Monday, May 20, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #218 - Kicking and Screaming (1995, dir. Noah Baumbach)

            Many of the films I’ve written about on this blog I’ve done so because something about it is immediately familiar to me. Perhaps this is why I don’t often choose to write about horror films or sci-fi films or fantasy films. It’s not because I don’t like them, per se (although I am very picky about the ones that I do like), but the movies I tend to hold the dearest are the ones that remind me of people, places or times in my own life. I don’t think that I necessarily set out to do that when choosing films that I want to write about, but I also don’t think that it is entirely unintentional either. Growing up, some of my favorite shit to do was sit around with friends smoking cigarettes, discussing music, art, and pop culture under the influence of some sort of stimulant. So naturally the films that I enjoyed the most back then - those of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, for instance - tended to be the ones with copious amounts of dialogue. Noah Baumbach’s first film Kicking and Screaming (not to be confused with the Will Ferrell soccer movie of the same name) is just such a film.
            Kicking and Screaming revolves around a group of friends who have just graduated college and, unsure (or rather, terrified) of what lies ahead, decide to hang around the campus an extra year. The main storyline follows Grover (Josh Hamilton) whose girlfriend Jane (Olivia D’Abo) has just dumped him and moved to Prague. Heartbroken, he seeks solace in the company of his best friends Max (Chris Eigeman), Otis (Carlos Jacott) and Skippy (Jason Wiles). The group spends hours at bars and parties, drinking and talking about art, pop culture, and academics and generally avoiding facing their impending futures.
            I’ve tried to turn people onto this movie a lot over the years. I’ve played it for friends and significant others and even tried writing about it in school once or twice. A common talking point that inevitably comes up, whether in conversation or in reviews I’ve read, is that Kicking and Screaming doesn’t really have a plot. On the one hand, there are those who think that this is a detriment to the film, and it can’t be saved by the unique script. Others say that the film’s aimlessness works for it, acting as a symbol for the aimlessness of the characters and that the snappy dialogue just drives it forward. I guess I agree with latter partially, but with one major caveat: I don’t think that the film is plotless at all. I think that the idea of being terrified to face the real world when the only world you’ve ever really known as an adult is your academic pursuits is a very real dilemma. Each and every one of the main characters deals with this problem differently, but the outcome is the same for all. The aforementioned Grover reacts to his girlfriend’s news of her opportunity in Prague not with pride and praise, but with disdain and bitterness. He is angry that she is not going to live with him in Brooklyn as they had planned and, almost in defiance of her success, doesn’t follow through on his own pursuits, opting instead to stick around campus to waste time with his friends where it’s “safe.”
Otis, who in the first scene of the film, we are told “has two moods: testy and antsy,” gets all the way to the airport, headed toward grad school in Milwaukee. Minutes later, he shows back up at their house, announcing that he has deferred his enrollment to the following year. No one tries to stop him or drive him back. In fact, it is glossed over so quickly that it almost seems as though they were expecting it. As we get to know Otis’ character, we realize that he stayed because he is terrified of a world away from the only people who truly know him. No one knows this feeling better than Max, whose tough, wise-ass exterior masks a real vulnerability that often comes out when he is drinking. In one scene, an intoxicated Max looks at himself in the mirror and actually says “you do nothing. Max Belmont does nothing.” It’s such a tender scene I have trouble watching it sometimes. I’ve been in that very situation more times than I can remember. Finally, there’s Skippy, the least mature of the bunch. Skippy’s girlfriend Miami, played by the amazing Parker Posey, has a year left of school before she graduates. So rather than moving on, or even getting a job and waiting for her to finish, Skippy re-enrolls in school, despite having graduated. He is so scared of losing her that he feels re-enrolling is the only way to keep her. At the same time, he uses her as an excuse to do exactly what his friends have all decided to do: stick around and do nothing.
These are four very distinct ways of dealing with the inevitable and I believe that I have employed them all to postpone my own future from time to time. Perhaps that’s what drew me to this film so quickly in the first place. When I first saw Kicking and Screaming, I was a senior in high school, just a few years away from the crossroads at which the characters in the film find themselves. Possibly even closer, considering in my hometown it was not uncommon to skip college after high school and go straight into settling for a shithole career of some sort. And in order to deal with my own self-consciousness or self-doubt, I turned to the only things that made me feel better: my friends. If you’ve ever felt unsure of the future or afraid to take a risk, this just might be a film for you. And hey, at the very least there’s a lot of really funny dialogue.
-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, May 13, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #231 - Negativland - Helter Stupid

