Monday, April 24, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #164 - Sweetie (1989, dir. Jane Campion)

Kay: “What if it does die?”
Louis: “What?”
Kay: “The tree.”
Louis: “Well, we’ll get another one.”
Kay: “Yeah, but this is our tree.”
Louis: “Look, it’s not gonna die. The roots grow really strong. They can split concrete.”

Years before Jane Campion would make a name for herself with such films as Bright Star (2009), In The Cut (2003), and probably most famously the Oscar winning The Piano (1993), she wrote and directed this brilliant psychological drama that stunningly explores the inner workings of a small, yet utterly complex family. Sweetie was Campion’s debut feature length film and with it she immediately proved her worth as a writer (the film was co-written by her and Gerard Lee) and director, and revealed her unique narrative and aesthetic vision. I was exposed to this film during a class on female directors during my first undergrad, and was immediately drawn to this odd, visually stunning tale, flush with metaphor and depth.

At the heart of it, this film is about a subtly neurotic and superstitious woman, Kay (Karen Colston), who’s attempting to forge her way as an independent adult. She has very few friends and everyone around her seems to think her quite eccentric. After a reading from her psychic she finds herself in the awkward situation of having to steal a co-worker’s fiancé, Louis (Tom Lycos), as she believes that they were destined to be together. From this moment we fast-forward with the couple, seeing only a few important moments in the development of their relationship until the moment that Lou planted a tree for Kay in their back yard. Believing that the tree could prove some sort of omen for their relationship she rejects it, snaps, and uproots the tree, hiding it underneath the bed in the spare room before anything bad can happen. Although she then moves into the spare bedroom to guard the decaying sapling, everything seems reasonably fine; however their relationship issues are increasingly bubbling underneath the surface. Though the tensions in their relationship seems to be stuck at a simmer, it begins to boil over with the arrival of Kay’s unhinged punk rock sister, Dawn, AKA ‘Sweetie’ (Geneviève Lemon), and her drug addled ‘manager’ Bob.

From this point Sweetie, as well as the rest of Kay’s family, begins to unravel the stability of Kay’s life and her relationship with Louis. The trials and tribulations of the family, Louis, and Bob, beautifully mirror real life’s propensity to be filled with comedy, drama, pain, and revelation. The dysfunction inherent in all of the relationships comes to light but in a remarkable fashion. While many of the issues addressed or hinted at have often been used as fodder for film and literary plots, the way that Campion addresses them skirts cliché and demonstrates a level of finesse and skill not often seen in a debut feature. The talent that shines through in Sweetie most definitely portends Campion's gifts that she would expound upon in her later works.

Aside from the fascinating off-kilter story of this peculiar familial system, and the splendid way that Campion deals with such issues, let me enumerate a few other reasons that I feel compelled to turn you on to this fantastic film. First and foremost, the way that the film was shot is brilliant! The use of out of the ordinary framing and composition for scenes is incredibly engaging and it would often seem that there is something that can be read underneath the surface of every scene. Secondly, and something that goes hand in hand with the aesthetics of the film, Campion imbued this film with an incredible amount of metaphorical layers. There is a certain almost indescribable depth to the film that forces me to question everything and read into all of the subtle context in order to gain a more complete understanding of the somewhat simple story. Third, and finally, the acting is glorious. Geneviève Lemon and Karen Colston in particular effortlessly embody their roles as utterly opposing sibling personalities. The one reserved (Kay) and the other an unapologetic train wreck (Sweetie), they seem to have been made for these roles and their interaction with each other truly makes you believe that they have been embroiled in this strange sibling rivalry all their lives.

It is for all of the aforementioned reasons and more that I implore you to check out this fantastic film, I promise that you won't regret it. Plus, the Criterion Collection's beautiful release of Sweetie happens to come with some amazing extras, such as Campion's early short films and much more, that will further give you a glimpse into the creative process of an amazing writer/director.

- Edward Hill

Monday, April 17, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #177 - Megadeth – Rust in Peace (Capitol, 1990)

These days, if one talks about Megadeth, it’s more likely to be a conversation about what a pompous prick frontman Dave Mustaine publicly continues to be than about the actual music. However, once upon a time, Megadeth released the heaviest, most technically sound thrash metal record of the 1990s (and possibly of all time). I am here to tell you fine Spork readers why, regardless of your position on metal, you need this record in your life.

