Monday, February 29, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #135 - Sleeper (1973, dir. Woody Allen)

Back before Woody Allen got serious in the late 70s, he was an heir to the great slapstick film comedians. Roger Ebert drops Buster Keaton’s name in his review of this film while Allen himself says that he thought of it as a tribute to two of his favorite comedians, Groucho Marx and Bob Hope – and they’re both right. There are slapstick moments in Sleeper that are as funny as anything Keaton put on film and self-deprecating verbal wit on par with Groucho or Hope, all wrapped up in a goofy, freewheeling science fiction story that’s really just an excuse for Allen to riff on his favorite subjects – love, sex, and death – and take potshots at the some of the ridiculousness of the early 1970s.

Allen uses the standard sci-fi approach of a futuristic dystopia to tell the story of Miles Monroe, owner of a Greenwich Village health food store who goes in for a routine surgical procedure in 1973 and wakes up in 2173, unfrozen from his cryogenic sleep by a band of underground rebels who enlist him to help stop the oppressive Leader from enacting the sinister Aries Project. That’s about as much plot as is needed because the rest works itself out in ways you’ve seen before, though it’s Allen’s wit and goofy scenarios taking off from these commonplace plot elements that make this film something special. Some of them are time-bound – jokes about Nixon, Howard Cosell and United Federation of Teachers organizer Albert Shanker – and funnier to audiences of the time, but others – as when he’s forced to impersonate a robot servant, a convenience-oriented society that uses an “Orgasmatron” instead of sex, or when he drops lines like “My brain? That’s my second favorite organ” or “I was beaten up by Quakers” that don’t require any translation from 1973 to today. And some of the film’s moments are downright strange – as when he believes he’s being crowned Miss America or when he and Diane Keaton suddenly drop in a gender-swapped routine from Streetcar Named Desire – and funnier as a result. With training from his standup years in nightclubs, Allen is great with one-liners and I wouldn’t want to spoil any more of them, but this is the first of his films where he shows that he’s equally conversant in film – nodding to silent comedy of course (usually in dialogue-free scenes that feature him playing ragtime clarinet alongside the Preservation Hall Jazz Band or The New Orleans Funeral Ragtime Orchestra), and also to contemporary sci-fi (he enlists Douglas Rain, the voice of 2001’s HAL, to play a sinister computer here as well).

And as a special bonus for Coloradoans, much of the film was shot here in Colorado – within the first few minutes there’s a shot of our famous Botanic Gardens building, several scenes take place in and around The Sculptured House (the “mushroom house” off I-70 just west of the city, often now called “the Sleeper house” due to its inclusion in the film), the Church of the Risen Christ on South Monaco is turned into a McDonald’s, some of the outdoor shots were filmed at the Table Mesa Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, and so forth. Beyond the laughs of the film and the inevitable budding romance of Allen and Keaton’s characters, it’s fun for those of local privilege to location spot throughout the film. Sleeper stands as the finest film from a delightful era of Allen’s development, when slapstick and a ruthless desire to make people laugh was at the forefront of his mind. With the release of the classic Annie Hall in 1977, he started to take the relationships in his films far more seriously, and with 1978’s great Interiors he paid direct tribute to one of his cinematic heroes, Ingmar Bergman, rather than satirizing him as he’d done only a few years prior in Love and Death. I don’t value this period over his more mature works but there’s a verve here, a willingness to go to any lengths for a laugh that is missed in his later films, whatever other virtues they may have.

-          Patrick Brown

Monday, February 22, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #148 - Brian Eno/David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

After Talking Heads released their fourth album and masterpiece, Remain in Light, the band went on hiatus while its members explored side projects. Guitarist Jerry Harrison released The Red and the Black, an underrated solo album which built on his work with The Modern Lovers and Talking Heads. Rhythm section and married couple, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, formed Tom Tom Club with Tina’s sisters and members of the Remain in Light touring band. Tom Tom Club’s debut functions like a release valve for the pressures building on Remain in Light and endures as a funky, energetic party album. Lead singer David Byrne and Brian Eno, producer of three Talking Heads albums, set off to create an album that draws upon similar archetypes as Remain in Light, but stands apart from anything these considerable talents have created before or since. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts sounds like Byrne and Eno discovered a way to tune into the radio signal of this entire planet and distill it into 40 minutes of genre-blurring, hypnotically engaging, and beautifully layered music.