            There are great albums that stand as collections of the finest songwriting and performance that their makers have to offer. There are great albums where the studio and production techniques have been used as tools to take the basic musical material and transform it into something greater than it was when performed in the studio itself. And then there is this great album, which is neither of those things.
            Negativland is an avant-garde group - calling what they do “music” is stretching it; “audio-based art” is more appropriate - founded in the Bay Area in the late 70s. In their recordings, they find (and seek) audio from mass media, from field recordings, from pirate radio signals, from sampling of existing records, and from myriad other sources (yes, including actual music performed by the group sometimes) and make audio collages - often referred to as the style known as “Plunderphonics” - that are strange, funny, noisy, and particularly with this album, cuttingly satirical about mass culture.
            The album is divided into two sequences: the 18-minute title track with 4-minute prologue that sets it up, and “The Perfect Cut,” a suite of seven connected tracks. In “Helter Stupid” the band explores what happens when they send out a bogus press release about a canceled tour and an earlier song of theirs, “Christianity Is Stupid,” being implicated in a murder investigation and don’t confirm or deny any of the questions that come their way from the media, allowing the story to snowball. “The Perfect Cut” works around the theme of formulaic mainstream radio programming, laden with 70s radio trade ads and focusing on samples from a company that sells jingles and hooks to commercial radio outlets to push their “product” to their listeners. Though these seem on the surface to be very different ideas, the way that the band’s not-entirely-innocent joke began to manipulate real world television media is like the flip side of the coin of how the formulas of commercial radio are also molded and manipulated behind the scenes. Both of these take a look at mass media - TV news and pop radio, respectively - and give you a smart, funny, and somewhat unnerving glimpse of how the sausage is made.
            “Helter Stupid” kicks off with a prologue, mostly taken straight from a local news report that picked up their story from the press release suggesting that a Minnesota murder investigation may have ties to “Christianity Is Stupid,” seemingly without any questioning or fact-checking, and ran with it as a lead story. The reporter flatly states “They say federal authorities asked them to cancel a long-planned 17-city tour and eliminate live performances until the conclusion of the investigation” followed immediately by “Negativland’s music is highly critical of the mass media, nuclear war, and handguns.” Only one of these statements is true. The group then launches into its exploration of how the media exploits sensational stories, about the oversaturation of media in our lives, and, as they say in the liner notes, keeping in mind that “any media experience consists only of one-way, edited representations of reality.” It’s a tour-de-force of audio art, loaded with humor and an incisive view of TV's obsession with sensational stories.
            “The Perfect Cut” would seemingly suffer by comparison, and indeed it feels lighter - pop radio and the music industry vs. a multiple murder is a definite lightening of content - but if you’re following through the group’s ideas, the two pieces are complementary in their skewed, humorous examinations of media. With “Dick Vaughn’s Moribund Music of the 70s” undergirding each of these pieces, they take a look at the music industry as a whole - and if you’ve never given thought to the machinations of business and industry that back your favorite records, that dictates what’s determined to be new and cool on the radio, it can be just as unsettling as the title piece. Just as the title cut isn’t really about axe murders, but about media representation, this isn’t about pop music or making fun of the 70s music they use, but about how the wheels of industry distressingly interlock with art.
            The album follows their great, more song-like Escape From Noise (which contains “Christianity Is Stupid” and is highly recommended in its own right), and presages what might be their greatest work, the U2 EP, which landed them on the receiving end of a lawsuit from Island Records, U2, and Casey Kasem (who appears here repeatedly throughout “The Perfect Cut”), and though it’s way out of print, is well worth seeking out. But as an album, Helter Stupid stands as their finest work, and one of the most entertaining and humorous examples of the intersection of pop culture and avant-garde art out there.
-          Patrick Brown

Monday, May 6, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #217 - The Harder They Come (1972, dir. Perry Henzell)

            When The Harder They Come first appeared in America in 1972 it had to have been met with bewilderment. While filled with an almost intoxicating first look at real life on the Island of Jamaica and blessed with one of the best soundtracks in the history of film, the movie presents its narrative and action in such a herky-jerky fashion, and the patois of the characters is so thick, that the typical westerner would be forgiven for requiring subtitles to even follow the plot. In fact, on its first runs through America the film was indeed shown with subtitles. I had not seen The Harder They Come in at least twenty years, and I freely admit that putting subtitles on made this my most rewarding watch of this extraordinary film. My memories of the movie were as cloudy as the ganja that filled the room the first time I saw it. There were strong memories of certain scenes, but my recall of the actual plot was dim. This time, from the first scene, I found The Harder They Come to be a fully absorbing and heartbreaking tale about the grinding effect of systems on human endeavor. Our hero, Ivanhoe Martin (based on a real character) is played with elemental realism by Jimmy Cliff who brings such burning intensity to his portrayal, that one can’t help but feel he is telling his own story at some level. When his grandmother dies, Ivanhoe, an aspiring singer, is forced to leave his country home and go to the city to stay with his mother. Finding nothing but poverty and disinterest in his music, he finds ways to get by-being a bike messenger, then entering the dangerous ganja trade. When he is told to deliver a package to a music studio he tries in earnest to sell his talent to the only producer on the island who can make his dreams come true. When his song only brings him 20 dollars, his disillusionment with the music business starts coming into focus.

