Sunday, May 31, 2015

burnin' for blue: Blue Öyster Cult, 22may2015, Slim's

For Noodles, who came in saying "I only know 'Don't Fear the Reaper'" and came out, I think, at least a Buck Dharma fan, if not a full-fledged Blue Öyster Cult fanatic.

Slim's is probably our least-favorite frequently visited venue in SF—its bizarro layout makes crowded shows really difficult to see/enjoy, and it's not all that convenient to anything in the city, so good luck getting dinner on the way, if you worked that day. The sound is usually okay, though, and it's just about the right size for the bigger bands I like, the ones who are squarely in the middle. Over the years, we've seen a post-hill Built to Spill there, as well as Big Business, Hot Snakes, Pissed Jeans, Red Sparowes...and other white men with guitars and a long history of making records.

Which leads us to BŐC.

I'd never seen them! They were one of my first favorite bands, having inherited my uncle's copy of their 1981 new wave classic (second-to) last-gasp effort Fire of Unknown Origin in around 1987 when he moved out at night after a falling out with my mother. (Having interviewed a couple rock stars about Blue Öyster Cult, I can confirm that essentially everybody's first experience with the band was mediated by an uncle.) In 1988, I bought Secret Treaties, which scared me a little—the vocals and themes of "Dominance and Submission" were a little much for me at 13!—and my first two copies of the record seemed to bring bummers, or, as I thought of them then, evils, into my life. The first tape was in my first Walkman the first time I took it to school and left it in a locker during basketball practice: it got stolen. The second time I took the record to school, I got suspended for not having reported seeing Aaron Krantz stealing money from a teacher's desk. This was a part of my middle school's innovative "Start Snitchin'" initiative.

(My defense—that I couldn't report him because I hadn't seen him do it and didn't know about or benefit from his thievery—didn't get me all that far. Recent events had included me getting busted for shoplifting a couple times, so the taint was upon me like the mark of doom upon Elric... My career of evil. I've told all these stories before, I know.)

But by the time I heard them on Rockline in 1988, promoting Imaginos, I awas already moving to a newly Ramones-centric musical aesthetic, and while I never stopped listening to BŐC, nor talking about them, they were for me more or less sonic comfort food, something I'd go back to, again and again, but something that seemed somehow of the past, not something I'd go see in the present. This idiot stance even had me skipping it when my friends' band played a show at Blue Öyster Cult's afterparty, somewhere in like 2003. Dumb, me.

Anyway, I saw that they were playing, I bought tickets without thinking about it, and I was glad to do so, because we live finite lives and it's never clear to me how many more chances I'll have to do the things I want to do. That was in 2014; I didn't get to use the tickets because the set happened while we were still on a plane back from Hawai'i. Worse things have happened. This time, when I saw the show pop up, I felt pretty about jumping on it: how many more chances will we really have, anyway?

The crowd was...not young. Nor was the venue particularly packed—which is a good thing, at Slim's. We got there just in time to see the opening band finish up, and were treated to quite a lot of Godzilla being projected on a screen that lowered in front of the stage while the roadies did their thing(s). I clocked the merch table and resolved to buy what I knew was going to be a thick, ill-fitting Haynes Beefy-T, because, damnit, why do I even have a job if I'm not going to buy shirts at shows? We posted up just left of center, behind just one thin layer of humanity, basically right in front of Eric.

Maybe because of Slim's sometimes-dodgy sound, maybe because we were too close for the P.A., maybe because of more depressing reasons, we couldn't really hear Eric very well all night, especially early. This was a colossal bummer for me, because, as I explained to Noodles about two-thirds of the way through the set, "I've always been an Eric man." She is solidly in the Buck Dharma camp, perhaps unsurprisingly, describing him at least once that night and later as "a very charming tiny man". The other three guys in the band were less notable, though the bass player Kasim Sulton was extremely charming and the drummer had heavy, heavy, fast hands and bore the distinction of being the only guy on stage not wearing actively embarrassing footwear. (This is sorta a hobby of mine, checking out what bands wear onstage footwise. This night included Chuck Taylors on the dummer, Toms (!) on the bass player, all-black New Balance cross-trainers on Eric, what I think were ankle boots on Buck and I can't even remember what the second guitarist had on...) But at this point, BŐC is completely a-charismatic on stage: while they go through their moves and routines, and while they're genuinely, fully committed to putting on a good show and entertaining the people in the audience, it's a bemused, professional, slightly impersonal commitment.