Three and a half decades after its release, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts remains a ground-breaking and brilliant tangent from the minds of two of the most idiosyncratic and cerebral artists in popular music. Whereas Tom Tom Club seized upon the incredible pool of talent that had formed around Talking Heads and aimed it in a loose, upbeat, and fun-loving direction, Eno and Byrne set out on a concentrated, enigmatic, and exploratory mission into the unknown. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts contains some of the same DNA of poly-rhythms, experimentalism, and pastiche as Remain in Light, but this album grows into its environment without the frames and guidance of Byrne’s observational characters or recognizable song structures. Although both Eno and Byrne were known at this point for their skills and abilities as lead singers and songwriters, it may come as a surprise to some that this album features neither their voices nor their lyrics. The album’s liner notes credit both Brian Eno and David Byrne with, “guitars, basses, synthesizers, drums, percussions, found objects.” In place of Eno and Byrne’s vocals, nine of the eleven songs on the album contain elements cited in the liner notes as “voices” and include samples of radio hosts and callers, preachers, an exorcist, and singers from Egypt, coastal islands near the state of Georgia, and Lebanon. Among the eleven musicians who worked with Eno and Byrne on this album, eight are percussionists and three play bass. Eno and Byrne combine this robust rhythmic engine with the found, fragmented vocals to create a set of self-contained, evocative snapshots that, when regarded as a whole, reflect back to the listener like a mosaic formed from the pieces of a broken mirror.

Eno and Byrne reunited in 2008 for Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, an album that serves as a high point for both artists’ output in the last twenty years but bears no discernible connection to their first collaborative album. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today features some of Eno’s best recent production work as well as some of Byrne’s most natural vocals and most compelling lyrics since Talking Heads, but feels strangely orthodox and prosaic compared to the radical poetry contained within their first joint musical endeavor. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts merges elements of art rock, experimental music, funk, electronic music, African pop, folk music, field recordings, and minimalism into a highly influential sum, but few of its successors can compare with this fascinating musical exploration.    
John Parsell

Monday, February 15, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #134 - The Five Obstructions (2003, dir. Jørgen Leth/Lars von Trier)

In this century, few directors have provoked, shocked, and captivated audiences like Lars von Trier. People who have watched Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, or Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 & 2 are very unlikely to forget these films whether they loved or hated them. For a filmmaker who has specialized in crafting highly memorable and, in some cases, indelible on-screen moments, Lars von Trier himself can’t forget The Perfect Human, Jørgen Leth’s 1967 short film. The Five Obstructions, the documentary that tracks von Trier’s disciplined efforts to push Leth to re-examine and re-create The Perfect Human again and again with new limitations, serves as a revealing and intimate look at filmmaking, a portrait of an artist struggling against depression, and an unorthodox lesson in the redemptive power of a friend’s love.

The Five Obstructions opens with von Trier and Leth sitting down to watch The Perfect Human before they decide on restrictions for making a new version of the film. As they begin to debrief the film and create challenges for the next iteration, von Trier unleashes an almost wicked glee as he conjures up seemingly absurd rules for the new film. By the end of the brief meeting the two men agree that Leth’s next rendering of The Perfect Human must contain edits no longer than twelve frames, take place in Cuba (a country Leth had never visited before), answer the questions posed in the first version, and use no sets. Leth, who was in his mid-sixties during filming, staggers out of the initial meeting appearing stunned and befuddled at the amount of work ahead of him. Von Trier, who was in his mid-forties as this all transpired, counters Leth’s weary patience with a reassuringly firm confidence in the process of this project. Despite von Trier’s self-described “satanic” behavior in developing the successive courses of complications, the younger director consistently demonstrates affection and respect for the man he calls his “hero.” Upon returning from Cuba, Leth comes across as both rejuvenated and proud of his solutions to von Trier’s invented problems. Both men watch The Perfect Human: Cuba together and express how impressed they are with the result, but feelings of contentment pass quickly as von Trier begins the work of generating a new set of hurdles for Leth to clear for the next edition of The Perfect Human. Yes, this process occurs four more times and each time, von Trier’s motivation for engaging Leth in this endeavor becomes more apparent. The dynamic between von Trier and Leth pushes deeply into a special brand of pedantry. Once the pupil, von Trier reverses the student/teacher dynamic as he nudges, admonishes, and goads his mentor. As the film progresses, von Trier and Leth allow the audience sit in on a master class in which a former student challenges his teacher to unlearn the considerable skills he has gained over a lifetime in order to explore the still untapped potential within him.

A sense of love and a spirit of experiential learning flow through all stages of The Five Obstructions. I saw this film on the recommendation of a good friend who stated, “You should watch this. It reminds me of your relationship with your dad.” At first I was a little confused by the comparison, but it didn’t take long for me to see connections. My father was a teacher and I grew up with him telling me stories about an influential teacher from his youth. My father never forgot the time this teacher, Gladys Metcalf, explained to him, “You’re an ‘A’ student doing ‘B’ work and that’s why you’re making a ‘C’ in this class.” Society has developed many norms for guiding the young through their development, but there are few templates for mentoring our mentors. Lars von Trier reminds me of Gladys Metcalf in this film and reaffirms the value of asking more from people who we trust are able to accomplish more. The Five Obstructions rewards those who are familiar with von Trier’s feature films as well as those who know nothing of his work by sharing a compelling story about someone who won’t allow his friend and mentor to give up and fade away.

