems to be around this age I am now you have to make a sort of spiritual statement” and When Björk Met Attenborough does a great job of detailing just how ambitious her statement is.

In her attempt to position Biophilia as a spiritual statement, Björk looks back on the way she experienced music as a child. She speaks fondly of singing on her lonely walks to school through inclement Icelandic weather, music serving as a private conversation between her and Nature. She also expresses frustration with how schools taught her to interact with music through ancient Europen composers and non-intuitive instruments. With Biophilia, Björk attempts to rewire how music, nature, and technology interact with each other into a more innate process. She begins this journey with a tour through London’s Museum of Natural History, the largest natural history collection in the world, guided by Sir David Attenborough.

The central conversation between Björk and Attenborough is unfortunately a little stiff and, well, unnatural. Ignoring the artifice of the encounter, though, the ideas discussed about where nature & music meet are thoroughly engaging. Lyrebirds mimicking ring tones & chain saws, the evolutionary advantage of a beautiful singing voice, and the prevalent sexuality in modern pop music all make for great philosophical fodder. The true highlight, however, is their discussion of the Biophilia song “Crystalline” in the museum’s massive crystal room. Attenborough & Björk pick apart the “mathematical beauty” of crystal formations & other natural phenomenon and how Nature’s patterns are mimicked in music’s time signatures. It’s a lofty concept, but one made convincing by two abstract minds who love to look for such connections between science and art.

The “Crystalline” segment opens other threads for the film to follow, especially in how technology can be exploited to harness the stated connection between nature & music. First, the film demonstrates through cymatics (the study of sound’s visible patterns) how the song “Crystalline” looks, as opposed to how it sounds. Other inventions like the sharpsichord, a rigged Tesla coil, and swinging pendulum harps that use gravity to play their notes all prompt the audience to consider “the way we see, hear, think about, and make music”. Björk also collaborates with legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and several software developers to utilize touchscreen technology in computer apps that create new ways of making music in a more intuitive way. She not only integrates existing technology in Biophilia, but also pushes to create her own.

When considered in isolation, When Björk Met Attenborough is an interesting intellectual exercise. When considered as part of Biophilia as a larger multi-media art piece it’s a Rosetta Stone, documenting a vastly ambitious work that tries to encompass music, nature, and technology in one definitive whole. The matter-of-fact tone of Tilda Swinton’s narration and Björk’s titular conversation with Attenborough makes this ambition seem perfectly natural and reasonably attainable. It’s not the kind of documentary that’s going to pick apart the ideas at play and question their validity. After all, the movie ends with Attenborough paying Björk a huge compliment. Instead it’s the kind of film that offers strange ideas at face value so the audience’s minds can run away with them and draw their own outlandish, philosophical conclusions.

-Brandon Ledet

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014)

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fourhalfstar
“I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of our time. And I think the main reason is, they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Federico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” – Roger Corman

The concert movie is a disadvantaged art form, as it has a lot to prove out the gate to justify its place among other films. While documentaries & fictional films can pretend not to be what Roger Corman would call a “compromised” artistic commodity, the concert film is always conspicuously selling a product: the band or artist that’s performing. The blurred line between short film & advertisement is acceptable in a music video, because they’re generally free to access and easy to consume. A full-length concert film on the other hand, especially one with a theatrical release, has a much steeper hill to climb. It’s asking you to pay admittance to a long-form promotion, spectacle or not. This is an especially hard sell for someone that’s not already a dedicated fan of the product on display.

