Thursday, December 29, 2016

10 Favorite Movies Seen in Theatres 2016

1.  Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (2016, Terrence Malick)
2.  Love & Friendship (2016, Whit Stillman)
3.  Café Society (2016, Woody Allen)
4.  Wiener-Dog (2016, Todd Solondz)
5.  Knight of Cups (2015, Malick)
6.  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016, Tim Burton)
7.  The Neon Demon (2016, Nicolas Winding Refn)
8.  The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook)
9.  Hail, Caesar! (2016, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)
10. Personal Shopper (2016, Olivier Assayas)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Every Song on Every Rush Album Worth Listening to, Blurbed


  • 2112 – Huh. This is only the second time I've listened to this song. Last time, the first time, I thought it was hella soft and non-rocking. This rocks adequately and is a fine accompaniment to doing a lot of dishes. Think they got the horns and some of the chords from Quadrophenia.
  • A Passage to Bangkok – Why did bands in the 70s/80s think that mentioning "the Orient" merited the "Oriental" note sequence?
  • The Twilight Zone – Wait. Is this actually about The Twilight Zone? Neat. Man, tho: even the rockers on this album have a lot of acoustic guitar
  • Tears – Everybody gets a ballad, I guess.
  • Something for Nothing – This rocks a lot. I suspect if I listened to the words, I'd get kinda frustrated, tho.

Fly by Night
  • Anthem – Front and center in the "fuck Rush; this guy is an Ayn Rand douche", this song actually rocks pretty hard, and the words are eminently easy to ignore. Goes on a little long, tho.
  • Best I Can – Excellent example of the 70s tendency for working-class aspiration-rock anthems. Something for the 17-year-old to yell along to!
  • Beneath, Between & Behind – Third straight example of killer Alex Lifeson riffage. At this point, you could be excused for thinking the band was actually centered around him. Restless drums and Neil Peart's least subtle cymbal work ever. Maybe the first Rush tune to feature a real breakdown part.
  • By-Tor and the Snow Dog – Impossibly diluted Hobbit shit song; lengthy guitar-noise freakout depicting a swordfight; maybe my favorite Rush song of all time. Totally fun stop/start technical part around four and a half minutes in. Had listened to it a dozen times before realizing that Prince By-Tor, who loses the fight to the Snow Dog, was actually the bad guy, as I'd assumed a guy who was a "Prince" had to be the good guy. In retrospect, probably the beginning of my class consciousness.
  • Fly by Night – If you've ever cried on a Greyhound, this song is meaningful to you.
  • Making Memories – Well, they can't all be winners.
  • Rivendell – Neil: put down the Tolkein. Alex: for fuck's sake, man: your guitars should be electric, not acoustic.
  • In the End – Somewhat self-conscious attempt to write another anthem forgets that the riff in an anthem should sound better when you play it on the electric than when you did on the acoustic. (Also forgets that the main riff sounded better in the title track than it does here.)

A Farewell to Kings

  • A Farewell to Kings – How many parts does a song need, anyway? Yeesh. More good chiming/ringing chords from Alex, but we're only three albums in and Geddy's shrillness and the overall treble levels here are starting to make me anxious.
  • Xanadu – Some synth curls and textures and long parts with no singing soothe. A great example of the tradition of classic heavy rock songs about things they make you read in high school English (see also: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, One).
  • Closer to the Heart – One of the big radio staples of my wasted adolescent bus rides and insomnia sessions, and also maybe the best counterexample to the argument that all Rush lyrics are scary will-to-power fantasies: "mold a new reality / closer to the heart" makes everybody feel better! I had the tabulature for the solo in this one, and spent dozens of hours trying to reproduce it on an acoustic guitar, with ... limited success.
  • Cinderella Man – Not sure I've ever heard this before. Maybe the most Rush-song Rush song ever. Lot of complicated stereo panning reminding me of the iron rule of classic rock: the more time a producer spends changing up stereo effects during a song, the more forgettable the song is.
  • Madrigal – Hobbit-ass English folk song inexplicably scored with mostly synths.
  • Cygnus X-1 – Rush: "What if we just did a ten-minute song that started with five minutes of instrumental evocations of a rocketship before we started singing?" Me: "Why start singing? That shit was excellent before."

Caress of Steel

  • Bastille Day – Whoa, extra-thick guitar tones! Like mediocre BBQ sauce, or one guy trying to sound like both guys in the MC5 at the same time. I have a depressing feeling this one might be Rush's "punk" album. Song is pretty tuff, tho.
  • I Think I'm Going Bald – Novelty song. K. Apparently Rush wanted to go for a heavy boogie kind of thing. It actually goes a little better than you'd think.
  • Lakeside Park – Okay, there's definitely something going on with this record: this is a vaguely dancey song, the third distinct rock style in three songs. Can imagine roller-skating to this mid-tempo rock-ballad, with the disco ball flashing sparkles of light everywhere.
  • The Necromancer – Starting off with down-tuned mumbly voiceover, then it's impossible to pay attention until the Big Rock Moves start about four and a half minutes in, but, man. Am I really supposed to care about who's "gazing into his prisms" no matter how good Geddy Lee's Robert Plant impression has gotten? Anyway, at about the seven-minute mark, you get some primo Hawkwind stuff, if what you always wanted was "Hawkwind, but more disciplined". Only lasts about a minute and a half, tho. (And at nine and a half in, we get a full-on Sweet Jane rip that takes us on home. Can somebody get me a cab the hell out of here?)
  • The Fountain of Lamneth – This is just under twenty minutes long and no matter how many parts there are in it, there is nothing in here for me.

Grace Under Pressure

  • Distant Early Warning – Here we go; this is pretty much the Rush I remember most clearly from early radio listening: atmospheric, keyboardy, melodic, frequently dull.
  • Afterimage – Is this a Big Country outtake? (Mechanical reggae riffs are not my especial favorite thing.)
  • Red Sector A – Cold War paranoia and electronic drums. Can't win 'em all.
  • The Enemy Within – More jittery Police worship Ice-T had it right, tho.
  • The Body Electric – The funk faked. (For a while, then back to the standard-issue cold pop-rock.)
  • Kid Gloves – Boy, all of these songs sound exactly the same. I will say Lifeson's solo is a welcome slash of interest here.
  • Red Lenses – Yet more identical tempos and textures. Yet more yelping vocals without much in the way of a hook or reason to pay attention.
  • Between the Wheels – Fun little fake-out at the beginning where it seems like this may be different than the rest of the record. Doesn't last long.


  • Hemispheres – Now this is more like it. Back to actual dynamics, including speeding up and slowing down every so often. Not what I'd call memorable, but more immediately engaging.
  • Circumstances – "Hey, kids! Do you like Rush radio hits? Well, would you like a song that sounds like a radio hit with no hooks?"
  • The Trees – I gather the lyrics to this are somewhat notorious. I can't really make them out. Otherwise, it's a fun, playful, even goofy little rocker.
  • La Villa Strangiato – By now, I'm a little tired of the long-Rush-song-with-a-million-parts-and-changes trope. Especially because the band seems to have systematically confused "skittering hi-hat work" with "interesting" and "lots" with "good", but this is fine, expansive, second-tier Rush. Best of their bad songs? Worst of their good songs? Somewhere in there.

Hold Your Fire

  • Force Ten – Samples, synth washes, electro-drums, Geddy again exploring funk bass moves: we are very officially in the 80s, friends. For Rush, though, this song is fast, and it's hard and it's so focused it actually feels mean and Alex is soloing and filling his face off, even if he's mixed so far in the background you can't actually hear it.
  • Time Stand Still – Up-tempo ballad with R.E.M. guitar and Aimee Mann vocal hooks? I have to say, Rush getting over the Police and moving on to other bands did wonders for them.
  • Open Secrets – By now, Rush can mesh their desires to play with textures without forgetting to have dynamic songs. Doesn't make all of those songs interesting, but it does keep them varied.
  • Second Nature – Little post-Talking-Heads drumming squiggles in here, and Geddy just might be humping a fretless bass, but everything except the vocal line sounds like they forgot to finish writing the song.
  • Prime Mover – I think this song forgot to happen?
  • Lock and Key – More parts piled up where a coherent whole usually goes.
  • Hold Your Fire – A little forgettable, but here, all the parts actually fit together, and all the weird variety makes for an intriguing whole instead of a mish-mash. Also by now the consistently amiable lyrical musings on topics like "people can be kinda mean and they should knock it off" and "I like art, it makes me feel better sometimes" has really grown on me.
  • Turn the Page – Again with the funk moves -- not really this band's strength, but this is probably the catchiest chorus on the record, if you're into the whole "enjoyable melody" thing. Some unforgivable synth fills towards the end, though, and at 5 minutes, this is about 2 minutes longer than anybody wants
  • Tai Shan – Synth approximations of bamboo flute. No.
  • High Water – Another solid album cut, with lots of experimento-drum, fun pushing-ahead parts, restful hanging-in-place parts...not bad. Not a lot of ideas here, but good execution.

