Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #104 - Forty Guns (1957, dir. Samuel Fuller)

Jessica Drummond (played by Barbara Stanwyck) is a hardened but benign rancher who holds sway over a small army of – you guessed it – forty hired guns. She inherited her ranch from her father as a young girl and turned it into an empire, but she’s looking to find the right man to help her take the reins of the ranch. Griff Bonnell (played by a steely-faced Barry Sullivan) is the quintessential Western sheriff with a bad past who clearly knows right from wrong – rolls into town with his younger brothers trying to put his shady past behind him. He also rolls right into trouble in the town, in the form of Jessica’s good-for-nothing younger brother Brockie (played with a suitably naïve recklessness by John Ericson). Brockie is drunk and running wild, intimidating the entire town – but not Griff, who despite not wanting to get involved in the drama walks right up, cold-cocks him, puts an end to his rampage, and lands him in jail - and also on Brockie’s bad side. This simple conflict sets in motion the heated drama that is Forty Guns, director Samuel Fuller’s eleventh feature film and his best to this point in his career.
            Fuller’s films always operated in a world of high drama and heightened emotions. He worked as a young man in the newspaper world and always retained the attention-grabbing techniques of tabloid headlines in his story telling. In what could be just another romantic western action-drama, Fuller here pushes the emotions up to 11 and makes sure that – just like a gripping newspaper story – each scene is designed to grab you by the throat with its style, the acting, the dialogue, no matter whether it’s a love scene, a dramatic confrontation, or the inevitable showdown gunfight on Main Street. He often makes you laugh out loud with his audacity – sometimes because it’s amazing, sometimes because it’s absurd, sometimes it’s amazingly absurd. But Fuller never minded moments of transcendent schlock – as when the cowboy tune that goes “She’s a high ridin’ woman… with a whip” comes up on the soundtrack over a montage of the city and later is shown to be attributed to characters playing and singing, not just a tune laid over the soundtrack. But after the film’s opening, where the Bonnell brothers are traveling along a path only to be overtaken by Jessica Drummond’s “guns” storming around their simple wagon as they roll toward town, there’s no way you won’t be associating the words “high ridin’ woman with a whip” with Jessica Drummond. It’s an efficient bit of storytelling and background without a single word of dialogue to let you know more about her – and it’s amazingly efficient and smart filmmaking, the kind that Fuller made for most of his career.
            The film is typically in-your-face Fuller, a pulpy story juiced to the maximum but smart, good-hearted, even tender in the right parts. With his years of work on earlier films (he was by this point a master with the camera, having directed 10 films in only eight years leading up to this one), and ably assisted by cinematographer Joseph Biroc (It’s A Wonderful Life, plus three Fuller films, of which this is the middle one), he puts together a film that’s entertaining, engaging, and simply beautiful to look at as well. There are widescreen and full frame versions included on this release but why anyone would watch a full frame version of this rather than the CinemaScope version is beyond my comprehension – don’t do it! The opening credits note that the film is “Written-Produced-Directed by Samuel Fuller” – and you can damn well bet he was in that editing room too! And though he’s known as a master of working with small budgets, this had double the budget of his other 1957 Fox picture China Gate and presumably more than his other 1957 RKO-made/Universal-distributed film Run of the Arrow and he put every penny to work to make this look terrific. It’s pure Fuller, pure pulp, pure entertainment, but made by a filmmaker with a brain who assumes his audience has them too, and knows how to use them. He makes smart, efficient cinema for his audience. He’d go on to make the cult hits Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (also both pulpy, entertaining, and deliriously over-the-top in parts) but for me (and also for the French critics who worshipped him – Sam Fuller is probably the #1 influence on Jean-Luc Godard’s early style) this film may well be his best.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, November 17, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #116 - Amadou & Mariam - Tje Ni Mousso

