Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beulah, "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart" (1999)


I was briefly infatuated at about the turn of the century by Beulah, a San Francisco-based band that specialized in pop tunesmithery, swimming the waters of a nearly twee alt/indie sound. They had some kind of connection to Olivia Tremor Control and the Apples in Stereo and some others. I was drawn to this song in the first place for its silly, wordy title, which I found on a CMJ anthology. It's not surprising that more than a decade on this would find a place in the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which I loved, for those keeping score at home). For better or worse, I have found Beulah to be a bit of an acquired taste, reason for suspicion as always. When I hear this song again after a while my first reaction is surprise and concern at how unfocused and dithering and precious it seems, and then I wonder if I really like it after all. But listening more rewards the effort. If I persevere and make a habit of it I find all kinds of clever surprises and pleasing little musical/production stunts disclosing themselves as it insinuates itself. It roams at will through musical ambience, like the backgrounds of running scenes in cartoons, rotating rapidly from one to the next, picking up the tempo and building out the arrangement with tiny flourishes: sawing fiddle, wukka-wukka guitar, French horn, feints at power chords (it's guitar-driven after all), a rinky-dinky tinkly piano hamming it up, and that clarion vocal of Miles Kurosky, who sounds long steeped in all the white-boyish traditions from Paul McCartney to Pete Ham to Ira Kaplan. Suddenly it's the loveliest thing you ever heard.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

#46: Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)

I told Phil and Steven I wouldn't be mentioning Pauline Kael, but it's almost impossible to talk about Last Tango in Paris without acknowledging her larger-than-life review, which hit papers weeks before the film arrived on screens—as I recall, with an already infrequent X rating. "This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made," she declared, arguing it has "altered the face of an art form." The first time I saw it, barely of age, it sailed over my head and I came away thinking it was much ado about nothing, except for the Gato Barbieri soundtrack, which I purchased immediately and played constantly. Somehow, years later, I got talked into seeing it again and that time it blew me down. And that has pretty much been the pattern since. I hate it and I love it. I love it and I hate it.

There are a lot of things to call Last Tango—"maddening" and "pretentious" come quickly to mind—but I really don't think one of them is "erotic" (though Kael certainly got its ambitions right). The depictions of sex are copious and elaborate, but they're not intended to be appealing, and they aren't. Instead, it's the strange, churning chemistry drawing the two central characters into one another's orbits that counts most—Marlon Brando's middle-aged lost man so emotionally splayed it is like viewing a psychic X-ray, and Maria Schneider's youthful woman such an objectified cipher it's easy to lose track of her (but don't, in the long run she's the more interesting character). Their headlong affair is the mystery at the center of this. Many scenes are built around Brando's improvs, many of which misfire. But when they're good, as in a scene that involves the viewing of a dead body, they are unforgettable.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

And I Don't Want to Live This Life (1983)

Deborah Spungen's memoir of the 20 years or so that her daughter Nancy walked this planet remains engaging, compulsively readable, fascinating, funny, and wrenching. Nancy, who you will recall was found murdered in New York's Chelsea Hotel in October 1978, likely at the hand of her boyfriend Sid Vicious, existed somewhere along the spectrum between problem child and demon seed, at least according to Deborah, and personally I don't see any cause to doubt the veracity of that. I know others have questioned her motives here, saying she is trying to make the case that it wasn't her fault. But if even a quarter of what she reports is true—and again, I see no reason to doubt it—I don't know how anyone else could have coped with it any better. Sometimes some kids are not manageable. Nancy came out of the womb a troubled child, with health complications after a difficult birth, and all her life was a handful. Did I say "a handful"? That doesn't come close. She threw tantrums of titanic proportions, destroyed her parents' belongings before she was 10, was finished with public school when she was 11. It's a startling and believable fleshing out of the background of the young woman we call came to know briefly in the late '70s, and it really rings true to me. It's a harrowing story, but Deborah skillfully makes it entertaining, gripping, and moving. There's a great chapter that details a visit when Nancy brought home Sid to meet her parents. Deborah, who believes Sid murdered her daughter, and is clearly revolted by him, nonetheless outlines the complexity of her feelings for him, acknowledging the connection they shared in both loving Nancy, helplessly. The title of the book comes from a poem Sid wrote after Nancy's death and shared in a letter to Deborah. There are also endless fascinating details about Nancy, such as the origins of her interest in music, the original cast recording of the score for Hair, which she played so much they needed to buy her a second copy. It's a sad story, and a long one too, even given how young she died. Deborah Spungen's memoir is a great story well told.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)