Although some concert films make no attempt to hide their commercial aspirations or reach an audience outside of their fan base (last year’s One Direction: Where We Are is a recent high-profile example), others bend over backwards to prove themselves worthy to be discussed among their less-scrutinized film peers. Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense proves itself a genre benchmark through its careful consideration of how the band’s literal stage presence affects its cinematic image.  Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars uses the silver screen to breathe life into the fictional character of the film’s title. The Band’s The Last Waltz uses some of that good old Scorsese grit to give the account of its “farewell concert” the feeling of an intimate late-night jam session shared between a few dozen (exceptionally talented) friends. I don’t mean to pick on the One Direction concert movie. The group has a wide enough fan-base that the demand for a no frills concert movie is loud enough on its own to justify Where We Are’s existence. I’m just trying to distinguish why Bjork’s Biophilia Live, a movie in the same distinctly commercial-minded genre, deserves to be considered among the best films of 2014.

Biophilia Live begins with the voice of famed naturalist David Attenborough making wild, unrealistic declarations over breathtaking nature footage befitting the TV series Planet Earth. Attenborough urges the audience to “forget the size of the human body. Remember that you are a gateway between the universal and the microscopic, the unseen forces that stir the depths of your innermost being and Nature, who embraces you and all there is.” He goes on to claim that “we are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovation.” Holy shit. That’s quite an ambitious opener. The film itself nearly delivers on this majestic promise, finding a unique visual language that combines “nature, music, and technology” into one cohesive whole.

This union of “nature, music and technology” is accomplished through a layered visual collage that matches the on-stage aspects of the concert being filmed to the beautiful nature footage & pixelated CGI that swirls around and above it. During the opening song “Thunderbolt” Björk appears in the Earth’s stormy atmosphere, her backing band’s synths (and a specially rigged Tesla coil) seemingly controlling the lightning that illuminates the air around her. The imagery then shifts from the earthly to the celestial, the rhythm of the music correlating to the phases of the moon and the glacially shifting lights of stars and galaxies. The focus then shrinks from the heavenly to the microscopic: Fantastic Voyage-style close-ups of blood moving through veins fade to pixelated bacteria attaching to strands of DNA before the images finally devolve into distorted television color bars & computer monitor static. My favorite use of the nature footage arrives during this microcosmic section when crystals form over the image of Björk performing the song “Crystalline”, only to disappear in a blink to match the song’s violent rhythms. “Crystalline”‘s “internal nebula” & “crystalizing galaxies” lyrical phrasing also feels like the film’s tone in a nutshell. It’s in the stranger moments like this and like when vibrant mushrooms slowly expand in the foreground, leaving the stage antics out of focus that Biophilia Live shines brightest.

These phases of the imagery are cleverly allowed to bleed into one another instead of remaining isolated, which leads to some transcendent juxtaposition: a lightning storm in outer space, the moon perched on a spinal column, crystal formations melting into prism light. Even Björk herself looks like a combination of two ostensibly separate natural phenomenons, her gigantic wig like a colorful galaxy & her asymmetrical dress like an underwater growth. Attenborough’s opening monologue defines “biophilia” as “the love for Nature in all her manifestations” and Biophilia Live tries desperately to capture all of those manifestations in one definitive catalog. Conceived as a single facet of a multi-media project alongside a studio album, music-composition computer apps, and a filmed conversation between Björk & Attenborough, the film itself is more than just a document of a single concert. It’s also an attempt to tie years of far-reaching ideas spread across various art forms into a single product, the same way it tries to tie all of Nature into a single entity. What’s most impressive is that the film succeeds.

Although Björk exhibited creative control through all aspects of the production, part of the film’s success is surely due to the involvement of British director Peter Strickland. Strickland had already established his skills in visually displaying reverence for sound in his 2013 film Berberian Sound Studio, a bizarre thriller that’s just as much homage to foley artists & sound engineers as it is to old school giallo movies. There’s a lot of maddening, horrific energy in Berberian’s dissociative conflict between its imagery & its sounds. Here he & co-director Nick Fenton instead synchronize sounds to their visual equals in the style of Björk’s previous music video collaborations with Michel Gondry. The dissociation occurs instead in how the images relate to each other: how the screens interact with the stage, how distant stars relate to plankton, etc.  Through various camera movement & editing techniques Biophilia Live creates a world that’s simultaneously intimate and expansive.

