Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Hanna watch Home of the Brave (1986).
Brandon: One of the more frequently repeated clichés in the weeks following the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was “This is not who we are.” Political pundits & sentimental patriots were quick to distance their own guarded mental image of Who We Are As Americans from the racist, conspiracy-addled maniacs who attempted to thwart the democratic process that day. That’s easier said than done. America is a vast assortment of all kinds of disparate peoples & ideologies, and this recent election cycle has only highlighted what an alarming percentage of the U.S. citizenry are fascism-friendly white supremacists. A distorted, revisionist version of this country’s history and shared principles has been so rigorously hammered into our brains without reckoning with the uglier truths at its core that we genuinely have no idea Who We Are. Our national identity is mostly built on an often-repeated lie, so we have a lot of self-examination left to do if we can ever claim “This is not who we are” the next time far-Right extremists commit an act of domestic terror in an effort to disenfranchise Black voters.
This national self-examination does not have to be an entirely pessimistic or self-flagellating effort, though. One of the more glaring recent examples of popular art grappling with this topic was last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia, the kind of political self-reckoning you can dance to. In the film, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his small-town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. It rightfully earned a lot of praise for its honest but hopeful examination of modern American culture, but it also reminded me a lot of another, older work that was very dear to me in high school: Laurie Anderson’s United States I-IV.
United States was a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, performance art, digital projections, and avant-garde new wave compositions in a way that innovated much of what Byrne has been praised for in his own concert films, American Utopia & Stop Making Sense. Unfortunately, that stage show was only officially documented in audio form (on the excellent four-hour concert album United States Live). The closest motion-picture document we have for the series is the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, which Anderson directed herself. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of United States I-IV that collects the more polished versions of the show’s compositions that appeared on Anderson’s first two studio albums, Big Science & Mister Heartbreak. In the film, Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. It’s an existential “Who are we?” national identity crisis for The Reagan Era, one that still rings true even if our populist politics have only gotten more rabid and our technology has upgraded from landlines to smartphones.
Laurie Anderson begins Home of the Brave with a stand-up routine about the 1’s & 0’s of computerized binary code, then immediately connects that line of thought to America’s national obsession with being #1. From there, she continues to abstract other basic modern concepts to the point where they feel foreign & uncanny: America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Musical instruments don’t look or sound the way they’re supposed to, with violins transformed into synthesized samplers and rubber-necked guitars creating hideously distorted waves of noise. Anderson waltzes with William S. Burroughs, calls her keyboardist on the phone to chat mid-set, and at one point transforms her own body into a literal drum machine. It’s difficult to say with any clarity how these individual elements directly comment on the nature & soul of modern America, especially since the screen behind her often broadcasts phrases like “YOU CONNECT THE DOTS” in digital block text. Still, the overall effect of the work is an earnest prodding at what, exactly, we are as a modern society. Instead of declaring “This is not who we are” in the face of repugnant Reagan Era politics, Anderson instead asks “Who are we?”, which is a much more worthwhile spiritual & intellectual response to the hell of modern living.
I know all this abstract head-scratching about national identity and the eeriness of modern technology sounds a little hyperbolic for a concert film, but that’s exactly what Laurie Anderson’s art & music has always inspired in me. Hanna, do you think Home of the Brave has anything direct or meaningful to say about life in the modern Western world, or in America in particular? Or did you experience it merely as a kooky performance of esoteric new wave jams?
Hanna: Both! I think I would have to watch Home of the Brave at least three more times to absorb a thesis about modern intellectual and spiritual identity. However, one of the many threads of thought I really enjoyed was the obsession with categorization to cope with complexity, and how that categorization limits our understanding of our own experience and cannot possibly provide real comfort. In the short song “White Lily”, Anderson misremembers a scene in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz where a man walks into a flower shop and asks the florist for a flower that expresses: “Days go by, and they just keep going by, endlessly pulling you into the future …” Apparently, it’s a white lily. I’ve always liked those moments where somebody asks for a simple representation or expression of something confusing/painful/complex and receives a representation that’s totally insufficient, like the scientists in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who discover that the secret to life is “protein”. The fact that Anderson uses a white lily instead of the actual flower mentioned in Fassbinder’s film (a white carnation) is especially appropriate: first, because people are filled with little bits of information they’ve reconstructed to suit their needs and memories; second, because it might as well be either flower – both of them “mean” the same thing, which is nothing. We’re all just desperately trying to organize the world through our grossly inadequate schemas and forget that we’re big electric meat bags, pulled endlessly forward by impulses we can’t control (0 … 1 … 0 … 1 …). I don’t think this is a specifically American impulse, but I do think that American culture is especially repulsed by ambiguity—as referenced by Anderson in her opening monologue—and is especially prone to cutting the world up into jarring and unnatural pieces to avoid uncertainty.
