At the Sydney Film Festival 2015: Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby; plus, Vivid LIVE curator Ben Marshall on bringing Sufjan Stevens and others to the iconic Sydney Opera House.
Chilean director Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby is a tense, provocative film that explores the pursuit of gay couple Mo and Freddy to have a baby with their best friend Polly. Silva examines this pseudo-family through the cultural lense of Brooklyn, the bohemian hotspot the film is set in. Their relationship with Brooklyn—from the artistic opportunities presented to Freddy, to their encounters with neighbours, and the alternative ideologies that borough fosters—is constantly tested. A comedy-drama character study that touches on LBGT themes, morality, and parenthood, Silva makes us wait patiently and at times, uncomfortably, for his narrative to unfold.
Freddy, played by Silva himself, is a conceptual artist working on ‘Nasty Baby’, a project defined by adults performing as infants screaming, laughing, babbling, and twitching on the floor. He lives with his partner, the sensitive carpenter Mo (played with calm poise by Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of Brooklyn band TV on the Radio) in a hip, lofty apartment filled with plants. Kristen Wiig gives a believable performance as their best friend Polly, a doctor just as excited to have a baby, if not more so. The chilling Mark Magolis as their neighbour Richard acts as a mentor for the bohemians, while Reg. E Cathy plays a mentally unstable neighbourhood man who calls himself ‘The Bishop’ and provokes Freddy, Mo, and Polly on numerous occasions.
Loosely scripted with shaky, handheld camera work, we closely follow Freddy and Mo in their efforts to successfully impregnate Polly and the challenges in their way: weak sperm, defending their ‘unconventional’ decision against traditional-minded family members, and committing wholeheartedly to actually raising a child. Although the film meanders through their alternative Brooklyn lifestyle, Silva expertly keeps our attention throughout: in particular, the inescapable tension created by close encounters with The Bishop, and Freddy’s argument with an art director. The oddities are just as unnerving as the tension; scenes of Freddy placing photos of his adult face on his infant self, and the final video he presents featuring both Polly and Mo performing as infants, are utterly strange.
The mood is incessant and we are never certain where Silva will take the narrative, until the Chilean director wraps all notions touched on in the shocking finale. The fidgety, languid camera work lingers stoically, the soundtrack rumbles with a sombre tone, and the life/death decisions made by these characters hit hard and fast. Painfully realistic, Silva plunges the knife deeper into harrowing human behaviour, leaving no stone unturned and revealing no easy solutions.
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“Buildings like the Sydney Opera House (are) built with this Victorian mindset of reflecting the high artistic and cultural aspirations of the city it finds itself in,” Ben Marshall, the Sydney Opera House’s Head of Contemporary Music explains. “Traditionally that’s been—and rightly so—classical music, ballet, opera and theatre. But in 2015, that probably ought to include contemporary music as well.”
Marshall, the curator of Vivid Live 2015—a festival of live contemporary music and part of Vivid Sydney, an expansive festival of lights, music, and ideas—has enlisted a high-caliber selection of international and Australian acts to play the iconic Sydney Opera House through May and June.
The line-up beams with idiosyncratic and poetic voices, from the influential indie godfather Morrissey, to the experimental and thematic Sufjan Stevens, to Australia’s own Daniel Johns of Silverchair fame, to French beatmaker Onra.
Marshall’s intentions for the line-up were wide: “You cast a net very wide and you can never be quite sure how it’s going to land when it comes back. It’s a collection of artists that have a lot of personal resonance for me, that I think forms a long-lasting arc of great music, and that I think should chime with the spirit of the city.”
Brooklyn indie-rock band TV on the Radio are a highlight, having consistently offered an eclectic brand of album oriented (indie) guitar-rock, from the adrenaline-fuelled ‘Wolf Like Me’ from Return to Cookie Mountain to the pummeling drums and chanting on Dear Science’s ‘Halfway Home’. Rhythmic drumming, complex time signatures, choirs, funk and soul; no matter what sound they experiment with, TV on the Radio have found a medium that allows them to sound uniquely themselves and like no one else in rock music today.
French hip-hop beatmaker Arnaum Bernard, better known as Onra, is another pick. Signed to esteemed Brooklyn label Fool’s Gold Records, Onra is renown for cutting worldly samples with urban-driven beats. On albums Chinoiseries and Chinoiseries Pt. 2 he blends hip-hop and Vietnamese pop music from 30 Chinese and Vietnamese ’60s and ’70s records, while on Tribute he borrows from the long lineage of soul and funk. Lead single ‘We Rollin’ from upcoming album Fundamentals offers a snapshot of things to come: ’80s inspired g-funk beats underpinning smooth, ’90s R&B harmonies. His 2013 performance at Wellington’s Boat Cafe still stands as an imaginative, enthralling set of hip-hop, world music, and funk.
Marshall’s line-up is informed by 20 years of experience in the Australian independent music industry; experience that has offered sharp insight into local and international notions of ‘successful’ Australian music.
“When Australia thinks of its music industry it’ll think about Powderfinger and AC/DC, but if you mention the Australian music industry to someone in Berlin or London or New York, then they’re just as likely to go: ‘Oh, you mean Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Drones, The Go-Betweens, Flume, and Chet Faker.’”
Marshall’s Vivid bill showcases Australian record label Future Classic, having found recent international success after working hard for many years. “I’ve known Nathan McLay [Future Classic founder] for ten years, and remember him starting this label designed to release super cool deep house and techno records. Everybody knows it from the last two or three years through Flume and Chet Faker, but it’s no coincidence those artists have been handled with such flair and finesse; it’s a ten year history of chasing great music and handling it in a stylish way.”
Trained initially as a lawyer, an exchange to the University of London exposed Marshall to the “hey-day of Warp and Mo’Wax, acid jazz—a whole lot of amazing things.” After studying “desperately boring” mergers and acquisitions for corporate litigations, Marshall returned to Australia as a lawyer by day and promoter by night, thriving on organising basement bass parties. “Good training for programming at the Opera House as anything that University taught me,” he laughs.
He struggles to narrow down highlights from five years working at the Opera House, including Fat Freddy’s Drop and Los Angeles beat architect Flying Lotus, who converted the concert hall into a “reverberating bass bin” and proved “electronic music done with flair, imagination and precision can work just as well in a very formal setting, as a massive dance party or a nightclub at 3am.”
Nick Cave’s first performance in 2013 stands out. “It was an electric run of performances: he crashed the website, he had his first ever number one record—just that spitting, swearing, palpable menace onstage.”
In the age of the digital download, Marshall believes the live performance still serves great importance on an artist’s identity, stemming from a deep, human need to be present for artistic creation.
“The format for consuming music on your headphones at home may go through many more changes still, but I think there is something relatively primal and unchanging about that desire to watch it being made in the room in the company of others. It’s a very real, direct, and powerful means of expression and I don’t see that as having been diminished at all in the age of the download.”