The live concert format is occasionally at odds with the film’s intimacy. The crowd sometimes intrudes mid-song, breaking the reverie with premature applause. Björk is appreciative of their presence at least, punctuating the end of each song with a polite “thank you”. Of course, the film’s very existence depends on Björk’s relationship with her audience, the same way the existence of One Direction’s Where We Are depends on theirs. Without a basic appreciation for Björk’s music, it’s unlikely that that someone would enjoy a feature-length document of one of her concerts.

What makes Biophilia Live remarkable is the ambition to reach beyond pleasing fans musically. It also asks its audience to contemplate the totality of Nature and how its individual parts interact and unite into a cohesive whole. It’s a zealous, far-reaching work that deserves to be included in the conversation of the best films released in 2014 as well as the best concert films of all time.

-Brandon Ledet

The Juniper Tree (1990)

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three star

Discovering Björk’s acting debut in The Juniper Tree was some divine happenstance. I had lost track of her music career sometime after 2001’s Vespertine, so it was delightful to recently give her latest album Biophilia a (four years late) first listen and discover its fantastic weirdness, obsessively looping it through my headphones all last week. A recommendation that same week alerted me that I was 25 years behind on the release of another Björk project, a small budget, black & white indie film about witchcraft.

The Juniper Tree was filmed in 1986 in the months following the dissolution of Björk’s post-punk band KUKL and the birth of her first child. By the time the film cleared its financial hurdles and saw a 1990 release in Iceland and on film festival circuits, she had already earned much greater success with the alt rock group The Sugarcubes. By the time it saw a wide, international release in 1993, she had achieved major success as a solo artist with the album Debut. In comparison to the huge “Bad Taste” art collective behind The Sugarcubes and the big-name record labels behind Debut, The Juniper Tree’s cast and budget are microscopic, but the film does a lot with a little, pulling a weird little story and some bizarre images from a few locations and even fewer moving pieces. At least from a funding standpoint, it was a time capsule of a primitive state of Björk’s growth as an artist, but one that demonstrates how little material she needs to work with to produce something great.

Loosely based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name, The Juniper Tree is the story of two grieving families struggling to blend into one cohesive unit. Think of it as an Icelandic Brady Bunch, but with witches & cannibalism instead of puppy love & nose-breaking footballs. Björk plays Margit, a young woman whose mother was recently stoned & burned for practicing witchcraft. In the escape from their home her sister Katla marries a young widower who lives alone with his son. The boy befriends Margit, but is vehemently against his father’s marriage to Katla, who he knows to be a witch. Although Katla does cast spells (cruelly & often), it is Margit who possesses truly magical abilities, most importantly the ability to communicate with ghosts.

The film’s heart lies with the relationship between Margit and her young brother-in-law and the mourning that bonds them, but it’s the fleeting, hallucinatory imagery that makes it noteworthy. Despite its budget, The Juniper Tree manages to produce an impressive range of images: a hand thrust into a black hole, a ghost perched on Icelandic cliffs, fish picking at an underwater corpse, Northern Lights, birds in flight. It’s a somber, self-serious affair, but one that earns its odder moments in a very short run time. If nothing else, the heavenly tones of Björk’s singing voice elevate the material into otherworldly territory. She’s perfectly suited for this world of witchcraft & mourning and it shows in the final product.

Of course, The Juniper Tree will always be known as the other Björk movie. Lars von Trier’s powerful Dancer in the Dark gave her a much larger stage to prove herself not only as an incredible composer, but also as an actress, a talent she doesn’t utilize nearly enough. The Juniper Tree gets drowned out in the comparison, but when considered in isolation it’s an interesting little art movie. It’s very much Super Serious 80s/90s Film School Fodder, but if a young, feral Björk practicing witchcraft goes as far with you as it does with me, you’ll find it kinda perfect in its small-scale intimacy.

The Juniper Tree is currently streaming on Hulu.

-Brandon Ledet