Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sam Raimi's Transitions

(This is my contribution to Raimifest, hosted March 27-April 2, 2011, at Things That Don't Suck.)

Sam Raimi's most recent outing as a director, Drag Me to Hell, offered a welcome return to the jokey style of horror picture with which he started his career. Yes, it was unfortunate for him that he had lost a reliable paycheck franchise in the Spider-Man movies, but for me—never interested enough to see any of them beyond the first, once—it was just nice seeing Raimi around and kicking again. The billy-goat bits at the séance in Drag Me to Hell alone seemed to show that the old knack for wickedly funny brilliance was still there, beating away.

The transition also affords something of a vantage from which to look back on Raimi's career and begin to chart a road map of how he got from Point Then to Point Now, setting the context for wherever he may go next (which appears to be a treatment of L. Frank Baum's Oz series from the point of view of the Wizard). Among his most significant turning points must be counted the first two Evil Dead movies, The Quick and the Dead, and A Simple Plan. One I think is the best thing he ever did, another one anything but, but they all mark decision points that shaped the director Sam Raimi as we know and appreciate him today.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)

All fans of Eno and of Talking Heads under his sway were pretty sure even then that this was well ahead of its time. But such things are so hard to know for sure. In many ways it seemed too good to be true—this powerhouse concatenation of beats, noise, shards and fragments of world music, and found sound taken most often right off of the kind of lunatic evangelical Christian and/or political talk radio that seems to broadcast most wide and virulent late at night, heard under the cover of stars in cars moving fast on freeways in strange parts of the country. "America is waiting for a message of some sort or another," is how it starts, with a booming, clanking, wheeting groove that lumbers it into irresistible existence. Though I had my doubts at the time about Remain in Light (since dispelled), I had been and am still particularly enamored of Fear of Music, and this seemed to me an even further distillation of that. Brian Eno and David Byrne here demonstrate conclusively their affinities for a fascinating and very pure level of collaboration. As credited, this is not an Eno album, nor a Talking Heads or Byrne album, but something fresh and different, equidistant between their sensibilities. Both seem to me drawn about equally to a broad palette of world music, but I suspect it was Byrne in charge of getting the grooves to work right and Eno for continually exploding and pushing boundaries as wide as possible. According to Wikipedia, "Q" magazine asked Eno, 20 years after the release of this album, if he thought he and Byrne were responsible for the invention of sampling. Eno demurred, pointing to figures such as Holger Czukay, but the fact that the question could even be asked only gives some indication of the kind of impact it had on people. As for me, I thought the first side of the vinyl album was a mad swirling wonder, a perfectly sequenced and balanced set that occupied my days obsessively for a good long while. But I did think it lost its way some on the flip and gradually came to focus almost exclusively only on that first solid 20-minute blast. The 25th anniversary edition, which adds on several more tracks, including two made available under a Creative Commons license for use in anyone's remixes who wants them, adds a few interesting chapters to the story and is probably the version to have now.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Madness, Rage, Petulance, and The Tenant

(This is my contribution to the Roman Polanski Blogathon hosted March 27-29, 2011, by Cinema Directives.)

Released in 1976 and premiering at that year's Cannes festival, Roman Polanski's The Tenant is the third installment of his so-called Apartment Trilogy, after Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, a handy way of yoking together three of his movies that appear conceived along similar lines. Set in great cities of the world (London, New York, and Paris) and focused on fragile characters confined to relatively small spaces within them, all three deal to varying degrees with insanity and the paranormal in confusing and terrifying circumstances. They are creepy and effective, each fitting neatly enough into the horror genre, albeit going well beyond genre expectations.

I have always read The Tenant as the most personal of them, not least, perhaps, because Polanski himself takes the starring role and indeed occupies a good deal of the screen time (though never formally credited). It's hard not to see Polanski struggling to make something of his larger personal experience with the unnerving and disquieting story that The Tenant tells. Though not the first movie Polanski made after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate, when she was just two weeks shy of giving birth to their child, I think it may be the first in which he attempted to address the repercussions of that event and others in his life.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Welcome to the Monkey House (1950-1968)

