Monday, July 30, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #197 - The Milky Way (1969, dir. Luis Buñuel)

    In searching for a way to talk about an “in” to this very odd film, I was struck by a passage in a book I was reading at lunch on the very day I was coalescing ideas about the film. In Saul D. Alinsky’s 1971 book Rules for Radicals he writes this about the qualities of a good political organizer: “...for him life is a search for a pattern, for similarities in seeming differences, for differences in seeming similarities, for an order in the chaos about us, for a meaning to the life around him and its relationship to his own life - and the search never ends. He goes forth with the question as his mark, and suspects that there are no answers, only further questions.” Nothing could be more dead-on in nailing what I respond to in the works of my favorite director, Luis Buñuel. And in The Milky Way, the controversial director turns his absurd vision loose on an obscure topic – Catholic dogma and heresy – drawn directly from historical documents.
            But let’s back up a moment. Buñuel had something of a history with religion in film. His 1930 film L’Age d’Or caused a riot in Paris at its premiere with its scandalous ending in which the actions of a depraved count (based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade) are described in detail and then he is depicted as the popular image of Jesus (this got the film banned in France for over 30 years). His 1961 film Viridiana was made under the auspices of Franco’s Spain, but when word got out that Buñuel again had an anti-clerical bent to the film – this time a visual parody of Da Vinci’s famous The Last Supper – Spanish authorities tried to get the film recalled and destroyed, but Buñuel had already left Spain with a copy, and ended up winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes. And there were other films in and around these where Buñuel took a questioning or satirical stance toward religion – but more specifically this stance was aimed toward religious dogma, where in his words “each person obstinately clings to his own particle of truth, ready, if need be, to kill or to die for it.” It’s this sort of absurdity that The Milky Way examines.
            The film may seem out of step and politically disengaged compared with the intensely political climate of the times – the film started shooting in France before the events of May 1968 and its completion was delayed because of them – and it is. The film may be disengaged with the contemporary events, but the events were engaged with what Buñuel had talked about his entire career: the tendency of institutions – religious, governmental, political – to assert an authoritarian rule over the individual and this is precisely what the students and workers in France were rebelling against, even adopting the very slogans that the Surrealists used when Buñuel was a member of the Surrealist group in the 1920s – “It is forbidden to forbid” “Be realistic, ask the impossible” and the like.
So the film is un-contemporary perhaps, but the artistic style was very much in the air, inspired perhaps by The Saragrossa Manuscript (of which Buñuel was a fan) and the Spanish picarqesque, he and co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière fashioned a loose narrative in which two pilgrims/tramps en route to Santiago de Compostela wander through history in disconnected sequences, entering into different time periods and places on their journey.
The film is ambiguous from the first scene, in which a passing stranger seems to speak in allegory to the pilgrims rather than having a conversation with them, then the scene cuts abruptly from one of them noting “It reminds me of something my mother used to say” to a scene with Jesus and Mary, him contemplating a nice shave and her telling him he looks better with a beard. Is the pilgrim the younger child depicted in the “flashback”? Is he meant to be Jesus? Is it a false memory or flashback? Who knows? Next it cuts right back to them with no explanation and they discover a child on the side of the road with stigmata. The child refuses to speak or answer them, but flags down a car when they are unable to, but they are promptly evicted for offending their driver when one utters “Christ Almighty” in thanks for the relative comfort of the car’s backseat. Here we’re just over ten minutes in to the film and it continues in this disjointed form for the remainder, offering up scenarios which our pilgrims wander into, witness from the sidelines, or even pass by, walking into debates that are intellectually/philosophically abstracted above their day to day concerns. They encounter such instances as a restaurant manager beset by theological questions by his staff, a class of young girls reciting heresies and proclaiming them "anathema," a Jesuit and a Jansenist dueling while arguing specific points of doctrine, a heretical priest being exhumed and burned, and so forth.
The film is full of the types of narrative digressions that populate this era of Buñuel’s films – dreams, reveries, illustrations of ideas that come up in conversations, etc. – and they create a unique narrative world full of the sort of mystery and ambiguity that Buñuel loved and created in his art from his earliest works. In his autobiography, he called the The Milky Way the first in a trilogy (along with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty) about "the search for truth, as well as the necessity of abandoning it as soon as you’ve found it." Here he looks at the life-or-death importance of theological doctrines for his characters to show the complete arbitrariness of such things, noting that “The Milky Way is neither for nor against anything at all . . . The film is above all a journey through fanaticism, where each person obstinately clings to his own particle of truth, ready, if need be, to kill or to die for it. The road traveled by the two pilgrims can represent, finally, any political or even aesthetic ideology.” A character in the film at one point notes “A religion without mystery is no religion at all.” and the same can be said of the art of Luis Buñuel’s films – the very ambiguity and irrationality is what makes them Buñuel films. No one has ever made anything like them before or since, and The Milky Way is one of his most eccentric, and his most rewarding.

