Monday, May 26, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #91 - Barton Fink (1991, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

Every film in the Coen oeuvre is undoubtedly best experienced with no previous knowledge of what is about to unfold. There is, however, one film of theirs that simply demands to be seen in such a way; Barton Fink. Even knowing a basic plot outline spoils so much of the pitch black fun in store. With that in my mind, I am going to attempt to convince you all to watch this film by offering nothing but semi-personal vagaries, allusions, cast members and metaphors.

Barton Fink remains a go to favorite for film buff debates whether it be waiting in line at a film festival or shouting louder than any of you realize at a bar as things escalate. Why you ask? Because damn near every single person (or at least those that like to dive a little deeper with their film viewing) that watches this film leaves with a wildly different interpretation of exactly what it all means. Is it a clear cut Freudian metaphor as we watch Barton work to keep his incessant subconscious, sex-obsessed mind at bay whilst exhaustively stretching his conscious self paper thin attempting to understand what exactly a boxing film might look like? Is it a vicious satire attacking the likes of William Faulkner and his notorious flings with many ladies who were not his wife while he penned ineffectual screenplay after screenplay in Hollywood? Is it a goofy, oft-too-literal descent into a hellish nightmare being led by the sweatiest John Goodman we’ve ever encountered? Is it (as the Coens would like you to believe) a simple story of one man trying to write a screenplay in a visceral hotel that is probably the best written character in the film that means absolutely nothing apart from what you’ve seen? Is it empty vapid pastiche to Hitchcock’s Notorious? Is it an allegory of the continuing persecution of Jews under the ever-punishing thumb of Nazi Germany? I give a resounding ABSOLUTELY! to every one of these theories and every other one I will assuredly encounter.
Barton Fink ranks as the funniest, meanest, (maybe excluding the outright sadistic hilarity that the Coens enjoy when torturing their protagonists in Burn After Reading and A Serious Man) most dense, most impenetrable, easiest to access, most intelligent and blah blah blah that this infuriatingly talented duo has plopped in our brain space. Will many a film buff, casual viewer and even my Mom argue with me on this point? Of course they will and they are completely right. And so am I. The Coen Bros. have a distinct ability to encourage (or outright demand) that every person watching bring every bit of their baggage, life experience and self-indulgence inside the theatre. A Coen Bros. film is interactive (excepting of course those perfect, cold films that exist so we are in awe of their talent; No Country For Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis. But wait, what does the ending to either one mean?) and really wants the audience to lend their messy selves to the stories unfolding. Perhaps this explains my fiercely personal reactions to the films that leave me feeling closer to these fabricated, often overly esoteric creations than I do to many humans I’d call friends. While at the same time, many of those close friends feel nothing but cold and amoral distance when watching the same films.

What does this endless babbling all mean? Why should one film cause such a stir amongst all that see it? You tell me. Watch it and fight with me. Join the conversation. Watch with the knowledge that this won the Palme D’Or, Best Director and Best Actor in 1991 at the Cannes Film Festival. Then watch it without that knowledge. Realize that with every single viewing, you are experiencing a very different film. Does it go so far as to be an ever-shifting Rorschach test? Of course it doesn’t. But, also of course it does.

            - Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center 

Monday, May 19, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #106 - Blind Willie Johnson - Praise God I’m Satisfied

One has to wonder how much longer people in the modern age will be able to listen to music from the last century and even understand the context or significance it holds. When one considers the realities of an internet driven world - the instantaneous connectivity to all corners of the earth and the inhabitants and customs of those corners, access to all information and culture in the blink of an eye - it is hard to imagine what mystery or lesson music from early in the last century can bring us. Or is it? From the second Blind Willie Johnson’s frog-croak of a voice and liquid quicksilver guitar technique comes over the speakers, the listener is taken to a time and place where the racial, regional and spiritual differences between men determined not only the music they made and listened to, but their fate in life as well. In the late 1920’s when most of the recordings on this essential CD were made it was still possible to experience parts of the country that felt and sounded like different countries altogether. Today, the world shrinks daily as mass marketing, social networking and the acceleration of culture has flattened our horizons and our expectations. Blind Willie Johnson’s songs come from a long gone rural America where the course of human events were slow-moving, distant and seemed to be surely directed by the hand of the almighty. The enormity and uncontrolled nature of historical events and the mysteries of life live vividly in these songs.

Most of Blind Willie Johnson’s songs are either retellings of historical events like “God Moves On The Water” which chillingly tells of the Titanic sinking, or others when he remembers the 1918 flu epidemic that killed thousands, or they are profoundly moving religious exhortations. Like a preacher, the blind singer was able to convey his fervor and belief like few others. His vocals are loud and direct and his guitar style is miraculous even by today’s standards. Like his more historically famous contemporaries Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, Johnson’s playing betrays some conventional technique but also hints at some divine inspiration. It is so accurate and personal it simultaneously shows him to be part of a great tradition and stamps his unique individuality on every phrase.

