Monday, May 21, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #192 - A Serious Man (2009, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

          Joel and Ethan Coen have been my favorite filmmakers for almost my entire life, whether I knew it or not. I’m pretty sure that I had watched 1987’s Raising Arizona around fifty times when I was a kid, before I had any interest in who created it. Later, I became obsessed with their nineties films. Fargo, which came out when I was in high school, was a real stepping stone for me as it was probably the reason for my interest in the deeper aspects of filmmaking and for my eventual foray into film as an academic pursuit. And, as cliché as it may be for a male of my age, 1998’s The Big Lebowski is one of my all-time favorite films, if not my all-time favorite. My point is, the Coens have been with me for the better part of my life, seemingly putting out a new film for every phase I’ve gone through. I’ve studied them closely over the years and almost consider them friends that I grew up with. And for this reason alone, I feel qualified to talk about their work.
            Writing about A Serious Man technically breaks the rules of this blog as it’s just under 10 years old. But of all the brothers’ works, I wanted to write about this film the most because it’s not only possibly the most overlooked film in the Coens’ oeuvre, it’s also a film whose subject matter I simultaneously relate to yet know very little about. More on that later. A Serious Man revolves around a Jewish family living in a small Minnesota suburb in 1967, all details that pertain directly to the Coens’ upbringing. So while not strictly autobiographical, these are characters and surroundings that are familiar to the brothers. The always phenomenal Michael Stuhlbarg plays the film’s protagonist Larry Gopnik, a college physics professor whose life begins unraveling when his wife announces she is leaving him for his best friend. This forces him to take a closer look at his life and notice the flaws that he hadn’t previously seen. His son is acting out in Hebrew School, his daughter steals money from him all the time, his unemployed brother-in-law is leeching off of him and he is being simultaneously bribed and blackmailed by one of his students for a more satisfactory grade. When everything goes wrong for Larry, he seeks the guidance of three rabbis to help him get through his crisis and gain a better understanding of his place in the world. The rabbis unfortunately are no help to him, as one lacks the life experience to relate to Larry’s problems, one just offers irrelevant parables that confuse more than they teach and the last one refuses to even see Larry. He begins questioning his faith and wondering whether God is testing him.
            I think part of what makes this film such an underappreciated part of the Coens’ filmography is that, coming out on the heels of Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men just two years prior, A Serious Man is more of a labor of love than their usual undertaking. While the film’s dark humor is pure Coens, it seems like it could be a story that the brothers have had kicking around for years, perhaps dating back to their own days as young Jewish Midwesterners. The cast is made up of largely unknown actors, relatively speaking, and even the way it’s shot seems different than that of their usual cinematography, almost more like a thriller than a comedy. While these facts may deter some from seeing the movie, opting for one of the Coens’ more critically acclaimed titles instead, I think these are reasons to see the film, reasons that A Serious Man might be one of their best. It’s the film that most mirrors what their own lives may have been like, which is fascinating in and of itself. But it also seems like a film they’ve always wanted to create and show the world, and perhaps winning the Best Picture Oscar finally afforded them the creative freedom to do it.
            As I said, I really wanted to write about this film because even though I am not Jewish and do not identify with really any religious customs, I understand reaching crisis mode. As I approach forty next month and have recently gone through a break-up of my own, I’ve done a lot of reflecting recently myself. I do know what it feels like to question whether the universe is testing you or punishing you and the Coens’ have eloquently written this feeling into the character of Larry Gopnik. Larry is just an average guy, trying to be “a serious man” while the world continuously shits on him. Yet he takes it all in stride because of his faith. A Serious Man is also a story about when those limits are tested and where the breaking point is in each person. One doesn’t have to be religious to identify with that.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, May 14, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #205 - Sly & The Family Stone - There’s A Riot Goin’ On

There are certain records that for a variety of reasons fall into the category of inexplicable. Something in the writing or the recording process makes it live outside the rules by which we normally judge albums. What are some examples? Can’s Tago Mago, Brian Eno’s mid-70’s vocal albums, Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah to name a few (although admittedly these albums are few and far between, which is ultimately why they are inexplicable). The king daddy of this type of record though is Sly & The Family Stone’s 1971 masterpiece There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
From the very first notes, we realize we are in an alternate universe. Thick, warm, analogue (this is an album to listen to on vinyl if you can get it) notes burble out like velvet, pouring from your speakers, as Sly straddles the universes of soul and rock, essentially inventing funk as we listen (we’ll let James Brown and George Clinton in there too). The songs all seem like clouds passing in front of Sly’s window that he is trying to grab, but they dissipate just as he gets his arms around them. The hits on this album – “Family Affair,” “You Caught Me Smilin’,” and “Runnin’ Away” – clock in at about 3 minutes each, yet each one feels like an epochal leap forward in the evolution of conscious soul. That’s part of the inexplicable nature of this album - time seems to come unglued; there is no sense of normal song length and structure, even though most of the actual songs (save two) are short. By all accounts the recording process was chaos, with Sly, rolling in dough and high as a kite, inviting friends (like Miles Davis, Bobby Womack and Billy Preston) to his rented home studio for days-long sessions that seemingly were producing nothing but enormous studio bills. Credits were not kept, tapes were erased, Sly himself overdubbed other people’s parts. However, Sly was indeed sly and as one of the most experienced and talented producers of the 1960’s, he took this molten insanity and turned it into a cohesive work of startling originality. There are no credits on the album, just a bunch of photos that capture the era, and this just adds to the inexplicability of the album.
Every single song on this album is worth inspection, so let’s look at each one:

“Luv N’ Haight” – a wink-wink to the counterculture - it was issued as a single, and it sets the stage beautifully for this album. Disembodied vocals and keyboard jabs punctuate the roiling bass line. Like many of the songs on the album, it lacks traditional song structure, but rather takes a pounding beat and turns it into a statement.
“Just Like A Baby” - a bit more conventional structure, but still way out. A ballad with a classic slow funk burn. It highlights Sly’s incredible sense of restraint and subtlety. He doesn’t let the languid beat out of his sight for one second. And he resists every temptation to rev the song up into something other than what it is: perfection.
“Poet” - Sly was using a primitive drum machine on some tracks, and it is remarkably effective in combination with the airy sense of the songs and his spare keyboard parts. Again he shows amazing restraint in keeping a lid on this track. It feels like it could explode at any second, but instead it keeps an amazing shuffle groove going under the self-referential lyrics.
“Family Affair” - One of Sly’s greatest hits, it touches on issues of race and love and relationships in a poetic and beautiful way. The backing track boils along like a coffee percolator, with Sly giving a great vocal and his sister Rose providing amazing counterpoint vocals. A true classic.

“Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’” - Side one closes with this almost 9-minute titanic shot of funk. All the parts lock together like some crazy psychedelic jigsaw puzzle, amazing bass playing up front competes with Sly’s woozy vocals as guitar scratches and tasty keyboard fills lurk around every corner. Like a Miles Davis cut, this sounds like it was extracted from some other endless jam, and in its own context succeeds magnificently as mountain of rock-solid funk. Once again, the theme of this album is restraint. For someone taking mountains of drugs, Sly had an incredibly cohesive vision for what this album was going to sound like. And as such, it stands as an album like no other he made. It isn’t a collection of songs - it is a sound statement.

“Brave & Strong” - Side two starts upbeat with a lurching bass line playing hide and seek with punchy horns and a typically indescribable Sly vocal. More than any singer I can think of Sly influenced a new generation of singers. He, like James Brown, reveled in his own unique ethnic brilliance. He wasn’t trying to fit in mainstream society, he was pointing to a place of pride in who you actually were.

“(You Caught Me) Smilin’” – The most irresistible track on the album, it also jumps like an actual hit single. Slap bass, one of his best “up” lyrics, horns that seem to come from the heavens like heralding angels, and classic Sly keyboard work. When I want to turn somebody onto this artist, this is one of the first songs I play them.

“Time” - Another slow, one might even say torturous, ballad. This song again shows off Sly’s vocal mastery above a simple drum machine beat and subtly placed keyboards, proving that less is more.

“Spaced Cowboy” - The most fun track on the album, and possibly in his entire catalogue, this song contains one of the most hilariously deranged vocals (including the great “soul-yodel”) placed squarely over a driving funk beat. An absolute must for mix tapes.

“Runnin’ Away” – irresistible, guitar-driven little ditty that is deceptive in its simplicity. It is actually an incredibly clever bit of writing that might not have sounded out of place on a Fifth Dimension album. Prescient lyrics that seem more relevant today than ever.

“Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” - A monster! This is the demo version of Sly’s earlier hit “Thank You For Lettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin.” It is over seven minutes of pounding, perfect funk. Poppin’ bass, funky clavinet, a loping beat and Sly giving his best half-lidded hipster vocals. It is a foundation piece of all funk.

The overall effect of this album is like getting in a time machine and ending up in 1970 Los Angeles, wandering down a street at dusk, soul music blares from a window here, the thud of a truck there, raw emotional feelings of race, sex, drugs, politics seems to bubble up from the pavement. You drop to one knee, stick your ear to the ground and the inexplicable sound you hear is There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
-         Paul Epstein

Monday, May 7, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #191 - Brazil (1985, dir. Terry Gilliam)