I confuse the Paul Simon who appears on this album with the Paul Simon who appeared in Annie Hall, the self-assured and eternally deeply relaxed savant so plainly in love with his own image in the mirror, Narcissus style. I'm not sure Paul Simon's third album in approximately as many years following the demise of Simon & Garfunkel ever adds up to more than the sum of its pieces, even if I know and honesty requires me to acknowledge that for sure it has some really sweet pieces, starting with the reunion single with Garfunkel, "My Little Town." It's another one of those albums I used to like a good deal more than I do now—maybe there's a mood I need to get myself into to get the most out of these Paul Simon solos. Call it "wistful for the '70s" and it doesn't come over me that often, certainly not on command. Things you need to know: This remains a slick production all through with strings and backing vocals and horns busting in as the feeling dictates. Of course, we could all do a lot less with the overweening and ultimately toxic smug of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." Yeah, hop on the bus, Gus—it belongs in a time capsule for the era but it doesn't mean we ever have to like it (in spite of, yes I admit even this, the coy mannerisms that make it occasionally charming). My favorite now is "Gone at Last" because I love the way Phoebe Snow's voice comes welling out of the mix and takes possession of it, and she sounds so good. Approximately at her very peak here, she sounds it every bit. One thing you can say about Paul Simon is that he is always quick to identify talent (particularly when traveling overseas, though there's not so much of that here)—for better or worse, that includes recognizing his own, at such tiresome length and with all the preening ego gestures that inevitably follow. Do I recommend this to anyone born after the year of its release or who has somehow perhaps never heard any of it? That's a harder question. I have a feeling this could well be a case of "you had to be there."

Friday, February 24, 2012

The White Ribbon (2009)

Das weiße Band: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, Germany/Austria/France/Italy, 144 minutes
Director/writer: Michael Haneke
Photography: Christian Berger
Editor: Monika Willi
Cast: Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Fion Mutert, Burghart Klaußner, Steffi Kühnert, Maria-Victoria, Leonard Proxauf, Josef Bierbichler, Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Janina Fautz, Enno Trebs, Theo Trebs, Rainer Bock, Roxane Duran, Susanne Lothar

It's not so surprising that veteran director and writer Michael Haneke has erected a scene and setting for The White Ribbon that is rich with allusion and evocative suggestion. That's pretty much business as usual for him, hefting oversize significance out of the quotidian with a surprising and deceptive lack of effort, as seen in such earlier pictures as Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, or especially Cache. What's surprising is where he appears inclined to take it here, spinning a story that is equal parts Village of the Damned and the whole of Ingmar Bergman's oeuvre, a stark, spooky, demon-seed tale, never settling into anything certain, forcing us instead to take the pieces and attempt to put them together ourselves into anything larger.

In a small farming village in Germany shortly before World War I something is terribly wrong. The doctor suffers an accident when the horse he is riding takes a fall as the result of tripping on a wire strung between two posts of a gate. A worker's wife dies in accident; her death leads to her family's ruin. The baron's son is kidnapped and brutally caned and left hanging upside down with his pants at his ankles. A barn burns to the ground. These events are oppressively sinister, individually and taken together. They seem slightly more than accidents, but no one happens to know any such monsters so no one has any idea who to blame. The fragile emotional ecosystem of the villagers, among their various classes and interrelations, begins to rot under the suspicion.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Echo & the Bunnymen, "Rescue" (1980)


There may or may not be a story about a beatbox behind the odd name of this late-'70s Liverpool postpunk outfit but it was certainly a name that was good at winning them attention. On the basis of it alone, an old friend of mine was all over the early singles—"Rescue" was their second—and then the Crocodiles album. I went along for the ride and became a fan myself. Singer Ian McCullough was a bit of a student of Jim Morrison and the band drew on various arch '60s garage-band gestures in service of mostly New Wave aesthetics; and they were all pretty much willing to let things fly out as they would. "Rescue" works like the best of their stuff, with spooky overtones and bent-over rhythms and moments of stark if incoherent drama; ladled from a crock two and three minutes at a time it sounds and feels like it has been simmering on the fire for hours. Sometimes I think I might like another song from the album a little more, "Villiers Terrace" maybe, or "The Pictures on My Wall," but the good news and the bad is that there's a sameyness to much of what Echo & the Bunnymen were about. They had a sound. They made great albums (Porcupine is my favorite), but essentially each arrives with its own undifferentiated blobbiness, a pleasurable wallow for a week or two at a time. But "Rescue" is not any less transcendent in its way than Fontella Bass's own classic plea for one—it truly remains the best of early Echo & the Bunnymen, lifting with a sing-songy style, a deceptively offbeat rhythm, and a spare, noisy arrangement, taking one head-first into the kind of places only found otherwise in carnival fun houses, and you can sing along with the chorus too. Or chant, if you prefer.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Another Woman (1988)

