Saturday, December 17, 2011

Non Fiction (1983)

I see that Robert Christgau has rated this a quasi-notch higher than the first, eponymous Blasters album (A vs. A-). I won't split hairs about that, not so much because I agree but more because I am too busy reveling in the bracing sounds found on both of them—and besides, the two of them together add up to only a little more than an hour of this glorious music. This one has a much higher ratio of originals to covers (9-2 by my count) and they are just as hard to differentiate as they were on the first. But the sounds range as wide, the band is just as tight if not more so, and why the hell can't I get this blasted volume knob to go any higher? What?! Can't hear you! I know people complain about retro-oriented acts because a) it's nothing new, b) you can always go back to the originals if you really want to hear it, and c) some combination of both, including arguments based on race. On some level I sympathize—notably when the retro-oriented acts are demonstrably inferior to their sources, which happens way, way more often than not. But I don't see it that way with the Blasters. Their appreciation for their forebears is written into every moment, but they're not simply aping the sounds they like. They are marinated in the stuff, with extra helpings of love sweet love L-O-V-E love. Like, oh, say, Creedence Clearwater Revival before them, they consciously root themselves in familiar traditions yet manage to transcend them at the same time, simply by staking them out and updating them so forthrightly, warping and adding to and redefining them at will, yet subtly, hurtling them right beyond the boundaries of time itself, where they can exist in eternally enlightened present. This is nearly as old now as they music they were drawing from then—we are getting into whole networks of historical bridging and networks and access points—but it's as fresh and galvanizing and surprising and deep as if they had released it in 1948, well before any of them had been born. I know others might differ but I count that as irreducibly good and when I'm in the mood for the Blasters nothing else will do and the pleasures last a long time. Essential.

(Testament box)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ordet (1955)

Denmark, 126 minutes
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Writers: Kaj Munk, Carl Th. Dreyer
Photography: Henning Bendtsen
Music: Poul Schierbeck
Editor: Edith Schlussel
Cast: Henrik Malberg, Emil Haas Christensen, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Cay Kristiansen, Birgitte Federspiel, Henry Skjaer, Ejner Federspiel

There's every good chance this could well be the silliest, most frivolous and beside-the-point SPOILER WARNING ever issued, but I suppose it has to be done. The "twist ending" delivered here, in one of the handful of cinema wayposts given us by master director Carl Th. Dreyer (going well back into the silent era and including The Passion of Joan of Arc, previously discussed), is about as far from the usual kinds of narrative stunts we're supposed to warn about as it's possible to imagine. Not to mention it's almost better to know what's coming, the better to appreciate the pace and careful foreshadowing and development of themes that goes into this. Not to mention that the people who require these kinds of warnings probably have Ordet way down on their to-see lists in the first place.

Among the top 50 films on the list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, only L'Atalante rivals Ordet (with maybe a couple of others, still to come) among the most obscure for me; at least I had the advantage of knowing Dreyer from that long-ago college film class I've mentioned before. Dreyer's career is fascinating, nearly as sparse as his aesthetic, spanning the silent era and penetrating all the way into the '60s, based in Denmark but traveling well afield, with long gaps between projects, and a continuing obsession with religious themes approached from a variety of angles: Joan of Arc, one of the great vampire pictures (Vampyr), 16th-century witch hunting hysteria (Day of Wrath, produced and released during World War II). Ordet, with its radical and homely meditation on faith as lived and experienced, fits perfectly with these.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

