52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK THREE

Week: Three

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Miles Davis
Album: Sketches of Spain
Columbia Records

iles Davis’ Kind of Blue will always be his most accessible record to date, and easily the one quintessential jazz album that even non-jazz enthusiasts own or are at the very least familiar with. Around the same time that Davis was getting blue, he and composer Gil Evans worked out the arrangements that would make up Sketches of Spain, which I’m happy to say was my first foray into Miles’ canon.

Sketches of Spain is a record that is just soaked in cool sounds. Castanets and other light percussion notes wisp through the five arrangements, Davis carries the music along with his signature, restrained muted trumpet and Evans’ classical instrumentation gives the album a sound that could be best described as jazz meets legendary silver screen composer Ennio Morricone.

The album opens with a mesmerizing rendition of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a song I have sought out in many various renditions. It’s one of those rare and beautiful compositions that is taken to new heights with Davis’ weeping trumpet. There is something about the delicate use of harp and the song’s crescendo at the end that gets me every time.

Sketches of Spain is not the ideal gateway to jazz as it steers clear of the improvisational language of the art form. The album is more of a fusion side project that arose from the Columbia Records/Gil Evans sessions that resulted in this album along with Miles Ahead and Davis’ Porgy and Bess.

On Spain, Davis is the only musician seemingly attempting to stray away from the compositions at hand, making the album an interesting bridge between the classical and the jazz world.

Side B of Sketches of Spain features the record’s three original compositions, culminating with the incredibly moving “Solea,” a cut that instantly brings to mind visions of my time in Iberia.

Even before I finally made it to Spain this album (and this cut in particular) fashioned an imaginary Spain in my head, a place drenched in mystery and exoticism. The real Spain, while not as enthralling as the utopia in my head is still the perfect backdrop for this album.

Part of this association must be attributed to the fact that while living and studying in Salamanca, Spain I often deliberately walked the streets at night on my way home listening to Sketches of Spain through my ear buds. A later marriage of music and celluloid would further the link between “Solea” and this exotic place.

An entire column could be written on what the films of Pedro Almodóvar mean to me. Besides being one of the greatest storytellers working today in cinema, his films are windows into life in Spain, even if his film’s stories tend to depend on the melodramatic. His use of colors, emphasis on regional Spanish dialects, love of Spanish culinary traditions and a truly unique sense of how details can shape a scene, make his films time capsules of life in Spain. In 1995s The Flower of My Secret, a weaker installment in Almodóvar’s gamut, there is a scene in a ballet theater (a popular locale in Almodóvar’s cinematic world) that is set to Evans/Davis’ “Solea.” It’s the perfect fusion of two art forms and one that left me speechless when I first saw the film, recognizing the tune instantly. To this day I still keep the video clip below in my web browsers’ favorites folder.

Sketches of Spain, like so many of Miles Davis’ records. is the perfect capper to a long and tiring day. It’s an album best paired with a nice red wine, preferably from the Rioja region. I’ve found that it goes well with most novels. During college it spiced up even the most mundane of homework and study sessions. It’s atmospheric, often appearing more as a soundtrack to a David Leanesque film epic that was never filmed, with its soaring orchestration and Davis’ high marks. It’s an album that remains an essential in my jazz collection. Hell, even the cover art is memorable, with Davis’ now infamous trumpeter silhouetted behind a mock-up of the Spanish flag, with a raging torro and classic Old English typeface. As I write this I’m about to play the record again before, as its sounds bring up visions and memories from the past of a truly wonderful and one of a kind place.

Global Hollywood

Last Sunday the 80th annual Academy Awards was broadcast to some of the lowest viewer ratings in recent years. The winners seemed predictable, save a handful of smaller technical categories. The gala’s emcee (the usually witty Jon Stewart) had his moments but overall brought more yawns than laughs and above all the festivities just seemed to be more of the same with very few memorable moments. 

A lot of factors may have played into the Oscar’s fairly mediocre outcome. Two months ago people were unsure if there would even be a ceremony after this year’s writers strike debacle halted previous award shows such as the Golden Globes. The high caliber of performances and films released in 2007 should have made the race all the more interesting but unfortunately so much had been written and hyped about the nominees that most major categories had been unanimously called by those covering the industry (exception might be made for the Best Supporting Actress win by Tilda Swinton, who herself seemed to be a bit jarred when her name was called).

Still the one thing that was most striking about the fairly uneventful evening was how much of a presence and force there was from International talents. If there was one particular sign of the times to take from the Oscars it was that now more than global cinema is beginning to best Hollywood, and rightfully so. 

