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Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Artist and Muse #4
Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst discuss a shot on the set of their first film together, The Virgin Suicides.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Overlooked Classics: Szamanka
It is amazing to me that the films of Andrzej Zulawski are still so hard to obtain in the United States. As of writing this only one of this great director's films is in print and that is his 1989 work My Nights are More Beautiful Than Your Days starring Sophie Marceau. His most famous film, Possession, was available in a splendid dvd from Anchor Bay that included his commentary track but that has slipped out of print.
Zulawski directed only 12 features between 1971 and 2000 but his films, from The Devil up to his final work Fidelity cast a strange haunting spell that is unlike any other filmmaker I am familiar with. His hyper kinetic camera style that alienated many viewers and critics originally is now becoming more and more commonplace among today's directors. Unfortunately very few of these directors contain Zulawski's flair for combining politics, sexuality and the supernatural. Michael Winterbottom is one of the only current filmmakers who possesses Zulawski's ability to bring multi-layered aspects to the doomed obsessive relationships that they have both filmed. Zulawski's films might be more operatic in style than Winterbottoms, but it's easy to imagine 9 Songs as something Zulawski might have filmed early on if he could have gotten away with it.
Zulawski has famously brought out the most extreme aspects of certain actress such as Romy Schneider, Isabelle Adjani and most importantly his partner of many years, Sophie Marceau. Marceau appeared, or survived, more of Zulawski's films than anyone else and I will write in more detail on this later. Specifically their last film they made together, and the final film Zulawski has directed, 2000's Fidelity is one of the major works of this decade.
While Possession will undoubtedly remain the most famous film Zulawski ever lensed, The Most Important Thing Love might be the greatest. It is his penultimate film Szamanka from 1996 that is his most mysterious and perhaps the ultimate example of his his extreme cinema.
I first saw Szamanka on a Polish video that I got from Craig Ledbetter's European Trash Cinema in the late 90s. It was in Polish without English subtitles so an already hard story to follow was made all the more difficult. Its images kept coming back to me and I watched it several times over the next couple of years. I found myself occasionally just putting it in and having it playing in the background while I was doing something else, that's something I never do but the film seemed to issue some sort of strange alchemical affect.
Within the past couple of years a Russian DVD company re-issued the film with English subtitles and it was a pleasure and slightly bewildering experience to revisit it in this manner. I suppose not having just the image to concentrate on should have taken some of its mystery away, but I found just the opposite to be true.
The plot, as it is, basically details a professor who discovers, and becomes obsessed with, an ancient mummy. At the same time he meets a young disturbed student who he begins a turbulent affair with. The film makes obvious references to Last Tango In Paris in spots, but it shares more subversive qualities with Anger's Lucifer Rising.
Zulawski seems incapable of making a film that isn't political by it's very nature and the mummy does seem to represent the not long dormant communist government that he struggled with early in his career. It's important to note that Szamanka represented a return to Poland for Zulawski, and the film was a notorious failure upon release. It's an angry film where Zulkawski is really letting his obsessions fly, the brutal sexuality and tribalistic moments have a choreographed quality that harken back to Zulawski's early stage work.
The film borders on hysteria for its full 110 minute running time. It never lets up and it is a pretty exhausting experience. Zulawski's characters often exhibit traits of almost seizure like episodes, as if their surroundings and lives are literally freezing them up. Szamanka takes this to the extreme by presenting the student as someone who seems completely out of touch with her surroundings. From her contorted grins to either moving just too fast or just too slow she is literally always just out of step. The only time she seems almost in line with her surroundings is during the films powerful loves scenes, it recalls the idea, that under a fascist government, that it was sex that could provide a taste of freedom.
Zulawski's major films, without exception, would fall apart if it wasn't for his lead actresses. His taste and intuition have had to be impeccable when it comes to his choices, and his ability to draw such extreme performances out of distinguished performers like an Adjani or Marceau is laudable. Szamanka is no different in this respect, but Zulawksi would get as far away from casting an established lead as he could with this film.
Iwona Petry is one of those astonishing one hit wonders of modern cinema. Discovered in a Warsaw coffee shop at the age of 20 by Zulawski she delivers an extraordinary off the hook performance as the unnamed student. I would argue that her performance in this is as good as any in Zulawski's canon. Only Sophie Marceau, Isabelle Adjani and Romy Schneider would deliver more fully realized performances for him.
