Not rated, but as seems to be the norm for the Martin Scorsese World Cinema Project, there's weird random nudity and actual animals being slaughtered on camera. Oh, if you think you can prep yourself for that slaughtered animal, you can't. It seems like everyone is having a good time and then the camera pans a bit down and there's a goat in its death throes. I audibly "gah-ed".
DIRECTOR: Ahmed El Maanouni
Martin Scorsese and I have different tastes in music docs. I love music docs. I don't know why. I think I've written about this before. But there are a handful of music docs that just do absolutely nothing for me. The quintessential music doc that does nothing for me is Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. I know. It's heralded as one of the greatest music docs of all time, but I think it comes from the fact that everyone's borderline afraid to disagree with Scorsese himself. (Yeah, I said it was overhyped. This blog isn't afraid to bear its teeth.) You want to have a little insight into some metacontext? Most people haven't heard of this movie, let alone seen it. I know few people are going to click this link. But if you did click this link because you are a Literally Anything: Movies Litanie (My forced fandom name), you can literally quit with that first sentence. That's all you need to know after this point. Everything in this is going to be me burying myself in opinions that don't really matter because it all comes down to taste.
But it probably comes down to the English teacher in me that bothers me when it comes to the music of Nass El Ghiwane. Note that I put "English" and not "literature" or "writing" teacher. I put English because my view is super-duper Western. Western writers have the luxury of exploring art through metaphor and symbolism. Much of the music in Trances, while not absolute, is very literal. There's almost no interpretation because it is all very on the nose. Often in the form of prayers, these songs tend to ask God to stop the burdens of oppressive regimes, lamenting the atrocities that have befallen the people of Morocco. Now, I get it. As much as I think that America is going to Hell in a hand basket, the fact that I can write about movies instead of partaking in actual meaningful protest shows how cushy my life is. But much of the music reminded me of "American Idiot". Some of you out there are ready to punch me in the face for slandering what many consider to be the height of Green Day's musical career.
What you might misinterpret is to state that art shouldn't be political. Back that truck up before it gets anywhere because I absolutely believe that art should be political. But when art leaves the realm of figurative speech, it becomes talking at instead of talking with. "American Idiot" left no room for interpretation. Americans were idiots for putting up with the Bush administration and Green Day was going to sing that loud and proud. The people who really liked that song were people who also agreed with Green Day. It was a preaching to the choir, only the choir was singing at the audience. It seemed like the majority of the songs in Trances (I choose to write the name of the movie because it is significantly easier than writing the band name over-and-over.) left nothing to the imagination. When a reader or an audience unpacks lyrics, there is an investment in the message, even if that message runs contrary to political beliefs. The audience becomes active instead of passive. While it isn't brainwashing necessarily, it is something that becomes part of the code. It's why so many people have the epiphany that Rage Against the Machine may not have aligned to personal values.
But there was something else that bothered me that I don't think I have proof to say definitively. Am I alone in thinking that this wasn't much of a documentary so much as having the members of the band pretend that they were being spur-of-the-moment. I know, there's the ideology that believes the very nature of documenting something strips reality away. I think we're a couple steps away from that even. Outside of one scene, where the band argues about revenues and lawyers, everything feels staged. It almost feels scripted to me. This brings up the role of reality versus perceived reality; is there such a thing as truth? We could look at wrestling and use that as evidence on either side of the debate. But something just felt inauthentic about the relationship between these guys. When one of the band members is waxing poetic about the role of God and their place in Islamic culture, it feels like he's reading off a script. There's a certain irony to that as well because one of the major comments that people make about the band is that they are more of a theatre troupe than they are a musical group.
But that's why the lawyer scene stands out so much to me. The fact that these guys are there to spread the good word of the people makes this feel like a political movement. We don't really get a lot of pushback in terms of risk from the group. If anything, this seems like a celebration of a culture that a regime might actually approve of, for the most part. But I like to contrast the arguments that happen that feel staged, like the men talking about the validity of lyrics, compared to the notion of getting paid, the results are very different. When talking about lyrics, the entire mood is, "We're all having a good time." It's beyond ribbing, but not by much. But when we look at that lawyer scene, they abandon the veil. Everything seems like the punk rock frustration that we should be seeing in a rock doc. It's the verisimilitude that much of the movie is lacking. It just feels so artificial. As much as the aesthetic might come from something like Monterrey Pop or Woodstock, it might have more in common with early reality television where people are posed into conversations.
The following is the most subjective thing I'll ever write because I can easily see a way to argue against it. I mentioned the fighting about money thing being punk rock. Fundamentally, there's almost nothing rock and roll about the band outside of the way that the documentary is made. There are these really cool images that are spliced between the scenes. Often, I don't quite get why this image is present in that moment, but aesthetically it is very cool. But the band is the least rock n' roll thing I've ever seen. The music is aimed at males. There are a few women at these concerts, but these are dude mostly celebrating their love of God and country. It's making a counter-culture doc about country Western music, only talking about valid oppression. I think the problem I run into is that this is a culture that is legitimately oppressed, but wants to replace it with another repressive culture. Again, I said that this was going to be subjective. But it is also ignorant. But when punk rock wants to see the world burn, writing lyrics about the goodness of the blood of martyrs makes me kind of cringey. It all stems back to the element I wrote about lyrics being on the nose.
There's something that should have affected me more than it did. We can write off a lot of my gripes as the notion that this movie wasn't made for me. I kind of have to accept that, so keep that in mind. But a bandmate had died prior to the making of this movie. It's kind of imagining the Beatles as if they kept playing after the death of John Lennon (and never broke up prior to that. I mean, Queen still tours...). For the people who have been following this band as most of the interviewees do, that would be a major moment and people who probably come in with that knowledge. But there is some peppering of memories to the previous band member. It's just that I'm supposed to break down crying, and there really isn't a whole section on the influence of that guy. There's this cross-cutting in the final song with a different song sung by the dead member of the band and it DOES NOT WORK. These are two very different songs sung at very different tempos and ranges. If the band played the old song and then cross-cut, that might be effective. Instead, it leaves a sour note in the last shot.
I know. I almost shouldn't be writing about this. There are cultural norms that I just don't get and were never meant for me to get. But part of me is also being the audience of Martin Scorsese. Martin Scorsese has the World Cinema Project for the sake of teaching the world about these films that have been left largely ignored. If I'm Martin Scorsese's audience, Trances does little for me outside of great cinematography. If anything, it leaves me a little frustrated.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.