Monday, September 28, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #124 - The Fountain (2006, dir. Darren Aronofsky)

Izzi: "It's all done except the last chapter. I want you to help me. Finish it..."

Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain is a sprawling narrative that spans the past, present, and future (perhaps metaphorical). In just a short hour an a half Aronofsky fully engages and seemingly works through the pain and mystery of death while simultaneously rejecting any attempt to fully grasp such a concept. This is a truly beautiful and moving film that seamlessly weaves back and forth between three vast narratives that are infinitely intertwined. While the three stories might at first seem unrelated they are in essence different incarnations of the same basic human struggle, coming to grips with the inevitable reality of death.

In an attempt to give you a brief snapshot of the immense story (or stories) within this film, I will try and boil each of the three narratives to its essence. In the main narrative, that of present day experimental medical researcher Tommy (Hugh Jackman) is racing to find a cure for a cancer that is rapidly consuming his beloved wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz). We follow Tommy as he makes headway and suffers setbacks in his research, but more importantly we see the struggle of both Tommy and Izzi as they work through the changing dynamics of their life as they come to terms with, or refuse to come to terms with, the inevitable. While Tommy buries himself in his work frantically looking for a solution, an answer, a cure, Izzi grows more serenely accepting of life and death. In the film Izzi has written a book entitled The Fountain, and this book provides the past narrative which follows Tomas (also played by Jackman) as he quests to find the "Tree of Life" that will provide him and his Queen Isabel (also played by Weisz) with eternal life. Driven by his love for his Queen, Tomas braves the treacherous South American rainforest where he encounters Mayan forces that bar his path to the infamous Tree. Then in the future (or more metaphorical narrative) we follow Tom Cero (also Jackman) as he floats through space in a clear sphere with a tree and his thoughts, dreams, and memories to keep him company on his journey to Xibalba the place where he believes he will be reborn and his tree will be saved. This narrative is often used to connect all of the narratives as Tom Cero seems to be almost haunted by visions of Izzi and Isabel. As he flies through space he rehashes certain pivotal moments that then shift back to the present or the past. All of the three narratives trace the arcs of Tom-Tommy-Tomas as he fights against, struggles with, and comes to terms with death.

Lord of Xibalba: "Death is the road to awe."

That is certainly a brief introduction to all three of the much more rich narratives that develop through this film, and I cannot stress enough just how beautifully each narrative is illustrated and the extraordinary way in which each of the stories are woven into each other. Through beautiful camerawork (shot by Aronofsky’s go-to cinematographer, Matthew Libatique) and an intense, almost Kubrick-ian, control of scene and setting The Fountain's story comes to life. There are many subtle, self-referential scenes and sequences that connect the story arcs not merely through narrative similarities but also through nuanced visual cues. Additionally the entire film has a very distinctive visual style that carries through the different stories, and all three are linked through the visuals of Xibalba, the dazzling, dying star. These visuals are yet another aspect of the film that sets it on a higher level. Rather than resting on the abilities of CGI graphics to create this realm, Aronofsky decided to film chemical reactions at a microscopic level and use these slowed down reactions as the visual representation of the mysterious Xibalba. The fact that he utilized this microscopic beauty to visualize something so macroscopic in scale and mystery adds an extra level to the aesthetic of the film, and keeps every aspect of the film grounded in the physical, terrestrial world.

However, none of this would matter if we as an audience don't care about our protagonists, and therein lies another incredibly strong aspect of this film, the acting. Both Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz prove incredibly versatile as they are forced to play a number of different characters. While Weisz is embodies her characters in a way that you can't help but fall in love with, Jackman's portrayal of Tomas-Tommy-Tom is really the star in this film. Through the different characters (or incarnations of the same character) Jackman is forced to confront, convey and successfully command such a range of emotion. A lesser actor might have overdone the subtlety necessary to embody the human condition, but Hugh Jackman came through hugely and the strength and weight of his performance cannot be overstated. On top of the beautiful and masterfully crafted visuals, intriguing interconnected narratives, and amazing performances from the actors, the film is also has a phenomenal soundtrack composed by Clint Mansell and played by The Kronos Quartet and Mogwai. The soundtrack is another uniting force through the narratives and is in essence one beautiful slow build throughout the film to an epic closing crescendo.

