Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #66 - Fitzcarraldo (1982, dir. Werner Herzog)

Lawyer: “May I ask you a personal question? Do you really know what you’re doing?”
Fitzcarraldo: “We’re gonna do what nobody’s ever done.”

Like a lot of films I love, the bizarre and obsessive lead character of this film reflects the bizarre and obsessive director who brought his vision to the screen. And like the character Fitzcarraldo (portrayed with wide-eyed manic intensity by director Werner Herzog’s “best fiend” Klaus Kinski), Herzog had his sights set on doing with this film what nobody’s ever done, something that he decided – rightly, I’d say – was unique enough to call himself "Conquistador of the Useless" (later the name of a book of his production notes from the making of this film).
A bit of back story first: in the late 19th century, Carlos Fitzcarrald, an Irish-American-Peruvian made a fortune selling rubber he claimed in a remote part of the Amazon jungle, inaccessible by rapids in both directions on the nearest river. He managed to access the river by crossing a narrow isthmus where the turbulent river is separated from a second river by only a short mountain. Fitzcarrald sailed upriver, dissembled his ship, reassembled it on the other side and voila! he had access to the rubber tree forest in which he made his fortune.
But Herzog decided it wouldn’t be interesting enough to take apart a 32-ton steamer and have it rebuilt. Why stick to reality when you can have cinema? Instead he floated a 300+ ton steamer up river, cut a path across the mountain and built a winch and pulley system with the help of hundreds of native Peruvians and dragged the steamship over the mountain, without the use of any special effects. The effect of the actual steamship being propelled up the mountainside is remarkable. You can’t believe your eyes but there’s the evidence right there in front of you. It's truly insane. And beautiful. And it's wild optimism of a kind almost never seen in this world to make such a thing into reality. And it’s justifiably legendary, so I hope I didn’t need a spoiler alert there.
Back to the film: Herzog, after several setbacks, drafted Kinski to portray Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (pronounced “Fitzcarraldo,” we’re told, because the locals couldn’t say “Fitzgerald”) and I can’t imagine that he could possibly have made a better choice, with Kinski’s wild face and intense stare conveying without a single sound out of his mouth the desire his character has to make his fortune. But he has no real desire to get rich – his dream is to bring the opera to the town of Iquitos where he lives and have the finest opera house in the jungle, a place so grand that he can have Caruso open it and have his pet pig sit in his own box and a red velvet chair. He’s tried two other moneymaking enterprises before to make his dream come true – the Trans-Andean railway (“but the project fell through”) and now an ice factory (“What good is ice here? To cool the rubber?”) and has now settled on becoming the latest rubber baron by crossing the mountain with his steamship.
The film itself follows his mad dream through – he surrounds himself with like minded eccentrics, from his girlfriend Molly, a madam in a local brothel who can help pull the purse strings of some potential investors, to his drunken cook Huerequeque, who helps him communicate with the natives, to the baron Don Aquilino who loves gambling enough to fund Fitzcarraldo’s dream for his own amusement and also take bets on the side as to whether he’ll be killed by hostile natives or go broke first. Herzog slowly puts pieces into place as Fitzcarraldo hatches his idea, puts it into action, assembles his crew, and then, almost an hour into the film, begins his journey upstream. Some people call the film ‘slow’ as a result of this type of pacing, especially when coupled with its many lengthy shots of the boat drifting around bends in the river while records of Caruso blare from the ship’s deck. I wouldn’t have it any other way because the payoff of Fitzcarraldo’s mad journey is that much sweeter. I also find the stunning photography in the jungle hypnotic in the extreme – cinematographer Thomas Mauch had worked with Herzog before several times, including his other Amazonian epic, 1972’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, in which Kinski played a mad European conquerer seeking a fortune in gold in the Amazonian jungle. Familiar? Maybe a bit, but the tone of the two films couldn’t be more different. Where Aguirre finds the greedy expedition falling apart in infighting, sickness, and madness, Fitzcarraldo is about a man winning out against all odds, beating the naysayers and making even the most farfetched dreams come true. When the shot arrives of the steamship on mountain while Caruso plays it’s an indelible moment of cinema. It’s inspiring, each and every time out. After a point in the film when his idea seems achievable, everyone – viewer included – is simply swept up in his dream.
            For more about the film, I’d also direct you to the superb documentary Burden of Dreams, in which filmmaker Les Blank recounts the troubled production of the film that dragged on over four years – a story nearly as legendary as the film that actually made it to screen. Sick actors, injured crew, months of footage that needed to be scrapped, on-set fights with cast and crew – everything is detailed in Blank’s film that acts as a companion piece to Fitzcarraldo itself and shows Herzog to be as much a mad dreamer as the character he put on screen. If they’re not the same person at heart, they’re certainly two sides of the same coin.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, May 13, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #65 - Wild River (1960, dir. Elia Kazan)

