Monday, June 27, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On: At the Movies #16: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, dir. Sam Peckinpah)

John: “You’re a loser.”
Bennie: “Nobody loses all the time!”
This movie isn’t for everyone. It’s a grimy, violent allegory detailing the journey of a desperate man at the end of his rope, an alcoholic named Bennie (a brilliant performance by Warren Oates), looking for a way out of the life he’s found himself in by doing the dirty work of a faceless syndicate that stands to make a million dollars if someone delivers them the head of one Alfredo Garcia, who seems to have impregnated and then broken the heart of a millionaire rancher’s daughter. Of course Bennie doesn’t know this and only gets 10 grand for his work, but that’s enough for him – at first. There’s a lot of machismo on display, a lot of slow motion (and regular motion) gunplay, a lot of heavy drinking; there are hardly any likable characters, their sadness is palpable in nearly every scene, and there’s the decapitated head of the title – in short, there are a lot of reasons not to like the movie, and I haven’t even begun to enumerate them all. But it’s also a hugely compelling film – for my money it’s probably Sam Peckinpah’s best, even better than the more renowned (and equally grim and violent) The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs – and once Bennie’s quest of escape slowly turns into something else (a search for some kind of redemption perhaps?), it’s like an unstoppable roll downhill with no brakes that’s sure to end in disaster.
Oh, the allegory part? Director Peckinpah had, by this time in his career, acquired a reputation for being a “difficult” director, fighting constantly with the studios he worked for over putting his visions onscreen. He was an alcoholic and drank regularly on set and off. He’d waste time and money getting exactly what he wanted without communicating that clearly to others. And when he was done shooting the studios as often as not took his finished products and re-edited them without his consent to fit some perceived version of a commercial product that Peckinpah’s films rarely if ever were. Without too much of a stretch you can see Bennie as Peckinpah, expending every bit of his life and energy to deliver a product to an organization who could not care less that the product has (or had, anyway) a real life of its own and ties to real people; they’re only interested in the money that said product could generate. Who cares if someone gets hurt along the way? Warren Oates is said to have modeled Bennie’s mannerisms after Peckinpah himself: blustering, aggressive, and yelling one moment, tender, reflective and thoughtful the next, but clearly always working with a sense of purpose and a goal in mind, even when that goal is simply to finish something to prove that he can do it and that he’s not the loser he’s accused of being.
When we first see Bennie, he's playing a crappy sing-along version of "Guantanamera" in a shitty bar for tourists in a small Mexican town, then bluffing his way past a couple bounty hunters searching for Alfredo Garcia. He never takes his sunglasses off so they can't read his eyes (he rarely does throughout the film, even when he’s asleep) as he feigns ignorance of Garcia, only to turn around and go find his on-and-off girlfriend and Garcia’s former flame Elita (played by Isela Vega in one of the finest, most well-rounded and warmest female performances in any Peckinpah film) to start tracking Garcia down himself. They head off together to find him and perhaps escape to a new life only to find that Garcia is already dead, which might make their work easier. Or harder, as it turns out.
The first half of the film is dedicated to Bennie learning about the bounty and going after Garcia. Once he’s acquired the head in question the second act comes in and all the violence and seediness that’s been bubbling under the surface of the first half begins to erupt, which it does with increasing severity for the rest of the film. The first half feels like a chance for Elita and Bennie to maybe make better lives for themselves – even if it’s literally at the expense of another person. The second half finds Bennie forgetting about escape and merely seeking some kind of proof that he’s worthwhile, that nobody loses all the time. "Here's the merchandise you bought." says Bennie with deep irony and anger as he brings the head to the rancher at the moment Garcia’s own son's christening is being celebrated. It’s not hard to envision Peckinpah turning in his final cut of the film to studio heads with the same contempt. Once, Peckinpah was asked if he would ever make a ''pure Peckinpah'' and he replied, ''I did Alfredo Garcia and I did it exactly the way I wanted to. Good or bad, like it or not, that was my film.''
- Patrick Brown

Friday, June 17, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On: At the Movies #15: Repo Man (dir. Alex Cox, 1984)