Moving Pictures

  • Tom Sawyer – As a baby metalhead, in a huge jean jacket and mullet, headphones on and headbanging on the bus, I met a lot of older men who wanted to talk to me. They all seemed to work in restaurants. They all seemed to love Rush in general and this song in particular. It's a good song.
  • Red Barchetta – A really really boring song except for the breakdown bridge bits, which stomp all over the place. (Car songs always suck.)
  • YYZ – Vaguely fusiony technical beatdown? No vocals? Sense of humor about the whole thing (song is named after and music is based on the Morse Code name for the Toronto airport)? Yes please! This is almost certainly by any objective measure the best Rush song qua Rush song; nobody ever needs to hear it more than once, is the only problem.
  • Limelight – A lot of rock stars write self-pitying songs about being rock stars. This might be the least bad self-pitying song about being a rock star. And it is at least a fun thing to listen to, with stop-start bits, some really squinty guitar sounds, and just enough faux-Shakespearean language to fire up the base.
  • The Camera Eye – Squelchy-good synth moves open this up, and it's hard to imagine being much more into it. It's never quite as good as that again, but this is like being on a train: moving fast and in somebody else's control the whole time.
  • Witch Hunt – Sometimes after you dunk a basketball, you fall down getting back on defense.
  • Vital Signs – Semi-reggae here sending bad, bad signals for the future.

Permanent Waves

  • The Spirit of Radio – Great song, even with the cod-reggae breakdown and the sly "radio will play this because DJs will see themselves in it". Vocals are slightly too high in the mix. I'll always love this song for all the times my English punk friend would sing it drunkenly to me at the bar; the power of music is real, people.
  • Freewill – I have heard this song hundreds of times; I never, ever remember anything but the chorus. Which is too bad: the verse riff is extremely good, even when the vocal lines are just doubling it. I also like Lifeson's guitar solo, which uses his free will to spatter all over the place in a very messy way in an otherwise too-restrained tune.
  • Jacob's Ladder – I have nothing to say about this song.
  • Entre Nous – It's a degree of difficulty move to make your chorus the most challenging part of a song. That doesn't mean anybody has to like it. (I like it. A little.)
  • Different Strings – Filler.
  • Natural Science – Long, technical album-ender. Where have I heard this before? (And why this time is the cymbal sound so harsh and awful?)


  • Finding My Way – Except for Geddy's way-too-Robert-Planty "oooh yeah"s, this song rules.
  • Need Some Love – "I need it quick and I need it now" and my hand reaches out and turns the volume down.
  • Take a Friend – I'm a sucker for amiable tunes about friendship. This isn't great, but how can you be mad about it?
  • Here Again – Please go away. (We all have our own opinions about Rush, but my opinion is that "long blues songs" are not what I am here for.) (The solo is, howevs, tasty.) (If that's your kind of thing.)
  • What You're Doing – listening to a slightly boogie-inflected Rush. How you feel about this is up to you.
  • In the Mood – "Well hey now baby" mutes song instantly. Seriously, if you want Rush to prove it can be as stupid and shitty as Kiss, this is your song. (Also "I Think I'm Going Bald".)
  • Before and After – Man, this is a really horny record.
  • Working Man – Minority opinion here, but I've never been sure this isn't the best Rush song. If nothing else, it proves that there's such a thing as exactly the right amount too slow. Beautiful. (It also proves that a sick breakdown is always appropriate, but you probably knew that.)

Power Windows

  • The Big Money – Airy synth chords (that you can barely tell from the heavily effected guitar); electronic drums; tricky technical parts under very generic synthy pop. Clearly, we are in the presence of the 80s. and, like so much 80s Rush, it feels like they forgot something: in this case, a vocal melody. The fade-out is, however, terrific.
  • Grand Designs – Tepid lyrical mashup of Spirit of Radio and Closer to the Heart in a song that otherwise reads as "we have a 32-track recorder and scraps left over from 45 songs, so we better put all the scraps together into one song".
  • Manhattan Project – About two and a half minutes in, there's an up-tempo part that is a lot of fun. It lasts about thirty seconds, and happens again about 3:45 in.
  • Marathon – It sure is.
  • Territories – Another six minutes of multiple parts standing in for having ideas, textures replacing dynamics, and pointless breaks thrown in because saying "No" is never the mark of good art.
  • Middletown Dreams – Almost enough hooks and energy to make an actual pop song!
  • Emotion Detector – Actual parts growing organically and meaningfully from one to the next! It lasts about a minute.
  • Mystic Rhythms – Yet more clashing clanging bullshit.


  • Subdivisions – I discovered this song about six months ago. It fairly reliably makes me tear up at my desk. It is proof that Rush can hit the pop mark when things work right, even with a million parts and everything else. (It's also proof that mixing the vocals a little lower and toning down the shrieking is a good move for the band, one that actually enhances the emotional urgency.)
  • The Analog Kid – Like Subdivisions without the transplendence.
  • Chemistry – Amiable pop-rocker with a neato guitar solo.
  • Digital Man – Like The Analog Kid with one or two more breakdowns.
  • The Weapon – This song is just fine!
  • New World Man – If you thought Tom Sawyer rocked too hard and needed to be toned down into a straight reggae-influenced pop song with some Closer to the Heart melodies, you were exactly correct. This is a classic Rush rehash, something like the band covering themselves, and it's essentially perfect.
  • Losing It – So shy I barely noticed it was there. Then it wasn't.
  • Countdown – What's a Rush album without a mini-epic? Not this Rush album, that's for sure.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

National Lampoon: Missing White House Tapes

When I was a young kid, like most young kids, I had a dad. And like most dads, he had a lot of things I wasn't allowed to touch: a stereo receiver; a turntable; a wooden orange crate of records; a reel-to-reel tape deck.

Obviously, most of my early memories of being left alone revolve around playing my dad's records.

For some reason, I gravitated to a couple covers.

And that's why, at somewhere in the neighborhood of 10, in 1984 in a shitty rented house in Kansas, I started wallowing in unbelievably weeded-out in-jokes about Nixon and Watergate. (A couple Doonesbury compilation paperbacks lying around the house helped me understand what the jokes were about, as did living in a fiercely pro-Geraldine-Ferraro house, in a fiercely pro-Reagan state in a virulently pro-Reagan country.) Mainly, of course, what allowed me to crack the code was listening to the records again and again, just burning them into my brain by the unsubtle magic of repetition.

And by so relentlessly placing myself into these bracing winds from the 70s, I think I grew a unique insight into our current situation, as terrifying and awful as it is, because this current situation is a tragedy, based closely on an earlier farce.

Which brings me back to the National Lampoon album, Missing White House Tapes. That's what I want to talk about right now: that farce (not the farce my parents endured, nor the tragedy we're preparing to weather now). In particular, I want to talk about Side Two. (Side One is ... interesting, but you have to smoke a LOT of weed to appreciate its highly abstract, formalized audio-collage work, and some of the references are absolutely incomprehensible unless you lived through the actual period. Some great dick jokes -- appropriate for trying to abuse Dick Nixon -- though.) So. Side Two. You can listen here (start at 17:22):

It's a masterpiece of the comedy album form: simulating the experience of half-idly flipping channels but always returning to the central show that's on, which is network TV coverage of the Impeachment Day Parade. Complete with stuffed shirt network weenies narrating the events, fatuously. Interludes include a wonderful Sesame Street parody pitting bumbling buffoon "Big Dick" and his greedy, ravenous friend The Shredder Monster as they try to explain the difference between 9 (original tapes) and 7 (turned over tapes), and between "lying" and "misspeaking yourself" and "falsehoods and inoperative statements" and "taking responsibility and taking the blame" and "withholding evidence and protecting the presidency". It's a wonderment that results in a chipper, chirpy public-television voice teaching the children to say "Shit. Shit! Big Dick! Is full! Of shit!"

A lesson that has resonated every day since 1984, and should reverberate more and more powerfully and awfully in the days to come.

Anyway, my goal here is not to liveblog my sixth listen to this album in the past four days. Merely to urge you and yours to listen to it, because it clearly lays out a sick, stunted, depressed best-case scenario for our immediate future.

