Science Fiction and Jazz—Don’t You Love It?
Crimes of the Future and Jazz Fest
By Marc Glassman
Crimes of the Future
David Cronenberg, director and writer
Robert Lantos, producer
Starring: Viggo Mortensen (Saul Tenser), Lea Seydoux (Caprice), Kristen Stewart (Timlin), Don McKellar (Wippet), Scott Speedman (Lang Dotrice), Welket Bengué (Detective Cope), Lihi Kornowski (Djuna Dotrice), Tanaya Beatty (Berst), Yargos Karamihos (Brent Boss), Nadia Litz (Dani Router), Sozos Sotiris (Brecken)
Let us now praise David Cronenberg. The master of deeply unsettling narratives about failing societies peopled by creatures with oddly functioning bodily parts and strange desires will never be a heartwarming artist but then, these are difficult times. Perhaps he’s a prophet with increasing honour in a land of few promises, one that is becoming increasingly overwhelmed by an upsetting quotidian reality. His sense of visceral unease, perhaps despair, has marked Cronenberg’s films since such early works as Shivers, Rabid and, yes, a 1970 feature called Crimes of the Future, which doesn’t resemble the new similarly titled piece except in a melancholic way.
Cronenberg’s comeback film—and this isn’t to disparage the bleakly effective and beautifully acted Maps to the Stars—is a spectacular return to the genre that he long ago mastered, the dystopian futuristic drama. At his best—and Cronenberg’s finest work approaches the apex of world cinema—the films made by English Canada’s greatest auteur has propelled us into thinking closely and critically about the media (Videodrome), games (eXistenZ), creativity (Naked Lunch), sensationalism and car culture (Crash), gender (M. Butterfly), identity (A History of Violence), family (Eastern Promises) and psychology (A Dangerous Method).
This contemporary version of Crimes of the Future offers us a Cronenberg entranced by performance art, as he must have been in the Seventies and Eighties when extreme artists like Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, and Carolee Schneemann upset the mainstream with truly transgressive work. Here, he’s created a world in which such artists would be hailed as cultural heroes, embraced by all, not just the avant-garde. Viggo Mortensen, Cronenberg’s go-to lead actor, is Saul Tenser, a performer who has “accelerated evolution syndrome,” which makes it possible for him to produce new organs quite quickly. His partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux) operates on him regularly in front of an enthusiastic theatrical audience that is clearly transported by their show.
The National Organ Registry—a Cronenbergian concept that feels uniquely Canadian—arranges with Tenser to buy the now-historic pieces of him amputated by Caprice. The Registry is run by a couple of over-the-top nerds, Wippet and Timlin, who worship him in ways, ranging from admiration to sexual attraction, that don’t reassure any of them. Meanwhile, Tenser is being pursued by Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman) who wants him to perform surgery on his recently deceased son, Brecken, who has been killed by his mother after she saw him eating plastic. Lang, it turns out, is part of a group that eats artificial goods, not natural foods, and Bracken was the potential start of a new society that would do that as a matter of fact.
Cronenberg has, once again, created a dark but enticing world. There’s much suspense, sexuality and surprises in his new story. Without revealing the film’s final narrative coups, it’s only fair to point out the terrific performances by Viggo Mortensen and Lea Seydoux, who make you believe in the couple’s deep devotion for each other. Each has a key scene that requires old-fashioned compelling emotion—Mortensen in a surprising admission of weakness and Seydoux in a vulnerable concern on performing surgery—which is carried off brilliantly.
It’s important to point out that Cronenberg has created his story out of a strange but fascinating phenomenon, performance art. In 1971, around the time that the original Crimes of the Future was released, American artist Chris Burden was deliberately shot in the shoulder in a performance called Shoot, which was impassively documented by a videographer and photographer. Notorious at the time, Burden’s performance inspired a song by Laurie Anderson, “It’s not the bullet that kills you, it’s the hole,” a sculpture by an Israeli artist and a revision as a Russian roulette piece in 2004. During that time, the Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh embarked on a series of durational one-year performances, the most famous of which was Rope Piece, in which he and Linda Montano spent a year tied to but not touching each other. Marina Abramovic, who along with Laurie Anderson, has gone on to achieve world-wide fame, first created impressive work with her then-partner Ulay at that time. When she and Ulay decided to break up, the two walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, one from the Gobi Desert, the other from the Yellow Sea, in order to say goodbye.
