Monday, September 30, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #74 - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007, dir. Julian Schnabel)

“I’ve decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed. My imagination and my memory. They’re the only two ways I can escape from my diving bell.”

            Imagine being completely paralyzed aside from one eye, yet you’re completely aware, your brain fully functional. Follow this imaginary tangent and imagine that a form of communication has been developed for you using the alphabet and specifically placed blinks in order to demarcate one letter at a time.  This is the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby.  He was able to communicate, one blink at a time, in order to write his memoir, the very work upon which this film is based.
After re-watching Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in preparation for this piece I found myself at a loss for words. Upon reflection I remembered feeling the exact same way after my first viewing; it’s hard to imagine that such a seemly direct story could hold such power. In this film, as well as the memoir of the same name it’s based on, we get the chance to live Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life for a spell. While the subject matter does surround a man who has gone through a massive stroke and suffers from locked-in syndrome, the film is not an entirely melancholic affair. Schnabel’s glorious visual realization of the memoir is truly an imaginative journey into an intriguing life filled with moments of wonder, frustration, melancholy (of course), tenderness, and a lively amount of sarcastic wit. With the use of cinematic technique and imaginative style the film sweeps the viewer through life in Bauby’s “diving bell.”
            The reason it’s difficult to find the words to describe this film is its visual nature; words just can’t describe the sway of its images. Much of the power of this film lies in the ways that Schnabel has chosen to convey this extraordinary memoir and the gorgeous images shot by Janusz Kaminski. For the majority of the film the camera lens truly becomes Bauby’s eye, it’s blurry when he first wakes up, images distort when his eye is strained, and everything in frame is immersed in water when he tears up. We even watch from his perspective, as one of his eyes is sewn shut to prevent ocular sepsis. In conjunction with this technique we are also provided his inner monologue as well as a front row seat, and/or his perspective shots, during a variety of flashbacks and imaginary dream sequences. Sometimes we even get a metaphorical look at how Bauby feels, stranded on a dead end pier in the middle of the water or screaming inside a lifeless diving suit. All of this comes together to truly place the viewer in his mind, not as merely a voyeur alongside the author.
            In addition to the way the story was told, the acting throughout the film is subtle and spot on. Mathieu Amalric is perfect both as the locked-in Bauby and the lively figure in memory. The entire supporting cast was spot on; Max Von Sydow even graced the screen as Jean-Dominique’s beloved, yet somewhat senile father. With every actor and actress the key seemed to be subtlety, even when the action expressed was exuberant, the true meaning is found between the lines. The fragile nature of life seemed to be a vine throughout the film.
            The bottom line is that this immersive film vividly brings to life an extremely interesting story. The subject matter could very easily have turned fodder for a cheap tear-jerker in the hands of a less capable director, but Schnabel, who’s helmed two other artist’s biopics, Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000), brings the film to life. In place of scenes specifically placed to pull at heartstrings we get a more realistic set of acts strung together to give us both a look into Bauby’s life and his experience with locked-in syndrome. It could easily be an all too sentimental film, however the film created is beautiful, whimsical and reflective.
            - Edward Hill

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #89 - Marisa Monte – Rose and Charcoal