8. Modern Lovers, "Pablo Picasso" (1972)


Before Jonathan Richman became the spritely endearing saint we have known today and for the past many decades he was some kind of a rock 'n' roll demon, the genuine article. Most of the surviving evidence exists on the essential album The Modern Lovers. It's true that the rock 'n' roll is still strong with him, and always has been, as I witnessed again for myself just a couple weeks ago. He was playing an acoustic guitar as usual and accompanied only by Tommy Larkins on a lovely shambolic drumkit, traveling the land with a compelling polyglot message of inner peace and childlike fun. "Pablo Picasso," by contrast, is raw, frustrated, and gripping, with Frankenstein rhythms and a corkscrew electric guitar that drills for the brainstem. I love it insanely. I love it to pieces. Arguably it fits with his series of latter songs about artists such as Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Walter Johnson, but not really: "Well some people try to pick up girls / And get called assholes / This never happened to Pablo Picasso." That's the gist. "Well he was only five foot three / But girls could not resist his stare / Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole / Not in New York." It's laugh-out-loud funny once you realize what he's doing and I never get tired of it as I never get tired of anything else on that great album. A few years ago, again with Larkins, I saw him do a version of it, but he's made it more "family-friendly" now, clipping off the swear word entirely, which I think is a bit unfortunate. But Jonathan Richman gets to do what Jonathan Richman wants to do. Those are the rules around here and the least any of us can do is comply.

Note: Countdown to wrap up next month (finally—I promise!) in order to enable me the opportunity for holiday cheering und so weiter.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

9. Linda Ronstadt, "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me" (1976)


It's a Karla Bonoff song, and she's actually got a really nice version of it herself, but the Linda Ronstadt is the one that got enough radio airplay to catch my attention, somehow only late at night as I recall, so here we are. I only needed to hear it once. It felt like dying inside, like one of those dreams where you're caught naked somewhere you're not supposed to be. It's one obviously for all the lonely people, and if I'm giving away too much about myself with this—which I may or may not be—I'm also pretty sure that everybody out there has to know what this song feels like in some way. At some Dark Night of the Soul level. Has felt the yearning ache alone in bed in the middle of the night. The planet is overcrowded, everybody on TV is coupled up and happy as hell, so are half the people walking around in the songs and movies, and all the rest are having dramatic breakups and quickly moving on to next partners. This song, in its arguable self-pitying solipsism and self-centered baby boomer ingratitude, speaks for the rest of us: Can't I just please get some just a little bit of that for myself, once in awhile, maybe? Is it so much to ask? "People all over the world are starvin' just for affection," as Jonathan Richman reminded us earlier. The immediacy of that starvation lives in every measure of this song, desperately. It occupies a kind of miraculous hushed space of fragile piano and human voice and swelling sound. It's a bummer, it's haunting, it's depressing—it might even be depressed itself. But you know how true it is too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

10. Replacements, "Unsatisfied" (1984)


The Replacements seemed vaguely comical at the time for their sundry vainglorious pretensions to rock immortality. Oh, hell, they were hilarious—they named the album this comes from Let it Be, and included a KISS cover on it as well as this quasi-defiant gesture in the direction of the theme that broke the Stones wide open in their time. It was a good joke, and still is today, but listen close and it's apparent that songwriter Paul Westerberg anyway was playing it for laughs not least as purposeful deflection of his deepest, fondest desires. Ambitions this big are hard to face up to in cold light of day, let alone own plainly as such. But the modesty and bashful toe-kicking was just another of their manifold charms as well. "Unsatisfied" is as big as nations. The Stones sound positively peevish by comparison. It thunders with a kind of power to make mortals tremble as it articulates the wracking emotional frustrations simply of being born into the world. "Look me in the eye and tell me that I'm satisfied" unfolds and unpacks all the way to distant horizons. Once again I have had some trouble over the long years penetrating the densely constructed walls of mythos and adoration and worshiping overstatement thrown up by fans—the loss is entirely mine, I know this—but "Unsatisfied" has always, always got through. If he had never done anything but this Westerberg would have made his bones as one of the great rock vocalists and one of its great songwriters, and this is certainly as good a place as any to hear what brooding, powerful, deeply felt music these self-conscious misfit artistes of the shambolic were capable of when they tuned up and got over themselves and actually started playing together.

