Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Soft Five Hours

I spent my evening surrounded by the fruit of VCU's loins.

Next up on VCU Cinematheque's ongoing tribute to Italian director extraordinaire Michelangelo Antonioni was "The Passenger," so I followed my sunny road trip with a brisk walk to the Grace Street Theater.

Brisk because sundown means I'm automatically cold and resenting it, even when culture awaits.

Although I've been to see several of the Antonioni films this semester and in the past, tonight's was the first in English. Maybe even more surprising than that was that the film had been made at MGM, featured a big American actor, Jack Nicholson, and was considered an homage to Hitchcock and, with his main character switching identities, to Hitch's masterful "North by Northwest."

The theater was unusually packed for the Tuesday night screening series, a fact I attributed to the name recognition of the star. That said, the movie was made in 1975 before every role Jack Nicholson played was essentially Jack Nicholson, resulting in the chance to see him disappear into the role and not overpower it with his own persona.

That alone was worth seeing.

But so was the French actress Maria Schneider, whom I knew solely from having seen in "Last Tango in Paris" way back when it came out, who played a strong, assured architecture student at a time when most women's roles were more decorative.

And not that she wasn't lovely (that her haircut in 1975 was eerily similar to mine in 2018 was a side bonus), but I was especially taken with her clothes because they were so spot on for that era. Everything she wore in the film looked like a variation of something I owned that decade, including the over-sized fabric bag she carried for a purse.

When it came to male style, Nicholson had multiple scenes wearing a button-down, short-sleeved shirt which he'd unbuttoned completely and tied at the waist. Whole lot of chest and chest hair there. If that was a thing anywhere but in the gay clubs in 1975, I don't recall seeing it.

Like any Antonioni film, effort was required to stay engaged and within the first 45 minutes, at least a  dozen students got up to leave, some of them running up the theater aisles as if they were making a break for it. No doubt they'd be incredulous to learn that some of us had come by choice and not because our professor dictated it.

I got a kick out of a scene where Nicholson is renting a car to begin his adventure as somebody else (a dead man) and when the clerk asks where he's going, he hasn't a clue. She points to a list of potential drop-off countries in Europe and he says, "Yugoslovia! I'll go to Dubrovnik."

I can only imagine how different Dubrovnik must have been in 1975 than it was last month when I saw it.

Walking out of the theater with the hordes of students, I overheard one say, "Once I knew what it was about..." as if it had taken a while to figure out. The irony there is that the professor had read a four-page introduction to the movie, including explaining what would happen in the story, as well as mentioning the notable 7-minute long tracking shot near the end, so if he'd been paying attention (say, not on his phone), he'd have had a clue.

I'm guessing listening to your professor is sooo 20th century.

One thing the professor had not shared, however, was that actual footage of a real assassination had been used by Antonioni, so as one who has great difficulty watching violence of any kind, I was completely unprepared for that. My issues aside, I'd have been curious to know if it even registered for students who've grown up with the ability to see to any horrible thing they care to online.

And, as the professor had warned us, the ending came as a complete surprise. Those who were glancing at their phones undoubtedly missed it entirely.

Another Tuesday night, another Antonioni film. It's like the gallerist I was recently interviewing observed, "Once Fall hits, there's just so much to do in Richmond." Tell me about it.

When I got back to J-Ward, I didn't even bother going upstairs. My next stop was the Rabbit Hole at Vagabond for the Randazzo Big Band doing Charles Owen (not that I knew who Charles Owen was) and I was already late because Antonioni makes no short films.

The room was quite full when I got there, so I slipped into a sliver of space near the door in the back to take in the satisfying sounds of 15 musicians playing in a very low-ceilinged room. Charles Owen, it turned out, was the bearded sax player whose music Randazzo had transcribed and was now being featured in the first set, and he looked mighty happy about it.

Mind you, this is a big band led by bass player Andrew Randazzo, who also plays with Butcher Brown, so besides a dozen horns of all kinds, there were some pretty great bass lines leading the way. And don't get me started on Devonne Harris on drums.

I gotta say, music fans in this town should get down on their knees every night and thank VCU's jazz studies program for the top notch musicians it spits out for us to enjoy.

Just when it felt like the room couldn't hold another person, Randazzo announced, "Okay, we're going to take a ten minute break. Just ten minutes! Then we'll come back and play Beyonce." From behind me at the bar, I overheard a guy knowingly say, "It'll be a soft ten minutes," and I knew he was right.

I think I'm safe in saying that no band in Richmond has ever stuck to a ten-minute break, least of all jazz cats.

The break gave me an opportunity to wiggle in for a better vantage point, which I found on the back corner of a couch where a couple occupying it told me to help myself to the edge of their space. The room was full of hair and lots of it, and looked to be crowded with long-time musicians and jazz students eager to hear their (slightly) elders.

A busy, young server came by, trying to clean up a bit during the break. When she picked up an almost full plate of fries from the couple's table, I joked that it was a waste of perfectly good fries. Her take was purely economical, though. "It's a waste of perfectly good money! Those fries cost $5!"

Clearly a woman who works hard for the money.

Behind me, I heard several musicians lamenting the difficulty of transitioning from touring to being back at home and more than one admitted that when on the road, they don't worry about the regular business of life at all.

I may not have a musical bone in my body, but I can sure relate to trying to balance the reality of daily life with time spent away, constantly trying to play catch-up.

Running into a favorite saxophone player provided the opportunity to learn that he's now teaching music in the Henrico County jail, a job with enormous challenges, I gathered. When I asked how many inmates were interested in music, he laughed, saying maybe one in each class. That's got to be tough.

The second set may or may not have included Beyonce (it's not like I'd recognize anything beyond "Single Ladies"), but it definitely featured several Butcher Brown tunes as well as one by Philly soul songwriter Thom Bell. Still, I think I was the only one who raised my hand when Randazzo asked if there were any Thom Bell fans in the room, although why he'd ask that of a room made up 90% with people born after grunge is beyond me. Optimism, I guess.

Around 10:30, a guy came in, assessed the crowded room and began moving through the tables and chairs, eventually settling himself on the floor beside a front booth, mere feet from the the saxophones. Prime real estate if you're willing to floor sit.

The evening closed with a Vince Guaraldi song the bandleader said was originally called "Minus Lucy" but became "Linus, Single Again," but all I know for sure is that the distinctive sound of brushes on drums and that kind of piano playing could only be Guaraldi.

Sort of like an Antonioni screening followed by a big band on a Tuesday night. Once you know what it's about, it could only be Richmond.

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