Back in 1994 when this was released, I was just stumbling into learning about Brazilian music and came to this album via its New York pedigree – my hero Arto Lindsay produced the record, she covers the Velvet Underground, Laurie Anderson has a guest spot, Philip Glass does an arrangement and so forth – but it’s Marisa Monte’s talents that held me to the record, not any of her pals. I was won over by Monte's gorgeous, lilting voice, by the sheer beauty of the tunes, and by the variety on display.
Turns out that not only was this record a precursor for the group Tribalistas she later formed with two of her cohorts here – Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes – but it also has proven over the nearly 20 years since its release to stand strong not just as her finest hour (well, 50 minutes anyway) but as also one of the finest records out of the MPB movement that she’s a part of. MPB is short for Música Popular Brasileira, an all-embracing style of Brazilian pop music that arose in the post-Bossa Nova era and showed love for all styles of Brazilian music. Monte here takes on Bossa Nova, a funky Jorge Ben classic (“Balança pema”), an introspective Velvets classic (“Pale Blue Eyes”), some moody saudade from Paulinho da Viola (“Dança da solidão”), and a 1950’s samba, never stepping wrong at any point. But even more than showing her effortless grasp of Brazil’s musical breadth and history, it’s a showcase for the new tunes (mostly written by her and her Tribalistas pals) which are of a piece with the time-tested ones she covers and which show her and her associates’ mastery of pop music.
Kicking off with Carlinhos Brown’s “Maria de Verdade” the album sets itself quickly into a lovely summery groove before taking you on a tour of Brazil’s many styles and moods of music. And in fact, even above Lou Reed and Jorge Ben and Paulinho da Viola, Brown takes tops honors on the record, though not with the uplifting groove of the lead cut; it’s his spectacularly lovely tune “Segue O Seco” that’s the killer of the entire album. It’s a mid-tempo groover with a wistful tone, bordering on melancholy without surrendering its hope fully to that feeling – it’s simply too gorgeous to step down to that. After the strong opening songs, the record starts to jump around stylistically before settling on a more uptempo ending kicked off by Jorge Ben’s cut, then leading into the mellower Laurie Anderson guest spot and then closing out with the celebratory samba “Esta Melodia” – well, it’s celebratory until you tune into the lyrics, which are loaded with heartbreak but set over such an irresistible melodic line and surging rhythm that you can’t help getting swept up in the fun of it.
Bouncing from style to style, mood to mood, Marisa Monte’s talent is nowhere in her catalog more evident than here, on her best album. And in spite of the cream of Brazil’s modern MPB movement at her side, in spite of the great songwriters she honors (and works with), in spite of the guests she’s pulled in to help out (and did I also mention Gilberto Gil and Bernie Worrell’s spots on the album?), it’s her authority as singer, bandleader, and musician that holds the whole thing together. It’s a brilliant record, and despite everyone else I talk about here, it’s Marisa’s album - her masterpiece, in fact.
- Patrick Brown

Monday, September 16, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #73 - Dark City (1998, dir. Alex Proyas)

What makes a human human? What is the soul? Are we just a collection of memories and a conglomeration of our past experiences? Or is there something else? Some spark of individualism or wisp of consciousness that makes us more than just a sack of blood, guts and impulses? This is the central question behind the visionary and disquieting film Dark City. This is not the only big question tackled by this stylish, bold film. Writer, director Alex Proyas wears his influences (German Expressionism, 1940’s film-noir and the classic era of Sci-Fi and Horror) on his sleeve and with the bold, almost over-the-top themes of self-determination and individualism he has created a film that sits comfortably next to the classics it pays homage to while pushing the genre forward.

The film begins with protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) waking up naked and disoriented in an unfamiliar, dingy hotel room. Things get immediately worse as he discovers a dead and mutilated woman in the room with him, and soon finds himself being pursued by police (in the person of an icy cold William Hurt) and even more ominously, a group of pale, trench-coated “aliens” known only as The Strangers. The film propels forward at a breakneck speed in a dizzying series of ominous revelations. Giving away any points of the plot would destroy the momentum the film so beautifully builds, but rest assured that, in spite of an initial sense of confusion in the viewer, all is revealed by the time it reaches its satisfying conclusion. An ambitious plot with heady themes and an intellectually honest attempt to address “the big questions” puts Dark City ahead of the pack to start, but the most exhilarating aspect is the endlessly changing and fascinating visual style it achieves.

The un-named, yet familiar city inhabited by John Murdoch is an ever-changing conglomeration of facades cast in a pallid nighttime glow. Like Metropolis, Blade Runner or Brazil before it or The Matrix and Inception after, an environment free of specific time and place references yet all too familiar exists, making us simultaneously comforted and disoriented. It is that dream-like quality of “seems like I’ve been here before” similar to deja-vu experiences that make Dark City unforgettable. Rarely has a film gotten the look so right. As though stepping into an M.C.Escher painting, stairways exist and we have an intuitive sense of how they work, but in this dream the laws of gravity, time and space have been recalibrated so that the familiar is changed, our past experiences prove to be a broken compass pointing somewhere unknown. Landmarks and institutions that should provide clues to what is happening just reinforce the sense of being lost.

