Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lifting the weight.

In which I take a step back from the controversy I have inadvertently stirred up, tackle something a lot more lighthearted, and hope that you, dear readers, will follow me down this road.

Aside from that pesky LP which will not be named, the other big release that I absolutely had to get my hands on this Record Store Day was the Life of the World to Come DVD from my favorite band, the Mountain Goats. I had already seen a screening of the film, at the New Jersey Film Festival a few weeks prior, and had intended to write a piece on it then, but circumstances forced to delay my write-up. As it is, I think a piece such as this is a necessary tension-breaker at this point, so it works out.

The film itself, directed by the talented Rian Johnson, the auteur behind Brick and the exuberantly fun The Brothers Bloom, is simultaneously simple and deceptively high-concept. John Darnielle returns to an auditorium in Pomona College in which he had once played a recital in his preadolescence. Accompanying Darnielle occasionally on vocals is his one-time musical companion, Rachel Ware. Darnielle and Ware perform songs from the most recent tMG album, The Life of the World to Come, an album of mostly reflective, ponderous (note that I intend to use this word without the negative connotation that usually accompanies it; I mean ponderous in the most objective sense possible), and low-key songs that are each titled after a Bible verse. The performance takes place on a mostly bare stage in an empty auditorium, the only audience being the film crew, the camera, and the silence.

Right from the beginning, it is clear that this is not your typical rock performance documentary film. This becomes even more obvious once it becomes clear that the entire film was actually shot on a single camera with one hour-long, unbroken shot. The camera follows Darnielle and Ware as they enter the college hall and make their way to the auditorium, the stage dressed with a piano, Darnielle's acoustic guitar, a stool, microphones, some portable lamps, and, most curiously, a circular track surrounding the performance area.

Anyone who has heard the album knows what to expect musically; these performances simply strip away the veneer of production from the album renditions, and improve most of the songs in the process. What I find most compelling about this film, however, and what I'd like to talk about, is the unique dynamic between performer and filmmaker. Ultimately, this film does not seem to be simply documenting a performance from afar, as the films of D.A. Pennebakker aim to do, nor is it using a live performance to weave an impressionistic story as the performance documentaries of Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme do. Rather, this film seems, more than even Demme's documentaries, to display a rare synergy and collaboration between filmmaker and musical performer.

Darnielle appears to be somewhat uncomfortable and awkward through much of the film, only losing his self-consciousness once he begins to really inhabit a song a few lines in. He speaks awkwardly to the camera as if speaking to a live audience, but seems to consciously keep his remarks less verbose and more relevant than they ordinarily would be; while this is likely due to not having the exchange of energy from the crowd, he still appears to be conscious of the banter in which he is engaging. Furthermore, the gorgeously crisp cinematography from the constantly-moving yet never restless digital camera often uncomfortably invades Darnielle's space, almost as if challenging him or goading him to retreat further into the song. Throughout the film you occasionally see crew members running across the stage to adjust something. You hear ambient sounds invading the experience as the cinematographer attaches his camera to the dolly on the track for a smooth orbit shot or as a member of the crew knocks something over. Crew members make constant adjustments to the levels on configuration of lighting. It seems as if Johnson's manipulation of the environment and willingness to invade Darnielle's space is a conscious attempt to remove Darnielle from his comfort zone, to push him and see what he will do. It is startlingly, unsettlingly intimate - as someone who has seen Darnielle perform some 35 times over the years, starting when he would play half-capacity shows at the Khyber in Philadelphia, this is by far the most intimate performance I have ever witnessed. It was simultaneously thrilling, uncomfortable, and ultimately fascinating.

The DVD also includes a lo-fi 45-minute Q&A with Johnson and Darnielle and is packaged in a gorgeous book designed by the wonderful Horse & Buggy Press and featuring song-by-song liner note commentary from Darnielle. If you can still get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it, both for tMG fans and for fans of performance documentary or interesting cinematography.

Below, I've included a taste of the film by embedding the powerful rendition of "Ezeiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace" from the film, as well as Johnson's first collaboration with the Mountain Goats: the mind-bendingly brilliant video for "Woke Up New" from the Mountain Goats' 2006 album, Get Lonely.

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