Petry's performance and life is one of the main things that has given this film such a notoriety. Virtually disappearing after making the film amidst rumors stating everything from being physically abused by Zulawski during the shoot to being hypnotized. Some Polish papers even reported that she had killed herself after filming completed, in actuality she did drop out and travelled across the world. She eventually settled back in Poland as a student and even published a well received collection of stories in the past couple of years. Outside of a small television role Szamanka remains her only performance before a camera, but what a performance.
Zulawski's role as one of the great world directors of the past 30 years is hidden from most film buffs. His films are as unique as any directors and are deserving of a major re-appraisal. They might be too artsy for genre fans and too extreme for art house followers but film lovers with an open mind should embrace him as one of the true visionaries of modern cinema. Szamanka, while remaining perhaps his most extreme vision, is among the easiest to find. Import copies regularly turn up on Amazon and ebay or head over to the great Xploited Cinema and order a new copy from Tony. I promise 20 of the most unforgettable dollars you can ever spend.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Elvis Presley-American Sound Studio -Suspicious Minds
Here are a few short seconds of Elvis actually inside The American Studios, pictured among others with his father Vernon. Overdubbed with a vocal outtake of Suspicious Minds.
Dust Off Those Grooves (Chapter Seven)
It seems like every great artist has at least one album in their catalogue that is universally ignored due to the greatness of the album that proceeded it. How often is The Stones' Goat Heads Soup mentioned in the shadow of Exile On Main St. or how about the third Oasis platter Be Here Now after What's The Story Morning Glory? All the great ones from The Beatles and The Beach Boys up to The White Stripes and Radiohead have made great works that have suffered simply due to comparison.
January and February of 1969 is a month that occupies a special place in rock history, specifically 6 days in January and 5 days in February. These 11 days would mark the legendary Elvis Presley American Studio sessions in Memphis, Tennessee. Much has been written about these sessions, Elvis Costello would label the performances supernatural and I'm not sure a better word could have been chosen to describe them.
The American sessions are the sound of an artist at not only his absolute peak but reaching past it. Elvis in that studio is Picasso in his Blue Period and Hemingway writing Old Man And The Sea. This is the sound of a man coming out of a self imposed shell and re-discovering magic, a man getting his soul back against all obstacles.
There has never been a voice as pure as Elvis' during these sessions. Rumor has it that he had a cold early on when in one night he layed down Long Black Limousine, This is The Story and Wearin That Loved On Look. Listening to these songs you can hear the sound of a man shaking off the shackles of a long imprisonment, the voice that Dylan said would break you out of your own prison. No-one has ever been as good as Elvis in these hours of recording.
To many rock and music historians the only album that came out of these sessions was From Elvis in Memphis. It's the album that typically pops up on the great all time albums lists and it is the lp that is remembered. It is often overlooked that there was a second album, a work that has long since almost vanished into obscurity even though it features some of the greatest performances of Elvis Presley's career.
Back In Memphis, with it's dark live photo of Elvis looking like a ghost coming back for war, was originally issued as part of a set called From Vegas To Memphis. One record recorded live in Vegas while the studio sessions lay nearly hidden in the back sleeve. History has placed these ten tracks as near outtakes to the great From Elvis In Memphis sides but a closer inspection not only reveals ten great tracks but one of the most cohesive records Elvis ever delivered.
The opening, Eddie Rabbit penned, track Inherit The Wind sets the tone. Like other albums I have focused on in this series, from Watertown to Houston, we are dealing with a man in isolation. Backed by the incredible American studio house band, including the great Reggie Young on guitar, Elvis is in top from here. The backing female vocals give the song a strange feel that is complimented by the string section that producer Chips Moman would add on later. The song's odd time signatures coupled with Moman's production gives the song a perfect swaying feel that is punctuated by Elvis' reminder of what it's like to indeed Inherit the Wind.
This is The Story follows, and this as mentioned dates from that first historic night Elvis stepped into American studios. The tragic tone is set here for the album, and when Elvis sings 'but the words that I'm reading could apply to myself' we realise why he didn't have to be a songwriter, once he sang a song it was his, they were his autobiography.