Also like Robert Johnson et al, Blind Willie Johnson’s style and repertoire are direct antecedents to everything that is rock and roll. You will recognize a number of songs on this disc like “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (Led Zeppelin),  “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning” (Hot Tuna) and “Motherless Children Have A Hard Time” (Richie Havens, Eric Clapton) as familiar rock standards and crucial building blocks to everything we consider modern. Possibly most interesting is Johnson’s unexplainable composition “Dark Was The Night - Cold Was The Ground.” Like no other blues song I can think of, or any song of any genre for that matter, “Dark Was The Night” is a shivering formless slide guitar piece punctuated by Johnson humming and moaning over his own playing. It is haunting and beautiful and unlike anything else you have ever heard. When its sheer beauty and otherworldly nature are paired with the knowledge of Johnson’s limited options, education and lifetime experiences it adds up to one of the great musical mysteries. Or perhaps there is no mystery. The explanation was that beauty lurked around every corner before we knew what lay there ahead of time.
- Paul Epstein

Monday, May 12, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #90 - Billy Jack (1971, dir. Tom Laughlin)

It’s strange that a film like Billy Jack would qualify for “I’d Love To Turn You On.” This is supposedly the highest grossing indie film of all time, not a well-kept secret. But even by the time I first saw it, in the mid-eighties, barely a dozen years after it came out, it had become an obscurity. I caught it after school one day when I was flipping through channels. The screen filled with wild horses galloping in slo-mo, desert dust all around, through it all a woman sang: “Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend.” Not your usual daytime TV fare.
            I set down the remote. The horses were fleeing white men who aimed to sell them for dog meat, six cents a pound. Among them, a lawman and an elected official, the boss of the town, the Establishment. They cornered the horses and raised their rifles. But before they could fire a wind blew through the brush, and from the brush a man emerged, in a black hat, sitting high on a white horse. Billy Jack.
            Every time I’ve seen this film it’s been a different trip. I’ve laughed all the way through and I’ve written screeds in my head, like when Tom Laughlin, the guy who plays Billy Jack, who dreamed up this fading icon, says: “An Indian isn’t afraid to die; don’t ever expect a white man to understand that,” because Laughlin is Wisconsin-born white man, and that’s just plain wrong, isn’t it?
No, it’s not just wrong, it’s over-the-top wrong. In one scene Laughlin’s taking part in a completely fictitious snake ceremony, a tradition of a fake tribe called the “Nishnobie,” and as he emerges from his snake-venom daze he declares, “the whites do not know how to reach through that veil, they do not have the belief.” And in another he’s railing against his white-woman lover, telling her “your people” killed the Kennedys. It’s so wrong that it’s almost wonderful. And apparently I’m not alone in my esteem for Laughlin’s twisted character. “Back in the day, Indians worshiped Billy Jack,” Sherman Alexie has written about the 70s icon. “That Tom Laughlin may not be Indian, but he sure should be."
The first time I saw Billy Jack I thought it was badass. Cheesy, but badass. I was an aspiring punker and these were the Reagan years; I thought anything that showed America’s dark side was radical and cool. And there was plenty of that here: The little girl who sings a song she wrote about her brothers, “Going off to war tomorrow, going off to die tomorrow”; the corrupt officials and lawmen; white children holding up their fists in Black Power salutes; the improv theater scenes that devolve deep into the leftist muck; Billy Jack’s rants against the war and the Indian Bureau—it was all new and amazing to me.
When I watched it most recently, I was struck by the rage in it. Happy moments are few and far between, and it breeds a persistent sense that the world is evil and that those few who aren’t evil—the children, the hippies, the Indians—are all holding on by a thread. And what better platform for a hero like Billy Jack? A man who carries always a calm demeanor, with just a touch of fatalistic humor, perfectly collected in phony Native American pacifism, right up until the split second he lifts his leg and swings it around in a high hapkido kick to the side of a bad guy’s face and all kinds of martial arts ass kicking ensues. Billy Jack was a perfect icon for that time, and like the rebellious spirit that was still burning back then, his hold on the popular imagination has faded. Too bad. We could still use a man like that, in Washington, on Wall Street, anywhere the forces of injustice march on.
- Joe Miller

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Esme Patterson, In Her Own Words

Esme Patterson’s new album Woman to Woman will be released on CD and LP by Greater Than Collective this coming Tuesday the 13th. The album finds Esme writing songs from the perspective of women who’ve been sung about in other tunes – her “Valentine” tells the story from the point of view of Elvis Costello’s famous “Alison,” the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and so forth. She’ll also be playing a live in-store performance here at Twist & Shout on Friday the 23rd at 6PM. Twist’s own Natja Soave sat down with Esme to ask her a few questions about the new record, the tour, and other subjects.

Twist & Shout: Why did you decide to do a response album?

Esme Patterson: My last record was autobiographical to a fault, and it felt great on this record not to write about my own life for a bit, to write about someone else's problems.

T&S: What made you choose to respond to the songs you did for the album?

EP: The songs I responded had to be titled a woman's name, they had to be a song that I liked, and they had to have some room for a response. For example, I love the tune Mustang Sally, it fits the first two criteria, but there isn't much room for a good response. What would she say? “Yeah, I've got a car, pretty nice-looking, huh?”

