shen done him wrong: day one

the fifth installment of queue de grâce kicks off in fine style with a trio of films to appease your gypsy soul. and i mean actual gypsies, not bullshit texas singer-songwriters who refer to themselves as such because they can't hold down a job and sleep on a succession of boyfriends'/girlfriends' couches. i've got news for you clowns: that doesn't make you a gypsy, that makes you a bum. here to teach you periodic dishwashers and vagabonds a lesson are the incredible musicians in jasmine dellal's when the road bends: tales of a gypsy caravan (2006).

the film documents a six week tour by five groups from the four corners of the romani world. historically, the path of these gypsies begins in india and moves through europe from east to west. musically, representatives from india, romania, macedonia and spain illustrate the dissemination of gypsy culture for us in brilliant flashes of color and sound. the music and dancing are astounding. maharaja, fanfare ciocărlia, taraf de haïdouks, esma redžepova and the antonio el pipa flamenco ensemble are all riveting performers, each with a unique take on the gypsy tradition ranging from raga to string ensemble to brass band. intercut with the concert footage are glimpses of each group in their home countries, detailing their trials and small triumphs from lifetimes spent playing music. it is gratifying, through these glimpses of home, to see art making a tangible difference in people's lives. cd sales equate to electricity being brought to villages for the first time, sustenance for entire families and the purchase of music education to perpetuate the cycle. the intangibles are equally touching, with music providing the backdrop for every birth, wedding and funeral in these communities. back in the states, the most beautiful part of the footage from the tour was watching these musicians from such disparate backgrounds grow to understand, and collaborate with, each other based on their shared love of music and the ancient ties of a culture that spawned them all. the scene with the indian musicians good-naturedly clowning the flamenco musicians is a riot and to see them progress from these playful jabs to sharing meals to playing and singing together was wonderful. i've been lucky enough to find kindred spirits in my musical travels and i know the joy of going from strangers to true friends creating art that is unique to that time and place in what seems like the blink of an eye. i can't imagine how profoundly the experience is magnified by building that same experience on centuries of the shared sorrow and joy of a people. it is certainly magnificent and humbling to see. on the down side, there were one or two minor distractions with the film. for example, i didn't particularly enjoy the stage-manager-as-narrator device or johnny depp's celebrity stamp of approval segment and i have a question or two about the veracity of some of esma's claims, as i think she has a diva's tendency for self-aggrandizing, but these are small quibbles. i also feel like breaking it into two films might have served the material better. a straight concert film would have been appreciated, thus doing away with the frustration of the performances getting cut short just as you're becoming wrapped up in them. you could have made an equally engaging feature out of the sections in their home countries as well. there were just so many stories to squeeze into a relatively small space. structural shortcomings aside, it is still well worth your time. the music is exciting and powerful and it has carried the performers' stories quite literally around the world to find you here. take a minute to listen.

we leave the traditional behind as we rocket forward into the twenty-first century, gypsy punk world of margarita jimeno's gogol bordello non-stop (2008).

for the uninitiated, gogol bordello is an eastern european-influenced punk rock band led by the inimitable eugene hütz. the band is a benzedrine circus led by a madman who has the pedal to, possibly through, the floor and it is one of the most glorious things i have had the privilege to see live on more than occasion. this documentary picks up with them just as they are on the cusp of going from cult band to international phenomenon. as a documentary, it's a pretty standard band profile. there won't be many surprises. it's just a good thing they're not a standard band. hütz is one of the most charismatic front men you'll ever see and to hear him relate the story of his youth and immigration from the ukraine provides all the perspective you need to grasp the method to his madness. it's not hard to imagine how the immigrant experience could provide the fuel for his devil-may-care joyride through the twin ghettos of eastern european music and punk rock. fortunately for the rest of us, he has assembled a like-minded band of brigands and their particular brand of melting pot carnage is a gift from the punk rock gods. the film gives you glimpses of it but never manages to fully put across the decadent joy of the live show. it is simply something that i don't think you can capture on film. it's a start, though. for a fan's love letter to the band, see the documentary. if you want the truly revelatory gogol bordello experience, buy a ticket the next time they come to your town. be prepared to get dirty, sweaty and happy. just don't try to get between me and pamela racine. then we're going to have a problem.

speaking of getting between me and pamela racine, the last chump that tried to do that features prominently in our next film, liev schreiber's everything is illuminated (2005).

it's based on jonathan safran foer's semi-autobiographical and semi-precious first novel. i am already at a disadvantage with this one because i am no fan of his particular entitled brand of cleverness. having elijah wood and his eternally tear-brimmed eyes as his cinematic surrogate is strike two. what?! i am already down 0-2 and this thing has just started. who can turn this train around?

eugene hütz again, that's who!

the film follows a slightly fictional foer as he travels from the u.s. to the ukraine to try to find the girl that saved his grandfather's life during the holocaust. he is a collector, an observer, as his slightly magnifying spectacles underline for us. he has been accumulating and bagging the flotsam and jetsam of his family for years and then quirkily mounting those plastic bags on the walls of his home resulting in what looks like a serial killer investigation command center as imagined by wes anderson. he is repressed and fearful, muted and introspective in a way that NPR contributors probably confuse with "having soul". this unappealing starting position at least provides plenty of room for growth, which is, after all, what this sort of journey is about. upon arrival in the ukraine, he meets his translator/guide, alex, alex's grandfather and the grandfather's dog, sammy davis jr. jr. not a typo. two juniors. this quartet crisscrosses the ukrainian countryside in search of some clue as to the whereabouts of his grandfather's village that seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. all the while, alex and his grandfather provide the bittersweet comic relief. alex's ambitious butchery of the english language (not always successfully) skirts the thin line between being unintentionally accurate and "lovable foreigner". the grandfather's shell of anti-semitism functions as both a protective ruse and fodder for comedy via translation. the first two-thirds of the film didn't move me a great deal. it succeeded in spots, mainly on the strength of hütz's good cheer and charisma playing off the crustiness of his grandfather. once they found the woman they had been looking for, though, the final act taught me a valuable lesson - anyone can be a collector but not everyone can be a caretaker. laryssa lauret invests her small role with such tenderness and gravity that i was momentarily able to forget about the source of the material and focus on the significance of the smallest gesture. she was able to snatch a minor victory from the jaws of irritating self-consciousness and sometimes that is enough. i would be curious to see liev schreiber's next directorial effort. given the right material, i think he could achieve something great.

well, we're off to a roaring start. will tomorrow be as kind? word on the street is that an old pal from installment number four is going to be dropping by.

you're a long way from nakatomi plaza, buddy.

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