Monday, March 30, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #112 - The Thin Man (1934, dir. W.S. Van Dyke)

Wait, you mean you haven’t seen The Thin Man? Seriously?  But it was one of the top grossing films of 1934! And it has huge stars in it! - William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, a boozy, retired detective and his wealthy wife (also boozy). And though Nick would rather drink martinis – he’s given up detective work since marrying the wealthy Nora – everyone pushes him to investigate a murder/missing person case. But once he’s certain that the wrong man is begin framed, he takes an interest when everyone else thinks the case is shut. And let’s not forget Asta, the wire fox terrier who started his career here but went on to appear in such massive Hollywood hits as Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth (and one of the five sequels to The Thin Man). And how could you have missed their comic interchanges, which like so many films of the early sound era worked a quick wit and sparkling dialogue like very few films have since.
As an example, there’s a part in the film as they start to get embroiled in a murder case and a nosy reporter questions Nora:
Reporter: Say listen, is he working on a case?
Nora Charles: Yes, he is.
Reporter: What case?
Nora Charles: A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him.

Or when another reporter is grilling Nick about the case (murder case, that is, not the scotch) and it goes like this:
Reporter: Well, can't you tell us anything about the case?
Nick Charles: Yes, it's putting me way behind in my drinking.

You might have correctly guessed that this mystery-comedy leans pretty heavily to the comic side. Though there’s danger to the characters and suspense, it’s usually studded with bon mots like the above.
And it’s based on a hit novel by Dashiell Hammett, who also wrote the novel The Maltese Falcon, and surely you know that film, right? And like the earlier, 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon that people don’t know as well as the famed 1941 version, The Thin Man was knocked out quickly (shot in 12 days) and got into theaters a mere matter of months after the novel itself hit the stands. I mean, Hammett’s a great writer and even though other people adapted the screenplays, his work lends itself beautifully to cinema, doesn’t it? Especially when that film is photographed by one of the great cinematographers of old Hollywood, James Wong Howe, who makes both the shadowy suspense and brilliantly lit comic scenes work equally well.
I mean, it was nominated for four Oscars, too – surely you knew that, right? Didn’t win any, but it got the nods.
Well, maybe not. Maybe you’re more familiar with the great Oscar winner of 1934, It Happened One Night, instead. (You’re not? Man, we need to talk about some Capra then!) Maybe you weren’t born in 1934, and neither were your parents, and maybe not even your grandparents. I suppose that’s a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why you haven’t seen it. Maybe you knew about the sequels (quality films, too, not diminishing returns) that kept coming regularly up through 1947 and maybe not. Maybe, for some insane reason, you have an aversion to older, B&W cinema, no matter how entertaining and amazingly well written, acted, and shot it may be. Well, if that’s the case, maybe you can start learning with this film about why people considered the 30’s a big part of Hollywood’s golden age – you just don’t find dialogue like this, with completely non-P.C. alcoholics as our heroes played with brilliant comic flair by Powell and Loy, in today’s films. Or yesterday’s, or pretty much anything after the 1950’s. If somehow this little delight has eluded you until now, it’s high time you check it out. But be forewarned – it will not only lead you directly to the sequels, but will probably put you in the mindset to check out at least two of the other films above (though I’d recommend all four of them heartily)! Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. But start here – it’s a gas.

- Patrick Brown

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #125 - Gilberto Gil – Gilberto Gil (1969)