I'll leave you with a quote from our network TV puppets, watching the floats go by in the Impeachment Day Parade:

WALLACE GLADSTONE: Barbara, I know for you, there were many moving moments, if you'll pardon the alliteration (chuckles). Perhaps you'd care to describe one or two of them to our viewers.
BARBARA MERKIN: Well, the strangling of the bald eagle was IT for me.
WALLACE: It was thrilling. Of course, the effigy-burning... And now, here's a contingent of our heroic POWs, many of whom spent years in prison in Hanoi courageously resisting the persistent efforts of their North Vietnamese captors to brainwash them into thinking that the United States is run by a tiny clique of criminals, dominated by powerful business interests, bankrolled by huge, monopolistic corporations, working hand in glove with the CIA in a campaign of intrigue at home and abroad.
BARBARA: Jesus, why did they bother?
WALLACE: Oh, I don't know, Barbara.
WALLACE: Well, that's about it for America's day of shame. The president has been officially impeached, and the eternal microphone has been switched on as the CIA brass band plays Wiretaps. But, Barbara, this is not only an historic moment, it's also a personal one. What has impeachment meant to the little people? The ordinary, simple people? You, for example, Barbara.
BARBARA: Well, Wallace, I just don't think the American people should in any way be ashamed of this tragic occurrence. Although a bunch of bleeding-heart do-gooders have used constitutional force to do away with our beloved president, this country is still founded on the age-old traditional values of bribery, violence, and assassination. And just because there are a few good apples in the barrel, doesn't mean that the vast majority aren't rotten through and through.
WALLACE: Okay, good thinking, Barbara.

Anyway, as we sink back into the 70s I think a lot about declaring certain statements inoperative, about tiny cliques of criminals, about strangling bald eagles at parades for Impeachment Day. I think about my dad's records, and talking to him in quotes from the dumb records we loved. I think about the last conversation I had with him, not long before he took his life. I think about the 70s, about where we were, about where we are, about the ways it's hard to tell the difference, and the ways it's easy. About the ways things are broken and the ways we might yet fix them. Some of them, anyway. And I miss my dad.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Open Up and See (a review of THIS MOTHER FOREVER, a single by Fucked Up)

Fucked Up has since spring of 2010 figured to me as something like COMPLETELY UNSTOPPABLE FORCE OF MUSICAL GREATNESS. I started with a copy of Epics in Minutes that didn't work for me, much, but Hidden World and Chemistry of Common Life thrilled me: loud pounding rock with big hooks, mysterious lyrics that touch on all my favorite themes, a cool visual identity with a sigil symbolizing the band, consistent album covers, weird names for the band members—basically, Fucked Up was a Blue Őyster Cult for people who wanted easier music and a more complicated relationship with the spectacle. Naturally, I was completely invited and fulfilled by all this: the powerful music and the thoughtful packaging.

When David Comes to Life came out, it brought all of the above, plus songs I knew instantly, production that buckled my knees, and that strange magic of chords / melody that puts tears in my eyes involuntarily. (See also: Dead Moon (frequently); Andrew Cashen / Sabrina Ellis (occasionally); a few others (extremely rarely).) It was, and is, one of the great rock records. The band had perfected its moves: speed, shouting, fast repetition.

Then, they got weird. They'd been doing long-song EP releases, based on the Chinese Zodiac (no, really), in which they moved away from their mastery of short/simple rock songs with punk vocals, and began experimenting with overwhelming with scale, not just volume. I started with Year of the Pig, an 18-minute tune with essentially one part, played loud, played soft, played over and over again. The sheer size of the song gave the band a new kind of intensity, ebbing and flowing, not just hitting it and quitting it, and the rhythm almost ... swung. To put it a slightly different way, Fucked Up here stopped being BŐC and started being Hawkwind. And it was very, very good.

They were adding new tricks: length, droning, quietness, new instrumentation, playing slow. Year of the Hare consolidated those new tricks, at least on the B-side, "California Cold"; on the A-side, they took a long, coherent song and gave it the William Burroughs random-cut-up-and-shuffle-and-reassemble treatment, for no reason I have been able to understand. When I can piece together the actual song behind this treatment, it appears to be about as good as Pig.

Then, they ran out of songs: Glass Boys just never clicked with me. When it's playing, it seems fine, and I have convinced myself half a dozen times that the songs were finally sticking in my head, but it never lasts. Then, they ran out of tricks: This Mother Forever is the same thing as Hare, a good/great song (more of the same) occluded by production / presentation moves like "let's not start the song for the first minute-fifteen of its fifteen-minute runtime" and "let's fade it out about 45 seconds before it actually ends". That said, the noodly guitar / feedback / soundscape that opens the song is atmospheric and pleasant; the louder groovy (again) psychedelic part that goes another 30 seconds is a lot of fun; and when the vocals kick in at around 5:45 ...

The band clearly needs the listener to take seriously its attempts at inversion and appropriation, trying to make you think about gender roles and the standard voice heard in a song.

I am the feather
and you are the breeze
I am the lock
and you are the keys
The end of the rope
with all ties severed
you are my hope
this mother forever
I am the dung
and you are the beetle
I am the thread
you are the needle

But there's two problems. First, Fucked Up appears to have written the same lyrics about a half-dozen times, so these lines feel pretty familiar. Second, this time around, the alchemical themes and revolutionary fervor just completely fall flat, due mostly to a chanted vocal that keeps resolving into the exact cadence of the nursery rhyme that runs

Here is the church
Here is the steeple
Open it up
And see all the people

In any case, it's new Fucked Up, and I'd rather have new Fucked Up than not have Fucked Up. I've listened to it a dozen times, and I'll listen to it dozens more. I hope their thematic repetitiveness eases up in the way their musical repetitiveness has, and I hope their musical boredom moves past the cut-up technique soon. Until then, I'll keep listening to this.

There's a B-side: it's 30 minutes long, and "features Nunavut singer Tanya Tagaq", and it mostly taught me I don't like throat singing, so I haven't played it after the first run-through.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Two Problems with Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature

  1. The elevation and sanctification of the strange and pernicious middlebrow belief that "songwriting" is essentially and importantly the writing of lyrics, or, to put it slightly differently, that the important and meaningful parts of songs are their words. The best way to dispel this one is to dive into this cover of "Outlaw Blues" by Thin White Rope, in which the guitar lines that come in after "I feel just like Jesse James" manage to convey that sentiment (cocky strutting) and "I got a woman in Jackson" (randy as fuck howling) substantially better than the words do (which is itself well). In rock and roll, it's almost always the guitars that get the best words.
  2. A parallel misapprehension about songwriting: that it is fundamentally an individual act, and that the players of songs are somehow secondary or subordinate. An easy way to correct this misapprehension would be to start your own fucking band, which would quickly revise your mental model of songwriting through the tool of practical experience.

If you're into easier, less rewarding modes, you could correct both of these mistaken notions simultaneously by reading historical accounts of the process of recording Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", probably as responsible for the award as any other single song:

Tom Wilson invited Al Kooper to stop by the next day's session simply to watch, but he had far bigger plans. "Taking no chances, I arrived an hour early and well enough ahead of the crowd to establish my cover," he wrote in his 1998 book Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. "I walked into the studio with my guitar case, unpacked, tuned up, plugged in, and sat there trying my hardest to look like I belonged." Soon enough, [British blues player Mike] Bloomfield walked in and began practicing. "[He] commenced to play some of the most incredible guitar I'd ever heard," Kooper wrote. "And he was just warming up! I was in over my head. I embarrassedly unplugged [his guitar], packed up, went into the control room, and sat there pretending to be a reporter from Sing Out! magazine."

With Kooper in the control room, the same group from the previous day launched into "Like a Rolling Stone," though with Paul Griffin moving from organ to piano. Kooper knew so little about the organ that he didn't even know how to turn it on, but he was desperate to play on a Dylan song and when a distracted Wilson didn't give him a firm "no" he walked into the studio, sat down at the instrument and was delighted to see Griffin hadn't turned it off. "Imagine this," Kooper wrote in his book. "There is no music to read. The song is over five minutes long, the band is so loud I can't even hear the organ, and I'm not familiar with the instrument to begin with. But the tape is rolling, and that is Bob-fucking-Dylan over there singing, so this had better be me sitting here playing something."

Wilson may have been shocked when he saw what was happening, but Dylan dug Kooper's sound and asked for the organ to be turned up. "You can hear how I waited until the chord was played by the rest of the band before committing myself to play in the verses," Kooper wrote. "I'm always an eighth note behind everyone else, making sure of the chord before touching the keys." The unique style of playing not only gave the song a signature component, but it also introduced Dylan to a musical collaborator he would return to time and time again in the coming years.

In "Like a Rolling Stone", the organ is an unmistakeable carrier of meaning, and it was an accidental, improvisatory addition. Occluding these facts is one consequence of Dylan's Nobel.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Knock Knock (a review of MARKED FOR DEATH, a record by Emma Ruth Rundle)

"Knock knock."

"Who's there?"


"Better who?"

"Better record than Emma Ruth Rundle's new one, Marked for Death."