T&S: What was your favorite part of this process?

EP: I really loved this whole process. It was a lot of fun, and kept being surprising and interesting to write as well as record. I love having limitations and structure with expression; paradoxically, it can be really freeing.

T&S: How are people receiving Woman to Woman?

EP: The reception of this album has been really amazing. When I wrote it, it wasn't necessarily meant to be a feminist work, although I consider myself a feminist and a lot of the work I do is colored by that, but a lot of feminist media that I deeply respect has praised this album, as well as media that focuses on the craft of songwriting, and if those two camps dig what I'm making, I feel like I must be doing something right.

T&S: How’d it feel to have Elvis Costello post “Valentine” on his Facebook page?

EP: I felt like bathwater must feel when a radio falls into it, but in a good way.

T&S: You recently did a video with Extra Kool for the song “Cape & Cowl.” Most people couldn’t imagine you in a hip-hop video, how did that collaboration come about?

EP: Extra Kool is a good friend, I love his stuff. When I worked at the Tattered Cover on Colfax he would come in and order a chocolate milkshake and we would kick it. I love singing hooks on hip-hop songs, it's a lot of fun, and Extra Kool asked me to come up with a hook for a track of his and I jumped at the chance.

T&S: When you tour will it be with a full band or just you and your guitar?

EP: The nice thing about touring with my solo project is having the freedom to do either. I do love playing with at least a drummer, though, since I've switched over to electric guitar, I'm having a lot of fun playing loud and rocking out, and that's harder to do alone.

T&S: Where will your tour lead you this summer?

EP: All over. As long as there's a bowling alley or a swimming hole nearby I'll be happy.

- Natja Soave

*More about Esme performing live at Twist and Shout here


Monday, May 5, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #105 - Prince – Around the World in a Day

The massive success of Purple Rain made Prince a superstar.  He was in as rare an air as there is, with only Michael Jackson on the same plane commercially and no one in his class creatively.  Yet Prince was a restless musical genius, bursting with new ideas he just had to get out.  He was not about to coast on the success of Purple Rain, releasing single after single to keep the hit machine rolling.  A new album was about to be unleashed on the public while Purple Rain was still topping the charts.  However, this new album was to be a completely different animal.  Many artists have attempted to follow a smash commercial hit with something more experimental and challenging but no one who ever done it was as big as Prince was in 1985 and no album was as different from its predecessor as Around the World in a Day.

The album isn't talked about much these days, but at the time the public's appetite for new Prince music was such that even this left field excursion would get several tracks played on the radio and sell a whole bunch too.   The press dubbed it Prince's psychedelic album and compared it to Sgt. Pepper.  It certainly does have plenty of psych flourishes and Prince was almost certainly aware of the Paisley Underground scene going on in Los Angeles (more on that later).  But what the album shares most with the Beatles' classic is the attempt to sneak underground and experimental elements into the pop mainstream.  The mass public of the sixties was ready to accept the Beatles' experiments because they loved the Beatles.  They felt the same way about Prince in the eighties and while Around the World in a Day hasn't become a lasting classic like Sgt.
Pepper, the mere fact that it was successful and kept Prince in the spotlight is testament to Prince's talent, charisma, and popularity.

The album kicks off with the title song and immediately challenges its pop audience with eastern textures and percussion.  Slightly more familiar ground comes with the infectious melody of "Paisley Park."  Here, Prince taps into the mid-60s pop-psych vibe that L.A.’s Paisley Underground bands like The Three O'Clock and The Dream Syndicate were also hitting.  The song is important enough that he named his studio and record label after it.  Another psych-pop masterpiece is "Raspberry Beret," the album's biggest hit, with a trippy video to go with it.  It's also the most joyous song on an album that can get a little dark at times.  "Tambourine" ends side one with a bit of stone cold funk, a reminder that gettin' the dance floor movin' is still a top priority.  Side two (yes I'm still thinking in vinyl terms, though the CD is what we're selling here) opens with a blistering critique of "America," a particularly bold statement right in the middle of the Reagan 80s.  No less relevant, yet cloaked in another infectious melody, is "Pop Life," a critical look at modern stardom and the state of the world.  If any tune on the album deserves to be considered an all-time Prince classic, this is it.

Around the World in a Day stands as his greatest creative achievement.  At the height of his success he followed his muse and we all reaped the rewards.
For the last two songs, Prince turns to his two favorite subjects, God and sex.  While these twin obsessions are often painted as a contradiction, Prince knows full well that religious devotion always contains a strong sensual element and erotic revelry often becomes quite spiritual.  "The Ladder" has a strong gospel vibe with a spoken parable even, yet it builds to a fervent climax just as strong as any bedroom jam.  "Temptation" is the album's epic closing track and starts off with pulsing funk jam and the erotic lyrics Prince has always been known for.  Then, a little over the halfway point, the bottom drops out.  We've suddenly entered a morality play where Prince struggles with his urges and desires in the face of a judgmental higher power.  A brave and challenging album ends with its bravest moment yet.  Prince would continue to challenge the public's notion of pop, soul, rock and funk throughout his career, but
            - Adam Reshotko