Gilberto Gil’s 1969 album, which like his 1968 and 1971 albums is simply entitled Gilberto Gil, is a wild mélange of psychedelic pop, Brazilian sambas and bossa novas, guitar overload, and much more; hugely inspired by the rock movements taking place up north in the United States and across the pond in Britain, but delivered with a distinctly Brazilian spin. One key difference is that the music Gil and his cohorts (Caetano Veloso, the band Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, composer Rogério Duprat, and others) were making was being made under a military dictatorship, and while the young musicians keyed in on the transgressive and expansive possibilities of rock music, their government reacted harshly to the youth movement. One might draw a parallel to what musicians faced in the English-speaking countries, but no musicians I know of from the era were ever forcibly sent into exile out of their home country because of their involvement with the music scene, which happened to both Gil and Veloso in 1969.
            But back to this record. Gilberto Gil had been an active professional musician since the mid-60’s but began releasing solo albums with his debut in 1967. His debut is in a much more traditional vein than what followed because in the interim between that album and his 1968 self-titled release the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which several accounts say Gil listened to obsessively. The 1968 album features Gil in full faux-military regalia on the cover and couldn’t be a more explicit tribute to the Beatles, full of wild arrangements that jump from sound to sound (usually within one song) and keep the musical surprises coming, backed by the young band Os Mutantes and arranged by Rogério Duprat. But on this 1969 release, he pushed the experimentalism even further, this time with Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey as an artistic touchstone. In what I can make out of the lyrics without seeking online translations, I note references in two songs a row to astronauts, a song entitled “2001” and the lead cut called “Cérebro Eletrônico,” which translates as “electronic brain.” Note that these were all released the same year as David Bowie’s celebrated “Space Oddity” single and its attendant album, and were all recorded and done before Bowie’s tune had been released. And then there’s the closing track, “Objeto Semi-Identificado,” (English: “Purpose Semi-Identified”), Gil and his collaborators’ take on the Beatles’ “Revolution #9,” which is wild and out there, but still settles into musical phrases more regularly than the Brits’ track does. In fact, it’s not unlike the 1968 album’s experimentalism taken to further extremes – still listenable but jumping wildly all over the place.
And none of the space stuff and reckless experimentation touches on some of the album’s most notable virtues – Gil’s strong and sometimes slightly unhinged singing grounded in the rhythms that are the heart of the best Brazilian music, guitarist Lanny’s fuzzed out psych guitar work across the whole album (notable in the very first cut, but really, it’s everywhere), and Rogério Duprat’s better-integrated arrangements that don’t sound as much like separate ideas tacked together, but rather a way to augment the possibilities of Gil’s finely balanced pop sensibilities that lurk underneath that reckless experimentalism. And it also doesn’t note the album’s hit song and finest track, “Aquele Abraço” – an irresistible samba groove that is a love letter to Rio and an ode to joy, calling out samba schools, football clubs, street parades, etc. It’s so buoyant, joyous, and propulsive that you’d never know that Gil wrote the song while on house arrest awaiting exile. Or that on this song, like most of the album, Gil wrote and laid down basic vocal and acoustic guitar tracks at his home in Salvador, Bahia while Duprat made the musical arrangements for the album and recorded the other instruments in Rio and São Paulo. Back in February Gil and Veloso had been arrested by the military government, spent three months in prison and four under house arrest, and then were told to leave the country, living in Europe in exile until they were allowed to return in 1971. They were given no reason or charge for their arrest. If you think youth music can’t be a powerful force, think about that for a bit. And next time the cops bust up your party that’s too loud, think for a bit about how much worse off you could be.
The fact that Gil could make a record this delightful under these conditions is remarkable, thanks in no small part to Rogério Duprat’s sterling work in bringing its disparate ideas together. At least six tracks are delights, with two of the others fine enough and letting up the tension a little, and then the wild closing number of “Objeto Semi-Identificado.” But there’s a happy ending - on return to Brazil, Gil continued making music (obviously music that would be less offensive to the government) and contributing greatly to the artistic culture of his home country in spite of how he’d been treated. And from 2003 - 2008, under a new government, Gil served as Brazil's Minister of Culture, resigning only for health reasons after having his resignation rejected twice by the president. He left to have a vocal cord polyp treated and to return to music, which he continues to this day, having released four new albums since leaving his political career behind. But his landmark work from the late-60’s into the mid-70’s remains the cornerstone of his catalog, a catalog well worth perusing in its entirety.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, March 16, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #111 - Cape Fear (1962, dir. J. Lee Thompson/1991, dir. Martin Scorsese)