Monday, December 12, 2011

11. Pet Shop Boys, "Left to My Own Devices" (1988)


Here we have the Pet Shop Boys' Phil Spector confectionery moment nonpareil: a brilliant "little symphony for the kids"—more accurately, perhaps, a little opera for the kids. It goes on over eight minutes in the full album version (and it's likely there are even longer mixes of it out there), riding the crests and troughs of its waves of energy with a cool that is like nothing so much as surfers and skiers in recreational promotional documentaries. Nowhere is Neil Tennant more deliberate about the way he proceeds, and nowhere is he more droll or funnier, as Chris Lowe's glittering gem setting builds over and over again to its orchestral heads of steam: "When I get home, it's late at night / I pour a drink and watch the fight" ... "I don't like to compete, or talk street, street, street" ... "Maybe if you're with me we'll do some shopping." The psychic center is located in this verse: "I was faced with a choice at a difficult age / Would I write a book? Or should I take to the stage? / But in the back of my head I heard distant feet / Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat." The groove, of course, is whomping and omnipresent and irresistible and it ends so soon the only way you know it's eight minutes is by checking the time again. I can tell you from personal experience that it is actually possible to wear this one out—after more than 20 years, it suffers for me now from some exhaustion. But such is its power that I can hear the pleasure of it in there still the way I once experienced it directly, in memory now, echo-fashion. Even that is worth it, and once in a happy while it all comes rushing back again the way it used to. Stone classic.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Great Plains (1989)

A revisit to Ian Frazier's first nonfiction book is almost as good as a revisit to the place he's writing about—almost. I envy Frazier's ability to make the most of his travels around that north-south band of continent just east of the Rocky Mountains. He goes out there, he stays out there, he wanders the place with determination and grace, and he meets all kinds of wonderfully fascinating people. He's oriented much the same way I am—loves Crazy Horse the historical figure to distraction, and the Crazy Horse monument in western South Dakota, still under construction (and will be for generations to come), maybe even more than me. He may or may not experience the Black Hills as holy land in quite the same way I do, but he's close. My last trip that way, in 2004, I self-consciously attempted to emulate him. But alas I was too often out of my comfort zone away from a familiar bed. I couldn't reach out and connect to others the way he can, and most disconcerting, I didn't appear to have his energy for the things writers are supposed to, such as taking copious daily notes on all of my experiences and immediate circumstances. There's very little structure here—or perhaps there's a deceptive one, because even as Frazier's chapters wander well afield of their apparent focuses, they are always extremely interesting and readable, full of nuggets of anecdote and story and studded all through with bracing arrays of facts. As if to underline the seriousness of the effort, which often feels light-hearted and desultory, the last quarter of the book is notes and sourcing and an index. It's probably worth reading but so far I've only scanned; mostly it seems to be dry business compared to the enthusiasm and rolling momentum of the text proper. For the most part Frazier gets things right, at least according to my own experience. Like him I am only a passing-through visitor to the Great Plains. I have family in western North Dakota that we visited many summers when I was growing up, but I did my growing up in Minnesota, and that's not the Great Plains. In fact, I never even began to appreciate the region until a road trip I took with a friend when I was 21, which I think of now, among other things, as my "discovery" of Montana. Something about those falling-away horizons and the vast scopes of tableau, Big Sky and railroad tracks and buttes stretching away forever in blazing sun always make my heart swell. Frazier gets that experience right on every page.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Blasters (1981)

