The 21st century musician has become quite adept in bending and blurring the ideas of genre, while acknowledging the raw or naked commercial value previously attached to a particular genre actually had little meaningful to say about that specific creative form.
In ‘Fitzcarraldo,’ the debut album release of Weird Family, a hip-hop experiment literally becomes a one-act opera that quickly reacquaints the listener with the spellbinding promise of an autobiographical musical narrative about an artist who finds his own creative redemption. The album’s eight tracks – a set running just under 23 minutes – churn along at a blistering pace, offering a torrent of exceptionally revealing internal emotions about the artist – in this case, Torben Bernhard – on a quest to render his own truths.
Bernhard’s vocals are so direct, crisp and clear that the listener immediately wants to feel the artist’s cry for vindication and validation. Meanwhile, Brady Kimball’s production (a/k/a Kemble) elaborates the minimalistic musical boundaries with a lively selection of beats, melody, effects, and breaks that continuously dodge any persistent identifying mark of genre. Add in vocals by Bernhard’s wife (Marissa), guitar and bass by Ian Nate, and a contribution by Diatom Music and the musical experiment demands repeated listening.
The album’s title pays tribute to Werner Herzog’s 1982 film of the same name – a choice carrying far more than incidental meaning to Bernhard, a documentary filmmaker, and Kimball, a film aficionado who works in the software industry. The film focuses on an entrepreneur of big dreams – actually, an Irishman of the early 20th century – who is obsessed with the extraordinary logistical challenge of dragging a large steamship over the mountains for the purposes of establishing a river trade in the middle of the South American rain jungle hundreds of miles upstream from the coast. However, the entrepreneur’s real objective is to satisfy his all-encompassing passion for opera, as he hopes to build an opera house in one of the world’s most remote areas so magnificent that the famous tenor Enrico Caruso will be inspired to visit and perform there.
The most exceptional fact is that Herzog was eager to recreate the experiment in his film, an experience simultaneously audacious and foolish, which, in turn, was chronicled beautifully in the 1982 documentary ‘Burden of Dreams’ by documentary filmmaker Les Blank, who died last month.
The quest of the audacious artist’s dream is at the core of Weird Family’s debut release. The first track is a two-minute prologue immediately setting up the emotional yet brutally candid tension as Bernhard’s vocals quickly ram forward even as suspended chords and syncopated rhythms try to slow the pace. The second verse – an outstanding concise bit of expository detail – lays out the album’s path: ‘Let the story begin/A man from Michigan with ink in his pen/Thinkin’ again, words link with the wind/Blow through my ears through the speakers again/Drag the boat over/Mountains and boulders…’
In ‘Mysteries of the Body,’ the second track, the transition before the breakdown — ‘Trace the spine of a question mark to the answer/ Cough out the sickness, kill the cancer’ – becomes an important marker. Thinking out loud, the artist knows there are other ‘tools’ in his kit but can he manage to hold those conflicting, seemingly irreconcilable ideas in his head and break the monopoly of a philosophy or ideology in the mind.
Bernhard brings the confusion to its full, relentless boil in the third track, ‘Babble-on,’ a frenetic multi-layered musical stream anchored in the rapid-fire chorus ‘Babblin’/In Babylon/In Babylon/I’m babblin’/In Babel when/The towers went/Unravelin’, so babble-on/In this modern day Babylon/Save me from this Babylon.’
The pace eases ever so briefly in the fourth track’s lament – ‘Sundown.’ The burden of the artist’s struggle against the constructed, inauthentic self is now fully apparent: ‘Hobble to the beat/The beat my blood/I walk with bloody feet/Travelin’/Running from a zombie/Unravelin’/I feel it comin’ on me/It’s happenin’/Rightly or wrongly/I better start livin’ cuz the night is upon me.’
