An intriguing autumnal weekend: films, a new Paulus piece and Wynton Marsalis

Richard Lunklater's "Dazed and Confused"
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
Richard Lunklater’s “Dazed and Confused”

Ah, autumn, the two or three weeks of sweater and windbreaker weather Minnesota offers us before blanketing us with snow. It’s like those few minutes offered to royalty, giving them a chance to make their peace and say goodbye to their loved ones, before representatives from a military coup eject them out the highest window of the palace. This is our few moments of peace before the defenestration of winter.

We might as well pretend we’re in Austin in the 1970s on the last day of school, when there was little to concern anybody except weekend parties, some mild drug use and viciously hazing the incoming freshmen. Firstly, it’s a pleasurable fantasy, and secondly it’s the plot to “Dazed and Confused,” Richard Linklater’s 1993 film that screens this Saturday at the Walker Art Center as part of a retrospective of the director’s work.

There is an awful lot to recommend this film, not the least of which is its ensemble cast, which includes very early performances from Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich and  Parker Posey.

Even more startling, they play relatively minor characters (although McConaughey, as a recent high school graduate who has refused to give up the culture — or the girls — of high school, has an especially showy role). No, this film belongs to Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Rory Cochrane and Adam Goldberg, names that, at best, might evoke a vague sense of recognition. It’s as though we are seeing an alternate history of American film, in which the awful spectacle of “Bennifer” never happened, there were no “Resident Evil” movies, and McConaughey didn’t make all those godawful romantic comedies.

No, instead, in this alternate timeline, Generation X produced a collection of oddly soulful movie stars with the faces of character actors and an unmistakably indie film aesthetic. I think I might have preferred to live in that alternate one now, in which we can look forward to a few Wiley Wiggins films per year.

Friday and Saturday give us another film that seems to come from an alternate universe: Take-Up Productions has been revisiting the films of Tim Burton, and this weekend they present one of his weirdest: “Mars Attacks.”  Ostensibly borrowing from a series of Topps trading cards that portrayed, as Topps cards often did, the world under siege. Instead the true inspiration for this film seems to be Ed Wood, the man who gave us “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” and who Burton had made the subject of a biopic in 1994, two years before this film came out.

“Mars Attacks” has a cast as sprawling as “Dazed and Confused,” but almost all slumming movie stars — Jack Nicholson takes two roles, but Pierce Brosnan, Glenn Close, Anette Benning, Martin Short, Rod Steiger and dozens of others round out the cast. The story: Martians attack the earth. And … that’s pretty much it. What follows is a series of set pieces of deliberately campy mayhem, scored by Danny Elfman to sound like an orchestra and a theremin were in a fistfight. I’d like to imagine a world in which Ed Wood had a hundred million dollars and his pick of Hollywood’s A-list — this films is as close as we’ll ever get to seeing what that might have looked like.

While we’re on the subject of alternative realities, I’m trying to imagine what America would be like if jazz were still the dominant popular music form, instead of a niche genre favored by aficionados.

It had a good run — Sinatra, one of the last superstars of popular jazz, was still enjoying chart-topping hits in 1994, which marks jazz as having had at least 70 years as something that could enjoy massive sales. There’s some jazz scares now and then, mostly based around pop artists releasing vanity albums of the greatest hits of the American songbook, and demonstrating nothing so much as that their decades of relying on a rock ‘n’ roll backbeat has left them uncertain as to how to swing a song.

But I’d like to imagine a world in which Fat Kid Wednesdays had the same sort of pop cachet as Bon Ivar. This local combo has been playing together for coming up on two decades, and represent all that is good and fine about jazz — its heartfelt appreciation of melody and dedication to sonic experimentation. But they’re never likely to play a song on a late-night talk show, and I’ll eat my hat if they ever get featured on the cover of alt newspapers that mostly cover twee indie rock.

Thankfully, this doesn’t mean Fat Kid Wednesday’s can’t find a venue.

In fact, tonight they have one of the best ones in the Twin Cities: Orchestra Hall.

Or, at least, Stephen Paulus from the band will, as he and his son Greg will be joining the orchestra for their season debut, a jazz concerto. The evening will feature a piece by Paulus, as well as Ravel’s “Bolero” and a piece by John Adams called “Fearful Symmetries,” which is an almost maniacally mathematical piece of music. All of which, one suspects, can be swung like nobody’s business.

Further, Sunday will see one of jazz’s remaining superstars take the stage at orchestra hall: Wynton Marsalis, along with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. 

Marsalis is about to turn 50, a fact that is a bit startling for those of us who remember him as the brash young lion of jazz, and, to honor the event, the orchestra will be revisiting his catalogue. This is a moment tinged with melancholy, I must say, simply because it represents an instant in which one of the few jazz artists who still looked forward to the future of the form is pausing to look back. But, then, I suppose autumn comes for everybody.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Sam Morrison on 09/30/2011 - 11:35 am.

    Has Wynton Marsalis ever, at any point, actually “looked forward to the future of the form”?

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