Stationed at their post in the punk-rock nether regions of Los Angeles, label mates with the likes of X, Dream Syndicate, and the Gun Club, the Blasters reached out across the land to broadcast the grand traditions of rock 'n' roll, from Memphis to New Orleans to Texas to St. Louis to Chicago and elsewhere, working rockabilly variants, rockin' blues, rockin' country, and good old straightforward rock 'n' roll the way we know it and the way we love it: sassy, loose, warm, irresistible, worth playing all night. They concocted a brew that will never go out of style as long as any of us lives and that will probably endure beyond the end of our lifetimes too. You know it already, and it belongs on a space capsule hurtling beyond the edge of our solar system with the Beethoven and the Chuck Berry. The longest song here is three and a half minutes. Most are closer to two minutes flat. The whole thing barely lasts half an hour. There are love songs, sad songs, nervous songs, songs about funky beds and Highway 61 and dancing all night. They jump, they move, they shuffle. It's hard to write about this stuff because it's so much pleasure to listen, and the pleasures are so distracting it's hard to articulate. The rhythm section is tight as fresh rubber, the guitars supple and lean and fast, the rhythms as compelling as freight trains and riverboats and cannonades. Flourishes of barrelhouse piano and raunchy sax and blowing harp are added as needed. Complain if you must about the strained vocals of Phil Alvin; for me, his strange affect is simply all of a piece with the convincing, often breathtaking facility the Blasters evince for playing rock 'n' roll, fresh and ancient and fleeting and eternal at once. More than half the songs here are originals but I defy anyone to pick them out from the covers without a cheat sheet. The Blasters are plain marinated in what they do, and the themes of the originals—evident even from the titles, such as "Border Radio" and "American Music"—are made up equally of an impulse to mythologize and just to be part of it, all of it, the history and traditions and the raw energy and exuberance and the joy at playing and discovering it for themselves. This one works nicely on repeat, played very loud.

(Testament box)

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

USA, 93 minutes
Directors: Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum, Terry Sanders
Writers: Davis Grubb, James Agee, Charles Laughton
Photography: Stanley Cortez
Music: Walter Schumann
Editor: Robert Golden
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Don Beddoe, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves, James Gleason, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce

Anyone who watches true-crime TV is likely well acquainted with the feebleness and gesture of last resort that has become the word "evil" in such contexts. It's what people say when they don't know what else to say about the horrors that confront us, horrors that seemingly have been with us for all time. But in The Night of the Hunter the whole notion of evil is taken on and aired out quite deliberately and self-consciously. Harry Powell (played by Robert Mitchum) famously goes about the picture with "L-O-V-E" tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand and "H-A-T-E" on the knuckles of his left, and he's got a funny little story to tell about that too. It's something of a conceit that wears thin the more often one sees the picture, but it's also a useful avenue in to the fanciful, occasionally alienating extravagances of this project and what makes it work so well as a whole, in spite of some of its rather painful limitations.

The Night of the Hunter must stand as yet another example, with Casablanca and The Third Man, of a uniquely collaborative happy accident. It's Charles Laughton's only film-directing credit; Laughton was better known as a classical Shakespearian-style actor on stage and in the movies (he did direct a few theater productions as well). It's on a short list of James Agee's screenplays, with The African Queen; Agee was better known as a journalist and novelist who slummed as a film critic. And, perhaps most significantly, it's only one of dozens of photography credits for Stanley Cortez, whose work ranges among The Black Cat, The Magnificent Ambersons, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, Sam Fuller pictures Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, a couple of episodes of TV's "Family Affair," and Chinatown.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

12. Pixies, "Monkey Gone to Heaven" (1989)


Back when the noble purpose of this blog was to provide more or less illicit music downloads—the kind of criminal enterprise I had indulged in another era by making tapes for friends—the writing was not nearly as prolix (or erudite!). When I threw up the first three Pixies releases shortly before shutting the whole thing down for a couple of years ... something about getting a job and tired of all the hassles of offering downloads (perhaps the epitome of unrewarding labors, although come to think of it writing into the void like this is not always that much better) ...  I found myself entering a kind of frenzy attempting to write about Doolittle and this song particularly. I think I about said it all at that time, as eccentric as it may be, so I'm simply going to reproduce it here. This is also known as taking the easy way out: "This is my favorite [album by the Pixies], and to put a point on it, I think 'Monkey Gone to Heaven' is where everything comes together in a glorious and eternal 2:56 that stands up to repeated play and endless analysis, stoned or otherwise. Consider the deceptively nonsense lyrics of the final verse and chorus (aka 'searing climax'): 'if man is 5 (3x) / then the devil is 6 (5x) / then god is 7 (3x) / this monkey's gone to heaven.' You can't overthink this, it just keeps deepening and deepening into itself, with man represented by the digits of one hand, the devil by the ancient lore of the number 6 (particularly when 3x, of course, but here presented 5x, effectively echoing the number of man), god by the same, viz., the number 7 (rhymes with heaven), in symmetrical relation 3x to man, underlined by a host of unholy shrieking. Then the monkey appears. The strings throughout are very nice too. This is amazing stuff."