Percy Mayfield's startling Stranger In My Own Hometown follows. This is the most rocking track on the album and the most haunting. This is the sound of a man confronting a city that had witnessed the assignation of Martin Luther King less than a year earlier. Elvis' sorrow at this event has been recounted by both Celeste Yarnall and Jerry Schilling, perhaps more than If I Can Dream this is his reaction to it. It's an explosive, surging performance that stands with his greatest work. The song's ferocious climax features one of the strangest horn arrangements ever put on vinyl and Elvis screaming off mike 'Blow your brains out.' He would revisit this song later in his career and re-invent the idea of a blues man in a frightening laid back chronicle of alienation and despair. Anyone who doesn't understand the genius of Elvis Presley should listen to this song.
Just a Little Bit Of Green and Elvis' lovely reading of Neil Diamond's great And The Grass Won't Pay No Mind are sublime examples of sixties pop at his best. More importantly the album never loses it's chronicling of a man who has denied love. Every track leads up to the album's final upcoming declaration making this, even more than I'm 10,000 Years Old, the great Elvis concept album.
Bobby Russell's dark and brooding Do You Know I Am with it's near whispered vocal and far-away tambourine is the calm at the center of the storm. The regret and longing are starting to kick in and it's the perfect opener for a side that's yearning for forgiveness.
Ned Miller's From A Jack To A King was one of Elvis' fathers Vernons favorites. The most playful and country sounding song on the album still fits in perfectly with the idea of lost love and Elvis delivers a slyly comical rendition that provide a brief respite from the darkness that would follow.
The Fair's Moving On would provide the album with some of it's most haunting imagery, with it's portraits of a packing and vanishing carnival and love affair. Bobby Wood's piano playing is particularly impressive as is Moman's kaleidoscope production that surrounds Presley's soulful vocal.
Back in Memphis concludes with two of Elvis' most impressive and greatest performances. Mort Shuman's You'll Think Of Me opens with Reggie Young on Sitar instead of guitar and it's that instrument that takes the lead throughout the song, providing an exotic counterpoint to the perhaps the most soulful vocal performance Elvis ever gave. The song was used as the b-side to the legendary Suspicious Minds and had remained all but hidden in the years since it's release. It is perhaps the great lost jewel in Elvis' crown, listening to it now it's hard to imagine a singer more in tune with all that a song can symbolically give. No-one, not even Sinatra at his most impassioned, has melded together with a song like this one. This song is Elvis Presley.
The album closes with Danny Small's Without Love, and we find our narrator (and I would say Elvis himself) realizing that 'without love, I am nothing at all'. With Bobby Wood again on piano, we find Elvis at his rawest. Paul Westerberg would later write, 'Remember me, I used to wear my heart on my sleeve', and he could have easily been describing Elvis singing this song. Recorded on the final night of the January sessions, and shortly before Suspicious Minds, it gives the album an uncommonly powerful conclusion. We are still with the same person from Inherit The Wind but we have witnessed him changing and ultimately growing. Of all of the concept albums that have gained fame, perhaps only The Pretty Things S.F. Sorrow came to such a resonate and deceptively simple conclusion.
Back In Memphis is out of print in the United States. You can find the songs on Suspicious Minds: The Memphis Anthology or The Sixties Masters box set. Without a doubt the best way to hear the songs is the 24 bit Japanese remaster that comes in a beautiful cardboard lp sleeve reproduction. The sound quality on this release is mindblowing and gives us some of the most spacious and warm sound on any Elvis release.
Elvis Presley would continue his hot streak and record an equally impressive number of sides a year later in Nashville. These sessions, known now as The Nashville Marathon, would produce two masterpieces, That's The Way It Is and I'm About Ten Thousand Years Old. Studio work would be sporadic after that and the last few sessions would find him producing some of his best and worst work, but they all came from his heart. Elvis said in 1969 that he would never record anything he didn't believe in again, and he never did.
2007 Belongs To Mario Bava
2007 is shaping up to be the year of a great Italian director who died nearly 27 years ago and who made his final feature 30 years ago. It's hard for me to remember a time when I didn't love and admire Mario Bava and his extraordinary films. I realize that there was a moment when I didn't know of him and then I did, but that moment has long since escaped me.
I do remember the excitement back in the mid 90s when, possibly his greatest film, Lisa and The Devil made it's debut on laserdisc (paired up with his great Baron Blood). I can still remember how that large, heavy double disc platter was such a joy to hold.