-         Patrick Brown

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Twist & Shout at UMS!: Part One

John Parsell:

     Last year I didn’t really get it together to participate that much in The UMS, but this year I’m excited about the line-up and ready to experience the unique dynamic of this festival. After work Friday evening, I’m looking forward to seeing Frankie Cosmos on the main stage. We’ve played their recent release, Vessel, in the store a few times and I’m excited to hear how those songs sound live. Right after that also on the main stage, I plan on catching Digable Planets. This will be my first time to see these legends of 90s hip-hop, although I watched Shabazz Palaces (Ishmael Butler’s contemporary project) open for Black Star in 2011. I’ll be working a closing shift on Saturday, but I might rally and get it together to see Green Druid play at the Hi-Dive around 10:00 pm. Although I’ll be working during these sets, I’ve been recommending catching Kadhja Bonet and Deerhunter to my friends. 
     I’ve got the day off on Sunday so you’ll definitely find me in the vicinity of Broadway checking out all things UMS. A couple of years ago, White Denim came through town and delivered a highly enjoyable in-store performance so I’m curious to hear what they sound like these days. I can’t say that all of my excitement for this year’s UMS comes from the fact that Superchunk will be playing the main stage, but that accounts for at least eighty percent of my enthusiasm for this year’s festival. I first saw Superchunk in 1995 at the age of eighteen and Sunday’s set will be the tenth time I’ve seen them. I love this band and I can’t wait to hear them play songs from their excellent new album, What a Time to Be Alive! Hopefully that performance will grant me unlimited energy and I’ll be up for checking out my friends Specific Ocean play a midnight set at The Hornet.

Patrick Brown:

     Last year I missed going to the UMS because I had other obligations, so I’m really happy to see that it’s back under new ownership and seems to be in exactly the same spirit as previous years. I’ve always gone to the festival with a pretty open schedule, marking a handful of acts I need to go see (to wit: Superchunk, Digable Planets, Deerhunter), and a bunch of friends’ acts in many genres that I am gonna do my best to make it to (namely: One Flew West, There’s An Ape For That, Yasi, Porlolo, Roger Green, Oko Tygra, It’s Just Bugs, Green Druid, Kyle Emerson, Specific Ocean), and then keeping the rest of my time open – and ears open – to just go with the flow. I listen for what people are recommending to me; I listen to the sounds coming out of the venues; I listen for what bands are getting a buzz, and I go check out anything that sounds appealing. There’s such a bounty of great stuff at the festival every year that I always feel like I’ve missed at least four dozen bands I would’ve enjoyed – but maybe I’ll catch them next year! And maybe I’ll see you there this weekend! Stay hydrated out there folks.

Linden Jackson:

     For me, the UMS is a particularly special time of the year not just because I get to go out and see 20+ of my favorite Denver bands at one festival, but also because it’s an amazing opportunity for musicians and people in the neighborhood to connect with each other on a level that isn't really possible with other festivals. It doesn't get much cooler than seeing an entire chunk of the city completely shut down and allow music to reign supreme, converting the most diverse and seemingly unaccommodating businesses into totally kick ass venues. You might see someone stage diving in your favorite book store or shotgunning a beer at the spot you usually go for coffee, but everyone rolls with it and that's the magic of the UMS. My band One Flew West will be playing Illegal Pete's on Friday the 27th at 8pm!

