A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 212 – Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson

Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson – September 28th, 2010

I had never heard of Laurie Anderson before I met Andy. This was clearly something that had to be rectified and in short order I’d heard a few of her pieces and fallen in love with her bizarre mix of singing, spoken word and eerie instrumentals. But I was also fairly limited in my options for obtaining music. This is pre-Napster, okay? My family’s internet connection at the time was the super 1337 dial-up AOL where one got an hour a day and then paid through the nose for every minute thereafter. I was not downloading performance art music to my family’s ancient PC. I was borrowing it from friends and buying the one CD the local Strawberries had in stock: Bright Red. And I listened to it over and over and over. I could probably recite Puppet Motel from memory on the spot if asked (alas, no one ever has) and to this day I can’t read any version of the Owl and the Pussycat out loud at work because of Anderson’s rendition in Beautiful Pea Green Boat. But neither of those are in this concert. I’m just illustrating a point, which is that I adore Anderson and find her work fascinating, so I was incredibly thrilled when we got ourselves a copy of Home of the Brave.

You need to understand something about Laurie Anderson, and that’s that she isn’t strictly a musician. She’s a performance artist. And I don’t mean the sort of pretentious performance art they make fun of in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). I mean the sort of performance art where she takes brilliant music and combines it with visuals and spoken pieces and dance and melds it all into something where the music isn’t the only point of the show. There are chunks of the show with almost no music at all. And Anderson wants to entertain, but also wants to provoke. And in my opinion she succeeds at both.

There’s a wide variety of pieces in this concert. They vary from fairly normal songs to instrumentals to dances to experimental sounds and often they segue from one to the other before you know what’s happened. A short spoken piece about being annoyed by a bug while you’re trying to write gives way to an instrumental piece where a string instrument is played with a fork and knife (and it sounds amazing, so I won’t criticize it for being a gimmick). Anderson takes a moment to call her keyboard player on the phone while they’re both on stage and the two chat for a bit about nothing in particular until the keyboard player excuses herself, since she’s kind of busy and in the middle of a concert. There’s the Drum Dance, where Anderson plays drum pads in her suit by dancing and tapping them. There’s a folktale and a game show and some sampled William S. Borroughs played on a special electric violin modified to play MIDI files when the bow touches the strings. It’s a little all over the place, but that’s Laurie Anderson.

If I had to name a theme for this concert I think I’d say it’s about communication. It’s not so obvious in every piece, but it keeps coming back. Many of my favorite bits from the concert tie into it, so maybe that colors my perception. Zero and One is a spoken piece at the beginning of the show and features Laurie Anderson in a mask reminiscent of El Santo, her voice electronically modified, lecturing the audience about binary and showing them lots of ones and zeroes. When we got the VHS of this concert we popped it in to make sure it was in good shape and I was shocked and amused to realize how much of Anderson’s performance with the voice modification reminded me of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight Returns. It’s bizarre. But that’s how things start, with some talk about communication and the representation of language and computers and then some cultural stuff too, going into doing away with the negative and positive meanings for zero and one, respectively. It’s a great way to really get things going after an instrumental introduction.

My other favorites are the aforementioned Drum Dance, which isn’t precisely earth shattering but is a quirky little piece and done very well. Anderson just seems to have so much fun playing with sound and movement. I also love Smoke Rings, which begins with a game show and is frequently referenced in our home. Que es mas macho? Pineapple? Or knife? Smoke Rings was the first Anderson song I ever heard. It was on a mix tape Andy had when I met him and I listened to it endlessly. Late Show is another communication piece, using a quote from William S. Burroughs (who appears in the concert) and the MIDI violin to great effect, repeating the word “listen” over and over. I have a fondness for Sharkey’s Day and have since the first time I saw this concert while I was in college (we had a copy at the video store we worked at). And then near the end we get Sharkey’s Night, which has more of the voice modification. Before that there’s Language is a Virus, which obviously plays into the communication theme, and Difficult Listening Hour (as opposed to easy listening), which just amuses me.

There are plenty of other fantastic parts to the concert, of course. Anderson cavorts around the stage and is obviously having a grand time presenting her vision for everyone watching, but she’d got a great crew to back her up. Her back-up vocalists are fantastic, getting into the whole performance, and the same goes for her keyboard player, who has a wonderful 80s punk hairdo going on. All of the other musicians and performers seem to be totally keyed in on Anderson’s aesthetic and mood. The stage is bathed in blue light and the set pieces are minimal. The scrim in the back of the stage is used a lot, but people move in front of it all the time anyhow. It doesn’t seem like a bad thing, just part of the show to have things always moving and going.

Of course this isn’t a typical concert. It seems low key compared to something like Pulse, or even the small venue TMBG we’ve been to. It’s got more people on stage than Weird Al Yankovic Live! but seems more subdued most of the time. And yet it’s engaging and impressive all the same. Mostly, I think, because Anderson is the type of artist who can fill a stage on her own, and then she goes and fills it with other impressive artists as well, because she can, and because it makes the show that much stranger and that much better.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson

September 28, 2010

Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson

This was another discovery I made in college. I made it a point my freshman year to show up every Friday night in my dorm common room for our weekly movies. I don’t recall who it was that chose what we watched, but it was a very strange collection. We went through a John Waters period at one point, concentrating on his earlier and more edgy films (Female Trouble in particular was stranger than anything I had experienced at the time.) We watched Koyaanisquatsi. We watched the infamous X-rated cut of I Spit on Your Grave. Whomever it was that was making the movie watching decisions (I think it might have been my HR Jay) had a knack for finding edgy stuff that none of us had seen before.

Thank goodness for the internet, without which we would have a hard time gathering movies like this into our collection. This is not even available on DVD, so we had to buy a used copy from a purveyor of hard-to-find cassettes. There is a treasure trove of VHS tapes out there from little independent video stores that went out of business in the nineties. I have this picture in my head of warehouses full of undiscovered treasure, just waiting for me to request them. If only I knew what to ask for.

How does one describe Laurie Anderson to the uninitiated? You could vastly simplify things and refer to her as a performance artist, but that doesn’t begin to encompass what she does. The term “performance artist” conjures up pictures of crazy dissonance and art that is more about what is going on in the performer’s head than what you see on the stage. Laurie Anderson mixes a mesmerizing performance with fun and playful music. You can listen to the music without the visuals and still enjoy it (we own a couple of her CDs for example.)

You could also call her a digital pioneer. She talks about ones and zeros as the building blocks of the digital age at the start of this movie. She had digital supplements to her CDs (CD ROMs and such) before such things were heard of. In this movie she makes extensive use of a midi-based electric violin that was, according to the internet, of her own invention. This movie is full of creative uses of new instrument technologies to find new ways to make music. (A prominent example – she at one point has a sort of electric drum kit she wears as gloves and performs a drum solo by dancing and striking her chest, arms and legs.) In my mind she was performing nerd-rock before any such thing existed.

In the concert featured in this movie Laurie Anderson plays a lot with percussion, with tempo, with pacing. She dances with broad exaggerated poses. She has surrounded herself with an eclectic collection of talented musicians who all seem to be enthusiastically along for the ride. Behind her is a giant projection screen on which a series of slides and animations are projected to complement what’s going on on the stage. The lighting is also part of the show, with her bright white suit.

I love this movie. I love the craziness of it and the off-kilter feel of the whole production. I love Laurie’s sense of humor and general inventiveness. I don’t know if I can really describe the whole production too well, though. It’s too far outside of the realm of what I’ve normally experienced. Which is exactly the appeal.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , | Leave a comment