In the acting arena two Brits, a Spaniard and a Parisian took the four major prizes. Many of the technical awards went to those whose foreign tongues kept their acceptance speeches short and endearingly awkward. Even both music categories were swept by those from overseas–Dario Marianelli’s moving score for “Atonement” and the Irish/Czech duo from the little movie that could, “Once.”

Now to be fair the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always had somewhat of a global eye when it comes to gathering the nominees but more often than not there is a limit to its scope. Take for example the Best Foreign Language Film category, which this year had baffling results thanks to shameless disregard for a number of masterpieces. Now while I have yet to see this year’s victor, the Austrian Holocaust piece, The Counterfeiters, it’s hard to imagine it being a more powerful piece of cinema than Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

Here was a film coming out of what is now being called Romania’s own New Wave of filmmaking, that not only tackled the controversial issue of abortion but more impressively portrayed the way of life during a dark time for one of Europe’s most overlooked and forgotten countries. Set in the final years of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign, the film is not only a scathing look at the Romania’s former ban on birth control and abortion (a decree that caused a wave of underground, dangerous illegal abortions and subsequently a rise in overpopulated orphanages that plagued the country many years after the fall of communism) but also a portrait of how everyday life was under this regime. 

Still despite picking up the top prize at Cannes earlier this year, along with countless other important film festival awards it was ignored by the Academy. 

In past years I can think of a number of examples of foreign language films that were not only better than most films being released in Hollywood but were for the most part overlooked all together. Take last year’s Oscar gala. While the Academy finally bestowed some love for Martin Scorsese, they picked one of his more mediocre films. In fact of last year’s Best Picture nominees–The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Queen, and Babel–none of the films were truly as masterful, in my humble opinion, as some of the international fodder that came out. 

Take The Lives of Others for example, which took the Best Foreign Language Film statue last year. This film (truly one of the best of last year) combined themes of the sly conspiracy political thrillers from the 1970s with a historical portrait of the paranoid and restricted life in East Berlin under the GDRs regime. The film was so well received that it is even garnering an American remake to be helmed by either Sidney Pollack or Anthony Minghella (it should be noted that The Departed was itself a pseudo-remake of a far superior thriller, Infernal Affairs, from Hong Kong). 

ImageThen there was Water, Deepa Mehta sobering end to her element trilogy that focused on India’s British colonial period in the 1930s and the commonplace of women being married off young and the questionable treatment of widows. The film was not so much a scathing look at India’s cultural roots but rather a portrait of what life was like in this part of the world, again a common theme among foreign films that truly sets them apart from the mainstream. 

In past years there have been rare moments where international pictures blew the competition away or was able to leak into the bigger prizes usually reserved for Hollywood films. Take Bernardo Bertolucci’s biopic of the last monarch of China, The Last Emperor sweeping the awards in 1988 (technically not a foreign language film, but most definitely not something mainstream Hollywood would put out). Everyone remembers Roberto Benigni taking Best Actor and Foreign Film for Life Is Beautiful. Or how about Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar snatching up the well-deserved Best Screenplay prize and a Directing nom for his film Talk To Her, which was not only snubbed from contention in the Best Foreign Language film category but was one of the year’s best and remains to this day one of the finest films to be released in the new millennium. 

This year was a great one for film, no question about it but what is most interesting and promising about the Oscar outcome is that perhaps Hollywood is beginning to open its eyes to an entire world of filmmaking. Every year hundreds of great films slip by the publics eye or are completely ignored because they are subtitled. What’s fascinating about many of these films is that they are often capsules of times not familiar to us, and worlds that are radically different to what we know. While Hollywood still has a ways to go until they truly honor the finest films from a global standpoint, 2007 was proof that perhaps they’re making strides in the right direction.

Dinner and a Movie

The other day while aimlessly flipping through the channels I came across the opening credits of the wonderful, childhood nostalgia filled, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. For pretty much anyone and everyone–young and old–this movie is pure eye candy (seriously have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like this movie? It seems to be one of those universal pleasures joining the ranks of popping packing bubbles and that cool sound champagne makes when it enters the party) with the opening credits wetting the audience’s taste buds. To refresh your memory the beginning shots are set inside the chocolate factory with a kaleidoscope of sweet concoctions dancing across a sea of conveyer belts. While I was unable to finish the movie (I got as far as that useless “Cheer up Charlie” sentimental song bit then switched to the equally mundane ramblings of Lou Dobbs) I started to think of all the other great films and cinematic moments that feature magical culinary creations. 

It’s no surprise that we as people are lured towards the marriage of food and images. Food tickles all our senses. There’s a reason why museum walls are lined with still life paintings of produce, wild game and massive banquets circa pretty much any part of history or why people divulge in hours of The Food Network (can anyone else truly explain the allure of that giggling psycho-minx Rachel Ray). Food and art go hand in hand. With certain films food is as much a character of the story as the actors themselves and cinematic cuisine serves as a tool for setting the atmosphere of the film. Consider this a foodies guide to film.

