“Seven Samurai” in 35mm, the return of Slow Pulp, icy ambiance from Syneva, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Maxwell Courtright, Jason Fuhrman, Scott Gordon, Edwanike Harbour, and Henry Solo
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 5
At this point, Stanley Kubrick’s importance and influence is without question. He is one of the most commonly referenced and imitated directors in contemporary film, and his later-period films are staples among the critical elite and college freshmen alike. Most corners of Kubrick’s filmography have been celebrated, critically appraised, and obsessed over about as thoroughly as one could ask for. But the conversation has always been a bit more muted around 1975’s Barry Lyndon. The film’s mammoth runtime and relative lack of compelling drama have set it apart from the director’s post-1960 films as a particularly difficult viewing experience. But this should not deter any potential viewer—the film has beauty to spare, and a subtle self-awareness that sets it miles ahead of many similar historical epics.
Barry Lyndon follows Redmond Barry as he climbs the social ladder from an Irish common-man to an English aristocrat, before ultimately falling back into personal ruin and obscurity. In a comment on the corrosive nature of power, Barry’s crafty wit is used to more and more craven ends as he gets closer to truly elite status. When this status is threatened, its shallow nature pushes him further into isolation and paranoia as he approaches financial ruin.
This being a Kubrick film, it goes without saying that Barry Lyndon‘s artistic direction and cinematography are exacting and tightly executed. Though Kubrick is often associated with the Hitchcockian “actors-as-cattle” approach, one can also squint to find a truly humane performance by Ryan O’Neal through the film’s painterly remove. The film’s epilogue title card re-frames everything that came before as a sort of existential tragedy; despite Barry’s jockeying for power and immortality, none of it ultimately matters in the annals of history. It’s a testament to the loving artistic detail and low-key humanity that precedes it that this comment, far from feeling tacked-on or lazy, radically recontextualizes the film in a way that makes it one of the great historical epics of the 20th century. —Maxwell Courtright
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 6
In the course of moving from Madison to Chicago, the locally formed quartet Slow Pulp has expanded on the nucleus of its lush pop sound. On Big Day, their EP from earlier this year, Emily Massey (vox, guitar), Henry Stoehr (guitar), Alex Leeds (bassist), and Teddy Matthews (drums) have developed a stronger sense of cohesion in their songwriting. Compare the EP’s last track, “Young World,” to the closing track of 2017’s EP2, “Preoccupied.” The latter is more a quilt of many different, yet very colorful components. On it, Massey’s vocals, the guitar riffs and even a saxophone all vie for the listener’s attention.
“Young World,” on the other hand, is a tapestry. As the song unfurls, each thread steadily draws us in the same direction. Each component—the clean, cyclical guitars, Massey’s vocals (here at their most resolute and least ephemeral) and lyrics like “The mock of the year sits on a table / Decorated by the paintings of the youthful,” and the subtly funky rhythm section—builds upon the next. The song leads the listener on an impressionist tale of youthfully gazing at the world, only to have the world stare back. Slow Pulp returns here for its first-ever headlining show in Madison, sharing the bill with two other exciting young rock acts, Disq and Interlay (formerly known as Wash).—Henry Solo
Whenever I hear that A24 is putting out a new release, I make time in my schedule to see it. I look ahead of every schedule in the theaters in Madison (and beyond if necessary) to pick out an optimal date and time. And I can’t be the only one, given the long runs that recent A24 films like The Lighthouse and Midsommar have enjoyed in local theaters. You can imagine my dismay when I did not see a single theater in this state picking up Trey Edward Shults’ Waves (2019) on its scheduled wide released date of November 15. UW Cinematheque did snag a one-off promotional screening on November 7, but Point Cinema is finally picking up the slack on a theatrical run. After Shults’ 2015 entry, Krisha, I had high hopes for his next film, and he does not disappoint in this emotional look at a suburban black family trying to piece itself together after a heartbreaking tragedy.
The issue of race is not thrust into full view in Waves. It does not have to be. It sits there silently in the background, toying with our stereotypes and preconceived notions of what it means to be a successful black family in south Florida. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is a star wrestler in high school, and his stern father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), dictating that Tyler goes above and beyond in every facet of his life, pushes him beyond his ability. Ronald teaches Tyler that he needs to be 10 times as good as his white counterparts, because that is the reality of the world. Tyler’s family lives in a beautiful home and are surrounded by presumably all of the material things money can buy, but we quickly see that there is something severely lacking in Tyler’s relationship with his family. Struck by the news that an injury may put his wrestling career on hold indefinitely, Tyler turns to drugs and alcohol to numb his pain. Tyler is physically strong, but not emotionally strong enough to deal with the even more turbulent changes to come, and Harrison’s performance explores the devastating consequences young men face when they need help but don’t ask for it.