Even without the intellectual and spiritual reflections on modern existence, Home of the Brave is a stone cold stunner in the arena of Kooky Jams. I was absolutely reminded of American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, especially because all three concerts host ensembles of incredibly talented people and funky performances abstracting the human condition. I think the biggest difference between Byrne’s films and Home of the Brave is that I could not take my eyes off of Laurie Anderson; she is, without a doubt, one of the most commanding performers I’ve ever seen. Her short spiky hair, wide eyes, and long white silk coat give the look of a mad music scientist; her voice slivers, swoops, shrieks, and howls in the span of a minute; and her performance varies incredibly in tone, both between and within songs. For example, “Difficult Listening Hour” opens with Anderson announcing the start of the aforementioned radio show (the spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music!), a concept which I find endlessly amusing; the song takes a menacing turn when the speaker comes home to find a man sitting in their house, with “big white teeth / like luxury hotels on the Florida coastline”, and a mouth like “a big scar.” Yikes! Even the delivery of her prose is mesmerizing – she withholds her speech, slowly releasing phrases one after the other with total control in a way that’s utterly captivating (“and the flame would come dancing out of his mouth … and the woman liked this … very much.”) For the entirety of the show, I had the impression Anderson was interrogating me philosophically with a fun band and big shirts and satellites. Does that make sense? No! As I’m writing this, am I realizing that maybe I have a big crush on Laurie Anderson? Yes!
Boomer, what did you think of the tonal shifts in the songs and skits throughout Home of the Brave? Did Anderson fuse chaos into something meaningful, or was I just hypnotized by her snake monologue?
Boomer: One couldn’t blame you for being entranced by her poems or monologues. Poetry is a peculiar form of writing in that its beauty exists (and one could argue must exist) in two distinct realms, the physical and(/or) the abstract, in the performance or on the page. Even a novel or essay with the most melodic prose elicits something different than the poem, and some poems cannot exist on the page and must exist in the performance. There’s no way that this is a universal experience, but by the time I was seventeen, I thought that there was no better demonstration of fauxlosophical depth than being obsessed with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and found the exultation of it within my peer group to be annoying, until an undergrad class years later in which a professor played a live audio reading of it, and it just clicked. There’s a division in poetry between what can exist and remain both alive and meaningful on the page (and each person’s mileage on which poets for whom that might be the case) and what demands a performance, requiring bombacity and the meaningful pauses Hanna mentioned.
It’s that same mesmerism of her activity that means that I can’t rightfully say whether or not something “meaningful” was created in this synthesis of images, ideas, and sounds. It may be partially due to the quality of the version I was able to track down, but there are large sections that are verbally focused and wordy (like the discussion of the one-zero dichotomy) and some that are less clear for a first time viewer like I was; I was a little lost during the phone call with the keyboardist and although I feel like I absorbed the essence of the skit, any meaning was outside of my grasp. There’s a certain rhythm to what Anderson’s doing that, stripped of all of the props and projections, there’s a kind of sermon happening before you. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but I spent a lot of time in churches in my youth with a lot of “fellowship” that was indistinguishable from the instruction of the week before, and the week before that; as such, my mind often goes into a kind of self-defense mode, where I get absorbed in the melodicism of the language but the words themselves sort of float past me in the stream. Home of the Brave does something similar in parts, as it moves from music to spoken word to skit to music again and so on, all flowing into one another without discrete sections. This is an immersive experience, and a beautiful one, but until I read Brandon’s description of the film, I failed to CONNECT THE DOTS between a philosophical criticism of American opulence/consumption and the specifics of Anderson’s recitations (even though it’s right there in the title).
