DID YOU READ

Shelf Life: “The Last Waltz”

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During the oddball January clash between straggling awards-season fare and low-heat studio releases hoping to die a quiet death, it’s really a “whoever wins, we lose” kind of situation: few of the real critical knockouts take until the new year to find audiences, and the studio dregs often demand that their audience be literally knocked out in order to survive them. Simultaneously, there are only a handful of worthwhile home video releases since most of the films were released during the previous time of year when titles are dumped – late August and early September. But Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam 20” turned up last week on Blu-ray, and the musicphile filmmaker does an amazing job chronicling the serpentine history of Eddie Vedder and company as they go through more than two decades of changes, transformations and upheavals. And it also harkened back to earlier days of rock & roll documentaries, perhaps the most celebrated of which is Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz.”

As such, it seemed like a good time to revisit Scorsese’s film, primarily to see how relevant and engaging it is today in an era where folks like yours truly experience a much stronger and more immediate sense of nostalgia watching, well, footage of more recent groups like Pearl Jam. Consequently, “The Last Waltz” is the subject of this week’s Shelf Life.


The Facts:

“The Last Waltz” was released on April 28, 1978, and as directed by Scorsese the film was meant to chronicle the end of many, many years of touring by The Band. Scorsese was a fan of the group’s music and agreed to film a farewell concert, eventually enlisting a who’s who of great Hollywood cinematographers, including Michael Chapman, Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. Storyboarding the lighting cues and camera angles meticulously, Scorsese created what is widely regarded as the greatest rock & roll documentary of all time, if only as a seemingly comprehensive portrait of performances from a group of the music industry’s greatest talents of that time.

While it won few formal awards – including Best Documentary from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle in 1979 – it continues to enjoy almost universal acclaim from critics, including a 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.


What Still Works:

There are, quite frankly, few fiction films, much less documentaries, that are as beautiful and well-shot as “The Last Waltz.” As indicated above, Scorsese’s extensive storyboarding of every song provided his camera operators with ideal lighting and photography conditions, and their camera movements were coordinated and controlled by Scorsese throughout virtually the entire concert recording – and certainly in the studio sequences. While it should come as little surprise to Scorsese’s fans, the camerawork often closely resembles the quick, fluid, and often unpredictable movement of the cinematography in his fiction films, and while those shots sometimes feel like non sequiturs to the performance or action, they somehow contribute to the overall tone and feeling of the performances, creating a sense of controlled chaos – that The Band and their guest performers were harnessing something that was unable to be tamed and bending it to their will.

Perhaps needless to say, the performances are all virtuoso renditions of so many of The Band’s classic songs, as well as a cross-section of tunes from the other artists with whom they shared the stage. Meanwhile, the interstitial interview footage with the group, sometimes individually and sometimes together, gives the whole piece an aesthetic cohesiveness that bounces back and forth between being verbally defined and physically demonstrated. At the same time, the band members’ various anecdotes and observations add color and humanity to their incredible songwriting and performance skills, giving the viewer a deeper sense of who these guys are, not just how well they manipulate their instruments.


What Doesn’t Work:

The main problem with virtually any documentary like this is that you probably need at least some prior knowledge of the band’s music beforehand, or at the very least an appetite for the kind of music that they performed – specifically, ‘70s country-rock with a significant blues influence. There’s certainly a timelessness to The Band’s music, but enjoyment of it is enhanced significantly if you actually know the songs and actively embrace their style. At the same time, the documentary is literally capturing the end of an era, which means that its focus is to an extent looking back at the legacy of the group, certainly documented through interview footage, but it’s also a time capsule of that specific moment in The Band’s history rather than a real or more extensive retrospective. That’s not necessarily a problem for some viewers, but it may leave others stranded without a more comfortable sense of the history, relationships and overall context of what’s happening in the film.

The underlying problem of Scorsese’s approach – at least evidenced by the final product – is that he focused too heavily on Robertson as a driving creative force within the band. Singer Levon Helm later disputed that the film accurately portrayed the group dynamic, and looking at it now, you can see why the other band members would be upset: Robertson dominates the majority of the interview materials, even in sequences featuring all of the members, and it creates an, if not deeply subjective portrait of the band, then an uneven one that misrepresents exactly how they worked, and who they were as a unit.


The Verdict:

“The Last Waltz” holds up and remains one of the great rock & roll documentaries of all time – if you are a fan of The Band’s music. As an appreciator but no passionate follower of their music, I appreciate the quality of their performances and the sheer volume of talent they recruited to play with them at this grand finale, but I didn’t feel a deeper connection with either The Band or their music as I watched the documentary now. Again, that’s not an indicator of the film’s quality as a whole – whose technical bona fides are indisputable and superlative – but if “The Last Waltz” isn’t the first place some younger music listener would go to, it’s understandable.

Do you think “The Last Waltz” holds up as much as we do? Let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.