Waves is a film about the bonds of love and forgiveness. It also is a film about how even in a person’s absence, they are still very much present in our lives. The film’s third act admittedly takes a much different turn as Luke (Lucas Hedges) enters the picture and strikes up a relationship with Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), but this reinforces the theme of daddy issues either creating opportunities for growth or leading a path to destruction. Shults handles the subject matter with care, and the entire cast turns in solid performances. Waves is the kind of movie we need need more of—the kind that humanizes people who have typically been dehumanized on the silver screen. —Edwanike Harbour
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 7
Even though it runs nearly three and a half hours in length, Seven Samurai (1954) ranks among those rare, ageless cinematic treasures that can be savored again and again in the course of a lifetime. Film critic Kennth Turan once observed that “more than any other kind of cinema, long films done right have the potential to envelop you completely in character and experience,” and this is one of the strongest examples. Akira Kurosawa’s iconic action-adventure saga should absolutely be viewed on the big screen anytime an opportunity arises. The UW Cinematheque featured Seven Samurai as part of a retrospective of the director’s work back in 2010 and has chosen to screen it once more this fall on 35mm. Kurosawa’s masterpiece has been referenced and imitated so frequently that it now feels like an indelible part of our collective consciousness.
Seven Samurai tells the story of a group of masterless samurai warriors, or ronin, who come together to defend a village of impoverished farmers against a marauding army of bandits in war-torn, sixteenth-century Japan. Critic Michael Jeck suggests that this was the first film in which a team is assembled to carry out a mission, an idea which has since become a trope of countless war, heist, and caper movies. Seven Samurai not only inspired two American remakes, rebranded as The Magnificent Seven (1960 and 2016), but also influenced a great many other westerns, particularly those of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and Sergio Leone (Once Upon A Time In The West). Furthermore, the film’s impact can be recognized in a broad range of motion pictures, from the Star Wars franchise and A Bug’s Life (1998) to Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003).
Blending the conventions of the jidai-geki (period drama) with the thrilling pace of a Hollywood action epic, Seven Samurai undoubtedly owes some of its popularity in the West to the fact that it was among the first Japanese films many American viewers had ever seen. Kurosawa, who was considered the most Western of great Japanese directors, introduced a culture that was foreign yet intriguing, and compatible with the tastes of audiences accustomed to the movies of John Ford. By carefully assimilating the grammar of the traditional American western into his samurai saga, Kurosawa would forever change the genre, while constructing a bridge between East and West.
Kurosawa proceeds like a consummate chef, patiently allowing the various ingredients of this sumptuous cinematic feast to simmer until the final hour and a half. Seven Samurai unfolds elegantly and enjoyably as Kurosawa meticulously sets the scene and intimately acquaints us with the many vividly three-dimensional characters, such as Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the exuberant, ragtag fighter who pretends to be a member of the samurai class. The film never lags a moment, maintaining a sense of fluidity while moving toward the climactic clash, a magnificent display of choreographed chaos drenched in torrential rain and famously filmed with multiple cameras. Amidst all the relentless action, Kurosawa adds generous dashes of philosophy, compassion, warmth, and humor. Moreover, he peppers Seven Samurai with just the right amount of moral ambiguity, thus setting it apart from other action movies and creating something far more complex and multifaceted than just a medieval allegory of good versus evil. —Jason Fuhrman
Syneva, the solo project of Madison musician Hendrix Gullixson, has released a steady stream of eerie and icy electronic music over the past two years. From the 2017 album Hearth Field onward, Syneva has combined ambient music’s emphasis on space and texture with a compositional approach that lets fragments of melody drift into each other, building up forlorn layers that occasionally turn to dissonance. Gullixson has put out two releases this year, Diary Of An Aerialist and Ritual II. The latter finds Gullixson focusing heavily on piano, which threads through the gloom with both wandering melodies (“Letters From Neverland”) and tensely repetitive chordal figures (“Steel Cinderella”). Ritual II also manages to bridge the gap between Syneva’s bleak, static-y atmospherics and its more abrasive elements, especially on “Iron Cinderella,” which gradually builds up into crackling distortion without quite breaking its ponderous stride.
Gullixson is currently working on a new EP for the Indianapolis label Healing Sounds Propagandist, due out in January. He’s also been working on switching up his live sets, so the audience at this show can expect to hear some new material, or even material that will never be replicated on record. The setup, Gullixson says, involves bringing together stems from different Syneva tracks and manipulating them in real time with effects, with the goal of “constructing my sets in a way that makes them sound like they are one long evolving piece.” —Scott Gordon