Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 13, 2012 10:39 am 
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A master remastered, with love and intrusion

It's very worthwhile to have restored this nearly thirty-year-old documentary by the Cool World and Connection filmmaker (whose heyday was the Sixties and Seventies and who died in 1997 at 77) because the avant garde jazzman Ornette Coleman is an extraordinary performer on alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, violin, and trumpet, and a composer and innovator of wide influence since the Sixties. There is archival footage here and documentation of performances in several settings as well as information about Ornette's beginnings and his relation to his drummer-manager son, Denardo.

There is no doubt about the fact that this film by Shirley Clarke was a labor of love. But the learned Jonathan Rosenbaum however got it right when he said Clarke "strains too hard to match" the musican's "eclecticism." You can revive image and color, but the style is dated pseudo-psychedelic claptrap that still looks dated, with clumsy reenactments of childhood scenes, some rather wasted interviews, and an embarrassing reliance on Coleman's attempts to verbalize his sense of the world. His music is what does that, splendidly. Interesting to know that Coleman met with Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs and made use of the Moroccan jajouka musicians in 1973 that were already adopted by the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones in 1968, all no doubt in a whirl of hash smoke. Interesting to know that Coleman is a lifelong admirer of Buckminster Fuller, whose big thinking and humanism he too aspires to. Whether it's valuable to hear some live words of Bucky, or see Bill Burroughs reading from his work to a college audience, is doubtful. This film presents little or no transitions from the boy running away from home to the founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago; for students of jazz history this film is very sketchy. And as Rosenbaum hints, the jazzy (in a bad sense) strobe-light image clusters are only annoying. When the music is fast and frenetic, it's not necessary for the images to be that way: let the sound speak for itself.

An overriding mistake (also noted by the wise Rosenbaum): to structure the whole film around a return to hometown Fort Worth after 25 years away to perform a nightclub set at the opening of the Caravan of Dreams cultural center, confusingly mixed in with and overwhelmed by a performance of the composer's 1972 work "Skies of America" with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Clarke (perhaps remembering the intentional boredom of her filming of Jack Gelber's self-indulgently hipster play The Connection) runs long minutes of the orchestral piece starting out, choosing to bore us half to death right at the beginning. This piece drags terribly, except when the small jazz group takes over. Either the orchestra isn't very good, or the miking and recording aren't, because it sounds awful. And even if it sounded good, this would be poor way to represent Ornette Coleman, who is notable not for his philosophical declarations or his orchestral compositions, but for his tight, edgy, brilliant improvisational work in small jazz groups.

What would have been wrong with some more organized interviews, and some more facts? Well, because Shirley Clarke liked to say, "There is no real difference between a traditional fiction film and a documentary. I've never made a documentary. There is no such trip." In other words, this isn't a documentary. It's a "trip." But whose "trip"? What would have been wrong with the filmmaker's getting out of the way? If Shirley Clarke was an innovator and an influence, good or bad, and there is reason to think she was, she was past her prime and outliving her relevence when she made this film. It is right to acknowledge the impossibility of being neutral. But what is so bad about muting one's own ego to let one's subject sing -- what is so wrong about trying to make a documentary? Ornette Coleman is too important to deserve this intrusive, spotty treatment.

But he also is not past it or irrelevant. His recordings are in print; they always will be; and they will not and cannot age. He seems not to age in person either: I heard him play at Carnegie Hall six years ago when he was 78, and he was amazing. Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson considered him a genius, and so can we Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson considered him a genius, and so can we. Ornette is the kind of revolutionary, like Stravinsky, like Picasso -- well, like late Coletrane -- who is always fresh, always stunning and invigorating to listen to. He deserves many more documentaries, from filmmakers willing to call them by their name. This film is just a fragment of what we need, but it is a document, if not a documentary, and all footage of jazz greats is precious.

Restored print shown at IFC Center, New York, September 2012.

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