The album’s next two tracks bring the conflicting emotions to their climax. The fifth track – ‘Defeat-Id’ – is a brilliantly driven expression of the angry cry of the preening, arrogant artist who can proclaim his commercial success but who, in actuality, must come to realize just how little his success says about the art itself.
The anger gives way to a painful acknowledgment in ‘Mirages,’: ‘Everytime I grab em,/ they slip through my fingers like sand in my hand and/I’m left stranded/Damn, this…/Is not how I planned it/But how I planned it, was rejected by this planet/Man this, becomes too much to take/Please open my eyes to see the fake.’ In moans both mournful and soulful, the music evokes the image of an artist who realizes that he can no longer wander in the desert only to be lulled falsely by a mirage of artistic significance.
The piano melody of the seventh track ‘Lines and Circles’ originally was intended for a soundtrack in ‘Scavenger,’ Bernhard’s recent short film about a man living off the grid in a northeast Thailand slum who collects recyclable materials to earn money for his family of seven. The film is part of The Lost and Found Series, five short films created by Bernhard, his wife (Marissa), and colleague Travis Low.
The music fits naturally in ‘Lines and Circles,’ a hopeful statement of the wisdom of ‘carpe diem’ heavily infused with Buddhist philosophy. Here, the artist accepts fully the terms of living with the postmodern challenge, but also now finding the space to reconnect to inner values that make precisely this type of genre-bending experimental music possible: ‘My paradigm/And pair of thoughts/Called a paradox/And, apparently, I appear lost/I occasionally veer off, the path/As I steer off, the map/Tryin’ to clear off, my past/Life flows in cycles/Time is a lie and success is a psycho/Rejoin the rhythm/Rejoin the vision and/Rejoin your wisdom/There is no algorithm/There’s only decisions.’
The final track is instrumental only and it is the appropriate coda for this ingeniously soulful take as a miniature hip-hop opera. It perhaps can be described as imaging the renewed artist who finds fresh joy in taking building blocks of sounds to create a music that will resonate authentically with his values.
While one could listen to individual tracks and take them out of sequence, the set of eight tracks is integrated so extensively that the most effective way to appreciate the full musical impact of this concept album is to listen to the work in its uninterrupted 23-minute form. In the end, the Weird Family take on ‘Fitzcarraldo’ is an impressive experimental project guided by the purest love of music that any two individuals could ever bring to the table.
The album is available for download here. It is available for free but donations also are being accepted. Download formats include high-quality MP3, FLAC, and others, which can be selected according to user preferences.
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At an accelerating pace, the field of gene and cell therapy – in which most of the conceptual foundations were laid barely half a century ago – is showing dramatic therapeutic potential in a limited yet growing spectrum of diseases, including those which often have been associated with the most dismal prognosis.
For example, gene-modified immune cells seek out and destroy cancer cells in both child and adult lymphoma and leukemia patients while sparing normal cells and tissues and boosting prospects for complete disease remission. In the case of recurring ovarian cancer, in which 16,000 U.S. women die each year, scientists have engineered measles viral strains that help boost a patient’s anti-tumor immune response and could prove potentially effective for women dealing with various stages of the disease. A Taiwan researcher developed gene therapy for children between the ages of 2 and 8 who are suffering from a progressive disorder that affects a child’s most basic motor movement skills and often leads to death at an early age. In his study, the clinical trial showed significant improvement in nearly all cases.
Findings from this research are being presented to more than 1,300 researchers, students, and postdoctoral fellows who have convened this week in Salt Lake City for the 16th annual meeting of the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy. Dr. Mario Capecchi, the distinguished University of Utah molecular geneticist who was a co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Medicine, is among the keynote speakers.
The ASGCT meeting is yet another example of Salt Lake City’s capacity to host many of the most important regional, national, and international scientific and technological meetings for the benefit of the research community.