Just before my senior year in high school I kept coming across references to a relatively obscure, yet influential movie from 1985 called Brazil. I didn’t know a lot about it, but I knew that Terry Gilliam had directed it and that musicians I liked and people I respected spoke highly of it. At the time, I had become familiar with some of Gilliam’s work and I had enjoyed movies of his like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King. However, none of this prepared me for what I was about to see. Brazil bursts forth with an unbridled visual creativity while telling a story of dystopian horror that savors details of mundane beauty and absurdity. The summer I turned seventeen, Brazil exploded my expectations of what a movie can be, affirmed my love of art that surprises me, and reminded me of what we all stand to lose in a technology-addled society that prizes conformity and obedience above all else. 
In the performance of a lifetime, Jonathan Pryce combines a guileless charm with a sometimes frantic physicality for the lead role of Sam Lowery, who is part everyman and part Walter Mitty. In his job as a lowly records clerk, Sam discovers an error in the system that sets in motion a series of events that takes him far from the routine drudgery of his nondescript life up to that point. Veteran character actor Ian Holm showcases his strong comic abilities with the role of Sam’s inept and spineless superior in the records department, Mr. Kurtzmann. Michael Palin (Gilliam’s Monty Python colleague) plays upon his intrinsic good-natured amicability to deliver a devastating portrayal of Sam’s friend and professional rival, Jack Lint, who specializes in the deceptively titled practice of “information retrieval.” Best known for irreverent, matronly roles on TV shows like Soap and Who’s the Boss?, Katherine Helmond brings charisma and gusto to her depiction of Ida Lowery, Sam’s outlandish, vain, and controlling mother. Sam’s path crosses with Jill Layton, a truck driver who witnesses the results of the system’s error, and Sam begins to confuse her with a gauzy, angelic figure who floats through his recurring dreams. As Jill, Kim Greist injects an unorthodox, tense energy into what could otherwise remain a thankless love interest role. One of the screenwriters’ best inventions in the entire film is the character of Harry Tuttle, an anarchist heating engineer who serves as the story’s valiant rogue and ignites within Sam a notion of resistance. As Tuttle, Robert De Niro almost steals the show with a robust and droll performance that endures as one of the most captivating, distinctive supporting roles of his career. The cast also includes two memorable supporting turns from longtime character actors who would both go on to much greater notoriety: Bob Hoskins as a dubious Central Services agent and Jim Broadbent as the star plastic surgeon of Sam’s mother’s social circle.

Terry Gilliam put everything he had into making Brazil and because of this, it’s a movie that rewards repeated viewings (I watched it twice in one day in preparation for this post and to be honest, I kind of want to watch it again right now). Working with playwright Tom Stoppard and actor Charles McKeown (who also plays a minor adversary of Sam’s), Gilliam created a totalitarian culture tilted just enough from our own reality that we can still laugh at the absurdity of it all. This trio of writers had a field day with exploring the way euphemisms, bureaucracy, and propaganda can define our relationships, values, and lives. Brazil has inspired a lot of movies over the last thirty plus years, but I’ve never found another one that comes close to reaching the same range of comedic heights and emotional depths.
-          John Parsell

Monday, April 30, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #204 - Nellie McKay - Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day

Nellie McKay is a jazz-schooled, showtune-raised singer-songwriter whose stylistic tour-de-force debut double-album Get Away From Me was recorded when she was only 21 (or possibly just 19, depending on what reports you read), released by Sony Music after a bidding competition with other labels, with the Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick producing. That’s a lot to live down on future releases. And sure enough, the failure of the album to go gold despite the record’s widespread acclaim and dazzling diversity (or maddeningly hyperactive eclecticism, depending on your point of view) meant that she wouldn’t coast as readily into a music career as her talents deserved.
And talented she definitely is - a multi-instrumentalist and piano player with jazz chops, a singer of pure and natural ease and a big voice, a lyricist with sarcastic wit and strong feminist and progressive ideas, a songwriter who knows jazz, Broadway, varied styles of pop from classic to modern, and yet isn’t averse to dropping rock and rap into her music when it suits her. But her métier is the classic pop vernacular where songsmiths use whatever means they choose to get their point across - melded, of course, with her interest in jazz and pre-rock era pop music.
After fighting her label to release her first album a double album, she fought yet again to make the second a double album and Sony balked – one double album that could’ve fit on a single CD was made by the label under duress, but they weren’t about to do it again and they dropped her, so she released it on her own label. The next time out she tightened things up to an excellent single disc, Obligatory Villagers, tightened the arrangements as well, and traded in pop guests from the last album, like Cyndi Lauper and kd lang, for jazz cats, like saxophonist Dave Liebman and the sadly, recently deceased pianist/vocalist Bob Dorough (best known nowadays for his work on Schoolhouse Rock). And it seemed like a perfect fit – her crafty, jazz-school arrangements and witty, smart lyrics were tailor-made for musicians like these, but the album still didn’t break her through.
It was after the release of this album that I saw McKay live at the now-defunct Trilogy Lounge in Boulder. After three albums of her eccentricity I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I got this (if memory serves): McKay with keyboard and ukulele only, a great voice, great song selection across all three albums, and a kookiness that bordered on ADD behavior, her mind and between-song banter flitting from topic to topic until she lost her train of thought and got back on with the next song where she focused her energy until the next break. During one break she called her brother on her cell to wish him a happy birthday – or pretended to maybe as a piece of performance art? Hard to say for sure, but it’s what she does – jumps from idea to idea, never sitting still long enough to get pigeonholed. So what came next in her career? A tribute to Doris Day, naturally, released by the jazz-associated Verve label, which had put in a bid for McKay’s contract in the first place.
How does Doris Day’s image as a mild and complacent Midwestern housewife fit in with McKay’s world of parental advisory stickers, hip-hop influence, and explicit feminism though? Aside from a love for the verbal wit of classic pop (as well as a longtime commitment to animal activism), McKay’s got a basic love of melody and the voice to pull off the kinds of tunes that Day wrapped her big voice around. Taking on a dozen songs that Day recorded during her long career (only one of them, “Sentimental Journey,” was a big hit for Day) and adding one original, McKay tackles tunes from such lauded songsmiths as Rodgers and Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and others, and, unexpectedly enough, plays it straight throughout. She’s not here to mock, but to celebrate the direct beauty of these melodies, the craft and (sometimes) sentimentality of these words. In short, she’s playing it “normal as blueberry pie” here and it sounds great. If you compare to Doris Day’s versions, Nellie McKay’s are sleeker, wilder and looser, unburdened of Day’s orchestral backings and given jazzier, more rhythmically exciting readings, but readings where McKay shares Day’s clear diction and enunciation and, of course, her big voice putting the songs across. So from love songs like “The Very Thought of You” (on which McKay plays every instrument), “Mean to Me” and the album-highlight “Wonderful Guy” over to dance tunes like “Crazy Rhythm” and “Dig It” to a novelty tune like Calamity Jane’s “Black Hills of Dakota,” Nellie McKay doesn’t update, undercut, or do anything but sing (and arrange, and perform) these tunes. Maybe there’s a wink here and there, as in the sotto voce asides in “Dig It” but she’s never making fun – she’s just loving the songs. This puts the focus on the songs and the words themselves, which means that those coming to this expecting a sendup can learn not only what made these songs popular, but also what made Day popular – there’s a smart, strong woman performing them and she’s easy to identify with. And though McKay’s arrangements may go further than Day could or would have gone with them at the time, they do no disrespect.
            And where has Nellie McKay gone since then? Another album of originals for Verve (Home Sweet Mobile Home) followed in 2010, then McKay disappeared for a bit, returning in 2015 on yet another label with an excellent album of renditions of 60’s classics, My Weekly Reader. She was quiet again for a while but I got inspired to write this up only to find while I was writing that her new album, Sister Orchid (a collection of jazz standards on, again, another label), comes out in three weeks. Be sure to check it out, but start here with what may well be her best album.
-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 23, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #190 - Pink Floyd - Live At Pompeii

