Monday, March 27, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #162 – Diner (1982, dir. Barry Levinson)

Barry Levinson’s impressive resume includes such award-winning films as Rain Man, Bugsy and Good Morning, Vietnam. Before any of those films however, there was Diner, his 1982 directorial debut. Although a critical success at the time, it barely made a splash at the box office and was ill-recognized by the Academy save for one nomination for Best Original Screenplay. However, its young cast would all go on to have significant careers and its cultural impact on both the big and small screen is undeniable to this day.

Set in 1959 Baltimore, the film revolves around a group of young men a year or two out of high school and their frequent late night trips to their local favorite hangout, Fell’s Point Diner. Billy (Timothy Daly) makes a special trip home from college to be the best man in his best friend’s wedding. Baltimore Colts-obsessed Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), the groom-to-be, has such reservations about his impending courtship that he has demanded that his fiancé score 65% or higher on a test that he created about football. Shrevie (Daniel Stern), another of the pals, has fallen, perhaps too early, into a dysfunctional marriage to Beth (Ellen Barkin). In one vulnerable moment he confides to his buddies that he has trouble having a conversation with his wife for more than five minutes. Suave ladies’ man and chronic gambler Boogey (Mickey Rourke) meanwhile is in debt to local bookmakers and can’t seem to keep from getting in further over his head, taking bets on everything from sports games to his own sex life. Rounding out the crew are the habitual wisecracker Modell (Paul Reiser) and drunken trouble maker Fenwick (Kevin Bacon).

The characters are all flawed in their own way, but honestly that isn’t the most interesting thing about this film. Levinson, a Baltimore native, wrote the screenplay as an autobiographical document. He knows these characters. They are his friends, his family… his people. And what makes Diner stand out from, say, Porky’s or American Graffiti as more than just another 50’s rock n’ roll nostalgia film is the way the characters interact with each other. With Diner, Levinson essentially created a style of cinema that is arguably one of the most frequently used styles even today, the concept of “no concept.” Diner has a plot, but the plot is an afterthought. What makes it such a masterpiece is the fact that the film is largely made up of snappy, clever dialogue. Literally, men are sitting having conversations about music, film, girls, pop culture, sandwiches... really, nothing in particular.

A decade later, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld would debut their “show about nothing,” expanding on Levinson’s focus on the mundane aspects of conversation. Seinfeld was one of the most popular television shows of the 1990s and it built its entire premise on the fact that it didn’t have to have a premise. It even had similar characters as Diner. Reiser’s neurotic and fidgety Modell in particular could be considered an early blueprint of the character of Jerry. A whole generation of filmmakers from Noah Baumbach to Jon Favreau to Judd Apatow have made their livings showcasing male interactions and friendships that are almost identical to the ones portrayed in Diner. One of the most successful and important filmmakers of the last thirty years, Quentin Tarantino, even owes a debt to Levinson. Each of his films are masterpieces of violence and intrigue. What sets his movies apart from other blockbuster action films is their intense focus on dialogue and pop culture. Of course, those films had some of the most brutal violence in the history of film. I don’t know about you, but what springs to mind faster for me are the lines and lines of quotable dialogue. Give me the scene in Reservoir Dogs where the bank robbers sit around the table talking about Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” or Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction sitting at the coffee shop discussing whether “that Arnold from Green Acres” is a filthy animal over the shoot-em-up scenes any day.

If you’re a fan of buddy films, comedic dramas or any of the directors I just mentioned, you should check out Diner. Particularly if you are a fan of Levinson’s work in general and somehow missed this one. Not only is it interesting to explore where a career as illustrious as Levinson’s got started, it is also a film that changed the way screenplays are written forever.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, March 20, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #175 - Slim Harpo - The Excello Singles Anthology

So when did Rock And Roll actually begin? There are more than a few answers. Every couple of years someone comes up with a new discovery that seems to prove that some one-hit wonder was actually the first example of primal rock. It seems clear that it happened somewhere between the late 1940’s and the mid-1950’s, and, fueled by the excitement of artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, became recognizable as its own genre with a growing worldwide following somewhere in the mid-50’s. The very wide-ranging nature of that answer shows that there was no single song or artist who can take full credit, but rather that there was a gradual shift in sound and subject matter toward what we now understand as the ocean of Rock. The streams that ran into that ocean came from all over the place (regionalism) and represented a number of genres; Pop, R&B, Blues, Country, Jazz. Each of these genres had a number of artists who sounded like they were on the verge of breaking out and rocking! Slim Harpo (James Moore), was one such artist. Skirting the line between R&B and Blues in the late 1950’s, he is an excellent example of an artist breaking down the walls of expectation and creating something new.

