I will admit that I had never heard of them until this year’s SXSW, but Melbourne-based Totally Mild ended up on my list on the strength of “Move On” from their last album, Down Time. It’s a bubbly vocalized piece with a music video that showed the band members drinking and regurgitating milk. Hearty, mind-bending, sardonic stuff. Since then, they have delivered another short album titled Alive in Denmark.
The lead vocalist Elizabeth Mitchell has a naturally high-pitched and clear voice that resonates well. She needs to – their music is moody, expressive and forlorn with twisting passages spanning quite a range. “The Next Day” is a good example. It’s like a slower version of a coloratura’s training scales. Listening to them in the BBQ tent really made me feel like an exemplary irony. Should I feign philistine and continue to shove food down my throat, or stop chewing midway to better hear the lyrics? Test this out for yourself with “More” – I’d stop half way.
Fluttering women have no patience to stay in Texas – they belong in Sydney, Australia. That’s why they left all their exes in Texas. At least that’s the story I made up. In truth, members of All Our Exes Live In Texas are from Sydney, and so are their exes. The Texas came in for a rhyme and dime.
All Our Exes appear to have coalesced as a revenge band – and playing at SXSW while their male counterparts (also a band) fester in Sydney gave them some degree of satisfaction. One would be hard-pressed to say that they are performing out of spite. They were playful and energetic (that would be anything other than head-bobbing in folk music). In a short set consisting of just 5 songs, each is enjoyable with bright melodies and close harmony. The rendition of their showcase “Boundary Road” is fairly true to the recording. It’s fun to guess who would be singing which part, as each seem equally capable of a similar range. All in all, not bad for their first time singing live in Texas.
Whether it’s “I Don’t Know” from 2014, or this year’s “Bet She Looks Like You,” Hakim’s recordings always project an air of sophistication. The precious silence in between his vocals produces its own reflective and soulful imagery. But in real life, with the din of Cedar Street Courtyard at 10pm, and everyone jostling for a view of the stage, it projected a completely different feeling. Perhaps it is an inaccurate impression. I felt anxiety-ridden – wishing that they could be heard in that smooth, slow light. But of course, as Einstein might demur, “there is no such thing as slow light”. Oh well, back to the headphones.
I am very much a person of instrumental music, so incomprehensible lyrics usually do not dissuade me. I found it a little funny and odd then that Chicano Batman’s music did not work for me. They produced disjointed melodies that accompany as transitions, a segue to each batch of lyrics. It is an interesting structure. They would jump off the cliff to explore the sea floor, and then teleport back up as if through rewind. Repeated use of this, however, made one song sounds like the other to me. I am sometimes reminded, during obvious passages, of jazz improv. There is also a whiff, carried on a synth keyboard, of a chord or key eerily reminiscent of 80s Taiwanese pop music. So, it could be the work of some Freudian block in my head – an annoying trip down memory lane.
Hurray for the Riff Raff
I last saw Hurray for the Riff Raff in 2014, performing in Lance Armstrong’s local shop, with more mountain bikes than people. Then, they were a feisty and folksy band with a singular message about empowering the underdogs. Fast-forward 3 years, and with the advent of the Trump era, they have essentially turned activists, as we’re likely all of us underdogs now. The vocal and style has transformed into something that would fit right into any large metropolis in their new album, The Navigator. “A Life to Save” is a very good example.
Confident, almost strident, they have also become much more adept at holding the attention of a large crowd. Alynda Lee Segarra now burns with a permanent anger. She wears it like a revolutionary, and even has a beret to match. Given the current political and societal context, I think she is right to be. We should probably all be angry at many of the regressive ideas floating around. That strong emotion carried throughout the concert, in songs that touched on immigration, social injustice, and even a ballad about her Puerto Rican father. Ending with Pa’lante or “go forward”, it is a forceful and powerful performance. I recommend catching their entire set (a different one hosted by NPR) below.
Life is perhaps at its cruelest and clearest when aspiration and reality collides (and reality wins). If that’s true, then California Dreams is both. Having watched the film, however, I cannot differentiate it from reality TV, pure screenplay, or a bastard child of the two. Interestingly, director Mike Ott was being intentionally ambiguous. From a naive perspective, California Dreams plays on the quintessential Hollywood rag-to-riches trope. Many people in the Inland Empire look to LA and dream of becoming successful actors or actresses, even if their lives circle in the gutters from meal to deal to meal. Ott begins with Cory Zacharia, a 28 year old layabout with no skills. And I do mean ZERO. Comically illiterate, innumerate, and struggles even to form a sentence for a Taco Bell resume, he nonetheless believes that he can make it big. If only a decent audition tape (oh and also $900) could just “occur to him”, he could join a German friend in Berlin. This friend had worked tirelessly to arrange for Cory a role in a big budget film. Everything is falling into place, ready for his arrival. We are also informed that Cory share this dream with a 6-flags attendant from the Philippines, a wannabe alpha-male bounty hunter, a screenwriter in the Church of the latter day Taco Bell, and a down-and-out old lady.