Elia Kazan is one of those filmmakers that makes it damn near impossible to pick a favorite film because of such a vast number of inarguable masterpieces to choose from. I’ve had many an argument over whether A Streetcar Named Desire is superior to East of Eden, or why On The Waterfront will always best Gentlemen’s Agreement. But, at the end of the day, when looking back at such an intimidating filmography, I have to side with Kazan himself and crown Wild River as his best picture. Or, if not best, at least the most fascinating.
            Wild River tells the tale of Chuck Glover (played incredibly by Montgomery Clift, expertly delivering a performance that falls somewhere between the classical acting of old, and the wave of method acting that Kazan loved so dearly), a US. Marshall working for TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), with the ultimate goal of excising a stubborn old woman named Ella from her farm on an island. TVA is attempting this because the Tennessee River (as we learn in a poignant opening newsreel footage scene of a father recounting his battle with the river as it swept away his three children) has claimed countless lives and flooded the area for years. Their goal is to dam up the river and control its flow, thus bringing electricity and safety to the area.
            The aforementioned stubborn old lady is brought to life by Jo Van Fleet (Cool Hand Luke, The Tenant and Kazan’s own East of Eden), who is 45, portraying an 80 year old. Ella is a proud woman who aggressively guards the farm that has been in her family for decades. Of course (we are in Hollywood) she has a widowed granddaughter that will serve as a perfect catalyst and love interest for Chuck. Chuck inevitably begins to fall in love with Carol (an entrancing Lee Remick with the most piercing blue eyes since Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas), and the two of them begin the battle of trying to create the best possible situation for Ella, whilst navigating the waters of falling in love.
            Now, why should you care about this film more than any other Kazan film? Very simply, Kazan is playing by the same rules he built a career on, but has added a layer of subtlety that muddies the waters. Those familiar with him will no doubt expect some sort a tortured, tumultuous relationship at the core of the film. That expectation will certainly be met, but the romance here feels so earnest and organic that it becomes the centerpiece for the characters and the audience to latch onto as the film descends into darkness. Kazan couldn’t resist a passionate, animalistic love story and Wild River offers quite a different angle to approach what could have been a typical love affair. Rather than retreading old territory with in-your-face lovers and their quarrels, like A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan is this time placing love right beneath the thin, near-exploding surface. The entire film bubbles with sexual tension and the anticipatory tingle of promised violence. Contrary to assertions at the times of its release, Wild River is anything but a slow film. Rather than allowing what is surely one of Kazan’s most melodramatic stories to reach eye-rolling levels of convenience and contrivance, he allows the story to unfold meticulously and purposefully.
             Kazan’s films were often concerned with touchy social issues of their time. Wild River wasn’t the first time Kazan tackled inequalities for African Americans (that would be Pinky), but the Depression-era setting certainly highlights the lunacy of continuing prejudice in America. Kazan holds no punches and indicts Southern culture (including the police force), the idea of progress for the sake of progress, the American dream, and the archaic ideas of segregation and inequality. Ella Garth runs a large farm predominantly with the help of African American farm hands that she pays, provides shelter for, and becomes a sort of mother to. Chuck decides that that is simply not enough. He endeavors to pay the African American men $5 a day. It’s no mistake that the rate happens to be the same that the white men in town receive. This causes a hullabaloo which results in a stand off that is most certainly a precursor to Sam Peckinpah’s nightmarish hell in Straw Dogs.
            Kazan is far too complicated as a filmmaker to set up what seems to be inevitable; the progressive new comer in town proves that his new ideas and technologies are the obvious way to advance society and the locals enact violence to hold onto their way of life tooth and nail. The film certainly seems as if that is the direction we are headed, but Kazan gives both Chuck and Ella a fair shake at presenting their side. In Kazan’s world, they are both right. The film makes no attempts at an easy out. We are not given a comfortable conclusion that awards the characters (and audience) for wading through this complicated world of grey. Instead, the film attempts to best represent the way the world actually works. A resolution must be met, but it most certainly won’t be the one that everyone hoped for.
            Wild River was also the last film on which Montgomery Clift seemed to maintain a certain level of self-control. He was on his way down battling an addiction to pills and alcohol. This addiction following a brutal car crash, resulting in an intensive rebuild of the actor’s face. His next endeavor was John Huston’s The Misfits with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe (battling many addictions of her own) notoriously mentioned on set that Clift was the only person in worse shape than her. Perhaps this explains some of the undeniable desperation we get in Clift’s eyes and body language. If you ask this reviewer, he never turned in a bad performance (especially excelling in Hitchcock’s I Confess), but Wild River remains his most fascinating and quite possibly best. Clift’s famous method acting never seemed so raw and exposed as in Wild River. Considering Clift only lasted six years after Wild River was made, I think it is safe to consider this performance as a straw headed for the camel’s back: a story so firmly rooted in the grey area; a story that begins with a man so certain of what he believes and fights for, but ultimately ending in confusion, frustration and bitter acceptance. You can find all of these complications increasingly present in Clift’s eyes throughout the film.
             At its core, Wild River remains a fierce deconstruction of the American dream - the fierce individualism versus the “progress” of the future. Is it all for the greater good or is the future simply an unstoppable train? Kazan and his incredible team wrestle with these ideals with a melancholic urgency that pulls the viewer in and forces us to think. Wild River places a messy portrait of America right in our laps and refuses to be ignored. But, as with most Kazan films, it’s a quiet desperation cursed with the knowledge of the past and the dread of the future. Kazan hopes with all of his heart that things will change, but remains skeptical until proven otherwise.