#47: Another Woman (Woody Allen, 1988)

I gave up on Woody Allen about 10 years ago, finally willing to admit, every time I sat down in the dark of a theater and the trailers ended and the clarinet music started and that same old white font on that same old black screen appeared, that I was dying just a little. I don't think I could possibly articulate the terms of his appeal any better than the second half of the Andrew O'Hehir piece from 1998 that I'm linking to below. However shabbily and however self-involved he is in going about it, Woody Allen even still represents a sensibility (arguably middlebrow, arguably overprivileged) that prizes wit, intelligence, and all their cultural standard-bearers above nearly everything else, a value that seems perfectly valid to me.

I can't speak well to the compulsion I had to see Another Woman again and again, but I'm willing to argue it's the best of his "serious" movies, though it rarely gets its due. Preoccupied and enamored and all decked out with 20th century signifiers of modernism—Brecht and Klimt and Rilke and Satie and above all Chekhov—the screenplay about a politely failing marriage moves with astonishing confidence from straightforward narrative into flashbacks and fantasies and back again, looping in and around and back across time, practically tying itself in knots, but always with preternatural clarity and textured by production design elements straight out of a theatrical staging. It's all in the service of a somewhat trite theme—getting in touch with one's feelings, probably the appeal for me if I'm going to be honest about it—but that doesn't stop the cast from hammering it to the ceiling. Gena Rowlands is tremendous, as she always is, and Ian Holm, Gene Hackman, and Mia Farrow are more than adequate too. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist paints the picture in an impossibly warm glow. Maybe best of all, at this point in things? No aging Woody Allen onscreen to clutter up the proceedings. 

"I realize that you've been hurt, and if I've done anything wrong I am sorry. Forgive me. I accept your condemnation."

Andrew O'Hehir, "Yucky Woody/How Woody Became My Dad"

Phil #47: Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963) (scroll down)
Steven #47: My Family/Mi Familia (Gregory Nava, 1995)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mystery Train (1975)

It had actually been a good long time since I looked at this when I brought it along with me recently on a cross-country train trip (ha ha, get it?), where I was really struck—chagrined, even—by what a profound influence it has had on me (and dozens if not hundreds of other music journalists, professional and wannabe alike). That whole stream-of-consciousness game of associations around favored artists and American cultural landmarks, taking a freewheeling intuitive style into one's points, along with some tendency to overstate the personal impact for effect, has all been absorbed almost entirely by me, for better or worse, not to mention various highly specific points of pungent observation, such as the one about Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips and pentecostal religion and rock 'n' roll and heaven and hell and salvation. They are Greil Marcus's ideas, not mine. I have just chosen to live in that world. Over the years the artists he focuses on and lionizes here in his first outing have come to seem more eccentric than fundamentally central. Indeed, I think it would be easy enough to pick and choose one's own favorites and make the cases for their various places in the cultural mainstream at large. For myself alone, I can think of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman, Iggy Pop, and Big Star off the top of my head. There's a place for Brits too, of course—the Beatles and Stones, David Bowie, Ray Davies, Mott the Hoople, the Pet Shop Boys. After all this time it looks like the only real naturals that Marcus picked were Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley. Harmonica Frank, the Band, Sly Stone, and Randy Newman are variously significant but second-tier or even more minor. It's a good thing that with the Elvis piece Marcus knocks the ball not just out of the park but out of the entire county in which the stadium sits, wrapping his arms as thoroughly around basically one album, The Sun Sessions, as perhaps anyone has done anywhere. All the warm-up exercises that precede it are rewarded, in the "Presliad"; this enables Marcus to roam even more freely and wantonly among his personal whims. One derives a particularly pleasurable sensation from the extensive "Notes and Discographies," an appendix but fully a third of my tome, of someone thriving and relishing the opportunity to read books and play music and turn ideas around in his head all day. That's when it's most fun. Marcus was the first and in many ways isolated yet certainly among the best at making his own choices and going for it. Perhaps most profoundly and thrilling, Marcus points to an electrifying way here to think about these things, tying together Moby-Dick and The Pilgrim's Progress and Ralph Waldo Emerson and the invention of a nation and all this rock 'n' roll racket, and he communicates his passion and the excitement of making the connections with almost irresistible infectiousness. Some of his most basic assumptions, made in his late 20s when he wrote the first edition of this book (I am writing from the edition I own, the 2nd, though Mystery Train, as of 2008, is now in its 5th), seem to me highly suspect, most notably perhaps that commonalities of taste create genuine community. It is actually my experience that paradoxically the opposite is true—we may all love Yo La Tengo at the show, say, but we do not necessarily love one another, even in the moment. Those I groove with side by side are not necessarily my friends—and conversely, many of the most important people in my life have always had questionable taste when it comes to things like music and movies and art. But this and other complaints are nits on the face of the accomplishment here. Greil Marcus has done some great work and in many ways the best of it starts right here.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Paul Simon (1972)

