Get behind him

Catching an elusive icon's drift as he sings about Pasolini and Mussolini
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johnny@sfbg.com

Oscar season is upon us. Amid sniping text messages from best actor contenders, I'd like to advance the idea that cinema's most compelling and perhaps revelatory male stars of cinema in recent years aren't even thespians. They can be athletes, such as Zinedine Zidane, whose day's work on the soccer field assumes mythic properties in Douglas Gordon's 2006 Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. More often, they are musicians. Think of Arthur Russell and Townes Van Zandt, tender ghosts who float through documentaries by Matt Wolf and Margaret Browne. Or the very-much-alive yet enigmatic subject of Stephen Kijak's Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, a pop star, lyricist, and composer who was made to be a movie star — though one with, in the words of an observer, "Garboesque leanings toward seclusion."

Foreboding yet luminous in a manner that any film composer might envy, the first minutes of the songs "Big Louise" and "It's Raining Today" are all it takes to prove that the chief glory of 30 Century Man is the lavish setting that it affords Walker's recordings. Both the grand orchestration and vocal gestures of his late 1960s solo albums and the dark passages and shock tactics of his more recent ones — Tilt (Fontana, 1995) and The Drift (4AD, 2006) — are born again as they bloom and boom through a movie theater sound system. This music is truly majestic. The digital effects that Kijak sometimes uses to illustrate its sound can be cheesy, but another of his gambits hits paydirt. Instead of presenting David Bowie, Brian Eno, and a host of other figures as simple talking heads, he films their responses as they listen to Walker's music. This listening party effect is intoxicating, and it triggers improvised, as opposed to rehearsed, insights.

Time stood still yesterday in the music Walker made with arranger Wally Stott (now Angela Morley, and one of the film's most likable commentators), and it stands still today when 30 Century Man languishes in the songs from Walker's quartet of self-titled Philips solo albums from 1967 through 1970. A welcome sense of ambiguity thrives throughout Kijak's movie. Executive producer Bowie shares a back story about a competitive bond he felt he had with Walker, even if Walker wasn't aware of it — namely, that one of Walker's girlfriends never got over her love of Walker's music, even as she was dating Bowie. The anecdote is a perfect illustration of the homo-social electricity that charges so much popular music, and Kijak is wise enough to let the inference speak for itself.

30 Century Man is unique simply for its on-camera interview and studio footage of Walker, who has spent more than a decade on a single album and gone 30 years between live performances. As a leading man, he's conflicted. He may be a notorious film buff who is fond of Victor Erice and collaborated with Leos Carax, but the physical efforts on his part to cultivate an iconic mystique — hats and sunglasses, for example — come across as almost comic signifiers of a genuine unease about being on-camera. At the beginning of one of the film's interviews, he jokingly refers to McCarthy-era forms of interrogation, and only truly loosens up past the point of obvious self-consciousness when he's enmeshed in recording a song. Instead of a full-blown eccentric, Kijak's movie puts forth a vision of a guy who'd simply rather make art than play the fame game. Of course, in Walker's case, that art now involves using slabs of meat as rhythmic instruments — and instead of writing for the charts, he's singing about Pasolini and Mussolini.

SCOTT WALKER: 30 CENTURY MAN opens Fri/23 in Bay Area theaters.

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