            Through a series of events, all of which illustrate the corrupt nature of a system that takes advantage of poverty, ignorance and innocence, Ivanhoe becomes a notorious figure and does indeed find the fame he seeks. He finds a way out of the ghetto and straight to the top. It’s just not the way he wanted to get there. As the events of Ivan’s life ultimately lead him toward a violent conclusion, we are given an amazing look into the inner workings of the Jamaican music business (hint - it’s just as corrupt as it is here), and the marijuana business, and ultimately, the machinery that keeps poor people poor. The fundamental corruption of any system is explored (much as it was later on The Wire). We can feel that Ivan’s dreams will not come true the way he expected as the events of his life tumble inexorably toward chaos. The final acts of the film capture a fateful inevitability that is reminiscent of Bonnie And Clyde. This narrative is played out against the real stars of The Harder They Come: the exotic and exciting views of actual Jamaican life, which initially thrilled Jamaican audiences, and ultimately acted as the greatest calling card the island ever received, and of course the miraculous soundtrack which, along with Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Catch A Fire turned the rest of the world on to reggae music. Throughout the movie, the songs act as a narrative device, driving and describing the action playing out on screen. Reggae legends Toots and The Maytals are responsible for two of the best scenes. In one, their classic Pressure Drop provides the perfect driver for a breathless chase scene through a crowded ghetto. For me though, the most magical scene in the movie takes place as Ivanhoe gets his first look inside the recording studio during a Toots session for the song Sweet and Dandy. Cliff stares at the scene, wide-eyed and in wonder, and we share his thrill and desire to be part of the charismatic magic Toots is laying down. It is one of the most effective scenes about the making of music that I’ve seen. So few movies get the musician side of things right. Director Perry Henzel nails it with this scene.

            Bob Dylan wrote “You’ll find out when you reach the top / You’re on the bottom.” The Harder They Come brings this axiom to life vividly. Ivanhoe Martin dreams of leaving his country boy roots and becoming famous in the big city. He makes his dream come true, and it turns out to be a nightmare. His story is a cautionary tale as well as a lesson about the harsh realities of life for those whom the chips are stacked against. Although this message is depressing, the experience of watching The Harder They Come is ultimately uplifting, because the sounds and sights unfolding are so genuinely thrilling.
                     - Paul Epstein

Monday, April 29, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #230 - Marnie Stern - In Advance of the Broken Arm

            New York guitar virtuoso Marnie Stern is something of an enigma. She plays jagged, erratic noisy pop that is hard to characterize as anything other than “math rock.” But it’s different than many artists that have had the math rock designation assigned to them. Like its older and equally as polarizing cousin, “prog,” it’s almost as though much of it is defying you to like it. For one thing, it never stops moving. Like a shark feeding frenzy, it’s all over you immediately out of the gate and doesn’t let up. It revels in its own excess, actually defying you NOT to like it. Like when Jon Spencer name-drops his own band in 75% of the songs on a Blues Explosion record, it insists upon itself in the most endearing way possible. It’s bragging without saying a word. It’s hard to imagine anyone not getting immediately excited within seconds of their first listen to Stern’s 2007 debut record, In Advance of the Broken Arm.
            Stern came seemingly out of nowhere with this debut, having suddenly inked a deal with Kill Rock Stars after they heard a demo of songs that she wrote in her bedroom over the previous two years. The album showcases Ms. Stern’s angular finger-tapping style, over her own reverb-laden vocals and washes of discordant synth, then adds in some of the most hyperactive drums ever recorded, courtesy of fellow noise rock mainstay, Hella’s Zach Hill, who also produced the album. What sets this record and Stern’s subsequent output apart is her ability to take this chaotic sound and create killer pop hooks that are as heavy as they are catchy.
            I cannot reiterate enough just how Stern’s proficiency on the guitar really makes this record come alive. She genuinely shreds, for lack of a better term. Think Robert Fripp-level mastery combined with the complex time signatures of Don Caballero or Oxes and you might get a slight idea of what’s in store for you here. “Plato’s Fucked Up Cave,” for example, offers a bouncing, progressive rock guitar pattern with a Hill drumbeat that sort of staggers ahead drunkenly. In the opener “Vibrational Match,” Stern demonstrates a repeated finger-tapped riff with definite nods to the NYC no wave movement. “Every Single Line Means Something” is a stomping rocker akin to Sleater-Kinney (one of her biggest influences) and “Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket,” is a simple pop offering with vocal refrains that sound almost ‘60s girl group-anthemic.
            There was a time there in my late teens and early 20’s when I was a kind of a math rock fanatic. I listened to bands like Don Caballero, Melt-Banana, Dysrhythmia and the Boredoms fairly religiously, but by 2007 I had sort of moved away from like that. When this record came out, it brought me right back in. Marnie Stern has released some of the most interesting and intricate guitar-based music of the 2000s and even though In Advance of the Broken Arm is by no means her strongest effort, it is a very strong debut. And it’s an indication as to what would become of her songwriting as she matured from record to record. She really isn’t discussed near as much as she deserves, which is a shame because this girl can shred like very few others can shred. But her music is about much more than just showing off her wankery. It’s about rock n’ roll excess and at the same time about undeniable pop sensibility. It’s about the song first and foremost. The wankery is just gravy.
            - Jonathan Eagle

Monday, April 22, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #216 - The Devil, Probably (1977, dir. Robert Bresson)

