Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Iggy & the Stooges, "Death Trip" (1973)


Mythology time. There's an easy case to make for Raw Power as one of the great cursed smoldering monuments in rock 'n' roll, saturated in self-loathing, debilitating drug usage, disillusionment, and incompetent engineering. One more great band poised for a joint swan dive into the cement of an empty Los Angeles swimming pool. Even the titles point to troubles—"Search and Destroy," "Gimme Danger," and "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell" is how it starts. It ends on the loud, crunching, irresistible, semi-groove "Death Trip," which attacks with a squall that sets nerves on edge even after 30 minutes of this and continues for six more minutes. David Bowie had no idea how to record it in 1972, and Iggy Pop little better how to remix it in 1996. Ultimately neither version may serve the music, but they both serve the mood. What is essential to the Stooges survives well. It's only rock 'n' roll but they like it. None of the well-documented disadvantages diminish that. Indeed, many claim it as the best Stooges album. It's the rawest and most powerful, little question. But it's also occluded, dark, overshadowed by the suspicion that the intimations are all too authentic. It's not fun, and that is core to the set, full of rage and pain and yet for that a minimum of grandstanding. In the moment, by all accounts, they were just trying to make a hit album that seemed more elusive than ever and then go cop in peace. So it is efficiently executed and in many ways that's what counts. Iggy's word association games well up out of a state of near total distraction, the band verges on the pro forma but stays ahead of it because they're just too good, and the finish line is exhaustion and exhilaration. Etch that legend in stone.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Moondance (1970)

(Previous attempts here and here.)

I have belabored the point about the first side of this album. Hearing "Old Old Woodstock" from Tupelo Honey recently, I realized I have surely oversold the whole thing. I mean, sweet God, Tupelo Honey is a masterpiece, and Blowin' Your Mind! and Astral Weeks. And the freakin' second side of Moondance. Nonetheless, it seems my platte hath troth and beachhead made. Oh the water, let it run all over me. This is five songs—"And it Stoned Me," "Moondance," "Crazy Love," "Caravan," and "Into the Mystic"—about birth, life, and the eternal, in totality as perfect as anything could ever hope to be. In them is found everything. Sometimes I wonder why I need anything else at all.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Please Kill Me (1997)

This is approximately exactly as advertised, an uncensored oral history of '70s New York punk-rock, reaching back for its origins to the Doors, Velvet Underground, and Stooges, and proceeding directly from there. The copious drug use and sexual practices account for the "uncensored" appellation, though in its totality few are spared the judgments of one another on account of discretion, so in that way it's kind of gossipy too—but always fascinating and there is likely plenty for many to learn. Me, I was surprised to encounter some of the people in the thick of it, such as Todd Rundgren, and to gain some proportionality of impact on my own heroes of the time, Lou Reed (huge), Iggy Pop (colossal), and David Bowie (marginal). It was good to see so much attention paid to Richard Hell and the Voidoids, though I could have done without so much on the Dead Boys. Talking Heads are all but missing in action, except for one glancing mention of yuppies, which just goes to show the rest of us ... something. Once again I am forced to consider the New York Dolls, who never meant much to me. Guess you had to be there—the shows sound awesome. My blind spot extends to Johnny Thunders as well, on whom there is a good deal here. He's one of the giants striding all through it. The Ramones also figure large, of course, and unfortunately many of their stories are sad ones. They should have been superstars, I still think that. Blondie gets treated nicely too, which surprised me given the approach to Talking Heads. Lots of voices are heard here, from the obscure to the famous, but a few are missing. I don't think there are any (or many anyway) quotes from Tom Verlaine. It's great on the cross-pollinating relations between New York and British punk-rock, funny and interesting to see the view from the inside as the whole thing is virtually carpetbagged out of New York by Malcolm McLaren after an inspiring visit, incidentally earning him a lion's share of credit for punk-rock, with the Sex Pistols (McLaren again), the Clash, and all the rest. They're here too, of course—but mostly only in appropriately marginalized roles. This one's fast and fun to read.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Gates of Heaven (1978)

USA, 85 minutes, documentary
Director/editor: Errol Morris
Photography: Ned Burgess

I had better note how strange it was to sit down to watch and write about Gates of Heaven, a documentary about pet cemeteries, within days of the death of a long-time pet cat. As I feared, the context tended to confirm my impression of the worst qualities of filmmaker Errol Morris, even here in my favorite film by him, his first. He can often come across as a shallow ironist, falling back continually on an unpleasant mocking element that curdles the best here. In many ways we are in David Byrne territory (before even David Byrne had arrived there), with an insulated and smug complacency that too often misses and obtrudes the point.

