Monday, October 27, 2014

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

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

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

“I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation”

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

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


~Edward Hill




Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tig Notaro as Interviewed by Jeff M. Albright

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

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

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


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

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

            - Adam Reshotko




Monday, October 13, 2014

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

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




Monday, October 6, 2014

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

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

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, September 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

            - Joe Miller




Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #113 - The Congos - Heart Of The Congos

Like many genres of music, Reggae has become a shadow of what it once was. What happens in modern music is; things get absorbed into the larger global community, and the regional, ethnic and artistic beauty gets squeezed out of styles of music as the form becomes what everyone can universally recognize as “pop.” Once upon a time though, Reggae was a force of musical, social and spiritual strength for many and it was also a totally unique style and culture. It reached its popular and artistic zenith in the late 60’s through the late 70’s and some of the greatest recordings of the era came from producer Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio. Perry, an eccentric genius with extremely singular views on sound (think Phil Spector in a cloud of ganja smoke), created albums that are sonically dense and powerful. His ability to manage layers of drum sounds that dance around a mind-crushing, rock-steady bass line is unmistakable. Perry helped guide the careers and helped sculpt the sound of many important figures in Reggae - no more so than Bob Marley - but I believe he found his ultimate foil and created his supreme masterpiece when The Congos entered Black Ark in 1976 to create what might be the greatest of all Reggae albums. Yes, I know that is quite a claim. But Heart Of The Congos has simply got it all and unfolds with such a singular aural palette that it remains without peer.

Begin with the vocals. In the tradition of The Mighty Diamonds, Culture or The Heptones, The Congos are a vocal group (Cedric Myton and Roy ‘Ashanti’ Johnson) with a distinct edge. Cedric Myton has the most glorious, hypnotic, mesmerizing falsetto voice this side of Aaron Neville. His voice soars above the music staying a true representation of the simple yet profound Rasta lyrics. His vocal blend with Johnson seems so effortless and has such a soothing effect it actually works as an advertisement for Rasta beliefs. Listening to songs like “Solid Foundation” or the indescribable Lee Perry tour-de-force “Ark Of The Covenant” makes one yearn for the moral clarity and “ital” lifestyle hinted at. Perhaps the most defining quality about the album is Lee Perry’s groundbreaking production style. Piling tracks upon each other to create a “wall of sound” effect, he takes great care to keep the vocals perfectly floating above the mix; pure and clean, everything in the production reinforces the beauty of the voices and the lyrics. How rare - an album in harmony with itself. Perry also brought a who’s who of Reggae greats to back the singers: from guitar genius Ernest Ranglin to vocalists Earl Morgan, The Meditations and Gregory Isaacs to Sly Dunbar on bass, it is a Reggae all-star team from the golden era.

The overall effect is spellbinding from start to finish. It took over a year to create this album, originally released in 1977, and the craft shows in every cut. Perry’s methods occasionally caused hiss, echo and reverb to become their own force, but like Exile On Main Street, Blonde on Blonde or Sgt. Pepper’s the mix is in some ways the star of the show. Through the blending of The Congos’ raw vocal talent and lyrical purity with Perry’s mad genius and a once-in-a-lifetime conglomeration of players, Heart Of The Congos creates one of the essential albums to own, Reggae or otherwise. Many of the songs are definitive representations of what Reggae should be. “La la bam-bam” is a joyous exercise in melodic and lyric simplicity, “At The Feast” draws back the curtain to the Rasta lifestyle and states with clarity and poetry the mindset promised. The album builds its own momentum, each track acting as supplication for the ears, a bass-heavy balm for the modern world, because like most great music, these songs seem to tap into a primal state of mankind’s evolution. It is the soundtrack to an evolutionary step forward, or backward, or upward.

In a few short years, The Congos would split up, Marley would die, Tosh would be executed, and in many ways the momentum started to seep out of the music like a wisp of smoke from the chalice. There are many great Reggae albums from the classic era, but very few have the magical ambience and superlative musical qualities that pour forth from every second of Heart Of The Congos.