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

13. Van Morrison, "Into the Mystic" (1970)


In previous exercises like this I have (absurdly, I admit) attempted to pass off side 1 of Moondance as "a song," even though there are actually five perfectly distinct songs on it and two of them—"Moondance" and "Crazy Love"—have suffered some exhaustion over these long years. I'm not doing that this time, but you should know that it's one of the great album sides and "Into the Mystic" does work somewhat better in the context of closing out the set, particularly coming after the deceptively gentle rockin' "Caravan" ("turn up your radio, turn it up")—somehow, in the moment, sailing off "into the mystic" seems an obvious next logical step. I might also as well have picked "And it Stoned Me," which opens the set, as it is nearly equally transcendent yet grounded in concrete, quotidian details that somehow add up to the joy he's at pains to communicate, here and all through most of his work ("Oh, the water / Let it run all over me"). Plus it just afforded me the opportunity to mention every song on the side. "Into the Mystic" is the point where Morrison is perhaps most plainly straightforward and yet concise and economical (at 3:30) about his ongoing, career-long project of the pursuit of ecstasy. When he reaches for the heights and unfurls the package and makes the big reveal with "I want to rock your gypsy soul" (yes, that's "gypsy soul"), it's a lot like the feeling I get at the one and only moment of pleasure I still find in flying travel, the moment at takeoff when the craft leaves the ground. Only I'm just sitting at home and Van Morrison is singing and some people are playing in a band, acoustic guitars and saxophones and piano and other things. Oh, and I love this factoid from Wikipedia: "It is among the most popular songs doctors listen to while operating."

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

14. Lou Reed, "Families" (1979)


In a solo career that now spans 40 years, Lou Reed has released something like 21 albums and an additional handful of collaborations, so naturally there are any number of lost highways, failed experiments, and mistrial misfires to sort through among the brilliant triumphs at this point. "Families" lives on The Bells, one of the more overlooked/undervalued among this motley, and it's an example of Reed donning his mask of naked sincerity—as believable and heartfelt as he gets, which doesn't mean he hasn't fooled me one more time (there's that thing about the family dog, for one example of overplaying his hand here). But the wretched monotony of the "how's the family?" chant, in combination with the riffing sax and handclap rhythm-keeping and I guess I have to say various circumstances in my own life too when this came along, worked together to produce a heartrending experience. There's nothing uniquely insightful about it. "Families that live out in the suburbs often make each other cry" and "I don't come home much anymore" are the lines that go through me on a reliable basis, and they're things you could say with just as much accuracy about families and people that live right in town, or out in the country, or other suburbs. But I was on strained relations with my family then—the usual crap, in my 20s, but with our mother dying to make everything that much more confusing, and me trying to "make something of my life" after years of fooling around and being essentially given up on, as it felt, plus all the alienation and loneliness to be expected. Nothing remarkable, just the normal stuff you can imagine and probably know for yourself one way or another. Still, this song provided some kind of touchstone for me, even as, like those families out in the suburbs Lou Reed is singing about, it often made me cry.

Monday, December 05, 2011

15. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Powderfinger" (1979)