     When first released in America in 1973, Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii was a moderate success, playing in art theatres, on campuses and at midnight movie showings. That was where I first saw it - at the Vogue Theatre on old South Pearl Street (now condos) at a midnight showing. Beginning with a heartbeat pulse in blackness, the scene finally opens with a camera shot above the ancient ruins of the amphitheater at Pompeii. The title wasn’t hyperbole or poetic nonsense -this was actually psychedelic, art-rock rock band Pink Floyd playing in the audience-free remains of a 6th Century Italian ruin – an absolutely mind-blowing conceit from the word go. The ruins themselves make for the most cosmic of backdrops, yet director Adrian Maben goes further, filming Pompeii’s famous active volcano spewing lava and boiling mud, and having the members of Pink Floyd stroll through this alien landscape. Maben also includes shots of the world-class statues, tiles and frescos (some highly erotic) found in the ruins of Pompeii. These elements, along with some additional footage of the band playing in a French studio are masterfully woven together to encapsulate everything that Pink Floyd was at this time; inventive, powerful, ambitious, and uniquely standing on the precipice of world superstardom. Yes, remember, this was before their groundbreaking Dark Side Of The Moon album. In fact, in some ways, the overwhelming success of that album blunted some of the movie’s impact on public consciousness. The director’s cut of the movie includes extended scenes of the band working on Dark Side in the studio, which, while fascinating, change the vibe of the film.
For me, it is the original hour-long version of the film that I go back to over and over. It is an important milestone in my personal understanding of why, ultimately, rock music matters. To see one of my favorite bands, and one that has stood the test of time, in this context, shoulder to shoulder with the great artifacts of Western art and culture was both humbling and thrilling. Musically, Pink Floyd play some of their most adventurous music with authority and improvisational abandon. Numbers like “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” and “Careful With That Axe Eugene” are the perfect combination of musical convention and cutting-edge, avant experimentation to match the timeless setting. The scene during the song “A Saucerful Of Secrets” where Roger Waters stands in front of and strikes giant gong as the sun sets behind him in the ruins of an ancient stadium while guitarist Dave Gilmour sits barefoot and shirtless in the ancient dirt of Pompeii drawing the most extraordinary sounds out of his instrument are about as memorable and historically impactful as any scene in any music movie.
The musical heart of Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii are the three numbers drawn from their 1971 masterpiece Meddle. The film is bookended with their side long epic “Echoes” which pretty much defines forward-thinking ambition in modern music at this point in history. Again, the historical surroundings meld perfectly with Floyd’s intense, throbbing composition. “One Of These Days” finds the production team down to one working camera, thus the shots revolve around drummer Nick Mason, providing a dizzying swirl of movement that beautifully illustrates the excitement of the song.
I definitely recommend watching the entire director’s cut of this film, because it offers such a rare glimpse into the studio magic (and sometimes tedium) that goes into making a classic album, but, ultimately, it is the actual footage of Pink Floyd playing in the ruins of Pompeii that provides the life-altering experience in this movie. I’ve never gotten over it. To this day, every time I hear that heartbeat opening I am transported back to the body of a 16 year-old sitting in a darkened theatre about to be shown that popular music could be about something deeper than “ooh baby I love you.”