If Wild River is a clear-eyed examination of the difficulty in balancing the greater good with individual rights, it's also a swan song to a disappearing way of life.” - Casey Broadwater

- Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center

Monday, May 6, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #81 - Mazzy Star - So Tonight That I Might See

There is a famous quote attributed to Brian Eno that goes something like: “Only 100 people bought the first Velvet Underground record, but they all started bands.” This quote makes reference to the hypnotic qualities of that wonderful album, but doesn’t go into the people who bought it. Mazzy Star mastermind David Roback must have been one of them, because he takes many of The Velvet Underground’s greatest accomplishments and gives them a spit-shine for the MTV generaton. Mazzy Star’s basic features were Roback’s sumptuous, spacious arrangements produced with all the echo and fuzzed out guitars you could possibly want, however all of it was to frame the 9th wonder of the world: singer Hope Sandoval’s make-you-weak-in-the-knees voice.

“So Tonight That I Might See” is Mazzy Star’s second album and contains their only accidental hit “Fade Into You” which caught on and the video got quite a bit of play. That does not alter the fact that Mazzy Star were strictly an underground band making fairly non-commercial psychedelic music in an age that encouraged hair metal and synth pop. It was from that environment that Mazzy Star came forth with songs sculpted from fed- back guitars, ominous organ undertones and Sandoval’s controlled and beautiful voice. Except for one cover (Love’s contemplative “Five String Serenade”) all the songs are original compositions showing off the natural synergy Roback achieved by letting the vocal remain the star at the very center of every song. When given a natural talent this profound, the test of the band- leader and producer is largely to get out of the way and create backgrounds that are sympathetic to her gift. Which isn’t to say that Mazzy Star is in anyway minimalist, because they created some of the richest psych beds for Sandoval’s voice to lay on since The Doors stepped aside for Jim Morrison’s equally scene-stealing voice.

Roback came about his sensibilities as part of L.A.’s “Paisley Underground” movement of the early 80’s. He was a founding member of Rain Parade, Rainy Day and Opal before discovering Hope Sandoval (a Rain Parade fan) and offering to produce her. What followed was a classic rock and roll Pygmalion story with the two players weaving in and out of each other’s lives seemingly forever. In 2011 and 20112 Mazzy Star released a single and played a handful of gigs, raising hope that they would finish their long-promised fourth album and resume touring for the faithful. Like all periods of their career it has come in fits and starts with no resolution on the horizon. In the meantime we have their first three albums to content us, “So Tonight That I Might See” being the most immediately rewarding with Sandoval’s vocal powers reaching new heights on masterpieces like the tough-edged “Wasted” the icy “Mary Of Silence” and what could be her finest performance on record, the slow, darkly haunting “Into Dust.” Roback delicately picks acoustic guitar with a subtle string arrangement behind him, and Hope Sandoval gives one of the most hauntingly controlled vocal performances I’ve ever heard. It is as powerful as it is delicate.