Neil Young is obviously fascinated with American culture and hailing originally from Canada has always, I suppose, been at a good vantage to observe it. But it still amazes me that he can reach so far back into primal American experience and just pull something out like this. It's a Civil War story, evidently not on the fields of battle, about an anonymous young man (and Southern, at that) killed in an ambush. There's not much to it: the attacking boat appears on the river, the kid foolishly tries to defend against it even in the absence of elder male family members. He can't, and he dies. The moment of his death is recorded: "Raised my rifle to my eye / Never stopped to wonder why. / Then I saw black / And my face splashed in the sky." It's a particular moment I have found myself pitching headfirst into, so stark and matter of fact and profoundly universal. It's breathtaking—the whole thing is. I can't think of many other moments in all of rock that get to such depths with such economy and so little bombast. A few years ago Phil Dellio compiled an exhaustive list of Neil Young covers, and identified six for this song, by the Beat Farmers, Chris Burroughs, the Cowboy Junkies, Tonia Sellers & Laura Hagen, Uncle Tupelo, and Yung Wu. "Not sure why," he writes, "but this is one case where any voice other than Neil’s seems to automatically diminish the song." Young offered an early version of it to Lynyrd Skynyrd in the mid-'70s, perhaps some kind of response in their mutual "Southern man" quasi-contretemps (or whatever it was). I wish we could have heard what they'd done with it, but their faces splashed in the sky first.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Amateur Marriage (2004)

If I were inclined in any way towards rankings and making lists (and who's to say I'm not?) I'd put this fairly high among Anne Tyler's novels, after only Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Saint Maybe. It's interesting to watch Tyler working through her various tried and true themes—in the one just before this, Back When We Were Grownups, she went perhaps as far as she's gone in making her loose, freewheeling woman the unblemished hero, and the taciturn, repressed man the rejected object of scorn. Here she very nearly goes to the other extreme: Pauline is familiar as the wacky, uninhibited center of a Baltimore family's gravity, but there's an unpleasant tincture of rage to this round, even as her long-suffering husband Michael is not nearly as suffocating—suffocating, yes, but not nearly as much so—as Tyler's familiar Leary types. In fact, this time around the uninhibited freewheeler is very nearly as suffocating in her own way, as the type generally is. Speaking as more of a Leary myself, it's nice to see Tyler grasping the point. Or maybe I only missed her grasp of it before. There is a tremendous amount of sadness to this story of a long-term marriage that ultimately fails, told from beginning to well past the end. The story of the oldest daughter Lindy, who simply vanishes for nearly 30 years, is particularly shocking, and wrenching. Pauline dies before they ever are reunited, and the reunion itself is shrewdly enough mostly an anticlimax. Even though the mystery of Lindy is solved, it lingers on. This seems to me absolutely true to life, and does nothing to dispel the sadness. In fact, as much as I like the happy ending to Saint Maybe, I think I like the sour ending here even a little more. Again the characters are nicely drawn and as always feel effortlessly distinct and real, like people you've known all your life. The narrative strategy is a good one and nicely executed, dipping into the lives of Pauline and Michael once or twice a decade across their long marriage and its aftermath, moving with a sure hand as its story just enlarges and enlarges. In many ways it's the story of America from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, but never feels pushy about the point. Just another poignant visit with more folks that Anne Tyler knows.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Original Soundtrack (1975)

10cc is a strange beast that came lurching out of the swamps of '70s pop and art-rock, with some roots even in the '60s so-called British Invasion. Perhaps too tuneful (and, frankly, commercial) to be considered prog they nonetheless flit determinedly around the edges of it, showing off their smarts and their chops every chance they get, particularly on the eight-minute suite that opens the album, "Une Nuit a Paris," which Wikipedia tells me was a direct influence on both Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. Don't forget the grain of salt. Me, well, in general I am more often put in mind of a British comedy novelty act such as the Bonzo Dog Band or even Monty Python—there's a lot of broad humor larded all through this, and as the title desperately wants to imply it probably wouldn't be hard fitting visuals to most of it either. How it came into my life I can't remember—I think a friend liked it, and I liked the hit "I'm Not in Love" (here in all its six-minute glory), and then I found it in a cutout bin. Something like that. I've never counted it a huge favorite but it's rife with melody, cutesy mannerism, and small-bore winning moments. "I'm Not in Love" happens to be the thing here that's not like the others, but it's a big beautiful mellotron boat and a pleasure to experience floating by, I suppose also because of some memories of its times that have become attached. Drat, the personal element again. And so on and so forth: "Une Nuit a Paris" gets its Ratatouille/Triplets of Belleville Parisian underclass on a long time before the cartoons came along. "The Second Sitting for the Last Supper" and "Life Is a Minestrone" work ham-handed jokes in sparkling pop and/or rockin' settings. After "I'm Not in Love" (which, you should know, you really owe it to yourself to have around, though you can probably still count on the radio to feed it to you on a regular basis), my favorite here has always been the album closer "The Film of My Love," a five-minute piece of bloated puffery that works like a piece of overly rich pastry, luscious, irresistible, monotonous, bursting with comic affect, high concept, a mocking love song that plays effectively on the emotions even as it resorts to one movie pun after the next, "forever and ever and ever ... Over and over and over (over and over and over)." I won't make you wonder—here's what it sounds like.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Chinatown (1974)