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, April 16, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #203 - Jamie Lidell - Multiply

        The only thing I knew about Jamie Lidell in 2005 was that he was on Warp Records and he made a lot of bleep-bloop electronic music that was not for me. I liked a few artists on Warp at the time (like, Autechre and Aphex Twin and that’s pretty much it), but for the most part, that style of electronic music did nothing for me. Still does nothing for me, really. So when Multiply came out in that year, I decided to put it on for in-store play at the record store where I worked at the time. I figured that it would be filled with random computer noises that I could easily ignore, and maybe we’d sell a copy in the process. Little did I know that when I hit play that day that it would become one of my most listened to albums of all-time.
Allow me to explain: Multiply is not just a change in direction for Lidell. With one prior solo full-length under his belt and a handful of releases from his duo Super_Collider with fellow electronic artist Christian Vogel, Lidell had already made a name for himself in techno and electronica circles. However, on Multiply, he makes a complete 180-degree turn into a new genre with the addition of vocals to these new compositions. What makes this addition so striking is that the man had evidently been hiding an incredibly soulful crooning voice and a knack for writing clever lyrics all these years, giving this album the soul and spirit of classic Motown or Stax. He puts these hitherto unknown skills to use with a dynamic blend of acoustic and electronic instrumentation, while still retaining his unique ear for modern dance styles.
            It takes a minute. The opener, “You Got Me Up,” is a short little dance number with some effective disco-style vocals. But it’s not enough of a departure to really predict what’s in store with the rest of the album. It’s only when the second track, the stellar and infectious title cut, kicks in with its abrupt drum break intro that you realize that this guy is decidedly not fucking around. The influences here span across decades and across genres. There are elements of Funkadelic (“When I Come Back Around”), Otis Redding (“What Is It This Time?”), Night Beat-era Sam Cooke (“Game for Fools”) and Prince (“New Me”). Where his prior talent as a turntablist/laptop artist really comes into play are in tracks like “A Little Bit More” where he effectively uses a loop of his own vocals to act as a layer of percussion throughout the song. The Motown-esque “Music Will Not Last” showcases his uncanny ability to harmonize (albeit, with himself), and the closing track “Game for Fools” is quite possibly a better version of an Al Green ballad than even the Reverend himself could do these days.
            And let’s back up a second. Again, a mere three years before the release of Multiply, Lidell was pretty much doing straight-up IDM exclusively and playing second stage on festivals like Sonar with no name DJs. Since Multiply, he’s released four more phenomenal neo-soul records that would put Harry Connick Jr. to shame. On his most recent, 2016’s Building a Beginning, he’s even ditched the electronic instruments altogether in favor of a live band.
These days, you can’t spit without hitting a nerdy-looking white guy trying to sound like a classic soul singer.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a new release within the last few years that sounded like Rufus or like Cameo, and then looked up the artist and found that he was a bespectacled white dude mugging to the camera like a total asshole. It would be kind of funny if it wasn’t so infuriating, even more so when I find myself actually digging some of these artists. I’m not saying that in 2005 there wasn’t any of this. Hell, Sean Tillman was doing his Sean Na Na/Har Mar Superstar thing long before 2005. Nor am I saying that Jamie Lidell was the first to successfully mix electronic music and R&B. There was a time in the 90s when I couldn’t get away from that shitty Jamiroquai song to save my life. What I am saying is that Multiply spoke to me in a way that I hadn’t to been spoken to before. And I am forever grateful that I gave this album a chance and didn’t see the Warp Records logo on the back of the album and ignore it like I’d done so many times before.
-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, April 9, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #189 - Elevator to the Gallows (1958, dir. Louis Malle)

"Anything's good for an alibi. Wives, girlfriends, bartenders, childhood friends, deceived husbands - but not an elevator. That's ridiculous. It's totally harebrained."
 - Commissaire de police

