Monday, April 24, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #164 - Sweetie (1989, dir. Jane Campion)

Kay: “What if it does die?”
Louis: “What?”
Kay: “The tree.”
Louis: “Well, we’ll get another one.”
Kay: “Yeah, but this is our tree.”
Louis: “Look, it’s not gonna die. The roots grow really strong. They can split concrete.”

Years before Jane Campion would make a name for herself with such films as Bright Star (2009), In The Cut (2003), and probably most famously the Oscar winning The Piano (1993), she wrote and directed this brilliant psychological drama that stunningly explores the inner workings of a small, yet utterly complex family. Sweetie was Campion’s debut feature length film and with it she immediately proved her worth as a writer (the film was co-written by her and Gerard Lee) and director, and revealed her unique narrative and aesthetic vision. I was exposed to this film during a class on female directors during my first undergrad, and was immediately drawn to this odd, visually stunning tale, flush with metaphor and depth.

At the heart of it, this film is about a subtly neurotic and superstitious woman, Kay (Karen Colston), who’s attempting to forge her way as an independent adult. She has very few friends and everyone around her seems to think her quite eccentric. After a reading from her psychic she finds herself in the awkward situation of having to steal a co-worker’s fiancé, Louis (Tom Lycos), as she believes that they were destined to be together. From this moment we fast-forward with the couple, seeing only a few important moments in the development of their relationship until the moment that Lou planted a tree for Kay in their back yard. Believing that the tree could prove some sort of omen for their relationship she rejects it, snaps, and uproots the tree, hiding it underneath the bed in the spare room before anything bad can happen. Although she then moves into the spare bedroom to guard the decaying sapling, everything seems reasonably fine; however their relationship issues are increasingly bubbling underneath the surface. Though the tensions in their relationship seems to be stuck at a simmer, it begins to boil over with the arrival of Kay’s unhinged punk rock sister, Dawn, AKA ‘Sweetie’ (Geneviève Lemon), and her drug addled ‘manager’ Bob.

From this point Sweetie, as well as the rest of Kay’s family, begins to unravel the stability of Kay’s life and her relationship with Louis. The trials and tribulations of the family, Louis, and Bob, beautifully mirror real life’s propensity to be filled with comedy, drama, pain, and revelation. The dysfunction inherent in all of the relationships comes to light but in a remarkable fashion. While many of the issues addressed or hinted at have often been used as fodder for film and literary plots, the way that Campion addresses them skirts cliché and demonstrates a level of finesse and skill not often seen in a debut feature. The talent that shines through in Sweetie most definitely portends Campion's gifts that she would expound upon in her later works.

Aside from the fascinating off-kilter story of this peculiar familial system, and the splendid way that Campion deals with such issues, let me enumerate a few other reasons that I feel compelled to turn you on to this fantastic film. First and foremost, the way that the film was shot is brilliant! The use of out of the ordinary framing and composition for scenes is incredibly engaging and it would often seem that there is something that can be read underneath the surface of every scene. Secondly, and something that goes hand in hand with the aesthetics of the film, Campion imbued this film with an incredible amount of metaphorical layers. There is a certain almost indescribable depth to the film that forces me to question everything and read into all of the subtle context in order to gain a more complete understanding of the somewhat simple story. Third, and finally, the acting is glorious. Geneviève Lemon and Karen Colston in particular effortlessly embody their roles as utterly opposing sibling personalities. The one reserved (Kay) and the other an unapologetic train wreck (Sweetie), they seem to have been made for these roles and their interaction with each other truly makes you believe that they have been embroiled in this strange sibling rivalry all their lives.

It is for all of the aforementioned reasons and more that I implore you to check out this fantastic film, I promise that you won't regret it. Plus, the Criterion Collection's beautiful release of Sweetie happens to come with some amazing extras, such as Campion's early short films and much more, that will further give you a glimpse into the creative process of an amazing writer/director.

