By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Once again, the cultural commissars of Miami's Cuban-exile community have cracked their whips. The result: the embarrassing spectacle of city officials falling all over themselves in their quest to cancel the first local appearance of legendary Cuban timba outfit Los Van Van. Of the group's 28 tour stops around the United States and Canada, only Miami officials have raised objections to the group performing; rest assured that any squawking over State Department legalities involved in Cuban bands performing on our shores is pure semantics.
If you relied on the Herald's whitewashed coverage of this affair, you only got half the story. That paper's dry accounts bent over backward to portray aggrieved exile leaders as rational, and understandably upset by the arrival of one of Cuba's most popular bands, an event that was somehow "culturally inappropriate" to their delicate sensibilities. The discourse was all very dignified and gentlemanly, unless you turned on your radio and tuned in to the Spanish-language AM stations -- Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) -- in particular. There, prominent exile figures practically foamed at the mouth, threatening to blow up the James L. Knight Center if the "dogs" and "bastards" of Los Van Van ever set foot on its stage (all this in the on-air presence of Mayor Joe Carollo, mind you, who merely thanked the callers for their input). The outpouring of heated emotion reached its comical apex when jazz man Arturo Sandoval, Miami's own answer to Whittaker Chambers, called in to reassure everyone that during his spell as a Communist Party stalwart back in Cuba, he never had anything to do with Los Van Van. Thanks, Arturo. Stay tuned for next week, when the always-conscientious Sandoval calls back to clarify that he wasn't involved in the Waco killings, either.
Of course liberal supporters of Los Van Van's sojourn to Miami have been no less disingenuous. Claiming the concert is strictly a freedom-of-speech issue, Havana Caliente (the band's record label) has been adamant in stressing that Los Van Van has nothing to do with "politics," and that this is simply another harmless bunch of pop musicians.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Los Van Van matters precisely because it has always been a political band, in the best sense of the word. Nowhere is the phrase "the personal is political" more apt than in Castro's Cuba, and throughout Los Van Van's 30-year existence, the band has never shied from all manner of social criticism. Its songs have dealt with every aspect of modern-day life on the island, from food shortages to the often-essential checks that arrive from Miami relatives. Indeed it is this very topicality that has earned the band its foremost place in the hearts of their many fans.
What rankles the exile community is that Los Van Van turns a critical eye equally upon the mini-mecaudillos of Miami and Havana's party bureaucrats -- an attitude in stark contrast to that of, say, Arturo Sandoval, whose ideology seems to shift according to the dictates of his music career. It is Los Van Van's refusal to pledge fealty to the grave of Jorge Mas Canosathat earns the group continued enmity in our back yard. Such an attitude shouldn't be papered over; it should be saluted.
At press time Los Van Van was being offered an October 11 date at the James L. Knight Center as city officials, now cognizant of the uncomprehending international spotlight being focused on them, try to enact some PR damage control. October 9 (the original evening slated for Los Van Van) has been handed over to the Bay of Pigs veterans organization Brigade 2506, which intends to hold its own concert. Here's an idea for the vets' opening number: "Send in the Clowns."
It's been said, only partly in jest, that Martin Scorsese makes movies simply to put his favorite songs in them. Although somewhat backhanded, it's still a compliment. Scorsese understands on a fundamental level the power and emotional response a particular song can have within a film's mise en scène. Try and imagine Robert De Niro's animated dance in the middle of Mulberry Street in Mean Streets without Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Mickey's Monkey" blaring behind him, or the crescendo of Goodfellas without Eric Clapton's "Layla" spinning out epically.
In the same esteemed company as Scorsese when it comes to visceral soundtracking is French director Olivier Assayas. One of the leading lights of the current "new" New Wave of French cinema, a group that includes fellow auteurs Claire Denis (Nénette et Boni) and Arnaud Desplechin (My Sex Life ... Or How I Got into an Argument), Assayas's work is distinguished by its sense of flow: utterly absorbing cinematography punctuated by dreamily transcendent flashes of action. At his best, as in 1994's semiautobiographical coming-of-age tale Cold Water, Assayas uses rock and roll (such as Roxy Music) to conjure the kinetic rush of pure feeling, to bypass the mind, and simply enrapture.
Assayas's latest film, Late August, Early September, comes to the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables this weekend. When I spoke with Assayas last summer, he had just finished shooting the picture, though at the time he was calling it Regrets, a barely veiled clue toward his take on Late August, Early September's look at a group of thirtysomethings muddling their way through personal relationships and into adulthood. As always the character's lost youth was foremost in his mind.
"For the previous generation of French filmmakers, the big artistic event in their youth was the New Wave. All the directors from the generation above me saw the Godard films, the Truffaut films, Rivette," Assayas said. "Those movies really captured the spirit of their generation; they really felt part of something that was happening with those films. I never really experienced that. When I grew up and was nineteen years old, the big experience for me was punk rock. It had the kind of energy I related to; it struck a chord within me. It was the poetry for my generation."
That taste for punk and postpunk was revealed to dramatic effect in his 1996 film Irma Vep, a loving satire of the French film industry that used Luna's sultry update to the classic 1967 Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot duet "Bonnie and Clyde," as well as Sonic Youth's squalling "Tunic (Song for Karen)."
"Irma Vep was very improvised. I wrote it fast and shot it fast," recalled Assayas. "We ended up using the music I was listening to at the time. Luna's version of "Bonnie and Clyde." I just felt it belonged in the film. I had no idea why or how, I didn't even know exactly where I would put it, but I knew it had to be in the film. The Sonic Youth song was written right into the screenplay; it was connected to my feelings then."
Late August, Early September screens at the Cosford this Friday, September 24, and Saturday, September 25, at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, September 26, at 5:30 p.m., October 1 and 2 at 9:30 p.m., and October 3, at 7:30 p.m. Kulchur has taken the Cosford's programming don to task in the past for his conservative booking choices, which hewed a bit too closely to the multiplexes. The arrival of Assayas's current work is a welcome sign that the Cosford is reoriented in the right direction. Here's hoping this film is just the first of many such "new" New Wave pictures to hit that theater.
In the world of electronic dance music, "Detroit" is a word that carries as much aesthetic baggage as "Memphis" does to the genre of soul music, or "Chicago" to the blues. Simply put, Detroit equals techno, and those who choose to delve into that field labor in the shadow of Detroit techno pioneers such as Derrick May and Juan Atkins, as well as second-generation producers like Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen, Claude Young, and the Underground Resistance crew. All of which tends to obscure the work of Detroit's deep-house producers; isn't house from Chicago? Still a host of house talent is diligently puttering away in their Motor City studios: Theo Parrish, Moodymann, Terrence Parker, and Boomer "Omegaman" Reynolds, to name just a few. The latter arrives at Gables's Meza Gallery for a DJ set during Blow Up this Saturday, September 25. Reynolds distinguishes himself from his Detroit brethren by opting for a warmer sound than many of his peers, one that is churningly dense, almost bubbly, and obviously indebted to the swoon of vintage disco. It's an influence that at times is indulged a little too unimaginatively (as on his "Dola's Track," which lifts wholesale the entire hook from Chic's "Le Freak"), but when tempered with Reynolds's fondness for the soulful grooves so rarely heard in these parts, Saturday night's crowd should be beaming -- and bopping up and down -- appreciatively.
"Hurricane Van Van," By Judy Cantor, September 26