A visit from documentary filmmaker Julia Reichert, a celebration of James Baldwin, challenging improvisation at Café Coda, and more events of note in Madison this week.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 14
Antichrist. Central Library, 6:30 p.m. (free)
The 2009 premier of Antichrist at the Cannes Film Festival quickly established the film as one of Lars Von Trier’s most disturbing and heavy-handed works. Drawing from Von Trier’s own experiences with depression, this film follows a couple’s journey after the tragic death of their newborn son. The unnamed couple, dubbed He (William Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), hide away in the seclusion of the Pacific Northwest woods, where the husband decides to adopt his wife as his own psychotherapy patient. Given the timing of their retreat and basic ethical guidelines of the profession, this is of course a really bad idea. There are plenty of other bad ideas in the mix, and the relationship begins to unravel in a mess of graphic torture, sex, and other seriously, seriously unsettling images.
For those unfamiliar with Von Trier’s attachment to graphic sex and violence, Betsy Sharkey’s 2009 L.A. Times review of the film lays bare his continued exploitation and abuse of women on the screen. Off screen, his behavior is apparently pretty repulsive: Nicole Kidman detailed his abusive tendencies in a 2008 interview, and he faces ongoing allegations of harassment from actor and musician Bjork. Von Trier is an abuser who masks his continued violence in quasi-surrealist films that get a pass because they are shocking.
As for Antichrist, it’s up the viewer to decide if it is just as irredeemable as its maker. The film has its compelling qualities, such as the cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle (28 Days Later, The Last King Of Scotland, Slumdog Millionaire), Gainsbourg’s unnerving portrayal of grief, and a one-part-terrifying, two-parts-“meme”-able scene in which William Dafoe is confronted by a fox that disembowels itself, imparting the cheerful message of “chaos reigns.” Journalist and activist Julie Bindel equated watching the film to “having bad sex with someone you loathe – a hideous combination of sheer boredom and disgust,” so expect this screening at the Madison Public Library’s Cinesthesia series to exact a price whether or not you come away ready to defend the film. —John McCracken
An Evening With James Baldwin. Urban League of Greater Madison, 7 p.m. (free)
There aren’t nearly enough opportunities to celebrate the life and work of James Baldwin in public, and it’d be impossible for one event to do justice to the vastness of his novels and essays, the searing elegance of his prose, or his grasp of spiritual and political truths from which most Americans would rather look away. But Madison-based Fermat’s Last Theater Co. and the Urban League of Greater Madison have organized an event that looks to tap into the power, complexity, and maybe even the joy of Baldwin’s work. The first of a series of literary-themed events Fermat is planning, “An Evening With James Baldwin” brings together a multi-generational group of speakers and performers to examine Baldwin’s spirit and legacy from a variety of angles. (I don’t know if there’s any particular significance to the timing, though the 32nd anniversary of Baldwin’s death is coming up on December 1.)
Melvin Hinton, host of WORT’s Radio Literature, will read passages including Baldwin’s essay “My Dungeon Shook: A Letter To My Nephew.” The piece was first published in Madison’s own The Progressive in 1962, and the next year it served as the opening passage to arguably Baldwin’s greatest non-fiction work, The Fire Next Time. That book’s examination of race, morality, and the corroded American soul resonates as mightily today as ever, and it lends itself well to being read aloud, written as it is in the cadences of a onetime teenage preacher deeply at odds with his upbringing and surroundings. Hinton will also speak about the times he himself met and spoke with Baldwin. Quanda Johnson, a multi-faceted performer and historian currently pursuing a PhD at UW-Madison, will perform some of Baldwin’s poetry, with accompaniment from dancer Akiwele Burayidi (a UW-Madison undergrad) and upright bassist Oliver Gomez (a Sun Prairie High School student), as a nod to Baldwin’s deep engagement with the music of his time. Chances are even the most knowledgeable Baldwin fans will walk away with a fresh perspective on his work. —Scott Gordon
Able Baker, Norris Court, How Boats Work. Tip Top Tavern, 10 p.m. (free)
Madison band Norris Court began playing live this spring, and have quickly made a strong impression, with songs that balance gentle melodies and a stormy undertow. On “My Case,” guitarist/singer Grace Olson’s vocals are just subtle enough to build up a bit of quiet tension during the verses, but forceful enough to help roll the song into its punchy chorus. Guitarist Adam Flottmeyer (who also plays with Olson in Like A Manatee) plays resourceful leads that bring just the right amount of dissonance to the song’s bittersweet jangle, and his nimble solos add an almost grand sense of yearning to “Cataloochie.” It’s nice and catchy up front, but keeps gnawing at you well after the song is over.
In its live sets, Norris Court already sounds focused and dialed-in—even in phone videos from shows, the sound comes through with surprising clarity. Drummer Cam Scheller-Suitor and bassist Alejandra Perez (formerly of Miyha) combine restraint with heft, giving Olson and Flottmeyer’s bright guitars plenty of room to intertwine. This show at the Tip Top will be one of Norris Court’s last in town for a little while, as the band is planning to hunker down and record its debut EP soon. Olson says there will be one brand-new song in the band’s set here, in between fellow Madison outfits Able Baker and How Boats Work. —Scott Gordon
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 15
Jeb Bishop, Damon Smith, Weasel Walter, Jaap Blonk (JeJaWeDa). Café Coda, 8 p.m.