It's sounding like I didn't have a great time at the show. It was a solid B, especially given my history with the band, including decades of listening to them, two failed book pitches about them for 33 1/3, more than a dozen of their albums* in my crates and on my hard drives, and my general expectation that a live show be, like a Neurosis show, a legitimately transcendent event. I came in trying, and largely failing, to temper my expectations is what I'm saying, and the show I saw was solid. As the band has always known, execution counts for a lot in the genre, and they executed well all night long.

(My collection isn't quite as bodacious as my dude @eyenoise's, but it's pretty pretty close.)

Afterwards, Noodles mentioned "I thought they'd be more...rockin'. Not that it was a problem..." and that got at something pretty significant: what the crowd was there for was a whole lot of Buck Dharma, and, "Godzilla" aside, what Buck's great at is in general not a lot of rocking qua rocking. (The crowd popped surprisingly well for end-stage semi-hit "Dancin' in the Ruins", even, which blew my mind.) But Buck was great that night, with a lot of super-melodic, quick-fingered, extremely Buck-Dharma-esque solos, and a couple charming stage moves (including a weird I-don't-know-what hand gesture to the crowd at the end, which I would swear meant "yeah yeah shut up already" and an exaggerated slow-motion wide-legged stomp to indicate timing during a few songs). It was remarkable how little energy he seemed to be expending to be playing so well! I've never seen anything like that, I don't think. He seemed in good voice, what we could hear of it anyway, as opposed—maybe—to Eric, who for whatever reasons (PA? just doesn't have it anymore?) never pulled out the strident clarion that was always my favorite thing about his songs. Though I will admit that "Black Blade" sounded pretty great. (Upon reflection, I'm not convinced he sang any songs completely solo: everything seemed like either a Buck song or something he and Buck and often the rest of the guys were harmonizing on...)

The harmonies were good, the band was tight, probably tighter than the original five ever were, and the set list was mostly satisfying. There was a legit drum solo, which was okay, though a somewhat dated gesture, and while Bloom never deployed any of his old-style jive-talking patter, he did take the time to introduce "Black Blade" with a potted history of Michael Moorcock's fantasy anti-hero Elric (which Noodles found hilarious and impossible to take at all seriously), and he had a pretty good riff on the Rangers/Lightning series, punctuated with a muttered "I'm sure you all give a shit." that absolutely killed at least me, and probably pleased nobody else in attendance.

A craftsmanlike night, then. Five people demonstrating their skills in ways they had good reasons to believe the audience would enjoy. And they did it on their terms: as Eric pointed out, they do a different set every night; while they are absolutely going to play the "three hits", they're also going to play reasonably deep cuts, a nice antidote to turning into a nostalgia act. (It took me, embarrassingly, quite a while to figure out what the hell "The Vigil" was—I like that song fine, but for some reason, it just never stuck with me, and it was buried on the likeable but impossible-to-give-a-shit-about Mirrors. Anyway, enough excuses: clearly, I gotta listen to more BŐC.) This night, the band was light on the heavy/sinister, focused on the pop-songs-with-interesting-structures-and-a-lot-of-soloing, and amiably, thoroughly determined to give the crowd what they came to hear: only a churl could complain about this show.

And the shirt I bought? A lightweight, thin-weave shirt, more American Apparel than Haynes, and much higher-quality than I'd expected. A nice bonus. I've barely taken it off, since.

Track List

  1. The Red & the Black
  2. Burnin' for You
  3. Career of Evil
  4. Dancin' in the Ruins
  5. ME 262
  6. Buck's Boogie
  7. Black Blade
  8. The Vigil
  9. Then Came the Last Days in May
  10. Godzilla
  11. (Don't Fear) The Reaper
  12. Cities on Flame with Rock & Roll

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

An Hour Ago Rudy Linnekar Had This Town In His Pocket Now You Can Strain Him Through a Sieve

The ninth film I was able to see in the Orson Welles series was projected in 35mm and it made a big difference.

So, I've seen Touch of Evil (1958, Welles) a few times on dvd before. And lately I've been realizing more and more the benefits of seeing something on a big screen in a theater over my tv at home; and, film over digital. But seeing Touch of Evil in a theater was like discovering it for the first time--this might also have to do with that I'm older, and maybe also because I've seen ten other Orson Welles movies in a theater in the last month.

First of what's most important in Touch of Evil is the setting: Mexico. Specifically the US-Mexico border. Welles had already photographed parts of the films The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Confidential Report (1955) in Mexico. Welles is also one of few filmmakers who has chosen not to employ subtitles when characters speak in a foreign language. And Touch of Evil features a lot of Spanish.