John Parsell

Monday, February 8, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #147 - Mary Lou Williams – Zoning

The average jazz listener is likely to come up short if asked to name the jazz pianist who began their musical career in the 1920s and, aside from a couple breaks, didn’t stop performing until their death in 1981; who started out playing stride piano and writing big band arrangements; who played a role in helping many of the bebop players solidify their concepts; who encouraged the gospel of jazz – often literally – in both Europe and the U.S.; and who continually refined their approach to the music, including ideas that would even encompass events as far out as performing a controversial 1977 two-piano concert alongside unrepentant avant-gardist Cecil Taylor. A good (though incorrect) guess would be Duke Ellington, who covers most of the time span in question, but the correct answer is the underappreciated jazz great Mary Lou Williams.

Williams began playing piano at age 6 and by the time she was 19 she was writing arrangements for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy in Kansas City (and later New York), a gig she held until the early 40s when she began playing matron to the rising stars of bebop. From an interview for Melody Maker she noted "During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I'd finished my last show, and we'd play and swap ideas until noon or later." Anyone who refers to Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell (to name only three of the musicians she coached and traded ideas with) “the kids” deserves a much greater status than Williams currently holds. But she didn’t just teach them, she took their ideas to heart and in her mid-40s work – notably 1945’s Zodiac Suite – you can hear bebop’s influence on her own playing.

In 1952, Williams began performing and living in Europe for two years, going on a hiatus from performing music upon her return to the States to focus on charity work within the Roman Catholic Church – specifically on helping addicted musicians kick drugs and return to performing. But by the late 50s, at the urging of two priests and Dizzy Gillespie, she returned to playing and before long was creating some of the most creative work of her career, blending her spiritual leanings with jazz, including two modernist masterworks: Mary Lou’s Mass and Black Christ of the Andes, both of which show an enormous grasp of different styles of music and a readiness to make her music challenging when she saw fit to do so.

After focusing mainly on live performances and working with children’s choirs throughout the rest of the 1960s the 70s found her recording in earnest, starting with the 1974 release, Zoning. It’s a great record, but that’s not all it is – like much of Williams’ latter-day work, this record encompasses a history of jazz that she was present for at every turn. Most of the record finds her working in one of two trios – a traditional piano-bass-drums group and contrasting with that a piano-bass-congas group – though on some cuts she plays solo, or in duo with one of the trio players. And on a couple cuts, she looks forward to her live date with Cecil Taylor by featuring a second pianist (Zita Carno) alongside her, creating some of the loosest, freest, and most abstract music on the record. It opens easy enough though, with the funky, driving bonus track “Syl-O-Gism” which was not on the original album. In listening, it’s difficult to imagine that anything but time constraints kept this off the record’s initial release. It’s followed immediately by Dizzy Gillespie’s lovely, reflective “Olinga,” featuring the same trio instrumentation, and that is in turn followed by “Medi II” which pushes the tempo back up to a rocketing speed. Williams’ interfacing with the bop crowd is readily evident in her playing here. The other bonus cut “Gloria” is the piano-bass-drums alternate version of the tune that occurs later in the disc and again – quality is not in question; it can only be the physical limitations of putting music on an LP that kept this slower version of the tune off the original release. Two dual-piano tracks follow: “Intermission” finds Williams and Carno working in unison before stretching out on this fragmentary and impressionistic tune, but the oddly-titled “Zoning Fungus” opens with a very loose and abstract pianos-only intro before the rhythm section drops in a tight groove for them to work against. The record is then given over to two piano/bass duos, with Mary Lou and Bob Cranshaw playing the lovely “Holy Ghost” and the bluesier and sometimes mildly dissonant “Medi I.” The bluesiness of “Medi I” gives way to the slow, funky, in the pocket groove of “Rosa Mae” which in turn leads to the impressionistic solo piano ballad “Ghost of Love.” The three tracks that close out the record all feature the piano-bass-congas trio, starting with the fastest number here: “Praise the Lord,” in which the rhythm section sets up a fast tempo then Williams drops into it and effortlessly finds her place. She’s not often given to showy runs in her solos, preferring instead to hitting the right note or phrase at exactly the right time – not unlike that “kid” Monk that she used to talk with. The originally released version of “Gloria” follows, faster than the earlier one on the album, and every bit as good and fun. The record closes with “Play It Momma,” a slow groover that is – as usual – funky and showcases Williams’ exquisite timing. A perfect ending to a great album.

