“Seadrift” at UW Cinematheque, Pollinators at MIckey’s Tavern, and more events of note in Madison this week.
Sponsor message: The weekly Tone Madison calendar is made possible with support from Union Cab of Madison, a worker-owned cooperative providing safe and professional taxi services.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 3
Since its initial release in 1966, John Frankenheimer’s prescient darkly comedic psychological sci-fi thriller Seconds has resonated not only in the cinema landscape but in a paranoid, ever-shifting reality governed by technology and avatars. The film’s shrewdly conceptual, satirical layering of second chances (invoking its multifarious title), synthetically vicarious experiences, and labyrinthine bureaucracy clearly exerted an influence on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990), David Fincher’s The Game (1997), and even Being John Malkovich (1999). Seconds is an undeniably fascinating artistic statement of the Swinging Sixties, a decade when countercultural psychedelia existed alongside fears of nuclear annihilation. The film is obsessed with the possibilities of physical transformation, and combines its more modern aesthetics with loopy tributes to bygone Sirkian melodrama and film noir fundamentals.
Adapted from David Ely’s novel, the narrative’s turns envelop a bored, middle-aged, well-to-do banking executive, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who is systematically stalked down in Grand Central Station, handed nothing but a street address, and then phoned in his home by a once-vanished friend. These mysterious encounters lead him to a clandestine “rehabilitation” Company that is as nameless as its own founder (Will Geer). Once there, Arthur learns that, through costly surgical procedures and a carefully orchestrated scheme, the Company will stage his own death so he can assume a new identity and life (almost like a perversely elitist witness protection program). The men exclusively in charge offer an amusing disclaimer or caveat about an ensuing but momentary adjustment period in this renovated body with antecedent mind; but, in fact, it’s more of an opportunity to indefinitely surveil Arthur’s re-emergence as the younger, Adonis-like Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson) in scenic Malibu.
Frankenheimer wastes no opportunity to lambaste the American Dream’s tethering to the failings of capitalism, demonstrating how the wealthy are capable of buying their way out of all responsibility, even their own lives, out of sheer ennui. Despite the weight of the dystopian themes about the inability to escape one’s subconscious image and James Wong Howe’s astounding, anxiety-triggering black-and-white cinematography that emphasizes wide-angled, confrontational tracking close-ups, Seconds also reserves a few longing, playful moments in Tony’s interactions with Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), who takes similar refuge in the seaside area to escape married life. Their strange, chaotic fling is embodied most indelibly at a paganistic Santa Barbara hippie gathering that quickly escalates into this orgiastic, grape-treading ritual. —Grant Phipps
Tom Teslik spent much of the last decade as an active participant in Madison’s music community, playing in bands including Meteorade, Pushmi-Pullyu, and Building On Buildings and performing as a solo artist before starting Pollinators, a pop outfit with a melancholy streak running through its punchy jangle. Pollinators debuted with the 2016 EP Self Addressed Envelope, which found Teslik reaching for maturity, balancing some deeply personal writing about breakups and emotional crises with sugary melodies and bright guitars. Over the past couple of years, Teslik has moved back to his hometown of Moline, Illinois and slowly worked on new material for Pollinators, resulting in the project’s debut full-length, Return Home. He’ll celebrate the album’s release here with a new live lineup of Pollinators that includes Madison’s Brendan Manley on drums and Alivia Kleinfelt on bass (both are members of Dash Hounds and Squarewave), with some help from former Pollinators members Cole Haman on guitar and Matt Magnusson on drums.
Return Home lets the darkness come to the fore a little more overtly than Self Addressed Envelope, even if it’s channeled through Teslik’s unnervingly gentle vocals and cheerful power-pop crunch. The central contrast at work in Pollinators couldn’t be more clear than it is on opening track “Beautiful Morning Terrible Day,” on which Teslik repeatedly reassures us (or himself) that “it won’t always be this way” and asks “is there a future, or just a past?” amid a sharp, descending chord progression that captures his gift for ever so slightly skewing guitar-pop conventions. On “Why Do You Cry,” Teslik and drummer Steve Maule start with what could be a dreamy doo-wop shuffle, but inject weight and tension into it, along with lyrics that hint at a deeper displacement: “I gotta try just to be myself tonight.” It’s not a gloomy or despairing record by any means, but Teslik (who plays most of the instruments on Return Home himself) is at the very least taking stock and fighting to move forward, even if that means severing some connections: “It’s my honor to say / You’ll never see me again, K?” he sings on the closing track, “Riverbeds.”