One of the most memorable performances I’ve seen in Madison was a 2015 set at east-side space Threshold from Jaap Blonk. The Dutch avant-garde musician and sound artist is best known for using his voice to string together disembodied syllables, all manner of not-quite verbal mouth and nasal sounds, and bits of language both real and imaginary. At any given moment it may resemble vocal free jazz, abstract poetry, a person trying really hard to imitate a kazoo, or an attempt to wrench pure sound from all the little pipes and cavities in the human neck and head. While it may be playful and at times openly embraces nonsense, Blonk is a deeply disciplined and committed performer and improviser who clearly has a sense of how his sonics should fit together, even when the audience feels a bit disoriented.
Blonk has collaborated widely in avant-garde jazz and other corners of experimental music, as have the three American musicians who join him here: Trombone player Jeb Bishop, bassist Damon Smith, and multi-instrumentalist Weasel Walter (mostly on percussion here). This quartet started performing live in early 2019, and seems to be embracing a pretty wide-open range of improvisational possibilities. Videos from earlier this year capture Blonk contributing his vocal explorations and sharp-edged electronic sounds that he manipulates with what appears to be a video-game controller. Bishop switches between tense, precise trombone passages and occasionally incorporates electronic devices as well, delving into what sounds like abrasive, highly textural synthesis. Smith and Weasel Walter don’t often play like a conventional jazz rhythm section here, instead exploring the stranger acoustic reaches of drumkit and upright bass. Whatever this show at Café Coda ends up actually sounding like, it has the potential to be one of the more outlandish and rewarding improvised performances of late in Madison. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 16
Monsters of Poetry: Bill Carty, Michelle Peñaloza, Andre Perry, Rachel Yoder. Maiahaus, 7 p.m.
The Monsters of Poetry reading series began in 2009 but has taken on new life over the past couple years, pulling together writers from across the country to offer a collage of new American poetry, essays, and fiction right here in Madison, usually in dressed-down or whimsical settings. As the series winds up its Fall 2019 season, it welcomes four poets in the middle of their first national book tours—Bill Carty, Michelle Peñaloza, Andre Perry, and Rachel Yoder—for something of a “Battle of the Book Tours,” in the organizers’ own playful words.
On paper, there’s no strong thematic thread that ties the four writers together. The themes they touch on throughout their work are as disparate as the portraits Peñaloza pulls together from the pieces left scattered by colonial conquest and manifestoes Yoder crafts on the power that women’s erotic desire can manifest in today’s America. That makes this reading more of a literary smorgasbord of sorts, really, than a streamlined four-course prix-fixe meal. But bringing together four writers with very different visions also creates the potential to explore new intertextual possibilities and to celebrate the richness that can be so easily flattened under the umbrella of “contemporary literature.” —Sannidhi Shukla
Seeing Red: Stories Of American Communists. 4070 Vilas Hall, 7 p.m. (free)
If you know one thing about communism in the United States, it is likely something about McCarthyism and the hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Persecution is in the foreground, and the individuals’ perspectives feel lost to history. Julia Reichert and Jim Klein’s Oscar-nominated 1983 documentary Seeing Red: Stories Of American Communists seeks to rectify this, offering a more primary history of the American Communist Party through extensive interviews with former members.
The concept of Communism, historical boogeyman that it is, is likely to garner both positive and negative knee-jerk reactions from viewers. But Reichert and Klein are apt and objective documentarians, taking the American Communist Party at face value, analyzing it as it is: an institution, noble goals and flaws in all. Seeing Red is comprised mostly of archival materials and oral remembrances from members who were active in the Communist Party from the 1930s to the ’50s. Conducting interviews in the 1980s, Reichart and Klein find subjects offering variations on the same realization—that the Communist Party, like any political party, was a concise means to an end for their messily individual belief systems. The latter part of the film calls into question the governing structure of the party at its height, and how it faced a crisis of identity in the face of Stalinism, ultimately losing most of its membership and falling into obscurity.
For fans and skeptics of communism alike, Seeing Red offers a study of the pitfalls that institutions of any size face. With Reichert herself presenting the film at this screening as part of a retrospective on her work at UW Cinematheque, viewers will get to engage with a master documentarian’s own insights at a second layer of historical remove from the original period the film focuses on. Far from quaint or outdated, Seeing Red and this screening of it prove that the questions of how to organize around an ideology are timeless. —Maxwell Courtright
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 18
Exhumed, Gatecreeper, Necrot, Judiciary, Ruin Dweller. Crucible, 7 p.m.