            Concerns about increasing Russian/American tensions, ecological disasters at the hands of corporations interested only in profit, an overriding fear of nuclear war, an ineffective political left, a church that has lost touch with its ability to speak to the masses - if these were the central set of concerns of a film, when (and where) would you guess it was from? Because while this film could certainly be made here today and be 100% relevant, these are the main ideas that thread throughout French director Robert Bresson’s 1977 drama The Devil, Probably. At that year’s Berlin Film Festival, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder uttered some prescient words about the film, which took the jury prize: “...this film will be more important than all the rubbish which is now considered important but which never really goes deep enough. The questions Bresson asks will never be unimportant." And no less an authority than Richard Hell called it “the most punk movie ever made.”
            It’s certainly not a happy film - it’s a furiously angry one; but the times warranted it then and maybe today’s world does as well. If Luis Buñuel, considered one of the most pessimistic filmmakers in cinema history and two years older than Robert Bresson, ultimately resigned himself to a pattern by the 1970s of making films satirizing the things he used to attack more mercilessly in his early work, Bresson, a filmmaker usually noted for his austerity and profoundly spiritual themes, worked up an angry head of steam at the injustices of the world that got more savage as he went on, culminating perhaps with this, his penultimate film, released when he was 76 years old and one of the most ruthlessly despairing films about the contemporary world ever made.
          The film opens with a newspaper headline telling us about the suicide of a young man in Paris. Then another headline follows, saying that the alleged suicide was in fact a murder. Then we jump back six months to find out how this young man, Charles, got there. Charles - like all of the “models” in Bresson’s films - walks around Paris with a disaffected air. While this seems like flat acting, it’s a constant technique throughout Bresson’s works. He called his actors “models” because he simply wanted them to unemotionally recite their lines, eliminating the normal dramatics of capital-A acting and allowing the words, the sounds, and the situations his characters are in to come to the fore. His films are perfect demonstrations of the famous Kuleshov effect, in which the same film segment of a Russian actor was intercut with different images, leading viewers to believe that his expression had changed because of what he was “looking” at, projecting a new meaning out of the juxtaposition of the two images even though the clip was the same in all cases. Similarly, Bresson’s models offer no inflections or reactions while wandering through the world, which in Bresson’s script provides enough horrors that there’s no need for a trained actor to underscore them with hand-wringing histrionics. Charles drifts around the city, hanging out with other disaffected youths, attending political rallies, dating two women, going to church, trying to drop out with drugs, attending classes, searching for some meaning in his life, and ultimately we come to see how he has died, after finding most of his experiences empty, fleeting, and shallow. These are also underscored with repeated visits to a group of conservationists logging horrifying footage of ecological disasters, including the needless slaughter of animals (trigger warning for those who can't abide animal cruelty). All of these are at some point in the film mentioned in service of money - from a church that does not adapt to its constituents’ spiritual needs but protects its wealth (“A Christianity without religion” one of the flock calls it), to the therapist who is more concerned that his patient pay than helping him heal (Charles - “If my aim was money and profit, everyone would respect me.”), to the eco-disasters and animal slaughter in the name of corporate profits, to the war machine then building between the U.S. and Russia.
            These scenes are shot in a way that no other filmmaker could have done them. In a film so wrought with existential horrors, one would expect the drama of the scenes to be highlighted, but Bresson uses his typically elliptical approach, omitting standard methods of building drama or tension and focusing instead on the rhythm of a scene, highlighting movement, editing, and sound to recreate that Kuleshov effect over and over - we aren’t given everything to explain a scene, and neither music nor acting are there to underscore how we should feel about it, but our minds fill in the gaps and flesh things out as Bresson’s models speak their lines, and he lets the juxtaposition and rhythm of his images and sound do the work to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. His camera is often centered on objects rather than individuals, suggesting that the trappings of modern life are as much a part of the problem of the world as the bigger targets he’s referring to. There’s a famous scene on a city bus where the passengers collectively engage in a dialogue about the modern world, intercut with the machinery and sounds of the bus - the cash machine, the opening and closing doors, the air brake - and one passenger asks “Who’s leading us by the nose?” He’s answered by another, who provides the film’s title - “The Devil, probably.” Though Bresson would never admit to a reading so direct, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that the Devil in question is the greed that drives everything in the film. In his next (and final) film, a forged 500-franc bill ruins the lives of everyone it is passed to. The title of that film? - L’Argent, or in English, Money. He could easily have switched the titles of these two films and they'd carry the same meaning.
-          Patrick Brown

Monday, April 15, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #229 - Jeff Beck - Wired