The most succinct way to express how I feel about Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle's feature length directorial debut, is to say that it exudes the essence of cool. It can often be difficult for a director, especially a new director, to innovate within a strict genre such as that of Film Noir. Often such directors will simply rest on the easy and clichéd conventions inherent to the "noir." However, Malle seems to have effortlessly skirted the traps of the genre and created one of the most brilliant and beautiful noir films of all time (I know, I know, a very bold statement, however it's true...).
Within the first 15 minutes of the film a few very specific events occur and choices are made that trigger all of the dark events to follow. Thrown into the middle of our story, the film opens on Florence Carala (stunningly portrayed by Jeanne Moreau) as she professes her love for Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). Through reading the clues left for us we discover that the two are lovers, and they have concocted a plot to kill her husband (Simon Carala, played by Jean Wall), who also happens to be an arms dealer and Tavernier's boss. After they get off the phone Tavernier leaps into action, stealthily making his way to his boss’ office under the guise of giving him a report. He then pulls a gun (Carala's own gun) and kills him, staging the scene to look like a suicide and sneaks back into his office just in time to leave with the only other two people left in the office. In the moment that he is about to be home free and drive to meet up with his love, he notices that he's left the hook and rope that he used to scale the wall to get into his boss’ office, thus negating the carefully left suicide scene. He rushes back into the building, leaving his car running, to try and grab the evidence, only to be trapped in the elevator as the attendant shuts down the power. Just as he is being trapped, a small time thief, Louis (Georges Poujouly), and his girlfriend Veronique (played by Yori Bertin, who has a bit of a crush on Julien/Mr. Tavernier) hop in his car and take off, running away to their own absurd sequence of events, but not before Florence sees Julien's car driving away with a young girl in the passenger seat.
In that brief few minutes three separate yet surreally tied narratives commence; Julien Tavernier stuck in the elevator frantically working against time as it seems to stand still, Louis/Veronique as they descend madly into their criminal downward spiral, and Florence as she walks sullenly through her desolate thoughts and fears. The future of all of them is uncertain, the only certainty is the inevitable passage of time. I won't spoil the suspense for you, you'll simply have to watch to see what comes of these three intertwined stories.
Other than this fantastic and brilliantly peculiar story and Malle's masterful development of the tale, there are many other reasons that this film has made its way firmly into my personal top ten. However, in the interest of brevity I will only elaborate on a few of those things. First and most prominently, the film was shot by the French cinematographer Henri Decaë, who crafted a gritty and yet luminous aesthetic, playing with the conventions of noir while metaphorically utilizing a novel lens. Secondly Jeanne Moreau's portrayal of a reflective woman scorned, which has become one of the most lauded performances of this era of French cinema. Thirdly, though the use of music is somewhat sparing, it is certainly impactful when utilized, since it happened to be improvised by none other than Miles Davis and a few other musicians in the heat of a single night in Paris. If you look further into the story behind the soundtrack it only solidifies that this film exudes "cool." Fourth, and finally, I love the fact that I always find myself at the edge of my seat the entire time as the characters are hurled blindly through the insane narrative, the suspense in this film is killer and you can practically cut the tension with a knife!
In the end, this is a film that screams to be seen. I can't fully provide a sufficient description of why you must see Elevator to the Gallows so I will simply wrap up this edition of I'd Love To Turn You On-At The Movies. I implore you to take the time to watch this important film!
-          Edward Hill

Monday, April 2, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #202 - Elliott Smith - From a Basement on the Hill

I was very much a latecomer to Elliott Smith’s music. I’d been aware of his rise in popularity in the late 1990s and had a lot of friends who loved his music but for whatever reason it didn’t appeal to me then. Working at an independent record store in fall of 2004 during the release of Smith’s final and posthumous album, From a Basement on the Hill, proved to be a surreal and transformative time for me. The album came out almost exactly a year after Smith’s tragic and mysterious death and in some ways I felt like an usher at a funeral; I’d guide customers to Smith’s last album and listen as they discussed their sense of loss and connection to his music. A few customers even confessed that during the era of rampant downloading they felt compelled to come into their local record store and buy a physical copy of the album. That experience introduced me to From a Basement on the Hill, a heavy, messy, and ultimately beautiful document of Smith’s artistry that has survived as one of the best rock albums of the last twenty years.

A few weeks ago in preparation for writing this post, I sat down and listened to From a Basement on the Hill from start to finish and came away not only impressed once more with the strength of all of the songs on the album, but also excited to have the chance to celebrate this remarkable work. Unfortunately a lingering, limiting perception of Elliott Smith’s music that has become increasingly common is that it is sad and only sad. The album’s opener, “Coast to Coast,” subverts this view by slowly building from an abstract introduction of soaring, overlapping notes into an arresting, ramshackle tempo before Smith launches into a defiant assertion of independence. At the end of the song, Smith’s righteous willfulness slowly gives way to a morass of dueling voices that could belong to poets, preachers, or talk radio hosts. This device allows Smith an opportunity to reflect humorously on his music getting lost in the commentary of others as well as to establish the album’s sound-collage aesthetic that binds and unites these fifteen songs. A few songs later “Don’t Go Down” stutters through a false start and then coalesces into a spiraling guitar riff before Smith kicks off a narrative of a doomed relationship with a brazen, devastating opening couplet: “I met a girl, snowball in hell. She was hard and as cracked as the Liberty Bell.” Later on, “King’s Crossing” ambles through over a minute of interwoven conversation, ambient instrumentation, and dissonance before culminating into a piano figure and layers of wordless harmony. This subdued preamble soon gives way to playful, yet nightmarish imagery reminiscent of Charles Bukowski’s writing as Smith’s ragged, distorted guitar amplifies the proceedings into one of the album’s most powerful moments. Although I’ve highlighted a few of the album’s heavier and more deconstructed songs, From a Basement on the Hill finds its enduring balance with a number of Smith’s gentler and more conventional songs including “Let’s Get Lost,” “A Fond Farewell,” “A Passing Feeling,” and “Memory Lane.”

Posthumous albums will always be a dodgy proposition in part because we as listeners will never know if the artist would have wanted us to hear this music. The already tricky equation of posthumously released music became even more suspect in 1990s and early 2000s after a trend of frequent releases by recently deceased artists that often seemed more commercially calculated than artistically substantial. Ultimately once these works have been released, it’s up to the listener to judge the music’s merit, but untimely death can cast a shadow of confusion and doubt over the album’s release. At the time of Elliott Smith’s death, From a Basement on the Hill was a work in progress, but it wasn’t finished. It is very possible that this may not be the album Elliott Smith would have released had he lived, but fourteen years later it’s hard for me to imagine life without this album.

