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CodaFest’s cosmic lift-off and a Polish “Sonata”

Plus more events we recommend checking out in Madison, November 14 through 20 edition.
A publicity photo shows 12 members of the Sun Ra Arkestra posing in colorful clothes against a blue background.
The Sun Ra Arkestra plays November 19 at Café Coda.

Plus more events we recommend checking out in Madison, November 14 through 20 edition.

We’re partnering with the wonderful independent email newsletter Madison Minutes to bring you event recommendations every week. Some of these write-ups will appear in Madison Minutes‘ weekly event email, and all of which will appear here.

A few notes: This events roundup is, as before, selective and not comprehensive. Each week, we’ll focus on a handful of things our editors and writers find compelling, and that’s it. We’ll write up a few of them, and just list a few more. It’ll take us a while to get back to full strength with this part of our coverage, because we’ve had so many other exciting, demanding things to work on lately. Please reach out to us with suggestions—and info about your event, as long as you’re able to get it to us a few weeks in advance—at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 14

A Community Conversation And Performance: What Is A Woman? Reconstructing And Redefining at Memorial Union Rathskeller. 6 p.m. 

UW-Madison’s Social Justice Hub and the Trans Advocacy Madison group aim to unpack “how socially constructed definitions [of gender] are counterproductive” at this event, which will combine a facilitated community discussion and an open mic. (Those interested in participating can reach out to the event’s organizers at [email protected]; the event is open to “performances of any type”). While the organizers didn’t want to simply put on a reactive event, this one is especially welcome in light of the rash of transphobia Madison and the campus have experienced over the past year. From a full-on TERF conference to bigoted chalk messages to fascist goon Matt Walsh’s October visit to UW-Madison, the need for community and solidarity is as urgent as it’s ever been. The poke at Walsh’s grossly manipulative propaganda film is hard to miss in the event’s title, but the spirit of the event is more proactive than just a response.

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—Scott Gordon

NOVEMBER 16 THROUGH 20

CodaFest at Café Coda. Various showtimes, some free events, ticketed events $50-$100, all-access pass $275.

The first-ever CodaFest is a five-night festival that impressively encompasses the sheer variety of jazz and improvised music Café Coda has showcased in Madison since opening in 2017. The top-line acts are two veteran, boundary-pushing musicians who retain their fiery vitality today: saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, playing Wednesday night in a trio with bassist Jakob Heinemann and drummer Tim Russell, and Marshall Allen, leading the ongoing interstellar voyage of the Sun Ra Arkestra on Saturday night. Those highlights alone are a testament to the Willy Street venue’s ability to bring in great music, and its deep commitment to the history and practice of jazz.

CodaFest’s lineup also incorporates two jazz documentaries: Jazz In Exile (screening Thursday at 2 p.m. followed by a discussion with director Chuck France) details the careers of Black jazz musicians who left the United States to live and work in Europe, and an episode from Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, titled A Masterpiece By Midnight (screening Friday at 2 p.m.), which surveys the splintering and development of jazz music from 1960 onward. 

Other highlights throughout the fest include Chicago-based pianist/vocalist Alexis Lombre (Sunday at 3 p.m.); Coda owner Hanah Jon Taylor with bassist Reggie Workman, drummer Dushun Mosley, and pianist Luke Leavitt (Saturday, 5 p.m.); and a duo set from guitarist Louka Patenaude and pianist Paul Hastil (Thursday, noon). The festival has some free afternoon events and a range of prices for ticketed events (there’s also an all-access pass option for $275), so I’d recommend taking a thorough look at Coda’s events and tickets pages to plan ahead.

—Scott Gordon

NOVEMBER 17

Light Sleeper at Union South Marquee. 7 p.m. Free.

“They figure you can tell a D.D. anything. Things they would never tell anyone else,” drug dealer John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) narrates in writer-director Paul Schrader’s 1992 film Light Sleeper. The line frames  a scene that features David Spade as one of LeTour’s customers, sitting in his underwear and going off on an unhinged philosophical rant while snorting cocaine.