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia are a married pair of musicians from Bamako, Mali who met in the 1970’s at Mali's Institute for the Young Blind and who refer to themselves as “The Blind Couple of Mali.” They’ve been making music since the 80’s together, but it was mostly released in Côte d'Ivoire where they lived until they relocated to Paris in the 1990’s and began releasing albums internationally in 1998. Their earlier music – allegedly, very few folks outside Côte d'Ivoire have heard much of it  – is far more spare and traditional than the albums that got them famous in Paris and beyond but by the time of this record, their third to be released on an international scale, they had refined their style to the point where absorbing influence from any and all music they heard wouldn’t change their core sound – a globally aware pop firmly rooted in the traditions of Mali and the more modern electric blues that many Malians had made a similarly global mark with.
The album kicks off with one of their best ever tracks, “Chantez-Chantez,” an irresistible uptempo cut centered on a chorus that goes:
In other words: “sing, play, dance” - an idea that will carry you through the entire record, even when their lyrics (mostly in Bambara and French) touch on the socio-political realm. The music here – and throughout the record – finds the duo and their band adeptly using whatever styles they choose on their Malian pop foundation. They adopt different approaches for each song, absorbing American and European pop – along with other African and Middle Eastern styles – into their music, and put together a disc that runs for nearly 70 minutes, but doesn’t have a dud in the batch. True, maybe some cuts jump out at you more – the lead tracks grab you before they settle in for a bit – but surprises keep popping up to shake things up and stick individual tunes in the memory banks – violin here, multi-tracked trombones there, Spanish guitar there. And though it kicks off in high gear, they’re in it for the long haul with the album cresting around the middle with the Latin-tinged “Bali Maou” and the peppy, poppy “Si ni Kan” to follow it with another boost. And then it gets another surge with the simply great “Fantani” (probably the second-best cut here after the lead track and on the right day I might call it the best) and rolls through to the end. Even when they get more complex, as in the rhythms of “Laban” they remain catchy and propulsive – there’s no reason you shouldn’t still stick with “Chantez-chantez / Jouez-jouez / Dansez-dansez” as the principle to guide you through the record.
            Amadou & Mariam’s international profile has only gone up from this album. Their follow-up album Wati is a further refined version of this record (with the great cut "Chaffeurs") and they then connected with world Music maestro Manu Chao to create their U.S. breakthrough Dimanche à Bamako, a move which got them connected with the terrific Nonesuch label for U.S. distribution, where they’ve continued to fruitfully mix up styles while remaining true to their core ideas ever since, even being invited to perform at Coachella, Lollapalooza, and other major music festivals. They don’t have a bad record out there, but this one is the first one in their catalog where they upped their game and made plain what their musical intentions were and it still stands as one of their finest in a very fine oeuvre.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, November 10, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #103 - The Red Balloon (1956, dir. Albert Lamorisse)

Is it possible for a movie to succeed as a child’s tale and simultaneously maintain some real intellectual and emotional impact for an adult? Normally I believe not. When I watch children’s movies now I’m able to enjoy them on a number of levels but the ultimate impact of the movie is tempered by the fact that the dialogue, plot and very substance of the movie are often substantially “dumbed down” for a less sophisticated audience. The Red Balloon somehow avoids these pitfalls and provides as satisfying an experience for the adult viewer as it does a magical one for a younger audience. Made in 1956 by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse and starring his own children, the film clocks in at only 34 minutes and has almost no dialogue. Perhaps it is these very facts that account for its success. If Lamorisse tried to sustain his magic for an hour and a half, or weighed it down with a lot of talking and explaining, the movie might have lost its special edge, but as it stands it manages to convey enough wonder for young audiences, yet packs enough philosophical wallop for an adult watcher.

The plot is simple enough: a boy finds a balloon on the street in a Paris slum. The balloon seems to have a personality and mind of its own. The balloon follows the boy, and seems to listen to him when he tells it to wait for him. The balloon itself takes on the qualities of a child. It is by turns curious, recalcitrant, happy, sad, playful, loyal and of course beautiful and irresistible. As the boy takes his balloon to school, on the bus, to his home etc. the balloon is subjected to many of the facets of the adult world; jealousy, greed, envy, cruelty and ultimately the impulse to destroy those things we can’t control or understand. As the boy and his balloon go through their day they seem to incur the wrath of every facet of society ultimately resulting in seemingly every boy in Paris chasing him through the street to destroy the balloon. In a beautifully filmed sequence the balloon loses its air and painfully dies. Then, magically, every balloon in Paris comes to the boy, Pascal, and lifts him above the gray streets in a magnificent, uplifting finale.