-         John Parsell

Monday, March 26, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #188 - Ten (2002, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

Director Abbas Kiarostami in the documentary 10 on Ten: “The subject of Ten is based on everyday life. Undoubtedly many serious viewers as well as some critics, mainly the advocates of modern cinema, will find such a subject dull.”

Roger Ebert, in his 2-star review of Ten: “...his films--for example his latest work, "Ten"--are meant not so much to be watched as to be written about; his reviews make his points better than he does.”

Ebert (who also hated Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or winning A Taste of Cherry) makes a valid point of course, though obviously nothing that Kiarostami was not already aware of. Some people will not respond well to this film, and I get that. It consists almost exclusively of static shots from digital dashcams of a woman driving around Tehran with different passengers - her son, her sister, an older woman en route to worship, a younger woman leaving worship at the same mausoleum, a friend in tears over a relationship falling apart, and a prostitute who has mistakenly gotten in her car believing her to be a man - in ten segments, counted down at the beginning of each segment like an old film reel. Anyone could make this film, Ebert opines elsewhere in his review, and I start to think of folks saying the same “My kid could do that!” thing about Jackson Pollock’s drips or Cecil Taylor’s piano banging and I know he’s wrong, because nobody else would A) conceive of such a film or B) be in a position in their career as an internationally famous filmmaker to make such a radical shift to make this kind of film, and that has meaning in itself. Kiarostami had already explored more plot-oriented films, and shot dusty roads and urban landscapes of Iran with a stunning eye for composition, rather than something “anyone” could make. But what does the film mean? If we’re literally watching two people driving around and talking, what’s interesting about that?

It gets more complicated. Reduced to the simplest mechanics of plot, yes, that’s what happens (and all that happens) and you probably have a good idea already if this film is not for you or if you’re thinking “Hmm… tell me more.” Kiarostami coached his actors (none of them professionals) about the subjects they’d talk about, made suggestions about where to go with their conversations, put them in the car, started the cameras, and let them go, ultimately editing many hours of footage down to the 94 minutes of the final film. So what happens?

1) The driver (Mania Akbari, whose character remains unnamed throughout the film) talks first with her son, Amin (played by the actress’s actual son), arguing about her divorce from his father and recent remarriage to another man. He feels angry, accusing her of abandoning the marriage and lying about her ex-husband’s shortcomings; she says she was trapped in a loveless marriage and had to tell the courts that her husband was an addict merely to be granted a divorce. Such are the laws that women face in Iran. For almost the entirety of this segment the camera remains on her son (showing only one side of a conversation is a common Kiarostami tactic), letting us see the woman only at the very end of this lengthy segment. 2) The driver’s sister waits in the car for her to return from a bakery with a cake for her husband. They discuss how difficult Amin has been lately with the rest of the family. Unlike the first segment, the film cuts back and forth between them. 3) It opens on the driver offering an old woman a lift to a mausoleum to worship. The camera sticks with the driver the entire time while the woman talks about the importance of faith and prayer in the world until she is dropped off to go worship.

And so it goes. Roads fascinate Kiarostmai, and so do cars. Many of his films feature his characters driving around from one place to another. In the first segment of this film, Amin says to his mother “You talk as soon as we’re in the car.” Kiarostami has said that one reason he uses the car as a regular setting is that in cars people can speak freely and openly – they also can’t leave the conversation once it’s started. Going further, the driver discusses love, sex and marriage openly with a prostitute (actually an actress portraying one – Kiartostami couldn’t find an actual prostitute willing to appear in the film), she discusses the pros and cons of marriage with a young woman whose boyfriend won’t commit to their relationship then later gives her another ride after things have fallen apart in her relationship and the woman has taken the drastic step of shaving her head to symbolically move on, she also talks with her friend who’s upset about her relationship disintegrating, and she give Amin more rides (and more opportunities to appear as obnoxious as her sister had said he’s been).

For the film’s supporters (of which I am an enthusiastic one), the privileged opportunity to be present for these conversations is remarkable. Ebert worries that viewers can’t connect to the characters, only to Kiarostami’s ideas on an intellectual level, but I’d disagree. I’m drawn in from the first minute of the film to the day-to-day life of a seemingly average woman in modern Tehran, hearing from her mouth and those of her passengers about both the lives and problems we all face (relationship woes, a shaky relation to her faith, and so forth) and those more specific to her position as a woman in Iranian society, where talking openly with a prostitute (who says of women in marriages: “You’re the wholesalers. We’re the retailers.”) or showing an uncovered female head challenges Iranian laws. It engages me knowing that Kiarostami has made a film that feels as immediate and real as any documentary, but he’s created the narrative so craftily that it could be mistaken as being made with a hidden camera. It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the society that we in the West may have preconceptions about, prejudices about, and see how a typical woman functions in that society. It’s also fascinating for an artist to make such a drastic change from the area he’d been working in and have it be successful, even if there are clear precursors for what he does here (conversations in cars, blurring of the lines between documentary and fiction, experimental techniques, etc), and its seemingly simple surface hides the deep layers of craft and thought that went into the making of the film. For me, it’s a masterpiece, plain and simple – or layered and complex. 