It’s quite comic but helps draw us into LeTour’s illicit but comfortable world, illustrating the control he tries to exert over his life as he navigates a range of shady, unpredictable characters and absorbs the news that his boss (Susan Sarandon) wants to get out of the business. Cinematographer Ed Lachman’s shots of rainy Manhattan streets and half-lit car interiors, alongside the baritone vocals of Michael Been’s song “World On Fire,” combine in the film’s powerful opening. 

This being a Schrader film, all his  trademark elements are at work: the lonely male protagonist, his desperate fixation on a woman (Dana Delany, as LeTour’s ex Marianne), and the mounting sense that the narrative is  bound for a final spasm of violence. Then again, Roger Ebert wrote at the time of Light Sleeper‘s release: “This movie isn’t about plot, it’s about a style of life, and the difficulty of preserving self-respect and playing fair when your income depends on selling people stuff that will make them hate you.” 

LeTour at once understands the bleak confines of his life but holds out hope for something greater. Even in Dafoe’s remarkable career, this performance is a standout: tightly wound, both aloof and deeply needy, all those edges sharpened to a handsome prime. He makes it pretty alluring to get wrapped up in an existence most of us would not actually want to share.

—Scott Gordon

The Plains at UW Cinematheque. Doors at 6:30 p.m., screening at 7 p.m. Free.

Excerpt from Grant Phipps’ review and interview with director David Easteal:

David Easteal finds a new meditative grammar for the road movie in The Plains (2022), a rigorously composed docufiction epic about our habitual commute, the intimacy of impermanence, and the subtly direct intermediary of technology.

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In the casting of himself as a secondary character to the film’s principal traveler (and occasional chauffeur) Andrew Rakowski, Easteal’s film feels endlessly amidst a journey—treading on business routes and Monash Freeway beyond the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, meandering through the life and times of its quinquagenarian driver over a 12-month period. A fixed static shot in the backseat of Rakowski’s compact Hyundai Elantra frames his world view, quite literally, as he peers out at the skyline and his fellow 5 p.m. commuters rolling along between traffic lights and km/h speed limit signs. But it’s the audible space within the car’s interior and Rakowski’s routine that command attention over a nearly three-hour duration, whether it’s listening to the hum of talk radio (on 93.1 and 105.9 presets) for a minute after turning the ignition, phoning his longtime wife Cheri or 95-year-old mother Inga at a nursing home (through his earbuds), chatting with fellow barrister and firm colleague Easteal, or simply sitting speechless as the gusting ambiance of the roadway fills the vehicle’s cozy, confined environs.

In its series of plainspoken, philosophical car conversations, The Plains shares some commonality with the tradition of Iranian art cinema from the minds of Abbas Kiarostami (Taste Of Cherry, Ten) or Jafar Panahi (Taxi Tehran). But the film’s earnest virtues align it more closely with the nearly dialogue-free documentary Cousin Jules (1972), Dominique Benicheti’s enthralling, almost devout five-year chronicle of an elderly French couple’s daily agrarian rituals.

Easteal reapplies a similar aesthetic to Benicheti to construct a film deeply rooted in the customs of contemporary Australia and shifting landscapes like so many other places in the post-industrialized Western world (including Madison).

NOVEMBER 18

Monsters Of Poetry: Caryl Pagel, Daniel Khalastchi, Chessy Normile, Jeffrey McDaniel at North Street Cabaret. 7 p.m. $3 suggested donation.

From Hannah Keziah Agustin’s feature preview: The world is on fire and the poets are—metaphorically, of course—putting out the flames. You can witness this ongoing battle at the North Street Cabaret during the Friday, November 18 edition of the Monsters of Poetry series. The long-running Madison-based literary reading series has hosted dozens of established poets and writers across the nation. This latest Monsters event features Chessy Normile, Jeffrey McDaniel, Daniel Khalastchi, and Caryl Pagel. Pagel and Khalastchi are Monsters of Poetry veterans—they read at the inaugural Monsters reading in October of 2009 at the long-gone Project Lodge on East Johnson Street.