Kurt Vonnegut's first and likely best collection of short pieces—most are stories, but a few other things are scattered in as well—is where I started with him, back in the misty climes of the past. It's not a bad place to start, though I think a few of his novels are probably better (notably The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle, or Slaughterhouse-Five). What surprises me about this collection is how many of the stories amount to little more than badly dated women's fare, in tone as well as subject matter; three were published originally in "Cosmopolitan" and three others in "Ladies' Home Journal." They are the kind of sentimental tripe that only a cynic of the highest order could produce, with titles such as "Long Walk to Forever" and "Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son." Read them as closely as you can and you find only the barest hints, if that, of the dark comic sensibility behind them—which is interesting in itself. The science fiction exercises, perhaps a third of the selections, mask that sensibility nearly equally as well behind another set of commercial priorities, albeit one that allows more latitude for the wry or offbeat. In "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," for example (published originally in 1950 in "Collier's"), his antiwar priorities are already plainly in place as a scientist develops and taps into psychic powers, taking them underground to begin systematically destroying the most dangerous weapons systems of belligerent states. This makes him a menace, of course. "The Euphio Question" (also from "Collier's," this time from 1951) imagines a specific band of radio waves emanating from somewhere out there as dangerous narcotic, with comic results. Some of these stories, such as "Harrison Bergeron" (from "Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine" in 1961), which conceives a world in which human equality of every imaginable kind is bizarrely and elaborately mandated via reduction to lowest common denominator, have stuck with me all my life as frames or explanations of the vicissitudes of my own experience. Since that is arguably the point of literature and art in the first place, one would have to call this at least in part a resounding success. It is otherwise almost always interesting, often amusing, and, as usual with Vonnegut, compulsively readable once begun.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Ladri di biciclette, Italy, 93 minutes
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Writers: Luigi Bartolini, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, Gerardo Guerrieri
Photography: Carlo Montuori
Music: Alessandro Cicognini
Editor: Eraldo Da Roma
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci, Giulio Chiari

It doesn't take very elaborate thought experiments to start figuring out how wrong the neorealism style in film has the potential to go. As conceived in the first place largely by Italian directors Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini in the years immediately following World War II, neorealism relies essentially on location shooting (usually in war-damaged urban settings), amateur actors, and stories focused on life issues of the working and lower classes. It's not far down that road before you start running into Jack Webb and his carnival of right-wing law and order in "Adam-12" or either of the "Dragnet" series.

In fact, in many ways Bicycle Thieves might as well have opened with a version of one of Webb's classic voiceover monologues: "This is the city. Rome. A bustling metropolis, now fallen on tough times, but that doesn't stop its citizens from attempting economic recovery every day. I need a bicycle to work here. I hang posters of Rita Hayworth." Fortunately, De Sica was not above deploying some of the most artificial conventions of filmmaking, and they are key to what not only redeems the various miscues scattered throughout the picture but positively make it one of the greatest films of its era or any other.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Summers of Spike

(This is my contribution to the Spike Lee Director's Chair hosted March 25-27, 2011, at LAMB.)

In many ways it's a shame that Spike Lee made far and away the greatest movie of his career, Do the Right Thing, so early on. As he is surely aware, and no doubt painfully so, African-Americans who directly address the terms of African-American experience are all too quickly pigeonholed in today's America as irrationally angry. This kind of thing has even turned into a constant refrain about Barack Obama since at least the pseudo scandal of the Reverend Wright, even though anyone with eyes to see knows that Barack Obama just might be the single most serene human being alive today—the role he knows he must play, for the obvious reasons.

Spike Lee did the right thing. Like Reggie Miller squaring up just back of the three-point stripe, he saw his opening in 1989, took his best shot, and hit nothing but net. Lucky for us. For the most part, the rest of Lee's career has been little more than the day after, heat and hearts alike broke, of that sweltering summer day he documented so brilliantly, with such purposeful, pointed anger and yet with so much care and nuance. In fact, as a recent look at it once again confirmed, it remains a hugely ambitious picture, and one worth examining closely, mulling exactly what happens in the last 40 minutes of it—what any one or all of those characters experienced and felt and what motivated them. No one is entirely innocent, no one entirely guilty.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