"Fuck you, you don't exist, so you can't be knocking.  I hereby banish you to the realm of non-existence."

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Blue Őyster Cult Sandy Pearlman Mixtape I: for the Byrds

The sound is dense, but not obviously and impressively complicated. That is, it is very coherent. It works because of its unity, not out of an accumulation of contrasting effects such as volume changes or syncopation. (48)
Crawdaddy I 10, July-August 1967, The Byrds p. 48-50

Consider these: The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, The Mothers of Invention, Love. Not a random choice among them. Because they are all groups with their own great world systems. I mean each group has its own comprehensive way of doing things, of looking at and organizing them. Often all we can recognize are the final results—this or that song—and in (21) so doing, we forget that this or that implicates some comprehensive view behind it. Not that everybody has a great world system. Not everybody is a philosopher. But for those who do, it can determine such diverse matters as album covers1, wardrobe2, haircuts3, half-time banter4, appearance of the instruments5, group athletics6, etc.


But all of these [examples] are really instances of the taste for order. Even the nihilistic stuff. That certain longing they reveal is a longing for order. Actually it gets harder and harder to imagine something nihilistic. I mean, what would it be like?8 If you do songs about perversion, drugs and popular ideas about disorder, then you are summing up an alternative, that which you happen to find tasty. And tastes change. And then what you have found tasty may even become generally palatable. And then what? Rock's great world systems are sets of alternative arrangements—or at least visions—of the world. Idealized arrangements, according to the tastes of whoever made them. They are sort of perfect—because they don't matter. Irrelevancy can always set you free and guarantee your privacy. Despite the fact that rock is big business, why should anybody care about what goes on? Unless you were really smart you would have to toil at making it as important as something else: politics say. That people do care is, then, very nice. Simple altruism probably. But most who care are still on the outside. And those on the inside, the ones who make the rock, don't care enough. That audience of theirs is so young, (23) so impressionable, and yet they'll say anything at all. Simple irresponsibility probably. Or maybe they're just self-consciously irrelevant.
Crawdaddy I 11, October 1967, Science Fiction p. 20-24

But suddenly that previously mentioned specter rears up. A really awesome monster, it comes on rushing like Diz-Busters7 with too much iron in its bloodstream and zero invisibility.
Crawdaddy I 12, January 1968, Doors and Kinks p. 21-25, 36-38

Now, about Marcel Duchamp we've gotta say this (at this time 'cause it also bears): his ready-made looms large in the potentiality of objects. It's well known that this person's self-conscious placement of an ordinary urinal in the midst of a pretty fancy 20th century art show simultaneously created an extraordinary art historical urinal and added the artist's intention to the dimensions within which objects could be manipulated. But his use of this ready-made was questionable. The art show wasn't its rightful spot. It was out of place / out of phase. So Marcel Duchamp wound up a very nasty comedian, i.e. both funny and disturbing. Setting a pattern. And, in fact, it's only been recently that the presence of a ready-made (anyone at all, anywhere at all) has become blatantly hackneyed enough to prove not always hilarious, not always scary, but sometimes just potentially comforting. R. Meltzer's term "academic beauty," encompassing such truck as Steve Noonan, Tim Buckley, Simon and Garfunkle (sic), The Bee-Gees and Pearls Before Swine, implicates this newer style for the ready-made: the formal one of modular component. Ready-mades can be taken from anywhere and plugged in anywhere. Their neutrality is violated only by the intention of their manipulators (and this intention, of course, controls where they wind up). Something becomes a ready-made when your manipulative intention takes it from one context to another. When it is intentionally recontextualized. And when these new and old contexts are equivalent, then the ready-made could seem comfortable and comforting. (In phase.) Back to the academically beautiful, and we note that the ideal for this stuff's words is most of the poetry we had to learn in the 7th through 12th grades. Perhaps that explains its high dullness potential. [...] I mean, I mean that the academically beautiful is obvious clichés. (41)
Crawdaddy I 13, February 1968, Van Dyke Parks p. 41-43

1. Album Covers

2. Wardrobe

3. Haircuts

4. Half-Time Banter

"I'd like to thank my friends here who gave me this little whip. It's really lovely, I'll keep it and cherish it forever."

5. Appearance of the Instruments

6. Group Athletics

7. Diz-Busters
This mysterious phrase graced a terrific song on the band's second album (and became the name of my first car, The Seventh Screaming Diz-Buster, a name I told at least one person [who promptly mocked the shit out of me]). There are a few extant theories about its meaning:
Albert has revealed that "diz" refers to the cleft of the penis, and that "duster's dust" refers to sperm. But the concept of diz-buster is left ambiguous. The definition of "something that can make one ejaculate" most plausibly applies to a reading that these seven diz-busters are evil, paranormal sex sirens, woman beings without a conscious [sic], the number seven bringing in a biblical element to the lyric as well. But this track could also be one of Sandy's biker songs, diz-buster referring to the result of a long, vibrating Harley ride (and then, mamas and old ladies often joke about the orgasmic qualities of a good ride). Indeed, many lines in the song could have one believe that the diz-buster is a bike (there is mention of cast iron, the mirror's face, rigid arms, routes, all suggesting this interpretation), especially in (Lucifer) light of the fact that females, female pronouns, or sexual ideas are never mentioned in the song.

Joe sheds more light on his approach to this track's lyric. "I had a tendency where I would take a Sandy Pearlman lyric and shape it. Those guys would use a Sandy Pearlman or Richard Meltzer lyric just the way they wrote it. But I always felt that structure was important in music, the structure of the lyric. So I ended up changing around the lines, not changing any of the words per se, but changing the order of the lines, which I also definitely did in Astronomy. And same with 7 Screaming Diz-Busters. Like I say, I wrote pretty much most of the music on our organ, which was in the living room of the house we rented. I would just get up in the morning and start banging on the organ, and came up with that, while Donald and Albert added in sort of the jam section." (47-48)
[from] Martin Popoff, Blue Őyster Cult: Secrets Revealed!

8. Longing for Order, Imagining Nihilism
Sandy Pearlman told me that at the last [Black Sabbath show] he attended, nobody in the audience could even stand up, barely managed to applaud, and bodies were sprawled everywhere. [...] A graphic tragic survey of the littered battlefield of the contemporary concert, with pitiful panoramas of passed-out pukes and other alliterative gimmicks. (237)
[from] Lester Bangs, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, "Bring Your Mother to the Gas Chamber", p. 222-242

Friday, February 26, 2016

The More Jobs We Do with These Guys the More They Squeeze Us

2 of the most enduring sub-genres of crime: cop drama and heist thriller.

Cold open. Inside a car MICHAEL BELMONT (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discusses some details about the next heist he and his team will hit. A foreshadowing occurs in this first shot. Tight, dark, and with barely any information on the screen, it gives the feeling of being lost and afraid or at least of being somewhere you shouldn't be. It's not movie-lighting dark, it's is something wrong with the screen dark.

Michael's talking with brothers RUSSELL WELCH (Norman Reedus) and GABE WELCH (Aaron Paul). They'll need 2 more for the job: MARCUS (Anthony Mackie) and FRANCO (Clifton Collins, Jr.). There's a collective apprehension about doing another job with Russian mafia gangster IRINA (Kate Winslet).

Then the opening credits.

Triple 9 (2016, John Hillcoat) understands how to focus on the dangerous atmosphere of its group of 5 bank robbers, and it seems to play out so well because it just sticks to the facts. There are never any distractions from the plot. And Triple 9 is all about plot. Although the action sequences give the film its character. Before the opening credits have finished, the crew has already geared up for their job. The opening First City Bank 3rd & Peachtree bank robbery with the exploding red dye packs brings a lot of energy with it, and there's momentum to back it up. Crime thriller. The movie hits the bullseye, I'm telling you. The way it works within the genre, it's never misguided.

The ensemble cast is terrific. The best part about the cast is that they're featured just enough to become tapestry, and then attention is always on to something else. To cut to the chase, everyone except Marcus' partner CHRIS ALLEN (Casey Affleck) is corrupt and none of them are likeable except Chris and Michael. So Triple 9 sets up Atlanta, GA as a crime-ridden ghetto warzone between the police, Russian mob, and Mara Salvatrucha 13 Mexican street gang.

Michael is almost too likeable. He worked for Blackwater in Iraq years ago where he met Russell and they worked special ops. He was married to and had a child together with a gorgeous hot model Russian woman, ELENA (Gail Gadot) who's sister is Irina. He's the leader of the crew. He's the badass and the smart one. And his only care is his son, whom he shares joint custody of with Elena.

Marcus is Anthony Mackie at his most loathsome. Smoking Black & Milds, driving with his pistol on his lap, and full of nothing but hate and a short temper, his every action feels calculated to make us hate this cop. Same with Franco. But that's another thing that gives the movie its modern edge. We sympathize more for Chris because of what he's up against all around him; and it's his own partner who he need fear most.

