Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #104 - Forty Guns (1957, dir. Samuel Fuller)

Jessica Drummond (played by Barbara Stanwyck) is a hardened but benign rancher who holds sway over a small army of – you guessed it – forty hired guns. She inherited her ranch from her father as a young girl and turned it into an empire, but she’s looking to find the right man to help her take the reins of the ranch. Griff Bonnell (played by a steely-faced Barry Sullivan) is the quintessential Western sheriff with a bad past who clearly knows right from wrong – rolls into town with his younger brothers trying to put his shady past behind him. He also rolls right into trouble in the town, in the form of Jessica’s good-for-nothing younger brother Brockie (played with a suitably naïve recklessness by John Ericson). Brockie is drunk and running wild, intimidating the entire town – but not Griff, who despite not wanting to get involved in the drama walks right up, cold-cocks him, puts an end to his rampage, and lands him in jail - and also on Brockie’s bad side. This simple conflict sets in motion the heated drama that is Forty Guns, director Samuel Fuller’s eleventh feature film and his best to this point in his career.
            Fuller’s films always operated in a world of high drama and heightened emotions. He worked as a young man in the newspaper world and always retained the attention-grabbing techniques of tabloid headlines in his story telling. In what could be just another romantic western action-drama, Fuller here pushes the emotions up to 11 and makes sure that – just like a gripping newspaper story – each scene is designed to grab you by the throat with its style, the acting, the dialogue, no matter whether it’s a love scene, a dramatic confrontation, or the inevitable showdown gunfight on Main Street. He often makes you laugh out loud with his audacity – sometimes because it’s amazing, sometimes because it’s absurd, sometimes it’s amazingly absurd. But Fuller never minded moments of transcendent schlock – as when the cowboy tune that goes “She’s a high ridin’ woman… with a whip” comes up on the soundtrack over a montage of the city and later is shown to be attributed to characters playing and singing, not just a tune laid over the soundtrack. But after the film’s opening, where the Bonnell brothers are traveling along a path only to be overtaken by Jessica Drummond’s “guns” storming around their simple wagon as they roll toward town, there’s no way you won’t be associating the words “high ridin’ woman with a whip” with Jessica Drummond. It’s an efficient bit of storytelling and background without a single word of dialogue to let you know more about her – and it’s amazingly efficient and smart filmmaking, the kind that Fuller made for most of his career.
            The film is typically in-your-face Fuller, a pulpy story juiced to the maximum but smart, good-hearted, even tender in the right parts. With his years of work on earlier films (he was by this point a master with the camera, having directed 10 films in only eight years leading up to this one), and ably assisted by cinematographer Joseph Biroc (It’s A Wonderful Life, plus three Fuller films, of which this is the middle one), he puts together a film that’s entertaining, engaging, and simply beautiful to look at as well. There are widescreen and full frame versions included on this release but why anyone would watch a full frame version of this rather than the CinemaScope version is beyond my comprehension – don’t do it! The opening credits note that the film is “Written-Produced-Directed by Samuel Fuller” – and you can damn well bet he was in that editing room too! And though he’s known as a master of working with small budgets, this had double the budget of his other 1957 Fox picture China Gate and presumably more than his other 1957 RKO-made/Universal-distributed film Run of the Arrow and he put every penny to work to make this look terrific. It’s pure Fuller, pure pulp, pure entertainment, but made by a filmmaker with a brain who assumes his audience has them too, and knows how to use them. He makes smart, efficient cinema for his audience. He’d go on to make the cult hits Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (also both pulpy, entertaining, and deliriously over-the-top in parts) but for me (and also for the French critics who worshipped him – Sam Fuller is probably the #1 influence on Jean-Luc Godard’s early style) this film may well be his best.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, November 17, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #116 - Amadou & Mariam - Tje Ni Mousso