Caryl Pagel’s Free Clean Fill Dirt, published by the University of Akron Press earlier this year, pays homage to interruption. Pagel uses the caesura, a pause in the line of a poem, to exhibit the fragmentation of historical and geological lineages. Memory is ethereal and broken, and Pagel mimics this through the breaks in the line and the gaps in the page, which makes the poem feel like it’s breathing. This effect is especially prominent  in “9F“:

What is the memory of a stem— / its bend / Where / will you go when you leave / What / has the city’s / past’s past abandoned / The gazebo / The observatory / Exhaust

All Is Forgiven at UW Cinematheque. Doors at 6:30 p.m., screening at 7 p.m. Free.

Excerpt from Alisyn Amant’s review:

As Mia Hansen-Løve’s directorial debut, All Is Forgiven (2007) is the logical birthplace of the cinematic tone that becomes distinct in her later films, like Bergman Island (2021). She immerses viewers in moments of intense realism with characters Victor, Annette, and Pamela in the majority of the 105-minute running time. Take, for example, the portrayal of Victor’s addiction: one may expect the archetypal, gritty, and raucous scene of a person shooting heroin into their veins or snorting cocaine amidst dancing bodies and loud music. In All Is Forgiven, the picture of addiction instead becomes a man wandering from park to park to find a dealer, slipping away from outings with his daughter to run “errands” and waking up to the anticlimactic overdose of a lover. The expository tension between a dependence on drugs and the decay of a family still makes room for the subtle details of life: the sound of shoes on pavement or gravel, the ripples of water on the surface of a pond, the rustling of leaves and flowers.

While that pervading sense of reality successfully creates an intelligent, picturesque aura, it simultaneously becomes a detriment to the viewer’s ability to connect with its characters as fixtures in a story. Moments that are supposed to be seen as monumental and emotional, according to the typicality of narrative structure, fall flat in service to realism. But regardless of one’s preference for the levels of tilt toward realism or romanticism, All Is Forgiven is nonetheless an admirable debut that showcases the cinematic notions of a then-budding, now-established director.

NOVEMBER 19

Zoë Keating at The Bur Oak. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. $35 advance, $40 doors.

NOVEMBER 20

Sonata (2021) at Union South Marquee. 6:30 p.m. Free.

Coming-of-age biopic Sonata (2021) closes out the Polish Film Festival at the Union South Marquee, which begins on Sunday, November 13, with Illusion (2022), and then continues the following Sunday, November 20, with a triple feature of Fucking Bornholm (2022), Black Sheep (2022) and Sonata.

Bartosz Blaschke’s film is based on the true story of Grzegorz Płonka (Michal Sikorski), who is misdiagnosed with autism as a child in the mid-1990s, only to discover at age 14 that he actually suffers from hearing loss that prevented him from processing the upper registers necessary to understand speech. When Grzegorz finally gets fitted with a hearing aid thanks to the insistence of a home caregiver, he’s set upon a difficult road toward a meaningful life: learning to speak and read in his teens, and obsessively devoting himself to becoming a concert pianist, with his ultimate goal to perform Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (which lends the film its name). 

The film uses similar audio effects to Sound Of Metal (2020) in the scene where Grzegorz finally hears clearly for the first time, allowing the audience to perceive as he does. Previously, his relationship with music consisted of pounding on a piano to feel the vibrations. Sonata also shares Sound Of Metal‘s more nuanced take on a disability narrative rather than standing as a simple triumph-over-adversity tale: much emphasis is put on Grzegorz’s early life being left to languish due to sheer institutional indifference despite the efforts of his exasperated parents (Małgorzata Foremniak and Lukasz Simlat) to get someone to respond on a human level instead of just enforcing the rules and their own expectations.

When Grzegorz finally speaks, he often has a frustratingly black-and-white interpretation of social interactions, and a megalomaniac focus on his life goal of becoming a pianist. At every turn, he’s met by people who qualify his talent as “playing well for a deaf person.” Grzegorz doesn’t so much want to prove them all wrong as he gets stuck on not fully grasping why someone would want to keep him from fully expressing himself. Understandably, he lashes out when clashing once again with the harshness of those more concerned with checking boxes than letting him release his pent-up emotions. 

—Lewis Peterson

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