I realize all of this description gives you no idea what the movie is really about. Simply put, it is science fiction of the polemic, revelatory school, like a big budget, grown up version of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. There are special effects, themes lifted from mythology, beings from other planets, revocation of the laws of physics and ultimately a cosmic battle for the very soul of man. It is a hugely ambitious film that succeeds on many levels. At points during the finale it might veer a little too much into the hands of the special effects wizards, although in its favor is the fact that being filmed in 1998 almost none of the big action is CGI; however the conclusion is satisfying by a fairly rigorous intellectual standard. The idea that mankind is a rare and wonderful animal whose very existence would drive other species to jealously covet what we alone have: our humanity is a theme that can be endlessly and creatively explored. Alex Proyas’ Dark City is an essential entry into the canon.
- Paul Epstein

Thursday, September 12, 2013

On The Cover: Adam Goldstein covers Bob Dylan Blood on the Tracks. Opening: Roger Green

Twist & Shout continues its support of the great monthly series, On the Cover, taking place the last Wednesday of every month at the Hi-Dive. For On the Cover, local musicians tackle classic albums that have been an influence on them, performing them in their entirety live and on stage. Check out this month's series in which Adam Goldstein takes on Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and offers some insight as to why he's chosen to perform this masterpiece.

Bob Dylan always distanced himself from the drama, heartbreak and loss that mark every single song on Blood on the Tracks.
In interviews following the release of the record in 1975, Dylan claimed its ten tracks were based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov. Years later, when a radio interviewer asked him about the fact that the album had become one his most beloved among fans, Dylan demurred, insisting, “It's hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?” He added that the tunes weren’t pulled from his personal life, saying he didn’t write “confessional” songs.
For anyone who knows and loves this record, those claims are hard to believe.
Blood on the Tracks stands apart in Dylan’s oeuvre for its immediacy, for its rare glimpse into the heart of an artist who made enigma, distance and mystery such a big part of his creative persona. Beneath the convoluted lyrical twists on “Idiot Wind,” beyond the third-person narrative approach of “Tangled Up and Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” under the fatalistic bravado on “Bucket of Rain,” this album offers a portrait of Dylan coming to grips with a gaping emotional wound. And that makes sense, considering that this album came out shortly after his divorce from his wife and the mother of his children, Sara Dylan.
That pain makes for a compelling work of art, one that offers lessons to anyone who’s ever known heartache. Since I started listening to Blood on the Tracks in earnest at the tender age of 14, it’s offered comfort for every failed crush, every derailed relationship and every brutal rejection.
That’s not to say this album is about self-pity. Lyrically and musically, Dylan avoids self-indulgence here in a way he fails to do on any other album. He tracks every stage of a doomed relationship across the record, from the first glimmer of obsession to the final acceptance of letting go. But he does it with lyricism, integrity and insight.
It’s quite a feat, considering the material here came from a messy creative process. Indeed, on hearing the bare-bones songs for the first time, Stephen Stills was not impressed. “He's a good songwriter ... but he's no musician,” Stills observed to Graham Nash.
That’s hardly apparent from this brilliant record.
On the album’s opener, “Tangled Up in Blue,” the tale of a drifter looking to reconnect with an old flame becomes an allegory for much larger truths. Singing over bright major chords and tasteful folk-rock rhythm accompaniment, Dylan ends up purposeful: “Now I’m going back again, I got to get to her somehow,” he promises, before adding, “We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view.”
Those nuggets of wisdom only get more profound. “People tell me it’s a sin to know and feel too much within/I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring/She was born in spring, but I was born too late,” he bemoans on “Simple Twist of Fate.” On “You’re a Big Girl Now,” he cries, “I’m going out of my mind with a pain that stops and starts / Like a corkscrew to my heart.”
The accusations fly on “Idiot Wind,” before Dylan turns tender on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” one of the poet’s most haunting and aching romantic tributes. Even the standard blues number “Meet Me in the Morning” includes nuggets of profound wisdom, as does the epic, 15-verse “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”
The end of the record stands as a career high point for Dylan. The imagery in “Shelter from the Storm” stands among Dylan’s most profound; lines like, “Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine” resonate for those who’ve been caught up in the bleak hopelessness of a rejection. “Buckets of Rain” turns philosophical, with lines like “Life is sad, life is a bust, all you can do is do what you must. You do what you must do and you do it well / I do it for you, honey baby can’t you tell.”
Dylan’s songwriting matches his insights. The song structures are subtle and moving. The guitar work, mostly performed in open E, is crisp; his harmonica playing never veers into overindulgence. Haunting organ lines on “Idiot Wind,” high-register bass on “Shelter from the Storm” and a funky blues band on “Meet Me in the Morning” round out the artist’s voice, strings and harp.
But perhaps more than any other album, Blood on the Tracks is all about Dylan. In peeling back layers and exposing what he usually keeps hidden behind brilliant verse and folk tradition, Dylan offered listeners a peek into the universal.
That’s the reason this record still feels poignant after every spin. That’s the reason why, nearly 20 years after I first played it through, I find new insights and deeper pathos in the tunes. That’s the reason why, after I can play this entire record through, I’m ready to listen to it again.

