New shorts at Mills Folly Microcinema, Mariame Kaba on the prison-industrial complex, an album-release show from Blaha, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Ian Adcock, Edwanike Harbour, Reid Kurkerewicz, Grant Phipps, Henry Solo, and David Wolinsky
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THURSDAY NOVEMBER 29
The Mills Folly Microcinema series returns for its second showcase of short films since its inaugural screening this summer at ALL. “Film-Makers’ Cooperative: New Work 2018” focuses exclusively on the New York-based, artist-run distributor of the exemplary avant-garde. Curated by FMC members Mary Billyou, Carolina Mandia, and Courtney Muller, this 77-minute program boasts 11 shorts of varying lengths that have all premiered in recent years.
Maybe the most intellectually stimulating here, Johnny Welch’s Sonic Intangible (2016), is a vital commentary on artistic perception and creation, which also doubles as a musical travelogue through the musical underground of London, Berlin, and Paris. Collectively, its three sections form a cohesive essay with accompanying voiceover, beginning with Max Leonard Hitchings, who characterizes the transportive power of the medium through his noisy industrial rock stage moniker Amnertia. The middle section heads to Berlin for Zoé Zanias (of Keluar)’s postulating on rhythm. The rapid-fire drum machine beats of her darkwave synthpop act’s profiled song, “Rivers,” conjure Portishead’s “Machine Gun.” Parisian musique concrète noisemaker Andy Bolus of Evil Moisture concludes this 16-minute short with further abstract ruminations on identity and intention.
Other works are driven more by clever, intoxicating visual juxtapositions and loops like Maria Niro and Angela Christlieb’s 8-minute In An Alien Land (2017), which feels at once perennial and critically contemporary. Its given title, skyward imagery, and ambient sound mix initially evoke the cover art and haunting songs of Grouper’s A I A: Alien Observer record, but Niro and Christlieb’s lens is increasingly upon the parallels and divergences of the natural world and cityscapes. Through the manipulation of dual-screen format, the co-directors glimpse into intersecting timelines and daunting social disintegration that’s compounded by an avian, even Hitchcockian foreboding.
The complete list of films, which includes narrative and documentary selections from directors native to Spain, Uruguay, and Hong Kong, also highlights the latest found-footage experiment, Zoom (2018), from Beloit’s own Mark Street. —Grant Phipps
In the new book Settlin’: Stories Of Madison’s Early African American Families, lifelong Madisonian and retired educator Muriel Simms uses 25 oral-history interviews to deepen a chapter that’s often left out of the story Madison likes to tell about itself. The black families who put down roots in Madison in the late 19th and early 20th centuries may have been relatively few in number—Simms reports that about 143 African-Americans lived here by 1910. But they went about building communities and resilient institutions, from the state’s first black newspaper (the Wisconsin Weekly Blade) to Hill’s Grocery, which operated for 65 years at 649 E. Dayton St., to civic organizations focused on battling discrimination and improving African-Americans’ access to education and economic opportunity. Simms’ interviews, mostly with the descendants of these families, also shed light on life in the Greenbush, a neighborhood just south of the UW-Madison campus where African-Americans lived alongside Italian and Jewish immigrant families until the city’s urban-renewal policies gutted the area in the 1950s and ’60s.
The people Simms interviewed for the book include Pia Kinney James, who was the first woman of color to become a Madison police officer and Beatrice Russey Gulley, who worked on a pioneering TV cooking show with her husband, the renowned chef Carson Gulley. Simms lets them all speak in their own voices, but presents their recollections with a great sense of narrative cohesion. Just a few interviews into Settlin’, the reader begins to develop a vivid sense of how deeply intertwined Madison’s early black families really were—interviewees frequently refer to not just the same landmarks and institutions, but also to each other’s families, including Simms’ own, which put down roots here after her mother moved to Madison in 1935. Taken collectively, the interviews offer a range of nuanced perspectives on the black experience in Madison, and along the way we catch glimpses of historic characters including Fighting Bob LaFollette and Duke Ellington. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants a better understanding of Madison’s past and more context for the racism and inequality that still pervade the city today. —Scott Gordon
Activist and educator Mariame Kaba has tackled the roles of race and violence in American society on a multitude of fronts, and is best known for her work on prison abolition and stopping police violence against marginalized communities. Kaba takes a holistic view of what such change will look like, and views economic justice and community-based approaches to public safety and accountability as essential in doing away with a violent, discriminatory criminal justice system. Kaba has worked on a variety of other issues connected to systemic oppression and racial injustice, from domestic violence to empowering youth activism. Her approach to organizing and advocacy is similarly multi-faceted: Kaba has created and taught courses on subjects ranging from youth advocacy to police torture in Chicago, organized art exhibitions, worked tirelessly as a speaker, started the website Prison Culture, and published extensively to spread her message(s) and empower marginalized communities. And that’s really only scratching the surface. At this event, Kaba will give a one-hour lecture titled “Dismantling The Prison-Industrial Complex,” followed by a 30-minute Q&A. —Scott Gordon
Many mistake Lewis Black for a cartoon character, or a guy pretending to be as angry as he is onstage. But the truth is that Black hearkens back to the biting satirical comedy of George Carlin and Bill Hicks, understanding that it’s okay to talk about really depressing shit that affects us all so long as you are really fucking funny—and don’t go for the obvious joke. While his acidic wrath is understandably a turn-off for many, his live act isn’t all doom and gloom. On 2012’s In God We Rust, he lays into Valentine’s Day—not for its commercial crassness, but for the poor planning that went into having it on February. His most recent, 2017’s Black To The Future, has no shortage of political material, with bits on Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, Ben Carson, the Affordable Care Act, and, of course, Trump, but everyday idiocy still remains a healthy target in his jokes about overzealous pet lovers and, uh, the wisdom of bears.