Two movies, made twenty-nine years apart: same title, same basic plot, yet morally a universe apart. The original, starring Gregory Peck (one of the most likable actors in the history of Hollywood) as lawyer Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum (one of the most menacing) as maniacal ex-con Max Cady, whose lives become intertwined when Bowden witnesses Cady assaulting a woman, testifies against him in court, and lands Cady with eight years of apparently very hard time. Cady has come from prison with one thing on his mind: revenge against Bowden and all that he holds dear. The original film, from 1962, is a classic noir, with beautiful use of shadow and light to illustrate the moods and advance the themes. The themes are also fairly black and white. Mitchum’s Cady is a tightly wound spring of a man. On the outside he is all smiling and laughing good old boy, but just below the surface seethes a dangerous, misogynist, predator. He has a history of violence and abuse to women, and shows no remorse or understanding of his actions. Mitchum was absolutely made to play this role, and all his greatest assets: the heavily lidded eyes, the deep, cultivated southern accent, and his entirely imposing physical presence work beautifully to assure us he is entirely below reproach. Peck’s Bowden is drawn just as broadly as Cady’s moral opposite: he is a good husband and father, an honest lawyer and a decent man. Cady’s animus towards Bowden seems random and inexplicable. Why not seek revenge on the judge or prosecutor? So the lines are clearly drawn for a clear-cut struggle between good and evil. And a gripping and tightly directed struggle it is, as director J. Lee Thompson skillfully builds Cady’s menace in the Bowden family’s life with escalating appearances in the personal affairs of Sam’s wife and pre-pubescent daughter. Events go from the murder of the family dog to an eventual appearance at Sam’s daughter’s school. At this point Sam Bowden has been pushed far enough. Fear and his protective instincts slowly challenge his core beliefs as he starts to try anything to stop Cady’s murderous revenge. Along with a friendly cop and a private detective he devises a plan to lure Cady to an isolated vacation spot called Cape Fear where he can be gotten rid of away from the eyes of society. While Bowden is clearly the morally superior man, we are forced to confront uncomfortable issues revolving around just what is justifiable in the name of self-protection.

Enter Martin Scorsese in 1991 with the same story drawn with a very different set of inks. In Scorsese’s film our protagonist, this time played with sleazy complexity by Nick Nolte, is not a clearly good guy. In fact he is a pretty lousy guy. He is a serial philanderer, his marriage on the rocks, and his fifteen-year-old daughter experimenting with sexuality and rebellion. In this version, Bowden actually was Cady’s public defender and intentionally hid evidence that could have exonerated Cady. It’s not that Cady didn’t deserve the jail time though; Robert DeNiro plays a Max Cady so beyond the pale of normal decency that he almost seems like a different species. In one of his most startling roles (and THAT is saying something) DeNiro channels every frightening, Pentacostal, woman-hating, backwoods, boogeyman stereotype you can imagine, and hones them into an almost unearthly, tattooed, bible-verse spewing, madman whose anger and desire for vengeance is demonic. The differences between this and the original film could not be any more starkly drawn. In Scorsese’s universe of the 1990’s, moral certainty no longer exists. Cady is a terrifying murderer, but his anger and contempt for Bowden seem far more understandable considering the lawyer’s own moral failings.

It is this very ambiguity that becomes the key to the latter-day Cape Fear’s greatness. The movie turns on the audience’s discomfort with Bowden’s own character flaws as they relate to Cady’s hostility. There is no question that Cady is evil, but there is a question about Bowden. Nolte’s performance is delicately nuanced as he goes from being annoyed by Cady’s appearance to furious and outraged, and finally landing at a near animal state as he locks into mortal combat with a human monstrosity.

Both movies ultimately belong to the antagonists. Mitchum beguiles us with his creepy southern charm, while DeNiro goes as far as he ever has in a role, offering up two of his most memorable scenes. In the most uncomfortable 10 minutes ever committed to film, he slowly and expertly takes the 15-year-old Juliette Lewis’ character into his confidence, exploiting her adolescent feelings of inadequacy and confusion to sexually advance on her. If you can watch this scene without discomfort, please see your therapist. In the final half hour of the movie, DeNiro’s performance defies expectation or category. The movie almost moves to the level of magic realism as Max Cady’s capacity for violence and pseudo-biblical narration take on nearly supernatural levels. I’ve seen this movie a number of times and I still scratch my head at that last scene. It is almost incomprehensible, except that it all feels somehow possible. Unfortunately, the real world has prepared me for this level of madness.