Secondly the Noir aspect. Let's presume I can use darkness synonymously with evil, alright? And noir also translates as black. So, the darkness in Touch of Evil can be read in many ways other than Hank Quinlan's (Welles) corruption. The Mexican setting delves into the dark criminal underworld of murder, blackmail, reefers, mainlining, brothels, stripclubs, leather jackets, hot rodding JDs, molotov cocktails, and peeping through windows. And this is the last Film Noir ever made. No I don't have evidence to support my claim, but I'm convinced. Trust me on this one.

Dark lurid trash was the producer of this film, Albert Zugsmith's specialty. Zugsmith also produced Douglas Sirk's trashy melodrama masterpiece Written on the Wind (1956, Douglas Sirk) and Tarnished Angels (1958, Sirk). Compare Written on the Wind and Tarnished Angels to any of Sirk's other films and you will definitely see Zugsmith's influence--they're way trashy darker than anything else Sirk ever did. Leather Daddy Butch Mercedes McCambridge's cameo as the Mexican villain who says "You know what a Maryjane is? You know what a mainliner is?" and "Let me stay. I wanna watch," is probably the most bizarrely vulgar one of Welles's films has ever gotten. She's awesome.

Tertiary is the Shakespearean tragedy of the whole affair. Quinlan refuses, like Macbeth, to sleep. This gives the film a unique dramatic unity and urgency--it will be resolved before he falls asleep, we know it. Quinlan is dying. Holy crap, the scene where Quinlan frames Vargas' wife for Uncle Joe Grandi's murder is shot with these slowly paced out strobes from somewhere outside through the small apartment room where the final struggle between Quinlan and Grandi takes place--the light bursts are evocative of Quinlan's life slowly dying out of him: the beat of a heart visualized; the light that's left of him diminishing into darkness; the poetry of that scene is very important.

Once Quinlan falls off the wagon and starts drinking bourbon--my own worst poison, but also the most seductive--he starts talking about his dead ex-wife. And the sheer madness and dementia that appears in the insomniac, old, tired, obese, man makes us think for a second: wait a minute did he kill her, his own wife? But it's only a glimpse. Even more intriguing. Later Menzies (the Master Swallow to Quinlan's Falstaff) defends Quinlan saying that he only thinks about his ex wife while he's drunk until even later Quinlan:

I'm always thinking of her. Drunk or sober.
What else is there to think about, except my job?
My dirty job.

Okay this is like as darkly romantic as it gets. This is poetry. That this suffering man has one friend and somehow has still hung onto his career makes the setup for the great tragedy of him unnecessarily framing Linnekar's Mexican son-in-law that results in him destroying what's left of his job, securing his own ignominy, and murdering Menzies, his only friend, the only one who loved him, powerfully Shakespearean. But, like the stuffed spiked black bull's head that the desperate Quinlan rests under in the brothel, he is a magnificent beast that holds our attention in the ring because some part of us is fascinated by seeing him slowly, methodically killed by a hero. But we are here for the bull, not the bullfighter. Yet the bull has to die. That is tragedy.

We also get all of the best the B genre has to offer. Dennis Weaver as the motel clerk who postures as erratically as an ostrich on angel dust, being the only human the sexy pointy cone brassiered Janet Leigh is stuck with in this motel two years before she'd meet Anthony Perkins at the Bates creates a whole different brand of suspense. Weaver really makes Perkins look like a ladies man compared to his awkwardness. 

Oh and Welles is on point with his mise en scène, but not just the famous opening. This was the first time I noticed how long the take was when Quinlan interrogates Sanchez at his apartment. That's an impressive sequence. But the opening still takes the cake. Man, you really realize how close that bomb is to going off right next to Heston and Janet Leigh's characters. And the litter polluting the river where Quinlan goes to die is gorgeous. The Joseph Cotten cameo is also a treat for Welles aficionados.

Yet one thing I can't quite get over is that Quinlan has Menizies take Vargas' wife to a motel he knows Grandi owns. Do you realize how early in the film this happens? That truly is evil of Quinlan is he had the foresight for this that soon after meeting Vargas. How can he despise him so? Is is because he's Mexican? Because he's younger? Better at his job? Smarter? Has that smoking hot Janet Leigh wife? Or is it because he knows Vargas is onto him? Quinlan is a fat, ugly, evil, monster villain. But again, damn if I don't still love him. Welles knows his magic.


Monday, May 04, 2015

Here's to Character

What should have been the eighth film in the Orson Welles retrospective I planned on seeing was projected in 35mm, but I missed it because I had to work and so I'm writing about it based on the Criterion dvd I watched at home.