First of all, a short history lesson for those novices among us. Dave Mustaine was an original member of Metallica. Since all four of my grandparents had heard of Metallica and used them as an entry point for trying to relate to me when I was a pre-teen, I’m going to assume I don’t need to explain who they are. Mustaine was thrown out of Metallica for being too drunk and terrible all the time, itself an impressive feat considering Metallica had been given the nickname ‘Alcoholica’ by friends and press. Defeated but undeterred, Mustaine formed Megadeth with bass player and friend David Ellefson.

Mustaine and Ellefson spent much of the mid-to-late ‘80s trying to match Metallica’s success, Metallica always remaining three steps ahead. Perhaps it was the rampant drug abuse or the semi-frequent personnel changes that kept them from receiving the level of acclaim that Mustaine’s former band was receiving. Finally in 1990, just as thrash metal was beginning to fade into obscurity, Megadeth released their fourth album Rust in Peace, and in doing so took thrash to a whole new level.

Rust in Peace wasn’t just about heaviness and speed. It had those things in spades, but what set Rust in Peace apart from many of the other thrash records of the day was its melodicism and its technical efficiency. Mustaine stepped up the creativity that we all knew he had (if the riffs he wrote on Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All are any indication), got clean and sober (relatively speaking) and wrote some of the most personal songs of his career, dealing with such topics as war, alien conspiracies and his own chemical addiction. The songs themselves tended to be longer with frequent and abrupt time changes. Newly added lead guitarist Marty Friedman, himself an accomplished virtuoso, helped up the intensity and progressive nature of the songs. The record is so filled with guitar solos that it can sometimes feel like a call-and-response wank-fest between Mustaine and Friedman. However, structurally the solos fit well within the epic proportions of the compositions.

Another reason this record is so mind-blowingly incredible is the addition of drummer Nick Menza. Menza was the drum tech for former drummer Chuck Behler and ended up taking over his job when Behler was fired. A former session drummer, Menza had experience in not only metal but gospel and funk as well. These influences all shine through on Rust in Peace, as his style is both angular and jazzy in addition to being lightning fast. Hiring Friedman and Menza was the smartest decision Mustaine ever made or would ever make again. This lineup would be known as the “classic lineup” and would remain together for three more records, the longest any incarnation of Megadeth has ever stayed together.

I had already been playing drums myself for a year or two when Rust in Peace was released. I was a Megadeth fan, but I wouldn’t say I was crazy about them at the time. One day, I was watching a VHS tape of MTV’s The Headbangers’ Ball that I recorded off the TV the night before. When the video for the single “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” came on, it instantly changed my life. I went out and bought the album that day, and it’s remained one of my favorite albums not just in metal, but overall. Menza’s playing in particular changed both the way I listen to and the way I play music. I maintain that you need not be a metal fan to regard Rust in Peace as an instant classic or at the very least a genre milestone. Its release spawned many tech-metal bands coming out of the woodwork and its influence can even be heard in many recorded works from seasoned veterans such as Slayer and Carcass.

Shortly after Rust in Peace came out metal in general suffered a lapse in popularity with the rise of grunge and “Buzz Bin” bands. Many bands faded away, while others (*cough* Metallica *cough*) would embarrassingly try to embrace the change in the mainstream landscape and release their own version of it. Megadeth even had their share of flops and mishaps in later years. But Rust in Peace will always stand as a true masterpiece and, above all, the point in history when Megadeth finally outdid their biggest rivals.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, April 10, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #163 - Tristana (1970, dir. Luis Buñuel)

Luis Buñuel’s relationship with his home country of Spain was a complicated one – it informed his work and was the root of his uniquely skewed outlook on the world, but he spent most of his life out of the country and made only three films there during his career. Born in the mountain town of Calanda in 1900, he moved with his family to the rural region of Aragon and its capital city Zaragoza when he was young. Attending college in Madrid, he became close friends with Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca, moving to France after graduation and joining the Surrealist group with Dalí, ultimately creating one of his most famous works with him, the short film Un Chien Andalou. He made another film (the scandalous L’Age d’Or) with Dalí before their friendship dissolved, then returned to Spain during the turbulent years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. Back in Spain, Buñuel made another short film, Las Hurdes, a semi-documentary about a poverty-stricken mountainous region of Spain near the Portuguese border. The film provoked an uproar with Spanish officials for its brutal depiction of extreme poverty and was banned in Spain from 1933 to 1936, and then again by Francisco Franco’s regime when he came to power after the Civil War. Buñuel left the country when Civil War broke out, departing for the U.S. and then Mexico, where he settled for the rest of his life.

