I’m headed to Peru for a three-week trip to Lima, Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, and the Amazonian jungle. To prepare, I thought I’d see what Netflix might have to offer me. It coughed up The Milk of Sorrow, a beautiful film directed by Claudia Llosa (niece of the famed writer Mario Vargas Llosa). The main character (played by Magaly Solier, above) was “born during terrorism” and so inherited the fears and traumas her mother experienced at the hands of extremists. In other words, she imbibed “the milk of sorrow” (the English translation of La teta asustada, “The Frightened Breast”). The film tracks her from her mother’s death, the watchful nurturing of her uncle, who lives nearby and whose family business is planning weddings, and her employment by a rich neurotic concert pianist who lives in The Big House in a very poor neighborhood in Lima. It’s no Chamber of Commerce piece — it’s like getting to know Portland by watching a Gus Van Sant film — but it’s gorgeous, poetic, elliptical, beautifully shot. Llosa is one of a growing batch of phenomenal female filmmakers in Latin America, definitely someone to watch. Speaking of translation, I was amused that whenever quinoa was mentioned, the subtitles would call it “quinine.”
In the New York Times magazine Robert del Naja, a member of Massive Attack, describes the band’s collaboration with video artist Adam Curtis as a “drive-in movie on acid that’s completely mental.” Not a bad description of this unusual performance event at the Park Avenue Armory. Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis marks the first time Massive Attack has played in NYC for many years, and it’s fitting for such a smart, cool band that it’s not your typical concert. They’re on a stage behind three of eleven giant screens onto which Curtis does his thing, which is splicing together unused found footage discarded from news broadcasts. The narrative is all over the place, starting with audio from the first rock concert in Afghanistan, bouncing back and forth from the U.S. to Russia, developing a kind of multimedia essay about the difficulties of revolutionary action, how the desire to change the world has morphed into managing data, and the political forces that want the masses to fall in step so that things happening “According to The Plan.” Curtis’s heart is in the right place, but his absorption with the visuals wreaks chaos with any sort of narrative. He throws in every possible calamity that’s happened in the last 50 years, and some of his points seem obvious and others have a spark of brilliance. One sequence shows frightened people looking up at the sky and running while a series of buildings explode, crumble, and burn — all scenes from Hollywood action films released before 2001. It’s easy in hindsight to see how the architects of the 9/11 attacks got some ideas about the damage they could cause.
Meanwhile, Massive Attack provides an almost constant musical score. They cover a wacky assortment of American pop oldies (“Baby, It’s You,” “The Twist”) and a few ’80s chestnuts (“Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” “The Sultans of Swing,” Nirvana’s arrangement of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines”) with snatches of their own songs and a few by little-known Russian punk bands. An ethereal-voiced female shows up to sing several songs, including “The Look of Love” and a sweet sad ballad in Russian whose chorus went “You don’t know how fucking shitty I feel all day long.” In the audience we were all buzzing — could that be Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins? It wasn’t but it was fun to imagine her on the premises. The sound was incredible, the band was amazing to hear live, the visuals were dazzling but the message was murky. I am curious to know more about Adam Curtis’s work and see more after reading the article about him in last week’s New York magazine.