The triumphant return of Mitski, the 13th Line Breaks Festival, jazz from David Cooper, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Scott Gordon, Edwanike Harbour, Caleb Oakley, Grant Phipps, and Reid Kurkerewicz
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THURSDAY MARCH 28
Andrew Bujalski is essentially the godfather of mumblecore, a filmmaking movement that is not unified by any stretch of the imagination. In some of mumblecore’s hallmarks—non-professional actors, naturalistic dialogue, and slice-of-life portraits—one can feel the strong influence of auteurs like Rohmer and Cassavetes. Funny Ha Ha (2002) was Bujalski’s first full-length feature, and the director will be visiting Madison to participate in a Q&A after this screening. (The budgets and target audience have gotten slightly bigger for Bujalski over the years, as anyone who caught his 2018 film Support The Girls at last year’s Wisconsin Film Festival can attest.)
Funny Ha Ha‘s protagonist, Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), seems to have anticipated the stereotypes about “millennials” that dominate our cultural discourse today. She graduated from college but is going from odd job to odd job. She has not quite left her partying ways behind in her quest to find love. She takes nothing with any sustainable amount of seriousness, including her love life in addition to her professional life. In Marnie’s story, Bujalski captures the bleak outlook and virtual helplessness of a group of people who were promised the world and found a void at the end of the rainbow. —Edwanike Harbour
FRIDAY MARCH 29
In a weekend that finds acclaimed indie director Andrew Bujalski visiting UW-Madison campus, he’ll introduce and discuss two of his most popular features at the Cinematheque: His 2002 debut Funny Ha Ha and the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival retro favorite Computer Chess. The latter is Bujalski’s most confidently surrealistic venture, a 1980s period piece that dispenses with cliches in favor of comically cerebral fourth-wall-breaking and the progressive dissolution of its own analog reality.
The film begins rather innocuously as several coders (all men sans one Shelly Flintic, played by Robin Schwartz) convene at a nondescript Midwestern hotel for a computer chess tournament. As they all name their artificial intelligence programs that calculate various moves on a 64-square chess board, newscaster-like host Pat Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary) reveals the grand prize of $7,500, which is of slight importance compared to the true reward of besting him, a self-proclaimed “chess master.”
From here, Computer Chess zeroes in on the nascent, bespectacled Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), who incidentally uncovers hidden links between human desire and AI as he plunges into existential questions of the strategy game itself. These revelations become amusingly, awkwardly enmeshed with Peter’s chance encounter with two married swingers and new age acolytes, Dave and Pauline (Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams). In its latter half, the film transcends the boundaries of all genre labels, evoking everything from the crooked comic narratives of Charles Burns to Spike Jonze’s Her, also released in 2013. —Grant Phipps
Trumpeter and UW-Platteville music professor David Cooper contributes extensively to Madison’s jazz community (and performed in classical music settings, including with the Madison Symphony Orchestra) without always drawing a ton of attention to himself. But his second album as a bandleader, 2015’s The Journey, showcases a restless composer at work, from the teetering, waltz-like rhythms of “Merge Left” to the plaintive “Stardust” to the stately chordal buildups of “Slippery When Wet.” As some of those song titles suggest, the album is framed around the simple concept of a road trip, but Cooper also uses that framing to explore his own life-or-death journey of recovering from throat cancer. Cooper tends to play boldly on The Journey, keeping his trumpet pretty front and center in a way that honors the instrument’s flexibility and tonal depth. He plays here in a quartet he’s calling Quad, with drummer Devin Drobka, saxophone player Jonathan Greenstein and bassist John Christensen. —Scott Gordon
SUNDAY MARCH 31
The legendary 1930 World War I film All Quiet On The Western Front, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, remains an essential achievement of anti-war art. The film’s innovative sound design alone makes for a disorienting experience, one that director Lewis Milestone enhances with his visual approach. The central, anti-climactic battle scene arrives with little forewarning, and drills the viewer into a hypnotic trauma, as we lose track of the powerless protagonist, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), in explosions and fog. You can’t even tell which direction the camera faces, and the opposed bodies blend together. Amidst the sea of dying boys, Louis Wolheim’s depiction of the grizzled veteran Stanislaus Katczinsky remains a testament to humanity barely scraping by, as the war-ridden man cares for the teenage soldiers while barely surviving himself.