After re-establishing himself as a filmmaker of note in Mexico, Buñuel was invited by Spain to make a film funded by the government, presumably looking to call Spain’s filmmaking son back to his homeland. But the film he made, Viridiana (based on a novel by the author Benito Pérez Galdós), contained scenes considered blasphemous and subversive – despite the script being approved by censors. Franco attempted to have the film destroyed and recalled from its entry at the Cannes film festival, but Buñuel had already left the country with his film. It was immediately banned in Spain, but won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and pushed Buñuel to the upper ranks of international directors, allowing him to make some of his seminal works throughout the 60s.

With these two films created in Spain behind him, it was with some trepidation that the Spanish government again allowed Buñuel to make a third film, Tristana. Could another film made with Franco still in power, be trusted in the hands of Buñuel, the man who said of his surrealist days “Scandal was a potent agent of revelation, capable of exposing such social crimes as the exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny - in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed.”? Apparently so!

Tristana, unlike Buñuel’s previous Spanish films, did not provoke outrage or scandal and was not banned in Spain (or elsewhere, to my knowledge) – but it could have been. Buñuel turned again to a Galdós novel as source material and found a work that’s very similar in tone to Viridiana – a young woman is taken in by an older gentleman after her parents’ passing and he takes more than a paternal interest in her. The gentleman, Don Lope, is again played by Fernando Rey (in his second of four collaborations with Buñuel), and the young woman Tristana is played by Catherine Deneuve, who Buñuel had worked with to great effect in Belle de Jour. Their relationship in the film is complex and always shifting – Tristana starts the film naïve and meek, a religious woman still mourning the loss of her family, while Don Lope is an atheistic, anti-capitalistic, mostly leftist gentleman who nevertheless retains some archaic notions of honor (very similar to Buñuel himself, in fact). Though Tristana is repulsed by his advances she still remains under his care and as the film continues she begins to assert her independence and a shift begins. Tristana slowly adopts the hardened exterior of her guardian while his strong postures fade away and he becomes the helpless ward. Ironically, it’s Don Lope’s regular talk of the assertion of freedom and individual will that powers Tristana’s bids for autonomy that leave him an emotional wreck.

While the film doesn’t have the outré shock value of Buñuel’s earlier work, it’s a deeply weird and complex film underneath, simultaneously condemning and offering sympathy for Don Lope in his doomed desires for young Tristana (he is referred to throughout the film by various characters as old and hence unattractive), and similarly finding outrage in how Tristana is treated when she’s young, only have her behave monstrously later in life. It wouldn’t be too difficult for Spanish censors who had been upset by Viridiana’s suggestive relationship with her cousin in the earlier film to find in this film a full-bore attack on traditional and family values, frequently showing Don Lope’s moralism as out of touch and his relationship with Tristana considerably more unchaste than the one depicted in Viridiana. And Tristana herself even voices Don Lope’s ideals of remaining unmarried, a free agent in the world of romance able to choose who she wishes to be with and when.

In Buñuel’s universe, boundaries placed on desire are always under attack, and Tristana’s undermining of family values and portrait of marriage as a corrupt institution should, in theory, have been upsetting to Spanish censors. But for some reason, perhaps because rising stars Catherine Deneuve and Franco Nero were cast to help the film toward international success and nobody involved on the Spanish side of the production wanted to seem to be as out of touch as Don Lope, the film passed without friction. It’s as mysterious, challenging, sardonic, and strangely beautiful as any film in Buñuel’s catalog.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 3, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #176 - Richard Buckner - Dents and Shells

The academic year of 1995-1996 figures prominently in my personal history with music. As a college freshman that fall, I joined the staff of WPLS and began hosting my first radio show. Weeks later, I attended my first eighteen-and-over concert: Superchunk at Be Here Now in Asheville, NC. At the end of my freshman year, my friend Simms invited me up to Asheville to see a folk concert. Dar Williams was the headliner at Be Here Now that night, but I came away with a strong impression of the opening act, a big, shambly guy who played a stirring, stripped down cover of Pavement’s “Here.” About a decade later, as I was delving into the furrowed beauty of Richard Buckner’s Dents and Shells, I realized that he was that big, shambly guy and I experienced the kind of epiphany that comes from a life of listening to music you love.