Bava's films have been released sporadically on DVD since the early days of the format, one of the earliest being the rare import of his up to then unreleased Rabid Dogs (one of the crown jewels in my collection). While the discs all had certain flaws, ranging from the poor sound of Twitch of The Death Nerve to the poor quality picture of the Kill Baby Kill discs, they were all eye opening experiences. Seeing the man's work uncut and widescreen was a reminder that he truly was among the greatest of all directors. This was, after all, a man whose work inspired everyone from Fellini to Mel Gibson to 'borrow' his ideas for their films. Everyone from Scorsese to Tarantino have publicly praised him and I will always love the story of Visconti giving Kill Baby Kill a standing ovation at it's premiere.
The last few years have seen many of Bava's greatest works go out of print and a few slip into the public domain market making collecting his work for younger fans extremely difficult. This year will mark changes on that front as well a another important development in the Bava legacy.
March will bring us the long awaited Kill Baby Kill special edition. This is a major event for film fans who have suffered through countless numbers of murky public domain discs. The disc will feature a featurette and another Tim Lucas commentary, who always provides some of the most insightful commentaries around. Barring some unforeseen problem this should be one of the major discs of the year.
April will bring Anchor Bay's Volume One collection of the Mario Bava set. I don't believe final specs have been released for this but Dvdaficionado lists it as containing 5 currently out of print titles. These include Black Sunday as well as Black Sabbath. Anchor Bay has disappointed genre fans in the past couple of years with sub-par work on films like Argento's Trauma, but I have my fingers crossed that they will get Bava's discs right. I hope these aren't simple re-packaging of the early Image releases, which all needed improvement, but even if that is the case at least they will be available again.
Blue Underground will be re-releasing Bava's last feature and one of my personal favorites, Shock, at the end of February. This mostly looks to be a reissue of the earlier Anchor Bay disc but at least this underrated film will be easily available again.
I am hoping, and suspecting, that there will be more major Bava re-issues as the year progresses.
Last, but not least, on board for later this year is Tim Lucas' much anticipated Bava biography All The Colors Of The Dark. I suspect that most people who are reading this post have already pre-ordered their copy of it. Needless to say, this is the big one and I know I'm not alone when I say that this book will make my year.
I think the best way to assure more Bava re-issues is to buy the upcoming ones and let the companies know you appreciate the effort. If you have happened to have read this post and aren't familiar with the films of Mario Bava, stop reading now and search out his films. It won't take long for you to fall under the dark, seductive spell of the great one.
Boss Hog - I Dig You
Cristina and Jon paying tribute to Russ Meyer and recalling Ike and Tina, Nancy and Lee and Elvis and Ann.
Saturday, January 27, 2007
Cristina Martinez: Genius On Her Sleeve
Every generation has them, those bands and singers that never quite get the recognition and appreciation they deserve. The answer is never really clear but Rock N Roll is littered with buried geniuses. Some get buried by producers (Sam Phillips killing Billy Lee Riley's Red Hot) and even more by labels (think Maria Mckee's astonishing Life Is Sweet album). Some get re-discovered and embraced by later generations while most just slip into obscurity. I hope that Cristina Martinez doesn't eventually fall into this latter category.
Cristina Martinez's Boss Hog rose out of the ashes of the legendary Pussy Galore, which she had been kicked out of in 1987. The early work of Cristina and her husband Jon Spencer, under the moniker Boss Hog, show artists in transition. The early eps like Drinkin Lechin and Lyin and first album Cold Hands show a band not yet fully formed. The noise aesthetic of Pussy Galore hadn't faded and the bands lineup kept changing with only Martinez and Spencer remaining constant. The early work has great moments but it's not until 1993's Girl Positive Ep that Martinez comes into her own and begins to create some truly remarkable music.
The cover to Girl Positive is one of the most striking of the post punk era. After appearing nude on the early Boss Hog records, here Cristina's face is all that is shown. Only Deborah Harry at her peak with Blondie was more perhaps a more beautiful rock star than Cristina Martinez. Had Cristina been interested she could have based her career just on her looks, but Girl Positive showed that she had a lot more than just a beautiful face to offer.