MobySongs 1993-1998

As an anthology and de facto best-of that sets out to cover the heights of Moby's career across arguably his best six years, this jilted-label follow-on to the megahit Play always did have the better chance of being the better album, and so it seems to me that it is. It's the one to park in the car player for weeks and months on endless loop, and the one to reach for when house guests with marijuana want to know a little more about this Moby character. It's not set up like most anthologies, proceeding chronologically through a career, but rather jumps about casually within its title-specified time frame. Indeed, the sequencing seems thoroughly meditated because its effect is so nigh perfect—it's one of the few albums I never play on shuffle, even on my computer, where I have the entire planet more or less set to shuffle. I said before that Play had no innovations but in one way at least it's certainly different from the material here: the roots sourcing of old blues and gospel musical figures is far more explicit on Play. Yet I do hear or sense on some level the orientation, or the grasping for it, compressed deeply into the grain of the sound. If he's not very soulful, and I think a good case can be made that he is that exactly, at least it's apparent how much he wants to be. The sounds here can veer close in some moments to the kind of new-age background music that professional massage therapists pack along with their oils and tables, but it never quite evaporates into aural wallpaper and often sails into the room and slows or stops conversation like angels walking over graves. Moby's general intentions are evident even in titles such as "Hymn," "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters," the 10:47 "Alone," "The Rain Falls and the Sky Shudders," and "Grace," which have the ability to soar. But I say his intentions are equally evident in the wukka-wukka neo-blaxploitation soundtrack number "I Like to Score." And my favorites are his classic techno moments, "Go," "Move (You Make Me Feel So Good)," and "Anthem," each assembled and proceeding as deliberately as anything else here, invariably producing an irresistible urge to move and, somehow, an undeniable sense of comfort and well-being at multiple levels. Not sure how he's doing that, but I do keep listening.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (1992)

Jon Savage's lengthy history of the UK punk-rock eruption circa 1977 has been considered the go-to single volume on the subject practically since the day it was published, and for good reason. Written by someone who watched it all happen, and meticulously researched beyond that, there's as much knowledge here as anyone could hope to find, certainly in order to understand the basics. Savage focuses most of his attention on the Sex Pistols, and more, on mastermind Malcolm McLaren's huge role behind the scenes, but he's never afraid to follow the story where it takes him: to New York for McLaren's eye-popping visit in the mid-'70s (and my source for arguing that New York punk-rock not only came first but very directly influenced the UK version of it, which essentially set everything else in motion), to the Clash and Damned and Buzzcocks and Siouxsie & the Banshees and X-Ray Spex and more bands as well, to Manchester and Liverpool, and through the American South on the Sex Pistols' disastrous final tour. Savage approaches the subject on multiple levels simultaneously, decking out his tome with handbills, photos, and art of the time, including a few pages of color plates in my beat-up old paperback edition, and he substantiates it with a comfortable facility in various art/fashion/political goings-on animating the action, such as Situationism or the larger move of the British public toward conservatism then underway in a failing economy, providing the context as well as the stakes for much that punk-rock aspired to. It's telling that both McLaren and John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) explicitly dedicated themselves to being anything but rock stars and in many ways considered the fact that that is exactly what the Sex Pistols became to be their signature failures. (It was about the only thing they agreed on, however, as the collapse of the band early in 1978 was followed immediately by a series of bitter lawsuits between the two principals and others that lasted the better part of a decade.) Everything you ever wanted to know about the Sex Pistols is here, including the unpleasant story of its one genuine rock star, John Simon Ritchie (aka Sid Vicious), and endless insight into what made the band and the movement it spawned. Essential, let's go ahead and call it that.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

UK, 228 minutes
Director: David Lean
Writers: T.E. Lawrence, Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Photography: Freddie Young
Music: Maurice Jarre
Editor: Anne V. Coates
Cast: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit, I.S. Johar, Gamil Ratib, Michael Ray, John Dimech, Zia Mohyeddin, Peter Burton, Basil Dignam, Harry Fowler, Clive Morton, Robert Rietty, John Robinson, Barry Warren

In terms of its movie industry antics, Hollywood has always been a pretty strange place. But it may have been even more so than normal around the early '60s, when gobs of money were so routinely poured into a seemingly endless series of bloated epics, many with historical/religious settings and each more expensive than the last. The whole thing finally teetered over under the groaning weight of 1963's 192-minute Cleopatra, a film so costly that, even just to break even, projections showed it had to be one of the three highest-grossing pictures ever made to that point. (Fun fact: It managed to turn a $4 million profit.)