Brian Wyatt:

     I accidentally said I would be happy to go to U.M.S. because initially I thought it stood for Universal Mallomar Society. It turned out OK though, it’s more bands than fingers on hands. Mine is playing Sunday on the Imagination Stage at 6:20. Come say hi and I’ll give you some of my Mallomars.

Patrick ‘Wavvy’ Richardson:

     For me, UMS weekend is the sweatiest weekend of the whole damn year. My top priority is staying hydrated. If I can manage that, I’m gonna consider it a successful weekend. Here’s a day by day breakdown of where you can find me seeing the acts I’m most excited about:
            Friday: - Bouxku Jones @ Blue Ice Lounge 6PM. Bouxku is a local rapper originally from New Orleans. His Bayou roots shine through in his energetic, thoughtful brand of hip-hop. I should still be pretty hydrated at this point.
                        - Futurebabes @ Gary Lee’s Motor Club 7PM. Futurebabes is a solo synthpop artist hailing from Greeley, CO. For fans of Depeche Mode and Joy Division. The swirling synth arpeggios and catchy vocal melodies will have your feet tappin’ and your head swirlin’. I’ll probably be a lil’ sweaty at this point.
                        - Digable Planets – Hip-hop legends, duh!
            Saturday: Okay, day 2 is the dangerous day. Things start out early and the sun is out. Wear a hat and comfy shoes (I sound like a dad).
                        - The Velveteers @ Sesh Stage 2:20PM. This brother/sister rock duo is the perfect way to start your Saturday. The Velveteers are a fast-rising Denver act not to be missed.
                        - Slow Caves @ 3 Kings 3PM. You live in Colorado and you haven’t seen Slow Caves yet? One of my favorite local bands – I’m gonna be in full-on, soaked-shirt, sweaty-boy mode at this time – please keep an eye on me in case my legs cramp up. I might need you.
                        - Its Just Bugs @ 3 Kings 8PM. This is my band. Come see us, come see how incredibly sweaty I’ll be. Aggressive, full-band hip-hop.
            Sunday: If I survive and make it to Sunday. You can find me here, and Twist & Shout in the cool, cool air conditioning. But that shouldn’t deter you from checking out the rest of the festival. I just know I’ll need a day of recovery, because taking care of yourself is punk rock.
Happy UMS – Love, Wavvy

Anna Bero:

     This will be my first UMS experience and I'm so stoked to be able to go! It's a great opportunity to see some of my co-workers perform. Y'all need to go see It's Just Bugs, One Flew West, Savage Blush, Green Druid, and of course - Matt Cobos (I mean, come one, have you seen that dudes mustache?)
     Sadly, I'll be holding down the fort at good ole Twist & Shout on Friday night so I won't be able to see Boss Eagle, that just means every one of y'all need to go see him if you have the chance. I'm also excited to see Superchunk, mostly just to see my co-worker John Parsell see them - it will be his 10th time seeing the band.
     The last and possibly the raddest thing aboust UMS is just being able to wander around and discover new music.

See y'all there!

Matt Cobos:

     UMS is finally here! It is THE Colorado music and arts fest to go to, and boy am I ready to rage. This year is stacked with not only great music, but great comedy, too! For the first time, UMS decided to make a concerted effort to make comedy an important part of the festival by partnering with the High Plains Comedy Festival to bring in some of the best comics from around the country to a dedicated comedy main stage. Drennon Davis, Tom Thakkar, Kate Willett, Ramon Rivas II, Brandy Posey, and Carmen Morales will all be here slinging chuckles alongside some of Denver's best local comedians. One of those local performers is your favorite little record store clerk and writer, ME! I'll be performing at 6 pm Friday on the comedy main stage outside of Illegal Pete's Broadway! Come party!
     As for music acts, we all know that's the bread and butter of UMS and this year is no exception. The band I'm most excited for is psych-garage band Night Beats. Their last 2 albums were fantastic and I don't expect any less from their live performance. Other great national acts I'm stoked for are Holy Wave, White Denim, and Alvvays. All have some element of psych/garage/party, which is what I can't get enough of.
     Per usual, there are too many awesome local bands for me to list them all, but I'll name some of my favorites that I never miss. The Savage Blush (psych), Bud Bronson and the Goodtimers (party-garage), Colfax Speed Queen (garage-rage), Dirty Few (party garage-punk), Ned Garthe Explosion (party-garage), Cheap Perfume (punk), Green Druid (stoner metal), Grayson County Burn Ban (country), Its Just Bugs (aggressive, full band hip hop), and Vic N The Narwhals (garage rock). Every one of those bands is worth checking out if you like to rock n party.
     Holy crap. This is going to rule. I'm going to start hydrating right now, and I'll see you party people on Broadway!

And at my show on Friday!

Monday, July 23, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #210 - Dan Hicks And His Hot Licks - Striking It Rich

Dan Hicks And His Hot Licks - Striking It Rich

Dan Hicks holds an interesting place in rock history. He is beloved by people who lived through the 60’s and 70’s and just the name of his great band The Hot Licks makes old hippies’ eyes glaze over with stoney nostalgia for the clever, beguiling mix of folk, swing, jazz, pop and comedy of the type that is found in abundance on their third album, 1972’s Striking It Rich. Yet, ask anyone under the age of 40 about Hicks and you will get the blankest of stares. Dan Hicks came along at exactly the right moment, and while he continued to make music until his death in 2016, his greatest impact was as a balm for the frazzled post-60’s San Francisco music scene.
Starting with the memorable LP jacket - fashioned like a flip-open matchbook - the album beckons you inside for something new, yet comfortably familiar. The basic template for Hicks’ music is uptempo swing numbers with funny, knowing lyrics and startlingly good musicianship. No drums are to be found on this album, just the warm tones of acoustic guitars, stand-up bass and the hair-raising violin prowess of (Symphony) Sid Page. Hicks’ vocals are as laconic and heavy-lidded as they are slyly behind the beat and expertly delivered - always punctuated with the flapper backing vocals of Maryann Price and Naomi Ruth Eisenberg. This form of music was a throwback to earlier times, but when it appeared on the heels of Are You Experienced or Raw Power it was soothing cool waters to a burning throat.
Side one of the LP remains one of my favorite half hours of music in my collection. No album will immediately ensure a happy mood and loud along-singing from me like Striking It Rich. Openers “You Got To Believe” and “Walkin’ One And Only” are smoothly swinging slices of hipster heaven. The lack of drums helps showcase just how proficient this band is and how sturdy the arrangements are. The sweet acoustic guitar and walking bass are underscored by Sid Page’s memorable solos and Hicks’ alternately poignant and hilarious delivery. Check out his drunkard’s lament “O’Reilly At The Bar” for the latter or the gorgeous “Woe, The Luck” (on side two) for the former.
The centerpiece of the album has to be the incomparable “I Scare Myself,” a slow-burn masterpiece which contains the single most deranged violin solo in the history of popular music. It is a frighteningly great moment in the middle of what has up to now been a pretty light-hearted affair. Page went on to have a long career scoring films and playing with a mind-boggling assortment of musicians of every stripe. It is the solo on this song for which he must be remembered though, and which takes this album from merely enjoyable to essential. The album is filled with so many other fun moments like “The Laughing Song” containing another signature Hicks vocal or their spot-on version of “I’m An Old Cowhand (from The Rio Grande)” and sweet musical moments - the sumptuous ballad “Moody Richard” or the instrumentals “Philly Rag” and “Fujiyama” - that it is no wonder this album has remained a favorite for almost 50 years. There have been plenty of groups mining similar territory after them, from Asleep At The Wheel to Lake Street Dive, but Dan Hicks did it first and the Hot Licks did it best.