The thing that really sets The Red Balloon apart is the visual juxtaposition between the bleak streets of the slum that Pascal inhabits and the buoyant, Technicolor wonder of the red balloon itself. Lamorisse’s greatest achievement is that very contrast. Through the masterful use of lighting and angle the balloon and its overwhelming redness become a symbol of freedom, joy and childhood, bouncing across the morose streets, facing the distress of the adult world with the shield that its simple beauty and innocence provide.

I’ve seen The Red Balloon a number of times over the years, always expecting it to have lost its magical sway over my imagination.  Surely this slight tale can’t still hold any surprise for me, yet this time was by far the most satisfying. Lamorisse has seemingly done the impossible: he has made an inanimate object the subject of real human emotion. Your heart rises with Pascal, as a bouquet of brightly colored balloons carry him over his sad Paris neighborhood, the potential magic promised by cinema is right there, dazzling your eyes and lifting your spirit. Not bad for a 34 minute kids’ movie.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, November 3, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #115 - J. Geils Band – Live Full House

When I was going to Merrill Junior High here in Denver I had an 8th grade music teacher named Mrs. Weber who would allow us kids to bring in records on Friday afternoons for a kind of cultural show and tell. Many of the kids would bring things in an attempt to shock or upset Mrs. Weber with curse words or something controversial. Mrs. Weber liked me however because I took the challenge seriously and tried to bring in things that would impress her musical sensibilities. I remember bringing in Dave Brubeck, Traffic, The Allman Brothers and Yes, all of which she liked. One week I brought in Live Full House by the Boston based boogie rockers The J. Geils Band and it caused a funny reaction. When jive-talking, motor-mouth singer Peter Wolf proclaimed “Take out your false teeth mama, I wanna suck on your gums.” Mrs. Weber looked over her glasses at me and said “Well, that certainly is a delicate way to put it.” Then she cracked up and chuckled throughout the rest of the class, tapping her foot to the irresistible barroom boogie and blues of this seminal live album.

J. Geils Band never made any pretensions to be anything other than an ass-kickin’ bar band, and they were that in spades. Much later they somehow stumbled onto a new-wave video making identity with “Freeze Frame,” “Centerfold” and “Love Stinks” but throughout the early and mid-70’s this band stormed through bars and arenas in the heartland taking no prisoners with their brand of high-energy R&B and Rock and Roll. There was nothing fancy about it, just unbelievable commitment and competence. Starting with the three front men, this band had it all. Peter Wolf spent some of the 1960’s being a Boston based R&B DJ called The Woofa Goofa and he was the real deal. To a normal American kid like me, to hear a white dude who could spit out suggestive slang with such authority and speed freak sure-tonguedness was a revelation. He was a non-stop motion machine, jumping up and down and deliverin’ the word with complete authority. On either side of him were two other amazing characters; on harmonica, the man with the best name in all of rock and roll Magic Dick, a Jewish kid with a huge afro and lightning skills on “the lickin’ stick.” On guitar, the band’s namesake John Geils was a fantastic, rock-solid guitar player, slamming out the blues riffs and taking incredibly tasteful solos on almost every song. Three frontmen, but the other guys were world class as well - especially keyboard player Seth Justman who could jump from waves of Hammond B-3 to barrelhouse piano and back all within the course of one solo. He never failed to find the exact right setting for each song.