And so, conventional wisdom informs us, Hollywood's studio system collapsed. With such prejudices of mine so firmly in place—that is, that all expensive productions of the time were ipso facto ludicrous—I was thus surprised to find Lawrence of Arabia so highly ranked by critical consensus. But there it is, top 20, in all its 228-minute, 70-mm glory, complete with overture, intermission, and finale orchestral music.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Play (1999)

My experience with this was that suddenly, one day in the summer of 1999, it and Moby were widely agreed on as great album and great artist, and the only thing to do was resign oneself and, as the multifaceted title implicitly directed, listen constantly—which I did, and not unhappily either. (I've learned it's usually the best thing to do when inevitable albums come along, cf., Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Rumours, or Murmur, or Odelay) Even Robert Christgau handed out one of his infrequent A+ grades for it. As a matter of commercial and/or marketing enterprise, Play more or less backed into its success, licensing every track, all 18 of them—even "7," the moral equivalent of little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea—for use in movies, television shows, and/or ads for American Express, Bailey's Irish Cream, Maxwell House, Nissan, Nordstrom, Rolling Rock, and Volkswagen. This could well make it literally the greatest sellout of all time. You thought it was inescapable in its time? It was inescapable in its time. Born Richard Melville Hall in Harlem, and raised in Connecticut, Moby is a several-generations-removed nephew of Herman Melville, hence the enduring nickname. And as long as we're inflating terms of comparison with 19th-century referents, let's take a moment to remember the note that Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to Walt Whitman on the publication of the first batch of poems that would become Leaves of Grass when Whitman was already pushing 40: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion." This particular white whale was closer to 35 than 25 when Play came out, with five albums already under his belt (some, such as Everything Is Wrong, very good) along with a ton of studio, production, and soundtrack work. To me, now, Play sounds more like an intensely likeable piece of journeyman work than any kind of breakthrough, iconoclastic or otherwise—it's a consolidation of victories won elsewhere. Its chief pleasures—the insinuating beats, dramatic studio textures, and especially the soaring melodies, much of it shrewdly sourced one way or another to roots gospel music from the '20s and '30s—are not anything particularly new for Moby. He had been working these 40 acres for the better part of the decade. So I liked Play a lot for a year or two, went to see the show on a road trip to Minneapolis and sweated and danced and hollered, and then basically put it away and never took it out again, even as his follow-up releases won my interest fleetingly, but never deeply or for long. If you haven't heard Play, you should. But you probably have and know already exactly how you feel about it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Magus (1966)

John Fowles's thick slab of high concept now seems rather more pulpy than literary, playing more successfully to the obvious tropes of a thriller than to the finely wrought conundrums of human psychology that it seems to be after (let alone the kind of literary pyrotechnical sleight of hand Fowles would attempt later in such fare as The French Lieutenant's Woman). Its gender politics are both central to the story and outdated, likely a permanently fatal problem for it now. Nevertheless, it makes for a fun and baffling romp through a confusing world of illusion, paradox, and deception, the kind of big fat story into which one simply falls. Inspired, according to Fowles, by the strangely alluring novel Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier, it tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a young and dourly unpleasant Oxford graduate student, who finds himself washed up with a teaching assignment on an isolated Mediterranean island. There he meets a mysterious wealthy recluse, Maurice Conchis, an older Greek man with a shrouded past, an intellectual bent, and sadistic tendencies, who has a predilection for staging scenes from something he calls "The Godgame," elaborate and often cruel set pieces designed to teach its target, usually Nicholas, some kind of lesson. As the games become more and more oppressive for Nicholas, they grow from a strange diversion that preoccupies him while he is on the island to a consuming, potentially traumatizing obsession that even begins to have dire effects on his life back in England. For the most part Fowles plays fair here. Even as the action remains as straightforward as it is weird, the real motivations behind it—who is who, who knows what, and why these things are even happening at all—remain an enthralling mystery that carries all its own momentum. The first time I read it, in my early 20s, I had a copy that was missing the last 120 pages, which about drove me batty and which I wasn't sure for some time wasn't just another trick engineered by Fowles. The second time through, more recently, I made sure ahead of time that I had a complete copy (recommend that you do too), and while it remained as diverting as ever I found it more difficult to enter into the fantasies whole. The resolution is not entirely free of disappointing cheats—mostly the kind of "you decide" ambiguities that more typically indicate an author who couldn't. Still, if the payoff is a bit of a letdown, the trip there tends to be anything but.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

USA, 94 minutes, silent
Director: F.W. Murnau
Writers: Hermann Sudermann, Carl Mayer, Katherine Hilliker, H.H. Caldwell
Photography: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss
Music: Willy Schmidt-Gentner, R.H. Bassett, Carli Elinor, Emo Rapee, Hugo Riesenfeld
Editor: Harold D. Schuster
Cast: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

There's a throwaway line in The Social Network that I haven't been able to get out of my head since the last time I saw it. In full-blown triumphalist mode, Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker exults that everybody used to live in the country and then they moved to the city. Now they're moving to the Internet.