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia are a married pair of musicians from Bamako, Mali who met in the 1970’s at Mali's Institute for the Young Blind and who refer to themselves as “The Blind Couple of Mali.” They’ve been making music since the 80’s together, but it was mostly released in Côte d'Ivoire where they lived until they relocated to Paris in the 1990’s and began releasing albums internationally in 1998. Their earlier music – allegedly, very few folks outside Côte d'Ivoire have heard much of it  – is far more spare and traditional than the albums that got them famous in Paris and beyond but by the time of this record, their third to be released on an international scale, they had refined their style to the point where absorbing influence from any and all music they heard wouldn’t change their core sound – a globally aware pop firmly rooted in the traditions of Mali and the more modern electric blues that many Malians had made a similarly global mark with.
The album kicks off with one of their best ever tracks, “Chantez-Chantez,” an irresistible uptempo cut centered on a chorus that goes:
In other words: “sing, play, dance” - an idea that will carry you through the entire record, even when their lyrics (mostly in Bambara and French) touch on the socio-political realm. The music here – and throughout the record – finds the duo and their band adeptly using whatever styles they choose on their Malian pop foundation. They adopt different approaches for each song, absorbing American and European pop – along with other African and Middle Eastern styles – into their music, and put together a disc that runs for nearly 70 minutes, but doesn’t have a dud in the batch. True, maybe some cuts jump out at you more – the lead tracks grab you before they settle in for a bit – but surprises keep popping up to shake things up and stick individual tunes in the memory banks – violin here, multi-tracked trombones there, Spanish guitar there. And though it kicks off in high gear, they’re in it for the long haul with the album cresting around the middle with the Latin-tinged “Bali Maou” and the peppy, poppy “Si ni Kan” to follow it with another boost. And then it gets another surge with the simply great “Fantani” (probably the second-best cut here after the lead track and on the right day I might call it the best) and rolls through to the end. Even when they get more complex, as in the rhythms of “Laban” they remain catchy and propulsive – there’s no reason you shouldn’t still stick with “Chantez-chantez / Jouez-jouez / Dansez-dansez” as the principle to guide you through the record.
            Amadou & Mariam’s international profile has only gone up from this album. Their follow-up album Wati is a further refined version of this record (with the great cut "Chaffeurs") and they then connected with world Music maestro Manu Chao to create their U.S. breakthrough Dimanche à Bamako, a move which got them connected with the terrific Nonesuch label for U.S. distribution, where they’ve continued to fruitfully mix up styles while remaining true to their core ideas ever since, even being invited to perform at Coachella, Lollapalooza, and other major music festivals. They don’t have a bad record out there, but this one is the first one in their catalog where they upped their game and made plain what their musical intentions were and it still stands as one of their finest in a very fine oeuvre.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, November 10, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #103 - The Red Balloon (1956, dir. Albert Lamorisse)

Is it possible for a movie to succeed as a child’s tale and simultaneously maintain some real intellectual and emotional impact for an adult? Normally I believe not. When I watch children’s movies now I’m able to enjoy them on a number of levels but the ultimate impact of the movie is tempered by the fact that the dialogue, plot and very substance of the movie are often substantially “dumbed down” for a less sophisticated audience. The Red Balloon somehow avoids these pitfalls and provides as satisfying an experience for the adult viewer as it does a magical one for a younger audience. Made in 1956 by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse and starring his own children, the film clocks in at only 34 minutes and has almost no dialogue. Perhaps it is these very facts that account for its success. If Lamorisse tried to sustain his magic for an hour and a half, or weighed it down with a lot of talking and explaining, the movie might have lost its special edge, but as it stands it manages to convey enough wonder for young audiences, yet packs enough philosophical wallop for an adult watcher.

The plot is simple enough: a boy finds a balloon on the street in a Paris slum. The balloon seems to have a personality and mind of its own. The balloon follows the boy, and seems to listen to him when he tells it to wait for him. The balloon itself takes on the qualities of a child. It is by turns curious, recalcitrant, happy, sad, playful, loyal and of course beautiful and irresistible. As the boy takes his balloon to school, on the bus, to his home etc. the balloon is subjected to many of the facets of the adult world; jealousy, greed, envy, cruelty and ultimately the impulse to destroy those things we can’t control or understand. As the boy and his balloon go through their day they seem to incur the wrath of every facet of society ultimately resulting in seemingly every boy in Paris chasing him through the street to destroy the balloon. In a beautifully filmed sequence the balloon loses its air and painfully dies. Then, magically, every balloon in Paris comes to the boy, Pascal, and lifts him above the gray streets in a magnificent, uplifting finale.

The thing that really sets The Red Balloon apart is the visual juxtaposition between the bleak streets of the slum that Pascal inhabits and the buoyant, Technicolor wonder of the red balloon itself. Lamorisse’s greatest achievement is that very contrast. Through the masterful use of lighting and angle the balloon and its overwhelming redness become a symbol of freedom, joy and childhood, bouncing across the morose streets, facing the distress of the adult world with the shield that its simple beauty and innocence provide.