I don't like this as much as I once did, but it's still pretty good. There has always been something of the stink of guilty pleasure about Paul Simon for me, which extends backwards into Simon & Garfunkel as well, although that turns out to be an act I have found over the years that is actually quite well-regarded in various surprising quarters. The cultural imperialism shtick for which Paul Simon is known nowadays was there from the first seconds of this (nearly) first solo album from way back in 1972. "Mother and Child Reunion" is reggae all cleaned up and decked out for the Los Angeles record producers' ball. Simon gets cute by claiming the lyrics are based on satori-like inspirations of a chicken-and-egg dish he was served in a Chinese restaurant. Be that as it may, the song, and eventually the whole album, is a seductive ambush, with a neat and tidy internal drive like a motor, and melodies that make you feel good just to hear and sing with. I think, in fact, that might be ultimately Paul Simon's most redeeming feature, forever the youth camp counselor who pulls out his acoustic guitar on the overnights and gets everybody singing crazy and silly with him. Paul Simon writes good songs, there I said it, and damn the smug. Paul Simon proceeds mostly by stealth and soft footsteps, recorded low and with the instrumentation there for the inflections as much as anything. It gets reasonably lively at the beginning of each vinyl side—the aforementioned "Mother and Child Reunion" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard"—but then falls directly into lulls of mood. That mood has appealed to me quite a bit in a few intense periods—there have been times when turning to this album on a daily basis has felt like turning on the power. There's something at once so composed and so coiled and yet so tentative about it all, musical to its bones with the friendly melodies and intriguing arrangements and nice blues touches, short and to the point at under 35 minutes yet indulgent with self-pity, and capable of maintaining a mood that endures past the playing time and insidiously calls you back to itself once again. Thus, perhaps, a bit narrow. But perfect for those times one finds oneself fitting snug into the confines of the frame.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The 400 Blows (1959)

Les quatre cents coups, France, 99 minutes
Director: Francois Truffaut
Writers: Francois Truffaut, Marcel Moussy
Photography: Henri Decae
Music: Jean Constantin
Editor: Marie-Josephe Yoyotte
Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Remy, Guy Decomble, Georges Flament, Patrick Auffay, Daniel Couturier

Back when there was such a thing as Tower Records, I was wont to use Christmas week as a time to go gather up my disappointing purchases of the previous year and haul them into outlets of the record store chain to exchange as unwanted gifts, in which case, because of the holiday spirit upon the air, I could take away products of equal value. A pretty good deal all round for all of us, I thought. One year the booty included a VHS copy of The 400 Blows, which I had acquired via some movie club deal conducted through the mails—the retail value scanned in at $80! I was so excited. I roamed the aisles wantonly gobbling up titles in a kind of drunken daze from my windfall.