USA, 130 minutes
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Robert Towne, Roman Polanski
Photography: John A. Alonzo, Stanley Cortez
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, James Hong

I've spent most of my adult life admiring Roman Polanski movies but I was surprised when I got another look at Chinatown recently. It had probably been decades (how the time does fly)—yet not only had I seen it enough to still practically be able to quote the dialogue verbatim right along with the cast, but the complexities of the story are now sufficiently clarified that I'm better able to understand the motivations and sense of each scene. That's no small thing in this densely plotted neo-noir (particularly for someone who has a hard time following a "Perry Mason" story). I would guess that screenwriter Robert Towne's most direct source within the tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction is Ross Macdonald, even more than Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. All three concocted similarly byzantine narratives, but Macdonald always rooted his in the reverberations of fractured families, which is the story at the heart of Chinatown.

In its details the story stands, in fact, as a very nearly perfect match for the kind of sensibilities Polanski has honed (even had thrust on him, as those who know his biography might argue) all his career—a dark, sexualized, twisted undercurrent of debauchery and malevolence, which acknowledges that unblemished innocence may exist in the world, but insists on seeing it only as opportunity. Indeed, Chinatown exists as another of those great collaborations where so many are operating at peak form and bringing so much to bear: Towne, Polanski, actors John Huston, Jack Nicholson, and Faye Dunaway. Richard Sylbert's production design is studded with scores of self-consciously authentic details. The gauzy orange/brown-filtered photography bursts with warm color and texture. Even the perennial pro Jerry Goldsmith chips in a terrific score, used sparingly and just right, guaranteed to rend hearts every time that trumpet swells again (R.I.P. Uan Rasey).

Thursday, December 01, 2011

16. Jimi Hendrix Experience, "If 6 Was 9" (1967)


If 16 was 91 I guess it's pretty clear that I already would have written about this song some time ago. Loopy logic pervades this little masterpiece and it's one of the things I love most about it, and about Hendrix more generally. He was just fun—and amazing at the same time. Here he opens with a clobbering riff he returns to all through, at varying sonic levels, even as the lyrics meditate on ... something. "Individualist freedom," maybe—yeah, that's the ticket. "If all the hippies cut off all their hair / I don't care," but also, he's gonna wave his freak flag high, and "wave on, wave on." Oh, JPK, stop trying to make sense of the song. It doesn't make sense. It's not supposed to. "[laugh] Fall, mountains, just don't fall on me." But I can't stop myself keeping picking out all the choice bits: "White-collar conservative flashing down the street / Pointing their plastic finger at me"—I think maybe that's my favorite. Wait a minute, what am I thinking? "Now if uh 6 turned out to be 9 / I don't mind," and it's heavy, truly. The structure is a freewheeling glorious mess, modeled loosely on a blues and moving from one set piece to the next, with his lyrical guitar-playing and sound-making leading the way. Towards the end he picks up a flute or recorder or something and makes like a mad bird on the fade, rockin' robin rockin' the tree like Albert Ayler in the rockin' forest. I think the point, in the end, is that 6 has indeed turned out to be 9. So put that in your calculator and work the returns on your stock investment portfolio now, Mr. Business Man. Oh yeah, dig, that's telling 'em.