Tuesday, November 3, 2009

THE BQE - A Sufjan Stevens Film

Unlike the MEGA SHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS review, this one is about the kind of movie that you will almost never find on this site. Here we usually revel in cheese and bad production values. Myles, the hamster, and I generally do not make forays into the world of artistic visionary kinda stuff. If it’s not playing at the local multiplex, we usually stay away. But when I found out that Sufjan Stevens had made a movie, I was all over it.

Sufjan is an all-time favorite of mine and Seven Swans (and Come On, Feel the Illinoise, of course) occupies a place in my personal hall of fame. The thought of him making a film (about an expressway, no less), was completely intriguing. Here’s little bit of backstory: Sufjan was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music to create a film about Brooklyn. Stevens, a Brooklyn native, was fascinated by the idea of making the film not about the borough, but about the street that runs though it. He quickly set about filming and scoring a movie about the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The music was first performed in 2007, with 35 musicians and interpretive hula hooping.

The movie, just released last month, is a visual and auditory banquet. It opens with a panoramic shot of the BQE while a drone fills the audio space, almost as if the orchestra is tuning up for the performance. Then, as the scenes start to change, the scope of the project comes into view. The whole film is presented with three separate panes of film, sometimes joined, sometimes unique. The effect is a triptych, almost a trinity, of image. Three visuals, three words, three hula hoopers – yes, the Hooper Heroes join the film. These lovely ladies play the roles of Botanica, Quantas, and Electress (BQE, get it?) and provide the human element to counterbalance the grit and concrete of the Expressway.

Sufjan provides sweeping vistas of sound juxtaposed against grainy, dirty, and beautiful buildings and street life. The visuals present a melting pot of imagery - the modernity of McDonalds alongside shoes hanging from power lines next to the shells of tenement buildings. The three panels often show the same scene from three distinct vantage points, but even when they are joined to form a unified image, it’s never seamless, always fractured; it's never whole, but still complete.

About a third of the way into the film, Act II starts, and the hula hoopers take center stage. The music turns introspective, shots get tighter, and the actions slows. The hooper scenes serve as salve to eyes overindulged on urban sprawl. Seeing humans soothes and smooths away the harsh edges of concrete we’ve been watching. At the halfway point, the main musical theme returns to close ups of trucks and cars on the BQE, along with shots framed in such a way the birth canal imagery is impossible to miss. In an interview with Paste Magazine, Sufjan said, “If skyscrapers are the ultimate phallic symbols, then the urban expressway is the ultimate birth canal, the uterine wall, the anatomical passageway, the ultimate means of egress, and the process by which we are all born again. The BQE is the Motherhood of Civilization, the Breast of Being, the fallopian tube, the biological canal from which all of life emerges in resplendent beauty, newborn and newly fashioned with the immaculate countenance of a baby.” And he doesn’t beat around the bush with it – Sufjan proves to be the Georgia O’Keefe of New York Expressways.

The film continues and we get some visual trickery, a kaleidoscope effect, some night shooting, etc. In fact, my favorite scene is of fast motion of lights at night along with the hoopers in fast motion - the confluence of lights and speed creates an effect that looks dramatically like graffiti.

The film comes to a slide that says THE END. Don’t believe it. There’s still more. In fact, if THE BQE is a love letter to Brooklyn (and I believe it is, much like The Beastie Boys’ To the 5 Boroughs), then there is definitely a postscript. There is a very tender scene involving Sufjan and friends in the environment where we were just immersed. Still no voices, just visuals. But to the faithful who stick around for the PPS, there is a small coda on the end of the film featuring vocals over more beautiful imagery of The BQE.

I know this is long, and forgive me. But I could say much more about this film. Keep in mind, this is not a documentary – it is a museum piece. There are no vocals until the very end. No dialogue, only music. It runs a short 51 minutes and yes, it does get monotonous (and monotonal) at times, but that only serves to remind the viewer of the traffic on the BQE – monotonous. This is unlike anything we usually talk about here, and it’s a little difficult to put into words. It is a piece of art. It’s not something you invite your buddies over to watch with you (unless they’re big nerds like me who dig this sort of thing), but it’s really, really, really good. It’s the kind of film that people win awards for. Not Oscars or Golden Globes, but important awards.

THE BQE gets 5 Coney Islands out of 5 for the quality of the film. As for recommendation? Well, I highly recommend it, but you might not like it as much as I did. But it’s worth a shot. Seriously.


the hamster said...

john - this was great. really great. and i appreciate how nearly apologetic you become at the end of this piece saying, "and it's a little difficult to put into words." WHAT? you just gave us a trip de sufjan, a cinema meets lit crit meets wordsworth's "the spontaneous overflow of human emotion" meets Mega Shark. this is your finest Hockey Mask work to date, dear sir.

this does not sound like a film to rent, but a film to purchase. to view repeatedly, at each window, the way you might ride the same subway or bus route or bike path more than once on your normal track into and out of.

i love the word "panoramic", even though i never use it. something about it feels sacred, girthy, phallicly tall.

yes, sir, this is the golden age.

myleswerntz said...

careful: calling this the golden age means that the Goths and the Vandals are about to come sack us sometime soon, right after we get so self assured that we start taxing the peasants to death.

And good review, Johnny. I do love the Sufjan's rich texture of music, and can't wait to see what he's done with this.

Janna Barber said...

OK. So if this had been my first exposure to Sufjan, I might have thought he was pretty cool. I can not definitively say that it would have made me like his music more. Sorry. I know, I know. Bring on the "unbelievable"s, I can handle it.

You are smart and know how to use big words way better than me, honey-pie. And I enjoyed this review.

Parkerchica said...

Dear Janna,

You made me laugh. I remember the first time I heard a Sufjan Stevens song. Matt had been the last person to drive our little green beetle, and when I got in and turned on the ignition this strange music was blaring. It was "All The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands."

And I said to myself, "What IS this? Is that a banjo? And what's with the 'duh-duh-duh' girls in the background? And...is that someone playing the saw? Like, not as a joke or a sketch on Hee-Haw?"

I have found Sufi (I like to pretend he's an old friend) to be an acquired taste, like so many of the great things I worked hard to appreciate (i.e. coffee, sour cream, March Madness, to name a few). At times I love his use of nonsense syllables and layers rhythmic and melodic ostinato that support but never compete with his lyrics. Sometimes not. There are a few instrumental pieces of his I can't do at all. But then there are songs like Casimir Pulaski Day that just destroy me inside...in a good way...every time I hear them.

John, thanks for posting this beautifully written review. I doubt we would have known about this movie otherwise.

the hamster said...

"like so many of the great things I worked hard to appreciate (i.e. coffee, sour cream, March Madness, to name a few)."

it's the inclusion of March Madness that made me laugh outloud.

misha - i'm so glad you're hanging about these parts.

janna - i haven't actually discovered my love or patience for sufjan yet. working on it, though.

Parkerchica said...

Kevin--thanks for the kind words. It's always nice to feel welcome. :)

Here's a link (I hope) to a Sufi arrangement that might be palatable for the non-Sufi fans among us.