Hit Parade

08.31.11

Sam Fleischner, Willis Glasspiegel, Tony Lowe, and Olivia Wyatt, Below the Brain, 2011, still from a color film in HD video, 59 minutes.


HANDMADE, IMPROVISATORY, and almost as immersive as the event it depicts, Below the Brain is an impressionistic documentary of the Brooklyn West Indian Carnival, an annual Labor Day weekend event that has never been as hyped as New Orleans’s Mardi Gras but certainly should be. Sam Fleischner, co-director of the Jamaica-set Wah Do Dem (2010), one of the best narrative film debuts of the twenty-first century, is a Caribbean music fanatic, as is Below the Brain’s coeditor, musician-artist Tony Lowe. Teaming up with two other filmmakers, Willis Glasspiegel and Olivia Wyatt, the quartet “covered” the 2010 Carnival from sunset one day to sunset the next, each mapping his or her own route through the twenty-four-plus hours of tumult. They then pooled their best footage (everyone used low-end digital cameras) and Fleischner and Lowe compressed all of it into a furiously paced fifty-nine minutes, suggesting a nonstop sampling of sound and image, done on the fly.

Like the parade itself, the movie is rude, crude, hyperkinetic, and deliriously colorful. People deck themselves in feathers and often not much else, paint their skin gold or cover it with flour paste, flaunt their flesh and dance down the street to the polyrhythms of one steel band after another. There’s safety and joy in numbers. Occasionally we glimpse a studied, even ritualized interaction between the revelers and the cops who line the route, the latter clearly having been instructed not to intervene unless something dire occurs. It’s a bacchanal where children and elderly are welcome. One of the movie’s most memorable images is of two androgynous ancients with painted faces, holding hands and regarding the passing parade as if they were already in heaven.

Amy Taubin

Below the Brain screens September 1 at 6:50 and 9:15 at BAMCinématek in Brooklyn. A Q&A with the filmmakers and a live performance by the Rara group Brother High follow the 6:50 screening. The Brooklyn West Indian Carnival parade takes place September 5 beginning at 11 AM. The route is along Eastern Parkway from Utica Avenue to Grand Army Plaza.