So, Crimes of the Future is speculative fiction arising out a reality that Cronenberg experienced many years ago. It’s a fascinating film and truly a work of art. Does the film work completely? No. The plot could be more compelling and Cronenberg’s points, more coherent. But should it be seen and embraced and endlessly discussed? Absolutely.
Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story
(US, 2021, 95 min.)
Dir. Frank Marshall & Ryan Suffern
Featuring: Jimmy Buffet, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Ellis Marsalis, Pitbull, Katy Perry, Bruce Springsteen, Quint Davis, Herbie Hancock
Making a festival documentary successful is as easy as making a souffle rise to perfection. The ingredients are there but few directors, just like only a handful of chefs, can turn what seems simple into a work worth admiring—and devouring. The veteran producers and directors Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern haven’t quite cooked up a perfect dish with their new film about New Orleans’ jazz festival, but it doesn’t fall flat.
Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story isn’t really about jazz any more than is Montreal’s similarly titled festival. Both cities host wildly successful festivals, but jazz has become a sexy brand for each, representing any kind of roots music, from funk to soul to blues to hip hop and more while showing off the good times to be had in their legendary locales. While that’s fine for Montreal, New Orleans’ history is intrinsically tied to jazz so the film and the festival pivot to acknowledge the music from time to time while playing up the big stars who show up to grace the main stages: Katy Perry, Jimmy Buffet, Pitbull and Bruce Springsteen. Though they’re hardly jazz figures, their presence helps to explain why a festival on a fairground three miles away from New Orleans’ legendary French Quarter can attract audiences of 100,000 people on its peak days.
Marshall and Suffern’s doc doesn’t shy away from the diversity of the music at the festival, placing it within New Orleans’ unique history as a city that offered a home for displaced Acadians from Canada, Indigenous people and African-Americans after the end of slavery. There is no other place like New Orleans in the U.S. and the music, food, traditions and culture reflects that beautiful multiplicity.
Jazz Fest goes away from its main subject, the music, to show off the amazing food in the city: there are mouth-watering scenes of people cooking and eating jambalaya, gumbo, pork cracklin’, beignets, crawfish and even alligator. Venturing into the streets, we see marching bands—it seems every high school has one–and hear about the funerals that celebrate the lives of the recently departed as they are accompanied to the cemetery for their last trip though the city. The film takes a rare journey to the swamps where we see and hear Marc Savoy’s traditional Cajun music before returning to the Fest stage to embrace Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers with their high-octane rocking sounds.
What about the Jazz Fest itself? The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was started when prominent members of the city approached George Wein, the founder of the legendary Newport Jazz Festival, to create a major event in the traditional home of the music. That was more than 50 years ago; in fact, the film celebrates the anniversary, which took place just before COVID closed every public extravaganza for two years. Archival footage shows Mahalia Jackson playfully introducing Wein to an eager throng of New Orleans fans, ready to embrace the first festival. That scene reeks of authenticity, showing the genuine affection the people of the city have for the music. That love has continued whether it be gospel—and there’s lots of it in the film—or blues, and we hear briefly from the great B.B. King, or the New Orleans roots piano music of Professor Longhair or classic r’n’b as performed by the brilliant vocalist Al Green singing “Let’s Stay Together.”
Jazz Fest saves its big punch for an emotional section near the end, with the tale of the festival coming together quickly after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, showing the world that New Orleans can never be defeated. Then we see Bruce Springsteen singing “My City of Ruins,” in a heartfelt tribute to New Orleans at a concert that poignant, passionate week getting the crowd responding to the lines “With these hands, I pray, Lord, come on and Rise Up.”
You can’t make that kind of story up: that’s the glory of documentary. Jazz Fest tells us about a festival and a city that has what it takes to survive COVID. It’s an exuberant film about a culture and a music that is worth celebrating.