-         Paul Epstein

Monday, July 16, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #196 - Trees Lounge (1996, dir. Steve Buscemi)

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Steve Buscemi had one of the most ubiquitous mugs in show business. He showed up in the films of everyone from the Coen Brothers to Quentin Tarantino and seemingly every indie film in between. With his wiry frame and excitable bug-eyed demeanor, Buscemi played the perfect tough-guy henchman-type. His presence is always striking, and he’s been one of my favorite actors since the first time I saw him in Reservoir Dogs. In Trees Lounge, Buscemi takes on the role of screenwriter and director in addition to the lead role. The result is a bleak portrait of the life of a small-town alcoholic.
Buscemi plays Tommy Basilio, the protagonist, who has recently lost his job and his girlfriend of eight years to his former best friend. Tommy lives in a gritty section of Long Island in a small, run-down apartment above a bar called Trees Lounge where he spends just about every waking moment of his life drinking and chatting with the bar’s other regulars. One day, Tommy learns that his Uncle Al (Seymour Cassel), the local ice cream man, has died of a heart attack. Al’s funeral not only brings together a family who has so obviously drifted apart from one another, but also gives Tommy an employment opportunity to take over Al’s rounds. Business is slow at first, as Tommy does not prove to be as likeable to the neighborhood kids as Al was. But eventually, he enlists the help of Debbie (Chloe Sevigny), his former girlfriend’s teenage niece. This blossoms into a minor romance, further complicating things in Tommy’s life and confusing the naïve Debbie.
Throughout the course of Trees Lounge, Tommy’s presence has a King Midas-in-reverse effect on everything and everyone around him. The more he drinks and closes in on himself, the more he pushes away the only people around that genuinely want to help him. Tommy’s life, at his own doing, spirals more and more out of control, the crux of which lies at this small dive bar that acts as a metaphor for the lives of Tommy and the other patrons. The staff, the décor and the jukebox selections have never been changed. They stay constant, stagnant; much like the people, the ghosts, that inhabit it. The opening credits scene of the film perfectly portrays the kind of place Trees Lounge is when it focuses on one of its regular barflies, Bill, an elderly man who never leaves his bar stool, ordering a double shot of bourbon and staring blankly into space. Bill is a fixture at “The Trees” all throughout the film, sitting silently by himself at the same stool and occasionally barking at someone to leave him alone. This juxtaposes perfectly with the final scene, in which Bill is ominously absent, recently hospitalized because he “just stopped breathing.” Tommy, sitting in Bill’s stool, learns of this news and asks the other barflies why no one is with him. They all assure him they’re going “after this drink.” Tommy, realizing where he is headed, stares blankly in exactly the same way Bill does at the onset of the film.
This film has come to mean a lot to me over the years. I am intimately familiar with this life. I mean, I was in high school when I first saw it, so I hadn’t really experienced life yet. But over time, it’s become not just one of my favorite films, but the film that I perhaps relate to the most. Alcoholism runs rampant in my family. I myself have struggled with it for decades. More specifically, I have lived the life of the small town daily saloon drinker. I know these characters well. I know the feeling of hopelessness and pessimism that leads one to remain in such a comfort zone and say, “well, fuck it. I guess I’ll go drink again.” Buscemi captures this working-class alcoholism more realistically than anything I’ve ever seen. But more than that, he also perfectly captures the self-destructive nature that can often come with family and relationship rifts. Buscemi himself has stated that the film is a sort of hypothetical autobiography, saying that had he not left his small Long Island neighborhood of Valley Stream and begun his acting career, this is the life for which he was headed. In a lot of ways, my recent move to Colorado parallels that idea.
If it feels like I’m explaining a film that is very heavy, it’s because I am. But, please don’t let that keep you from checking Trees Lounge out. While it may not be a feel-good sensation, Buscemi’s directorial debut is extremely funny at times. It’s very dialogue-driven, almost more like a theatrical production than a feature film. Another thing that sets it apart from, say, Barfly or Leaving Las Vegas is that it’s not all dark and depressing. There are actually some very touching moments between Buscemi’s Tommy and the various other characters. Maybe not everyone can relate to the material the same way I do, but I really do feel that it’s possibly Buscemi’s finest film, acting, directing or otherwise.