      Any discussion involving quintessential 80's movies usually skews toward the John Hughes end of the spectrum. In 1984, on his first film, director and screenwriter Alex Cox showed the other side of 80’s America. Repo Man is the flipside of life in Shermer, IL and its cute and harmless characters - a sprawling, decaying Los Angeles filled with too many people, too many cars, oppressive government agencies, and a seemingly ubiquitous science-fiction-author-inspired religion on the rise. Far from being bleak, Repo Man is hilarious - L.A. culture is skewered on all fronts: car culture and sprawl (“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”), hippie parents who have completely lost touch (“We're sending bibles to El Salvador...”), the wealthy and entitled (“Fuckin' millionaires. Never pay their bills”), and 80’s punk culture (“I blame society.” “Bullshit. You're a white suburban punk. Just like me”).
The numerous story lines swirl around each other, overlapping bit by bit until everything is hurtling toward the finale. Incidental characters reappear in random places, and random background pieces and people are jokes waiting to be caught (“Can't believe I used to be into these guys”). There is a depth to the story, the plots, and the characters that is really only revealed after repeated viewings. There is much more than meets the eye (and UFOS are really-- yeah, you got it: time machines).
The characters are so diverse and so incredibly well written that they had to have been based on real people (I've read Alex Cox worked as a repo man for a while). Emilio Estevez is the punk rocker who stumbles into this bizarre world (“You repo men are all out to fuckin' lunch”). Harry Dean Stanton is full-on stellar as a platitude-spouting (“it’s what I call the Repo Code, kid - nobody lives by a code anymore”), hard-drinking (count the number of times he says "lets go get a drink") tough guy who firmly believes his own clichés (and gives some of the best insults in cinema history).  Perhaps the best of them all, and certainly the most quoted (“say you're thinkin’ about a plate of shrimp”) though is Tracy Walter as Miller, the yard laborer and philosopher (“I spend a lot of time thinkin’ about these things. I do my best thinkin’ on the bus”).
Throw some missing aliens into the trunk of a Chevy Malibu, castigate the rampant banality of Reagan's America, top it with a soundtrack of mostly LA punk bands, and you've got yourself one hell of a strange and wonderful little movie. Just remember - only an asshole gets killed for a car, kid.
- Dave Spethman

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On #34 - Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters (1973, Columbia)

Artists usually aren't able to blow your mind twice.  After they've blown it the first time, your brain forms the association: "Warning - this artist blew your mind that one time, so be prepared for it possibly happening again."  I hold fast to that theory to explain why Head Hunters didn't blow my mind.  Not on first, or second, or even tenth listen.  Because Herbie Hancock had already blown my mind once.
As a newbie teenager in 1983, my musical tastes hadn't progressed very far.  "Out there" probably meant listening to the B-sides of my Duran Duran singles.  But then I saw the video for Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" on MTV (a lot).  Cheaply-made, malfunctioning robots cast hostile glances, set to a pounding beat, funky backing track, and heavy turntable work.  Seeing how this video was sandwiched in between videos by Culture Club and a Flock of Seagulls, I guess it's no wonder that it stuck out enough that I ended up getting the full-length album.  I'm not sure why I brought the album to play for my piano teacher - maybe I wanted to learn the piano breakdown in "Autodrive."  But it ends up she not only knew of Herbie Hancock, she had several albums of his, and was nice enough to let me borrow a few of them.  I took them home, listened to them, taped them, brought them back.  And all through my adolescence, up through my college years, I kept coming back to them.  And as time went on, I focused more and more on Head Hunters.
As I said, it didn't blow my mind.  It wasn't the poppiest thing I had borrowed from my piano teacher (I think Sunlight was in the stack of LPs I borrowed), nor was it the most "out there" (Crossings was in there, too).  As such, it fit somewhere in between, and so it was just "one of the stack."  Which allowed Head Hunters to grow on me, on repeated plays, until it was something I knew as well, or better, than any pop in my collection.
My pet theory is that you can tell a lot by how great an album is by focusing on your least favorite track.  On Head Hunters, for me, that track is "Sly."  It's ten minutes of well-executed funk with some great keyboard soloing on top, which is pretty impressive for a "least favorite track."  "Vein Melter" is a well-named mood piece, with layers of keyboards and sax nudging the song higher and lower.  The keyboard solo about six minutes into the track used to invariably make me go cold all over (or, if you will, "melt my veins") - an involuntary reaction that was only defeated by deliberate over-familiarization.  I had no idea that "Watermelon Man" was a cover of his own jazz track (no surprise there), but it was such a massive overhaul that when I finally heard the original, I didn't make the connection at all.  Opening and closing with a somewhat creepy beer-bottle-turned-wind-instrument, the bulk of the song is a just-shy-of-sluggish slab of funk that I would have considered "druggy" had I been less innocent back then.  Since I wasn't, it instead reminded me (as it still does) of seeing a smiling neighbor fanning himself on his porch on the hottest day of the year.
Then there's "Chameleon."  One of those exceptionally rare fifteen-minute songs that fades out before I'm ready for it to be over.  The song may be funky, but it's a relaxed sort.  It boasts a friendly sort of bassline and shuffling beat that's a bit odd, but still manages to not wear out its welcome as the keyboard and sax take turns soloing on top.  Plenty of funk, jazz and soul bands have taken a stab at "Chameleon" - some quite well - but none seem to really recapture the lightning that Herbie and the band managed to bottle.  And there may be the crux of Head Hunters.  It may be funky, loose, and have a very casual vibe, but apparently it isn't as simple as all that.  The cool vibes and funk may have drawn me in, but the fact that I'm still noticing and appreciating stuff after hundreds of plays suggests there's a lot more going on here.  Maybe after another couple hundred plays, I'll have it all sussed out.
- Alf