I must have got four or five replacement movies out of that single copy of The 400 Blows, but you know what I'm going to say next. In the fullness of time I have come to realize that the lot of them together couldn't possibly be worth this sturdy, brief, delicate landmark of French New Wave cinema. When it came to Francois Truffaut for me it always seemed to be Jules and Jim, over and over, until I hate to think how many times I've seen it, but not The 400 Blows. And the truth is that The 400 Blows was a bit lost on me the first time—it seemed almost simplistic, quite evidently low-budget, stripped to bare bones and stark tones, lyrical yet disconcertingly homely too, with an odd, sudden ending. It didn't seem to amount to much. But if that is your first experience too I urge you to look again. Give The 400 Blows one more chance.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bob Dunlap, "Loud Loud Loud Loud Guitars" (1986)


Bob Dunlap stepping in for Bob Stinson in the Replacements was after my time in Minneapolis, and for that matter so is this contribution to the Vol. IV edition of Big Hits of Mid-America, which came along in the mid-'80s. I knew Dunlap as sideman for the formidable Minneapolis punk-rock shouter Curtiss A, whose bands, frequently with Dunlap at his right-hand side, enacted precisely the scenario described here (if not its corny country music affectations): mostly empty rooms in odd venues, such as a businessman's lunch place by day trying out live music in the evenings, a band in one corner playing impossibly, deafeningly, outrageously loud, and sometimes a few angry patrons. I have mentioned elsewhere that the loudest show I've ever seen was the Dream Syndicate in the early '80s. Four of the next five would be Curtiss A shows, with a Motorhead and a Metallica, both in a club, possibly in there too, and maybe a few others in the mix after that like Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth (never saw My Bloody Valentine). The noises appearing here as wee embellishments to make the song's rowdy point were in fact the stock in trade of those shows (along with Curtiss A screaming at the top of his impressively leathery lungs). They stood there and blasted washes and sheets of the racket. The line that has always resonated for me in this song: "Our ears are bleedin' and our amps are smokin' / When people say it hurts / We know they ain't jokin'." All the rest is pretty decent comedy, the punk-rock band on the loose in the wild, with touches worth listening close for, such as the Christmas scene that makes its cameo on the fade.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Marathon Man (1976)

#48: Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976)

Given the fact that it often seems to be remembered most for its torture scenes, and notably grotesque torture scenes at that, I have  to wonder what kept drawing me back to see Marathon Man so often when it was new. Another year with nothin' to do? Another screenplay by William Goldman? Looking over my list, it appears I have decided this is my favorite thriller, a genre that's all too easy to bollix up and on which there's quite a range of opinion, particularly when it shades over into action (lately I've seen talk about Die Hard as the best-ever thriller, but that's hard for me to go along with). Marathon Man does make me nostalgic for the good old days when you could tell the bad guys—and here they are no less than Nazis and/or their mercenary henchmen—by the fact that they were the ones who resorted to torture.

A more recent look confirmed that Marathon Man remains a taut and effective ride, with ratatat set pieces that just keep coming, all done up with moody music, a stalking camera, razor-sharp editing, and a couple of heavyweight performances from Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier slugging it out in the center ring.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Noah's Compass (2010)

There's part of me that suspects Liam Pennywell, the protagonist in Anne Tyler's most recent novel (and her 18th overall, with a 19th scheduled for arrival this spring), is the closest approximation we may have to Tyler herself. The sadness at the core of Pennywell's life is occupied so expertly and with such gentle, telling detail, even a little more, I think, than we usually get from her. And even though he is a man. And even though he comes from the Macon Leary side of Tyler's typical gene pool. It ultimately makes sense to me that Tyler would be closer to Leary anyway than to Murial Pritchett—she is a private, reclusive writer who seems a natural for a dependence on routine. I know I could be reading too much into things I don't know anything about, but her novels since the death of her husband in the late '90s feel haunted to me by him, or by loss, in one way or another—the bitter rancor that drives Back When We Were Grownups, the sweeping perspective of a lifetime on a long-term marriage in The Amateur Marriage, and of course the Iranian characters in Digging to America. Here it feels like the sadness that occurs before acceptance—acceptance not only of the traumatizing event but of all the changes and loss it has inevitably brought. Liam Pennywell arrives at his early 60s virtually without a livelihood—a one-time graduate student in philosophy, his resume shows the decline of his fortunes, from his graduate studies to teaching high school to teaching 5th grade to, finally, a job in a preschool facility. This is not to say that his work has become less important—I can think of few things less important than graduate school philosophy—but certainly it's the way most will see it, and of that, certainly, Pennywell is all too aware. There's a last chance at love for him here too, after two failed marriages, one that ended in his wife's suicide and the other in divorce, which produced three daughters, one rather late in life. As always, the story is filled with the quirky life and charming delights that Tyler is so capable of delivering. But it's bittersweet, with decided emphasis on the first word in that compound, and utterly convincing for a man in Pennywell's position and at his time in life. Tyler is closing in on age 70 now and she does seem to have more to tell us all the time.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