Jeff Beck is the most interesting guitar player to come out of the 1960’s. More than anyone that played in the Yardbirds before, with, or after, he really made his guitar a voice that cannot be replicated. You see people playing in Led Zeppelin cover bands and people doing Cream covers, and they can copy their specific guitar tones and styles easily. But nobody ever does Jeff Beck Group songs, nor do you hear “That guy can play guitar just like Jeff Beck.” It just doesn’t happen, because it can’t be done. His sound kept evolving in a more unique way which led him right into jazz-fusion. As while his peers were expressing their devotion to blues, jazz is what excited Beck and pushed his guitar playing to the next level, rather than plateauing at a certain skill level.
This isn’t really a jazz album though - to me it’s the purest definition of jazz fusion, which was essential for me crossing over from listening to over-the-top prog rock and punk right into the warm embrace of jazz. The guitar on this album goes from sounding like several different horns to being the main melodic force that a singer would bring to the table; but it is still unmistakably a guitar, a force flying over the rest of the band instead of plowing through the middle. As much as this album is focused on six strings, the rest of the band that Beck hired were really at his level if not higher. Max Middleton (who had played with Beck for years at this point) on Fender Rhodes and Clavinet, Wilbur Bascomb on bass, and Narada Michael Walden on drums are all names you might not know because they’ve had their careers mostly behind the scenes rather than in front of the curtain, but these are the men with most of the songwriting credits on the album, with six out of the eight - Jeff Beck doesn’t have a single writing credit on this album, just his name on the front cover. The other credits go to Jan Hammer, who wrote and plays synthesizers on the song "Blue Wind," and right in the middle of the first side, a rendition of Charles Mingus’ "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," that if you’re not careful might just cause you to shed a tear.
Track by track this album is all killer and no filler, clocking in at a super tight 38 minutes, and it feels like you got chewed up and spit out by the end of it. The opening track "Led Boots" starts with a slightly off drum groove that fades in backed by big chords, then punches you with the main bass line and theme. The guitar comes in and sounds like a fighter plane flying over the field before a baseball game, spraying all the stuff into the air to make the colored clouds. It stands the test of time as a great album opener and cements the tone of the album. "Come Dancing" keeps the feel going, laying more on the back side of the beat rather than being in your face. How a song that grooves the way it does and yet flows seamlessly into "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" still amazes me. Their rendition of the classic Mingus track is something to marvel in. This was the first time I had heard anything written by the prolific bassist, and to say it changed me is an understatement. I had no idea it was a jazz classic the first time I heard this version, to me it was just the best rock ballad I’d heard at the time. The guitar and keys melt into a stew of sonic pleasure and tone that play to each other’s strengths unlike anything else. The feedback of the guitar plays a major role - it is the atmosphere and aroma that take make you want to sit down and enjoy the musical meal the band just put all of their emotion into. It’s tough to imagine ending an album after this song - though Mingus did the same thing, put it on the first side of the record right in the middle - but before this side is over there is the undeniable bass playing on "Head for the Backstage." The bass playing on both of those tracks starts along the same path of Larry Graham, but it took a detour, got lost, and came back with treasure.
Unfortunately the back half isn’t as visceral as the first, but there is still so much that you can’t deny on this album. "Blue Wind" starts off side two and it’s got a slightly slower, but way brighter, Deep Purple feel with its driving energy. On the last few tracks, "Sophie" and "Play With Me" are derivative of Funkadelic in the best ways, and "Love is Green" lets you down lightly after you’ve been shaken by the funk madness.
This album has been my favorite Jeff Beck for as long as I can remember because there is so much of the human element in it. It’s still easy to be able to hear how hungry he is, and how he doesn’t want to settle for what he’s already done. The direction he chose may not have brought him the same success as his other Yardbirds graduates, but his voice is richer and more flavorful than every other guitar player out there.
-         Max Kaufman

Monday, April 8, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #215 - All About My Mother (1999, dir. Pedro Almodovar)

When I first encountered Pedro Almodóvar’s work, I was instantly fed up with it. To my eyes, he had all the makings of someone trying too hard to brand themselves as an auteur without necessarily doing the work to earn the title: showy cinematography, meta-narratives, and obtuse storytelling devices. I noticed, too, that he had dropped his first name from the credits of his films; “A Film by Almodóvar,” the titles read, eliciting an immediate groan from me. He, like several other directors that I actively dislike, seemed more focused on inserting himself into his movies than actually giving them the life that they needed.
            And then, by the good graces of a college professor, I was forced to watch All About My Mother. I loved it. I love it. It immediately made me reconsider his filmography and what I didn’t like about it, somehow turning the issues I had with his other work into positive qualities here. All About My Mother is indeed showy and has a stubbornly meta-narrative; worst of all, it uses my most-hated cinematic device, voiceover narration. Every instinct in me tells me to hate All About My Mother. I can’t.
            All About My Mother follows Manuela, a single mother that loses her teenage son Esteban in the film’s early minutes. Following his death, Manuela moves to Barcelona in an attempt to reconnect with her son’s father Lola, a trans woman who never knew about Esteban. In the process, Manuela meets other trans and queer characters, many of whom have contracted AIDS, and All About My Mother suddenly shifts from being about encountering grief to working past it. Manuela becomes a mother figure to a few other characters, and we start to understand how Almodóvar envisions matronly characters: as saints. In particular, Manuela meets Rosa, a young nun that is pregnant with Lola’s next child; Manuela steps in to guide her through the process, and ultimately help with Rosa’s newly HIV positive lifestyle. In Almodóvar’s earlier work, one of my primary problems was how he treated his characters with manipulative cynicism; here, he extends a humane hand, using coincidence and luck as a guiding light that fosters genuine emotional connection among his characters.
            So much of my appreciation of this movie stems from how genuinely Almodóvar handles questions of gender, sexuality, and identity; released in 1999, All About My Mother tackles these themes and topics with a shocking grace, interrogating the complexities of parenthood, femininity, and trauma with ease. But there’s more to All About My Mother than just its thematic content; the film is bright and colorful, given a playful color palette to juxtapose the immediacy of its gloomy narrative content. The filmmaking is showy, but never in service of just the director; shots are beautifully framed to underline the film’s thematic questions of identity and lineage. Even the meta-narrative - which follows the very actress that Esteban ran into the street to follow before dying - is likewise used to implicate the viewer in compelling ways, ultimately dropping the curtains before the film’s closing credits roll.
            There’s much to admire about All About My Mother - I haven’t been able to hit at it all. I wouldn’t want to, even if I could. This is a straightforward movie, one that gets to the point without squandering its bluntness; it’s a celebration of motherhood, of femininity, and of women around the world, and it handles the film’s political context with deftness and ease, envisioning a more supportive world for individuals in queer and other disenfranchised communities. I’m thankful that I was forced to watch it in college - it made me reconsider Almodóvar’s work, which I now see as similarly humane and warm, rather than the cold and austere perception I had of it going into this film. All About My Mother, in other words, is deeply empathetic. It’ll make you want to give your loved ones a hug in the moments immediately after - and maybe you should.
-         Harry Todd