Acerbic, self-aware, and able to take equal-opportunity shots at the futility of violent anger, Black is an interesting animal. Since his comedy is so emotionally driven, he has been known to go on tirades that are either self-serving or so esoteric—or rote, for that matter—that he seems to not care whether everyone else in the room is with him. Some strange, but true, examples include Black groaning about golfer foibles or people who spend too much money on clothes for their pets. (Pets come up a lot.) Regardless of where Black is going on any given night, rest assured that he is tapping into something real and deeply felt.
Although for most he’s synonymous with Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Black had been and continues to make regular appearances both in the Craig Kilborn era (starting in the mid-’90s, if you can believe it) and in the Trevor Noah era (starting in 2015, if you can believe it) with his “Back in Black” segment. These appearances compress Black’s simmering stage persona into a breakneck, hunched-over rant about something in the news, which these days includes being baffled at people’s outrage at how much Donald Trump golfs and running down the absurd lengths schools are forced to go to in preventing shootings without government intervention on the Second Amendment. In an age when it’s easier than ever to panic and jump to sweeping, reductive conclusions about the world and where it’s headed, Black’s way of processing the madness is as essential as ever. —David Wolinsky
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 30
Existential dread comes in many forms in horror and thriller films. Some directors spread it across the screen with gratuitously orchestrated scenes, but there are times when not knowing exactly what is going on provokes an even more powerful, sickening sense of anxiety. True masters know when to dial it back enough that a particular sense of doom and panic begins to envelop their viewers, and 1988’s The Vanishing (1988) exemplifies that approach.
This critically acclaimed slow burn from George Sluizer examines a man’s search for his girlfriend, who disappears while he waits for her outside of a gas station while on holiday in France. Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) are going cycling and engaging in the banter that couples do on long road trips. You see tiny cracks in the relationship during their journey. At their core, however, they are loving and seem committed to one another. We watch the frustration build as Rex is waiting for Saskia to come out of a gas station, only she never does. Rex still feels the pangs of loss three years later as he resumes the search for her. He has to decide how far he is willing to go, however, when presented with clues regarding her disappearance.
To say much more would take away from the tense viewing experience of this film. It does wrestle with the viewer’s sense of wanting to know the details of that day versus being able to infer what actually happened. As is the case with Prisoners, Inception, and A Serious Man, the cliff hangers leave with less of a gut punch than a bleak foreboding. Stick with the original rather than the American remake for a full-on experience of brooding suspense. —Edwanike Harbour
SATURDAY DECEMBER 1
Hypnotic and erotic, 1947’s Black Narcissus is a colorful masterpiece of British film-making. Co-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a number of prestigious films throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but Black Narcissus was one of their most daring accomplishments. Black Narcissus centers around Sister Clodagh, a young, inexperienced nun who is sent to the Himalayas to start a convent on the edge of a mountain. The nuns are up against a number of challenges: the altitude, the remote location, and the relentless, madness-inducing winds stir up strange emotions in each of them. Add to this the presence of hunky, cynical British agent Mr. Dean, a pair of star-crossed young lovers, and the increasingly unstable Sister Ruth, and it’s only a matter of time before the sisters start to lose a grasp on reality and their faith.
A lurid psycho-sexual battle of the spirit and the flesh, Black Narcissus is driven by its unforgettable imagery. Shooting in Technicolor in a studio in England, Powell and Pressburger used models and matte paintings to create the story’s exotic locale. The use of vibrant and muted color palettes are used to contrast the nuns’ repressed English background with the culture they are trying to “civilize,” and Sister Ruth’s deteriorating mental state is expressed through a bold red palette that erupts at the film’s climax. Since it is a film set in India that was filmed in London, there is a lot of unfortunate brownface acting in Black Narcissus that has not aged well—former child star Sabu is the only actual Indian actor with dialogue in the film—resulting in some cringe-inducing performances. Still, this is a riveting, sensuous classic that truly deserves to be seen on a big screen. —Ian Adcock
Mike Blaha has already made a pretty incredible contribution to Midwestern rock ‘n’ roll as a member of The Blind Shake, a ferocious trio that plays clangy, surf-infused punk. But Mike and sibling/bandmate Jim Blaha have spent a lot more time branching out into other projects over the past few years, with Mike leading a quartet simply called Blaha, which plays here to celebrate the new album Survival Climb, released on Madison-based No Coast Records. In The Blind Shake, Mike plays a baritone guitar that helps to give that band its distinctively tinny-but-transportive sound, and shares lead vocal duites with his brother. Here, he switches to guitar and lead vocals and explores a slightly more dense sonic approach with bassist Allison Gunderson, drummer Noah Paster, and guitarist Dylan Rosen.