The highlighted research underscores just how far scientists working in gene therapy have progressed in proving the principles especially in how gene therapy and cell therapy (for example, blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants), its older colleague, can overlap to disable mutations in patients dealing with severely aggravated conditions of immunodeficiency and in using T-lymphocytes (more commonly known as T-cells) in treating cancer. In the latter case, the ongoing research could prove monumental in the most challenging battle against cancer – in which ‘armored’ T-cells, in effect, can effectively destroy the protective scaffolding tumors rely upon to secure the microenvironment they use to ward off attempts to kill them. These ‘seek-and-destroy’ cells accomplish their mission without compromising surrounding normal cells and tissues and without causing significant side effects to patients.
Each study, in its current limited scale of clinical trials involving small numbers of individuals who are in late stages of the disease, is incremental but yet materially significant in expanding the body of knowledge that will benefit the forthcoming phases of expanded larger clinical trials and research.
Among the research highlights are the following:
* Focusing on ovarian cancer, which is the most common form of gynecological cancer mortality in the United States, Dr. Evanthia Galanis’ team (Mayo Clinic) engineered strains of the virus cousins of the vaccine strain used to inoculate children against measles. Furthermore, the research group then modified the virus to express NIS, a protein essential for the synthesis of specific thyroid hormones, in order to help researchers track the imaging of viral distribution after it has been administered to patients. The patients in the study had advanced forms of the disease and their bodies had failed to respond effectively to all previously available surgical and chemotherapy options.
The results showed a median overall survival period of more than 26 months for patients, an outcome much more favorable than what is observed in other experimental trials. Dr. Galanis explained the treatment could prove effective especially for patients with a lower burden of the disease, especially as the viral therapy facilitates a better immune response and is capable of remaining longer in the body so the outlook in combating the tumor improves accordingly.
Side effects proved to be relatively manageable with mild abdominal pain being the most commonly observed. The research group is expected to advance its work with a Phase II trial, using larger yet still relatively small groups of patients.
* Sorafenib is the drug most commonly used to treat advanced kidney and liver cancer, but a research group led by Dr. David Kirn (Hibiscus Biotherapeutics) believes that JX-594, an oncolytic virus (also known as Pexa-Vec), can go head to head against the standard drug therapies in targeting and destroying cancer cells. An oncolytic virus selectively infects cancerous cells and can be used to deliver anticancer therapies directly to tumors.
The therapy could prove useful in a multi-pronged approach against the disease and researchers expect to go into a Phase III trial next year, which will involve a larger number of patients and will compare the new therapies to established therapies and/or placebos.
* A therapy, developed by a team led by Dr. David Porter (Hospital of University of Pennsylvania), involving artificial T-cell receptors is showing particular promise for patients with advanced lymphoid cancers. The earlier work with modified T-cells showed limited effect against the disease, because the cells could not expand sufficiently nor persist for a sufficiently long enough time to fight against the tumor’s microenvironment.
However, Porter’s group has been able to show that CART19 cells, which use immune cells taken from a patient’s own blood, can be deployed to expand in vivo as significantly as needed, can persist for more than two years, and remain biologically active. This is especially crucial for patients where the only previously available option has been allogeneic stem cell transplantation, a procedure available only to a small number patients and the risk of death is extremely high.
Porter’s research showed the targeted cell therapy could effectively bypass the mechanisms of resistance. Complete remission was observed in five patients and partial remission in five others. The therapy worked effectively against tumors that measured anywhere from 2.9 pounds to 7.5 pounds.
* In a study related closely to Porter’s, Dr. Renier Brentjens’ team (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center), modified a subset of a patient’s own immune cells with gene therapy to recognize and destroy cancer cells in patients with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The only viable option for patients in the most advanced stages of the disease has been to use salvage chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant, a high-risk procedure. Thus, of the five patients who had the experimental treatment after salvage chemotherapy, a majority went into complete remission within a very short time. Brentiens believes the fundamental principle of this approach can be applied to other forms of cancer.