Friday, June 10, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - A Treasure

There are a few Neil Youngs. There’s the singer/songwriter of Buffalo Springfield/CSNY/Crazy Horse fame, the author of countless rock and folk classics; there’s the guitar warrior, capable of puncturing eardrums with feedback and volume; there’s the experimental iconoclast who confounds critics and fans by never being predictable or giving them exactly what they expect; and there is also the down home Neil, the guy who pays homage to the country music he grew up hearing, sounding like a beacon across the great expanse of loneliness between Nashville and Canada. When Neil released his Old Ways record of country-tinged rockers and ballads, he not only succeeded in driving David Geffen apeshit, he seemed to really strike a chord in his own musical sensibilities as well. He embarked on a cross-country tour with a real live country band that included fiddlemaster Rufus Thibodeaux, Nashville legend Spooner Oldham and other legit members of the C&W world. The 1984 tour stopped at Red Rocks and the Cheyenne Rodeo. I went to both, and I will never forget Rufus Thibodeaux almost sawing his fiddle in half during a downpour while the band soared through “Down By The River.” Neil did play some of his other material on this tour, but everything had a very authentic country feel to it.
Now 27 years later Neil is releasing a keepsake of that wonderful tour. A Treasure compiles many highlights from the tour into a beautiful package that will make Neil fans smile. Containing 12 songs, many of them will be unfamiliar to fans as they were never given an official release. The band is as warm and seasonal as roasted chestnuts, playing with the confidence that is born in authenticity not artifice. Highlights include Neil’s lovely song to his daughter “Amber Jean,” a beautiful take on the Springfield classic “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong,” the touching ballad “Nothing Is Perfect” and the barn burning versions of “Southern Pacific” and the unreleased “Grey Riders.” From the pastoral cover painting to the familial vibe of the performances this is indeed a treasure.
As a special reward to independent stores, we were given both versions (180 gram and regular weight) of the vinyl to sell a week early. The CD and a deluxe CD/Blu-Ray version with live footage will be out next week.

Wrap-up for Foster the People live at Twist and Shout 6/8

Foster the People played a semi-acoustic set yesterday to a crowd of 170 fans.  The crowd was full of excited music lovers, many of whom were dancing along to the songs.  Mark Foster's lead vocals were surprisingly enriched by his acoustic guitar.  This band is mainly known for having an indie-electro sound so it was really cool to see the stripped down version of the summer hit "Pumped Up Kicks." The band played a four-song set and stayed for the large line of fans who were anxious to get anything signed by the band.  One girl even had an app on her phone for autographs, which just goes to show this was a young hip crowd.  There were new customers as well as a lot of regulars.  Most folks had already purchased the album but ended up picking up boutique items and lots of other good stuff while here.  The band was super friendly and so gracious to give us all so much time when they had a sold out show later at the Bluebird Theater.  This was one of those in-stores that just made everyone here happy.  I couldn't get their songs out of my head all night and I love when that happens.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - More Good Releases