The themes Morris attempts to smother in jocularity often entirely resist that—themes of faith, love, responsibility, some of the most profound questions we ask. The result is hardly unflawed, a movie that appears to be having an argument with itself about something we don't understand, like a feuding couple at a dinner party. Yet, in terms of form and in terms of filmmaking strategy, it brought things to bear that we are still seeing released every month in new documentaries.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Phoebe Snow, "Take Your Children Home" (1974)


In which I disclose both methodology and a base sentimentality that motivates me: One reason I never made it as a journalist was lack of an ability to stay on top of things and fix on what interests a wide or general (or even niche and specific) audience, which is mostly a matter of keeping up, which probably just means I'm lazy or a crank or both. But there you go. Instead of swimming the zeitgeist, I have to make long lists way far in advance and plod through them in order. Phoebe Snow's lovely "Take Your Children Home" made it to the list because in 2009 it became the unofficial theme song of the death of my cat Floyd—paralyzed me with sadness when shuffle suddenly began insisting on it. Phoebe Snow's death came in 2011, the last grace note in her own sad story of children found, lost, taken home. And now my time to write about this song has come in the same week that my cat Esme has died—Floyd's sister, who outlived him by more than four years to make it to 16 years old. My constant companion, and best friend in many ways. "Death has no mercy," as the Dead put it, and I feel that acutely right now. But I feel grace at work too, putting this song in my way. It's more playful than I'm letting on, a shambolic meditation on carousing, but I hear (or project) such a world of wisdom in the title phrase, rooted in the here and now but facing the eternal. Leaning into the eternal, actually. "Take your children home, I am one." Death as a matter of going home. So even as this song makes me appallingly sad ("children" being so vulnerable by definition), it comforts me too. I like to think that Floyd and Esme are safe at home now, where I took them.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Son of Danse Macabre (2012)

I appreciated Bryce Wilson's brave and bold idea of updating Stephen King's essential Danse Macabre, the critical history of horror published in 1981. Wilson, who among other things operates the noteworthy Things That Don't Suck blog, set himself to update King's volume for the developments in the genre over the past 30 and more years. It's fair to say those developments have been considerable, and in fact I still have some hope that King himself will get around to it. But Wilson's shot is certainly fine until then. He loves and understands the form, and he knows his stuff. I think he's strongest on film. It's where the passion comes through. On comic books and literature, I trust his judgments, but I sometimes get a feeling that some stones may have been left unturned. No matter. You can't always get to everything, and he's good enough (and probably young enough) that he could well develop the same authority there that he already has with movies (and TV). And I think it's a laudable exercise in itself any time someone takes on a history of any form that draws them. It forces research, and the reward is invaluable perspective, and it's almost always interesting writing. We'll see how that works out for Wilson in the fullness of time—I have my hopes. Meanwhile, though I disagreed with him on some matters, I thoroughly enjoyed his views on things, wide and narrow. When I was familiar with some of his areas of focus—Scream, The Blair Witch Project, and The Ring, most notably—I found him insightful, leading me to deeper appreciations of many elements. He has also become a go-to critical resource just like that. I came away from this with a little list of films to see and things to read, and I am already looking forward to them. If you know Danse Macabre you almost can't go wrong with Son of—even if, like most sequels, it's a few steps back of the original. In this neck of the woods, being a few steps back of Stephen King means you're doing pretty damned good.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

tu-plang (1996)