-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, July 9, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #209 - Hailu Mergia – Tche Belew

            Hailu Mergia is an Ethiopian keyboardist/arranger who worked in various bands and as a solo artist, coming to prominence in early 1970s Addis Ababa as a bandleader after forming his seminal Walias Band. In the wake of the coup d'état by the military Derg that overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974, bands in Addis were mostly either state-sponsored or tied economically to a club or hotel who owned the band’s equipment and merely hired the players to perform nightly. Mergia and the Walias Band were in in unusual situation in that they worked under their own terms - they owned their instruments, they decided where and when they would perform and record, and were not in the position of promoting either a specific club or a government-approved music program (though they did run into occasional censorship troubles).
After a string of successful singles, Mergia decided to tap his band’s talents to create an all-instrumental LP - an unprecedented move in the vocal-centered Ethiopian music scene. Mergia was influenced in his keyboard playing by jazz organist Jimmy Smith (Mergia favored the Farfisa and Godwin organs of the day) and his blues-rooted, funky jazz styles, but combined this influence with traditional Ethiopian melodies and scales for a unique blend of contemporary up-to-the-minute jazz-funk spiced with rich, traditional roots. For this record, in addition to his own work, he tapped his band’s talents for writing and arranging (plus the talents of guest vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke who appears on several tracks).
Walias Band
            To get a taste of how this sounds, start right at the beginning with the title cut. The song is propulsively funky, leading with Melakie Gabrie’s prominent bassline, Temare Haregu’s in-the-pocket drums, slightly distorted guitar from Mahmmud Aman, and Girma Beyene’s piano chords before the horn charts come in (accompanied by a wordless chorus (including singers Aster Aweke and Getachew Kassa who’d come to later fame as solo artists)) to introduce the song. After the intro, Mergia takes the front seat with his lightly psychedelic organ solo punctuated by horns and a restatement of the theme. Next comes a sax solo (by either Moges Habte or Abebe Kassa) rendered in Ethiopian scales; meanwhile the churning, rhythmic background never stops, nor do the rest of the horn section’s comments throughout the song. After the theme restatement, Mergia again takes over with another organ solo which is then handed back to the saxophone again until the fade.
Walias Band
If you’re ready to be fully hooked, proceed immediately to the album’s hit single - “Musicawi Silt,” track 4 - to hear both the catchiest and most covered thing here. Maybe you’ve heard it already; it’s been covered by Dutch avant-rockers The Ex and Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, by American avant-rockers Secret Chiefs 3, by Brooklyn-based band Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and many others. But you don’t need to be avant-leaning yourself to enjoy this one. It’s simply a great dance tune hooked by an irresistible melody. Once you hit the main theme you’ll understand both why it was a huge hit on release and why so many bands have wanted to cover it. Mergia takes a solo with a more straightforward organ sound and shorter phrases than the dreamier lines of the first cut, but there’s an interesting feature in that you can hear the keys of his organ clacking along with the solo - at first I thought this was some eccentric guitar comping or percussive accompaniment, but after many listens I’m pretty sure it’s all Mergia. After another theme statement, Mulatu Astatke comes in for a vibes solo that is unfortunately cut short by the (way too early!) fade of the song. Still - it’s an indelible classic, early fade and all.
Mergia and the Dhalak Band
Things proceed immediately from there into “Lomi Tera-Tera,” a bright, sunny tune featuring a lovely, major key organ solo and a percussive showcase that sounds great for a lazy hot day (like today), a boat ride on a lake in the sun, an early morning drive - anything that’s not exerting yourself too much where you’re just gonna lay back and let the music wash over you! And though everything on the album sounds terrific, I’d also want to bring your attention to track 9, “Eti Gual Blenai,” written (I think) by Astatke and marked by a dramatic intro that segues immediately into a great galloping beat that’s all low drums (props again to drummer Temare Haregu), when it’s not grooving in a loose, jazzy feel up on higher-pitched percussion. It’s almost a duet between Mergia’s organ and Haregu’s drums punctuated by horn statements until Astatke takes it into a spacier middle segment for his solo, but the entire cut is a remarkable demonstration of the versatility and talent of the whole group.
The Walias gigged around Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia for years, but due to the harsh political climate at home, when they took their first tour outside Ethiopia, half the band stayed in the United States during an early 80s tour, where Mergia took a job as a Washington D.C. cab driver. To this day, half the band is in D.C. and half remains in Addis, but with the reissue of this album (plus another 70s group album Wede Harer Guzo and Mergia’s oddball mid-80s Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument which finds him overdubbing himself on drum machine, Rhodes piano, Yamaha DX7, and
Mergia in 2017
accordion) Mergia has started making music again, releasing a very good new 2018 album (Lala Belu) and organizing a tour of Europe and the States in the coming months.  All four of his albums available domestically (released through the auspices of the well-named label Awesome Tapes From Africa) are worth your listens, but this one’s the easiest “in” to his career and very possibly his best.
-          Patrick Brown

