Monday, March 10, 2008

"My imagination is beyond the civilization in which we live"

My Name is Albert Ayler is one of the most beautiful and transformative films I have ever seen. It is very rare for a movie about an artist to enrich and deepen the viewers appreciation for its subject. This is precisely Kasper Collins's accomplishment. After seeing this film, Ayler's music makes more sense, what he was trying to accomplish becomes clearer. The world itself seems a somewhat different place, or maybe seeing it in the context of Ayler's music makes the world make a little more clear.

The film is a member of the class of documentaries that I think of as poetic. Although it has a good amount of biographical information, the focus is much more upon creating a visual space for Albert to explain himself to us--both through his music and in his own words, taken from radio interviews and other archival sources. His voice is gentle, almost shy. This makes even his most grandiose statements come across as simple truths. Music is the healing force of the universe. If people don't like it now, they will. His conviction is infectious. Interviews with friends and family root Albert's visionary musings fairly firmly in the context of his time. A wonderful device Collins utilizes is to show some of his interviewees wearing headphones, listening to the music we hear on the soundtrack, smiling and sometimes weeping. The film leaves several loose ends of biographic fact dangling, and it is almost entirely without any attempt to place Ayler's music in the greater context of jazz and how it reacted against that, but I don't find that to be a failing. Giving us more information would have gotten in the way of the music.

The visual fabric of the piece consists of a collage of television appearances, still photos, and vintage stock footage (to set the temporal and geographical tone), threaded in with the interviews, all given rhythm by the ubiquitous, repeated usage of the footage of Ayler from Michael Snow's New York Eye and Ear Control that the above still is taken from. A silent, shirtless Albert stands in front of a black background, staring at us, a gentle smile playing at his lips. This image is repeated in a manner reminiscent of the motives Ayler used in his compositions: out of the formless chaos of some of the most brutal, bleedingly free jazz playing of the sixties, the horns lock in together and bring out some gorgeous, golden bit of melody, often a quote from a march or other martial composition, anchoring the piece and giving it this beautiful texture of sanctity. Although it of course does not quite meet the heights that its subject achieved, the film manages a similar sort of structure.

Albert Ayler's music is about complexity and coherence, nature and the world. In the crashing morass of sound that his groups achieved is all the complexity of a dynamic system, the crash of surf or the flight patterns of starlings, in the bell-clear melodic passages all of the glorious beauty of a human being somehow managing to mean something more than meat, to ascend into sublimity. This movie helped me to appreciate that a little more, and it's something to treasure for that accomplishment.

For the two people who actually read this thing: Go see it at the Red Vic before it leaves. It's there until Tuesday.

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