Like I said, the rest of the characters are scumbags and lowlifes. But, my favorite actor himself Woody Harrelson as DET. JEFF ALLEN, uncle to Chris Allen, is one of the strongest supporting roles in Triple 9. Jeff smokes joints like some cops smoke cigarettes, lives alone in a living room strewn with empty bottles and trash, and is consumed by his profession. He heads the special crimes division and fights what he calls "the demon." Hell no does he look like he has any business being a cop, he's psycho. But Triple 9 lacks the traditional moral boundaries, and Jeff comes off as the good guy, having adjusted to the responsibilities of being a cop the only way he knows how with what he's up against. The scene at the bar when he's wasted and slurs the provocation: "hey any of you motherfuckers strapped right now?" lets us know what he's about. He's not good anymore, but one time he was. Maybe I like Jeff because I know the Hank Quinlan in him.

I can't believe I can still say this, but Triple 9 is realistic. It rushes through the tense days desperate to see out the final outcome of the high stakes involved, yet doesn't shift into overly melodramatic, political, or character development timesucks like this genre has often suffered from. And the tone always feels like impending doom (the wall to wall low atonal metallic electronic drone score is great), like everything's going to go wrong, but through most of the movie we're watching how expertly proficient the cops and the robbers perform their missions. And it's fresh.

Another of the big set pieces, the projects raid is the obligatory shootout, but god it's so good. That leads to the Homeland Security Holding heist following immediately after. Also what's that they use in the heists, a taser cannon? That's awesome. All the action sequences feel like someone really knows what they're doing, giving them the attention and skill to make them good. Another great chase in itself is Jeff's speeding pursuit through traffic to the 999.

Again Triple 9 is really about Det. Jeffrey Allen. At the end, with some flecks of blood splatter on his face, that last shot, when the camera freezes on him and then slowly zooms in for a few seconds, I ask myself: why was he in that cop car instead of calling it in? I don't know, but it stays with me. That's some Hank Quinlan.


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Would that It Were All So Simple

At least half of the Coen brothers' movies are set sometime during the 1920s-1960s and all of their films take place in America. The brothers are among the brightest talents to emerge from American independent cinema in the 1980s. Their diligence resulted in the back-to-back independently produced hits Fargo (1996, Coen brothers) and The Big Lebowski (1998) securing their futures with the freedom to continue working on projects of their own choice.

I've learned that some Coen brothers movies stay with me. Barton Fink (1991, Coen), Fargo (1996 Coen), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001, Coen), No Country for Old Men (2007, Coen), and A Serious Man (2009, Coen) for example, are what I call the heavy ones. They're dark, sure, but they also all open with angst and a foreboding, ominous, dark moral storm already brewing that never lets up.

But I've also learned that my response and relationship to their heavy ones doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of their lighter work.

The setting of Hail, Caear! (2016, Coen) is what is most important about it. 1950s Hollywood connotes myths, rumors, and gossip about stars, communism, sex, drugs, and all sorts of lurid pulp fodder--pretty much the dramatic elements of every James Ellroy novel. But we also have novels like Day of the Locust, The Last Tycoon, and What Makes Sammy Run? that provide similar noir tones to the fatal peril of Hollywood's lure. The point is there's a lot about that time we'll never know.

But in the hands of the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! is a well-executed love letter to Hollywood studio filmmaking of the classical era. And the reality of technology's pace is hard to ignore. The first sound movie was 1927 and by the mid 50s, when Hail, Caesar! takes place, it is already the end of the studio era. So short. In addition Hail, Caesar! could likely be the last movie the Coens or Roger Deakins shoot on film.

Like the fake trailers from Grindhouse (2007, Rodriguez/Tarantino) or Tropic Thunder (2008, Ben Stiller), the movies-within-the-movie are the best part of Hail, Caesar! From the opening footage of Hail, Caesar! (the movie-within-the-movie not the movie itself) we get the thrill of knowing we're watching parody, knowing we'll only be watching a few moments of any given movie, yet still suspended in a mixture of nostalgia, recognition, awe, and contempt that that's what people actually watch.

Among the coincidental similarities in the movie, we have BAIRD WHITLOCK (George Clooney) playing a Roman politician; with the "Caesar" hairdo, we recall Clooney's breakout in ER with, what else, the "Caesar" hairdo. The dancing sailor played by Channing Tatum obviously isn't a far stretch from Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh). And the Esther Williams footage is all about Williams' star status, so Johansson is perfect casting.

Along with the footage of the Roman epic, the aquatic number performed by Scarlett Johansson was breathtaking, fun, impressive and the height of how high the success of Hollywood's studio system soared. Johansson swims in an underwater tank, air bubbles from her breathing, hair and makeup to the nines, in a body of water where a mechanical whale emerges in the center of Busby Berkeley-style synchronized swimming rings of female dancers. The spout sprouts a geyser rising and rising until Johansson is revealed atop its very peak, to gracefully dive down below. As she's underwater the camera moves in to be close on her perfect face as it arises, every hair in place, her make-up immaculate and unsmirched.

Tatum's Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen style  barroom dance number with all the sailors was too much. The Coens showcase so much of what still makes these old movies so magical.

While Hail, Caesar! may at times feel episodic, I think it only enhances the entertainment value of the movie. We want to just walk around the studio lot, that's why we came. The plot feels like a throwaway, kind of like Burn After Reading (2009, Coen). It's not really important what happens to MANNIX (Josh Brolin). Mannix is our entrance into the day to day chaos of what goes on behind and in front of the scenes. Hail, Caesar!'s ingenious ending makes it clear that this is just another week in Mannix's life, and it might not even be the craziest he'll deal with, not by a longshot. Mannix is also a great counterpart to the manic delirium of Hail, Caesar!'s pace. He's a pragmatist. And what a funny detail with him and his only apparent vice: he's quit smoking and when he finally goes to confession he admits to having a couple of cigarettes.

Last word on the cast, Ralph Fiennes as director LAURENCE LAURENTZ steals the show. As the gentleman director, Fiennes finesses the dialogue and I don't know who he's supposed to be, if anyone, but I'm guessing Ernst Lubitsch. For such a short amount of screen-time, Laurentz brings more comedy than I could have ever expected.

So aside from the macguffin conspiracy thread, Hail, Caesar! is escapist entertainment of the classic variety. Sure it's light, a diversion. And sure sometimes I wonder if that makes a movie a failure. But this time I say not. Hail, Caesar! is an excellent comedy, and one with wit, insight, and a genuine love of its subject.


Monday, February 22, 2016

The Ultimate Road Movie

The end of the Wim Wenders series shown by the Austin Film Society.

In summary, what I've learned since attending 8 films directed by Wim Wenders is that he is the foremost expert practitioner of the road movie genre and his collaboration with cinematographer Robby Müller leaves several lasting proofs of their fortuitous time spent working together. Alice in den Städten (1974, Wim Wenders), Falsche Bewegung (1975, Wenders), and Im Lauf der Zeit (1976, Wenders) are their road movie trilogy.

The road movie trilogy are examples of the finest in 1970s independent personal filmmaking. They are slow, all revolve around variations of a different central protagonist, with each played by Rüdiger Vogler, and see him embark on a quest of small stakes that end with him alone as he was at the beginning. These 3 films get away with making the most out of the least. Alice in den Städten is about PHILIP WINTER (Vogler) accompanying ALICE (Yella Rottländer) from NYC to Germany and hanging out with her for a couple of days until her mom meets them their. Falsche Bewegung is about WILHELM (Vogler) walking around hoping to find ideas to write a novel about. Im Lauf der Zeit is BRUNO WINTER (Vogler) driving through some small German towns and doing maintenance work on film projectors in some theaters. But it is this foundation that Wenders constructs his artistic identity and style from.

Der amerikanische Freund (1977, Wenders) preserves the aesthetic template and loosely adapts a pulp noir narrative to it. And Paris, Texas (1984, Wenders) surfs the driving force of these 4 films, riding the crest, almost effortlessly enjoying its status as sublime masterpiece.

In Der amerikanische Freund, ZIMMERMAN (Bruno Ganz) is diagnosed with terminal leukemia, which leads him to take some contract work as an assassin. Surprisingly that break from Wenders' trajectory doesn't prevent him from observing sketches of the lives of the film's ensemble. We never feel like we're getting the biographies of Wenders' characters. That is a key to his style.

The difference in Paris, Texas is that we get to find out everything we need to know about TRAVIS (Harry Dean Stanton), JANE (Nastassja Kinski), and HUNTER (Hunter Carson) as the narrative unfolds. That Sam Shepard wrote Paris, Texas as a play that the movie is adapted from may be a contributing factor. Paris, Texas has a purpose. It deals with large stakes and knows it.