Monday, September 9, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #88 - Steve Hillage – L

a : of or relating to the cosmos, the extraterrestrial vastness, or the universe in contrast to the earth alone
b : of, relating to, or concerned with abstract spiritual or metaphysical ideas
2: characterized by greatness especially in extent, intensity, or comprehensiveness <a cosmic thinker>

 : imitating, suggestive of, or reproducing effects (as distorted or bizarre images or sounds) resembling those produced by psychedelic drugs <psychedelic color schemes>

When trying to describe Steve Hillage’s mind-bending 1976 album, the words cosmic and psychedelic seem the most apt descriptors, so I thought a Webster’s definition might be enlightening. They actually do provide some adjectival ammunition to help slay this musical beast. Just start with the cover. A soft focus shot of perfect British hippiedom – Steve Hillage in a purple robe with some Egyptian looking jewelry hanging at his throat. Eyes shut, head tilted heavenward, he is backlit so that his head and especially his guitar are haloed - glowing with mystic energy. Whoa! When I first saw it on the rack in 1976 I just bought it as I did so many things in those days: because it looked cool. I had no idea how cool. After looking over the liner notes I realized that I knew a lot of the people involved; Todd Rundgren produced it, and his new band Utopia backed Steve Hillage and synthesizer player/vocalist Miquette Giraudy, both of whom I would later learn more about. Hillage especially would become a favorite trainspotting target as I found him in bands from 60’s psych obscurities Arzachael and Khan to the great Gong and into the present in his groundbreaking ambient electronic music with The Orb, System 7 and others.
But L remains my favorite throughout the years and every time I listen to it I find more and more to like about it. If you are a fan of Rundgren, especially his Wizard/Utopia period, you will adore this record. It is dense with Todd-esque production tricks - lots of clever edits, backwards masking, layered vocals, chiming wall-of-sound electronic madness. Opening with a cover of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” it is immediately obvious this album is reaching for some big universal truth. A crunching power chord gives way to synth washes and jazz great Don Cherry playing some exotic horn. Hillage starts singing like a lost disciple wandering the desert while the song builds into a triumphant guitar anthem. It builds skyward, faster and faster, Hillage’s guitar leading the way, so intensely that Rundgren can only match the intensity of the music by actually speeding up the tape and bringing the song to a thrilling, almost cartoonish finish, terminating in the toning of a Tibetian bell as if to bring us back to the weighty matters of the cosmos. Immediately, on the first song I’m slain. Everything I’m looking for. Then the second song, “Hurdy Gurdy Glissando” is a 9-minute exploration of outer space with Hillage and Rundgren stacking up eastern drums and whooshes of guitars and synths around Miquette’s Giraudy’s space whisper of a vocal. Thinking the third song “Electrick Gypsies” might be a momentary breather from the overwhelming headiness of the first few tracks, I was again thrown into the vortex with the most blatant hippie lyrics on the album - terms like “cosmic rainbow” and “psychic surf” are tossed about like life is one big acid trip and we have an endless stash. This is some classic hippie shit right here. Hillage’s tasteful vocal and heavenly guitar are the perfect tools for Rundgren’s thick aural stew.
Track 4, “Om Nama Shivaya” takes a further turn eastward with Indian lyrics chanted over Hillage’s impossibly liquid guitar - thanks to some brilliant Todd editing. The penultimate song, “Lunar Musick Suite” is a 12-minute guitar tour-de-force that shows Hillage to be in a class by himself as a lead player. Rundgren creates a pulsing, driving mountain of a song with Hillage standing at the top tossing off lines like rock and roll lightning bolts. It brings to mind the best work of Gong, Yes, King Crimson and even Zappa, Weather Report or Return To Forever. The album closes, perfectly, with another cover, this time one of George Harrison’s best Beatles lyrics; “It’s All Too Much” is an optimistic, cautionary tale with equal parts acid tongue and comforting arm around your shoulder. Hillage’s tender voice lends the lyric just the right note of knowing vulnerability for the song while Rundgren pulls out all the stops in recreating - and even topping - George Martin’s ambitious original production. With another heroic guitar solo, Hillage takes this classic song into the stratosphere. Instead of crashing to the ground like a meteor, L goes into audio orbit like some fantastic day-glow rocket. This amazing album never lets up in intensity, bringing the listener along on peak after peak very much like a profound LSD experience. Good old Webster's - always has just the words I need to describe the indescribable.
- Paul Epstein