Richard Buckner’s eighth album and his second on Merge Records, Dents and Shells, showcases his distinctive take on the singer-songwriter tradition and serves as a great introduction to this hard-working, underrated artist. Throughout the album, Buckner’s weathered, intimate voice combines with the instrumentation of the era’s alt-country sound, but the result hews closely enough to indie rock that it still feels at home on Merge. “A Chance Counsel” kicks off the album as a strummed acoustic guitar opens into a mid-tempo arrangement and Buckner drops us into the middle of one of his signature highly detailed, small-scale narratives. Blending the sweetness of nostalgia with the bitterness of regret, Buckner sets the album’s themes of missed opportunities, loss, and survival. Coalescing out of a soft, repeated piano figure, “Her” balances a haunting sense of melancholy with a resigned acceptance of the here and now. Offering up the album’s strongest moment, “Her” blossoms into a poignant expression of emotional reckoning nuanced with swells of fiddle and tinges of pedal steel guitar. Later in the album, “Rafters” breaks into a swift tempo while Buckner gives us just enough hints to know he’s singing about the kind of night we all remember when things change forever. The strength of Buckner’s delivery and the lack of resolution in his lyrics in “Rafters” signal a respect for his audience’s intelligence that feels rare and refreshing for the genre and timeframe. “As the Waves Will Always Roll” closes out the album on a somber, yet inspiring note as a cymbal flourish gives way to a brooding organ performance and thunderous crashes of percussion. This musical backdrop slyly offsets Buckner’s nearly hushed voice and although the song rises to almost epic proportions it still feels grounded, immediate, and true like all Buckner’s best songs.

In the spring of 2014, I had a unique opportunity to reflect on my then twenty-year-long relationship with Merge Records, the independent record label founded by two members of one of my favorite bands, Superchunk. That April, I saw Arcade Fire play the Pepsi Center in Denver as part of their Reflektor World Tour, easily the biggest concert by a Merge Records band I’ve witnessed. The next month, I traveled back to my hometown of Greenville, SC and attended the most intimate concert I’ve seen by a Merge Records artist, a house show featuring Richard Buckner hosted by my friend and former record store co-worker, Brian. Sitting in Brian’s living room, I once again felt drawn into Buckner’s warmth, intensity, and vulnerability. Hearing Buckner perform songs from this album with him sitting just a few feet from me, time fell away as I felt anchored by music’s ability to transcend all that can so easily consume and distract us.

-          John Parsell

Monday, March 27, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #162 – Diner (1982, dir. Barry Levinson)

Barry Levinson’s impressive resume includes such award-winning films as Rain Man, Bugsy and Good Morning, Vietnam. Before any of those films however, there was Diner, his 1982 directorial debut. Although a critical success at the time, it barely made a splash at the box office and was ill-recognized by the Academy save for one nomination for Best Original Screenplay. However, its young cast would all go on to have significant careers and its cultural impact on both the big and small screen is undeniable to this day.

Set in 1959 Baltimore, the film revolves around a group of young men a year or two out of high school and their frequent late night trips to their local favorite hangout, Fell’s Point Diner. Billy (Timothy Daly) makes a special trip home from college to be the best man in his best friend’s wedding. Baltimore Colts-obsessed Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), the groom-to-be, has such reservations about his impending courtship that he has demanded that his fiancé score 65% or higher on a test that he created about football. Shrevie (Daniel Stern), another of the pals, has fallen, perhaps too early, into a dysfunctional marriage to Beth (Ellen Barkin). In one vulnerable moment he confides to his buddies that he has trouble having a conversation with his wife for more than five minutes. Suave ladies’ man and chronic gambler Boogey (Mickey Rourke) meanwhile is in debt to local bookmakers and can’t seem to keep from getting in further over his head, taking bets on everything from sports games to his own sex life. Rounding out the crew are the habitual wisecracker Modell (Paul Reiser) and drunken trouble maker Fenwick (Kevin Bacon).

The characters are all flawed in their own way, but honestly that isn’t the most interesting thing about this film. Levinson, a Baltimore native, wrote the screenplay as an autobiographical document. He knows these characters. They are his friends, his family… his people. And what makes Diner stand out from, say, Porky’s or American Graffiti as more than just another 50’s rock n’ roll nostalgia film is the way the characters interact with each other. With Diner, Levinson essentially created a style of cinema that is arguably one of the most frequently used styles even today, the concept of “no concept.” Diner has a plot, but the plot is an afterthought. What makes it such a masterpiece is the fact that the film is largely made up of snappy, clever dialogue. Literally, men are sitting having conversations about music, film, girls, pop culture, sandwiches... really, nothing in particular.