I apologize for doing a disservice to you, the reader, by not providing more information about all of the rock 'n' roll found on the soundtracks to all of these movies, or the recurring instances of characters listening to radios in their cars, motels, jukeboxes in diners, live performances, or even that Can recorded Alice in den Städten's original soundtrack.

Another trend I see in these early Wenders/Müller films is the creative character. In Alice in den Städten, Philip Winter is a journalist who rebels against his current assignment, aggravating his editor, by shooting a bunch of photos of a trip he was supposed to write about. Wilhelm's singular pursuit is writing a novel in Falsche Bewegung. Bruno loves cinema, fixes projectors and knows a thing or two about being a projectionist in Im Lauf der Zeit. Zimmerman owns a shop where he makes frames for pictures in Der amerikanische Freund and all of the criminal underworld are battling in the world of counterfeit paintings.

Which leads me to a subtle joke in Paris, Texas. If we know Wenders likes artists as his characters, and we know going into Paris, Texas that it's about America in a lot of ways, what happens when we ask who the artist is in that movie? Well it's Travis' brother WALT (Dean Stockwell) and the first time we see Walt, he's at his job. Taking up the focus of the frame, what else but an enormous black velvet painting-style portrait of Barbra Streisand on a billboard happens to be the day's work at Walt's billboard company. It's like, this bullshit is what Americans have turned art into.

OAR 1.66:1 4K DCP projected Bis ans Ende der Welt (1991, Wenders) screened yesterday in its original 5 hour cut and as theatrical screenings go, felt like it was being shown for the first time.

It wasn't until I was 20 that I saw a subtitled foreign language film. One of the most useful resources I had access to when I moved to Portland, OR when I was 19 was other people's recommendations about what movies to watch next. My cinematic appetite was voracious already. But I'd come from a small town and this was before I used the internet, so I didn't have any idea what I liked or what was out there to watch other than Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino), Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995, Todd Solondz), Lost Highway (1997, David Lynch), Your Friends & Neighbors (1998, Neil LaBute), Celebrity (1998, Woody Allen) and this John Waters VHS box set I had.

One day I went into a chain video rentals store and based on browsing the covers in the foreign section for what must have been an hour at least, I decided on Nóz w wodzie (1962, Roman Polanski) and Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) as my first foreign movies to watch. Within the next year or so, Fat would lend me his copy of Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa), which first established my respect for his taste in movies. Anyway at this same time I was lent a couple of VHS tapes to watch, highly recommended. The tapes were of The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola) and Bis ans Ende der Welt.

The guy who lent me the tapes was named Matt. He had a girlfriend named Erin who helped open the all-ages club 17 Nautical Miles. Nice guy. I remember he was very enthusiastic about Bis ans Ende der Welt. He said something like dude it was a 5 hour movie about these people going all over the world looking for a camera that records dreams, directed by Wim Wenders, you gotta see it. It sucked. Bad. I hated it. But only now do I realize how much I missed back then watching a version that was missing 3 hours from it, panned & scanned, on a small tube TV.

I haven't seen Matt in 16 years. But he was right. To this day I keep an inventory of movies that are recommended to me personally by all sorts of different people.

Bins ans Ende der Welt is a big movie. It's a road movie, shot by Robby Müller, spans the globe, and explodes with a soundtrack of contemporary 90s rock. Released in 1991, it also boasts the reputation of being the earliest movie to deal with the millennium bug. And its prophecies are spot on while more often than not being alarmingly accurate--CLAIRE TORNEUR (Solveig Dommartin) and SAM FARBER (William Hurt), the pair the film centers on, eventually find handheld digital video viewing devices that they get addictively sucked into, lose all ties with reality, and become nearly catatonic. Take that smartphones.

The first two-thirds or so of Bins ans Ende der Welt is a frenetic cloak and dagger chase where Claire hunts Sam. But the final third is set in Australia, and takes its time closing the story of this sci-fi romance with the care it deserves. And even though Bins ans Ende der Welt is magnificent with its grand scale and huge sci-fi questions, it remains a small character sketch about a couple of romantic types merely chasing their dreams.

PHILIP WINTER (Rüdiger Vogler) returns as a Hammett-type, fedora-sporting private dick who Claire hires in Berlin to help her find Sam. Yes, Rüdiger Vogler's back! Vogler gets a lot of screen time, he's a fundamental part of the group. The whole tale is told in VO by Sam Neil who plays GENE FITZPATRICK, an ex of Claire's who's remained friends with her and is writing a book about the events as they're occurring.

Robby Müller delivers strong work, with his customary blue skies, vast deserts & green countrysides, urban neon jungles, open roads, and all manner of transportation. It all happens so quick though. Another thing I've learned is that say, with Müller's photography for example, it was always there but I had to learn how to see it. Sam is on a mission travelling around the world taking pictures on a special camera that possesses the technology to record an image and play it back to a blind person using brain waves, because he wants to show them to his blind mother in Australia (Jeanne Moreau). The photo Sam takes of his sister is right up there with my favorite frames Müller's ever attained.

The MLS, inspired by Vermeer and his window facing the northern light, falling on the subject's right side, is a poignant reference. It's an acknowledgement of the history of the art of light and its translation to the filmed image in a movie. But it's also a striking counterpoint to most of Müller's best shots, filmed outdoors, without manipulating the lighting, void of life.

The world of high tech gadgetry at play in Bins ans Ende der Welt also includes Winter's GPS software that he uses to track people for his work. But maybe the funniest gag in the movie is the "Bounty Bear." The GPS program shows an animated bear with a Russian hat on-screen while the search is being performed walking around, continuously speaking to the user: I'm searching, searching, still searching, wait a minute, okay, almost there; and again holy crap I can't believe this was made in 1991.

I am so thankful I saw this in a theater finally. There's so much in Bins ans Ende der Welt that makes me want to see it again, but I'll likely never again have the chance to on a theater screen. But I can't complain. Sometimes once is enough.


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

When the Child was a Child

The 7th theatrical screening I went to of a film from the Wim Wenders series shown by AFS.

The 5 films that I discovered while attending this series that show Wenders cultivating his own style and finding the movie he was born to make are all shot by Robby Müller: Alice in den Städten (1974, Wenders), Falsche Bewegung (1975, Wenders), Im Lauf der Zeit (1976, Wenders), Der amerikanische Freund (1977, Wenders), and Paris, Texas (1984, Wenders). I knew beforehand that Müller's cinematography was my main reason for going. And I knew Paris, Texas was the one work from the series that would be the most worthwhile. Becoming thoroughly acquainted with Wenders' films from this period has paid off and far exceeded my modest expectations.

I once took a course in college called "Independent American Cinema." On the first day we were asked, "what do you think of when you hear 'independent' movie?" The whole semester was about learning what that word means in that context. Independent used to mean apart from studio production, financing, and distribution. But in the 90s that changed. There was now a lot of money to be made by targeting that market, so studios entered the business of independent films. Does independent mean small budget? Does it mean that the movie is marketed or aimed at a niche or fringe audience? You get the idea.

I still cringe when I hear the word independent used to classify a movie. Coincidentally last year I went to an Orson Welles series, and saw several theatrical screenings, shown chronologically, from his career. And it was at that time I remembered something I had forgotten along the way: Orson Welles is often called the Godfather of independent film. Welles always developed and shot projects he wanted to make, going through all of the hell of battling studios and investors that goes with that.

These 5 Wenders films including Paris, Texas remind me of another movie we watched in my Independent American Cinema class, Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer). Released by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), Detour is a film noir road movie straight out of poverty row. And from the body of work I consider independent films, it's one of the best examples of a movie transcending its low budget with craftsmanship that gets so much story, performances, tone, fatal, out-of-breath, fever-dream and all around entertainment that it readdresses the question what makes a movie good?

These 5 films are some of the rarest, best examples of independent filmmaking at its best. Their slow pace, the freedom from strictly setting up and executing traditional plots, their location photography of interesting spaces that aren't necessarily crucial to the story or even beautiful, their love of the everyday and ordinary, all work together. And all remind us of the joy of finding a good movie, especially when you've never heard of it before or it looks like it didn't have a very large budget. And for good measure these films also have great rock songs thrown in, and are mostly in black and white.

From the Wim Wenders Stiftung, remastered in 4K DCP and shown theatrically in its OAR 1.66:1, Der Himmel über Berlin (1987, Wenders) played this past weekend and I went to check it out.

Der Himmel über Berlin is a bit of a departure from where we've seen Wenders going up to this point. But a lot of filmmakers get to a similar crossroads, where they seem to find that they can only take the independent style so far. So what is it? A black and white European arthouse film. Maybe it's even the European arthouse film. But Der Himmel über Berlin is also practically high-concept, and even commercially packaged.