Monday, April 1, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #228 - MF Doom - MM...Food

            It’s hard to decide where to start writing about MF Doom’s 2004 hip hop masterpiece MM…FOOD. Do I start by introducing MF Doom, an artist who spent the better part of his career cultivating an enigmatic presence? Or do I kick this post off with grandiose statements regarding the influence of MM...FOOD on contemporary hip hop? Both options seem to stand at odds with the rapper’s mission, which has always seemed more concerned with digging up obscure samples and crafting a character than elevating the man behind the mask.
The only way that I feel like I can really honor this album is to compare it to a really fucking good meal. MM...FOOD is like good barbeque; it’s messy, with lots of sides, but rich with flavor. Every time you get tired of the sides, there’s always more of that tangy, delicious Doom that convinces you - just one more bite. By the end of your time with the album, you’re too full, thinking that maybe you’ll never eat at this restaurant again, but three months later, you’re back, salivating for more. All of this is to say that MM...FOOD is not full of itself. It seems designed to be served and enjoyed on a paper plate, thrown out, and linger on the back of your palate for days to come.
            Doom’s bars are never showy, with a flow as tender and easy as slow-cooked pork. Across his entire career, Doom spits some of his hardest verses on this album, making food-based insults that, taken out of context, could sound like a corny warning from the FDA; “I suggest you change your diet / It can lead to high blood pressure if you fry it / Or even a stroke, heart attack, heart disease / It ain’t no starting back once the arteries start to squeeze,” he raps on album opener “Beef Rap.” Reading this verse, I can only imagine that you are unimpressed; hearing these words from Doom sound so utterly vicious though, weaponizing the all-too-real (and very uncool) threat of a bad diet into something genuinely intimidating. His lyrics feel somehow familiar yet off the cuff, like turning Mom’s leftovers into something new.
            And yet, Doom’s rapping takes a backseat to his production. MM...FOOD is sublimely produced almost entirely by Doom himself, with only the occasional assist from longtime collaborators Madlib and Count Bass D. Songs on MM...FOOD are typically constructed around a single sample, a jazzy track that’s been chopped and screwed and layered with drum fills; Doom’s a chef working in a fully stocked kitchen. He saves his strongest production for the back half of the album, replicating that deeply complicated feeling of eating something delicious too fast. The back-to-back tracks “Rapp Snitch Knishes” and “Vomitspit” highlight Doom at his most accessible, with deeply groovy and intriguing samples that wiggle their way into your head relentlessly. The early album cut “Potholderz,” meanwhile, is one of the most impeccably produced rap songs I’ve ever heard, comprised in equal parts of turntabling, an earworm-y bass line, and hard verses from Doom and Count Bass D. This album is painstakingly catchy, sometimes standing at odds with the monotone - and sometimes intentionally tone deaf - cadence that Doom raps.
            This being an MF Doom album, there are countless references to supervillians, comic books, and radical politics. These are the sides that populate the album, and to many listeners, they might come as a take-em-or-leave-em characteristic. These fit into a larger tendency across Doom’s discography, which is filled to the brim with mythos and world-building, sometimes to the detriment of the album; here, though, you can’t help but laugh at the exasperated screams of civilians shouting their need for food. MF Doom, the character, is a villain; he’s hoarding all the food, only serving the civilians when he sees fit. To me, though, this man is a hero, a genuine innovator in the world of hip-hop. If I could award him a James Beard award, I would; I think he’d hate that, though.
-         Harry Todd

Monday, March 25, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #214 - Maniac Cop (1988, dir. William Lustig)

