The Voice of Energy Vol. 113
Writing to you today from a hotel room in the obscenity that is Las Vegas. Here for a strange industry conference that I’m fighting to maintain interest in. The good news is that I’m getting a lot of work done, including getting this newsletter together for you. I hope you enjoy.
Piligrimai (dir. Laurynas Bareiša)
In its early scenes, Piligrimai (or Pilgrims) plays out something like a detective story. The scruffy and paunchy Paulius (Giedrius Kiela) and the slightly more put together Indre (Gabija Bargailaitė) take off on a road trip to follow the trail of a missing person from the airport in Vilnius to a small town many kilometers away. Through each step of the journey, more and more details are revealed as they stop by the various places where this as-yet-unnamed person visited and attempt to interview potential witnesses.
But as we quickly learn, the person they are tracking is Matas, Paulius’ brother and Indre’s boyfriend, who was abducted, raped, and killed by a mentally unstable man he met at a bar. The pair already know the salient details of the horrific crime — the location of the house where Matas was kept and where he was eventually taken and drowned — but they are still demanding answers. They get what they ask for but none of it seems to help. They are both consumed by grief and guilt, even though the murder took place years before. And the locals they quiz about Matas seem annoyed at their continued presence.
The film carries an unusually quiet tone and, in the performance by Bargailaité, an occasional sense of bemusement and exhaustion. Indre empathizes with the folks whose lives they are disrupting especially as Paulius’ anger keeps spilling over into impulsive acts like kicking off the sideview mirror of a car and threatening to throw acid on a young woman (it’s really soda). Yet she remains for every step of this amateur investigation, the weight of the new details they uncover slowly crumpling her slender frame.
What doubles the impact of this quietly powerful story is Bareisa’s unobtrusive direction. His camera slowly tracks Indre and Paulius’ movements in long takes while staying at a remove. It feels like a ghostly presence — be it the unmoored spirit of Matas or some other spectral force — watching their efforts with curiosity but unwilling to push either them or viewers in any one direction. He knows we enter the theater or press play on our remote bringing with us our biases and personal history. How we react to this story is entirely up to us. (in select theaters)
Little Richard: I Am Everything (dir. Lisa Cortés)
The story of Little Richard, the trailblazing architect of rock ‘n’ roll who spent the better part of his adult life struggling with his faith, his sexuality and an addiction to drugs, is one that is ripe for deep cinematic exploration. Which is precisely why Lisa Cortés’ new documentary about the artist is so frustrating. It only digs down so far, hitting some of the high notes and making great use of archival footage but gets bogged down by showy set pieces and an aggressive use of Foley effects.
The promise of the film hits hard early on as it tracks Richard’s impoverished childhood and his early days as a musician. In particular, Cortés puts an important emphasis on the history of drag and gender fluid performers on the chitlin circuit. Richard found success in this world by adopting some of the same showy practices, like applying a heavy amount of makeup to himself and his bandmates. And Cortés smartly unpacks the frustration Richard felt at watching his sweaty hopped up R&B get sanitized and whitewashed by the likes of Elvis and Pat Boone.
But throughout, the filmmaker undermines her purpose by tossing in these over-dramatized performances of Richard’s songs by current Black artists, overlaid with CGI stardust and other effects. Her message about Little Richard’s continued presence in the modern school of rock / soul / R&B is important, and there’s every reason to praise Cortés for not trucking out the usual suspect critics and artists to speak on Richard’s impact. But these appearances by Valerie June and others diminishes her point, turning his art into a mystical force rather than its true place as the earthbound roots of modern music.
Cortés also curiously skims past the protests that Richard undertook in the ’80s to get paid for the music he wrote and recorded in the ’50s and ’60s. Especially with the rise of CDs at that time and the major record labels plundering their back catalogs and archives for material to press to this new format, Richard was, in his way, speaking on behalf of generations of Black artists whose labor was exploited by the nascent music industry. What resolution came from his protests is never revealed.
There is still every reason to watch this documentary, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with Richard’s story. It hits all the highlights and, again, with its well chosen film clips and TV appearances, it makes clear exactly what a molten presence he was on a concert stage. Cortés also does an incredible job laying bare how conflicted Richard was about maintaining a strong Christian faith in the face of his homosexuality. He rejected both more than once throughout his life, but eventually landed back in the world of televangelists towards the end of his life. I wanted more from I Am Everything but got enough to inspire my own research. (available to rent or purchase from VOD services)
Artwork for this edition is a piece by O Hezin that is included in Young Korean Artists 2023: Annotating The Museum, an exhibition on display at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea through Sept 10.
This newsletter was written on the unceded land where once stood the traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin, Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other tribes who made their homes along the Columbia River creating communities and summer encampments to harvest and use the plentiful natural resources of the area.