The concept is simple: Angels watch over the people in Berlin and hear their thoughts. One day an angel, DAMIEL (Bruno Ganz), decides he wants to become human after falling in love with a human, MARION (Solveig Dommartin). And Der Himmel über Berlin is one of those movies where after it was finished I can't think of one other thing I learned or experienced other than: one day an angel, DAMIEL (Bruno Ganz), decides he wants to become human after falling in love with a human, MARION (Solveig Dommartin).

To its credit, Der Himmel über Berlin preserves Wenders' interests in showing everyday ordinary people, but this time the protags are immortal ghost observers watching over us. After the poem and the opening credits, the introductory shot of long hair pulled-back-in-a-ponytail, trench coat-clad Damiel high up on top of a ledge looking down on the select few children whom are able to see angels is iconic and quickly establishes Der Himmel über Berlin's look. Filmed in beautiful high contrast black and white by Henri Alekan, most of the shots are from subjective POVs done with Steadicam, cranes, or a dolly. And at this point it's safe to say Robbie Müller has proven that he hates Steadicam, which is another reason Der Himmel über Berlin has its own look. Of course Der Himmel über Berlin's camera movement and angles are motivated by seeing this world through the eyes of the angels--a clue to this is also that after a shot of the sky that follows the opening credits, we get a CU of an eyeball. The camera, like the angels, floats. It's always moving. Always observing people. But there's more to it. The axes are balanced with precision.

The sound design also contributes a lot, specifically with this device of Damiel and CASSIEL (Otto Sander) hearing everyone's thoughts, and with some built in subtle brooding cello which will continually serve as a minimal somber contrast to the chaos of all of the human thoughts. Anyone familiar with R.E.M's "Everybody Hurts" music video will be familiar with the shot floating through cars waiting in traffic with subtitles showing what the thoughts of their individual drivers are, but it's the library that establishes how overwhelming this cacophony can get.

Early on in an airplane we are also introduced to an actor named PETER (Peter Faulk) who provides all sorts of laughs. His first thoughts heard are: what am I doing playing this part?

Der Himmel über Berlin is sublime when all of the disparate characteristics of the humans coalesce. Many people are in pain, thinking about suicide. Many of these people are saved by the angels, but not all. Some people think of trivial matters. Some question their own identities. I get the most out of the anxious prostitute wandering in the street, paranoid one second, reminded of the love of a former boyfriend who was good "and that's why he ain't around no more" the next second. Or the young child in the crowded room full of strangers thinking: "I've been sitting here all morning. I'm so cold and bored."

Marion is a trapeze artist in a circus. Inside there are some great choreographed shots motivated by mimicking the movement of a trapeze back and forth, it even made me a little scared of heights for a second. In her bedroom, there's a scene where Damiel watches her and she puts on a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album and we, along with him, hear her sing along in her head. I like these sound design flourishes. Anyway Damiel becomes human and the final act is his search for his object of desire, Marion. There's a Nick Cave concert they go to.

Sure Wings of Desire is a stupid name. And yeah Damiel and Cassiel look dated with their long trench coats and long hair pulled back in ponytails (are those mullets?). And it all feels arty. But like Wenders' best, he finds inspiration from creative characters who perform, dance, act, play music, sculpt, write, and gets us to empathize with those around us. And he makes entertaining and interesting scenes out of the small things in life.


Monday, February 08, 2016

Irreconcilable Differences

Yet another take on the auteur theory:

Without debating whether films are made by an individual or collectively (thus negating any claims of sole credit), I stubbornly cling to my lifelong collector's compulsion to enjoy memorizing all of a director's works and the year they came out. Am I the only one who gets a kick out of the publicity still of Alfred Hitchcock next to a tower of the screenplays to his films, with the titles printed on the spines, in order?

I thank my lucky stars that theaters have shown retrospectives of individual directors since the 1970s as far as I know. Getting to see a director develop while their skills improve is a joy, whether they seem to make the same thing over and over again or constantly reinvent themselves.

Furthermore, theatrical exhibition provides several advantages. Often a film will only be shown once, so you can't afford to let your attention wander. And sometimes you may never get to see it projected in a theater again, so all you will keep is your own memory of it, like the sweet Celine and Julie find in their mouths after leaving the ghost house and coming back to reality.

But the obvious benefit is the size of the image. Showing certain movies intended for theatrical release on a TV is assault.

The sixth film I've seen shown from the theatrical retrospective of Wim Wenders put on by AFS.

The screen is all black.

Atonal metallic percussion sounds ominously, gently mourn from some place beyond like Native American spirits attached to their homelands. Vibrant red saturated text appears on-screen displaying the brief opening credits. Red will play a strong role in the rest of the film.

A helicopter shot of the closest Texas has come to looking like Monument Valley floats through a desolate canyon with no signs of life, until the next shot links this POV to a hawk in the sky.

A steel guitar strums wobbly, as if drunk or about to pass out from dehydration, just like TRAVIS HENDERSON (Harry Dean Stanton).

Travis walks. His pinstriped suit dusty, ragged. His beard, shabby. He wears a red ball cap and carries a plastic one-gallon jug of water that's just run out. His eyes are haunted. He's barely staying afloat in the wake of a devastating trauma in his past.

Travis slinks in between the wires of a barbwire fence and twists the knob on a spicket. Nothing. Dry. He enters a bar, then collapses on the floor.

WALT (Dean Stockwell), Travis's brother, flies in from LA to help him.

This past weekend I had the fortune of attending both screenings of Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders) from a 4K DCP restored by the Wim Wenders Stiftung in 2014 and projected in its OAR of 1.66:1.

Paris, Texas is the reason I came to this series. It's the one I'd been looking forward to. Many consider it Wenders' best known work. It also won the Palme d'Or at the 1984 Cannes film festival. And some trivia: Claire Denis is first assistant director on Paris, Texas. She is now known for many a great movies in her own directing career beginning with Chocolat (1988, Denis). And Agnès Godard is first assistant camera on Paris, Texas. She will go on to serve as Denis' director of photography on nearly all of her films.

Robby Müller is the cinematographer of Paris, Texas and shows his skilled craftsmanship with every camera set-up in the film. After Walt lands in TX he fills up his rental car at a gas station, with uncorrected fluorescent lights overhead casting green light on him while in the background the sunset is such a deep red one wonders how such a shot was even possible. How was the sky that red?

Terry Malick tells his camera department not to photograph blue skies. Thats' one way. It's understandable that he prefers his movies to feature overcast skies so they don't look, say, too much like a postcard. Paris, Texas opens with blue, often cloudless skies, and commit to that choice anytime there's a daytime exterior (with the exception of a rainstorm shot). Paris, Texas is a cinematography movie, despite my guess that its makers would probably say that their intention was not to distract the audience with the way the images were photographed.

After Walt leaves the doctor's' office where Travis was last seen he leaves in search of him. There's a shot of a blacktop highway that leads to infinity and a shot of a caliche road winding towards a backdrop of mesa. Walt chooses the caliche. Travis walks through green pastures. Some black cows graze. The magnitude of scale is staggering. And somehow Walt pulls up, like it's the most ordinary thing in the world. As Walt looks at Travis he comments: "What the hell happened to you anyway? You look like 40 miles of rough road." This comment not only alludes to the subtext of the previous scene--Walt guesses the rough road will lead him to Travis, which it does. But the comment also describes Harry Dean Stanton's iconic visage.

Stanton as the docile soft-spoken Travis and Stockwell as the kind and gentle Walt's performances are the foundation of the cast. Paris, Texas is serene, but something's at the core of it that is revealed to be a damaging wound that can never be healed. The first half of the movie is Walt finding Travis after he'd been missing for 4 years. Even when Walt finds him Travis refuses to tell him what happened. But it's also Travis finding his son, HUNTER (Hunter Carson).

When Travis gets to Walt's and Hunter walks downstairs, all dressed up, nice white shirt, hair combed, and pauses on the banister, it's the first big moment. We get it. There's no further explanation needed. Hunter says "hi." Travis says "hi." Hunter hasn't seen his dad in four years and he needs some time before he warms up to him. The morning following Travis' arrival he offers to walk his son home after school. Hunter complains to Anne, Walt's wife: "I don't wanna walk home. Nobody walks. Everybody drives." When Hunter gets out of school and sees Travis waiting across the street, he opts for a ride home with one of his school chums instead.

I grew up in South Texas. Nobody walked anywhere. I moved to Portland, OR when I was 19 and stayed in a big house in SE called The Dustbin full of punkers, rockers, DIY artists, Reedies, and intellectuals. All sorts of people passed through. One night there were these 3 guys who were from MN who I thought were fun to hang out with that invited me out for a walk, and I asked where. They told me nowhere. At the time I couldn't understand why someone would walk somewhere for no reason. I asked "how far?" and "when will you be back?" But I went. I think we just walked up Woodstock from 39th to 52nd or past the Plaid Pantry. I'm older now and I love to walk. For no reason. With nowhere in mind.