The repertoire after-all was what early J. Geils was about. Wolf took his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure R&B and Blues and gave J. Geils Band the hippest bunch of floor fillers a band could ask for. Their shows were non-stop dance parties and Full House is a primer on getting a crowd on its feet and keeping them there. In front of a rabid Detroit audience (their spiritual home base) they open with the Smokey Robinson classic “First I Look At The Purse.” As it closes, Wolf yells out “The College Of Musical Knowledge” and without missing a beat they lurch into Otis Rush’s “Homework.” Totally exhilarating, and for me, it was the college of musical knowledge. Whatever dark, smokey, sexual secrets these guys had learned under the stage lights I wanted to know about. It sent me out to record stores looking for the original records that they were covering. There isn’t a slow moment on the album - even the smoldering 9-minute cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Serves You Right To Suffer” burns along with a hot pulse and lots of great soloing by Dick, Geils and Justman. Every song just cooks, and I feel the same excitement listening to it 42 years later as I did in Mrs. Weber’s class.

Live Full House, along with records by Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield and The Grateful Dead, got my early juices going for traditional American music, and they opened my eyes to the value of taking what was and injecting it with the energy of what is for a new generation. For this White kid, there was no better entrée into Black music than through the J. Geils Band.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, October 27, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #102 - Videodrome (1983, dir. David Cronenberg)

“Television is reality, and reality is less than television.”

First let me get this off my chest, this movie is not for the children or the squeamish and it is certainly NSFW (as the kids would say), but if you are into genre-bending, spine-tingling horror films this is an exquisite masterpiece of a must-see film. Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s dystopic vision of the future, is an achievement in the genre of horror/science-fiction that has stayed relevant and continues to mystify viewers. Unleashed upon the world in 1983, Videodrome contains all of the aspects that make the horror genre great - blood, guts, suspense and a hint of camp - but in addition to these aspects what makes this film so special is the Cronenbergian additions of unexplainable mystery and a captivating/unnerving visual style. Most horror films of this era tend to be somewhat predictable and bold-faced, but Cronenberg’s stylistic touch of the odd and macabre enliven this film, elevating it onto its own plane.
Not to overstate the ability of this film to presage the future of our culturally bleak society that has become distracted, disenchanted, and fascinated with the morbid, but it has all but completely torn down the veil between 1983 and the future 31 years later. In this unconventional horror flick set in some undetermined future (beginning simply on Wednesday the 23rd) our ‘hero’ Max Renn (James Woods) is a scummy cable television executive determined to find something that not only pushes the boundary but “breaks through.” Dealing mostly in smut of the sexual and violent varieties, Renn is obsessed with staying cutting edge. His obsession leads him to seek out a convoluted transmission entitled ‘Videodrome’ that can only be described as ‘torture porn’ (again with this film’s prophetic nature).

“I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation”

Delving deeply into the seamy world of Videodrome he and his girl friend, Nicki Brand (played by Blondie’s Debbie Harry), begin to explore mixing pain and pleasure. What begins with a mostly innocent exploration of sexuality quickly spirals as both begin hallucinating and become completely consumed by the sadomasochistic videotapes that keep finding their way into Renn’s position. Both Renn and Brand are fascinated with the fact that the tapes blur the lines between reality and television. As their society has grown more and more dependent upon their television sets as a crutch (in their bedrooms, as their alarm clocks, and as all forms of entertainment) the screen becomes synonymous with the retina of the eye. With the connection between people and their televisions becoming more and more symbiotic it is no wonder that the people of Cronenberg’s dystopia are fascinated with and easily engulfed by a level of disarming and dangerous reality. This is yet another area of the film that comes off as a bit of a forewarning (read: current society’s obsession with reality television).
From this point the plot of the film expands immensely as Brand searches for Videodrome in Pittsburgh to become a ‘contestant’ and Renn has more trouble determining what is real and what is hallucination. I won’t go too much further into the plot as the webs of conspiracy that form are best experienced without spoilers. But I will say that as the plot develops and the conspiracies unfold the lines between reality, hallucination, and television become more beautifully convoluted as Max Renn stumbles into the insane climax of the film
Aside from all of the aforementioned reasons let me get to the real point of why I have chosen to attempt to ‘turn you on’ to this demented prophetic horror flick (especially this close to HALLOWEEN!), and that would be Cronenberg’s twisted aesthetic vision. If you haven’t delved into Cronenberg’s filmography please dip your toes in starting with this film. Every aspect of Cronenberg’s work is meticulously skewed in an attempt to deliberately engage, confront, and confound the viewer. Cronenberg’s style is visually arresting and he has an uncanny ability to seamlessly merge a current reality with a fanciful strange alternate reality. Watching any of Cronenberg’s films – such as Dead Ringers, The Fly, Naked Lunch, and Cosmopolis, to name a few - will immediately transport you to a new, strange and disarming world where fantasy and reality blur.
In the end there are so many levels to this movie and it can be read in many different ways - you simply must see for yourself. So pick up the DVD (or invest in the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release) and investigate this strange new world of Videodrome for yourself. While you may be confused by it, you will not be sorry you checked out this cult classic, because at the heart of it, it’s just a really COOL twisted specimen of the horror/sci-fi genre.