I do love Anderson’s ear for lyricism in her koans. I’m not familiar with any of the works referenced, but I do know her album Big Science; in particular, the track “From the Air” was in the digital library at KLSU when I was a DJ there, and it got heavy rotation during my three years as the morning drive DJ as both a phone-in request and just because I like it. I always loved the self-reflectiveness of the line “This is the time / And this is the record of the time.” It’s such a pure distillation of the artist’s experience: the semiotic thing that is being signified is the time, but the art which is the signifier is also the sign, and the record of the time, as it both creates and captures. Even though I didn’t digest Home of the Brave‘s intent as well as I might have, I knew what I was in for when I heard that we were watching a Laurie Anderson concert film. Britnee, is she an artist with whom you had prior familiarity? If not, what was your experience going into this “blind’? And if so, where does this work fit into your larger cognitive framework of her art?
Britnee: I wasn’t very familiar with Laurie Anderson prior to watching Home of the Brave. I knew of her, and I knew that she had a very unique music style. When I was younger, my aunt had a wicker basket filled with cassette tapes. I would love digging in it to find new musical discoveries, and I vividly remember picking out a copy of Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels. The album was mesmerizing, with “Coolsville” being my favorite song from it. I didn’t know what any of the lyrics meant, but it made me happy. This is the same feeling I got from watching Home of the Brave. I didn’t pick up on the meaning behind all of it, but I enjoyed every minute.
Mainly, what I took away from Home of the Brave was admiration for Laurie Anderson as an artist. She’s the total package. Watching her move across the stage with her mad scientist business suit, doing all of her strange choreography, was a real treat. I was way more focused on her than I was on what she was trying to say. One of my favorite stage props was the screen with all sorts of images and messages projected. “What does it all mean?” was a constant question in my mind while watching the wacky journal entries and animal drawings pop up on the screen. I still don’t really understand what it all means, but I found it to be exciting and thought provoking. This is definitely a film I would have to watch a few times to truly get its full effect, but I think that’s more of a personal problem and no fault of Anderson’s.
Britnee: Anderson’s Nash the Slash style getup at the beginning was such an attention grabbing opener. The voice modulator she used to create this disturbing electronic male voice was both chilling and brilliant. That will forever be the first thing I think about when I think about Home of the Brave.
Boomer: There’s a moment in this film where Laurie Anderson is dancing in her silk suit with her back to the audience/camera and the spotlight on her is a yellow gel, and her body movements are very similar to those of Jim Carrey in The Mask, and she suddenly turns around with a very “large” expression on her face, for lack of a better term. As much as I can’t stand The Mask (I have a Pavlovian dislike of Carrey’s work as the result of having a peer with severe ADHD—before they learned to pacify kids in the classroom—who would endlessly repeat every Carrey film routine on a daily basis in class, with at least one outburst per hour from 1995 until 1999, and only then because Austin Powers started airing on TNT constantly so there was another reference point to beat to death and then some), I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mannerisms of the character were inspired by elements of Anderson’s performance art.
Hanna: A short stream-of-consciousness from my notes while watching this film:
She pops up through the floor! Squeaky voice! “Bending” the guitar! It sounds terrible! Now he’s hitting it with a mallet! Everybody’s just jumping around! A big fish bowl porthole magnifying her face! Ballerina accordion player! Huge drumsticks! Hitting a ball with the guitar!
So, if that (in addition to abstract new wave) sounds at all appealing, I highly recommend Home of the Brave.
Brandon: I know that Stop Making Sense has been communally anointed as The Greatest Concert Film of All Time, but this movie certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how Anderson’s work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that bolster Byrne’s stage shows. At the very least, it’s outright unforgivable that it never made the format leap from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD or Blu-ray. I would love to see a cleaned-up version in a proper theatrical setting someday, but for now all we’ve got is dead formats & fuzzy YouTube uploads.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Boomer presents London Road (2015)
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)
-The Swampflix Crew