Confidential Report (1955, Orson Welles) is the most fun to watch of any of Welles's films. It's very light due to its lack of any of the layers in his other films--philosophical, existential, political, introspective, romantic, or temporal--it's just about an ordinary low class would be blackmailer Van Stratten (Robert Arden) and his brush with the elusive, enigmatic Gregory Arkadin (Welles).

This film has a cheap, something you would stumble across on late night tv quality, and I mean that as a compliment. The whole thing feels casual. It's one of the only of Welles's films that don't require paying too much attention. It's like a stretched out anecdote, that happens to be more baroque than Citizen Kane (1941, Welles) and stumbles across the globe and back featuring a ton of deep focus picturesque locations that string, from as I can best remember: Italy to Switzerland to Poland to Mexico to Germany.

The pulp crime novel plot hardly makes sense if you think about it too much. But the setup has Van Stratten conned from blackmailing Mr. Arkadin into snooping across the globe to find out the answer to the mystery: in 1927, Switzerland, Arkadin found himself with 200 Swiss francs and no recollection of where they or he came from, who he was, or any details of anything before that event. And on his way to meeting Arkadin, the wiseguy-uneducated-accented playboy Van Stratten happens to begin pursuing an affair with Arkadin's alluring daughter Raina (Paola Mori).

The script isn't that good. It feels clumsy and ambles through a bunch of episodes of Van Stratten uncovering clues about Arkadin. And the soundtrack is poor most of the time. But these only enhance this film's aura of mystery it itself possesses. And I'm sure this wasn't intentional, but it works. Yet it does fit in the chronology of Welles's International Independent phase. And while not really as low-key as the lighting on most of Welles's other films, the wall to wall landmark backgrounds are interspersed with heavy use of canted angles. Mr. Arkadin seems almost exclusively filmed canted and from slightly low angles. The first confrontation triangle between Arkadin, Van Stratten and Raina features a wonderfully memorable push into CU on the canted angled Arkadin.

Welles as Mr. Arkadin speaks in a thick Eastern European accent, which recalls his performance from Journey Into Fear (1943, Norman Foster) as Colonel Haki--both figures are either from Georgia or Russia. And Welles also wears the modern wardrobe of a decadent millionaire, has an elaborate wig, fake beard and a fake nose. Like I said, this movie is a lot of fun.

If most of the story arch and character motivations are awkward, make no mistake, the climax is well plotted. Some big gaps are plugged. And the long tracking shots of Van Stratten through the Munich Christmas party are frivolously unrestrained (slot car racing and archery in the BG) and what I mean when I say baroque; also of course the earlier masquerade ball with the Goya inspired grotesque masks that would later be redone in Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Stanley Kubrick). This followed Othello (1952, Welles) and really hits home how big of a thing Welles had for masks around this period. And also like Othello Welles repeats the motif of a funerary march of mourners in black robes--though technically here in Confidential Report, it's a procession of penitents, and umm, pretty much gratuitous.

Arkadin spouts some Wellesian anecdotes throughout Confidential Report like the frog and the scorpion, and the graveyard with brief dates on the tombstones ones; but his final riddle to Van Stratten most characterizes the conflict of the film:

In this world are those who give and those who ask;
those who do not care to give;
those who do not care to ask.

Confidential Report is Welles the magician pulling a slight of hand and like a true showman, giving the audience what they want. This is the one Welles movie I'd watch again in an instant. Although I don't think he ever really tried to cater to the highbrows.


Sunday, May 03, 2015

I Am Not What I Am

The seventh film in the Orson Welles retrospective that I was able to attend was presented in a brand new, restored DCP courtesy of Carlotta Films. The quality of the picture and the soundtrack were great.

If Citizen Kane (1941, Welles) demonstrates the height of Orson Welles's achievements during his Hollywood Studio phase, Othello (1952, Welles), or William Shakespeare's Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, shows his greatest strengths as an International Independent filmmaker. Call this the second film in Welles's International Independent career, which also happens to be a Shakespeare adaptation, along with Macbeth (1948, Welles).

From the opening, Othello appears to be mounted as a large scale production. The cold open prologue funerary march initiates a bookend structure by its framing of Othello's visage in CU drenched all around in blackness. This can recall the iconographic masks of drama--the world being a stage . . . And with extreme long shots, the robed line of mourners recalls a staggeringly powerful aesthetic picture of a Brazilian funeral march from Welles's unfinished It's All True (1942, Welles)--I am so going to steal that. The Moroccan location work is Welles back in command of photographic exotic locales and taking the best advantage of exterior settings. Then there's the historic Venetian canals through the floating city that delight one's tourist appetites; and the Byzantine groin vault labyrinthes are remarkable--especially in the Dutch framed defeated collapse of Roderigo in shallow water with his cute little curly haired white dog sidekick splashing in the foreground.