“Death to Videodrome, long live the new flesh!”

~Edward Hill

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tig Notaro as Interviewed by Jeff M. Albright

In celebration of Tig Notaro’s upcoming show at the Paramount Theatre on 11/9, local comedian and Twist and Shout employee Jeff M. Albright interviewed Tig for our Spork Blog.  Be sure to catch Tig Notaro during her 35 city nationwide Boyish Girl Interrupted Tour

Jeff M. Albright: What are some of your favorite memories from your time here in Denver, particularly your work with Tignation Promotions? 

Tig Notaro: So many great times in Denver. I actually started a "business" with one of your old employees, Dawn Greaney where we would consult local bands. We only had one client one time and after the "meeting", we realized we never decided what we charged for our "services." The "meeting" ended with us awkwardly asking for 20 bucks. I feel confident whoever that was that we met with did not go on to bigger and better things thanks to us. 

JA: Your comedy LP Live is considered by many to be one of the "instantly legendary" comedic sets of all-time. Do you feel the pressure to recreate that moment with every set or is it more of a moment in time that is unique unto itself? 

TN: A moment in time, no doubt.  I think the pressure I felt after that set, was more the pressure I typically will put on myself with creating a new hour of stand-up. There is no way I could possibly follow up that CD.

JA: The Denver comedy scene is experiencing a dramatic boom right now both state wide and nationally. Are there any comedians that are Denver based that you follow or would like to work with in the future? 

TN: Well, I have been friends with Nancy Norton forever at this point and I follow her like a hawk- even stay at her place from time to time. I love Nancy, but she's technically in Boulder. And you're right, Denver's scene does seem to be exploding. I'm having the most handsome and funny Andrew Orvedahl host my show and as a fun twist for the evening, my crazy talented poet pal Andrea Gibson will be the opener. Its gonna be a good time, no doubt.

JA: If you could give one piece of advice to a comedian who is in their first two years of stand-up comedy what would it be? 

TN: Get up on stage constantly. Like, now. You shouldn't even be reading this- you should be on stage.

JA: Being that we are a music store I would be remiss if I didn't ask you what are some of the bands/musicians that are currently on your playlist?

TN: Frightened Rabbit, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Regina Spector and tons of others. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #114 - Melvins - Hostile Ambient Takeover

Melvins have been doing it for over 30 years now.  But what is it exactly that they do?  Punk, hardcore, post-punk, post-hardcore, sludge, grunge, metal, drone, experimental, noise; those and many other terms have been thrown around over the years.  Ultimately, Melvins are a category unto themselves.  Led by Buzz Osbourne and Dale Crover, they first emerged out of Aberdeen, Washington in the early 80s.  After about a decade of kicking around the West Coast underground, they were brought to the attention of the rock mainstream by an old friend from their hometown, Kurt Cobain.  Cobain's influence got the band an unlikely, and destined to be short-lived, major label contract.  Yet while they didn't become the next Nirvana, they did get exposed to a wider audience that otherwise wouldn't have known about them.  The odd spectacle of Melvins opening for arena rock titans like Rush and KISS somehow became a reality.  Jumping from label to label became as much a feature of the band as their ever-changing roster of bass players.  They finally got some stability courtesy of old friend Mike Patton who started up his own label, Ipecac Records, in 1999 and made Melvins his first signing.  They started out with a bang, releasing a trilogy of connected albums, The Maggot, The Bootlicker, and The  Crybaby, each focusing on an aspect of the band.  First, heavy riff-rock; next, quieter and more experimental; finally an album of collaborations with friends and admirers.  So how do you follow up something like that?