Girl Positive opens with Ruby, one of the great lost tracks of the nineties with it's sly horn arrangement collapsing into ghetto guitar rock at the snap of Cristina's finger. This sounds like a true jazz rock fusion and Cristina is suddenly singing like she is in some 1940's cabaret instead of a punk rock noise band. It's a stunning call to arms track that signals an entire declaration of independence from everything Cristina Martinez might have been thought of before.
It's on this EP that we can hear that Cristina has more Elvis Presley in her collection than Black Flag and more Stax than Dischord. It's also the moment when Boss Hog stops being a Jon Spencer side project, with Bassist Jens Jurgensen and the amazing Hollis Queens on drums this is suddenly a a major band to contend with.
I love Jon Spencer's description of Cristina's love of Elvis Presley, "in my early 20's my wife introduced me to him. She grew up listening to Elvis and I remember her buying the compilations that came out to mark his passing". The reason I mention Cristina's love for Elvis is because the couple of times I was fortunate enough to see her live and meet her in the 90s she reminded me of Elvis. On stage she was a volcanic presence, constantly moving and obviously loving what she was doing and working as hard as possible to make sure everyone else would to. Like Elvis she was also an incredibly warm and charming person. Signing a particularly brooding picture she smiled and said, "I'm not typically so gloomy."
Cristina described Elvis' Love Me Tender as, "unpolished, dripping with sex appeal, making himself completely vulnerable". This description could be used for the remainder of Cristina's career. She would make two astonishing albums, Self Titled and Whiteout, that would showcase her love for punk, cinema, funk, camp and always deep, deep soul. The singles taken from those records like I Dig You, Whiteout and Get It While You Wait all sounded like smashes and featured b-sides that were the equal of the albums. Soundtrack work included a blazing cover of The Kinks I'm Not Lie Everybody Else, which in Cristina's hands seemed like an autobiography. She was at her absolute peak, artistically and physically, and the records just didn't sell.
Each release would be accompanied by videos, articles, photos but nothing seemed to work. They weren't poor sellers but the break that a lot of us were waiting for, for her, never happened.
Between Girl Positive and Whiteout Cristina Martinez became a mother, which is why so little material exists compared to a lot of her contemporaries. Everyone from Courtney Love to Shirley Manson to Gwen Stefani would get her thunder. I like and admire all of the great female rockers that came out of the 90s but Cristina is my girl, to quote what John Waters said of Deborah Harry, "She was our generation's Elvis".
Cristina Martinez hasn't recorded or toured since 2001. She leaves behind a series of stunningly original albums and singles, some splendid videos (some she directed) and for the people that were fortunate enough to see her live some incredible memories. She is spotted occasionally, with her partner of 20 years Jon Spencer, in New York where she lives. She has a reputation of being a great mother and person which is ultimately more important than being just another rock star. Most of her work is out of print and hard to find, I hope that she someday soon she is re-discovered and returns to lay to waste the increasingly plastic idea we have of female rockers. Until then I will just remember an lovely unnoticed woman, of proud Spanish descent, who wore her genius on her sleeve, and genius never looked or sounded so good.
Friday, January 26, 2007
Symptoms of a Chronic Collector
Sometime in my early twenties I found one of those great, now almost all long lost, privately owned video stores that would offer perhaps something a little different from the local Blockbuster. This particular one was called Video Dave's in Frankfort, Kentucky. The store was so great that I would actually drive 35 minutes from Lexington on a regular basis just to rent films. One evening I came across a film in the horror section that caught my eye. I'm not sure if it was the odd title, the striking artwork or the promise that 'the only thing more terrifying than the last ten minutes of this film are the first 90'. Something about it pulled me in and that night I found myself at home watching my very first Dario Argento film.
Suspiria became one of those great moments that a person will have just a few times in life. One of those moments when your mind is suddenly opened to something new. It was like hearing Nico's The Marble Index for the first time or discovering an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel. It was that feeling that I had found something amazing that no one else knew about.
I soon learned that actually quite a few people knew about it and that there was an entire cinema that I wasn't aware of. I had loved many foreign films up to this point and had a good grasp on the accepted circle of directors like Godard, Bertolucci and Polanski. Now I was confronted with names like Franco, Fulci, Zulawski and Bava. One of the major things that happened just after I saw Suspiria was discovering the mighty Video Watchdog. It was still a pretty young magazine at that point and Tim Lucas' publication became like a bible to me. Soon I was discovering all kinds of directors and films that would provide me with magic keys to open amazing unknown doors.