A decade later, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld would debut their “show about nothing,” expanding on Levinson’s focus on the mundane aspects of conversation. Seinfeld was one of the most popular television shows of the 1990s and it built its entire premise on the fact that it didn’t have to have a premise. It even had similar characters as Diner. Reiser’s neurotic and fidgety Modell in particular could be considered an early blueprint of the character of Jerry. A whole generation of filmmakers from Noah Baumbach to Jon Favreau to Judd Apatow have made their livings showcasing male interactions and friendships that are almost identical to the ones portrayed in Diner. One of the most successful and important filmmakers of the last thirty years, Quentin Tarantino, even owes a debt to Levinson. Each of his films are masterpieces of violence and intrigue. What sets his movies apart from other blockbuster action films is their intense focus on dialogue and pop culture. Of course, those films had some of the most brutal violence in the history of film. I don’t know about you, but what springs to mind faster for me are the lines and lines of quotable dialogue. Give me the scene in Reservoir Dogs where the bank robbers sit around the table talking about Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” or Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction sitting at the coffee shop discussing whether “that Arnold from Green Acres” is a filthy animal over the shoot-em-up scenes any day.

If you’re a fan of buddy films, comedic dramas or any of the directors I just mentioned, you should check out Diner. Particularly if you are a fan of Levinson’s work in general and somehow missed this one. Not only is it interesting to explore where a career as illustrious as Levinson’s got started, it is also a film that changed the way screenplays are written forever.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, March 20, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #175 - Slim Harpo - The Excello Singles Anthology

So when did Rock And Roll actually begin? There are more than a few answers. Every couple of years someone comes up with a new discovery that seems to prove that some one-hit wonder was actually the first example of primal rock. It seems clear that it happened somewhere between the late 1940’s and the mid-1950’s, and, fueled by the excitement of artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, became recognizable as its own genre with a growing worldwide following somewhere in the mid-50’s. The very wide-ranging nature of that answer shows that there was no single song or artist who can take full credit, but rather that there was a gradual shift in sound and subject matter toward what we now understand as the ocean of Rock. The streams that ran into that ocean came from all over the place (regionalism) and represented a number of genres; Pop, R&B, Blues, Country, Jazz. Each of these genres had a number of artists who sounded like they were on the verge of breaking out and rocking! Slim Harpo (James Moore), was one such artist. Skirting the line between R&B and Blues in the late 1950’s, he is an excellent example of an artist breaking down the walls of expectation and creating something new.

Influenced himself by the urban blues stylings of Jimmy Reed, Harpo took the electric guitar and lead harmonica style into the stratosphere with the addition of his laconic, pinched vocals, reverb drenched guitar solos (usually courtesy of Guitar Gable, Rudolph Richard or Jimmy Johnson), and unfailing turn of a clever phrase. This 2 CD set contains all his singles (A&B sides). Every cut he recorded was worth hearing, but this set really covers the meat of his best material. And oh man is the good stuff good! I guess there’s an argument to be made that you could start and end with the first single and its fabulous flip. “I’m A King Bee / I Got Love If You Want It.” In these two songs, one can clearly hear what must have grabbed Lennon, Page, Jagger and Richards by their ears. Both songs have an almost alien-sounding vocal and guitar paired with a string of sophisticated yet suggestive amorous overtures which have become part of popular lexicon ever since. Think about that accomplishment alone - writing multiple songs that, 60 years later, are part of modern consciousness. The recordings themselves are that classic “stacked” sound of late 50’s recordings. The vocal, guitar and harmonica are directly in your face, while keyboards, bass and drums churn below, striving for attention. Occasionally an organ fill, slapping snare or tambourine rise to the surface, but for the most part the backing is like the ocean lapping on the shore. That lopsided sound is what gave so many of these early R&B singles such an exciting and dramatic feel. Harpo’s voice was already an amazing instrument, but when it is coming at you, claustrophobically on top of the mix, like a torpedo in a bathtub, you have to pay attention.

Harpo continued to release strong and distinctive singles for the next few years, which were all eclipsed by his 1960 hit single (even though it was originally the B-side) “Rainin’ In My Heart.” A melancholy masterpiece, it lives in a stylistic world of its own - floating somewhere between a country ballad and an R&B torch song. It is soaked in echoey guitar, a rolling rhythm section and Harpo’s world-weary vocal. A great song if there ever was one.

Harpo left Excello for a brief period in 1965 but returned later that year for another burst of fantastic late-career singles. “Baby Scratch My Back,” “Shake Your Hips,” “Tip On In (parts 1 & 2)” and the irresistible “Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu” are all classics of the style that Slim Harpo shared with almost nobody else. The insistent rhythm of “Baby Scratch My Back” and “Shake Your Hips” find Harpo now clearly making Rock And Roll, or rather defining what that term would mean for The Rolling Stones and many others. It is insidious and more than a little dangerous. It also has a cool, slinky tempo that defines the restraint that Rock would start to develop as it matured. So, Slim Harpo not only helped define the original sound of Rock, he predicted where it would go in the future. Slim Harpo The Excello Singles Anthology belongs in the collection of any serious student of modern music and anyone who likes cuttin’ a rug.