Blurring the lines between fiction and reality seems to be Ott’s modus operandi. Dreams’ structure is eerily similar to Pearblossom Hwy, his 2012 film starring the same hapless Cory. Zacharia was supposedly discovered by Ott in a Home Depot parking lot. The set piece elements here have been lifted from an universe so blatantly child-like and outlandish, that I nearly mistook it for a tribute to Wes Anderson. For example, the whole motley crew in Dreams all live in the same tidy roadside motel. They all seems to get on with their lives despite hardships. And everything works out in the end: Cory eventually found the cash he badly needs when it literally fell from the sky, blown into a straight-line like offerings from the dried branches along the path of his favorite highway trot. All this skepticism aside, it is worth noting that the cinematography is quite breathtaking. If you have ever been to the Californian desert, you might agree that it’s nowhere near as mystical and forgiving as Dreams depicts. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis made it LOOK like like a well-spring of dreams. Ott made an effort to convince us that these are not actors. By speaking on camera to Cory, he is in reality trying to break the 4th wall. We are supposed to believe that these are real people whose dreams are exactly as told through their audition for this film: they are simply acting out their own lives. Actors, playing themselves.
I am still not sure how to feel about the power structure behind this film. Is this exploitation? Or perhaps any talk of exploitation is irrelevant because Ott is fulfilling these dreams? I am indifferent to whether this is staged, transcribed from real-life then reenacted, or reality TV with impeccable-fortuitous camera placements. Even though many of the nesting references and breadcrumbs are too trite and tiresome to follow, it still contains honest and interesting messages. What I’m actually annoyed with, is the same way you would notice that I stopped mentioning any of the other characters. That’s because none received any development or mention at all after they were introduced. Completely superfluous and expendable, they were living and dreaming furniture, no more important to Cory’s dream than the chair he sat in while enjoying a lap dance. It certainly took a step back from the plural title – I was fully expecting an expose on 2+ dreams. With ambiguity comes ambivalence, I guess. I am about as likely to recommend this as I would a box of cereal at afternoon tea: you won’t feel deprived without (just biscuits and scones thank you very much), and you won’t read too much into it if you do. It’s just, there, being it’s own meta-self.
First, a bit of venue overview. Alamo Ritz wins the prize for the “most alternative” fillers of any theater I’ve attended. No black screens of boredom here before your show. There were 70s French art house music videos with people bowing as if playing violins on body parts; a band called Telegenics singing about dominatrix; cat videos; bollywood music videos full of transforming smart phones, belly-dancing men in tiger costumes, and of course large group dancing. Just before the show starts, Bobby the Giant Child from Food of the Gods II reminds would-be texting viewers that if they violate that sacred trust, they need to “get the fuck outta my room!”
I feel obligated to start with a buoyant tone, because nothing about this film is light. Disgraced opens when Patrick Dennehy, a star player of the Baylor university basketball team, went missing in 2003. A few days after the police was informed, a full canvas and investigation began. But the deeper they delved, the less clear the case became. The local police forces and the FBI slowly pieced together a trail that revealed how his friend and roommate had gunned him down in a grassy field, without any motive whatsoever. But this story only gets more bizarre. In his zeal to win a basketball championship, it appears that the head coach Dave Bliss had made deals with players that breached NCAA code of conduct. Somehow, Bliss’ involvement was intricately linked to the murder. The details were not just suspicious. It was serious enough that Bliss applied pressure to turn his players into accomplices. They wanted to besmirch the dead in order to save Bliss from an NCAA investigation. If that’s not a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes, I don’t know what is.
In real life, detectives don’t have an all-powerful Mycroft at their beck and call. Even though this tragedy garnered national attention back then, it was never resolved on a level that would be satisfactory to anyone. Yet since the issues were local to Texas, once the national optics turned elsewhere and the news cycle faded, these influences came into the fore. Prominent among these local interests is Baylor University itself, which saw the murder case and the associated issues with the basketball program as a scandal, and sought to sweep things under the rug. If not for just one wrinkle, we would not have this documentary – Patrick’s roommate was found to be mentally-ill, confessed and was sentenced; Bliss resigned; everything seemed settled.
However, Bliss’ assistant coach recorded him scheming. On tape.
Those tapes, the fallout, and what truth they obscured, are in fact the whole point of Disgraced. The cinematography and reenactments are clearly well-produced. But these elements serve to set the desired context, in order that the audience can appreciate the recordings. It permitted Bliss, who was interviewed comprehensively, an ostensible chance to defend himself. In the Q&A after the screening, the Austin-based filmmaker Pat Kondelis suggested that in the early days while arranging the interview, Bliss led him to believe that a type of confession would be forthcoming. These exchanges and discussions, even now, are still tinged with a very local and emotional element. There were support for either side: I spied a few Baylor supporters who left in disgust right after the screening, and there’s certainly no doubt where Kondelis stands. One might be turned off by this type of potential bias. But it still doesn’t detract from the compelling and damning evidence. What this documentary mimics is a traveling courtroom. And each audience as jury, I expect, experiences that cast-the-first-stone moment: the sheer gall of the officials and Bliss in constructing the lie; their insistence that the victim “deserved his fate”; the destruction these memories and lingering questions wrought on Dennehy’s family. The audience booed each bold face lie, jeered at Bliss’ amateurish denial, and shed tears with the parents. It’s a remote yet strangely participatory film. 14 years since that time, Baylor University is again in the spotlight with a new scandal, this time regarding sexual assault. Though it may take a first-class mind to wade through the minutiae of evidence, it takes only a first-grade one to see that denial is no longer working. Although as the film seeks to remind us, Bliss IS still working as a basketball coach. Now, that is something to think about.