It was through obsessively pouring over each issue of Watchdog that I found out about mail order companies such as European Trash Cinema, Midnight Video and Video Search of Miami. Each month or two I would look forward to the catalogues and updates from these companies and face the daunting task of picking out which films I could order on my limited budget. There was such an excitement to it in that period. Visually many of these tapes would be poor quality. Some would be full screen, some in English and some not. It was an adventure and it was exciting being in it. Soon I began to learn the particulars of each company. VSOM had the most but with the poorest prints. ETC had some of the rarest and owner Craig Ledbetter provided the best service. Video Midnight had the best quality, many from import laserdiscs, but were the most expensive. Each company had their strengths and weaknesses but they all provided a great service and I will never forget getting packages in the mail with titles like The Perfume Of A Lady In Black, Four Flies On Grey Velvet and The Pyjama Girl Case.
I remember clearly getting that very first package. With the stamp ETC on it and inside a tape holding a terrible print of a remarkable film, Jose Larraz's still hard to find Symptons.
I met a friend around this time to who shared my same obsessions and he was the first one who showed me uncut prints of Fulci's The Beyond and Argento's Tenebrae. We began to trade our monthly orders, each making copies and doubling our collections.
Books on the subject began to come into play, the still indispensable Immoral Tales and also imported British magazines like Flesh and Blood. In the mid 90s Louisville Kentucky got an amazing gift in the store Wild and Woolly Video. We now had a store specializing in these films and I have such fond memories of long conversations with the store's owner Todd and sifting through his new releases and import soundtrack section.
A major change happened in the late 90s that was both a major blessing and a bit of a personal curse. When DVD arrived I don't think anyone would have guessed that it was about to give a legitimate home to many of these once forgotten films. That's precisely what it did and suddenly the precious little secret that many of us held so close was taken from us.
I couldn't believe it at first. That strange moment when I held Anchor Bay's first uncut, widescreen Argento releases still sticks with me. It was a bit like that moment when Jane's Addictions Ritual De Lo Habitual broke, it wasn't ours anymore. I was envious of the people who were going to discover these films on DVD but knew that I had lived through something special in that a lot of the pleasure had been in the hunt and discovery.
I'm a bit spoiled at this point, as i think many of us are. We'll complain about the most minor of problems with a new disc. We'll always prove that fans of the fantastique are the most dedicated around because we will know of every missing frame and we'll take personal offense to any cutting of corners. Sometimes I have to remind myself of just how honored I was, before DVD made it so easy, to just see these films in any condition.
I don't order from those companies anymore, I just can't afford it and still keep up with newer dvd re-issues of my favorites. I have now bought Suspiria at least 4 times in different formats since that fateful night at Video Dave's and have no doubt that I'll by it at least a few more before I am gone. I doubt if it will ever feel as special as it did that night though.
Video Dave's closed many years ago, and its once proud building now stands abandoned. Flesh and Blood is no more to my knowledge but thankfully Video Watchdog is still kicking out the jams and changing lives. My trading friend and I lost touch and I live too far away from Wild and Woolly to have my talks with Todd anymore.
European genre film fans haven't had it this good in years and this year promises special editions of everything from Bava's Kill Baby Kill to Joe D'Amato's Black Emanuelle series, as well as the publication of Tim Lucas' much anticipated Mario Bava biography. It's a phenomenally lucky time to love these films but for those of us that have been at this for awhile, let us not forget when it wasn't so easy.
Sylvia Kristel: Changes
I love stumbling across something totally unexpected. Here is a great tribute to the vastly underrated Sylvia Kristel. I have the incredible 45 with Sylvia and Francis Lai but was unaware of this bossa-nova track she cut with Eddy de Clercq. Great track and a really lovely collection of photos, including a poster for the rare Slylvia/Chabrol film Alice.
Delon To Hit The Streets One Last Time.
Fans of French and Hong Kong films can start celebrating. Twitchfilm.net have reported that Alain Delon will return to star in a new film by Johnnie To, director of Heroic Trio and Election among many others.
Delon has mostly been working in TV since his last major role in Half A Chance almost ten years ago.
The pairing of To and Delon seems particularly inspired and I will eagerly follow the progression of this film.