San Jose, California’s Exhumed has finely tuned a disgusting and gritty mix of death metal and grindcore across an off-and-on run that began in the early 1990s. The fast tempos and low growls of Exhumed’s first two albums, Gore Metal (1998) and Slaughtercult (2001), provided the bloody blueprints for modern grindcore to exist in its most raw and visceral form. While extreme genres of metal continue to wrestle with gross cultural tendencies, the influence of foundational bands like Exhumed runs deep. In fact, every band opening for Exhumed on this bill has songs that emulate Matt Harvey’s signature whirring, surgical guitar squeal.
After the band’s 2005 hiatus, Exhumed returned with the 2011 release All Guts, No Glory, which deserves its place on a throne of skulls just for the impact of its first two tracks, “All Guts No Glory” and “As Hammer To Anvil.” The band’s recently released full-length Horror is a more focused exploration of gore-grind. Opening tracks “Unsound” and “Ravenous Cadavers” showcase Exhumed’s ability to truly hone a craft. While the genre is known for low growls, squealing guitars, and pummeling drums, the formula can at times grow stale, making even a brief track like “Scream Out In Fright” feel a bit dull and overlong. Despite the occasional disappointment, Horror on the whole delivers on concept and style. The band still knows how to work the extremes of grindcore to its advantage, by creating simple, macabre songs that only last a few seconds, like “Utter Mutiilation of Your Corpse” and “Dead Meat.” One of the most exciting songs on this album appears as a bonus track: “Re-Entry and Destruction,” running more than twice as long as a typical Exhumed song, with blackened riffs that spend minutes beating the listener to death.
While it’s quite possible that Arizona based death metal act Gatecreeper wouldn’t exist without Exhumed, this impressive group has left its own strong imprint on heavy music by releasing one of the best albums of the year, Deserted. The influence from Exhumed is undeniable on tracks like “Puncture Wounds” and “In Chains,” but what Gatecreeper does best is taking a methodical approach to doom metal. Stretching grind tracks into a soaring, searing sonic blade, lead guitarist Eric Wagner has a penchant for squealing highs and murky, blackened riffs that showcase the grimy aspects of doom and death metal entangled with grind.
California’s Necrot hews to a classic death-metal sound with tinges of crust punk buried underneath pummeling grind on its 2017 release Blood Offerings, while Lubbock, Texas hardcore/thrash-metal act Judiciary opens the night with songs from it first full length, Surface Noise, released this year, evoking late-’90s hardcore with crunchy, squealing black metal riffs and breakneck drumming. Ruin Dweller is a late addition to this bill, but it’s worth showing up in time for the Madison band’s powerfully executed death metal. —John McCracken
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 20
The Image You Missed. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 7 p.m.
Dónal Foreman, the director of the 2018 essay film The Image You Missed, is the son of Arthur MacCaig, an American expat who spent much of his filmmaking career documenting The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Though he has more native claim to Ireland himself, Foreman is not as interested in the conflict itself as his father was, and spends his new film searching for his estranged father through his work.
Foreman crafts the bulk of The Image You Missed out of excerpts from his father’s films documenting the prolonged violence over British rule in Northern Ireland, alternating them with his own forays into filmmaking as a child and young adult. While his father was a deeply committed political filmmaker, Foreman ultimately strains to find the same urgency in his own work, which he acknowledges when including his own less-than-enlightening footage of the Occupy Wall Street protests. By comparing their films, Foreman aims to construct an identity for his father through artistic contrast.
Like many essay films and experimental-leaning documentaries, the main focus of The Image You Missed is the process of filmmaking itself. Where his father viewed filmmaking as an important social tool to capture an “objective” reality of the Troubles, Foreman’s own approach is more postmodern and bogged down by the feeling that he can never capture the true essence of anything. Linking his own perceived failure to document the Occupy protests with the difficulty he faces constructing an identity for his father through second-hand materials, the film traces the medium’s shortcomings in creating both personal and cultural memory. Though it’s structurally and thematically challenging, the film is an investigation of process that grounds that search in more heartbreaking and relatable questions of how we construct memories of our loved ones, particularly those who were barely there to begin with. —Maxwell Courtright
11/14: Kris Kristofferson. Barrymore, 7:30 p.m.
11/14: Nox Boys, Bobkat’65, Roboman, Mad Max Elliott. Mickey’s Tavern, 10 p.m. (free)
11/15: Olivia. UW Cinematheque. 7 p.m. (free)
11/15: Cocktails In The Conservatory: DJ Boyfrrriend. Olbrich Botanical Gardens, 7 p.m.
11/15: Proud Parents, Platinum Boys, We Should Have Been DJs. Art In, 8 p.m.
11/16: Paul Dietrich Jazz Ensemble. Brink Lounge. 7:30 p.m.
11/16: Bent Antenna, Squarewave, The Delicate Delegate. Art In, 7:30 p.m.
11/17: Juke Girl. Chazen Museum of Art. 2 p.m. (free)
11/17: Mister T (Polish Film Festival). Union South Marquee. 3 p.m. (free)
11/17: Playing Hard (Polish Film Festival). Union South Marquee. 5:30 p.m. (free)
11/19: Arts + Literature Laboratory “Groundbreaking” Ceremony. 111 S Livingston St., 4 p.m.