The answer is 2002's Hostile Ambient Takeover.  It's not necessarily an epic statement but it is a great album.  With nothing to prove and no overarching theme, Melvins just let it rip.  It's mostly heavy, riff-oriented hard rock with a few odd interludes for a Crover drum solo, a blast of distorted feedback, even a spooky synthesizer-based passage.  It wouldn't be the Melvins without a prank or two and here they mess with the CD track listing.  The numbers on the back don't exactly correspond to what your player's display tells you, but it's not too hard to figure out what's what.  "Black Stooges" and "Dr. Geek" feature infectious riffing from Buzz, while "Little Judas Chongo" has the band going psychobilly at breakneck speed.  "The Fool, the Meddling Idiot" is a classic Melvins slow-burner that features slide-bass work from Kevin Rutmanis, who actually has one of the longest streaks as a Melvins bass player.  The album ends with another epic drone metal piece, "The Anti-Vermin Seed."  This sludges along for 15 minutes, always threatening to bust wide open but never quite doing so.  Creating this much tension without any release could be seen as another prank, but a close listen reveals the song to be a carefully constructed epic.

Melvins have always been insanely prolific,
constantly touring and releasing albums.  They haven't slowed down at all and have had some interesting collaborators.  The late-2000s edition of the band saw Osbourne and Crover combining with Seattle band Big Business as a two-drummer quartet.  Stand-up bassist Trevor Dunn joined for a project known as Melvins Lite.  They just released a new album with ex-Butthole Surfers Paul Leary and JD Pinkus.  Earlier this year, Buzz released a solo acoustic album.  With so much material, it can be hard to know where to start if you're just getting into the band.  Hostile Ambient Takeover is as good a place as any.  And if you're a fan of the band and missed this one, it's definitely worth catching up on.  It may not be their best or best-known but it's still an essential entry in the vast Melvins catalog.  Here's to another 30 years!

            - Adam Reshotko

Monday, October 13, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #101 - To Live and Die In L.A. (1985, dir. William Friedkin)

Although there is very little doubt that William Friedkin is a talented, varied and periodically excellent filmmaker, there are certain films in his oeuvre that remain criminally under seen and under appreciated – To Live and Die In L.A. being the prime example.
Friedkin is able to make a tough, murky crime film firmly planted in everything great that was the 80s in American cinema with very little, if any, of the bad. In this deceptively simple tale of counterfeiting we get to know everyone: the mules, the middlemen, the cops, the makers, the buyers and even the lawyers that keep everything "legal." Bathed in a damn near giallo style of reds, greens and purples, the film lets the audience smell the sweat and grit every step of the way. Although the screenplay is far from great (and even descends into awkward one liners that don't function at all), when it works, it works like a perfectly run machine. During those scenes of excellence, it's easy to find oneself lost into a world of neo-noir, where every line is akin to a loaded gun, every breath and bead of sweat becomes visceral, morality is an archaic myth with no place in this story, and every burst of Peckinpah-esque violence feels like an assault on every one of the viewer’s already heightened senses.
Thankfully, Friedkin has a deft handle on when and when not to use the fantastic (if a little goofy) score and songs from Wang Chung. The contrast of the pitch-black story unfolding with the brief, discotheque-ready musical interludes just makes the whole thing feel a little skanky in the best way possible. But the moments of near-transcendence come when we are left with no music. This film holds a firm place in the car chase sub-genre for an exhilarating, exhausting and extensive chase only bested by the likes of (Friedkin’s own earlier film) The French Connection and of course, Bullitt.
The cast is pretty solid all around. William Petersen is fantastic here, long before he threw the towel in and settled into C.S.I. Friedkin's smartest choice with this film was making our "protagonist" a real person. Rather than a simple black and white story of good vs. evil, all of our characters float freely between what is "moral" or right, with nearly everyone taking care of themselves and throwing others under the bus without question when they deem it necessary. This of course ties back around to the neo-noir aspects that really root the entire film. Willem Dafoe has surely one of his greatest performances here as a soul-tortured artist who burns any real artistic output and focuses his skills on counterfeiting for what seems to be the majority of Los Angeles.  John Turturro and Dean Stockwell don't necessarily have a lot to work with here, but they remain memorable in their respective roles. We even get a nice little turn from Robert Downey, Sr.
If you miss the days when Hollywood wasn't all that worried about you walking out of the theatre with a phony smile and sense that everything is okay, then this film is for you. For the most part it holds nothing back (it’s from the days when male and female could be naked on screen and no one lost their minds) and brings more energy, passion and vigor than any film of the like in recent memory. Crime films should be tough and they shouldn't end on an up note just because it feels better that way. Agree? Then you're in the right place.
- William Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center