The first album by Australian band Regurgitator came in the mail the last time anyone was bothering to send me free albums in the mail, so that should give some idea how long that's been. I flipped for it in a big way—it was a curiosity and the band was a mystery (intriguing cover art, eccentric information in small font only in the booklet, this music) that went into high rotation for a couple of months. Hard to figure out who they were, or what this was. I still don't know much about Regurgitator, but I see on Wikipedia they've had a whole career and are reasonably popular even. In fact, this album itself went to #3 Down Under and even yielded a top 40 hit in "Kong Foo Sing," which may indeed be the best song here. In fairness, nothing seems to have dented any other English-speaking or European or any other charts anywhere, beyond New Zealand. Insert usual that's a shame, because there are plenty of reasons to like this, starting with the determined career suicide gesture of opening your debut album with a song called "I Sucked a Lot of Cock to Get Where I Am." That pushed me toward a disposition in its favor, and they delivered with these feverish mash-ups of hip-hop, drum-and-bass attack, screwy PiL vocals, heavy bottoms, surf-rock flourishes, and gratuitous obscenity as it pleases them. It's Stranglers-style mood pieces for people in bad moods, all lined up in neat rows. It's surprisingly listenable, and surprising in any number of ways, with constant, vicious hooks, a wealth of ways to use the studio and unusual instruments, and whatever, to insinuate itself continually. It's capable of a good deal of very pure heaviosity and even willful menace, which probably would have scared me when I was about 14, if I'd happened to wake up to it in the middle of the night and it was playing. But since I was already 40 by the time I actually heard it, I registered the vein and kept moving. It's a real pleasure, and I was happy to find it remains so. As heavy as it makes out, it's always cheeky, and the momentum rarely flags.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock" (1970)


Joni Mitchell was not actually at Woodstock, as either performer or attendee. Reports say she had already committed to a Dick Cavett TV appearance that weekend. But like so many she was obviously impressed by the scope of the event and in the aftermath wrote this song—which, in the US, became a #11 hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and then a #23 hit for Matthews' Southern Comfort. Joni Mitchell's version lives on the Ladies of the Canyon album, which took me some time to understand is actually one of her best. For "Woodstock"—which I judge about in the middle of the pack in terms of song quality on that album—she is in Joni at the piano keyboard mode, sounding pensive, resentful, and slightly adenoidal, as if crying recently (the next album Blue would serve up the largest portions of this). She's capable of pealing out with some big notes, but not always where you would expect them. I like how that undercuts the cosmic business and/or the triumphalism in the lyrics—"child of God," "stardust," "half a million strong," etc. The other element that sets this apart, of course, is the studio-bound production featuring multi-tracking of Mitchell on all the background vocals, which produces a weirdly beautiful and cerebral effect that at once personalizes and impersonalizes the song—more undercutting, as if afraid to actually commit to the vision (reflected as well in her increasing hesitation to play festival gigs). The various misgivings were more or less elided by the boys covering it, who happily (or willfully) failed to notice in favor of the rapturous notes. But gads this version by Joni Mitchell is lovely and alien. I think that's the main reason it's by far the most musically interesting of them.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Passage to India (1924)

I had the impression E.M. Forster was a bookish type of stylist of manners, but reading his best known and most celebrated novel more gives the impression of another British school of letters, the adventurer-writer with Kipling or T.E Lawrence. Not that I know exactly what I'm talking about. Forster's novel seems precise, almost clinical, about the relations between Muslims and Hindus in India and fully aware of the rot that underlay their occupation by Britain. The characters all seem types at first, Britons and various Indians, all of whose individual humanities gradually disclose even as vast and entrenched social and cultural networks introduce more and more complexity. It teases and probes away at several strains of cultures attempting to accommodate and understand and live with one another. Everything comes to revolve around an incident on a pleasure excursion, a young British woman accusing an Indian of assaulting her. The incident itself takes place in a dark cave; it's ambiguous and hard to know exactly what happened. Forster seems more interested in the reverberations abstracted that would be caused by such an incident or accusation in such a fragile society. He understands the strange balance of power too, with the Britons wielding so much power and yet so vastly outnumbered by the Indians, who are deeply divided themselves. This is two decades or more before Pakistan would separate itself from the maelstrom, which took place shortly after World War II, removing itself from India as a country primarily for Muslims. Forster is very good at helping us understand how much we don't know—we, as Westerners—about the overwhelming complexities of this seething mass of humanity with all its divergences of ethnicity and creed and language and God knows what else. Yet it also feels somewhat occluded too, closer to the British viewpoint than it sometimes seems to think it is. Forster is painstaking to maintain his objectivity, such as it is, but his attitude feels patronizing just a little, toward the Indians, as though his real beef and source of motivation is something in him about the grand experiments of the British Empire itself.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

