Monday, March 26, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #188 - Ten (2002, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

Director Abbas Kiarostami in the documentary 10 on Ten: “The subject of Ten is based on everyday life. Undoubtedly many serious viewers as well as some critics, mainly the advocates of modern cinema, will find such a subject dull.”

Roger Ebert, in his 2-star review of Ten: “...his films--for example his latest work, "Ten"--are meant not so much to be watched as to be written about; his reviews make his points better than he does.”

Ebert (who also hated Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or winning A Taste of Cherry) makes a valid point of course, though obviously nothing that Kiarostami was not already aware of. Some people will not respond well to this film, and I get that. It consists almost exclusively of static shots from digital dashcams of a woman driving around Tehran with different passengers - her son, her sister, an older woman en route to worship, a younger woman leaving worship at the same mausoleum, a friend in tears over a relationship falling apart, and a prostitute who has mistakenly gotten in her car believing her to be a man - in ten segments, counted down at the beginning of each segment like an old film reel. Anyone could make this film, Ebert opines elsewhere in his review, and I start to think of folks saying the same “My kid could do that!” thing about Jackson Pollock’s drips or Cecil Taylor’s piano banging and I know he’s wrong, because nobody else would A) conceive of such a film or B) be in a position in their career as an internationally famous filmmaker to make such a radical shift to make this kind of film, and that has meaning in itself. Kiarostami had already explored more plot-oriented films, and shot dusty roads and urban landscapes of Iran with a stunning eye for composition, rather than something “anyone” could make. But what does the film mean? If we’re literally watching two people driving around and talking, what’s interesting about that?

It gets more complicated. Reduced to the simplest mechanics of plot, yes, that’s what happens (and all that happens) and you probably have a good idea already if this film is not for you or if you’re thinking “Hmm… tell me more.” Kiarostami coached his actors (none of them professionals) about the subjects they’d talk about, made suggestions about where to go with their conversations, put them in the car, started the cameras, and let them go, ultimately editing many hours of footage down to the 94 minutes of the final film. So what happens?

1) The driver (Mania Akbari, whose character remains unnamed throughout the film) talks first with her son, Amin (played by the actress’s actual son), arguing about her divorce from his father and recent remarriage to another man. He feels angry, accusing her of abandoning the marriage and lying about her ex-husband’s shortcomings; she says she was trapped in a loveless marriage and had to tell the courts that her husband was an addict merely to be granted a divorce. Such are the laws that women face in Iran. For almost the entirety of this segment the camera remains on her son (showing only one side of a conversation is a common Kiarostami tactic), letting us see the woman only at the very end of this lengthy segment. 2) The driver’s sister waits in the car for her to return from a bakery with a cake for her husband. They discuss how difficult Amin has been lately with the rest of the family. Unlike the first segment, the film cuts back and forth between them. 3) It opens on the driver offering an old woman a lift to a mausoleum to worship. The camera sticks with the driver the entire time while the woman talks about the importance of faith and prayer in the world until she is dropped off to go worship.

And so it goes. Roads fascinate Kiarostmai, and so do cars. Many of his films feature his characters driving around from one place to another. In the first segment of this film, Amin says to his mother “You talk as soon as we’re in the car.” Kiarostami has said that one reason he uses the car as a regular setting is that in cars people can speak freely and openly – they also can’t leave the conversation once it’s started. Going further, the driver discusses love, sex and marriage openly with a prostitute (actually an actress portraying one – Kiartostami couldn’t find an actual prostitute willing to appear in the film), she discusses the pros and cons of marriage with a young woman whose boyfriend won’t commit to their relationship then later gives her another ride after things have fallen apart in her relationship and the woman has taken the drastic step of shaving her head to symbolically move on, she also talks with her friend who’s upset about her relationship disintegrating, and she give Amin more rides (and more opportunities to appear as obnoxious as her sister had said he’s been).