Monday, July 2, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #195 - Persepolis (2007, dir. Marjane Satrapi/Vincent Paronnaud)

Shortly after moving to Portland, Oregon in early 2008, I went to a theater downtown one Saturday night and saw the film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis. The theater was full and the audience was buzzing with anticipation. This was during the final year of George W. Bush’s second term and something about viewing this film that night felt like a collective act of defiance. A couple years later I was working as a para-educator for Portland Public Schools in a program that served at-risk youth. A teacher and I worked in a single classroom with a group of high school aged girls who all lived together in the same group home. When the teacher went on maternity leave for the last quarter of the school year, she gave me the opportunity to choose a book for the Language Arts portion of the curriculum. Persepolis seemed like an obvious choice to me at the time and I was excited to introduce the students to this challenging, rich, and enlightening story.
Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s 95-minute adaptation of Satrapi’s nearly 350-page novel represents the ideal form for a film based on an existing literary work. The film not only gets straight to the heart of Satrapi’s coming-of-age story set against the historical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, but it also breathes, bristles, and blossoms with a life of its own that doesn’t exist in the pages of the original. The directors condense, focus, and present Satrapi’s direct, episodic comic-strip novel through a stark, mostly monochromatic style of animation that quickly pulls the audience into the narrative. Persepolis flows with warmth and humor as the audience watches Marjane grow up, live through a revolution, survive a war, and strike out on her own as a young woman going to school in Europe. As heavy as this may sound (and it does get very heavy), Satrapi touches on the seemingly universal themes of family identity, homesickness, personal integrity, and a grandmother’s love in a refreshing, life-affirming, and unvarnished way. In both the French and English versions, real life mother and daughter, Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni voice the characters of Marjane’s mother and Marjane, respectively. Deneuve and Mastroianni’s natural chemistry and biological connection lend these characters a knowing intimacy that enhances the emotional depth of Marjane’s story. As a book, Persepolis has a lot in common with Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, but as a film, I can’t think of anything else that accomplishes what Persepolis does in the same way.
Looking back on teaching Persepolis, I recall both the headaches and the rewards of the process. Before leaving for the term, the teacher I worked with expressed concerns about my choice and suggested I opt for a more mainstream and less demanding book. Then, the substitute teacher who came in for the remainder of the year feared that the students wouldn’t understand the context of the book and undermined my lessons with superfluous (and laughable) attempts to make Iranian geopolitics more relevant to the students. It didn’t help matters that the class hated the first half of the book, which focuses on Marjane’s childhood. During these frustrating moments, I thought back to when I first saw this movie and remembered that such a remarkable and vital work of art was well worth the difficulties. As soon as we got into the second half of the book when Marjane is a young woman, the students fell in love with Persepolis and suddenly Language Arts became a lot more enjoyable. By the time we watched Persepolis in class, these young women, who my colleagues didn’t think would understand the source material, felt a profound connection to Marjane Satrapi’s story that surprised even me.
-         John Parsell