* Gene therapy is proving to be an elucidating partner in treating rare orphan diseases such as Aromatic L-Amino Acid Decarboxylase (AADC), a progressive fatal disorder in which children lose all of their motor abilities and many die by or before their sixth birthday. Dr. Wuh-Liang Hwu (National Taiwan University Hospital) injected an AAV2 (adeno-associated virus, serotype 2) viral vector – essentially a vehicle for therapy delivery which encapsulates the relevant genes – into the brain’s putamen, which is responsible for an individual’s capability to control movement. This helps the cells to produce AADC (Aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase) an enzyme crucial for the synthesis of dopamine and serotonin. Working with eight patients ranging in age from two to nine, all of whom who did not have the motor skills for head control or sitting, Hwu found that seven had head control, four could sit without support, and two could stand with support. The patients have been followed for their progress from between one and a half to three years. One patient already is learning to walk and another is able to vocalize words.
* Working with children who have Pompe Disease, a rare form of muscular dystrophy in which motor skills, heart muscle function, and respiratory failure occur progressively, Dr. Barry Byrne’s team (University of Florida College of Medicine) is working to improve upon the currently available treatments that do help to lengthen the patient’s survival and alleviate heart muscle problems but that still cause persistent diaphragm issues with regard to respiratory function. His team developed a gene therapy for the diaphragm delivered through a viral AAV-GAA vector. In particular, GAA (acid alpha-glucosidase) is an enzyme that plays a role in breaking down glycogen but when it is deficient, the excess glycogen ends up being stored in the heart muscle and other body tissues, which of course lead to the most problematic effects of the disease being manifested. The early clinical study focused on five patients ranging in age from two to 15 and all patients showed noticeable improvements in respiratory function, up to and including the ability to breathe without mechanical assistance. A Phase II trial is planned involving yet larger numbers of patients and researchers will focus on how dosing levels can be calibrated given specific physiological issues of the patient as well as the extent to which the disease’s symptoms have manifested themselves.
* A team led by Dr. Andrew Davidoff (St. Jud Children’s Research Hospital) is investigating how a gene transfer therapy can improve the conditions and outlooks for patients with Hemophilia B, a blood clotting disorder triggered because of a mutation in the gene encoding Factor IX, located on the X chromosome. It also is known as the Christmas Disease, named after a five-year-old British boy who was observed with the condition in the 1950s. Prevalent in men, the disease occurs in one out of every 25,000 individuals. Normally, the treatment is exhaustive both in terms of time and cost, as patients usually must go for protein replacement therapy several times a week.
The team has developed an AAV vector which coordinates the transfer of the Factor IX to liver cells, which, in turn, synthesizes the missing protein. The treatment was administered in varying dosage levels to 10 patients, all of whom had no presence of the gene encoding blood clotting factor. Significant, yet still modest, improvements were observed in all cases, with patients having FIX factor levels of between one and eight percent, which represents major improvement in their bleeding propensity but still falls short of the critical baseline of 20 percent, for normal or expected function.
However, the results also have meant that eight of the ten treated patients were able to discontinue the time-consuming, costly protein replacement therapy and the remaining two have been able to extend the intervals between treatments. The therapy is administered as a simple out-patient procedure and requires no more than 30 minutes. Investigators are in the midst of Phase I/Phase II clinical trials and plan to continue refining the ways to deliver most effectively the viral vectors to patients. More importantly, the patients reported no unusual side effects. (NOTE: This image: On May 19, 2008, University of Florida geneticists reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they have developed a new version of the adeno-associated virus used in gene therapy that works about 30 times more efficiently in mice than vectors scientists currently rely on.)
Impressively, SLC has become a worthy destination for sharing updates in the scientific community. The ASGCT meeting also is providing opportunities for activity partnerships with The University of Utah and local area high school districts, where students are able to gain access into various areas of clinical progress through educational session offerings.
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NOTE: The filmmaker has graciously provided the film in its entirety to be screened here at The Selective Echo. The film is available at the bottom of this article.