- Paul Epstein




Monday, September 15, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #99 - Night Moves (1975, dir. Arthur Penn)

The 1970’s and the New Hollywood movement produced a lot of fascinating work rooted in the turmoil of the times. The changing milieu of mainstream cinema allowed for films that reflected the distrust, paranoia and cynicism – and also the good humor and thumbing noses at authority – of the younger generation(s) of the time. It was director Arthur Penn’s own Bonnie and Clyde (1967) that is often cited as being a landmark film that ushered in the movement. Hated by the old school film critics and the studio heads that financed it (including, but not limited to, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, who released the film), it was shuffled on to B-movie billings and drive-ins at first, but it spoke loud and clear to a younger generation with its edgy editing style influenced by international art cinema, its ambiguous morality, and its far less chaste take on sexuality than recent blockbusters like The Sound of Music and it eventually earned millions for the studio and became a hit. After the film opened the doors for more financial successes like The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and MASH, Penn went on to make the counter-culture classics Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man before taking a break for several years.
He returned to feature filmmaking with this film, released in 1975 and considered a failure on its first release. Where Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man had been fairly major hits and Alice’s Restaurant had been a small-scale success, and even in a year where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon were hits, Jaws reclaimed for Hollywood the blockbuster style of filmmaking they were used to and set the path for filmmaking that persists to this day. There was very little room then for a small downer of a film like Night Moves that did not go for a major statement (as did Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day) but instead mined a darkly resigned personal drama, even if it hearkens back to another era and genre of Hollywood films – the films noir of the 1940’s. Where film noir mined the repressed sexuality of the day with grim crime films and sparkling dialogue, the more open 1970’s allowed for an up front examination of many of the same topics – here again sexuality and debauchery are linked to the failures of our lead man, the no-bullshit-taking Harry Moseby (played brilliantly by Gene Hackman), a former football player turned low-rent private eye specializing in divorce work. He’s having marital problems of his own and is hardly happy with his work as he’s belittled by his wife and others for having retreated from his former glory and not doing something more reputable. It’s a very human version of the P.I. story, not the distanced cool associated with a Bogart-styled character. But Harry’s got integrity, something decidedly lacking in everyone else around him, from his friend who buys Central American antiques on the cheap to turn a huge profit, to his cheating spouse, to the washed-up former actress who hires him to find her missing daughter but is more concerned with looking glamorous and laying Hackman than locating her missing daughter. And in true noir fashion as his investigation shifts from L.A. to Florida to find the missing girl, he uncovers a far bigger mystery, and as he gets closer to the truth all his leads start disappearing or turning up dead.
The film kicks off gloomy with his bad relationship before he’s ever even found the girl Delly (short for Delilah) or the first of several bodies that turn up, or even really begun his investigation. She’s played by a young Melanie Griffith, a wild kid in trouble (a year before Jodie Foster’s similarly street-wise and daring turn in Taxi Driver). Between his rocky relationship and the way the film’s shot – all dark tones when it’s night (as it often is in the film) and muted brightness in the daytime (even on the sunny shores of Florida) – and edited, much in the same unusual, off-kilter manner as Bonnie and Clyde, it sets an unsettling vibe from the get-go. And then there’s dialogue like this, as Harry watches a football game on TV at home, in the dark:

Ellen: “Who’s winning?”
Harry: “Nobody, one side’s just losing slower than the other.”