            Though I am starting to come around on horror films lately, as I’ve mentioned in previous columns, horror and slasher films have never really been my thing. Even in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when slasher films seemed to be oversaturating the VHS release market, I never managed to stumble across any that I really loved. I was always more of a comedy or action flick kid myself, and one of my favorites when I was that age was a buddy cop film called Tango & Cash. To this day, I love that film, its stars Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone are both in their prime, fighting a parade of drug kingpins and ex-cons. One of my favorite antagonists from this film was a character named simply Face. He has one memorable scene in which he comes out of the shadows to square off against a trapped Tango and Cash. When he does, it is revealed how aptly named he is. Face, played by character actor Robert Z’Dar, has a tree-trunk neck, atop of which sits the equivalent of a Goodyear tire with a face on it. He’s got the biggest, squarest jaw you’ve ever seen and he is built like a wall made of cinder blocks. Of course, Tango and Cash felled him with one punch and the scene was immediately over, but as a kid, I NEVER forgot that face. I would occasionally see Z’Dar show up in other films (always playing scallywags villains and ne’er-do-wells) and it was always to my sheer delight.
            This review is not about Tango & Cash, though. Over a decade after my first cinematic encounter with him, Robert Z’Dar moved to my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa where I would run into him quite often. Over the years, I got to know him pretty well. He was always regaling my friends and I with stories of his time in show business and was never unwilling to answer anyone’s questions about his career or acting in general. He was active in our community and, when his health would allow it, was seemingly always working, acting in new films or producing new films. He was one of the nicest, most pleasant people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and I’m proud to have been able to call him a friend. Sadly, Z’Dar passed away in 2015 while attending a comic book convention in Florida. But his impact is still felt in my hometown to this day and he is dearly missed.
            One thing I didn’t know about Z’Dar when I first met him was that his hands-down best-known role was that of Officer Matt Cordell in the 1988 cult classic slasher film Maniac Cop. Come to think of it, I probably missed a lot of awesome horror films over the years because of my abstinence from that particular genre. But again, I am coming around and starting to catch up. That’s neither here nor there. Back to Maniac Cop. I just wasn’t familiar with it. When I finally did see it, I was mad that I hadn’t seen it sooner. It’s since become one of my favorites. Director William Lustig had already established himself deep within the slasher genre with 1982’s Vigilante and 1980’s Maniac. What sets Maniac Cop apart from many of the other slasher films of the era, to me, is that it is also kind of a pulpy police drama. It stars three of exploitation cinema’s most recognizable faces: Bruce Campbell, Tom Atkins and Richard Roundtree. Atkins plays veteran detective Frank McCrae, who is investigating a rash of seemingly random murders by an unidentified “boy-in-blue.” McCrae eventually traces the crimes to Officer Matt Cordell, a once clean, uncorrupted cop who was sent to prison on some trumped-up charges. While there, Cordell is jumped by a throng of inmates and was thought to have been murdered. Evidently back from the dead, and with the help of an ex-lover (Sheree North) who works in the police records department, Cordell is not only out for revenge, but out for blood. In his quest for vengeance, Cordell also kills the wife of rookie cop Jack Forrest (Campbell) and sets Forrest up to be the fall guy. McCrae tries to explain his theory to his superior, Commissioner Pike (Roundtree) to no avail, as Pike and just about the rest of the NYC police force, are convinced that Forrest is the maniac cop. Now its up to Forrest, McCrae and fellow officer Therese Mallory (Laurene Landon) to clear Jack’s name and stop Cordell.
           If anything, Maniac Cop (and its two sequels) puts a unique spin on a mostly played-out subgenre. Lustig and screenwriter Larry Cohen put the supposed good guys in the antagonist role, creating an air of paranoia for citizens and other police officers alike. Add to this the motive of revenge due to a system that unjustly imprisoned and innocent man and the gritty back drop of 1980s New York and you have the makings for a refreshingly good horror-action flick. R.I.P. Bobby Z.
            - Jonathan Eagle

Monday, March 18, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #227 - Keith Jarrett - The Köln Concert