- Edward Hill

Monday, April 17, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #177 - Megadeth – Rust in Peace (Capitol, 1990)

These days, if one talks about Megadeth, it’s more likely to be a conversation about what a pompous prick frontman Dave Mustaine publicly continues to be than about the actual music. However, once upon a time, Megadeth released the heaviest, most technically sound thrash metal record of the 1990s (and possibly of all time). I am here to tell you fine Spork readers why, regardless of your position on metal, you need this record in your life.

First of all, a short history lesson for those novices among us. Dave Mustaine was an original member of Metallica. Since all four of my grandparents had heard of Metallica and used them as an entry point for trying to relate to me when I was a pre-teen, I’m going to assume I don’t need to explain who they are. Mustaine was thrown out of Metallica for being too drunk and terrible all the time, itself an impressive feat considering Metallica had been given the nickname ‘Alcoholica’ by friends and press. Defeated but undeterred, Mustaine formed Megadeth with bass player and friend David Ellefson.

Mustaine and Ellefson spent much of the mid-to-late ‘80s trying to match Metallica’s success, Metallica always remaining three steps ahead. Perhaps it was the rampant drug abuse or the semi-frequent personnel changes that kept them from receiving the level of acclaim that Mustaine’s former band was receiving. Finally in 1990, just as thrash metal was beginning to fade into obscurity, Megadeth released their fourth album Rust in Peace, and in doing so took thrash to a whole new level.

Rust in Peace wasn’t just about heaviness and speed. It had those things in spades, but what set Rust in Peace apart from many of the other thrash records of the day was its melodicism and its technical efficiency. Mustaine stepped up the creativity that we all knew he had (if the riffs he wrote on Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All are any indication), got clean and sober (relatively speaking) and wrote some of the most personal songs of his career, dealing with such topics as war, alien conspiracies and his own chemical addiction. The songs themselves tended to be longer with frequent and abrupt time changes. Newly added lead guitarist Marty Friedman, himself an accomplished virtuoso, helped up the intensity and progressive nature of the songs. The record is so filled with guitar solos that it can sometimes feel like a call-and-response wank-fest between Mustaine and Friedman. However, structurally the solos fit well within the epic proportions of the compositions.

Another reason this record is so mind-blowingly incredible is the addition of drummer Nick Menza. Menza was the drum tech for former drummer Chuck Behler and ended up taking over his job when Behler was fired. A former session drummer, Menza had experience in not only metal but gospel and funk as well. These influences all shine through on Rust in Peace, as his style is both angular and jazzy in addition to being lightning fast. Hiring Friedman and Menza was the smartest decision Mustaine ever made or would ever make again. This lineup would be known as the “classic lineup” and would remain together for three more records, the longest any incarnation of Megadeth has ever stayed together.

I had already been playing drums myself for a year or two when Rust in Peace was released. I was a Megadeth fan, but I wouldn’t say I was crazy about them at the time. One day, I was watching a VHS tape of MTV’s The Headbangers’ Ball that I recorded off the TV the night before. When the video for the single “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” came on, it instantly changed my life. I went out and bought the album that day, and it’s remained one of my favorite albums not just in metal, but overall. Menza’s playing in particular changed both the way I listen to and the way I play music. I maintain that you need not be a metal fan to regard Rust in Peace as an instant classic or at the very least a genre milestone. Its release spawned many tech-metal bands coming out of the woodwork and its influence can even be heard in many recorded works from seasoned veterans such as Slayer and Carcass.