Or once he’s found Delly and is still trying to piece together the parts that don’t add up, there’s her simple, to the point statement: “I think people are shitty. But you’re OK.”
            Like many classic noir films (The Big Sleep comes to mind), the plot is dense and convoluted – there are so many connections, double crosses, and loaded dialogue that means more only later once you see the bigger picture that it requires multiple viewings to sort it all out. And the worldview is sour for sure – also in line with the grimness of much film noir. It’s easy to see how in the summer of Jaws, where the big bad guy is defeated in explosive, exciting fashion, that this film – gloomy, insecure, inconclusive – wouldn’t have been a hit, or even a moderate success. And the other films produced out of the counter-culture of the day provided exhilarating revolutions, even if they failed. This one shows the vice grip of corruption and debased behavior on its characters and doesn’t let fly with glib statements to reassure anybody. But it’s a classic, a worthy heir to masterpiece of The Big Sleep from the writing to the stellar performances across the board, to the superb filmmaking that updates and touches back to the classic noirs without overtly mimicking them. It’s a gem in Arthur Penn’s catalog, rivaled (for me) only by Bonnie and Clyde. And some days this one feels truer than even that film.

            - Patrick Brown






Monday, September 8, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #113 - Wilco - Being There

Wilco are rightfully acknowledged as one of the best and most important American rock bands currently making music.  This consensus seemed to develop around the time of their landmark 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the publicity surrounding its release (or lack thereof).  That story has been recounted many times (see the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart if you're unfamiliar) and YHF is a great album.  But for my money, Wilco's true masterpiece came a little earlier in their career with the 1996 double album Being There.  Wilco came to be after the breakup of pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo.  Jeff Tweedy led the new group and their debut A.M. was a pleasant slice of soulful country rock.  Tweedy and co. seemed well on their way to becoming a latter day Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with a little Gram Parsons thrown in.  But they had other, grander plans.  This became evident with the release of Being There, a major statement album that kept a good deal of the alt-country sound while expanding in a wide variety of directions.


Probably the biggest statement Tweedy and the band made with the album was releasing it as a double CD.  Its 19 songs clock in at about 76 minutes, which could easily fit on one disc.  But then it would be just another overstuffed CD in an era full of them.  Two discs puts it in the same category as landmarks like Blonde On Blonde and Exile on Main St. and it's no coincidence that Being There plays like a stylistic hybrid of the two.  The first disc kicks off with a blast of noise like nothing the band had produced before and settles into the powerful anthem "Misunderstood."  Everything about this epic tune announces that Wilco is going in an entirely different direction.  Tweedy even co-opts a lyric from late, great Cleveland punk poet Peter Laughner.  Yet, as if to reassure fans that they still have one foot in the alt-country wilderness, they follow with the twangy acoustic number "Far, Far Away."  Next up is "Monday" which hits with a hard blast of rock & soul horns that you'd swear were recorded by Bobby Keys in the basement of Keith Richards' chateau.  "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" is a super catchy rocker that became a little hit.  A different version of the song shows up on disc 2 with a Beach Boys-inspired arrangement.  The band pulls off a superb transition as the closing piano chords of the melancholy "Red-Eyed & Blue" are repeated as the guitar intro to upbeat rocker "I Got You (At the End of the Century)."  Disc 1 concludes with the bittersweet yet infectious "Say You Miss Me."

It's tempting to say disc 2 kicks off the same way as disc 1, but while "Sunken Treasure" bears some resemblance to "Misunderstood," it's a masterpiece all its own.  It's got an uneasy sway, like a boat lost at sea, backing one of Tweedy's best sets of lyrics.  I particularly like the part in the second verse where the backing vocals sing the lines just ahead of Tweedy's lead.  Disc two generally has a quieter, sadder tone than the first disc with tunes like "Someone Else's Song" and "Why Would You Want To Live."  But there's a break midway through for the laid-back soul of "Kingpin."  After the quiet beauty of "The Lonely 1," a tribute to the beautiful sadness behind every great artist, the disc and album concludes with the raucous "Dreamer in My Dreams."  It's a great studio jam that always seems on the verge of totally falling apart but manages to hold it together just long enough.  It's the perfect conclusion to an album filled with equal parts joy and sorrow.

