Monday, April 28, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #89 - Criss Cross (1949, dir. Robert Siodmak)

Surprisingly, we’ve never reviewed a single film noir for our I’d Love To Turn You On at the Movies series, so it’s high time we got started. For those unfamiliar, film noir is a hotly debated category amongst film scholars even 70 years after the fact (just ask your favorite two film snobs what the first real film noir is and when film noir ended and watch the fireworks!), so maybe that’s why we haven’t hit it yet. In a nutshell (though some are sure to disagree on the details), the genre emerged in the early/mid-1940’s in Hollywood and ran through the late 50’s. It is generally characterized by a gloomy outlook on the world, by dark, foreboding black and white visuals, by out of control passions, by a femme fatale drawing our central character into a web of danger, and by sleazy characters on either side of the law, usually with few morally redeeming characteristics. It’s doubtful that the people making these films noir were consciously deciding to follow such a set pattern, but that most were responding to the uncertainty in the air that most of America felt during WWII and its immediate aftermath. You can see the style in such great 1940’s films as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out of the Past, and Murder, My Sweet. And you can see it in spades in the 1948 classic Criss Cross.
            Criss Cross – as perfect a title for a film noir as there ever was, beaten only, perhaps by Kiss Me Deadly – is rife with paranoia, double and triple crosses, and a grim fatalism in its story of an armored truck heist and its aftermath. The film opens with a nighttime aerial shot cruising low over L.A. with a doomy Miklós Rózsa score coming in from the first frame. Eventually we focus on a non-descript parking lot by a nightclub and the action moves down to the ground, where we find a cheating wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) in a passionate embrace with her boyfriend Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and them trying to find a way to get away from her husband, the dangerous gang leader Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). Thompson takes a hike after she warns him how dangerous Dundee is and they enter the club separately, where Dundee has been waiting impatiently for her. A tense, jealous exchange follows between husband and wife and Thompson enters the club, getting into it immediately with Dundee. The smart, tight script sets its plot and a thicket of character motivations and relationships in motion within ten minutes, jumps immediately on to setting up the heist our main characters are engaged in, then jumps to flashback to give us the back story that lead everyone here. Turns out Steve and Anna used to be married, but now she’s married to Dundee, only Thompson doesn’t get over things so readily – he’s still head over heels for Anna, despite the warnings from his detective best friend Pete Ramirez that she’s bad news and to steer clear of her.
            The film is helmed by Robert Siodmak, known for a great batch of noirs and other crime films, and also for discovering Burt Lancaster who had his first Hollywood role in Siodmak’s earlier The Killers. In his earlier work in Europe before emigrating to the States and in Hollywood since, Siodmak had refined his technique to the point where he knew how to construct an airtight thriller. There’s an episode in the flashback part of the film when Lancaster’s character goes back to the club he and his ex-wife used to frequent and in an amazing, dialogue-free scene in that’s all smoky ambience, shadows thrown on the wall, and the intense, driving rumba of the band playing, he sets up everything we need to know about how obsessed he still is with her just from his body language and longing looks across the club, highlighted by the ever-tightening intensity of the editing in line with the music’s rhythms. And as we get back to “real time” and the heist, it’s again a masterful display of technique as the gang’s robbery is executed in a haze of smoke, and afterward as paranoia sets in deeply with more and more skewed angles and shadows making the most mundane settings feel fraught with peril. The film is also rife with references to being ruled by fate, by circumstances rather than their own wills guiding the characters, and this too is echoed in the film’s visuals, with many shots of frames within frames (doorways, windows, stairwells, etc.), suggesting that the characters are trapped in their circumstances. But it’s not as arty as all that; that’s just a film student admiring the work of a master. Despite the web of conflicting motivations and desires, there’s never a moment when the art of what Siodmak is doing overwhelms the story, which is always at the forefront.
            Fans of film noir will readily recognize this is a great one, those unfamiliar with the genre are in for a treat – and also probably about to go on a long road down the seemingly endless path of film noir. It’s a pleasurable road to travel for sure, and one that all film fans find their way to at some point. And it’s a lot safer to view from the sidelines than it is for the people in the films themselves.

            - Patrick Brown

Thursday, April 24, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #104 - Duke Ellington – The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse

A lot of people associate Duke’s music mainly with the 1920’s up through the WWII era, but there is no point in his 50-year career where he was not refining and advancing his music, right up until his death in 1974. From his Cotton Club “jungle band” of the 20’s through his redefinition of big band swing in the late 30’s to his dance bands of the 50’s to his senior patronage of the stars of 60’s New Thing jazz, he changed his approach, constantly absorbed the newest styles and continually retained his own sound – and his big band – through every change. The late 60’s and early 70’s brought a renaissance in his music, leading up to a great series of albums of which 1971’s The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse is one of the finest – and my own personal favorite of the later period, even over the renowned The Far East Suite (though maybe I’d have to think long and hard about whether I like it better than And His Mother Called Him Bill).
            The album kicks off with a spoken introduction by Duke, who explains the title concept – a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan – and lets us know that the band (featuring “our piano player” as he was wont to refer to himself) is going to display it musically by playing music inspired by the many countries they’d visited – Asian and African primarily, but without ever losing its roots in blues and jazz. And then things kick right into the big band taking on one of the album’s best tunes, “Chinoiserie” a blistering, riffing complex of catchy, interlocking horn parts that features the propulsive rhythm that runs throughout the album.
The song – and the album – also prominently features Ellington’s piano playing, which is always a treat and sometimes takes a second seat to Duke conducting his band. It also features several long time Ellington regulars, including saxophonists Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney, and trumpeter Cootie Williams, who tie the music back to classic Duke bands all the way to the end of the 1920’s, but also makes space for important new members of the band – notably saxophonist Harold Ashby (who joined a few years prior in 1968), and the killer rhythm section of Rufus Jones on drums (who’d been with Duke since The Far East Suite was recorded in 1966) and bassist Joe Benjamin (who became part of the band only a year earlier with New Orleans Suite in 1970). And it’s this combination of Ellington’s history, classic elegance, and (there’s no other word) genius tying together the older and younger generations to make music of the highest caliber, but also music that’s simply fun to listen to.
“Didjeridoo” follows on the heels of the lead track, showing Duke’s spare rhythmic displacement that lead him to say once upon a time that Thelonious Monk had stolen his style, and it’s followed by the best thing here – the drum-heavy “Afrique.” It’s a showcase for Jones’ huge drums, but also Duke’s interaction with them, which feels nearly like a duet though the whole orchestra is used. Horns create subtle lines that build to huge climaxes in the song, but the stars here are Jones and Ellington. “Acht O’Clock Rock” takes down the intensity a bit after the heavy drama of “Chinoiserie” and “Afrique.” “Gong” is another Rufus Jones showcase which moves from the intensity of the opening into a more delicate feature for Duke’s piano, then “Tang” highlights Duke’s chips-of-ice style with a modern jazz feeling opening that settles into the riffs and rhythm style that characterize the album. The record moves on to “True” – the most old-fashioned thing here, hearkening to a classic 50’s swing style – and closes on “Hard Way,” a bluesy closer that is the mellowest cut on the album.
It’s a great record, one of the finest full-lengths of the career of a man whose work spanned every recording technology and musical innovation of the mid-20th century. While the focus on Duke’s work tends to shine a spotlight on the work up through the War period, his later works are in need of a serious reassessment, as this great one is only one record of many that could be pointed to to make a strong case for his late-period brilliance. On Tuesday the 29th, Duke would’ve turned 115 if he was still alive. Let’s take a minute to celebrate his accomplishments and his genius with a listen to this album. And then others as well.
- Patrick Brown

Monday, April 14, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #88 - Wizards (1977, dir. Ralph Bakshi)

There was the 60’s, and there has been an interminable “now” that started sometime in the late 70’s and will apparently last until the oceans rise enough to wipe out any memory of Justin Bieber, Twitter and energy drinks. But for a very short historical moment in the early to mid 70’s Hollywood made a kind of last-ditch effort to hold on to some sort of originality and idealism. Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, which was released two weeks before Star Wars in 1977, is one of the last great examples of that beautiful childish idealism. Being that director Ralph Bakshi is the guy who created the edgy animated films Fritz The Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, it is a childishness cut with gritty realities, sexy heroines and a real sense of moral outrage and philosophical clarity.

Wizards takes place in the distant future, when a post-nuclear apocalypse has returned the Earth to a more primitive state, and divided people into the good - represented by conventionally drawn, cute, round fairies and elves - and the evil - mutants, goons and all sorts of bio-mechanoid beasties who carry weapons, dressing and behaving like Nazis. In fact the evil leader, Blackwolf, has dug up all sorts of buried badness from the past. Most importantly, he has stumbled upon a movie projector and footage of Adolph Hitler and the blitzkrieg and has used it to not only bring his mutant hordes together as an army, but also to terrify and ultimately defeat and enslave the elves. He is determined to rule what is left of the world. Conversely, his brother, Avatar, is an old-school, cigar chomping, boozing, lusty old wizard who is all things good but would rather be left alone to spend his retirement among the succulent female fairies. OK, enough about the specifics of the story, because they can make Wizards sound like a conventional family, fantasy film. And it is certainly not that. It is enjoyable for both kids and adults to watch, but at the heart of this unique animated work is a dead-serious polemic about the dangers of technology and how easily it can be used by the dark side.