Pollinators kicks off a short tour here with a lineup of Madison friends. Heavy Looks has its own fun but emotionally rich take on power-pop, Neens is working on a new EP of electronic pop to follow up its 2015 release Factory Sounds, and The Momotaros play fraught and grimy punk. —Scott Gordon
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 4
Madison’s twice-annual gallery night, organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, spans about 70 venues this time around. It’s a good excuse to check in on the city’s more prominent museums and galleries, but also to happen upon some surprises in shops, restaurants, and other local businesses getting in on the act. At MMOCA itself, you might be able to get an early look at some works in this year’s Wisconsin Triennial, which doesn’t open until October 19 but is currently mid-install. Around the corner at the Central Library, the Bubbler program’s Artist-In-Residence, illustrator and multimedia artist Emily Balsley, will be leading an interactive workshop, and don’t forget that there’s almost always art worth catching on the Library’s other three floors. If you’re browsing downtown, also stop by the James Watrous Gallery (on the third floor of the Overture Center) to see a show we featured at Tone Madison this week, Helen Hawley’s The Blues Of The Rain. Also up now at the Watrous Gallery is Gabriel Pionkowski’s Touching—Self—Touching, a show that combines paintings on intricately woven canvases and bright but provocative sculpture.
If you’re doing the Gallery Night thing, don’t restrict yourself to downtown. Over on the north side, UW-Madison’s mighty printmaking hub Tandem Press will be showcasing explosively colorful work by Derrick Adams and Mickalene Thomas, and Arts For All Wisconsin (an arts non-profit that serves artists with disabilities in Wisconsin) will be celebrating the surreally layered works of painter Joyce J. Gust. Highlights on the east side include a multi-artist, pop art-focused show at Prism Dance Club, new work from Jenie Gao at Giant Jones Brewing (and tours of Gao’s new studio, in the same building), and an outdoor sculpture garden at Robinia Courtyard. Points west include an installation by Leslie Iwai at Middleton’s The Regal Find and a last chance to see the paintings of Pranav Sood at Edgewood College’s ever-underrated gallery space. Given the large scope of Gallery Night, of course, your mileage may vary, but this year’s lineup is promising. —Scott Gordon
In 1990, an earthquake devastated the area around the farming village of Koker in Iran, killing 50,000 people, including 20,000 children. In the hope of finding the two young boys from the area who acted in his acclaimed 1987 feature Where Is The Friend’s House?, director Abbas Kiarostami embarked on a difficult journey by car to the region with his own 11-year-old son, Bahman. When he later told an audience in Germany about the trek, someone suggested that he turn the story into a film. Kiarostami returned to Koker and began shooting 1992’s And Life Goes On (a.k.a. Life, and Nothing More), with two nonprofessional actors playing characters who clearly stand in for himself and his son.
Kiarostami’s semi-autobiographical, self-referential film plunges us directly into the quest of an unnamed film director (portrayed by economist Farhad Kheradmand) and his young son, Pouya (Pouya Payvar, son of the film’s cinematographer, Homayoun Payvar). Initially, And Life Goes On offers no information about the purpose of their mission. As we travel along with them toward the stricken area, the father and son discuss topics ranging from cement to grasshoppers. Despite being a reenactment, And Life Goes On feels completely realistic in every detail. The fissured roads, collapsed buildings, and broken bridges are all authentic remnants of the natural disaster, and Kiarostami even invited survivors to play themselves. Amid destruction, despair and desperation, Kiarostami captures the beauty of simple pleasures and small acts of kindness. He finds solace and meaning in everyday life, while exalting the perseverance and indomitable spirit of those who survived the catastrophe. His camera occasionally lingers over the region’s lush, idyllic natural scenery to the accompaniment of Vivaldi’s Concerto For 2 Horns. These interludes elegantly reinforce the film’s theme of new life.
Among Kiarostami’s most poetic, multilayered, complex, and compassionate creations, And Life Goes On deftly interweaves fact with fiction as it blurs the boundaries between drama and documentary. The second installment in what critics later designated the Koker Trilogy, Kiarostami’s experimental humanist road movie easily stands on its own. Taken together, the three works reveal a marvelously rich tapestry of Iranian life, while guiding us on a gently mind-bending, metacinematic odyssey into the heart of “reality.” And Life Goes On will be preceded here by Kiarostami’s rarely seen 1978 short film Solution. —Jason Fuhrman
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 5
The sea is a harsh place, and even more cruel when you add mass displacement and a constant threat of racist violence to the mix. Director Tim Tsai’s new documentary Seadrift, and Tsai will be visiting in person to present the film at the UW Cinematheque as part of the UW-Madison Asian-American Studies Program’s Asian American Media Spotlight. Seadrift follows its titular town in the years following the Vietnam war, when an enclave of Vietnamese refugees resettled in the area and began fishing for shrimp and crab. After rising tensions between the white and Vietnamese fishermen led to a fatal shooting, the KKK stepped up its agitation in the area, sparking a battle for the soul of the community.