Monday, October 6, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #114 - Cecil Taylor - The World of Cecil Taylor

Don’t be afraid of Cecil Taylor; he won’t hurt you, he just wants to make beautiful music. He’s earned a reputation as a challenging jazz musician, instrumental (along with Ornette Coleman) in ushering in “free jazz” in the 50’s and 60’s. But mostly the music that’s made him notorious came later than this, after a 1962 breakthrough where he found rhythm sections ready to go out on a limb with him and try something new. In the years leading up to that from his 1957 debut Jazz Advance, through the great 1958 release Looking Ahead! to his 1959 albums Hard Driving Jazz (later issued under John Coltrane’s name as Coltranetime) and Love For Sale, Taylor charted a course that challenged some but still worked within the boundaries of what people referred to as jazz, mainly held to the earth by solid bass and drum support. But after fairly indifferent sales for those albums he connected with the jazz writer Nat Hentoff, whose position as A&R man at the newly formed Candid Records meant that he could sign and give artistic freedom to a number of musicians working outside the mainstream of jazz. And Taylor didn’t waste the opportunity, producing several albums’ worth of material over a few recording sessions in October 1960 and January 1961, starting with this release. As with the titles of his first couple records (or Ornette’s similarly forward-thinking The Shape of Jazz To Come or Change of the Century) Taylor’s title promises a new world and a new approach to jazz here and he delivers it.
Though earlier on in his career Taylor took flack from critics unwilling to give his new music a shot, by this time he didn't really have anything more to prove to anybody - you take him seriously if you hear him play, simple as that. You may not like it, but there's no denying that he's for real. The record kicks off with “Air” where drummer Dennis Charles announces the opening with a drum fanfare into which Cecil drops a
thoroughly discordant but rhythmically solid (albeit tricky) melody. Charles and bassist Buell Neidlinger come back in with a cooking rhythm and the young saxophonist Archie Shepp takes the lead solo (two years before his debut album), sounding somewhat tentative here with Taylor comping menacingly behind him – or maybe that’s me projecting because when Taylor takes the lead Shepp's hesitant take on things is blown out of the memory within a few seconds, as he dissects the rhythm like a master surgeon, and plays around a tonal idea and stays challenging and dissonant without going completely atonal and aleatoric. Taylor and Charles trade off phrases as the piece draws to a close and Shepp reappears to say goodbye – but he’ll be back for the closing track, don’t worry. Next up is the lovely Rodgers & Hammerstein ballad "This Nearly Was Mine" (from South Pacific), performed as a trio with Neidlinger and Charles. In Cecil's hands it retains its beauty but it's edgy and works the extremes of the instrument and can jangle your nerves if you're the sort to let it get under your skin instead of immersing yourself. But if you immerse, you will find yourself right in his world. We also have "Port of Call," a Taylor original that's got a nice melodic line (which of course he immediately clutters up and subjects to changes) and might be the most accessible thing here for a listener looking for something more traditionally jazzy to hook into, though Taylor’s pixellated solo still may rattle the unwary. Following that is "E.B.," probably my favorite piece of the set. It's again a trio and is taken at a rocketing tempo with Dennis Charles working alongside Taylor's subversions of the riff that characterizes the piece in a way that reminds me of Blakey and Monk's interplay on Monk's underrated tune "Introspection." All the while Buell Neidlinger drives fiercely underneath and provides a grounding to even Taylor's wildest moments of solo flight. Closing things is the ballad "Lazy Afternoon" where Shepp acquits himself with a nice solo and some good back and forth with Cecil - still not quite in Taylor's league (to be fair, hardly anyone is), but he simply sounds great here, craggy tone and all - and helps make the piece work. Taylor of course takes what could be a languid stroll through an old tune and makes it something altogether more interesting while the rhythm mainly steers clear and lets him fly, especially in the opening improvisation.
            All in all, the album is a great way in to Taylor's music, a nice balance of accessible and complex, and one of his finest early records – possibly the best of all his pre-1962 albums. From here he’d get more challenging as he found players open to his unique rhythmic and harmonic approach, but the early years are a fascinating glimpse of how Taylor could make his ideas work within a relatively traditional framework. The friction of his striving often left behind some great work.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, September 29, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #100 - European Vacation (1985, dir. Amy Heckerling)