To the degree that The Social Network is about everybody moving to the Internet—a debatable point (but, at the very least, a movie somebody should probably make)—then to that degree the silent film classic Sunrise is about everybody moving from the country to the city.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Gold Experience (1995)

By the time this came out, Prince was well on the way to reducing himself to a public figure that shuttled vaguely between the ludicrous and the pathetic. He had engaged full-on in a feud to the death with the major label with which he was under contract, Warners no less, going so far as to legally change his name in an attempt to get out from under. Once "Prince," he now claimed his name as a mystifying symbol (rendered in keystrokes as something like "O(+>," which then needs to be swiveled, in one's mind, a quarter turn clockwise); it was acceptable and indeed encouraged to pronounce it "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince," or "The Artist" for short—Prince, man, that's a lot of work! Too often lost in all this willful confusion is the fact that he was not only still capable of producing the finest strains of funk, rock, and pop, but was doing so actually at a rate practically alarming. Here, even as the ongoing identity crisis continues to deepen with a pivot from his former name-brand color of purple to the all-new (and relatively short-lived) gold, he casually tosses up an hour and five minutes of choice tracks (notably, for me, "P Control," "Endorphinmachine," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," "Dolphin," "319," "I Hate U," and "Gold") accompanied by little bits of foofaraw, mostly in the transitions, and only a tiny handful of misfires. In the era of vinyl, that could easily have been a major release double LP with gatefold, but for Prince it was all in a year's work. All during the '90s he was getting his stuff out at the rate of easily one or more generously packed CDs per year, with remarkably little waste across the breadth and depth of them (even as something we may as well call "Prince fatigue" was surely setting in as well). In fact, in many ways The Gold Experience stands as the gateway album to his second half of the decade, a strange period when he was attempting to get out of the hated contract by firing off multiple albums—many strange, all with attractions—followed by the energy and stamina he demonstrated after he was finally on his own, releasing three- and even four-CD packages. Although arguably they are packed with a good deal more filler than found during his peak years (and I don't see how they couldn't be, all things considered), they all come with their blazing fine moments too, ranging wide from raw hard rock to jazz fusion. Let's put it this way. If you're going to buy three albums by Prince from the '90s this should probably be one of them. But wait—three is not nearly enough. Make it five. Your choice.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)

I was initially drawn to Janet Malcolm's odd and striking meditation on the moralities of journalism by my interest in the Jeffrey MacDonald "acid is groovy" murders case. The focus of Malcolm's book appears at first to be the lawsuit that MacDonald filed against Joe McGinniss, who wrote a bestselling book about the case, Fatal Vision, one that was extremely damning for MacDonald. But I took the thing home and read it that day because of the now famous first line of it, which I read standing there in the bookstore on a Saturday morning browsing visit: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." The civil suit on which this slender volume turns was based not on charges of libel—how, after all, does one harm the reputation of a convicted and imprisoned murderer?—but for fraud, and this is the crux of the issue that Malcolm knuckles into with an icy ferocity and an uncanny but perfectly informed sense for the dynamics that exist between journalist and subject. Uncanny, that is, maybe until you realize she has been a staff writer and professional journalist at The New Yorker for decades. Then the only thing uncanny is that she's telling the truth. Of course, the concerns she addresses may seem now, in this day and age of ever-worsening corruptions of journalism, to bear some lamentable air of the quaint. (For myself, I don't count even the New York Times or NPR as ipso facto credible any longer, let alone the Washington Post, let alone television news, let alone Fox—a state of affairs that only makes me sad.) But the passion and energy that Malcolm brings to her analysis does at least serve as some tonic. Here's someone who actually, really cares about the deepest issues of it. Malcolm, of course, has herself been the target of a civil suit for alleged journalistic improprieties (by a cultish psychoanalyst, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, on charges of misrepresenting him in quotation, but more on that down the road) and remains scorned in various quarters as a dishonest fantasist, which adds an intriguing level of complexity and self-interest just under the surface to her arguments here. Ultimately, the two cases are based on entirely different issues, and think what you may of her she is inarguably onto something here that is vital to the enterprise of journalism, as anyone who has practiced it even in passing has had the opportunity to understand. There is an inevitable neediness and vulnerability between subject and journalist, however scrupulously professional both may strive to be, a dynamic between the two of them, however brief their relationship may be, that is as complex and fraught as that between married couples or between therapists and patients. Malcolm's ability to tease out such subtleties, even as her language rises to levels of carefully calibrated thunder (see again her opening sentence), is really nothing short of breathtaking. It's not going too far to call this essential on multiple levels.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Tokyo Story (1953)

