The return of Mills Folly Microcinema, “Suburbia” at UW Cinematheque, OUT at Communication, and more events of note in Madison this week.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 29
You Were An Amazement On The Day You Were Born: Videos by Duke and Battersby. Arts + Literature Laboratory, 7:30 p.m.
After taking a brief hiatus and spawning an offshoot program of weekly 16mm screenings in June at maiahaus, the Mills Folly Microcinema Series returns to Arts + Literature Lab with two roughly 30-minute experimental short films from Canadian-born filmmaking duo Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, whose works play like kaleidoscopic essay-film scrapbooks. In their 2015 short, Dear Lorde, they craft a portrait of teenage Maxine Rose (Katie Agretelis) through a collage of visual juxtapositions of wildlife as well as popular music, at times disparate and others complementary to her verbalized thoughts on growing up a stranger in a remote California town.
The film begins with Lorde’s ubiquitous single “Royals” playing over a fast-motion credits montage with animal bones arranged to spell out the titular greeting in a desert field, then plunges into the intimate inquisitiveness of 14-year-old Maxine on the first day of the year. In creating a list of essential New Year’s resolutions “to become a worthwhile person” before turning 15, she sorts through her ambitions in the form of seemingly unreciprocated stream-of-consciousness letter-writing to activists like Jane Goodall, Desmond Tutu, and Lynn Margulis. Occasionally, Maxine’s idealistic narration feels oddly similar to that of the titular character in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt (2002), but this is partly fostered by the rapid succession of these invocations and crude manifestations of text on-screen that feel like detached components of an art installation.
The creative team’s work has only grown stronger as they’ve explored a greater variety of themes. Duke and Battersby’s most recent short, You Were An Amazement On The Day You Were Born (2019), is similarly concerned with female experience, but its scope is vaster and more haunting. Watching it is like turning the pages of a graphic novel. It details the entire life of a woman named Leonore through voiceover—from being diagnosed with “developmental delays” at the age of four in the 1970s to the strained relationships and sanguine revelations prior to her 80th birthday. The vernacular in You Were An Amazement‘s narration is decidedly ornate and literary, augmented by its intense and deliberate imagery of scavenging wild animals and arachnids. This short film truly triumphs, though, in the purity and honesty of concise oral storytelling, like a defining moment in the woman’s twenties when she describes practicing a demented Joker-like smile to ward off the persistence of leering men in bars. It’s a shrewdly comical gesture, yet confronts a disturbing social culture that sees women as submissive prey. —Grant Phipps
FRIDAY, AUGUST 30
A head-first dive into ’80s punk culture from one of punk’s greatest historians, Penelope Spheeris’ 1983 cult classic Suburbia provides all the grit and grime one would expect from a Roger Corman-produced movie about teenagers who live with rats. Featuring a young cast of non-professional actors and an appropriately pissed-off soundtrack, Suburbia is a singular document of a disaffected generation. The film looks at a small community of runaway teenagers who squat in abandoned suburban tract housing outside of Los Angeles. Beginning by following Evan, a teen who leaves home after a fight with his alcoholic mother, the film gradually turns into an ensemble piece observing the squalid day-to-day life of the group Evan ends up living with. Despite regular hardship, persecution by local creeps, and personal tragedy, the teens of Suburbia ultimately find refuge in their new chosen family.
By reveling in the grotesqueries of her characters’ lifestyle and bookending the film with scenes of children dying, Spheeris makes it clear that she is intent on making a film both about and for these kinds of disaffected nihilists. Indeed, Suburbia‘s charms lie in Spheeris’ punk ethos in both theme and form. And while the film is seemingly exploitative on the surface, her personal commitment to the L.A. underground is well documented both here and in her Decline Of Western Civilization documentary series. Spheeris staked the early part of her career on this sort of underground anthropology, and it is a beautiful and rare thing to see a filmmaker with such a thorough love for their subject, rats and all. —Maxwell Courtright
The three acts playing this show each let elements of pop bleed radiantly into other corners of music, with a refreshing lack of interest in genre barriers. This doesn’t mean they sound all that much alike, but somehow the combination of Madison’s Graham Hunt and Julian Lynch with Detroit’s Deadbeat Beat makes perfect sense. Hunt, who recently relocated here from Milwaukee, has played in bands including the standout psych-rock outfit Sundial Mottos, and will have a full band here to showcase a growing body of solo material. Hunt’s 2019 solo album Leaving Silver City combines the punch of a live band with the scratchy charms of a bedroom-pop record. The second and third tracks, “Every Person” and “Kendall’s Gonna Love It,” capably pull the listener right across that spectrum, and “Small Town” pushes things into joyously chaotic territory. Whatever approach Hunt and collaborators are taking on a given track, there’s plenty of warmth and good-natured jangle to hold it together. “Change Their Mind,” a single released a few months after the album, pairs a sharp hook with easygoing swagger.