Williams would make more records through the remainder of the 1970s (many of them worth seeking out), teach music at Duke University, perform at the White House, create the Mary Lou Williams Foundation to help the underprivileged and young find their way to jazz, and then pass away in 1981 of bladder cancer. In her biography Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams she would sum up her long and accomplished life with this simple statement that says it better than anything I could add: "I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud."

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, February 1, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #133 - The Hustler – (1961, dir. Robert Rossen)

Deep in the heart of every American male lies an aching question he must face throughout his life in moments of doubt and crises; “Am I A Loser?” I suspect women also face this feeling, but I don’t know for sure, and since The Hustler is an extremely male movie, and because our society has a different set of expectations and rules for men, we can run with that idea as a premise. There are few pastimes available in our society that are more inextricably linked to this question than gambling, or hustling. For the purposes of this particular movie, the hustle is pool, and the male is Paul Newman. In the history of anti-heroes, it’s hard to think of a more appealing loser than Newman’s character, Fast Eddie Felson. Made in 1961, The Hustler could be considered Newman’s breakout role. He speaks in his own voice, not affecting the southern, good-ol’-boy accent he used to such great effect early in his career, and he digs deep in exploring the motivations and weaknesses of his character, who is a pool hustler making his way across the country, haunting the seedy, grey temples of loss known as pool halls. Director Robert Rossen memorably shoots the entire movie on location in real pool halls, real bus stations and real dive bars, and the ambiance is palpable - the bottoms of your shoes might be sticky after this movie. Fast Eddie has a goal: he wants to play, and beat, the legendary pool hustler Minnesota Fats, played with Buddha-like calm by Jackie Gleason. He gets his chance early in the movie, starting strongly and beating Fats for the first 12 hours of a day-long pool marathon. Then, slowly his resolve starts to slip, just as Fats gets his second wind. Eddie slips into drunken sloppiness as the fat man turns the tables and takes Eddie for every penny he’s worth. He’s left broke and shaken and he embarks on his own personal trip to the bottom, so he can start to claw his way back to the top (bearing in mind “the top” in Eddie’s world is actually the lowest rung of society).

Eddie’s journey takes him into the arms of a drunken, artistic, sweet, but ultimately damaged woman named Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), who tries to offer some meaning to Eddie’s life beside the endless spiral of drunken loss he finds in pool halls. He scrabbles his way along the bottom, having both his thumbs broken in a hustle gone bad and seeking solace in Laurie’s needy embrace. For a brief moment Eddie has a glimpse of what a “normal,” nice life might be like. As soon as the casts are off his hands however, he is back at the pool table, this time with the management and financial backing of a demonic gambler named Bert Gordon. Gordon is played by George C. Scott in his third-ever role, and the entirety of his weighty reputation as an actor could rest on this role of a lifetime. Gordon embodies everything that is venal and cruel in this world. When men look in the mirror, it is Bert Gordon who stares back and says “yes, you are a loser!” Gordon takes Fast Eddie and Sarah to Kentucky to play billiards with a rich dilettante after the Kentucky Derby, but instead Eddie again loses and, in a sad seduction, Scott uses both Eddie and Sarah’s weaknesses against them and causes Sarah to commit suicide in a sad and heartless scene. Eddie is further numbed as his life continues to follow a sad path to nowhere.

Eddie finally makes his way back to Minnesota Fats. He is in the same pitiful pool room, with the same group of wagering jackals (including Bert Gordon), but this time he has a sober intensity. He has reached the bottom. The face in the mirror has told him with no hesitation that he was indeed a loser. He’d lost everything: his pride, his money, his one shot at true love, what small reputation he once had - it’s all gone into the corner pocket. But here he is with one last chance to play Fats. The pool scenes in The Hustler are like the fight scenes in Raging Bull. In other words, they are beautiful, black and white works of art. Everything is shot in clear mid-screen shots, with the action on the table getting as much attention as the action on the character’s faces. And what action it is! Eddie plays the games of his life. He is playing for Sarah and to prove to Gordon and himself that he has value. Eddie wins, but it is a hollow victory. He has the respect of Minnesota Fats and the other losers in the pool room, but by turning on Bert Gordon he has sealed his fate and effectively ended his own career as a pool hustler. He leaves with his pride and some money, but we can’t be sure what the future holds for Eddie.

Ultimately the power of The Hustler lies in the post-noir seediness of the environment the director creates, and in the elemental brilliance of the four main performances. Rossen's depiction of the world is unrelentingly bleak and Newman, Scott, Gleason and Laurie all inhabit their characters in an uncanny way. Each one seems to embody an emotion - Newman’s pride, Gleason’s confidence, Laurie’s self-doubt and Scott’s ferocious desire, which, in the skillful hands of the director, give flesh to these emotions, and we can certainly see some part of ourselves in that flesh.

-         Paul Epstein