Influenced himself by the urban blues stylings of Jimmy Reed, Harpo took the electric guitar and lead harmonica style into the stratosphere with the addition of his laconic, pinched vocals, reverb drenched guitar solos (usually courtesy of Guitar Gable, Rudolph Richard or Jimmy Johnson), and unfailing turn of a clever phrase. This 2 CD set contains all his singles (A&B sides). Every cut he recorded was worth hearing, but this set really covers the meat of his best material. And oh man is the good stuff good! I guess there’s an argument to be made that you could start and end with the first single and its fabulous flip. “I’m A King Bee / I Got Love If You Want It.” In these two songs, one can clearly hear what must have grabbed Lennon, Page, Jagger and Richards by their ears. Both songs have an almost alien-sounding vocal and guitar paired with a string of sophisticated yet suggestive amorous overtures which have become part of popular lexicon ever since. Think about that accomplishment alone - writing multiple songs that, 60 years later, are part of modern consciousness. The recordings themselves are that classic “stacked” sound of late 50’s recordings. The vocal, guitar and harmonica are directly in your face, while keyboards, bass and drums churn below, striving for attention. Occasionally an organ fill, slapping snare or tambourine rise to the surface, but for the most part the backing is like the ocean lapping on the shore. That lopsided sound is what gave so many of these early R&B singles such an exciting and dramatic feel. Harpo’s voice was already an amazing instrument, but when it is coming at you, claustrophobically on top of the mix, like a torpedo in a bathtub, you have to pay attention.

Harpo continued to release strong and distinctive singles for the next few years, which were all eclipsed by his 1960 hit single (even though it was originally the B-side) “Rainin’ In My Heart.” A melancholy masterpiece, it lives in a stylistic world of its own - floating somewhere between a country ballad and an R&B torch song. It is soaked in echoey guitar, a rolling rhythm section and Harpo’s world-weary vocal. A great song if there ever was one.

Harpo left Excello for a brief period in 1965 but returned later that year for another burst of fantastic late-career singles. “Baby Scratch My Back,” “Shake Your Hips,” “Tip On In (parts 1 & 2)” and the irresistible “Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu” are all classics of the style that Slim Harpo shared with almost nobody else. The insistent rhythm of “Baby Scratch My Back” and “Shake Your Hips” find Harpo now clearly making Rock And Roll, or rather defining what that term would mean for The Rolling Stones and many others. It is insidious and more than a little dangerous. It also has a cool, slinky tempo that defines the restraint that Rock would start to develop as it matured. So, Slim Harpo not only helped define the original sound of Rock, he predicted where it would go in the future. Slim Harpo The Excello Singles Anthology belongs in the collection of any serious student of modern music and anyone who likes cuttin’ a rug.

-                     Paul Epstein

Monday, March 13, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #161 – Paprika (2006, dir. Satoshi Kon)

Movies share such a deep connection with dreams that we describe our dreams in cinematic terms as often as filmmakers conjure up evocative and memorable dream sequences. Many films have depicted the elusive dimension of our dreams, but few have explored this territory with as much style, nerve, and imagination as Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. In just ninety minutes, Paprika weaves together a hard-boiled noir mystery complete with a world-weary detective, a sci-fi thriller in which a group of scientists race to retrieve a dangerous new technology, and an exhilarating visual expression of the limitless frontiers of dreams. With this remarkable blend of gripping genre narrative and non-linear elements, Kon draws the connection between dreams and films even tighter by melding his dream-focused masterpiece with a love letter to the magic of filmmaking.

The notion that a machine capable of capturing dreams would become a potentially dangerous and extremely valuable device runs through films like Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but Paprika allows this idea to blossom and thrive in a singularly captivating manner. The film’s mind-bending opening sequence establishes the DC Mini, an experimental technology that allows therapists to enter the dreams of their patients. After this introduction, the team of scientists who developed the DC Mini realize that someone has stolen it. With this team, Satoshi Kon creates a dynamic group of idiosyncratic characters who revere the awesome potential of their discovery as much as they fear the consequences of the DC Mini falling into the wrong hands. Just as the film’s characters caution each other about the risks of exploring the dreams of others, Kon demonstrates a similar respect in his depictions of the subconscious mind. Yes, the screen repeatedly fills with psychedelic images of gleefully uninhibited minds running rampant, but the dreams in Paprika aren’t simply gorgeous set pieces. These dreams are not only essential to the film’s tricky plot, but they also offer the audience insight into the motivations, fears, and desires of the main characters. Kon references many films (including his own works) throughout the dream sequences in Paprika and celebrates the dreamer as a creative hero equal to any lauded filmmaker. Early in the film, the character of Paprika establishes this sentiment by declaring, “REM sleep that occurs later during the sleep cycle is longer and easier to analyze. If earlier cycles are, say, artsy film shorts, later cycles are like feature-length blockbuster movies.” With nods to screen icons like Tarzan and James Bond as well as tributes to master filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Walt Disney, Kon draws out the intangible links between the creative domains of dreams and films.