-                     Paul Epstein

Monday, March 13, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #161 – Paprika (2006, dir. Satoshi Kon)

Movies share such a deep connection with dreams that we describe our dreams in cinematic terms as often as filmmakers conjure up evocative and memorable dream sequences. Many films have depicted the elusive dimension of our dreams, but few have explored this territory with as much style, nerve, and imagination as Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. In just ninety minutes, Paprika weaves together a hard-boiled noir mystery complete with a world-weary detective, a sci-fi thriller in which a group of scientists race to retrieve a dangerous new technology, and an exhilarating visual expression of the limitless frontiers of dreams. With this remarkable blend of gripping genre narrative and non-linear elements, Kon draws the connection between dreams and films even tighter by melding his dream-focused masterpiece with a love letter to the magic of filmmaking.

The notion that a machine capable of capturing dreams would become a potentially dangerous and extremely valuable device runs through films like Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but Paprika allows this idea to blossom and thrive in a singularly captivating manner. The film’s mind-bending opening sequence establishes the DC Mini, an experimental technology that allows therapists to enter the dreams of their patients. After this introduction, the team of scientists who developed the DC Mini realize that someone has stolen it. With this team, Satoshi Kon creates a dynamic group of idiosyncratic characters who revere the awesome potential of their discovery as much as they fear the consequences of the DC Mini falling into the wrong hands. Just as the film’s characters caution each other about the risks of exploring the dreams of others, Kon demonstrates a similar respect in his depictions of the subconscious mind. Yes, the screen repeatedly fills with psychedelic images of gleefully uninhibited minds running rampant, but the dreams in Paprika aren’t simply gorgeous set pieces. These dreams are not only essential to the film’s tricky plot, but they also offer the audience insight into the motivations, fears, and desires of the main characters. Kon references many films (including his own works) throughout the dream sequences in Paprika and celebrates the dreamer as a creative hero equal to any lauded filmmaker. Early in the film, the character of Paprika establishes this sentiment by declaring, “REM sleep that occurs later during the sleep cycle is longer and easier to analyze. If earlier cycles are, say, artsy film shorts, later cycles are like feature-length blockbuster movies.” With nods to screen icons like Tarzan and James Bond as well as tributes to master filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Walt Disney, Kon draws out the intangible links between the creative domains of dreams and films.

Satoshi Kon’s innovative animation techniques allow for fluid transitions between the characters’ kinetic, stylized reality and the boisterously warped terrain of their subconscious minds. This approach taps into the stunning beauty and uniquely disturbing realms of dreams in a manner nearly unrivaled in modern cinema. Where other filmmakers have resorted to distant, flickering tableaus or stunning, but leaden special effects to portray unconscious visions, Kon explodes our expectations with unbridled flurries of fantastic images that fall into the uncanny rhythm and logic present only in dreams. Sadly, Paprika became Kon’s fourth and final film before his death at the age of 46, but this film endures as an achievement in the artistic investigation into the timeless mysteries and enchantments we encounter when we sleep.

-          John Parsell

Monday, March 6, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #174 - Nils Petter Molvaer – Khmer

Back in the 1990s, well before EDM made inroads into mainstream popular culture, the European electronic music scene was something that any musician with open ears was paying attention to. Rock and pop musicians were (sometimes reluctantly) getting remixed by famous electronic producers, DJs were becoming superstars, and so forth. So where better than jazz, a syncretic genre that is always taking in influences from the entire world of music, for this to take an early and lasting root? And who better than Nils Petter Molvaer, a Norwegian trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist (he’s also credited here with bass, sampler, treatments, guitar, and percussion) born in 1960, to cotton to the sounds his generation of European musicians were making and find a way to make it blend seamlessly with his kind of jazz?