Tôkyô monogatari, Japan, 136 minutes
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Writers: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Photography: Yuharu Atsuta
Music: Kojun Saito
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Cast: Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Sō Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyōko Kagawa, Eijirō Tono, Nobuo Nakamura, Shirō Osaka

It feels a little funny to start a discussion of Tokyo Story with an explicit warning about spoilers. After all, the movie is 58 years old and already among the best known and most celebrated in cinema history—and one in which it might even fairly be argued anyway that "nothing happens." The warning may be even stranger when you recall (as you may) that I have never before been particularly concerned about offering up such niceties.

But the fact remains that, for me, it was the many small surprises encountered along the way here that led directly to the giant heartache imparted so expertly by this one. It's slow, concerned almost exclusively with the humdrum, transcendent only in the sneakiest backdoor ways. But in the end, suddenly, it takes on colossal proportions and swells into something undeniably great—a towering masterpiece, there I said it, and easily the best I've seen yet from the titles at the loftiest perches of the list compiled at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? And it was the slow and steady accretion of revelations the first time I saw it that contributed a good deal to the effect it had on me. I wouldn't want to take that away from anyone, so listen up everybody, spoilers ahead.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Purple Rain (1984)

Like similar product from the times, which in retrospect do seem more predisposed to such phenomena— Prince BFF Michael Jackson's Thriller, Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., maybe even albums by Tears for Fears and Tina Turner—Prince's really, really big commercial breakthrough stepped forth with a seemingly endless lineup of inescapable hits, hits, hits. Arguably, certainly in the mind of Prince I think, this was predicated on the movie Purple Rain (accounting for the official title of the album, which came out several weeks ahead of the movie, Music from the Motion Picture "Purple Rain"). Rumors of the time claimed Prince as so giddy as to be hysterical by the initial reception of the first single, "When Doves Cry," which immediately shot to #1 and stayed there for better than a month. Something about hanging out of the windows of his Eden Prairie mansion screaming imprecations to Michael Jackson. I trust that he fully savored the moment as the trend line of what followed tells some tale of the public's taste for this determinedly weird-ass shit, at least across such a compressed timeframe: "When Doves Cry" (#1, 5 wks., June 1984), "Let's Go Crazy" (#1, 2 wks., Aug. 1984), "Purple Rain" (#2, Oct. 1984), "I Would Die 4 U" (#8, Dec. 1984), "Take Me With U" (#25, March 1985). No flash in the pan, of course, Prince has gone on to be a genuine star, with big hits all the way through the '90s, and even today he's hardly relegated to anything like an oldies circuit, not nearly. Yet the glare of this supernova was so overwhelming in its times that I was dubious, not to say positively fearful, about paying it a revisit, thinking I had probably used it all up long since. And, indeed, I found that I had less use than ever for "Darling Nikki" or "Computer Blue" (though I understand there's a longer version worth tracking down); that "Let's Go Crazy" seemed merely pro forma; that "When Doves Cry" and "I Would Die 4 U" have just grown tired. But, mirabile dictu, when is the last time I listened to "The Beautiful Ones"? He takes it from zero to supersonic in 5:14, a wandering fitful exercise that coalesces into shrieking beauty like a rocket leaving the planet. Or "Take Me With U," better than I remembered. Or "Baby I'm a Star," a straightforward rave-up so happy it pushes over into joyful. Even the title song, all eight-minutes-plus of it—the hippie nod on this album, I take it, in the form of extended guitar-noodling jam—has a kind of undeniable stateliness I was never patient enough before to get from it. That's me here in my bedroom, standing on my bed with my arms in the air, waving them back and forth slowly.

A nice perspective on Prince can be found in this great overview at the Not Just Movies blog.