Shortly after Rust in Peace came out metal in general suffered a lapse in popularity with the rise of grunge and “Buzz Bin” bands. Many bands faded away, while others (*cough* Metallica *cough*) would embarrassingly try to embrace the change in the mainstream landscape and release their own version of it. Megadeth even had their share of flops and mishaps in later years. But Rust in Peace will always stand as a true masterpiece and, above all, the point in history when Megadeth finally outdid their biggest rivals.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, April 10, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #163 - Tristana (1970, dir. Luis Buñuel)

Luis Buñuel’s relationship with his home country of Spain was a complicated one – it informed his work and was the root of his uniquely skewed outlook on the world, but he spent most of his life out of the country and made only three films there during his career. Born in the mountain town of Calanda in 1900, he moved with his family to the rural region of Aragon and its capital city Zaragoza when he was young. Attending college in Madrid, he became close friends with Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca, moving to France after graduation and joining the Surrealist group with Dalí, ultimately creating one of his most famous works with him, the short film Un Chien Andalou. He made another film (the scandalous L’Age d’Or) with Dalí before their friendship dissolved, then returned to Spain during the turbulent years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. Back in Spain, Buñuel made another short film, Las Hurdes, a semi-documentary about a poverty-stricken mountainous region of Spain near the Portuguese border. The film provoked an uproar with Spanish officials for its brutal depiction of extreme poverty and was banned in Spain from 1933 to 1936, and then again by Francisco Franco’s regime when he came to power after the Civil War. Buñuel left the country when Civil War broke out, departing for the U.S. and then Mexico, where he settled for the rest of his life.

After re-establishing himself as a filmmaker of note in Mexico, Buñuel was invited by Spain to make a film funded by the government, presumably looking to call Spain’s filmmaking son back to his homeland. But the film he made, Viridiana (based on a novel by the author Benito Pérez Galdós), contained scenes considered blasphemous and subversive – despite the script being approved by censors. Franco attempted to have the film destroyed and recalled from its entry at the Cannes film festival, but Buñuel had already left the country with his film. It was immediately banned in Spain, but won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and pushed Buñuel to the upper ranks of international directors, allowing him to make some of his seminal works throughout the 60s.

With these two films created in Spain behind him, it was with some trepidation that the Spanish government again allowed Buñuel to make a third film, Tristana. Could another film made with Franco still in power, be trusted in the hands of Buñuel, the man who said of his surrealist days “Scandal was a potent agent of revelation, capable of exposing such social crimes as the exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny - in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed.”? Apparently so!

Tristana, unlike Buñuel’s previous Spanish films, did not provoke outrage or scandal and was not banned in Spain (or elsewhere, to my knowledge) – but it could have been. Buñuel turned again to a Galdós novel as source material and found a work that’s very similar in tone to Viridiana – a young woman is taken in by an older gentleman after her parents’ passing and he takes more than a paternal interest in her. The gentleman, Don Lope, is again played by Fernando Rey (in his second of four collaborations with Buñuel), and the young woman Tristana is played by Catherine Deneuve, who Buñuel had worked with to great effect in Belle de Jour. Their relationship in the film is complex and always shifting – Tristana starts the film naïve and meek, a religious woman still mourning the loss of her family, while Don Lope is an atheistic, anti-capitalistic, mostly leftist gentleman who nevertheless retains some archaic notions of honor (very similar to Buñuel himself, in fact). Though Tristana is repulsed by his advances she still remains under his care and as the film continues she begins to assert her independence and a shift begins. Tristana slowly adopts the hardened exterior of her guardian while his strong postures fade away and he becomes the helpless ward. Ironically, it’s Don Lope’s regular talk of the assertion of freedom and individual will that powers Tristana’s bids for autonomy that leave him an emotional wreck.

While the film doesn’t have the outré shock value of Buñuel’s earlier work, it’s a deeply weird and complex film underneath, simultaneously condemning and offering sympathy for Don Lope in his doomed desires for young Tristana (he is referred to throughout the film by various characters as old and hence unattractive), and similarly finding outrage in how Tristana is treated when she’s young, only have her behave monstrously later in life. It wouldn’t be too difficult for Spanish censors who had been upset by Viridiana’s suggestive relationship with her cousin in the earlier film to find in this film a full-bore attack on traditional and family values, frequently showing Don Lope’s moralism as out of touch and his relationship with Tristana considerably more unchaste than the one depicted in Viridiana. And Tristana herself even voices Don Lope’s ideals of remaining unmarried, a free agent in the world of romance able to choose who she wishes to be with and when.