The Blasters - Live 1986
The Blasters hold a special place in rock history. They managed to capture the spirit of a past era while never becoming a tribute band. Just as punk was exploding across the airwaves in the late 70’s and early 80’s this pompadoured group from Downey, California showed up playing revved up roots music that seemed to wink at Joe Turner and Hank Williams with one eye, while slaying audiences with the manic fury of a punk show. Led by battling brothers Dave and Phil Alvin, they burned bright for about a decade before Dave had to go off and make his own albums. Phil has kept the band going in one form or another (occasionally with Dave making appearances) but the glory days of this band were dependent on the two Alvins being on stage together and driving the music with the their love/hate relationship. This recording from California in early 1986 offers ample evidence of the original line-up’s power. This is not long before Dave would leave the band and piano player Gene Taylor had recently left leaving the original four - Dave and Phil on guitars and vocals, John Bazz on bass and Bill Bateman on drums to play their stripped down version of jumpin’ “American Music.” Containing many of the best songs from their three Warner Brothers records (The Blasters, Non-Fiction and Hard Line) as well as some great covers (Jr. Wells, Jr. Parker) the band is just on fire from start to finish. It is the combination of Dave Alvin’s great American-short-story-in-less-than-three-minutes lyrics with Phil’s I’m-the-workin’-man’s-workin’-man vocal delivery and onstage demeanor that put the songs across. When The Blasters are at their best, it feels like you are witnessing the prototypical four kids in a garage bashing out their dreams with heart and soul. They make a joyful, righteous sound and some of Dave’s songs - like “Rock and Roll Will Stand,” “Border Radio,” “Red Rose” or “American Music” - are up there with some of the best rock music has to offer.
Later this month (21st to be exact) Dave Alvin’s new album Eleven Eleven will be coming out. It is another strong set of songs about life on the road and the poignancy to be found in this uprooted American life. Each of Alvin’s records introduces his listeners to a new set of drifters, broken-hearted romantics and those to be found just in the shadows of the stage lights. Of particular interest to this review is the song “What’s Up With Your Brother?” a hilarious duet between Phil and Dave where they good-naturedly explore their own love/hate relationship and the public’s inability to not ask them about each other. It is one of the best-natured moments on any Alvin release and a huge, fun moment for all Blasters fans. Hopefully this will clear the way for them to work together again (probably NOT the conclusion Dave would want us to make).
Steve Wynn & The Miracle Three - Northern Aggression
About the same time as The Blasters, there was a movement in LA of neo-psychedelic bands with an appreciation for the clanging intensity of modern punk, but the guitar sounds of bands like Velvet Underground, Love and Quicksilver. Chief amongst them was The Dream Syndicate, who made a handful of albums that matched a post-beatnik, Dylan-informed lyrical sense with some mighty intense guitar rock. The main songwriter, singer and guitar player in the band was Steve Wynn who has continued for the past twenty or so years to make intelligent, well-crafted albums that have been largely ignored by the public (as were Dream Syndicate’s). His new album is as good as any he has made. Eleven songs about paranoia, weirdness and twisted beauty, it will answer the questions you have about where all the good bands have gone. They are quietly making masterpieces on hip, small labels (Yeproc) out of the eye of the mainstream press. Northern Aggression’s most surprising feature is the precision and youthful intensity of Wynn’s guitar attack. This guy is no spring chicken, but he is shredding throughout this album, leaving your jaw on the floor again and again. His tone and use of pedals and reverb shows what a seasoned pro he is, yet the songs all feel fresh. Wynn is an excellent writer and an even better guitar player who deserves the attention of a substance-deprived listening public.
Brian Eno - 1971-1977 The Man Who Fell To Earth DVD
This is an interesting documentary about possibly THE most interesting man in the history of modern music. Brian Eno is really without peer. Or if he does have a peer, that person is to be found in the ranks of John Cage, Harry Partch or Steve Reich. He didn’t invent a type of music as much as he invented a new way to think about music. Along the way he was himself responsible for some of the most sublimely beguiling albums of the rock era. This documentary concerns itself with the period between Eno’s time in Roxy Music and the creation of his first four solo albums. Of course, Eno has gone on to make many albums since, pioneering ambient music, and has produced some of the biggest hitmakers of the modern age (Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and Coldplay to name a few), but the albums he made in the early to mid-70’s are a high water mark of sophisticated songcraft. Much of the most interesting stuff for me was hearing deep analysis of Here Come The Warm Jets, Another Green World, Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy and Before and After Science his four masterful solo albums from that era. There is not a huge amount of unseen footage to be found because Eno was not really a performing artist as much as a theoretical, studio creation. Thus, much of the movie is interviews with people who worked with him, over still photos. If he were not such an interesting subject this might be tedious but like Ken Burns’ documentary work, when the figure is as compelling as Brian Eno, one wants to drink in as much information as possible. The impression one is left with at the end of this documentary is that even more than the actual music he made, Brian Eno’s influence on other musicians may be his greatest legacy.