The same complaint can be appropriated for movies nowadays: "Nobody walks. Everybody drives." Paris, Texas walks.

Walt threads up some Super 8 film of a young Hunter, Travis, Walt, Anne and JANE (Nastassja Kinski), whom we glimpse for the first time in the film. This choice of film stock sets the images apart aesthetically, but also suggests something profound in the way it depicts the love between Travis and Jane frozen in the past. We'll never see Travis and Jane together again. The only thing left of that love is a strip of film, a memory.

The second half of Paris, Texas is Travis and Hunter going back to TX to find Jane. Okay I just gotta highlight one more of my favorite Robby Müller compositions: when Travis and Hunter eat burgers and fries in the bed of the Ford Ranchero underneath the winding snakes of highways looming over them. God that's fun to look at.

Travis finds that Jane works in a peep show where individual booths have a phone and customers make various requests as they watch her or other workers through a window. They can see her but she can't see them. We see quick fleeting glances of Jane leading up to Travis finding her by taking the role of customer in one of the booths.

Nastassja Kinski's appearance as Jane in the small room is maybe the most beautiful MCU in film history; with the soft overhead lighting, the set decoration, the color scheme, the magenta angora sweater, the choice of lens and distance of the camera to her. But this scene is also painful, especially if one is susceptible to the aftermath of losing someone from a passionate romantic relationship that ended badly. The metaphor of Jane not being able to see Travis, but still there for anyone to play out their romantic fantasies with, for only a small fee. And that it's that simple. And that there's that permanent barrier that will always keep him from ever being seen by her again.

But it's the second visit Travis makes that explains it all. Sam Shepard's insight through the dialogue into the process of pathologizing in detail how a relationship disintegrated.

Jane still doesn't realize it's Travis talking to her at this point, doesn't realize that he's talking about them. Until he gets to the point where he describes when he "used to yell and throw things in the trailer." When she hears that word "trailer," she snaps to recognition. Everything about her tone changes. Memories long forgotten come flooding back.

I have this theory that I know is going to sound crackpot but it goes something like: the color red is code for the mutual love of a parent and child in Paris, Texas. When we first see Travis lost in the desert he wears a red ball cap, but its faded. When he and Walt stop in a motel the sheets on the beds are bright red. It's like Walt has that love and he's trying to take Travis to find it. Where Hunter lives, at Walt and Anne's the blinds are red. In the Super 8 movie Anne swaddles child Hunter in a red shawl. But when Travis goes to meet Jane the final time there's no more red anywhere. And the reunion between Jane and Hunter is seen by Travis outside, from a rooftop, where he's drenched in green with a sunset in the background. And the final shots of the film find Travis weeping, in a frame where we only see part of his face, from behind, and red spills into the frame from somewhere. It's like it's behind him now.


Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Beware of a Holy Whore

The last 4 years I've worked on sets for production--movies, TV, commercials--and it's the best place I could ever want to work. Of all the movies about movies, the more experience I have the more I get out of watching the ones that depict the process of production itself.

So what do we have? Both The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli) and its sequel Two Weeks in Another Town (1962, Minnelli), Le mépris (1963, Jean-Luc Godard), Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte (1971, Rainer Werner Fassbinder), La nuit américaine (1973, François Truffaut), and Living in Oblivion (1995, Tom DiCillo). I figured there would be more. Of course, there are other movies I'm not including because they only contain some sequences on set.

These films always involve bickering, creative conflict, affairs, and to some degree substance abuse. And my first reaction is hey it's not that bad, but then when I think about it, my only conclusion is oh yeah, that's right, all of that has happened even to me at some point. But it's still a lot of fun.

Initially I deliberated going to see Der Stand der Dinge (1982, Wim Wenders) because Robby Müller didn't shoot it, I had never heard of it, and because the log line I read was a film crew on location in Lisbon runs out of film and waits for funds to resume shooting, which sounded boring.

But having watched Hammett (1982, Wenders) the night before Der Stand der Dinge was to be screened in a theater, I said fuck it, I'm all in now. Restored from its original 35mm negative in 4K by the Wim Wenders Stiftung, the AFS Wim Wenders retrospective screened Der Stand der Dinge last night at the Marchesa theater and I went. And I was punching myself in the face for almost thinking about skipping it.

I don't know what happened with Hammett, but Der Stand der Dinge has the singular quality of the greatness Wim Wenders cultivates in Alice in den Städten (1974), Falsche Bewegung (1975), Im Lauf der Zeit (1976) into Der amerikanische Freund (1977). I've gotta start with the cinematography. Henri Alekan, best known for La belle et la bête (1946, Jean Cocteau), achieves photographic images that made me forget I was watching a movie and feel like I was in an art gallery discovering work that made me stop thinking and just enjoy the spectacle of viewing beauty. Der Stand der Dinge opens with sounds of wind, in a rocky barren landscape, on a post-apocalyptic figure wearing a particle-mask, oversized safety glasses, and a backpack, who carries a small handheld video camera. The black and white cinematography has a grainy, gauzed or greasy diffusion to it that gives the images a soft, classic, otherworldly German silent expressionist that probably never existed feel to it. And this phenomenal imagery doesn't stop until the end of the movie.

Wenders returns to his sparse dialogue, lyrical pacing, bypassing plot, focusing on authentic human nuances, punctuated by irreverent spontaneous humor, and casts an overall fatal, ominous sense of longing and loss in Der Stand der Dinge. The coastal Portugal resort where most of the film takes place provides endlessly gorgeous textures with the ever present beach waves serving as the aesthetically sublime dominion of black and white western European art films.

The opening movie-within-a-movie sci-fi piece uses a sinister Carpenter-like synthesizer score, which after a long gap, creeps into the world the characters inhabit outside the movie they're making.

Sam Fuller is back for his third consecutive Wenders film acting as director of photography JOE CORBY (wordplay on Hammett's DP, Joseph Biroc). Fuller is on-screen quite a bit this time and he's terrific: funny, seemingly ad-libbing, salty, world weary, cynical, and always puffing on his trademark cigar--he brings Joe Corby to life and makes this crew believable. One of Joe's complaints in a bar involves him lamenting the curse of the telephone, as he calls it: "good news, bad news, hypocritical news, news you never hoped for," and this is just one instance of a subtext of the impending fear of technology in the film. There's a later scene when DENNIS the screenwriter shows the director the movie they're shooting's assets on an Apple II computer. It's a prophetic warning: computers are going to devour the process of filmmaking.

The first two-thirds of the narrative show the humanity of the crew in a vacuum, or to be precise, placed on a will notify status--that's what the call sheet says the day before you are to show up for work when they don't officially guarantee what time you'll be starting, if at all. I can relate to the financial anxiety of the crew around this part of the movie. But the final act follows the director FRIEDRICH MUNRO (Patrick Bauchau) to LA where he's going straight to the source for finishing funds. King of the road Wenders again captures the location perfectly both tonally and photographically. Friedrich (or as the American crew call him, "fried rice") rents a large convertible, sun pouring down on him in an empty parking lot, and blasts X's "Los Angeles," cruising with the wind in his hair as Exene belts her furious anthem.

As fried rice passes a marquee what else but John Ford's The Searchers (1956) is being advertised.

Friedrich finally confronts the elusive producer GORDON (Allen Garfield) in an RV. While the mobile home drives all night, the two men discuss aesthetics, old Hollywood road movies, the economics of filmmaking and digress into other general ranting and raving as Gordon lounges with his dachshund while the aim of Der Stand der Dinge coalesces, and reinforces the bleak, hopeless demise of individual filmmaking. But oh so beautifully.

Aside from maybe the best black and white cinematography I've ever seen (as Joe Corby says: "life is in color, but black and white is more realistic"), it's the insightful musings on the process of filmmaking and entertaining glimpses into the restless crew, their hang-ups, and the little reflections and jokes that go far in delivering the most entertaining aspects of the film. Like the funny scene when the script supervisor (played by Viva) comments on the exclusion of females in the framing of the Polaroid shots her adolescent daughter takes on set; or what seems like an awkward scene where that girl and another child hear her mom in bed with another man but she says "do you think they're fucking"; or when the Geoffrey Carey played character has the hilarious moment with the child as he's hanging laundry, remembering his awkward characteristics as a teen in LA, from Clearasil, to braces, to stuttering to "wait, what was the last one, oh yeah, cancer." I hate to spoil these scenes though, the unexpected is part of the essence of why they're funny.

Der Stand der Dinge is way better than I could have imagined. Wenders at his most, eccentric and insightful. Beautiful. Very funny.