(No Pussyfooting) (1973)

I don't have to think very long or hard about my favorite collaboration between Brian Eno and Robert Fripp—I like all of them, but this first has always been special, the one that most stood out to me, and by a good margin, for its ability to cohere the vaporous trails and impulses of ambient music into something textural and dense with presence, for Robert Fripp's guitar-playing which is supernaturally beautiful or maybe that's the ethereal tone I'm catching, and for sounding so good every time I play it. It's not that often, admittedly, and then I'm likely as not to make the beeline for Terry Riley first. But the omnipresent ghost that attends nearly all of Eno's work, the one that dictated the Oblique Strategies deck that he always seems to manage so skillfully, is vividly alive and well here, moving through every passage and decision—how, I can't say exactly. That's part of the mystery of it, the ghost equally present here as much as he (or it) is there on "Always Crashing in the Same Car," on "Baby's on Fire," on "1/1" of Music for Airports—maybe even more so. I've said elsewhere and perhaps ad nauseam by this point that I think Eno's greatest skill is the one that is perhaps least visible: a sensitivity and unique knack that he brings to the art of collaboration, somehow finding ways to draw the inner Eno out of all his accomplices, which is there almost incidentally practically for the sake of continuity alone. He is able to make projects somehow greater than the sum of their parts, reliably. In the immediate aftermath of King Crimson's heyday this could hardly have been what fans of Robert Fripp were prepared for, yet it's him all right: lyrical, constrained, plunged into a lush aural ecosystem that complements his nuances down to the tendrils. It's very fine, lovely, patient, beguiling work, and I mean on the part of both of them equally. This is made with love, as the giddy cook says emerging from the kitchen. It's palpable, even. A masterpiece of smoldering affect. And something that is capable of suiting every mood.

Friday, February 10, 2012

White Material (2009)

France/Cameroon, 106 minutes
Director: Claire Denis
Writers: Claire Denis, Marie N'Diaye, Lucie Borleteau
Photography: Yves Cape
Music: Tindersticks
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, William Nadylam, Michel Subor, Isaach De Bankole, Adele Ado, Ali Barkai

The premise for White Material risks easy political cliché-mongering but director/writer Claire Denis uses her concrete, allusive filmmaking to abstract and refine it until finally it begins to transmute into something very like a horror film. Its first image is jackals running across a dirt road at night, lit by the headlights of a moving vehicle, and soon after the scene is a dark bedroom in a great house, still at night, where a mysterious corpse is found, "the Boxer" according to the soldiers who discover him, caught in the probing stab of a flashlight beam. The soldiers are silent, ranged against the walls. The bedroom is filled with them.

It's the end days of the last vestiges of colonial control in an unnamed African nation. A civil war is underway and approaching its flash point, with mountain-based revolutionaries and nationalized armed forces pitted against one another and the wealthy landowners of French extraction caught between. For all intents and purposes the action in White Material takes place in the psychic span after Captain Willard's encounter with the French-Vietnamese plantation owners of Apocalypse Now Redux. The situation has grown beyond dire. The clashes have become grimly purposeful. Corpses line the roads and trails, arranged in rows with their faces to the ground. It is not a good time to have blue eyes in that country, one character tells another.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Replacements, "Rock 'n' Roll Ghost" (1989)


I had the great good fortune of being in the right place at the right time for the humble scruffy rise to legend on which the Replacements embarked in Minneapolis in the early '80s—the original Replacements, with Bob Stinson. But the album by them that I have listened to most over the years is Don't Tell a Soul, the oft derided and frequently overlooked first, in 1989, of two all-but-swan-song late entrants. My reasons may not be good but they are honest. Yes, there's a sound of resignation and defeat. That's part of what I like, it virtually shipping itself into my life at a moment of particular crisis, a separation begun that would lead to divorce and all that. In a way the album was exactly what I needed (with its companion Spike by Elvis Costello), manifesting as a kind of self-healing template cycle where I could feel like I could travel daily, where redemption, as in this song, posed in affectation, for example here the cobwebby haunted manse, shuffling about sleepless at night in robe and nightcap, tempting the fates of self-pity. Rheumy old Edgar Allen Poe and the bottle or opium dens in the small hours. Vaporous dark time passing and lost. It's not pretty, and it's a little bit of a joke, but it fits a certain mood to a tee. There's a few songs on Don't Tell a Soul operating at such levels for me—"Achin' to Be" and "They're Blind" fit that bill nicely. But this one goes ahead and dares the obvious gesture of making of itself an eternal legend, the naked love for the image of one's own fame in the reflection written into the grains of it. It haunts many of the compeers but it is also what makes it a joke. It's the "ghost" that gives that away. No, it's the "rock 'n' roll" that gives that away. No, it's the mirror that gives that away.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