I'd Love To Turn You On: At the Movies #14: Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark (dir. James Signorelli, 1988)

When I sat down to watch the film Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark for the umpteenth time, since my first viewing at 11 years old in a theater in 1988, I was suddenly overcome with a depressing thought; without careful reminders, viewing, and discussion, it is possible that the current generation younger than mine will live in a world without knowing about the hilarious horror icon Elvira (nee Colorado Springs-raised actress Cassandra Peterson) and if there is anything I can do to keep that apocalypse from happening then I’m going to sound the trumpet now.
So, you may ask younger generation, who is this Elvira you speak of? In short, she was the host of Movie Macabre, a weekly late night television show that aired in the mid 80’s on NBC. The show paired a bad, old horror film with an introduction, commercial bumpers and epilogue done by Elvira, an amazing tower of comic genius, horror knowledge and sex appeal (she’s never met a boob joke or a punch line she didn’t like). She’s the voice and attitude of a true California Valley Girl mixed with the face and hair of a rocking Siouxsie Sioux and crossed with the va-va-vavoom and bawdiness of Mae West (younger gen: you may have to Google those references on your phone so I’ll wait for you to do that…ok, welcome back). Now, you could start your Elvira-cation by viewing a number of her old shows on DVD (available in some neat collections) or you can go straight for the main course and watch the self-titled film that really puts the whole package together. Co-written by Petersen and former Groundlings cast mate John Paragon (who also played Pee-Wee Herman’s genie friend Jambi - all Groundlings character creations that sweetly help define the 80s) the film is a laugh riot of campy sass and sexiness and a love letter to some of the great old horror films that Elvira lovingly spoofed every week on her show. It may also be the best television-to-film launch since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
In the film, Elvira is toiling away at her job as a local B-movie hostess at a sad little TV station when she quits due to yet another come-on by a skeezy station manager. This change puts a dent in her dreams of moving on to a big Vegas show as she needs to front $50,000 to produce it. What’s a flat-busted horror gal to do? The answer comes immediately when a telegram arrives informing our gal that she had a great-aunt Morgana who has died and left her something in her will, all she has to do is come to the appropriately named Falwell, Massachusetts to collect what she assumes is a big pay day. Arriving in town and instantly causing a furor with the town prude, Chastity Pariah (the always great Edie McClurg), Elvira and her boobs (really, they should have second and third billing in the film) learn that she hasn’t inherited money at all but instead she’s given her great aunt’s spooky old house, yappy poodle and a precious book of recipes which her creepy uncle Vincent (the great character actor William Morgan Sheppard) seems to be eyeing with suspicious motives. As Elvira tries harder and harder to fit in with the townsfolk while she tries to find a way to unload the house and woo a hapless but hunky movie theater owner in the process, she continually trades barbs with the town elders and inspires the teens who have never seen anything like her. It would be a shame to make a movie about Elvira and not bring in some horror elements so our heroine soon learns that her aunt’s recipe book is really a book of spells, revealing Morgana as a powerful witch and uncle Vincent as a bitter angry warlock who needs the book for the upcoming eclipse to transform him into the Master of the Dark. Will Elvira be able to tap into her own bloodline to save the town from Vincent’s power? Will anyone in Falwell ever give her a break? Will she ever make it to Vegas? And how does she keep those boobs from popping out of her dress?
Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark is easily one of the most quotable comedies ever made and so much of that has to do with Peterson’s performance as Elvira. The actress knows her character so well that it’s impossible to see where one ends and the other begins which allows for such a lived-in ease that every single joke and punch line escapes being a groaner and instead lands with perfection in each take. Whether displaying a comic sexiness with such lines as “My name is Elvira but you can call me…tonight” or giving off some sass (“I didn’t know I had a good aunt much less a great one”) and finding ways to comment on her cleavage as much as possible (one might say it happens too often in the film but I feel it doesn’t happen enough) it’s the comedic script that rings true and secures Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark as required viewing for anyone who wants a fun, campy introduction to one of the world’s greatest icons. In an effort to keep her status alive and well I will someday bring this film to my Watching Hour series at the Denver FilmCenter but it needs to be with the queen herself in-person, so until that can happen I recommend watching this film as often as you can so that it sticks with you as much as one of Elvira’s corsets. That’s saying something.
Keith Garcia
Programming Manager
Denver Film Society