In their intermittent dialogues in the film’s few moments of lucidity, the soldiers discuss nationalism as a total absurdity, an illusion that exists only in the speeches of proselytizers like Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy). The movie begins with the professor’s declaration that it is good to die for one’s country, leading the schoolboys off towards boot camp, and then the front lines, where they are slowly picked off by bullets or barbed wire, or ground down into isolation and madness. For nothing. The idealistic schoolboys’ performances begin as if they know they’re in a patriotic war movie, but all degrade into silence and brooding. The film ends before the war does, leaving the audience with only the corpses and the endless, cyclical monstrosity of meaningless competition. —Reid Kurkerewicz
WEDNESDAY APRIL 3
The annual Line Breaks festival showcases work from students (and alums) of UW-Madison’s First Wave hip-hop arts program, who over the years have built an ever-evolving community that embraces music, dance, spoken-work, visual art, filmmaking, and theater. The word “multidisciplinary” gets thrown around a lot in academia these days, but these artists are truly living it in the most fertile of ways. The 13th Line Breaks, like past editions, focuses heavily on performance, including a closing-night music showcase with artists including Basi and Synovia Alexis and a variety of group and one-person shows that you can expect to incorporate varied elements of theater, movement, and poetry (from performers including Ricardo Cortez de la Cruz II, Jasmine Kiah, Isha Camara, and Jamie Dawson). James Dante Gavins, an accomplished dancer and musician who graduated from First Wave and now runs a youth performing arts program at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Green Bay, will be on hand for a workshop and performance. Poet Natasha Oladokun, the program’s inaugural First Wave Poetry Fellow, will be presenting work alongside some of her creative-writing students. Filmmaker Tiffany Ike will be showcasing several works, and Mackenzie Berry will be discussing her documentary The Louisville Lip, which examines Muhammad Ali’s influence on hip-hop and giving a talk titled “Research in Practice: A Case for Addressing Mass Incarceration through the Arts.” That’s one of quite a few “flash talks” in the lineup this year, which seems to be a pretty new element for the festival. —Scott Gordon
It’s tempting to praise Mitski Miyawaki’s most recent albums, Puberty 2 (2016) and Be The Cowboy (2018), for their brevity alone. Mitski tends to pack her ambitions into tracks that barely run longer than two minutes, creating powerful vignettes that thrive on specificity and humanism. Take the second track of each album: Puberty 2‘s “Dan The Dancer,“ with its punchy guitars and a melody that doesn’t give a damn about your beauty standards, imagines a rich backstory for an inconsequential yet intimate moment with a lover. Be The Cowboy‘s pulsing “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” covers the crushing realization that comes when a soon-to-be ex calls your bluff. Her most acclaimed single, the soaring “Your Best American Girl,” explores the insecurities of dating someone from a different background. Beginning with a single with a single strum, hushed and husky, the song crescendos into fuzzy distortion, simmering down between the choruses with masterful control.
Mistki has never seemed more comfortable or flexible than she does on Cowboy, seamlessly blending the mostly forgotten orchestral sounds of 2013’s Retired From Sad, New Career In Business, and the rockiest influences from the subsequent year’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek, moving from disco-tinged bangers like “Nobody” to delicate piano ballads such as “Two Slow Dancers.” With this level of virtuosity, it’s hard to imagine a scene we could be flung into that would not ring vital and familiar, begging to be further explored before were lurch into the next. —Caleb Oakley
Melina Duterte of opening band Jay Som invests just as much complexity into her own approach to pop songwriting and production, usually with more of a bright and pillowy touch. “O.K., Meet Me Underwater,” recorded during the sessions for 2017’s Everybody Works but released later on a 7-inch, takes just a few lines to sketch out an emotional gulf Duterte isn’t sure how to cross—”I’ve been away, but I haven’t changed / Can’t say the same, you’ve gone your way / You think too much, your time is up / I’ll be a friend, just tell me when”—and she wraps it all in an at once delicate and powerful mix of dream-pop and funk. Tender, at times playful, but never trivial, Duterte pulls together a wealth of melodic ideas on Everybody Works, from the shout-along vocals of “The Bus Song” to the slinking and stretching guitar hooks of “Baybee.” Jay Som released the Adult Swim single “Simple” in February and is working on a new record, so here’s hoping for some new stuff in the set here. —Scott Gordon
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