In Buñuel’s universe, boundaries placed on desire are always under attack, and Tristana’s undermining of family values and portrait of marriage as a corrupt institution should, in theory, have been upsetting to Spanish censors. But for some reason, perhaps because rising stars Catherine Deneuve and Franco Nero were cast to help the film toward international success and nobody involved on the Spanish side of the production wanted to seem to be as out of touch as Don Lope, the film passed without friction. It’s as mysterious, challenging, sardonic, and strangely beautiful as any film in Buñuel’s catalog.

-         Patrick Brown

Monday, April 3, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #176 - Richard Buckner - Dents and Shells

The academic year of 1995-1996 figures prominently in my personal history with music. As a college freshman that fall, I joined the staff of WPLS and began hosting my first radio show. Weeks later, I attended my first eighteen-and-over concert: Superchunk at Be Here Now in Asheville, NC. At the end of my freshman year, my friend Simms invited me up to Asheville to see a folk concert. Dar Williams was the headliner at Be Here Now that night, but I came away with a strong impression of the opening act, a big, shambly guy who played a stirring, stripped down cover of Pavement’s “Here.” About a decade later, as I was delving into the furrowed beauty of Richard Buckner’s Dents and Shells, I realized that he was that big, shambly guy and I experienced the kind of epiphany that comes from a life of listening to music you love.

Richard Buckner’s eighth album and his second on Merge Records, Dents and Shells, showcases his distinctive take on the singer-songwriter tradition and serves as a great introduction to this hard-working, underrated artist. Throughout the album, Buckner’s weathered, intimate voice combines with the instrumentation of the era’s alt-country sound, but the result hews closely enough to indie rock that it still feels at home on Merge. “A Chance Counsel” kicks off the album as a strummed acoustic guitar opens into a mid-tempo arrangement and Buckner drops us into the middle of one of his signature highly detailed, small-scale narratives. Blending the sweetness of nostalgia with the bitterness of regret, Buckner sets the album’s themes of missed opportunities, loss, and survival. Coalescing out of a soft, repeated piano figure, “Her” balances a haunting sense of melancholy with a resigned acceptance of the here and now. Offering up the album’s strongest moment, “Her” blossoms into a poignant expression of emotional reckoning nuanced with swells of fiddle and tinges of pedal steel guitar. Later in the album, “Rafters” breaks into a swift tempo while Buckner gives us just enough hints to know he’s singing about the kind of night we all remember when things change forever. The strength of Buckner’s delivery and the lack of resolution in his lyrics in “Rafters” signal a respect for his audience’s intelligence that feels rare and refreshing for the genre and timeframe. “As the Waves Will Always Roll” closes out the album on a somber, yet inspiring note as a cymbal flourish gives way to a brooding organ performance and thunderous crashes of percussion. This musical backdrop slyly offsets Buckner’s nearly hushed voice and although the song rises to almost epic proportions it still feels grounded, immediate, and true like all Buckner’s best songs.

In the spring of 2014, I had a unique opportunity to reflect on my then twenty-year-long relationship with Merge Records, the independent record label founded by two members of one of my favorite bands, Superchunk. That April, I saw Arcade Fire play the Pepsi Center in Denver as part of their Reflektor World Tour, easily the biggest concert by a Merge Records band I’ve witnessed. The next month, I traveled back to my hometown of Greenville, SC and attended the most intimate concert I’ve seen by a Merge Records artist, a house show featuring Richard Buckner hosted by my friend and former record store co-worker, Brian. Sitting in Brian’s living room, I once again felt drawn into Buckner’s warmth, intensity, and vulnerability. Hearing Buckner perform songs from this album with him sitting just a few feet from me, time fell away as I felt anchored by music’s ability to transcend all that can so easily consume and distract us.

-          John Parsell