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Not quite a musical, not yet a music video: short films can be an ideal medium to explore music as more than background or supplement.
Music is a powerful force in film. It can construct a world with depth without resorting to a storyline. Bookie and DJ:LA from respective filmmakers Tran Quoc Bao and Jerry Chan are such visual soundtracks. With disparate approaches to narrative and cinematography, the two short films testify that soundtrack is not secondary, especially for short films where every second must be used wisely. Music conveys effectively and smoothly what other filmic elements need more time to develop.
From all appearances, Bao's project is not a statement about music. The beautifully shot Bookie is set against a black/white world, literally and thematically. From backdrop to characters, the only shades of gray are the shadows cast by the light. The first impression is that it takes more than a few notes from the film noir tradition. It deviates however from the genre in both good and bad ways. That the titular character is mostly known by his job says a few things about the 18-minute film. Bookie as played by Ken Quitugua is defined by his job and little else. His job, of course, is straightforwardly symbolic of the chances, or lack thereof, that he takes in life. He says at one point with all seriousness, "I don't take risks. I take bets." That is, until Angela Adto's cynical Billie miraculously pushes him to reconsider his life philosophy, all in one night. The audience is prepped to an extent by J.T. Jackson's jovial gambler Rogers who touts his support for the underdog. However, Bookie offers little of the continual twists that make the genre so appealing. The characters along with Lester Purry's club owner and mob boss Jackson are not so much one-dimensional as they are under-explored given the time limit.
But perhaps in classic film noir fashion there are red herrings in the form of the characters. After all, what gives the film its true fluidity and heart is the music. Bao carefully crafted a soundtrack that speaks to the year and the place of the film's setting: 1963 Seattle. It was not only a significant year in music history, but one in the United States civic history. Martin Luther King, Jr. led protests in Birmingham, Alabama which were followed by the historic March on Washington in D.C. Meanwhile, music across genres hit notable benchmarks. All the legends that we still refer to now had projects released in that year. There were Billboard R&B number one hits from Stevie Wonder, The Miracles, and Ray Charles, while country classics Patsy Cline's double album The Patsy Cline Story and Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash were released. Albums from jazz greats like Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie came out too. Contemporary staples such as James Brown's Live at the Apollo, Bob Dylan's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and The Beatles' Please Please Me and With the Beatles entered our cultural consciousness. Artists reached new heights of innovation, introducing ways of listening to and understanding the world. The music in many ways encapsulated its time -- engaging anyone who would listen to reflect, break down preconceived barriers, and evolve past them.
Seattle mirrored the national climate with housing segregation dictating the demography of the landscape. According to Seattle's city government records, there was the city's first sit-in on July 1 with a Freedom March and Rally that ensued a month later, organized to occur at the same time as Dr. King's March on Washington. Apparently the city had a rich R&B, soul music tradition as well. Seattle was where Ray Charles met Quincy Jones, beginning an important chapter in the history of American R&B.
All of this is concentrated in Bao's casting of local artists Bernadette Bascom (who was signed to Stevie Wonder's label at one point) and Geoffery Simmons as the entertainers at Jackson's club. As personifications of the city's musical past, Bascom and Simmons lend the film much needed passion, vitality, and pain that comes with any combination of loving wholeheartedly, losing what's valuable, and living with regrets. It's something that Bookie and Billie were unable to convincingly stoke in each other. It's through the musical shorthand that Bookie works as a short film -- at the same time it suggests how fascinating it could be as a full length feature.
Whereas Bookie is not directly about music, DJ:LA places music at the forefront. The colon in the title says it all. Chan's four-minute short film draws the analogy that DJ is to L.A. as music is to city -- one makes sense through the other. Setting Los Angeles as vinyl records to be mixed, scratched, and played says as much about the city as it says about the art of turntablism. Conventionally, New York City is seen as the quintessential American city from which L.A. stands in runner-up to. That is because with all the sky-high buildings clustered together N.Y.C. as visual representation of the urban requires little explanation. In contrast, the spread-out metropolitan of L.A. needs more individualized finesse. An appreciation of it as a city simply requires a special way to read it, as architectural historian Reyner Banham once advised. Transit to him is one elemental way of how L.A. can be grasped and appreciated. It's the same perspective that Chan takes on to create a bricolage of movement in DJ:LA.
The audience is taken on a physical and aural tour of the L.A. streets, while embarking on a reexamination of perception. A city is what you make of it. Chan would have you see L.A. through a DJ's eyes: inspiration can come from any source and if you don't like what you see (or hear), you mix it up. L.A. then would be that break beat waiting to be interpreted. The metaphor of L.A. capable of being scratched and mixed is quite empowering. In an everyday context, control of how one sees the city is in the hands of the individual. One of the more enduring images from DJ:LA is L.A. as a turntable complete with integral parts like pitch control, stylus, and even two-way traffic flowing to and fro alongside the turntable platter's strobe dots. So essential to a DJ's awareness of a record's speed, strobe dots running parallel to L.A. traffic returns attention to how transit is the beat along which the city is connected and understood at the same time.
Bookie and DJ:LA played the 2008 Downtown Film Festival in Los Angeles. For information on future screenings, check out the official sites for Bookie and DJ:LA.
Date Posted: 9/19/2008