Seadrift’s framing of this conflict intentionally avoids villainizing either side. While its prologue uses archival footage to highlight the racist anti-Vietnamese sentiment of the post-Vietnam years, the film paints Seadrift as a town seemingly ready to burst at any interruption of its labor equilibrium. The film intercuts enough of its interviews with images of crabs clawing over each other in buckets and fish on deck struggling to survive to make its message clear: There are no winners in competition for limited work. Seadrift’s account of anti-Vietnamese racism shows its subject as a microcosm of a typical historical pattern, where people of color displaced and oppressed by U.S. policies are then scapegoated by the American white working class for trying to make a living. The message is timely in an almost blunt way, but the film does a great service by illustrating this pattern through a case study that in its specifics provides both a harrowing story and a useful historical document. —Maxwell Courtright
Like his earlier features, director Justin Chon’s Ms. Purple is a perceptive look at Asian identity in America. Where Gook (2017) centered around two Korean brothers’ response to the LA riots in 1992, Ms. Purple is a more contemporary examination of familial responsibility and togetherness. Aesthetically, it notably seems to take influence from the starkness of the Seimetz and Kerrigan TV adaptation of The Girlfriend Experience (2016), and Ante Cheng’s sporadic use of wide, high-frame-rate cinematography no doubt takes a cue from legendary Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle. Yet, underneath the hazy neon artifice of its California karaoke clubs and dusty sunglow of surf and palm trees, the narrative intriguingly explores a tangled sibling relationship.
In less than 90 minutes, Chon and co-writer Chris Dinh impressively capture the push-pull of the youth and adulthood of 23-year-old Kasie (Tiffany Chu), a piano performance major who chose to drop out of college to care for her bedridden, terminally ill father. The harsh financial reality of this situation has forced her to take undesirable night work as a hostess and high-end escort, while she constantly ruminates on the everyday uncertainty of her father’s condition. After another caregiver suddenly departs, Kasie calls her wandering brother Carey (Teddy Lee) to lend his support. Carey’s presence in the scenario lends a surprisingly subtle element of zaniness to the film’s otherwise heavy dynamics, complemented by Roger Suen’s score, which oscillates between resonant, melancholic chamber music and blithe, pillowy island folk guitar.
While Ms. Purple can occasionally be too demonstrative in its thematic revelations, the manner in which Chon and Dinh thread the past into the present is quite moving from the opening frames of a father’s love for his daughter. As the film progresses, these reflections of the past fade from the idyllic distortions of memory, suggesting that there may never have been a “normal” for Kasie and Carey in the animosity that persisted between their parents. Kasie continues to strive towards the promise of certain unity and preservation of cultural identity, as well as finally finding acceptance and her true place in the city. Following this screening as part of UW-Cinematheque an the UW-Madison Asian American Studies Program’s annual Asian-American Media Spotlight, Dinh will appear in person for a Q&A. —Grant Phipps
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 6
Some of the more powerful films about mental illness are the ones that drag the viewer kicking and screaming along with the protagonist, like Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (2019), to name a recent standout. Such films make viewers feel suffocated, claustrophobic, emotionally exhausted, and unprepared for the sheer depths of emptiness and trauma to come, creating empathy for the effects of untreated suffering. Jane Campion’s directorial debut, Sweetie (1989), is a searing example of such a film, capturing the anguish a severe mental illness inflicts upon not just its title character but also upon a whole family.
The title character’s long-suffering sister Kay (Karen Colston) believes it is written in the heavens that she is destined to be with Louis (Tom Lycos), although he is currently engaged to one of her co-workers. He plants a fledgling elder tree in their yard as a symbol of their one-year anniversary, which is the first harbinger of the insanity to come. Then Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) arrives, bringing along her boyfriend (Michael Lake), all the while nurturing a dream of breaking into the entertainment business. She is devoid of talent, but no one would dare to tell her that to her face. Sweetie proceeds to send everyone into an emotional maelstrom, as her family continues to do what they have always done to try and patch her together. In a scene where Sweetie chomps down on her sister’s beloved porcelain horses, the madness takes a similar biting grip on the viewer. You want nothing more than for her to leave her sister’s orbit, but Campion has created a world where Sweetie cannot let anything escape from her gravitational pull.
Lemon gives an absolutely stirring performance as Sweetie, creating a character at once loathsome and sympathetic. In the film’s most horrific moments, you have to remind yourself of how ill she is to continue to see the humanity in her. You see the patterns of her family all playing the same role they always have and how they enable her, but also care for her deeply. Watching the slow, gripping tendrils of Sweetie’s creeping mental illness strangling her sister and family and killing their relationships is also a reminder of the formidable directorial skill Campion wielded even early in her career. —Edwanike Harbour
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