Lynch released his fifth album, Rat’s Spit, earlier this year, a decade after he started putting out works of comforting but enigmatic solo music. His self-produced albums have always felt like worlds in miniature, arranging guitar, clarinet, warbly synths, and understated vocals into hooks at peace with their aqueous, ethereal surroundings. Rat’s Spit brings Lynch’s vocals a little closer to the front of the mix, and places a much more overt emphasis on letting him shine as a guitarist. The guitar solos on “Meridian” and “Hexagonal Field” only deepen the songs’ tender and ruminative qualities, wah-ing and bending with an overdriven ache. Lynch’s live sets tend to change up a lot from one to the next, but recent ones have found him improvising with a combination of synths and electric guitar. Deadbeat Beat plays here behind a new album, How Far, which combines punk-rock grit with unabashedly sunny pop songwriting. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY, AUGUST 31
Kalamazoo, Michigan band OUT plays powerfully immediate music that nonetheless sounds like it was seasoned in more complex and thorny reaches of post-punk and noise-rock. The band’s forthcoming second album, Billie, offers plenty of variety and dynamism. Chafe Hensley and Ike Turner’s guitars knot together in sharp, penetrating figures that bridge the force of a good punk riff with something a little more ambivalent and doubtful. Bassist TJ Larmee and drummer Mark Larmee do just as much to vary the sonic palette on Billie, giving “Rashomon” a slap-happy wobble and keeping up a tumultuous churn on “Reach.” And yet, it’s pretty clear here that long experience has taught these musicians the value of getting to the point. Album opener “M.R.I.” lumbers its way to a melodic finale that manages to make the refrain “who’s feeling like dirt?” feel affirming, even triumphant.
OUT’s lyrics on Billie offer a perspective that’s grizzled but not necessarily bitter: “Unreal Cities” reflects on the indignities of touring-band life in middle age—”I’m 42 years old / With 41 records sold / In the last ten years or so / I am told”—but the band tackles that subject with a perverse relish, or at least a knowing sense of humor. “Rashomon” offers a similar perspective on raising a family and the occasional adult-time breaks therein: “Let’s take LSD and watch Casino / Turn up Devo loud as it can go / When the kids leave we’ll hit the vino / Find out what we stuck around here for.” Even when it’s hard-bitten, OUT’s music seems to come from a place of acceptance and resilience, especially on the album’s closing track, “You Sure Are Strong.” Headlining this bill is Madison band Hex House, which released its self-titled debut album earlier this summer. The trio definitely brings something a little darker to this show, playing taut and angsty post-hardcore songs that find an impressive amount of space for reflection and atmosphere. —Scott Gordon
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 1
The year 2007 was an exceptionally strong one for film and at the time, two Western-influenced behemoths dominated: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men. In the shadows of those two releases was a quieter, more contemplative film operating on the fringes of traditional Western filmmaking, and leaving a mark just as impressive: Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Intentionally somber and quietly suspenseful, the film tells the story of Robert Ford (an Oscar-nominated turn from Casey Affleck), an admirer-turned-acolyte of the legendary Jesse James (Brad Pitt, delivering a career-best performance). Ford and James become close, then inextricably entwined, and eventually the pair become increasingly suspicious of the other’s motivations, leading to a climactic final, shared moment.
Despite generally positive reviews from critics, audiences at the time of the film’s release never fully embraced it. Those who latched onto the film’s glacial, cerebral inclinations would leave screenings feeling wounded, and those who didn’t, endlessly frustrated. But everyone who’s seen it seems to agree on one thing, which is that it’s one of the most beautifully shot films of our time. Roger Deakins’ cinematography provides a masterclass in lighting, framing, and blocking, granting those images genuine staying power. Since the film’s release, Deakins’ work on The Assassination… has been taught in film classes, topped Greatest Cinematography lists, and is frequently cited as the already legendary DP’s best work.
Similarly, the film’s score, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (both of legendary Australian outfit Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, and Warren a member of the instrumental trio Dirty Three) is routinely referenced as one of the greatest of this early century. Wind chimes, piano, dusty guitars, and searching string melodies all congeal into melancholic elegies, tenderly expanding the intensely fractured relationship at the film’s core. Amplifying the film’s simmering intensity, Cave and Ellis’ work provides a painfully acute sense of the film as a subdued and deeply empathetic reverie.
Split apart into individual components, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is as impressive—and frequently as audacious—as its title’s length. Taken in as a whole, the experience is otherworldly. The Chicago Film Society is bringing the film to the Chazen as part of a collaborative series that runs through UW Cinematheque’s fall season. —Steven Spoerl
8/31: Something To Do, We Should Have Been DJs. Memorial Union Terrace, 9 p.m. (free) (Read more about this in our recent story on We Should Have Been DJs.)