France/Sweden, 95 minutes
Director/writer: Robert Bresson
Photography: Ghislain Cloquet
Music: Jean Wiener, Franz Schubert
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Models: Balthazar, Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, François Lafarge, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Philippe Asselin, Pierre Klossowski, Nathalie Joyaut

I have a great fondness for Robert Bresson's donkey movie, which is typically enough fractured, allusive, and blunt, helped in great measure by a basic narrative element barely in Bresson's control, if it is in his control at all. Back in film appreciation classes, I was given to understand that the somewhat stultifying Diary of a Country Priest was Bresson's essential go-to masterpiece so it's interesting to me that Balthazar is now ranked highest among the canonizers at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, followed by Pickpocket (my other favorite Bresson), A Man Escaped, Mouchette, L'Argent, and then finally Country Priest at #196. Despite that apparent fall in favor by Country Priest, a total of six titles in that list's top 200 clearly signals a regard for Bresson that may be higher than ever.

The element barely under control, of course, is Balthazar, who is an enigma in the way of all animals we may come to know, a blank slate as such, one that as viewers (and/or caretakers) we may be quick to fill in. Bresson artfully matches his usual bent for ambiguity—as always, the intent appears to be to film the ineffable—with the manifest reality of the donkey, which I think is what makes this movie work so well. However abstracted anything around it might seem to become, it remains the story of a life from beginning to end, "Balthazar, told by random incident" (more or less the translation of the title).

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter" (1969)


At this point, it's probably fair to say it's the title that's most famous about this song. It soon after became the title of a documentary which stands still as a generational monolith. And its primary sentiment—the urgency of the "gimme," the nature of the request—was widely and acutely perceived as shared in that historical moment. You will notice the author of the mashup video I'm pointing to, posted October 5, 2009, would seem to agree, focusing on all the history being made within its general vicinity. So with everybody in agreement this way, it can be a little surprising to sit and listen to it, to figure out what it is and what it does. What matters most is how it feels. More than anything it sounds exhausted, or that's the wrong implication—it sounds like exhaustion. It sounds like how exhaustion feels. The words are not quite there, a rumbling, wailing blur, though "it's just a shot away" is clear enough, ringing out by Merry Clayton. I can't tell you how it makes me feel when I reflect this was recorded only weeks before Altamont (only weeks after Woodstock), particularly when I think of the scenes from the documentary. But I suspect it provokes feelings in others as well. Those tender, tentative notes Keith Richards picks out to open it, the soaring background vocals as the elements start to kick in, the way it assembles itself by pieces, until finally it is a rock song, if still somewhat shambolic. It's never loud, no matter how much you turn it up. It is a great and powerful whimpering, and can leave one a little sick and usually quite uncomforted. A remarkable document.