Torben Bernhard’s latest short-form documentary ‘Scavenger,’ about a man living off the grid in a northeast Thailand slum who collects recyclable materials to earn money for his family of seven, would have been a completely different film had he not lost the work for a year due to a major computer failure.
‘It is important to the making of the movie that I lost it for almost a year. After our RAID crashed and nearly wiped out our Lost and Found Series, including Scavenger and Thailand Cowboy,’ Bernhard recalls. “Before our hard drive crashed, I thought I was 90 percent of the way to a final cut. When we finally reclaimed our footage and I watched my work-in-progress again, I felt like the movie was much further away from being finished. I dived back into the editing with the very present realization that I had almost entirely lost this project.’
With his wife Marissa’s precise editing hand and fellow filmmaker Travis Low’s work as sound editor, ‘Scavenger’ became a superlatively understated artistic statement of our common humanity. The film with its long pauses effectively allows the viewer to absorb Wichan Chaona’s (or Chan, more familiarly) environment and to hear his resilient — even optimistic — voice that invites us to contemplate our own sense of moral and social duty to be protectors, not self-indulgent exploiters.
The film, part of the Lost and Found Series being created by the Bernhards and Low, will be premiered Feb. 19 at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana. This is the third consecutive year that an entry from the five-film package of the series will be premiered at Big Sky. The film also will be screened at the 35th annual Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride during the Memorial Day weekend.
The film is full of surprises in content, its genesis, and in its production. As with the previous films which received their first screening at Big Sky — ‘Tarkio Balloon’ and ‘Boomtown’ — the idea for ‘Scavenger’ came in an inspirational flash. ‘I was sitting on a bus, traveling through Thailand, when the very simple thought of following someone who reclaims items from public trash bins entered my mind,’ Bernhard explains. ‘I had seen these men and women for years and was curious about their daily lives and observations.’
Several months later, Bernhard disembarked at a busy bus terminal in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand and hired a motorcycle taxi to help locate someone who collects recyclables for a living. ‘We had no idea where we were going and continued aimlessly for a while before stopping at a local outdoor market, and as we were sitting and discussing where to go with a growing group of curious locals, Chan drove past on his motorcycle and we flagged him down,’ he recalls. Bernhard introduced himself to Chan, who thought briefly about the idea of being filmed and then invited the filmmaker to jump on the side cart of his motorcycle.
The film, running under 11 minutes, is exquisitely edited, preserving Chan’s philosophy, tone, and pace of life in as unfiltered an observational state as possible. There is no music (more about that later) but the film’s audio is a minimalist, aleatoric composition of Chan’s voice and the incidental sounds of his routine and environment. The amount of dialogue was cut in half from its original form by Bernhard, who was motivated to keep the speaking parts as sparse as possible after attending an editing panel at the DOC NYC festival last year, where ‘Boomtown’ was screening.
The film’s slowed pace is significant as well. ‘The more I cut out of ‘Scavenger,’ and the more sparse it became, the quicker the film flew by,’ he explains. ‘It seems counterintuitive, but it reminds me of the e.e. cummings quote where he says “like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.”‘
Despite its sparseness, ‘Scavenger’ is a rich, warm film with plenty of green and sun that quietly reinforce Chan’s life-affirming philosophy. The intricacy and precision of the Lost and Found Series team’s work leave fully intact Chan’s statement: all work that we all do is the same because we do it with our hearts — the profound epiphany in ‘Scavenger.’
The minimalism is extraordinarily complex yet decisively effective in ‘Scavenger.’ ‘The hope, I suppose, is that audience members will entertain the implications of the movie and not dismiss it because of its simple surface,’ Bernhard says. ‘The other difficulty is that the line between simplicity and the absence of meaning can be dangerously close; or, in other words, the line between “something there” and “nothing there.”‘
Ironically, the idea that the film could have been lost forever because of a technical glitch became one of the most important driving forces in bringing ‘Scavenger’ to completion. ‘Losing the film was a particularly confusing time for me, because I felt that both the idea to make the documentary and meeting Chan were serendipitous and I never anticipated that our biggest hurdle would be technological,’ he says.