That's awesome how Roderigo is followed by the little dog. I didn't ask myself why. I just went with it. Why not?

What an understated masterful staging of a tragedy Shakespeare wrote: An honest, brave man's utter annihilation by a friend he shouldn't trust and a wife he should. Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) is one of those villains who is all bad, and totally fits into Welles's catalog of bad guys. If Macbeth's about a central protagonist ridden with guilt, Othello's about a central protagonist plagued with jealousy, the "green-eyed monster." And this again gives Welles the actor a singular obsession to spin out of control through the whole narrative with.

One of the most romantic of sentiments forms the basis of the romance: Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) falls for Othello after he's returned from seven years of military service because, with "a greedy ear," she likes hearing him tell her about what his life was like in brutal combat. But the tragedy of course is that Othello is by nature a General, and when Iago plants false accusations about Desdemona's infidelity, just like the way Othello sends troops to destroy the Turks he hears are to invade Cyprus, he attacks his love like if she were a rival nation.

So there you have it all: love, tragedy, backstabbing (literally), and even comedy, because well, Roderigo's funny as shit. The turkish bath assault is suspenseful and cringe inducing with Iago's blood lust for power.

Welles bombards the screen with directorial flourishes too. Latticed barriers hiding characters, frames within frames, the small square Othello is forced to eavesdrop on Cassio through during the handkerchief bit, cubby holes of darkness throughout the castles, and the best of all for last. The final confrontation of Desdemona shows her in repose profile CU while the jealous Othello emerges from behind her frontal to the camera like a preying wretch; his repeating mask in darkness; and the elegance of the clean linen mask he murders her with (again the mask motif); finally, the manhole up in the ceiling as the people see the base depravity of his actions revealed below them.

Even though Iago may be all bad, I've always empathized with him. He's burdened with contradictions, but it's because he feels as though he'll never find love. Damn, I love tragedies.


Friday, May 01, 2015

Sleep No More

The sixth film in the Orson Welles retrospective that I was able to view was projected in 35mm.

Macbeth (1948, Orson Welles) is called a Mercury Theatre Production, but it was released by Republic Pictures--an independent studio. Seeing Welles emerge undaunted by lack of funds for costumes, sets, locations, and a large crew of technicians is most evident in this picture.

I couldn't believe it was almost two hours when I looked at my watch after exiting (I saw the version with an overture) this movie. Macbeth begins with an expertly crafted supernatural tension, and like The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Welles) feels like a quick nightmare. The plot device of the three witches telling Macbeth and Banquo their fates makes for a tight straightforward narrative structure which was rare for Welles at this time; except of course for The Stranger (1946, Welles). Also the Scottish palace sets contribute to the minimalism of the world of the story in their limited quantity and sparse landscapes, combined with Macbeth's drugged out looking two weeks he spends as King without sleeping make this movie a scary bad dream.

Another motif that springs up constantly with Welles is corruption at the highest levels of wealth or power, and Lord and Lady Macbeth are still jarring to one's sense of morals by today's standards. They're like hey what if we just killed everyone who is above you so you could be the highest boss. And what an oddly comic tone that underlies the horrific abrupt moment when Macduff's son is happily not at all worried about his missing father and prodding his mother to remarry right before some paid thugs break in and murder him. What? The child murder is so over the top I think it was a little funny. Damn.

So yeah, the locations and camera work aren't as baroque as Welles's earlier films, but the world of Macbeth has a compelling look throughout. And the girth of Welles stomping around with his horn goblet, regal robes and crown is commanding. While this may be the only of Welles's films that deal with supernatural elements, I guess this type of magic would make sense in interesting the famously practiced stage magician Welles.

John L. Russell photographed Macbeth, Samuel Fuller's Park Row (1952), then a lengthy career in television before returning with the iconic and polished Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock). This film feels like it's always dusk or midnight. But one sublime frame worth mentioning takes place as Macduff returns to confront Macbeth in a duel to the death: a medium close-up of the armored Macduff is backlit, leaving him in complete darkness with his cross topped helmet towering toward the camera with foggy smoke bathed in waves of diffuse light behind him. This is another of Welles's films with a grand climax of action suspense that sees an arch villain thrown from a high place down into a plummeting death.

Again, how clever of Shakespeare to have guilt keep Macbeth from sleeping. This one definitely translates well to the screen in Welles's hands.