Monday, August 05, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

American Horror Story (s1, 2011)—On the device front, I acquired a Kindle Fire (my first personal object truly dependent on infernal wi-fi) along with an Amazon Prime account, which is sort of switching up some viewing habits. Suddenly I can get through TV series a bit more efficiently (within the choices offered, of course, as the cost otherwise seems high to me). It's also a novelty so I'm looking at more things just to experience what it's like to look at things this way (weirdly, I find that looking at these screens from five inches is not bad at replicating a "big" experience—the HD may be helping that). At any rate, that's how I've happened to start on this ripe, rotting purple haunted house spiel set in Los Angeles with Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton. I remember it being hyped rather sky-high in some quarters. It reminds me of Natural Born Killers so far—many things thrown against many insane walls, and you get the sense they may not really know what they're doing. It's not very scary, that's one thing, and not always so funny either, though jury still out on that. It normalizes rather than goes all the way with a developmentally disabled character (a no-win situation on a TV show anyway, but the original impulse good horror instinct). It is sometimes unpleasant though not sure yet if that's in good or bad ways. Jessica Lange is clearly having a ball, ditto Denis O'Hare, but too it often seems to settle into pedestrian TV rhythms. I think my approach to TV series from now on will be more reporting in at the end of seasons as I reach them so I will probably have more to say about this next month.
The Bat (1959)—Not much to this killer-on-the-loose wheezer, including especially the inane twists and turns of the plot, but Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead are entertaining, and it has some effective points. I wouldn't call it ever scary, but occasionally diverting, and short.
Battlestar Galactica (s3, 2006-2007)— From the safety of my cloister, the way the last season ended I had expected something more along the lines of life on an occupied planet under Cylon rule, which sounded interesting. Instead, they got out of that with a virtual hop, skip, and jiggety-jig two-parter, and back to outer space and the emotional agonies. The usual long-term symptoms of TV dramatic series are now causing the usual problems—shallow allegorical characters distributed across an overarching concept who continually meet and re-meet (by coincidence!) and never die, except occasionally during sweeps months. Then they milk it till that cow goes dry (looking at you, Ellen Tigh thread). Much intermarriage and fraternizing and attendant anguish. As science fiction filmmaking I think it's a wash, with nice ideas and interestingly imposed limitations but also strange ways of shooting outer space (handheld, really? didn't you think about the, er, gravity? maybe there's something I don't know). And enough already with the high-speed for action. Sorry for the snark, it's just the seams for me are starting to show a little. The character studies are too often trite and convenient, doing little to move anything forward. I don't care who is or is not "really" a Cylon—I think that's beside the point. But the Cylons (both centurions and clones) remain such great and intriguing creations that it still keeps me predisposed to forgive. And I find the religious themes interesting, which surprises me too—one of the main things that keeps me going, in fact (albeit more and more on WTF-anyway levels). So few of these series find satisfying conclusions that I must remain skeptical. As I recall, the reviews were not particularly kind, but I'm in for the whole shebang.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012)—Solid documentary, seems to be talking to most of the right people, does a nice job of elevating Chris Bell to his rightful place, and otherwise gets out of the way. The stories are poignant and achingly sad, and the music is as beautiful as ever—more so.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)—Wow, director and co-screenwriter Sam Peckinpah achieves maximum velocity nihilism with one gruesome plot point (see title) and builds something utterly compelling out of it, with the critical help of Warren Oates as Bennie, a down-and-out lounge musician with a lot of sand. He reminded me a little of Robert Altman's Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, a sad sack loser putting everything into one last insane mission. Peckinpah ratchets that a few times and proceeds to sustain it from beginning to end. Amazing, really.
Carlos the Jackal (2010)—The first part seemed to be little more than an empty litany of terrorist actions, glamorized, and I was worried about what I was in for if it was going to be five hours of that. True, there is one amazing scene of high tension, but felt surrounded by a lot of puffery. Maybe this is my resentment about five-hour movies speaking. But the second part boasts an absolutely riveting first hour as it focuses on a single extremely high-stakes mission. Still have the third part to go, but feeling pretty sure that this self-consciously "big" entry from Olivier Assayas doesn't have to be as long as it is. Not to be confused with Che, directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Children of the Corn (1984)—Stacie Ponder of Final Girl held an all-day movie blogathon last month, The Corn-ening by name, in which she watched and reported on every installment in this franchise (some seven or eight pictures, including a reboot). Don't miss it. Then, also, lately I've been reading Son of Danse Macabre by Bryce Wilson of Things That Don't Suck. It's a fine, gabby, opinionated read (and an explicit bow to Stephen King, whose Danse Macabre, published in 1981, is an essential survey of horror). I've been enjoying it enormously, even as it has accelerated and deepened a recent fascination with horror. So I decided to take a look at the original Children of the Corn. Set in rural Nebraska, the premise is utterly opaque, something about corn fields and murdering fundamentalist children (reminds me more than anything else of a certain Star Trek episode with children). But it has a reasonable share of unsavory ideas, shock images, ominous passages, and a few scares, though more of the subtly disturbing variety (credit to Stephen King for much of what works). In general it was kind of a blast. Stacie Ponder says a couple of the sequels are pretty good too.
City Lights (1931)—Favorite.