After the footage — encompassing 1.6 terabytes — was recovered a year later, thanks to the assistance of his wife’s father and a family friend who found technicians in Thailand capable of doing the work, Bernhard saw the opportunity for transformation — not just in the project but also in his foundation as a creative producer. ‘The decisions that I see as integral to what the film has become are mostly the product of making the wrong choices first. We made enough mistakes throughout editing that the final choices grew from past failed attempts,’ he adds.
Other original considerations were changed, too. Once Bernhard viewed the footage after it had been recovered, he decided to drop the sound track that was scored by Brady Kimball, a musical collaborator. ‘It just felt like the wrong decision to include the music,’ he says, adding the music is featured on an experimental hip-hop EP titled ‘Fitzcarraldo’ which he and Kimball have created.
He left it to Low, who has a strong music background and is exceptionally patient with minute details, to put the audio into its final form — yet another major challenge given that Bernhard was, as he describes it, ‘a one-man band during production … operating the camera and all of the sound at the same time.’
‘Scavenger’ — like the other short films — emerged as inspirations before the three filmmakers decided to produce and package them as the Lost and Found Series. The projects primarily were intended to allow the filmmakers to experiment with storytelling forms without committing significant time or resources to longer projects.
Naturally, the short format video is proving to be a fruitful vehicle for the team, whose first major project was the feature-length documentary ‘The Sonosopher,’ an outstanding experimental film about the life and work of Utah poet and performing artist Alex Caldiero. Incidentally, it was traveling to and from the 2010 Cinequest Film Festival screening of ‘The Sonosopher’ in California where Bernhard got his inspiration to do ‘Tarkio Balloon,’ the first of the Lost and Found Series films.
‘Tarkio Balloon‘ premiered two years ago at Big Sky. A five-minute film of fragile poetry, it goes back to a cemetery in a small Missouri town where his brother, Dane, is buried. In 1985, when Bernhard was 2, his two-month-old brother died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Shot on 8-millimeter film and incorporating excerpts from an audio interview recorded years earlier with his mother (Janae), ‘Tarkio Balloon’ gives visibility to all parents who lost a child.
In ‘Boomtown,’ which premiered last year at Big Sky and has played at five festivals within a year including venues in Camden, Maine, St. Louis, and New York City, Bernhard and Low reconstruct memories of Frisco, Utah, the site of a once-profitable silver mine, for a contemporary audience through excerpts from rare recordings of oral histories taken from individuals who had lived in a town that disappeared from the map by the end of the 1920s.
The remaining films of the series are expected to be completed this year. Marissa is directing ‘Thailand Cowboy,’ a fascinating look into a Thai man who lives to fuel his passion for American westerns and the romanticized personalities of that genre including John Wayne and John Ford.
The fifth film – ‘The Gospel According to Ralphael’ – is about a Salt Lake City man who has transformed a shabby warehouse into a museum of enormous concrete and steel sculptures, paintings, murals, and ceiling frescoes that synthesize his religious beliefs taken from traditional and personal interpretations of many theological foundations.
Collectively, the films underscore the primal challenge we all face in the lifelong predicament of preserving identity. ‘I’m attracted to things that appear simple, even at-risk of being ignored, but contain complex ideas and themes,’ Bernhard explains. ‘It was not until later that these seemingly independent productions would coalesce under the theme of losing and finding.’
What is most evident in all of these stories is the series’ principal objective: ‘Nobody or very few people know our history but this will change.’
‘Scavenger’ will screen Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 5:30 p.m. in the Crystal Theatre, one of the main Big Sky venues. The work is one of 11 that is part of the festival’s Mini Doc Competition.
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