Friday, March 4, 2016

Home of the Brave

A rear projection screen at a Laurie Anderson concert was usually active with varying imagery: photos, video clips, text.   During the 1986 concert film HOME OF THE BRAVE, a series of Anderson's "To-Do" lists write themselves on that screen.  One of them queries as to what this movie should be called.  One option: Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.  It is crossed out and deemed "too long".  It may have been the most appropriate title, for trying to describe what Anderson does is limited to mere words, and few can really explain this unexplainable experience.

Anderson gained some mainstream awareness in the early '80s with her album Big Science.  From it came "O Superman" which somehow cracked the Top 40.  But otherwise Laurie's output, often described as performance art, has proven inaccessible for most listeners.  I'm a fan, but some of her compositions do test my patience.  Repetitive, droning, oddly mixed sounds of electric violins and synthesizers.  Distorted voices.  Laurie does actually sing at times, but mainly speaks a litany of fascinating stream-of-consciousness.  A common theme in her compositions is the intrusion of "progress" onto the landscape.

HOME OF THE BRAVE, directed by the artist herself, documents a 1985 show in New Jersey.  Quite happily, both "Sharkey's Day" and "Sharkey's Night" are featured.  For the latter, Anderson and her musicians are mumified.   In between, Laurie puts on a show that reminded me somewhat of "Blue Man Group". which would debut several years later.  Much of the material, like "Old Hat" and "Difficult Listening Hour" are spoken word.  Throughout, stories are told, inquiries of binary numbers are made.  She plays her body like an instrument, slapping her thighs to drumbeats and tinkling keys on her piano tie.  She doesn't dance, exactly.   Her eyes are usually bugged out, aside from that of a large image of her face on the screen, often squinting through her wry statements.  This image oddly reminded me of that of Ethan Hawke's "invalid" visage when shown on ID cards in GATTACA.

William S. Burroughs appears twice, once doing a tango across the stage with Anderson.  The song "Language is a Virus" takes its title for one of his quotes.  It may also be emblematic of Laurie Anderson appreciation.

Guitarist Adrian Belew is on hand for some weird licks, often well timed to punctuate Anderson's observations. During HOME OF THE BRAVE, he will also lay his axe down on the stage and play it with kitchen utensils.  Later, he whips out a guitar with a rubber neck and swings at tennis balls.  This sounds playful and silly, and there are some (or many, depending on your point of view, invisible audience) such as when Laurie pulls out a giant lens to magnify her face.  But most of the show is just oblique and unpredictable.  Certainly a visual feast, and for that reason many more people will stick with the movie than had they simply been listening to one of her records.

HOME OF THE BRAVE seems to covet the throne of STOP MAKING SENSE, the remarkable Talking Heads concert movie from two years earlier.  There are similarities, including Lisa Day's skillful editing.  Anderson has two backup singers who sound like the Heads' Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt.  Even some of the keyboard reminds me of the reinterpreted versions of "Burning Down the House" and "Once in a Lifetime".  But Jonathan Demme is not on board for this project, though it would seem that he would share a sensibility with the artist. Anderson does a competent job of "directing" but perhaps should've allowed someone else to film her unique show.  Maybe she felt that no one else would quite get it.  I'm still working at it myself.
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