For the film’s supporters (of which I am an enthusiastic one), the privileged opportunity to be present for these conversations is remarkable. Ebert worries that viewers can’t connect to the characters, only to Kiarostami’s ideas on an intellectual level, but I’d disagree. I’m drawn in from the first minute of the film to the day-to-day life of a seemingly average woman in modern Tehran, hearing from her mouth and those of her passengers about both the lives and problems we all face (relationship woes, a shaky relation to her faith, and so forth) and those more specific to her position as a woman in Iranian society, where talking openly with a prostitute (who says of women in marriages: “You’re the wholesalers. We’re the retailers.”) or showing an uncovered female head challenges Iranian laws. It engages me knowing that Kiarostami has made a film that feels as immediate and real as any documentary, but he’s created the narrative so craftily that it could be mistaken as being made with a hidden camera. It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the society that we in the West may have preconceptions about, prejudices about, and see how a typical woman functions in that society. It’s also fascinating for an artist to make such a drastic change from the area he’d been working in and have it be successful, even if there are clear precursors for what he does here (conversations in cars, blurring of the lines between documentary and fiction, experimental techniques, etc), and its seemingly simple surface hides the deep layers of craft and thought that went into the making of the film. For me, it’s a masterpiece, plain and simple – or layered and complex. 

- Patrick Brown

Monday, March 19, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #201 - Wayne Shorter - Juju

Looking at contemporary jazz saxophone I believe one can trace the influences back to three saxophone players from the late fifties and early sixties. Those players are John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Wayne Shorter. John Coltrane studied and played with Ornette Coleman, as Wayne Shorter studied with John Coltrane. It is amazing how they took each other into consideration rather than trying to evolve inside a vacuum. Juju is a glimpse of Wayne Shorter dealing with the evolving legacy of John Coltrane’s impact upon jazz. As he was developing as an artist he had to assimilate, process, and learn to mature with the musicians around him. The result is one of his most powerful Blue Note releases, recorded in 1964 and released in 1965. I chose Juju for I’d Love To Turn You On because I think it is a great portrait of an artist as he is growing and evolving, reaching for that next step. This is what makes Wayne Shorter such a vibrant player, from his days with Art Blakey through his days with Miles Davis and up until today. He continues to make relevant music, lending a rounded perspective that few can match.

The band of McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Reggie Workman on double bass is two thirds of the classic Coltrane Quartet. Elvin Jones has a rolling and bubbling swing that interacts perfectly with Tyner’s bombastic chords on the first song “Juju,” laying a perfect bed for the melody. It is only after a few times through the harmonic structure that the frame of the tune, which is fairly simple and repetitive, becomes evident. This reveals the skill of the players, this ability to conceive of dense interlocking textures from simple source material and lay a cohesive bed that Shorter and McCoy Tyner can both solo in. Shorter’s solo seems patient to explore long tones at points, then work long phrases, and then hover on one note, not going any one place. It is the tone of the playing that makes the solo worthy of keeping; even if the solo is a little directionless the spirit of the playing has great zest. The spirit is in the exploration.             

Deluge,” the second tune, is a textbook Blue Note Swing. After the first somber statement by Shorter the entire band joins in for a cohesive, unstoppable demonstration of mid-sixties jazz. Elvin Jones in particular seems to be at the height of his powers, so relaxed that the drumsticks can just bounce on the snare or toms and do no wrong, while at the same time laying down a thick wall of impenetrable cymbals. Shorter then starts a solo with lengthy statements, taking his time working out his ideas and leaving time for the rhythm section to respond and fill space. The quarter note lock-up underneath Tyner’s solo between Reggie Workman and Jones’ ride cymbal is perfect, allowing Tyner to play single note fills or lay down big pedal point chords with his left hand and cascade massive fills with his right hand. The pocket on this tune is so great anything could happen.

“House of Jade” is a downtempo number that eventually picks up a little more speed. It has a ballad feel and the bridge, or middle part of the song, has a pedal point where the harmonic motion holds still in the rhythm section. This allows for increased activity on the melody instrument. It functions much the same way a zoom lens might, to bring greater detail to a certain part of a photo or frame in a picture or movie. The drums eventually double time under the sax solo propelling the rhythmic motion forward even when it drops back to the original time.

“Mahjong” starts with a playful drum solo and piano statement and then Shorter plays the melody which is supported by Tyner’s trademark quartal tones. Tyner is really the perfect piano player for these type of tunes because he can fill the space in songs that have two or three chordal areas in them and still make it interesting. As Tyner fills the space, Shorter plays the melody, and then this happens again. They play a bridge, restate the original melody and then repeat the whole thing. Tyner supplies a thick texture of harmony for his own solo that he can nestle in. While McCoy Tyner fills the space, it might be the opposite of what Shorter was experiencing in Miles Davis’ group where Herbie Hancock would boil a piano voicing down to one or two notes, a chord cluster, or lay out and let space and Tony Williams take over.