I’ve seen The Red Balloon a number of times over the years, always expecting it to have lost its magical sway over my imagination.  Surely this slight tale can’t still hold any surprise for me, yet this time was by far the most satisfying. Lamorisse has seemingly done the impossible: he has made an inanimate object the subject of real human emotion. Your heart rises with Pascal, as a bouquet of brightly colored balloons carry him over his sad Paris neighborhood, the potential magic promised by cinema is right there, dazzling your eyes and lifting your spirit. Not bad for a 34 minute kids’ movie.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, November 3, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #115 - J. Geils Band – Live Full House

When I was going to Merrill Junior High here in Denver I had an 8th grade music teacher named Mrs. Weber who would allow us kids to bring in records on Friday afternoons for a kind of cultural show and tell. Many of the kids would bring things in an attempt to shock or upset Mrs. Weber with curse words or something controversial. Mrs. Weber liked me however because I took the challenge seriously and tried to bring in things that would impress her musical sensibilities. I remember bringing in Dave Brubeck, Traffic, The Allman Brothers and Yes, all of which she liked. One week I brought in Live Full House by the Boston based boogie rockers The J. Geils Band and it caused a funny reaction. When jive-talking, motor-mouth singer Peter Wolf proclaimed “Take out your false teeth mama, I wanna suck on your gums.” Mrs. Weber looked over her glasses at me and said “Well, that certainly is a delicate way to put it.” Then she cracked up and chuckled throughout the rest of the class, tapping her foot to the irresistible barroom boogie and blues of this seminal live album.

J. Geils Band never made any pretensions to be anything other than an ass-kickin’ bar band, and they were that in spades. Much later they somehow stumbled onto a new-wave video making identity with “Freeze Frame,” “Centerfold” and “Love Stinks” but throughout the early and mid-70’s this band stormed through bars and arenas in the heartland taking no prisoners with their brand of high-energy R&B and Rock and Roll. There was nothing fancy about it, just unbelievable commitment and competence. Starting with the three front men, this band had it all. Peter Wolf spent some of the 1960’s being a Boston based R&B DJ called The Woofa Goofa and he was the real deal. To a normal American kid like me, to hear a white dude who could spit out suggestive slang with such authority and speed freak sure-tonguedness was a revelation. He was a non-stop motion machine, jumping up and down and deliverin’ the word with complete authority. On either side of him were two other amazing characters; on harmonica, the man with the best name in all of rock and roll Magic Dick, a Jewish kid with a huge afro and lightning skills on “the lickin’ stick.” On guitar, the band’s namesake John Geils was a fantastic, rock-solid guitar player, slamming out the blues riffs and taking incredibly tasteful solos on almost every song. Three frontmen, but the other guys were world class as well - especially keyboard player Seth Justman who could jump from waves of Hammond B-3 to barrelhouse piano and back all within the course of one solo. He never failed to find the exact right setting for each song.

The repertoire after-all was what early J. Geils was about. Wolf took his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure R&B and Blues and gave J. Geils Band the hippest bunch of floor fillers a band could ask for. Their shows were non-stop dance parties and Full House is a primer on getting a crowd on its feet and keeping them there. In front of a rabid Detroit audience (their spiritual home base) they open with the Smokey Robinson classic “First I Look At The Purse.” As it closes, Wolf yells out “The College Of Musical Knowledge” and without missing a beat they lurch into Otis Rush’s “Homework.” Totally exhilarating, and for me, it was the college of musical knowledge. Whatever dark, smokey, sexual secrets these guys had learned under the stage lights I wanted to know about. It sent me out to record stores looking for the original records that they were covering. There isn’t a slow moment on the album - even the smoldering 9-minute cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Serves You Right To Suffer” burns along with a hot pulse and lots of great soloing by Dick, Geils and Justman. Every song just cooks, and I feel the same excitement listening to it 42 years later as I did in Mrs. Weber’s class.

Live Full House, along with records by Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield and The Grateful Dead, got my early juices going for traditional American music, and they opened my eyes to the value of taking what was and injecting it with the energy of what is for a new generation. For this White kid, there was no better entrée into Black music than through the J. Geils Band.

- Paul Epstein