- Patrick Brown

Monday, March 19, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #201 - Wayne Shorter - Juju

Looking at contemporary jazz saxophone I believe one can trace the influences back to three saxophone players from the late fifties and early sixties. Those players are John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Wayne Shorter. John Coltrane studied and played with Ornette Coleman, as Wayne Shorter studied with John Coltrane. It is amazing how they took each other into consideration rather than trying to evolve inside a vacuum. Juju is a glimpse of Wayne Shorter dealing with the evolving legacy of John Coltrane’s impact upon jazz. As he was developing as an artist he had to assimilate, process, and learn to mature with the musicians around him. The result is one of his most powerful Blue Note releases, recorded in 1964 and released in 1965. I chose Juju for I’d Love To Turn You On because I think it is a great portrait of an artist as he is growing and evolving, reaching for that next step. This is what makes Wayne Shorter such a vibrant player, from his days with Art Blakey through his days with Miles Davis and up until today. He continues to make relevant music, lending a rounded perspective that few can match.

The band of McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Reggie Workman on double bass is two thirds of the classic Coltrane Quartet. Elvin Jones has a rolling and bubbling swing that interacts perfectly with Tyner’s bombastic chords on the first song “Juju,” laying a perfect bed for the melody. It is only after a few times through the harmonic structure that the frame of the tune, which is fairly simple and repetitive, becomes evident. This reveals the skill of the players, this ability to conceive of dense interlocking textures from simple source material and lay a cohesive bed that Shorter and McCoy Tyner can both solo in. Shorter’s solo seems patient to explore long tones at points, then work long phrases, and then hover on one note, not going any one place. It is the tone of the playing that makes the solo worthy of keeping; even if the solo is a little directionless the spirit of the playing has great zest. The spirit is in the exploration.             

Deluge,” the second tune, is a textbook Blue Note Swing. After the first somber statement by Shorter the entire band joins in for a cohesive, unstoppable demonstration of mid-sixties jazz. Elvin Jones in particular seems to be at the height of his powers, so relaxed that the drumsticks can just bounce on the snare or toms and do no wrong, while at the same time laying down a thick wall of impenetrable cymbals. Shorter then starts a solo with lengthy statements, taking his time working out his ideas and leaving time for the rhythm section to respond and fill space. The quarter note lock-up underneath Tyner’s solo between Reggie Workman and Jones’ ride cymbal is perfect, allowing Tyner to play single note fills or lay down big pedal point chords with his left hand and cascade massive fills with his right hand. The pocket on this tune is so great anything could happen.

“House of Jade” is a downtempo number that eventually picks up a little more speed. It has a ballad feel and the bridge, or middle part of the song, has a pedal point where the harmonic motion holds still in the rhythm section. This allows for increased activity on the melody instrument. It functions much the same way a zoom lens might, to bring greater detail to a certain part of a photo or frame in a picture or movie. The drums eventually double time under the sax solo propelling the rhythmic motion forward even when it drops back to the original time.

“Mahjong” starts with a playful drum solo and piano statement and then Shorter plays the melody which is supported by Tyner’s trademark quartal tones. Tyner is really the perfect piano player for these type of tunes because he can fill the space in songs that have two or three chordal areas in them and still make it interesting. As Tyner fills the space, Shorter plays the melody, and then this happens again. They play a bridge, restate the original melody and then repeat the whole thing. Tyner supplies a thick texture of harmony for his own solo that he can nestle in. While McCoy Tyner fills the space, it might be the opposite of what Shorter was experiencing in Miles Davis’ group where Herbie Hancock would boil a piano voicing down to one or two notes, a chord cluster, or lay out and let space and Tony Williams take over.

“Yes or No” is a real burner of a tune. The melody starts out with a flurry and ends with Shorter holding a long tone as Tyner, Workman, and Jones cruise below it banging out comping chords and flurries of color. This motif repeats several times before the bridge, in which Shorter plays out the song’s title in an up-and-down and back-and-forth manner. Jones’ ride cymbal is a constant North Star of precision during this song, one that all can look to as a guide in direction and meter. Shorter warms up on the first chorus but after that really opens up and plays his most technically demanding and passionate choruses of the record. Tyner takes over but takes a minute to regain the intensity of where Shorter left off, as if maybe he was not ready for Shorter to actually end his solo and was caught off guard having to begin his. A definite high point of the record. They end the record with “Twelve More Bars to Go,” a hard-swinging modified blues. Shorter really works the changes from inside to out. He is the only soloist and the band sounds great. In terms of innovation this has to be the most standard tune on the album. It doesn't have the passion of “Yes and No” or the catchiness of some of Shorter’s other tunes.

Juju was released in 1965 and recorded in 1964. Speak No Evil was released in 1966 and also recorded in late 1964. These are both great Wayne Shorter records. I think they are notable because they illustrate the process of one contemporary dealing with the legacy of another contemporary successfully. By this time John Coltrane was recording Crescent and A Love Supreme so he was continuing to innovate. Both of these artists are moving forward on their separate journeys. Shorter would have more Blue Note records and Miles Davis recordings, and then he would eventually become a founding member of Weather Report.

Hopefully I am turning you on to the fact that yes, Juju itself is great, but looking at it in context of Wayne Shorter’s evolution is the truly fun part. For me that has always been the amazing part of jazz records is how they link together, historically, via recording labels, or band personnel. Have fun listening!

-         Doug Anderson