#49: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

With Close Encounters coming some six months after George Lucas's Star Wars I noticed a trend at the time to take sides for one against the other. Me, I was always in Spielberg's camp, and not just because I have a lifelong fascination with UFOs. If it's better not to bother me when a new "UFO Hunters" is on the History channel, then it's no surprise that I went for this over what still seems to me a ponderous fairy tale with pretentious airs of mythos. Not that I want to relitigate along the old fault lines—I have long since retired to the minority here, and I know it. Heck, full disclosure, I like the "Star Trek" franchise a lot more than the Star Wars, and I know that's open at least equally to charges of simple-mindedness and bad acting.

Anyway, I think the enduring strengths of Spielberg's picture actually have very little to do with UFOs or even with science fiction. Spielberg was so good during this time at capturing the textures and small-bore realities of middle-class suburban life—the messy family rooms, broken toys, TV sets always playing, the exhausted parents and the sudden vulnerabilities and rages of their kids. That's all over this.  But what sealed the deal for me was how sneaky shrewd it is about taking on some of the most profound terms of being alive itself. "This means something," Roy Neary keeps insisting plaintively, as he plays with his mashed potatoes or goes about destroying his basement. "This is important."

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Best American Crime Writing 2004

It seems apparent now that this series is over—no 2011 edition, no word on it anywhere that I can find, no response from a query I sent to the publisher. Thus, R.I.P. to one of my favorite runs of these ubiquitous "Best American" annual issues, and on to the first three volumes in my backward-facing consideration, where we find, perhaps not surprisingly, some of the very best stuff. The editorial team is, after all, putting its collective best foot forward, in a time bracketed by the coming of DNA-based forensics and the O.J. Simpson case on one end and the various disasters of the Bush/Cheney administration such as Iraq and Katrina on the other, when appetites for true-crime tales, forensic science, and reality television, in retrospect, achieved some kind of peak, such that giant forensics-based fictional TV show franchises, even entire cable channels, could be devoted to the themes of murder and mayhem and justice. It's still going today with the Investigation Discovery channel, but the energy seemed to go on the wane when Court TV transmuted into the trash-standard TruTV. I worry the ID channel is going a similar way in slow motion. On the other hand, there is always a taste for true crime, as disreputable and slumming as it can feel, or be, so not to worry. Meanwhile, behold the 2004 edition: Joseph Wambaugh, a literary lion of the genre, supplies the Introduction (albeit unfortunately using it to saw away on an evident hobbyhorse of tort reform). The book runs to over 500 pages (after this it would fall from then on to the standard 300 most of these annuals come in at). And it includes work by James Ellroy, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Jon Krakauer, and Scott Turow. As always, the cases range far and wide, transcending the usual contours of true crime as in Mark Bowden's fascinating takedown of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" from "The Atlantic Monthly," "The Dark Art of Interrogation." But it also drives reliably right into the heart of what people love about the genre, plain bad actors in the dark rainy woods of everyday lives and people. A nice example here is Sabrina Rubin Erdely's "Who Is the Boy in the Box?" from "Philadelphia" magazine, which details the case of a young boy, between four and six years old, whose nude body was found wrapped in a blanket in the woods of a Philadelphia suburb in 1957. The case made a sensation at the time, but the boy has never been identified and the case never solved. Cold cases, of course, are now a reliable staple of true crime, largely because of the giant advances still being made in forensics technologies and the many cases subsequently solved. But they don't all get solved and many still remain a mystery. If the end of this series is currently a mystery too the quality of its volumes is not. This is one of the best.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Sinatra Christmas Album (1963)