Plenty of songs on Survival Climb could fit into a Blind Shake set without anyone blinking, especially the 90-second pile-driver “Spare Time.” But even on these tracks, Mike Blaha and bandmates find room for chunky descending riffs and just a bit more dynamic variety than one typically finds in The Blind Shake’s bracing, austere songs. Gunderson sets up “I’m The Captain” with an oddball-dub bass part, and the song expands with slinky melodies from an organ and a flugelhorn. On “Hang Your Head Up” and “New Bloodline,” there’s yet more nuanced rhythm and sonic texture to make Blaha the band compelling in its own right, not just an offshoot of an already great band. —Scott Gordon
SUNDAY DECEMBER 2
West German auteur filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first great commercial success, The Marriage Of Maria Braun (1978), opens with an Adolf Hitler portrait exploding into pieces, as Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries a Nazi officer in the midst of World War II. After Germany crumbles around her and her husband, Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch), is captured, we follow Mrs. Braun during the ensuing West German economic depression. Maria forges a new life as she waits for her husband, falling for an American soldier who frequents the bar she works in. When Hermann returns, Maria accidentally kills her new lover in an ensuing scuffle, but Hermann goes to jail instead. While he’s locked up, again, Mrs. Braun transforms herself into a formidable businesswoman, and her constantly shifting character development emerges as the film’s primary focus. Here Fassbinder successfully marries the pomp and accessibility of Hollywood-style filmmaking with his depressing obsession with mundane power balances, simultaneously producing a critique of post-war capitalism. —Reid Kurkerewicz
MONDAY DECEMBER 3
Across eight albums and almost 20 years, Stars have turned cinematic pop songwriting into a finely tuned process. The Toronto six-piece’s two lead vocalists, Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, often sing as characters, sometimes recurring ones, amid sweeping instrumental arrangements. This makes many of Stars’ songs almost feel like they were taken out of musicals—especially those scenes where multiple characters are in dialogue. This is especially true on the band’s latest single, this year’s “Are You With Me,” on which Campbell sings elegiacally and in the second person to a lost love before trying to reignite that flame. The most compelling moments are when Millan comes in as said lost love, providing harmony at times and joining Campbell in unison on the chorus to repeat of the titular phrase of “Are you with me?” and its variants.
Still, musicals have intermissions, whereas Stars albums do not. When almost all of a record’s songs are fixed on capturing the highest and lowest moments of existence—all climax, all the time—it erases all of those in-between mundanities of the day-to-day and can cause emotional fatigue. This is where Stars could take a page from this show’s opener, My Brightest Diamond.
The solo project of Detroit vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/producer Shara Nova, MBD joins Stars on the heel of her 2018 album, A Million And One. Like her past records, A Million is content to allow melodies and lyrics ride out and meander, rather than always try to build concrete narratives. Nova’s production is also often dark and sparse, with synth chords and syncopated percussion taking up large swaths of songs. Nova’s songs can still reach emotional highs amid all that restraint, and she does just that on the hook of “Sway,” where she breaks suddenly into the song’s chorus with the help of a distorted Chuck Berry-esque guitar riff. But it’s effective because she also takes her time to go from one to the other, and in doing so, show us everything in between. —Henry Solo
WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 5
Perhaps Hale County This Morning, This Evening‘s most significant contribution to the landscape of current independent cinema is its devotion to the narratives of lesser cinematically represented communities in Alabama. In a film that shares the inquisitive, aching, roaming spirit of Britni West’s Tired Moonlight (an undersung 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival highlight), teacher-turned-director RaMell Ross continually attempts to inspire conversation and opportunity simply through the steadiness of video documentation in this, his first feature.
As a glowing, impressionistic 76-minute tone poem and a send-off for this year’s Spotlight Cinema series at MMoCA, 2018’s Hale County most significantly transcends three-act structure and traditional documentary forms in its efforts to add idiosyncratic dimension and humanity to the struggles, both immediate and long-term, of a small Southern town. While the sentiment is sweeping and universal, Ross takes particular interest in Selma University student and aspiring basketball star Daniel Collins as well as young father Quincy Bryant, his girlfriend Boosie, and their toddler Kyrie.
Complemented by Ross’ penchant for time-lapse photography, Hale County‘s scenes vary in length—from a few mere seconds that are woven into kinetic montages to stationary minutes of psychological reveal. Both a prevailing boisterousness and tragic gravity are overshadowed by recurring suggestions of institutional oppression and racial profiling embedded into the fabric of everyday life in America. In one sequence, Ross intriguingly builds upon this with an extended first-person POV tracking shot through a town’s main artery that concludes with re-staged, re-contextualized silent film footage of a prowler that was once acceptably used to demonize black people. While Thai art house director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is strikingly credited as Ross’ creative adviser, it’s progressively evident this hybrid of documentary and narrative also takes critical influence from the likes of Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) as well as social activist-writer W.E.B. Du Bois. —Grant Phipps
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