Using the Nazi imagery makes for a very understandable antagonist, and casting Avatar and the elves as long-haired, lusty earth children lends a post-60’s wistfulness to their plight. The story rolls through journeys and battles that bring about a redemptive and enjoyable resolution, but the real focus of Wizards is the constantly unexpected and innovative animating techniques employed by the fearless director Ralph Bakshi. Combining his years of conventional training at Terry Toons with the psychedelic consciousness of the times and his own frightening and forward-thinking fear of fascism and over-reliance on technology, he creates a universe where, McLuhan-like, “the medium is the message.” It is in the very swirling, mixed-media originality of his animation techniques that Bakshi most eloquently makes his case. When contrasting a kaleidoscopic freak-show of drooling, skeleton nazi monsters and stock footage of Hitler’s minions goose-stepping their way to hellish infamy with a pastoral animated world of busty hippie chicks flying around a “Garden Of Eden” on gossamer wings, one didn’t need to be a genius or on LSD to make the right choice.

It is because Wizards is so clearly directed, and that the groundbreaking animation techniques are so vivid and so powerfully reinforce the moral tone of the script that it has lost none of its greatness in the almost 40 years since its release. It feels as fresh and fun as the first time I saw it, and it has lost none of its punch.
- Paul Epstein

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #103 - Emmylou Harris - Wrecking Ball

We were 8 years into owning Twist and Shout and I was finally starting to feel like I was part of the music scene. We started out so completely unconnected to the industry. I was a customer of the record stores in town and I filled many seats at local concerts big and small, but essentially I was an outsider. That night in 1995, I remember being at a show downtown. There was a year or two where a series of shows was put on outdoors in a very urban location. I think the band playing might have been Los Lobos but I’m not sure. Either way one of my ex-employees came up to me and said “you should come over to The Bluebird Theatre after this show. Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois are going to play a private late night show.” !! I was very excited. These were two artists I loved dearly. Emmylou since her days with Gram Parsons and her early solo hits. I saw her in the mid 70’s with her original Hot Band and was blown away by how effortlessly she straddled the fence between country and rock. She brought down the house over and over. Daniel Lanois had been a growing obsession through his work with Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers and more recently his first brilliant solo album Acadie. The idea of seeing them together was tempting. I had no idea how tempting.

Harris and Lanois perform "Wrecking Ball" in 2012
When we got to the Bluebird it was packed with hipsterati and music industry insiders. I felt like this was possibly the best place in the universe to be that night. There were candles around the stage and the house lights were dim. They walked onstage and for the next hour and a half we were collectively lulled into a state of euphoric devastation. That seems like two unlikely emotions to work together, but that is the exact effect this music has on the listener. Wrecking Ball is musically euphoric while the lyrics and overall effect are devastating. Finding beauty through melancholy is something that Emmylou Harris has always done well.

Wrecking Ball consists of 12 songs carefully chosen by Emmylou and Daniel, which through a combination of the emotional impact of the lyrics, the perfection of Ms. Harris’ delivery and the utterly unique and sympathetic production and musical style achieved by Mr. Lanois produces one of the great albums of my lifetime. Lanois’ musical fingerprints are everywhere, as he not only creates a swampy, mysterious atmosphere but adds musical touches throughout, playing on every song. He never loses sight of the mission, and this is ultimately the secret to this album and all Lanois’ great production work: he keeps Emmylou’s voice and interpretive skills at the very center of the mix, crystalline perfection – nothing distracts from the miracle that is her voice. And her voice never found a greater group of songs to perform. Except for Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” all the songs were fairly contemporary to the album. Emmylou was trolling the best of the current crop of writers – Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Dylan, Julie Miller, Anna McGarrigle, Neil Young, Rodney Crowell, Daniel Lanois and herself – and she came up with a magical collection of songs. It’s not a bunch of happy ditties, in fact the running order reads like a litany of human loss and sorrow. Take as an example her version of  “Sweet Old World,” Lucinda Williams’ song of losing a friend to suicide, Already a powerful statement, Emmylou takes this song to such an incredibly heartbreaking place with a quavering voice and Neil Young harmonizing the chorus and adding a plaintive harmonica wail. Or the aforementioned “May This Be Love;” Emmylou brings her gentle calm to the vocal and Lanois doubles her vocal while bringing forth Hendrix’s spirit with a squealing guitar solo. Each song is set, jewel-like, into the perfect setting to show off the lyric and to keep Emmylou’s voice the center of attention.
 Lanois may have reached his zenith as a producer with Wrecking Ball, which could be selling the rest of his career short (after all he did pretty well with U2), but with this album he seems to have found his sweet spot as both producer and collaborator. He enhances all Emmylou’s natural gifts and together, they delivered the album of her career. I’ve wanted to do this review for a while, and it was a happy coincidence that when I
finally got around to it, there was a deluxe version of it being released. Paired with a disc of demos and outtakes, including Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” and Lanois’ excellent “Still Water” as well as a DVD documentary on the making of the album, this package gives the album the special treatment it deserves. I was thrilled that the documentary contained not only footage of the band making the album - Neil Young in the studio playing second banana to Emmylou - but also has some footage of that special show at the Bluebird Theatre. Seeing it, took me right back to that wonderful night, and re-ignited my burning love affair with this album.

- Paul Epstein