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston S. Churchill
Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert is a remarkable piece of music. It has substance technically, and it is a prime example of a when all the circumstances align, good and bad, to create a masterpiece that defines a genre. As much as ECM is enjoying a creative resurgence over the last few years, this record is still ECM’s best-selling record without a question. When I first listened to the record I was struck by the range of genres that Jarrett draws from and utilizes. Clearly it is a jazz record, but within that he shows us aspects of classical, gospel, blues, and rock. I listened to it a lot. As with many records, the more I listened the more it seemed to open up for me and reveal new secrets and treasures. This was before I really knew the story of the circumstances around the recording, which in my opinion makes the record even more remarkable.
In January of 1975, Keith Jarrett, suffering from a lack of sleep and severe back pain,
arrived in Cologne (Köln) Germany to play a concert at the Opera House. To his dismay he discovered that the piano he requested to play had not been obtained, but instead, a smaller, inferior piano in need of repair had been wheeled on stage. Faced with either the prospect of cancelling the show or performing on the smaller, inadequate instrument he chose to perform on the ailing piano. Certain characteristics of the piano were weak: the bass register was underwhelming, the high register was thin and frail, forcing him to play the majority of the music in the middle register. In addition the sustain pedal, which allows a piano player to hold out notes for extended durations, was malfunctioning. Which brings me to the quote at the top. For whatever reason Keith Jarrett decided to play this concert as opposed to cancelling it, and we have the legendary result.
ECM is a label that has a different philosophy than some other jazz labels. They did not have the blues, swing, or style of Blue Note, or the new funk of the CTI label. Rather ECM had a concept of reflection and meditativeness, or awareness. This awareness was balanced with a coolness and a distance. This concept was often reinforced with a naturalistic cover art that showed a harsh and bleak northern European outdoors. An exception was made for the cover art for The Köln Concert. It features a black and white photo of Jarrett with his head slumped over, playing the piano. He seems immersed or entranced. Rather than market the distant landscapes of an icy north ECM chose to market a personality. It seemed to work. The sales have been prolific.
It has been said that this record was one of the bedrock records for “New Age” music. However ECM’s cerebral detachment and headiness is the opposite of music that is put on for yoga, inspiration, or stress management. This record may be in the center of a certain Venn diagram that allows for people to speculate that it is “New Age” but they would be mistaken. The musical language is too sophisticated. This record might be in somebody’s record collection next to Ornette Coleman, Black Sabbath, or George Winston. It has also earned a reputation as chillout record or stoner record. So yes it has a reputation, but to dismiss it as “New Age” would be incorrect.
The concert is divided into four parts. Over two LPs Pt. 1 takes up side A, and then Pt. 2 is split into A, B, and C, over the three remaining sides (or tracks on CD). Part One begins with a reflective and melancholic melodic exploration. This gives way to a progression of major chords that leads to a brief ostinato, or recurring melodic motif. After the ostinato, melodic ideas and runs begin to occur. The right hand flourishes gain in frequency over a left hand ostinato and then start to fade out. These cascading runs continue for a few minutes then the intensity of the ostinato increases by way of thickening chords. Jarrett must sustain all the motion and energy with his fingers since the sustain pedal is broken, which makes the pure sound generated much more impressive. Around the 11-minute mark, harmonic variety is introduced and changes the tone of the piece. Instead of just alternating between a few chords he allows a progression to develop, which allows a broadness and depth into the music. Near the 15-minute mark another slower, reflective section is introduced. He explores the upper register of the piano in a way that would not necessarily exploit its deficiencies. By gently probing the upper register and not exploring it in full force he can make the instrument speak without making it sound overly trebly. Much of the chordal movement in the next few minutes seems to be an exploration of the mid register and low register, a gauging of the piano’s capabilities. At the 21-minute mark another ostinato, or rhythmic bed is established. This ostinato is a thicker bed, in the middle register where the piano is most fundamentally sound. The vamp gradually expands with melodic statements, explorations into the bass region, and increases in density through rhythmic activity. This motif closes out the first improvisation.
Pt. 2 A begins with Jarrett again setting up a rhythmic figure in his left hand which he can play a short melody over and begin to improvise. He sets up the tonality and mood by repeating the melody a few times and letting the vamp settle over the first minute and a half. He then begins to improvise with quite a bit of energy. At almost six minutes into the improvisation Jarrett seems to work into some block chords that provide relief from the rhythmic figure for a moment; they also provide a glimpse of a different texture, one that he will work his way towards. He then returns to the ostinato with more vigor and reinforces the figure in the bass register to work it to a climax. Around eight minutes into the piece he shifts moods to a much more somber, exploratory, and harmonically rich improvisation. The melody jumps between registers as chords search for resolution, giving the section its weighty feel. Eventually, with a couple minutes left in the track, a theme in a major, more hopeful-sounding key is incorporated. Jarrett works thru the resolution and the track ends, suspended in the high register of the piano. The track was originally split to be placed on LP and even listening on CD when looking at the tracks switching over it makes the listener consider if the cuts are precise, or if they left a second or more out.
Pt. 2 B starts out firmly in a minor key and Jarrett once again sets up a vamp that he can improvise over. He stays in this intense atmosphere for six or seven minutes before expanding the harmony further out in a minimalist expansion. He uses full chords in the midrange of the piano at loud volume for maximum emotional intensity. To compensate for the broken sustain pedal he uses a rocking set of inner voices creating a sound reminiscent of minimalist composers Steve Reich or Philip Glass but with more harmonic motion. Just before the 12-minute mark a new major, or lighthearted, theme is introduced. This is my personally my favorite track. It seems as if he has figured out the instrument and opened up the faucet of his creativity. The improvisation content of these next few minutes always blows me away if I am listening carefully.
The record has an additional track but I am out of space. I could write more about it but you should listen to it. It’s inspired; it is great music. Plus, it almost never happened! In his book Free Jazz Ekkehard Jost suggests “In Jazz it is not always appropriate to ascribe the initiative for shaping new principles of creation, or abandoning old ones, to an individual or a small circle of innovators.” His theory is that only in the “rarest instances” does an individual provide a beacon of genre defining work. It seems to me as if The Köln Concert captures one of these rare instances.
-         Doug Anderson