Of course the music is not without precedent. It’s easy to point to Miles Davis’ similar groundbreaking experiments in the 1970s that fused jazz improvisation with popular rhythms to the consternation of the jazz establishment, or the worldly ethno-ambient records that Jon Hassell laid down in the 1980s (both with and without Brian Eno collaborating). But Molvaer is doing something different - the rhythms are frequently based on the then-contemporary dance beats of the drum & bass scene, but they're less aggressive than what Miles essayed on an album like On the Corner, venturing frequently into ambient territory. And where Miles played with a muscular assertiveness and Hassell drew on Middle Eastern tonalities for his treated trumpet sounds, Molvaer is somewhere else again, playing it cooler than Miles, with shorter phrases than the runs of the Miles of the early 70s, but also playing around with the rhythm a lot, not as much in the abstracted territory of sound that Hassell sometimes occupies. And though maybe I’m putting too much into it by associating his cool middle register tones and subtle phrasing with his Norwegian island upbringing, the record often fits the image of a chilly Scandinavian landscape – but certainly one where you can find Miles Davis albums to listen to.

The album kicks off with the title cut which fades in slowly, leading with a melodic line from the guitar that is then answered by Molvaer’s trumpet. A sampled bass thump plays in one channel while a more acoustic-sounding bass (also sampled) interlocks with it in the other. Percussion (performed live, not sampled) is light, fast, and skittering, right in the wheelhouse of the drum & bass music of the time, playing it both fast and slow simultaneously, though considerably less heavy than the real stuff. With the rhythmic groundwork laid, Molvaer’s trumpet and Eivind Aarset’s guitar trade solos mostly in a laid back, almost ambient mode until Molvaer starts playing longer lines and using the higher register of the trumpet, at which point it promptly fades into track two, “Tlon,” which starts mellow as well, Molvaer’s trumpet cutting like a foghorn through the electronic blips and heavy bass that surround it. Then guitar, trumpet, and an oddly perfect talkbox start a dialogue before the beats kick in to very directly link this to the contemporary electronic music world. But that’s before Morten Mølster’s treated guitar creates a squalor that would derail the goodwill that had been generated by any DJ playing this to a crowded dancefloor.

And so it continues, bouncing between more contemplative numbers like “On Stream” with its trumpet, bass, and mellow guitars over sampled percussion performing the most plainly lovely thing here, and songs like “Access/Song of Sand 1” or “Platonic Years” which start out quietly before rhythm starts to move to the fore and push the guitars and trumpet into more rhythmically choppy waters to match. “Song of Sand 2” and “Exit” close things out with the nosiest and quietest songs in the program, respectively.

Taken as a whole, this is a remarkable record, finding a way to take in haunting beauty, propulsive rhythm, improvisation, and the experimental sound manipulations, and meld them into a cohesive and entertaining whole. It’s something of a shock that it’s on the ECM label, primarily known (especially then) for exquisitely recorded small group chamber jazz, but good for them – it opened up the label to a new audience and it broadened the label’s outlook on what they could release. Also be sure to seek out Molvaer’s equally compelling second ECM album, Solid Ether, and then just start exploring – he has yet to put out a record I haven’t enjoyed.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, February 27, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #160 – Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999, dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Ghost Dog, Jim Jarmusch’s beguiling 1999 mash-up of genres and styles might just be the best movie in an exceptionally eclectic and historically relevant career. Jarmusch has made many films that walk the line between filmic tribute and cutting-edge cultural critique, and Ghost Dog does so with style and energy. In one of his greatest roles, Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog, an urban assassin, who, in a lifelong debt to an old-school Mafioso, carries out gangland hits using the philosophy and techniques of the Japanese samurai as portrayed in the classic Japanese text Hagakure. By night he murders gangsters, but by day he is an eccentric, yet integral part of his community. It is precisely this humanizing conflict that makes this film rise high above its inherent stylistic limitations and enter the class of groundbreaking modern film.

Ghost Dog succeeds on many levels, but they are all thanks to Jim Jarmusch and Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s Ghost Dog is a complex mountain of a character, whose lethal understanding of murder is matched by his authentically tender relationships with others in his neighborhood (in an unnamed, gritty, East-Coast city). He carries on a telepathically satisfying friendship with the local ice cream salesman in spite of the fact that they don’t speak the same language, bonds with a young girl through books, earns the respect of the local gang-bangers and, most interestingly, he cares for a flock of pigeons, using them for communication while showing them a humanity he denies his victims. In a performance of very few words Whitaker conveys a colorful palette of emotions through his expressive eyes, world-weary bearing and delicately menacing physical enormity. The true samurai, he glides through the city invisible to his enemies, but surprisingly approachable to the folks in the ‘hood.