I don’t care if European Vacation is the second worst rated of the National Lampoon Vacation series, it’s my favorite. I’m not saying it’s the best—by all objective measures, the first installment is. That epic of the Griswolds’ journey to Wally World has a delicious mix of silly stupidity and outright darkness, like when the family forgets to untie their dog from the bumper before heading down the highway and the mutt goes bouncing along in tow, or when their grant aunt sits dead in the back seat while Clark Griswold, the dad, played by Chevy Chase, drives for hundreds of miles before anyone notices. When they finally do figure it out, they wrap her in a tent tarp and tie her to the top of the station wagon. Great stuff! But the sequel, the Griswolds’ romp through the Old Country, has stuck with me longer, coming as it did in the height of the Reagan years and when my critical sense of the United States was really beginning to take shape. I first saw it in a crowded dorm room freshman year and at some point one of the more patriotic people in the room said in disgust, “This is just propaganda.” Without missing a beat, my good friend Chuck replied, “Yeah, but it’s good propaganda.” It’s been a guilty favorite of mine ever since.

The movie begins with our heroes dressed up like pigs, going head-to-head with a family of geniuses in a TV game show. By a stroke of truly dumb luck, they win the grand prize: an all-expenses-paid tour of Europe. And for the next hour and half they bumble across England, Germany, France and Italy, proving every stereotype about ugly Americans and inventing a few more along the way. Not even Stonehenge survives. In England, they keep crashing into poor innocent Brits, accidents so bad that the poor victims hobble off with broken bones and bleeding flesh wounds, smiling and apologizing for getting in the Americans’ way. At a restaurant in France, Clark shouts out for a waiter, pronouncing garçon as “garkony,” and the waiter, in his politest French, compliments Mama Griswold’s tits, Daughter Griswold’s ass and says, “I’ll serve you toilet water. You won’t know the difference.”

The family is as disfunctional as ever – Clark lets an X-rated video of his wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) fall in the hands of Italian pornographers, and their kids, Audrey (Dana Hill) and Rusty (Jason Lively), are all caught up in hormones: Audrey pining constantly for her boyfriend back home; Rusty hitting the prostitute scene in Paris. (As an aside, Lively’s Rusty looks to me just like a young Thurston Moore, and I like to imagine it actually is the Sonic Youth guitar god in a pre-rock-star roll.)

Don’t get me wrong: this is a silly, goofy film. But it’s got enough deep jabs to make it a solid spoof of our beloved U.S. of A. (driven home, I might add, by the ultra-patriotic images that accompany the closing credits). And in this way it still holds up. Watching it again in post-George W. Bush America, I was amazed at its prescience. The gags of apologizing, battered Brits and sneering Franks seems in retrospect a perfect metaphor for our alliances and non-alliances going into the Iraq War.

            - Joe Miller