It is impossible to say which of these two thought-provoking thrillers is the more satisfying. The original offers the clarity of a black and white world. It has a beginning, middle and end leaving us with little uncertainty. Scorsese’s version is much more reflective of the modern world; it is a bleak look into moral uncertainty and unhappy endings. One film was much easier to watch, and provided a welcome sense of emotional closure as the credits rolled, while the other left me with deep, unshakable questions about the human heart. Now that is a good afternoon of film!
- Paul Epstein

Friday, March 6, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #124 - Paul Kantner - Blows Against The Empire

One of the more important figures in 1960’s rock and roll, Paul Kantner, the founder and idealistic heart of The Jefferson Airplane, has had his importance obscured in the shadow of ex-wife Grace Slick’s flamboyant personality. Yet, in many ways he was the architect of the Airplane’s sound and if you doubt that, listen to Blows Against The Empire, his first, magnificent solo album from 1970. The musical and spiritual twin to David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, Blows Against The Empire gathers many of the same members of The Airplane, Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Grateful Dead axis to form a super group of like-minded, stoned, science-fiction loving, anarchists in search of the lost chord. In many ways they succeed. Blows Against The Empire is a heady, ecstatic musical promise to the entire 60’s generation. Kantner, the guy who said “up against the wall motherfucker” in The Airplane, continues his adversarial stance against the older generation, this time suggesting that all those who have turned on, board a starship and leave earth. Crazy, idealistic shit right? Yup, it is totally of another era. It is from a time when a large portion of a generation felt they could transcend the mundane realities of a Nixon/Reagan war cult by taking drugs and dropping out of society. In this case, boarding a spacecraft and “Carry 7000 people past the sun/ and our babes’ll wander naked through the cities of the universe.” Wow, really? Yes, really, and he sings this stuff with a totally straight face (one imagines). And what’s more, the musicians assembled make a sublime, skronky joy out of it. The core group is Kantner, Slick, David Crosby and Jerry Garcia, all flying high on their late 60’s success as well as LSD concocted by uber-chemist and cultural lynchpin Owsley Stanley (who is thanked in the liner notes along with a bunch of authors such as Vonnegut, Heinlein and Jean Genet.)

Understanding the political and cultural subtexts of the era is important, because once immersed into this album, there is no coming up for air. One has to give himself over to Kantner’s utopian vision. In 1970, for me, this was not a stretch. I was more than excited by these ideas. I was just entering my teenage years, and already a major fan of both science-fiction and rock and roll, so the idea of all the young people boarding a spaceship to leave earth and set out for some as-yet-to-be-determined Garden Of Eden sounded to me like a great way to get out of the pain and embarrassment of adolescence . Going to mars might actually be easier than asking a girl out. The album itself flows like a suite of songs. In spite of their being many styles represented, from the pure folk of  "The Baby Tree," to the anthemic sunshine of  "A Child Is Coming," to all of side two, which flows like a psychedelic space opera, sounding somewhere between The Airplane and Hawkwind, the music soars with Garcia’s guitar sliding between Kantner, Crosby and Slick’s perfectly blending voices, Kantner’s fantastic acoustic playing and all of it anchored by the lyrical and thematic ambition of the entire project. Side one closes with the tour-de-force, "Let’s Go Together," which perfectly sums up the magic of this album. Kantner sings his desire: “Wave Goodbye To Amerika/Say Hello To The Garden” while Garcia tastefully plays hide and seek with Airplane bassist Jack Casady’s fluid runs. It is the hippie dream personified and given flesh. On the inside gatefold cover of the album there is a foil-sheened painting of a planet surface with craters, pyramids, mutiple moons, and rising over the horizon is a depiction of Paul Kantner, his hair made of marijuana leaves, and a look of steely determination in his eyes. It is the Lewis and Clark adventure for the stoned generation.

