Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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Alias: Season Three

In its third season, Alias pulls off a hat trick with another round of pulpy page-turner adventure —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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You know you’ve got a vibrant sub-culture when the faithful wear really great t-shirts. And the folks in and around techno music have got the coolest t-shirts going. Did the people appearing in Speaking In Code put on their best stuff because they were going to be filmed, or is that just the way they dress all the time? I don’t know and director/narrator Amy Grill never brings up the subject. Nor does she talk about the music, instead letting the DJs do all the talking — and rightly so.

Speaking In Code surprised me in a number of ways. For one thing, you don’t have to be interested in techno to be entertained and/or educated by this film. Yes, it is a documentary about techno music today (2005-2009), but it’s more of a documentary about the artist/musicians than the music or the audience. And it’s a study of what obsession and dedication to one’s art can do to the artist himself. And it’s an essay on the techno scene in the US (especially Boston) as compared to the European scene (particularly in Germany but to a lesser degree Spain and The Netherlands).

Modeselektor in the studio
Modeselektor in the studio

But the real surprise in this film is the sad (and not maudlin) on-camera breakup of the husband-and-wife team who start out on a project to make a documentary about the current techno scene and end up going their separate ways. Grill prepares us for the break-up back story right from the start by telling us that is what happened. She then narrates the action from an after-the-fact POV so you know it’s not going to end well for her and husband David Day. Even so, I was still a little surprised when she springs the word “divorce” near the end of the movie. That’s good filmmaking.

Fans of techno will like the up-close and personal views of the DJs, and I was impressed by the generous and insightful portraits Gill paints not only of them but her husband as well. And she is honest and candid about her own feelings while filming. A point that’s often made in Speaking In Code is that the music has a lot to do with community and she expertly conveys that sense.

I got the feeling from this film that techno is something that has come and gone in the U.S. but in Europe it came and stuck. There is a strange symmetry with that other American musical invention, jazz. I kept waiting for this comparison to be made and yet it never was. Both jazz and techno began and had their glory days in the U.S.  Both were exported to enthusiastic audiences in Europe. And while there is still jazz in the U.S., if you want to make a living at it, you’re better off in Europe. The determined yet small record labels, the smaller American audiences, the frustrated artists moving from America to Europe... they are all there in the techno and jazz worlds.

Day has set a quixotic task for himself in converting Boston from what he calls a “rock town” to a techno one. I say good luck. There is just something too staid about America that will not allow for intellectual or ecstatic behavior. That’s what made the Beatniks and Hippies un-American and Mardi Gras in New Orleans an anomaly. Day is also shown maxing out the couple’s credit cards while trying to promote techno in Boston but I have to wonder if going into debt for your art is any worse than going into debt for your education? Again Grill does a good job showing us the bad with the good.

If Speaking in Code is all we have as a guide, Germany is the capital of the techno world. The monster venues may be in Barcelona or Amsterdam, but the heart of the thing is in Deutschland.  The reunification of Germany is a theme that is repeated several times perhaps because many of the key players are from the old East Germany or from Berlin. Two generations of war and occupation later the young Germans are saying, “we are done with the sadness and we’re moving on.” For instance, there is the musical collective Freude-Am-Tanzen whose name translates to “Joy in Dancing.” Wolfgang Voigt of the Cologne-based electronic music record label Kompakt offers a history, explanation, and justification of techno. And why not? If they brought us Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, who better than the Germans to create the next great Western music? This also makes me wonder if Russia, the other European powerhouse of composers, has a similar cadre of electronic musicians!

Voigt and many of the other Germans seem to prefer “electronic” to “techno” to describe what they are doing... perhaps because they are looking past the party setting of today’s techno world? And the elephant in the room that nobody talks about is the inevitable party that goes with the music. It is acknowledged but not specifically addressed in Speaking In Code, yet seems to be integral to the techno experience. You can listen to a recording of a Beethoven symphony at home and still appreciate it as much as in the concert hall. Or you can listen to your old Stan Getz records without having to be in a smoky Jazz club. But to really know techno, I’m guessing you have to be on the dance floor at 4 AM with a thousand like-minded revelers. David Day complains of the stereotyping of techno and I have to wonder if it’s the party component he’s talking about. Being a true aficionado, he seems to be saying that techno can be appreciated on its own but we never see anyone sitting around by themselves just listening to it.

Speaking In Code deserves a larger audience that just the Electronic/techno crowd because its a bigger film than just techno. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you can dance to dawn. Put on your coolest t-shirt and check it out.

DVD Extras

There are lots of extras on this DVD, and they are actually are worth watching.

  • Modeselektor Live at Sonar Uncut (at last an extended sample of what all the fuss is about)
  • Deleted Scenes: Kompakt Tour in Koln, Modeselektor talks about Berlin Wall, Monolake at the Berlin Wall, Backstage at Muna Club in East Germany (sort of the extended versions of shots used in the film... but the fans are going to eat it up.)
  • Extended Interviews: Wolfgang Voigt, Ellen Allien, The Wighnomy Brothers first interview, Wighnomy Brothers after Speaking in Code. (One of the W.Brothers has a melt-down and doesn’t make the next big show. We know he’s been hitting the bottle too hard, he’s in hot water with his girlfriend and on the edge of burning out... which he then does.  But in the extra after-the-fact interview we see that he’s on the wagon and back to work.  Hey, two out of three is not too bad.

How to Use This DVD

Don’t come expecting to hear a lot of music and don’t stay away because you’re afraid of the music.  This is a pretty nifty little film.