Big Night
This little gem of a movie was at one point as widely praised and adored as that Big Fat Greek Wedding nonsense but is often forgotten about. Written and directed with care by actor Stanley Tucci (co-directed by Campbell Scott, George C. Scott’s underappreciated son) Big Night is a film that embraces the simple love of food, in its case, Italian cuisine. This simple tale of a failing Italian restaurant run by two brothers who host a special feast of all feasts in hopes of salvaging the business and showing people how to eat is an endearing look at the patience, tradition and care given to cooking while at the same time showing that thin line between great food and a prosperous business. While Tony Shaloub’s (TVs Monk) performance as Primo the head chef is beyond noteworthy it is the many dishes, particularly the massive Timpano, served during the restaurant’s big night that are truly the stars of the film. 

Fanny and Alexander
This was a sad year for international cinema with the loss of two greats, Michelangelo Antonioni and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman who, in 1982 directed the epic, Fanny and Alexander. While the film is not about food in general but rather a look at a wealthy Swedish family (particularly the relationship of a brother and sister) in the early 20th period it features some of the finest eye opening, stomach grumbling food visuals out there. While the film is a bit daunting in length (the theatrical version clocks in just over three hours with a six hour television mini series available as well) it showcases one of the most memorable and breathtaking culinary production design moments in cinematic history during the opening Christmas feast. Also see Robert Altman’s Gosford Park for similar bourgeois feasts. 

Dinner Rush
This indie film slipped by most movie goers a couple years back but is hands down the most authentic look at the inner workings of a restaurant. While the film dabbles in a clever mafia storyline its main focus is the complexity, the chaos, the absurdity, and the passion for food that is alive in every trendy restaurant out there. From the hot, fast-paced world of the kitchen to the starving artist servers keen on landing that one special table/ticket out of the industry and even the ridiculous politics behind a restaurant’s popularity (comedian Sandra Bernhard is especially good as a sleazy NYC food critic), Dinner Rush leaves no rock unturned when it comes to what goes into dining out. Actor John Corbett’s mysterious bar patron says it best during the film, “When did eating dinner become a Broadway show?”

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Cinephiles aside, most people have probably never heard of this movie and quite frankly this stomach churner isn’t for everyone. That said this British cult classic is a vehicle for some beautiful cinematography of food, in the same vein as Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. That kept in mind the film also deals with barbaric violence, nightmarish surrealism, pitch black comedy and a bit of cannibalism thrown in the pot. Still thanks to great performances by a slew of English thespians (Hellen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Tim Roth, Ciarán Hinds) and one of the most bizarre, detailed and curiously fascinating kitchen sets seen on screen, this film is a worthy rental, although one might pair it with some fava beans and a nice chianti. 

European master filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has always crafted films that are distinctly Spanish. From his unique use of color, wardrobe, setting and of course food, few films scream Iberia more than ‘Un film de Almodóvar.’ Last year’s Volver may not be the director’s best piece to date but it did a wonderful job at honoring Spanish cuisine, that Mediterranean fare that is often overshadowed by Italy. Penelope Cruz’s character, Raimunda takes over a small café in her neighborhood to cater a local film’s production and the camera follows her every move behind the dishes she prepares. While food is by no means the central plot of the film the scenes in the kitchen are some of the richest in the film. Wanna learn the secrets of crafting a perfect Spanish tortilla, check this out. 

Mostly Martha
This tasty little German film was recently remade (No Reservations) starring Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta Jones, however, it’s the original that should be sought out. Similar to Dinner Rush this film deals with the pressures behind the kitchen doors of a trendy restaurant. The culinary clash of German and Italian cuisine showcased in the film is also fun to watch. 

Finally, The Sopranos
Ok, ok, so it’s technically not a film but one could argue that any episode of this masterful HBO series bests most films being released today. Everything there is to be said about the show has been said, however, one thing I noticed during the show’s pinnacle season was that audiences stopped discussing one of the show’s most distinct characteristics; it’s use of food. From Dr. Melphi’s psychiatric standpoint food was always a metaphor for Tony Sopranos’ mental anguish, however, the use of food helped culturally define these horrible people and showed that despite their evil doings they were human too. From the baked ziti infused Sunday dinners, to the massive funeral spreads, Artie Bucco’s Vesuvius restaurant, “don’t disrespect the pizza parlor,” and of course the mob hangout pork store, food was as much a signature character as any of the other stars. Best Sopranos food moment, when the gang, specifically Paulie Walnuts, head across the ocean to the boot in season two and are treated to true Italian cuisine only to request pasta and Sunday gravy.