Paul Epstein

Monday, March 2, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #111 - Logan’s Run (1976, dir. Michael Anderson)

“Computer: Do you identify the word Sanctuary?
Logan 5: Negative.
Computer: Sanctuary is a pre-catastrophe code word. Used for a place of immunity.”

Released in 1976, the year before Star Wars, Logan’s Run provides a very interesting and somewhat disturbingly dystopian vision of the future. At the age of 30 everyone in this fantasy world submits to Carrousel in order to be renewed - or do they?!? The first time that I watched this poignant yet entertainingly campy film was in a literature class in my freshman year (of my first bachelor’s in 2005). The class was early and I was often prone to nodding off. However when I got to class and found out that we were watching a science fiction film my interest was piqued and I had no trouble staying awake for the rest of that class. Somewhere in my mind (and in my heart) between my love for fun science fiction, like The Fifth Element and Star Wars (to name a few), and my adoration for campy genius, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (movie and TV show) and the original Star Trek TV series, lies my obsession with this cult classic film.
In order to prime you for this film there are a few tidbits that I should probably fill you in on. First and foremost, there is no voice over or omniscient recap text scrolling across the screen. This film assumes that its audience will get quickly caught up in its future world. But for good measure I will touch on a few things about the future you are about to enter. First and foremost, in this world pleasure reigns supreme, meaning that everyone is selfish and the pursuit of happiness (in all aspects of life) is the only thing that matters. Secondly, all (or at least most) of the citizens have and know their place and are complacent in their positioning, as determined by an all-knowing, computer-centered governing force. Thirdly, (as mentioned above) at the age of 30 everyone willingly submits to their own public ‘death’ at Carrousel. This needs a tad bit more explaining: because of their belief in the system and everything that system has told them, they trust that at the age of 30 they have come to the end of their life cycle and if they have lived their life correctly they will be renewed. However not everyone has been drinking the Kool-Aid, hence some people run from this fate. These people are called Runners and there are certain people, Sandmen, whose job it is to eradicate these runners for the good of society.

This is where our story begins. Our hero, Logan 5 (Michael York), is a Sandman. When he meets an intriguingly odd woman, Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), who questions the status quo it sparks a series of events that will change his world. Just prior to meeting Jessica, Logan had successfully taken down a runner and pulled an ankh off the body. When he checks in with his computer overlord boss, the computer recognizes this symbol as signifying sanctuary, possibly a safe haven for runners. Without a moment’s notice, and without Logan’s agreement, the computer changes Logan’s status from having 4 years of life left to ready for renewal. The only assignment he was given was to become a runner and find and infiltrate the sanctuary. Remembering that he had seen this same ankh symbol of Jessica’s necklace he seeks her out in order to attempt to figure out what is happening to him and find sanctuary. Is he trying to execute his orders or at this point is he merely attempting to escape his fate. What follows is a psychological journey to a ‘renewed’ vision of life.

So other than the obviously amazing storyline that I have set up for you, why would I want to turn you on to this film? Well, the brilliantly campy portrayal of the future and characters, the costume design, special effects, and set designs are as the kids say, ‘next level.’ In our film culture today all of these aspects that we take for granted were meticulously put together either in detailed models or in intricate set design and this movie doesn’t merely utilize these elements but beautifully harnesses the power of this strategy. There is a certain authenticity to the obvious artifice and an undeniable charm to the imagination behind the story and the concept of the future. If you are anything like me, while you enjoy the special effects in films of the present, you can’t help but love stepping back in time and watching a simpler attempt at practical special effects (which are rooted much more heavily in reality).
In the end if you are inclined to enjoy cerebral science fiction, but also drawn to the appeal of campiness, this film is for you! Let yourself fall back in time in order to spring forward into a strange new future world. Since that first time watching this film in class, I have owned several copies and watched this movie more times than I’d like to admit. So joint the cult, and discover this somewhat unknown old school science fiction film.

            - Edward Hill