“Yes or No” is a real burner of a tune. The melody starts out with a flurry and ends with Shorter holding a long tone as Tyner, Workman, and Jones cruise below it banging out comping chords and flurries of color. This motif repeats several times before the bridge, in which Shorter plays out the song’s title in an up-and-down and back-and-forth manner. Jones’ ride cymbal is a constant North Star of precision during this song, one that all can look to as a guide in direction and meter. Shorter warms up on the first chorus but after that really opens up and plays his most technically demanding and passionate choruses of the record. Tyner takes over but takes a minute to regain the intensity of where Shorter left off, as if maybe he was not ready for Shorter to actually end his solo and was caught off guard having to begin his. A definite high point of the record. They end the record with “Twelve More Bars to Go,” a hard-swinging modified blues. Shorter really works the changes from inside to out. He is the only soloist and the band sounds great. In terms of innovation this has to be the most standard tune on the album. It doesn't have the passion of “Yes and No” or the catchiness of some of Shorter’s other tunes.

Juju was released in 1965 and recorded in 1964. Speak No Evil was released in 1966 and also recorded in late 1964. These are both great Wayne Shorter records. I think they are notable because they illustrate the process of one contemporary dealing with the legacy of another contemporary successfully. By this time John Coltrane was recording Crescent and A Love Supreme so he was continuing to innovate. Both of these artists are moving forward on their separate journeys. Shorter would have more Blue Note records and Miles Davis recordings, and then he would eventually become a founding member of Weather Report.

Hopefully I am turning you on to the fact that yes, Juju itself is great, but looking at it in context of Wayne Shorter’s evolution is the truly fun part. For me that has always been the amazing part of jazz records is how they link together, historically, via recording labels, or band personnel. Have fun listening!

-         Doug Anderson

Monday, March 12, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #187 - Honkytonk Man (1982, dir. Clint Eastwood)

I’ve mentioned in previous posts here my affinity for the Western genre. When I was little, my brothers and I would spend entire weekends watching them on television with my father. At the time, I don’t think I really paid much attention to them and didn’t really care either way. But Westerns on the TV meant Saturdays with my dad, and those were pretty special to me. Eventually, I grew to appreciate them for what they are and now when I watch them, I tend to get transported back to third or fourth grade, staring at our giant old wood-framed console TV that didn’t have a remote. I wasn’t in fifth grade in the 60s or anything, this is just the dirtball TV we had in 1986. But that is neither here nor there.

The point is, I loved to sit around watching Westerns with my dad and among our favorites were Clint Eastwood movies. But I’m not going to talk about The Man with No Name franchise, as the point of this column is to suggest things that you, the reader, may have missed. It’s not very likely that you’re a fan of Westerns and have never heard of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Nor am I even going to talk about an Eastwood Western film for that matter, because if you’re like me, if you even think the word “Western,” an image of Clint as the titular Outlaw Josey Wales probably pops into your head. Today I’m going to talk about Clint’s 1982 film Honkytonk Man.

It took me a while to come around to Honkytonk Man, actually. For the most part, I preferred Clint Eastwood as a Western outlaw. Even the Dirty Harry series, which I love now, I had a hard time with for a while. I just didn’t have any interest in seeing him try to be tough guy in the modern world, I guess. But Honkytonk Man was the first movie I remember enjoying Clint in that wasn’t a Western.

Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, Clint plays Red Stovall, a singer-songwriter and alcoholic drifter who is trying like hell to get to Nashville so he can try out for the Grand Ol’ Opry as a country singer. In the opening scene, Red drunkenly careens up onto the front lawn of a rural Oklahoma farm house just moments after it is hit with an aggressive dust storm. The farm belongs to his sister and her family who are all too familiar with this kind of behavior from Red. The family, discovering that Red has an advanced case of tuberculosis, take him in. While there, he forms a bond with his nephew Whit, played by Clint’s son Kyle Eastwood in his film debut. Red decides to take Whit with him on a road trip to Nashville so that Red can finally pursue his dream. The two share a series of adventures, including robbing a poker game, performing at a juke joint, a brothel visit, and a jailbreak. When they finally reach the Opry, Red is too sick to finish, botching his audition with a series of coughing fits. The performance is, however, caught by a record executive who offers Red studio time to record his songs.