Wilco's road after Being There would get a bit rocky.  Multiple lineup changes came through the years with Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt being the only consistent members and the only members of the Being There lineup still in the band.  The break with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett was particularly rough.  But they persevered to take their place as one of the definitive bands of our time.  Many great albums have come since and the road to greatness starts with Being There.


            - Adam Reshotko




Monday, September 1, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #98 - To Sir, With Love. (1967, dir. James Clavell)


I saw To Sir, With Love the year it came out in 1967. I was almost 10 and it had a profound effect on me. In fact it altered the course of my life. After I walked out of the movie I remember telling my brother “I’m going to be a teacher.” I did. I taught for about 10 years in public high school, and from the day I saw the film until the day I went into the music business, my entire mindset was that of “Sir.” I wanted to make a difference, and it was the influence of a film that caused this desire within me. How many movies can one say that about?

It is almost impossible to discuss To Sir, With Love without talking about the illusion and the reality of the 1960’s. The illusion was the myth of youth, the power of idealism, and the belief that the future was wide open. The reality of the 1960’s was that the decade essentially served as the adolescence of the American 20th century. If adolescence is the period where a young person finds their sense of morality and builds the foundation of the person they will become, often through a series of innocent idealistic and possibly foolish experiences, then that fateful decade was this country’s teenage years. Benjamin Button-like, we were adults in the 1940’s and then after World War II the soldiers came home, had historic numbers of babies and those babies collectively threw our country into a prolonged period of childish and exhilarating social experimentation that we are still reeling from.

Like no other movie, To Sir, With Love captures the giddy idealism and the cultural feel of the times while proving itself to be painfully difficult to rectify with the way things actually turned out. Sidney Poitier, impossibly handsome, impossibly cultured, everything a young liberal audience wants to believe in, is young teacher Mark Thackery, just given the unenviable job of teaching a bunch of low-class high school seniors in a tough North London neighborhood. In one minute of this black man being in front of a white classroom all issues of class, race, youth and revolt are on the table. Poitier simultaneously represents the new idealism and the old guard. The kids see him as a square adult, the other teachers see him as a young upstart, and he finds himself at the crossroads of his own belief system and his need to make a living. Throughout the movie we are made aware that Mr. Thackery is also seeking a career in engineering, and that the lure of the paycheck may overtake his sense of societal obligation. The main thrust of the movie however, is the struggle Poitier faces with the students. This was an era when bad kids wore their hair long and played juvenile pranks. It is an eye-opening comparison to Sandy Hook or Columbine. Our schools are a much more lethal place than they used to be.
 
The real pleasure in To Sir, With Love comes from the nostalgia it evokes. This nostalgia is not the depiction of an era for the sake of fooling the audience, it is the actual item we are seeing. The young actors depicting the schoolkids, particularly Judy Geeson and Lulu, are actually young people in the 1960’s, looking and acting the way young people did. The dress, styles and depiction of a mid-60’s London are spot-on. The movie also contains what has to be one of the first rock videos as the title song (sung by Lulu) is set to a montage of still images of the kids on a field trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum. All this cultural window dressing frames the action of the story nicely as Poitier slowly wins the students over by treating them as adults instead of children and his character slowly comes to the realization that his path lies in service to others. It is beautifully calculated to make the impressionable young mind swoon with the possibilities of doing the right thing with his/her life. It certainly had that effect on me.

Ultimately, this is what the 1960’s were about for so many people. It was the naïve, mistaken impression that changing the world was a simple a matter as wanting to do so. It ignored all the bothersome adult realities that come with a more mature understanding of the ways of the world. I hate to recognize this fact and ultimately hate that I’ve had to toe the line, but a two-hour trip to a more idealistic me is always available in To Sir, With Love. It takes me to a place when art had the ability to make me strive to do more with my life. At the end of the film, as the kids acknowledge Mr. Thackery and Mr. Thackery comes to peace with his future, it is impossible to not be struck by an uncomfortable twinge. One chuckles at Thackery’s optimism for a better future, then one looks in the mirror and feels ashamed.

- Paul Epstein