The title track ends the album in what can only be called a tribute to The Velvet Underground with a droning guitar and a marching beat under Sandoval hypnotically intoning lyrics as if in a trance. The song concludes 7 minutes later in a hail of squealing guitar notes. The album strikes a perfect balance between familiar sounds and some misty new land, finding a place that is nostalgic yet totally fresh. If we are lucky, Sandoval and Roback will find their way to this place again and continue their journey, if not they have left some fantastic evidence that they existed.
-Paul Epstein

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Chris Haney and Barry Fey - Strange Bedfellows Department

 At first I thought I had nothing to say about either of these deaths, and I certainly didn’t see any valid connection between the two people, but as my feelings have sorted out a little I am starting to see some weird connection-at least in my life.

I was, like a lot of people, devastated by the news that Chris Haney had been killed in a tragic and seemingly pointless shooting at the Denny’s on Alameda and I-25. I have been touched and a little surprised at how many people knew and loved this gentle man. I am surprised because I was ignorant of the man he had become. Because in my heart Chris will always be the little boy I knew; the kid who grew up a block from the house Jill and I and our kids lived in for over 30 years. He and our son Ben became close friends in 7th grade when they were both going to Merrill Middle School. Along with Caleb Braaten (who now owns the ultra-hip Sacred Bones record label in NYC) they were the Three Amigos. My nickname for him was Hanaroonie. For a short time our telephone message at home was Ben and Chris playing guitars and singing a Suicidal Tendencies song. For a few years there they were inseparable, discovering baseball cards, then music, then mild delinquency, then shaky adulthood together. To me, they were just kids. I remember about six months after I started Twist and Shout, a young customer from South High came in and informed me that his friend Chris Haney was going around telling everyone at school that he and Ben and Caleb were going to be taking over and they’d be running the store because I would have to be retiring soon (I think I was 30 at the time). It totally cracked me up then and makes me smile still. It is also emblematic of the person Chris became. I have no doubt that Chris said it with complete conviction and the best of intentions. He had a wide-eyed infectious optimism and internal sweetness that made me always want to root for him. He didn’t change much over the years in my eyes-he got taller and taller and taller, balder and balder (hmmm I’m beginning to see why I relate to him so well), but when I would run into him at Gothic shows or at Twist or just out he seemed like that same goofy, nice kid. He loved music, and he stayed true to his roots and upbringing. He went to the clubs and he worked at the clubs. He was a fixture at the Gothic and seemed to such a natural part of the local scene-the good part of the music biz.

To me, Barry Fey represented the other side of the music business. And by that I don’t necessarily mean the “bad” side, but rather the “adult” side. As a part of the music business myself I have come to understand that in many ways the biz side is bigger than the music side. Barry Fey was that. He wasn’t about the music really, he was about the business getting done and getting done right. He did it too. When I moved to Denver in 1968 it still called itself a cowtown. Barry Fey was one of the major reasons that changed. With the music came relevance to the counterculture, which in many ways has turned into mainstream greatness as a city, which Denver most certainly has. Obviously Fey did not do this himself. He was an awfully big part of it though. Decades of incredible shows at Red Rocks, arenas, theatres, stadia and clubs left an amazing legacy. For me, he was an abstract figure for years, this big guy onstage at countless shows making announcements. Tales of his terrifying temper were famous. When I got into the music business in the 80’s he was sort of on his way out as a promoter, but that was when I started crossing paths with Barry. He would come into the store and talk to me, or I would make him a mix tape for some bus tour he was doing, or he would fish around to see what his memorabilia was worth. I would see him walking in the park occasionally, or eating in a restaurant. One time we went to a party at his house, but for the most part he was still a pretty distant guy. In the last year he did a book signing at the store and he was really trying to be nice. He seemed frail. Then The Colorado Music Hall Of Fame (on whose board I serve) inducted him at a ceremony in Boulder. He seemed even more frail and walked past me like we had never met. All this might lead you to believe I didn’t mourn Fey, but as news of his death (apparently suicide) has sunk in I have felt a diffuse sense of loss. Live music made me who I am in many ways, and Barry Fey made live music happen in Denver for my most important concert going years. Whatever failings and weaknesses he had as a human being don’t really matter because he made a huge difference in all our lives who lived through his era.

So Barry was the adult, and Chris was the kid, and somewhere in between these two very different poles lies me and Twist and Shout and The Gothic and The High Dive and all the weird corners of Denver and You and your friends and family. Hold them tight.

-Paul Epstein