Satoshi Kon’s innovative animation techniques allow for fluid transitions between the characters’ kinetic, stylized reality and the boisterously warped terrain of their subconscious minds. This approach taps into the stunning beauty and uniquely disturbing realms of dreams in a manner nearly unrivaled in modern cinema. Where other filmmakers have resorted to distant, flickering tableaus or stunning, but leaden special effects to portray unconscious visions, Kon explodes our expectations with unbridled flurries of fantastic images that fall into the uncanny rhythm and logic present only in dreams. Sadly, Paprika became Kon’s fourth and final film before his death at the age of 46, but this film endures as an achievement in the artistic investigation into the timeless mysteries and enchantments we encounter when we sleep.

-          John Parsell

Monday, March 6, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #174 - Nils Petter Molvaer – Khmer

Back in the 1990s, well before EDM made inroads into mainstream popular culture, the European electronic music scene was something that any musician with open ears was paying attention to. Rock and pop musicians were (sometimes reluctantly) getting remixed by famous electronic producers, DJs were becoming superstars, and so forth. So where better than jazz, a syncretic genre that is always taking in influences from the entire world of music, for this to take an early and lasting root? And who better than Nils Petter Molvaer, a Norwegian trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist (he’s also credited here with bass, sampler, treatments, guitar, and percussion) born in 1960, to cotton to the sounds his generation of European musicians were making and find a way to make it blend seamlessly with his kind of jazz?

Of course the music is not without precedent. It’s easy to point to Miles Davis’ similar groundbreaking experiments in the 1970s that fused jazz improvisation with popular rhythms to the consternation of the jazz establishment, or the worldly ethno-ambient records that Jon Hassell laid down in the 1980s (both with and without Brian Eno collaborating). But Molvaer is doing something different - the rhythms are frequently based on the then-contemporary dance beats of the drum & bass scene, but they're less aggressive than what Miles essayed on an album like On the Corner, venturing frequently into ambient territory. And where Miles played with a muscular assertiveness and Hassell drew on Middle Eastern tonalities for his treated trumpet sounds, Molvaer is somewhere else again, playing it cooler than Miles, with shorter phrases than the runs of the Miles of the early 70s, but also playing around with the rhythm a lot, not as much in the abstracted territory of sound that Hassell sometimes occupies. And though maybe I’m putting too much into it by associating his cool middle register tones and subtle phrasing with his Norwegian island upbringing, the record often fits the image of a chilly Scandinavian landscape – but certainly one where you can find Miles Davis albums to listen to.

The album kicks off with the title cut which fades in slowly, leading with a melodic line from the guitar that is then answered by Molvaer’s trumpet. A sampled bass thump plays in one channel while a more acoustic-sounding bass (also sampled) interlocks with it in the other. Percussion (performed live, not sampled) is light, fast, and skittering, right in the wheelhouse of the drum & bass music of the time, playing it both fast and slow simultaneously, though considerably less heavy than the real stuff. With the rhythmic groundwork laid, Molvaer’s trumpet and Eivind Aarset’s guitar trade solos mostly in a laid back, almost ambient mode until Molvaer starts playing longer lines and using the higher register of the trumpet, at which point it promptly fades into track two, “Tlon,” which starts mellow as well, Molvaer’s trumpet cutting like a foghorn through the electronic blips and heavy bass that surround it. Then guitar, trumpet, and an oddly perfect talkbox start a dialogue before the beats kick in to very directly link this to the contemporary electronic music world. But that’s before Morten Mølster’s treated guitar creates a squalor that would derail the goodwill that had been generated by any DJ playing this to a crowded dancefloor.

And so it continues, bouncing between more contemplative numbers like “On Stream” with its trumpet, bass, and mellow guitars over sampled percussion performing the most plainly lovely thing here, and songs like “Access/Song of Sand 1” or “Platonic Years” which start out quietly before rhythm starts to move to the fore and push the guitars and trumpet into more rhythmically choppy waters to match. “Song of Sand 2” and “Exit” close things out with the nosiest and quietest songs in the program, respectively.

Taken as a whole, this is a remarkable record, finding a way to take in haunting beauty, propulsive rhythm, improvisation, and the experimental sound manipulations, and meld them into a cohesive and entertaining whole. It’s something of a shock that it’s on the ECM label, primarily known (especially then) for exquisitely recorded small group chamber jazz, but good for them – it opened up the label to a new audience and it broadened the label’s outlook on what they could release. Also be sure to seek out Molvaer’s equally compelling second ECM album, Solid Ether, and then just start exploring – he has yet to put out a record I haven’t enjoyed.

-         Patrick Brown