BY Terence Trouillot in Opinion | 29 SEP 23

Editor’s Picks: Sebastián Silva’s Gay Porn Murder Mystery

Other highlights include the return of Zamrock band WITCH, Ben Lerner’s divisive book of poetry and a piano interlude with Mahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

BY Terence Trouillot in Opinion | 29 SEP 23

Frieze Editor’s Picks is a fortnightly column in which a frieze editor shares their recommendations for what to watch, read and listen to.

Sebastián Silva, Rotting in the Sun (2023)

I can’t say I’ve ever been a sucker for Sebastián Silva’s movies, much less a fan of comedian/influencer Jordan Firstman, but Silva’s latest film (which stars both Firstman and the Chilean filmmaker himself) had me second-guessing myself. Rotting in the Sun, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is now streaming on MUBI, has been aptly described as a ‘k-hole gay porn murder-ish mystery.’ Following their chance encounter at a gay beach in Mexico, Firstman and Silva – who play pathetic versions of themselves, presumably – decide to work together on a pilot TV show, before a series of ridiculous events leads to the unlikely (but unsurprising) demise of one of them.

Rotting in the Sun
Sebastián Silva, Rotting in the Sun, 2023, film still. Courtesy: MUBI

  Without revealing spoilers, this comedic meta-tale – which also features a cameo from artist Martine Syms – not only serves as a satire of the drug-addled transplants from the US and Europe who have come to gentrify Mexico City neighbourhoods like Colonia Roma (where much of the movie was filmed), but also offers a sharp commentary on the staunch classism of Mexican society.

Rotting in the Sun, 2023
Sebastián Silva, Rotting in the Sun, 2023, film still Courtesy: MUBI

The film is perhaps anchored by the magnificent performance of Catalina Saavedra who plays Silva’s wimpish housekeeper, Señora Veró – an almost direct reprisal of her role as Raquel in Silva’s 2009 film La Nana (The Maid). Here, Veró’s dim-witted expressions and doleful deference to her employer make for some of the more heart-wrenching and hilarious moments of the film. Her class consciousness wittily challenged as she gets deeper into her own web of lies. Steeped in irony, this tragic comedy is a fun watch and will hopefully encourage those expats in Colonia Roma to leave Mexico and move back home with their parents.

WITCH, Zango (2023)

Now that summer is over, I might finally take a break and stop listening to WITCH’s latest record Zango ­– the band’s first album in about 40 years. WITCH (from ‘We Intend To Cause Havoc’) is a Zamrock band that gained popularity during the 1970s, following the 1964 liberation of Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. Zamrock was born from the ashes of British colonialism and became a new genre of music that was archetypal of Zambian underground culture.

Witch, In The Past, 1974, album cover
Witch, In The Past, 1974, album cover

A cross between traditional African music and American garage and psychedelic rock – with notable influences ranging from Jimi Hendrix to the Rolling Stones – Zamrock became the sound of the nation with Emmanuel ‘Jagari’ Chanda, WITCH’s captivating frontman, at its helm. The group and the movement’s success quickly ended as Zambia’s once burgeoning economy came to a halt and the AIDS epidemic spread across the country in the 1980s, killing all members of WITCH by 2001, except for Jagari.

It’s for this reason that I was particularly shocked to notice an album from this year on the band’s discography page on Spotify. (I had been planning to listen to Introduction, WITCH’s first LP from 1972.) In Zango, Jagari teams up with bassist Jacco Gardner, drummer Nico Mauskoviç and keyboardist Patrick Mwondela to produce a sound that is unmistakably WITCH while also being ultramodern. With guest appearances from rapper and singer Sampa the Great and musician Theresa Ng’ami, Zango offers 10 blistering tracks that are so infectious it’s hard not to be obsessed.

Ben Lerner, The Lights (2023)

I believe everyone has a love/hate relationship with Ben Lerner’s writing. Or perhaps it’s just me? After a string of novels – Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), 10:04 (2014) and Topeka School (2019) – Lerner has returned with his first book of poetry since Mean Free Path (2010). The Lights, a small, neatly bound book of 26 poems, sees the writer double down on what has come to define his career; an indulgent crusade to marry prose and verse, delivering texts so frustratingly cagey and elusive and yet so magically intriguing it feels like a trick is being played on you.

Ben Lerner, The Lights, 2023
Ben Lerner, The Lights, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

It is hard to read Lerner, challenging at times if not the mark of a true masochist. But in the mud of words, things seem to connect, fragments leach out with significance, and a calmness seems to set in as if you’re roaming in the clouds. Many lines are hilarious: ‘The way psychoanalysis lacks / an account of nut milks.’ Others are overwhelmingly cringey: ‘clean Black women would / make wonderful nurses’. The latter, without a close read and out of context, is clearly tough to swallow. But here, Lerner refers to Walt Whitman’s Civil War passages in his memoir Specimen Days (1882) – lamenting the famed poet’s ambivalence to the violent, racialized horrors of the war, despite being a union man.

Ben Lerner, The Lights, 2023
Ben Lerner, 2016. Courtesy: Getty Images; photo: Ulf Andersen

The words leap off the page. Erudition and dream-like visions no doubt permeate the book, but The Lights also reminds me of Lerner’s own reality: a writer wrestling with the ennui of Brooklynite yuppiedom and the daily grind of parenthood – all things to which I can wholeheartedly relate. And this vulnerability is Lerner at his best. The Lights opens space for something weird, to be lost in the enchantment of his prose poems.

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

I am perhaps one of the last people on Earth to discover the brilliant pianist and composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. I was introduced to her music by happenstance during a studio visit with the artist Ali Banisadr just a few weeks ago, when I heard piano keys in the distance. Ali’s studio is located on the ground floor of his home – an old carriage house in Brooklyn – so I assumed it was one of his daughters playing in an upstairs room.

He laughed and said the music was coming from a speaker, then proceeded to put on ‘Homeless Wanderer’, a jazzy, sombre tune so mesmerizing in its rhythmic cadence that I was hit with a rush of both calm and euphoria. The piece, along with many others, was only released in 1996 through Éthiopiques, a series of musical compilations featuring Ethiopian music from 1960s and ’70s. Guèbrou, who was born in Addis Ababa in 1923 and passed away in March this year at the age of 99, was classically trained before becoming a nun in an orthodox monastery in Jerusalem, devoting her life and musical prowess to her ascetic faith.

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Courtesy: Emahoy Music Publisher

Guèbrou’s incredible life story emerges in an extended interview-profile by BBC journalist Kate Molleson released in 2017, from growing up in one of the most noble families in Ethiopia to becoming a prisoner of war in Sardinia after Italy’s invasion of her home country, to her musical studies in Cairo, and her 10 years spent in solitary meditation on the holy mountain of Amba Guishen in northern Ethiopia.

Main image: Sebastián Silva, Rotting in the Sun, 2023. Courtesy: MUBI

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.