For his part writer/director Jim Jarmusch has created a modern classic. While occasionally veering into the Tarantino school of style-over-substance-hyper-violence, he keeps an eye to the moral center and fills the motivations of the central character with such convincing ambiguity that the reprehensible moral choices he makes seem somehow understandable. Through his terse dialogue and the creation of an atmospheric world for Ghost Dog to inhabit, the characters and events feel like real life (or maybe dream life). That world is the other uncredited star of this film. Ghost Dog pulses with the sights and sounds of the city. There are dark urban realities juxtaposed with beautiful, ponderous shots of the moon or birds in flight. And then there is the music. Jarmusch masterfully weaves together deep soul and reggae cuts with the brilliant beats and insistent rhymes of the original music created by The RZA (who makes an effective cameo himself toward the end of the movie). Like many of Jarmusch’s best movies, the soundtrack almost becomes a character in itself.

The central conflict of the film comes from the fact that in the execution of one of Whitaker’s scheduled hits something goes wrong, and suddenly the hunter becomes the hunted. The mob now has a hit out on Ghost Dog and thus, as they say on the street, “it’s on!” Lots of blood gets spilled in a very short period of time in the last quarter of this movie, and yet an equal or even greater care is given over to showing Ghost Dog as a man of honor and thought. He lays the seeds in his neighborhood for those he cares about to sprout new growth.

Like all movies which busy themselves with the feelings of the killers, rather than those of the victims (which is virtually ALL modern movies), I question the believability of some of the characters, or why I should give a rat’s ass about them, but the overall effect of Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai is like that of an epic poem. Forest Whitaker is a modern Odysseus trying to make it home through a world filled with evil to a place of moral serenity. He gets there, but if he’s better off for it is for you to decide.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, February 20, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #173 - Rufus Wainwright – Want One

After Leonard Cohen died in November, I re-watched the documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. This 2005 film combines performances from two tribute concerts and interviews with artists participating in the events as well as with Leonard Cohen himself. Rufus Wainwright stands out performing alongside his sister, Martha Wainwright, and his mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, among artists including Beth Orton, Nick Cave, and Jarvis Cocker. Rufus Wainwright contributes compelling, singular takes on the Cohen classics “Everybody Knows,” “Hallelujah,” and “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” on stage while sharing charming stories of his personal relationship with one of his idols in interviews. Watching the film again, I reflected on Rufus Wainwright’s deep, passionate, and personal connection to the craft of songwriting. Wainwright’s third album, Want One, released just two years prior to this film, captures him at his creative peak and delivers his defining artistic statement.

The son of folk music stars Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright drew from his parents’ talents but set off in a direction beyond the boundaries of folk music. Wainwright’s performances in Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man yield a representative impression of his abilities by ranging from knowing and playful to soaring and anthemic to heartfelt and wistful. The fourteen songs on Want One cover very similar territory, but allow Wainwright to delve into the fearless, stylistic voraciousness that has come to define him as an artist. “Oh What a World” opens the album with a distant, hummed melody before blossoming into a sprawling rumination on modern life that quotes Ravel’s Boléro as it climaxes. Up next, “I Don’t Know What It Is” settles into a more restrained mode of pop maximalism while Wainwright considers the necessity of exploring the unknown. Supported by minimalist orchestral accompaniment on “Vibrate,” Wainwright delights in pitching modern anachronisms like “my phone’s on vibrate for you” and “I tried to dance to Britney Spears” against the staid, classical backdrop. The next song, “14th Street,” launches into a full-throated ballad that begs the question, “But why’d you have to break all my heart / Couldn’t you have saved a little bit of it?” This show stopper supplies Want One’s centerpiece while functioning as a family reunion with Martha Wainwright singing backing vocals on the charging chorus and Kate McGarrigle contributing the song’s plaintive banjo outro. “11:11,” begins with a hushed mandolin figure and unfolds into a bracing tempo as Wainwright takes stock of the world he finds upon waking up late one morning; it endures as the album’s catchiest, most appealing moment. “Dinner at Eight” closes out the album on an emotionally resonant note as Wainwright grapples with the aching, confounding conflict at the core of a doomed love while his tender piano playing expands into ornate swells of strings.

A year after Want One, Wainwright followed up with another release from the same sessions, Want Two, and although it contained the wonderfully overblown nine-minute romp, “Old Whore’s Diet,” it lacked the cohesion, quality, and vision of its predecessor. Over the last several years, Wainwright’s adventurousness has taken him in a number of directions including a song-for-song tribute to Judy Garland’s 1961 album, Judy at Carnegie Hall, and last year’s Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets. With Want One, Wainwright composed a lasting testament to his extraordinary, idiosyncratic love of songwriting and performance and earned himself a place alongside his teachers and heroes.

-John Parsell