The return of Cinematheque with “Fox And His Friends” and “Damsel,” a compelling Los Dells lineup, an inclusive new dance night, and more events of note in and around Madison this week. | By Emili Earhart, Scott Gordon, Reid Kurkerewicz, Grant Phipps, and Henry Solo
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THURSDAY AUGUST 30
This second-ever screening at the new Mills Folly Microcinema at Arts + Literature Laboratory is an experimental feature, Common Carrier. Brooklyn-based James N. Kienitz Wilkins calls his latest project a “cinematic mixtape,” an audio-visual bridge between traditional narrative and collagist art installations. For 78 minutes, Common Carrier saturates viewers with kaleidoscopic fragments as translucent objects and figures fold into and are positioned to mirror others while talk-radio chatter and R&B playlists blare and drift in and out of focus. The overall effect is to evoke a sense of inundation and detachment, to echo how we interact with, disconnect, and shuffle between so-called technological conveniences of modern life.
That is the collagist-art aspect. The narrative aspect follows the lives of several anonymous actors and artists, but the lives of aspiring Robin and Abdul are particularly paramount. While the film’s many disparate threads don’t always coalesce or even try to, there’s a deeper truth they’re all scratching at. The film may inevitably be seen as a tortured exploration of identity, but Wilkins finds poetic revelations and juxtapositions in the disordered and excessive bombardment of brands, political bulletins, personal narratives, and taste-making appeals for attention. Whether referencing human and ornithological heredity or eBay, the film is always able to either suggest or present a disorienting depth we might not be able to grasp in a more sedate presentation. —Grant Phipps
FRIDAY AUGUST 31
The Shitty Barn holds its first installment of the “Rogue Series” featuring a mysterious and cryptically advertised lineup of intriguing, experimental electronic artists. The enigmatic Bongo Frontier play music from a fourth world space-age domain of Coil-like post industrialism. In “Midnight At The Data Ranch,” loops of hand-drum sequences are built up, creating a psychedelic groove punctuated by warm synth-pad trails. Local electronic artist Scott Fradkin plays here as 17.2m. In this minimal, elektronische project, Fradkin uses TidalCycles—a language for live coding in musical improvisation—to create pointillistic sound designs. New York electronic outfit Whirm also performs behind a small discography of electro-acoustic releases. Much of Whirm’s output features dialogues between spatial, expansive musical lines and intricate, digital processes. —Emili Earhart
Madison band Smokin’ With Superman formed in 1998 and had a successful five-year run, combining funk, hip-hop, and a radiant dash of jazz fusion in a seven-piece band format. This was all just a few years before my time in Madison, but the main thread I follow back to this band is its MC, Laduma Nguyuza. He performed with Smokin’ With Superman under the name Peter Parker, and has since performed with two other popular hip-hop bands, Dumate and Fringe Character, inventive projects like Stink Tank and the James Baldwin- and Billie Holiday-inspired Billie James Project. (If you listen to one unheralded conceptual hip-hop album this week, make it that last one.) Nguyuza has easily been the most compelling rapper in town for all these years—not that we’re short on good hip-hop artists, especially these days, but for my money it’s hard to top Nguyuza laying down nimble, rhythmically complex lines with a knack for the mischievous and the surreal. All those strengths come through on SWS’ 2002 album Full Price, alongside singer Joy Dragland’s vocal hooks and the taut, propulsive funk of the band as a whole. Not to diminish the group effort, of course, but Nguyuza’s verses on songs like “Morning Sun” and “Full Price” . The reunited lineup playing this show—Mark Marsh on drums, Mark Sieganthaler on keyboards, Shanan Galligan on guitar, Brett Farrey on bass, Bryan Elliot on horns, plus Dragland and Nguyuza—has also been working on new music. —Scott Gordon
The new monthly series Bangers & Mash (full disclosure: I’m supposed to play some records at a future installment, also I have know idea why they’re calling it that) will combine a dance night and an open-eared music showcase, featuring local artists and an intentional, inclusive atmosphere. It’s organized by activist/organizer/gallerist Lydia Roussos and Madison musicians Allison Geyer and Ross Adam (both of Exploration Team), and Chris Joutras (of Kitschy Spirit Records, The Momotaros, and several other local bands). Presiding over the dance-party portion at this first installment (in the late half of the evening) will be DJ Lauden, aka Lauden Nute of the TV Dinner DJs, who spins fun, deep, and cheeky sets that reach across vintage R&B, ’80s hip-hop, synth-pop, and more far-flung corners of electronic music. DJ Nervhq will be spinning a mix of 2010s hip-hop and oddball pop from the ’70s and ’80s.
Earlier in the night, the live-music portion of the event will kick off with Tom Grrrl, a Madison project blasting out scrappy punk that balances effusive melodies with scratchy production. Next up is Terran, the solo project of Madison musician Terrance Barrett. Terran sometimes showcases the kind of brain-scrambling guitar heroics Barrett contributes to psych-rock outfit Carbon Bangle, but it’s way more free-form and oriented around synths, sequencers, and disorienting sonic manipulation. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 1
After the relative disappointment that was Eaux Claires’ bougie surprise lineup, and Summerfest’s yearly bumper-car pileup, this year’s Los Dells fest could very well stake its claim for Wisconsin’s best overall music festival. Across the big-font artists, Puerto Rico’s Bad Buddy is most worth catching. At the forefront of the ever-expanding Latin trap genre, Bad Bunny has the same tendencies of English-speaking trap artists like Lil Uzi Vert and Travi$ Scott, complete with auto-tuned flows and ad libs, but with different rhyme schemes applied over tracks that pull from Latin and tropical music traditions rather than American ones.