What I love about this film, aside from the killer country soundtrack by the likes of Porter Wagoner, Ray Price, Marty Robbins and Eastwood himself, is that the character of Red is such a different kind of role for Clint. While he does have some of that familiar gruff, icy exterior (particularly when sleeping off a hangover), there is a vulnerability to the dying man that really sets Red apart from other Eastwood characters. A child of the Depression himself, perhaps Clint saw something in the story that struck a chord with his own childhood when he decided to take on the role (and the director’s chair). Whatever the reason, Eastwood brings the melancholy of this character to life with the help of his evolving relationship with the young boy. Red gets the boy involved in some unsavory practices, but there is a real family bond there that is at times very touching. In Honkytonk Man, Clint is given the chance to prove to the world that there is more to his acting than just violent thuggery.

As a director, Clint really shines here as well. The film is visually stunning, filmed on location in various parts of Northern California and Nevada, which act as the Middle America backdrop for the duo’s family road trip. Again, in every way, the film is very different from the usual gun porn fodder that Clint is known for, but take a chance on Honkytonk Man. It’s a true character study of the traveling troubadour, perhaps a character you’ve heard about before in some of the best country songs.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, March 5, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #200 - Mountain - Climbing

Let’s talk about hard rock and heavy metal. Exactly where and when it started is a subject of much debate, and there is probably not a real definitive answer. In England, most indications seem to point pretty clearly to Cream, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as the forefathers, but here in the U.S. of A things aren’t quite as clear. In the late 60’s The Stooges, MC5 and especially Blue Cheer made some critical first steps, but the more recognized conventions of heavy music started to come into focus around 1969 and 70 when two bands in particular started to forge the raw materials into something now very familiar. From Texas, Z.Z. Top emphasized a blues-based form of the guitar fronted trio. Billy Gibbons’ guitar style and tone would help define the southern strain of hard rock until this day. From the stage at Woodstock though, came an East Coast band whose incendiary, guitar-driven sound mixed with a headier style of songwriting to make Mountain a potential peer to the best of the English bands.

Although lead vocalist and certified guitar monster Leslie West had already released a solo album entitled Mountain in 1969, the album Climbing (released in 1970) was the first album with the band itself (now featuring well-known producer Felix Pappalardi on bass and double bass drum pioneer Corky Laing on very muscular drums) now going under the name Mountain. With Pappalardi (and then-wife, later murderer) Gail Collins’ sophisticated songwriting and experienced and intelligent production, Mountain quickly transcends the competition to offer one of the great hard rock albums of all time.

Opening with a bona fide anthem, “Mississippi Queen” is THE song about which the much discussed penchant for cowbell in hard rock comes from. No song has used it better (except maybe “Low Rider"by War), and combined it with the almost Zeppelin-esque crunch of a classic lead guitar riff. “Mississippi Queen” really doesn’t need a lot of discussion because of its unquestioned status as a classic of all rock. Used effectively in movies and T.V. advertising, it has passed beyond the mortal sphere. And that would be that, except for the fact that is followed up by a far more ambitious and equally iconic song by Cream bassist Jack Bruce. “Theme For An Imaginary Western” is another stone classic with mysterious lyrics, a great arrangement enhanced dramatically by Steve Knight’s able Hammond organ work and, of course, thunderous guitar work and mournful vocals by West. Again, this song is followed by another heavy classic. Leslie West unleashes a master class of heavy guitar and really exercises his unique vocal howl, which would be copied by virtually every metal singer in decades to come. “Never In My Life” would fit in on records coming out now - it does not feel dated yet it is years ahead of its time. Side 1 of the original LP closes out and side 2 opens with songs that would have fit beautifully on a Traffic or Procol Harum album. “Silver Paper” and the gorgeous Woodstock memory “For Yasgur's Farm” are both smart, melodic songs benefitting much from Pappalardi’s experience producing Cream (among others) to allow him to create songs that transcend any genre. “To My Friend” finds West proving his acoustic chops ala Zeppelin’s “White Summer.” The album remains strong to the end, with “The Laird” especially offering some prime navel-gazing opportunity. Yes, Mountain does fit the bill as proto-metal based largely on West’s guitar work and shrieking vocals, but no, they were no one trick pony. Climbing ticks many other boxes. Like their British counterparts, Mountain were reaching for the stars.

In the end, perhaps it is the fact that Climbing satisfies the specifics of so many genres - hard rock, soft rock, psych, pop - and even produced a stadium-rock anthem, which makes it such an enduring album to my ears. The totally boss image on the back cover of Felix Pappalardi, the more experienced music legend, giving Leslie West a congratulatory hand slap really says it all: job well done!

-         Paul Epstein