So just to sum all of this up – and I seriously haven't even begun to scratch the surface – this is a seriously one-of-a-kind film that investigates the human condition and the way that we struggle with and come to terms with the reality of what it means to be mortal. It is a beautifully shot and realized masterwork that conveys a strong and monumentally immense narrative in a very concise and emotional way. Why would I love to turn you on to this film? Because even after seeing it as many times as I have, I am affected by it as much now as I was the first time I watched it. You simply have to see for yourself, and after you do I highly recommend looking into all of the different theories about the meaning and the views on the characters and different narratives!
- Edward Hill


Monday, September 21, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #138 - 801 - 801 Live

In 1976, Phil Manzanera, of the temporarily disbanded Roxy Music, got together with his ex-bandmate Brian Eno (then still going just by Eno) to form a new band for a series of live shows. Dubbed 801, from an Eno lyric, the group included several members of the prog scene and young drummer Simon Phillips who would go on to be one of the premier session players in rock and jazz. The material came primarily from Eno and Manzanera's solo work as well as containing a pair of classic covers, cleverly reworked. Most of the live set (and resulting album) alternates between instrumental and vocal tracks with Eno singing lead. With everything Eno has accomplished in the years since, and with the reputation that has grown up around him, this album seems like an oddity to look back on. This is primarily a prog/fusion group and it may seem like heresy to some to hear a few of Eno's classic songs performed in such a fashion. But at the time, they were all part of the same scene and it's great to hear this excellent material performed by a highly talented group of musicians, even if Eno claimed to be a "non-musician."

The album opens with "Lagrima," a Manzanera solo guitar piece, which serves as an intro to a radical reworking of The Beatles' psychedelic classic "Tomorrow Never Knows." The song is turned into a funky, spacey workout with particularly excellent bass lines from Bill MacCormick. The complex instrumental "East of Asteroid" follows and is the album's most purely prog selection. Next comes the ballad "Rongwrong" which contains a surprisingly gentle vocal from Eno, who breaks out of his usual monotone style of singing. This leads to the first appearance of an Eno composition, "Sombre Reptiles" which originally appeared on Another Green World. The tape loop-enhanced original actually translates nicely to a full band format. Unfortunately, the time and space limitations of old LPs force the track to fade out before the performance is complete. Another Eno tune follows and "Baby's On Fire" get transformed from an intense slow-burn to an all out rocker. Manzanera takes center stage on "Diamond Head," the title track of his solo album from the previous year. This is a true guitarist showcase with Manzanera moving from clean melodic lines to fiery solos. "Miss Shapiro" was also taken from the Diamond Head album but was co-written with Eno and actually sounds more like an Eno track than anything else here. Just as "Miss Shapiro" reaches its musical climax, in pops one of the most recognizable riffs in rock, The Kinks' "You Really Got Me." The venerable classic is given a complete makeover that manages to be whimsical while still rocking out. The album concludes with a thunderous version of Eno's "Third Uncle" that finds the entire band charging at full speed.

801 Live may not be the first record that comes to mind when discussing the long and varied careers of Eno and Manzanera. It is somewhat of a relic from the time when prog and glam were fading but punk had yet to assert itself.  It's essential listening not just for Roxy/Eno/Manzanera fans, but fans of prog, fusion and art rock.
            - Adam Reshotko

Monday, September 14, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #123 - The Awful Truth (1937, dir. Leo McCarey)

                In 1937 Leo McCarey won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Awful Truth. Upon receiving the award he said “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” He was referring to the other film he released that year, Make Way For Tomorrow, and while Make Way is indeed a great film it’s also a downer that cost him his job at Paramount and allowed him to move to Columbia Studios to create the comic masterpiece that is The Awful Truth. And despite concerns from Columbia studio heads the film went on to become a huge hit for the studio and, as noted, netted McCarey a much-deserved Oscar – even if he deserved it for both films, rather than just this one.
            The film concerns the exploits of Lucy and Jerry Warriner (Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, whose on-screen chemistry is spectacular), a married couple who, like most couples, have their problems. But their problems revolve mostly around Jerry’s suspicions that his wife is cheating on him – which she’s not, as it happens – with her handsome European voice coach. Despite Lucy’s dismissal of his idea as ridiculous Jerry’s concerns escalate to the point where they decide to divorce, with a waiting period before things are finalized. They separate, Lucy gets custody of Mr. Smith the dog (though Jerry gets visiting rights), and each one goes on to date others. Naturally, this being a comedy – and a romantic one at that – it only takes a stroll through a few bad relationships and a few attempts at sabotaging their other romances for them to realize they’re right for each other and still in love.
I didn’t bother with a spoiler alert because this is the template for a thousand if not a million romantic comedies. And the film works better than most largely because of Leo McCarey’s improvisational approach to filmmaking. McCarey was known for arriving on set with no script whatsoever, just a general idea of what they were going to film for the day, and then working (and to read most accounts “working” might even be too strong a word, perhaps “playing” is more appropriate) with his actors to create the scene, having them improvise ideas while the cameras rolled and then as often as not putting those moments in the final cut so that the freshest ideas stayed in the film. McCarey is a subtle director of actors, not a visual stylist, even if he always places the camera in just the right spot. In his films glances and faces mean everything; dialogue too, though that of course isn’t as much planned out as spontaneous. It’s an approach he learned from working with comic actors from Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (who he is credited with first pairing onscreen), W.C. Fields, and The Marx Brothers. And his own personal comic flair can’t be understated – there is some scripted material of course (screenwriter Viña Delmar also got an Oscar nomination for this), but he’s funny enough himself that McCarey claimed after this film that Cary Grant had stolen his own persona to create the character he’d come to be known for (also the model of a persona Ian Fleming partially used as a basis for his James Bond character).
comedies, most of them far lesser than
             Given the improvisational factor and the smarts of everyone involved from McCarey to Grant and Irene Dunne, it’s hard to know how much of the fantastic dialogue was scripted, made up on the spot, or partly written and then modified. But I know that when the couple has an exchange that goes:

Jerry Warriner: But things are the way you made them.
Lucy Warriner: Oh, no. No, things are the way you think I made them. I didn't make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only, you're the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.

that’s simply a great comic sequence, regardless of how it found its way to the screen. But experiencing dialogue like that and having it work, hearing the bon mots that they throw down but never throw away, seeing the chemistry than Dunne and Grant create on screen – that’s the fun of the film. And knowing that between the actors, Delmar’s screenplay, and McCarey’s penchant for doing things on the fly to keep things off-balance and exciting, it’s impossible to get to the root of where each laugh came from. It’s the collective art of filmmaking at its finest from the golden period of Hollywood comedies, and you can hardly do better in finding a great film. But be sure to see McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and see for yourself just how well his approach works to drama and you won’t be sorry. He certainly wouldn’t think so.

       - Patrick Brown

Monday, September 7, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #137 - Doc Watson – At Gerdes Folk City

It is conceivable that Doc Watson's four-week engagement at a small folk club in New York City at the end of 1962 and beginning of 1963 represents one of the last major discoveries of authentic regional art in the face of the nation-wide homogenization that followed World War II in America. Thanks to radio (and even more profoundly, television) the sound of America was becoming increasingly informed by what would become known as "mass-media," effectively killing off, or at least significantly changing, the many different strains of American music. Many in the sophisticated New York audience may have been acquainted with the prevalent form of folk music as demonstrated by groups like The Kingston Trio, but few could have been prepared for the presence or talent that the unassuming, blind, guitar player from Deep Gap, Tennessee was going to demonstrate.

The most amazing thing about the pristine performances captured on this historic CD is how much Doc's onstage persona and abilities were already in evidence at this early stage of the game. He was already a seasoned performer, but his ability to mesmerize with his pleasant voice, incredible guitar technique and seemingly endless repertoire of material from all genres of music had to be a major revelation. Judging from the silence during the performances, which is then punctuated by explosive bursts of applause from the audience, this group of big city sophisti-cats had never seen anything like Doc Watson.

Opening with the classic, unrepentant murder ballad "Little Sadie," Watson immediately sets himself apart from collegiate types who may have taken an academic fancy to folk forms. Watson's guitar playing is never less than wonderful as he comfortably melds bluegrass accuracy, blues leads, country picking and folk strumming with his own patented energetic buoyancy informed by years of playing in every format conceivable. He played gospel with his family, backed the great Clarence Ashley, played electric guitar in a rockabilly outfit - in fact, it is this very diversity of background and context that gives Doc Watson's performances their unique quality. As a blind person approaching culture and art as a blank slate, he seems to have absorbed all the positive attributes of each style while not succumbing to the accepted performance clichés inherent within the genres. Thus he is one of the truly distinctive interpreters in American music.

Doc Watson would prove to be one of the most venerable and important voices in authentic American music until his death in 2012, but here in this elemental recording we hear the early proof of his greatness. He runs through a wonderful assortment of traditional songs, occasionally joined by other soloists, but it is Doc Watson's amazing talent, confidence and individualism that shines through on every song of this important release. If, like me, you are a lover of the roots of American music, this CD should have a place on your shelf as surely as Hank Williams, Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson or Chuck Berry does. Doc Watson represents the absolute best of American tradition; it is authentic and heartfelt, and the beauty of the traditions pours out of every note.

- Paul Epstein