Further down the card, but perhaps he shouldn’t be, is Eliades Ochoa of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. No single paragraph could capture the importance a group that is both a considerable artistic force and also a human revival archive of Cuba’s musical revolution that happened before its actual revolution. Even seeing one member, in this case Ochoa, would be comparable to seeing all the other genres that form the cumulative inheritance of all of the different cultural histories that have informed Cuba’s musical traditions.
Finally, a low-billed artist not to miss is the youngster Cuco. Born Omar Banos in Los Angeles, Cuco’s self-produced bedroom pop is simply composed with striking straightforwardness. His lyrics are sad and often saccharine: “Family calls me crazy, and my friends say I’m degenerate / But you tell me I’m so generous, and my self-worth’s in opinions,” on the seven-minute “Lover Is A Day.” Cuco’s simple production allows his sincerity to shine through, making the highs uplifting and lows ever the more cutting. —Henry Solo
Nathan and David Zellner’s new film Damsel, which kicks off UW-Cinematheque’s fall 2018 season, is a self-conscious remix of the Western genre, transformed from its gritty nationalistic origins into a kind of slapstick rom-com. Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) stars as a dandy pioneer whose backstory is nicely shaded in an early scene. He saunters into a saloon, guitar slung across his back, and orders a fancy porter beer, only to find that the institution only serves whiskey. These are universal issues we’re still dealing with today. After he mines the bartender for information, we learn Samuel is in town to hire an alcoholic upstart preacher (David Zellner) to officiate his wedding to his beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), who waits somewhere across the desert.
As Parson Henry and Samuel learn a little something about each other, Samuel is revealed as cold-blooded in other, more insidious ways than the brute force of early western villains and antiheroes. He’s like a frontier sad-boy—a flawed-protagonist with unlimited stores of cash, a smooth tongue, and a gun he’s so-so at shooting. Then, halfway through the story, Penelope rips the narrative out from under Samuel in a tremendous turn that is Damsel‘s best, most intense moment, especially given the generally slow pacing of the rest of the film.
Unlike Damsel‘s predecessors, late westerns like McCabe And Mrs. Miller, that began to deconstruct cool displays of masculinity as a political critique of America’s toxic expansion, Damsel makes a lateral move in radicalizing the genre by leaning in to being extremely dialogue driven. The movie is so brimming with drama that the stony faces of John Ford heroes would be treated in this world as absolute weirdos. That being said, it’s true that pioneers must have had emotional lives, so perhaps this portrayal is closer to reality than the trope-filled media that helped cement the glorified image of America’s burgeoning empire. The unique fluidity of identity that was available to white people moving to the West is a major theme of Damsel, and the audience watches characters change their lives in mere seconds. In the first scene, Henry transforms as if via magic ritual from a depressed widower into a depressed priest, when the priest before him on the way out gives up his bible and clothes.
While the film goes to great lengths to show you that it’s a progressive, revisionary western, constantly proving that the eponymous damsel does not need to be saved, it’s possible that the movie may falter somewhat in its portrayal of Native Americans. One indigenous character, Zacharia (Joe Billingiere) shows up towards the end, after Parson Henry is constantly curious and asking where the “noble savages” are throughout the film. It’s not necessarily for me to say, but it’s one aspect of the movie that bears further discussion. —Reid Kurkerewicz
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 2
Cinematheque kicks off its series on the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder with the appropriately bleak and sexy 1975 film Fox And His Friends. In this mid-career melodrama, Fassbinder plays a carnival-sideshow attraction who desperately wants to win the lottery after losing this job, and he soon succeeds. His working-class charm and newfound coin land him in the lap of Eugen, the son of an industrial printer, and the two begin a relationship that juxtaposes the class identities of the two men. The catch is that Eugen and Fox’s economic situations are reversed, with the former worker paying for all kinds of consumption while the trust-fund baby’s family business is suddenly out of cash. Eugen slowly attempts to warp Fox’s identity to suit his new community, and siphons the money away from him with a series of emotional appeals that culminate in a huge loan to keep the printing business afloat. For many Fassbinder films, explaining plot details can make things sound unbearably depressing. But this story reaches such ironic heights that you are forced to laugh at these silly, dramatic people, who seem to understand themselves to be living in a soap-opera even as the world around them is faded and dull.
Fassbinder himself was often derided in the West German press for his open bisexuality, yet there is little antagonism against bisexuality shown in the film. While Fox And His Friends does fall victim to one trope of early queer cinema, wherein a gay character must die, homosexuality is not actually a central problem in the story. Fox And His Friends sharply depicts one oppressed group of people indulging in social control at the expense of another, as upper-class gay men are sheltered from repercussions when they prey on poorer lovers. Fassbinder may have picked this world of bourgeois men (there are few prominent female characters) to partially sideline a gendered power imbalance and shine a light on the intricate privileges of wealth. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Metallica has given its fans 37 years of meteoric highs and perplexing lows, but it’s still exciting to get a chance to see one of metal’s most influential bands. Even if you don’t exactly see the point of Metallica’s last three (or so (or more)) albums, or find yourself permanently embarrassed by the amazing childish meltdowns of the 2004 documentary Some Kind Of Monster, the band has enough sense and showmanship to keep a lot of their best material in their live sets. A few Master Of Puppets– and Ride The Lightning-era numbers should make this show worth it. Just enjoy the grandiose gravelly spectacle of it all and don’t overthink it—the band almost certainly isn’t. —Scott Gordon
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