I am convinced that the cool calm of January February is the proper time to assess Christmas music—my story, I'm sticking to it. Released originally in 1957 as A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, I came to know this on vinyl with the cover pictured above, the rerelease in the early '60s. I pulled it out of a cutout bin in the late '70s. I think it's now considered a classic of the seasonal fare. I don't normally go for Sinatra much—a great voice and a singer with superb technical chops, but I've never been able to get far past the general soullessness. But I've really become attached to this over the years. I was surprised the first time I heard it by the goofy, swingin', hepcat "J-I-N-G-L-E / B-E-double-L-S" treatment that "Jingle Bells" endures here (never one of the great Xmas songs anyway, of course, but kids like it because it's easy to play and sing, or anyway I did), and I'm surprised still that the second side, from "The First Noel" to "Silent Night," is all devoted to religious fare. Different times, different times. I became infatuated with it when I was working nightshifts in a nursing home. The dayroom for the nursing station I tended was decked out for the holidays in the kind of sad and shabby fashion that's not hard to imagine. The album was part of the little collection of records gathered there and in the darkest deeps of the night that December, along about the two o'clock or three o'clock hours, I used to wander down to the dayroom and turn on the colored lights and play it on the crappy thrift store record player someone had brought in. I sat there in one of the rickety rocking chairs, playing it soft and rocking and thinking about things like my future and my past and where everything was headed. It was deliciously sad start to finish under the circumstances, notably the woeful "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "The Christmas Waltz," with Sinatra's sad little "Merry Christmas!" right at the end of it. If I was in the mood sometimes I flipped it over and played the church songs. More often I just played the first side once or twice, or three times. All those associations are buried in it for me still, even sitting in front of my computer all this time later playing it on iTunes. Sometimes, with everything, it's so complex and so beautiful all at once that it's almost too much. I think that's the kind of thing Christmas does to you.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Blade Runner (1982)

USA/Hong Kong, 117 minutes
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples, Philip K. Dick
Photography: Jordan Cronenweth
Music: Vangelis
Editors: Marsha Nakashima, Terry Rawlings
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joe Turkel, Hy Pike

Did anyone have any sense how well regarded Blade Runner would ultimately become when it was first released? No one I knew. A few decades on, only Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull rank higher among movies made since 1979 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Currently at #38, Blade Runner is the highest-ranked and most recent picture on the list until Fanny and Alexander, at #75, also from 1982, and only Kubrick's 2001 is ahead of it in the science fiction genre. The reputation this picture has won for itself in such a relatively brief time still surprises me a little. I mean, I liked it when it was new—but I also liked Diva (currently unranked) when it was new, around the same time, and I remember liking it more.

I'm not questioning how good Blade Runner is—in fact, I would have to say when I made a recent project of looking at it in all its permutations that it has worn remarkably well, and is indeed only better, a truly great picture. I'm not sure Ridley Scott ever made anything else within shouting distance of it, as much as I may like some of it or not, nor do I think his fiddling with three edits did much for it beyond removing the obnoxious voiceover accompanying the first version (and there's a case to be made for the utility of that element as certain plot points are blurred without it). But I'm also not prepared to argue that this is one of those happy-accident collaborations where everything falls right, such as Casablanca or The Third Man. It's definitely flawed. Maybe I just need to call it an early salvo in the reputation of Philip K. Dick, whose legacy still appears to be on the rise, and leave it at that.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Hüsker Dü, "Pink Turns to Blue" (1984)


Along about the time of the 1983 EPs "Everything Falls Apart" and especially "Metal Circus" (with the amazing song "Diane") I started getting out to see Hüsker Dü a lot more than I ever had. You maybe know the legends. They were roaring loud, physically tumultuous affairs, staged in tiny steamy clubs, and they set me up well for the coming of their unprecedented (or anyway unexpected) double-LP concept album package Zen Arcade. The way I understood it there was always a good deal of friction inside the band, more ultimately than was healthy for any of the three principals; it all subsequently blew apart a few short years (and a solid handful of albums) later. That tension somehow filtered out so there was always a lot of talk, as I recall, about who was the "better" songwriter, Bob Mould or Grant Hart. The fact is they were both really good, but exposed to the question and sitting down to study the matter I noticed a marked preference on my part for the Hart songs. I think this is way-far one of his best and it's as good an example of Hüsker Dü in their prime as you're bound to get, in case you were ever curious about them. Mould's flying-V electric guitar rakes and claws against the dense surface, Hart flails like a wild man after the Keith Moon fashion, and there's spooky piano in there for effect. The lyrics, about an unfortunate death, seemed pretty cool too, but what always makes it for me are the whispery vocals in falsetto harmonies climbing up and down and in and around the chorus, tuneful enough to sing with, shivery enough to feel along your spine. The band used to just go tearing through the whole album in shows, preserving the sequencing and everything, and this was always a high point.