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Essential Orphanistas: Jonas Mekas.

by Eric Kohn
April 12, 2010 6:30 AM
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On Friday night at the Orphan Film Symposium (which Bryce Renninger covered for indieWIRE), Jonas Mekas showed up to introduce Edward O. Bland's seminal 1958 essay film, The Cry of Jazz. In typical Mekas style, the former Village Voice critic unleashed loads of praise with vibrant, hyperbolic language. But while Jazz has its flaws, the overall experience I had while watching this short docu-essay (presented in a lovely new 35mm print by Colorlab) was one of awe: Utilizing a framing device in which a young black man explains the prevalence of jazz in African American society, Bland characterizes the genre as a dying form, and offers a prescient outlook. (His decision to ironically juxtapose Sun Ra's original score against images of white life -- such as a giggly lady giving a haircut to her dainty poodle -- got a big laugh.) One of Bland's characters points out that African American society compensates for fissures in its troubled history through musical expression, which has taken numerous forms over the years, from spirituals to blues to jazz. With the white appropriation of jazz, he says, the time has arrived for another phase. Thus, in pointing out "the death of jazz and the birth of a new way of life," Bland essentially anticipated hip hop culture.

After the screening, the director participated in a Q&A (in which, among other things, he called into question the musical capabilities of Ralph Ellison). Asked by audience member how he felt about "the death of jazz argument" now, Bland bluntly shot back: "My stance is, 'Gee, how could I have been so right?'"

Here's Jonas (sorry about the poor lighting):

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