Delon, according to French media, has been struggling with loneliness and depression the past several years and has mostly been breeding racehorses. I hope that this film gives the man one more great starring role. Delon, at his greatest, is unmatchable and this film should provide his legendary career a fitting coda.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
I have been hesitant to post about Adrienne Shelly since I started this blog. I'm still in a bit of shock over her tragic and senseless murder a few months ago and haven't felt I could write anything to do justice to this exceptional person. I can't imagine anyone, who's into film, who might have come of age in the 80s and 90s not loving her. I will post at a later date about her work, specifically her first directorial effort, the sublimely quirky Sudden Manhattan.
I did want to point out to anyone who might not have heard the story that Adrienne's final film Waitress had its premiere at Sundance this week and the reaction has been extraordinary. It has already been picked up for distribution by Fox-Searchlight and will be released later this year.
Below is a link to an early review of it and also the link to the Adrienne Shelly foundation that her husband recently started to help young female filmmakers.
Check them out. If you haven't seen any of Adrienne's work search out her films with Hal Hartley, Trust and The Unbelievable Truth, or her own projects like Sudden Manhattan and I'll Take You There. If you are like me and had such a great admiration and love for this woman, take a moment and remember her.
Keep on the look out for Waitress and support it by seeing it in a theater later this year.
Dean Martin - Houston
Here is Dean singing the title track to the album I wrote about just a little earlier. Much more uptempo than the album version, this is the man just having fun with one of his greatest tracks.
Dust Off Those Grooves (Chapter Six)
Frank Sinatra, for all of his greatness, could never be completely convincing singing pop songs in the sixties. He can't hide his contempt of the material that he layed down on albums like That's Life, My Way and Strangers In The Night, and these album's worst moments are the most shallow items in the great mans catalogue. Dean Martin, on the other hand, could sing any song in any genre and give it a warmth and relaxed reading that Sinatra could never match.
Dean Martin's reprise catalogue in the sixties is one of the most underrated in all of popular music. Time has buried just how popular these records were and listening to them now we are able to hear some of the most revitalizing music of the period. Dean, like Elvis, could sing anything and make it a Dean Martin song. Give him a Jimmy Webb song like By The time I Get To Phoenix and he'll nail it, King Of The Road and he'll make it seem like he is singing his autobiography. He could inject the most tragic songs with hope and add an elation to happier tunes that no one could match.
Choosing a favorite Dino album from the Reprise period is near impossible, from the sublime Dream With Dean to the nostalgic Once In A While we are given hundreds of quality performances by a man whose reputation would tell you that he didn't give a damn, we know now that Dean Martin was a lot more complicated than people could have ever imagined.
Houston would be an important album in any one's oeuvre for just two tracks alone, the stunning pair of singles in the title track and I Will, but add on ten more country rock infused classics and you've got a masterpiece.
The Lee Hazelwood penned opening title track is one of the sixties great moments with Dean giving one of his all-time great performances. Never has a man at the end of his rope sounded so defiantly relaxed. He knocks Hazelwood's ultimate ode to a loner trying to get home completely out of the park and by the time Sun legend Billy Lee Riley comes in on the harmonica we already have one of the great singles of the sixties.
Side one's brassy energetic feel is laced with sweet remembrances of love and it ends on the lovely Down Home which returns us to the loner of the title track. The album's underlying story is that of a man who stepped out just a little too much but can still get salvation, if he can just get home. Get back to where you belong indeed.
Side Two opens with the legendary I Will, one of Dino's biggest hits, and its wonderfully mournful string section gives side two a different feel. I defy anyone to not be moved when Dean sings, "I don't want to be the one who loves you babe but I will". It's a heartfelt performance that does the deceptively simple thing of making you believe him.
Side Two is, over all, a little more mellow and lush than the first but by the time Dean's character is thrown into jail in the great Detour we realize that the loner from Side one is still with us. The album closes with You're The Reason I'm In Love and we have are character resolving to perhaps finally stay but not without reservations, when Dean sings "Some may doubt that I believe" he seems to be answering not only his critics but also a generation that never gave him enough credit.
Houston also features one of the great sleeve designs, this is why LPs were made, from the terrific montage of photos on the front to the hilarious back comparing Dean to the city of Houston.
Dean Martin remains one of the most underrated and under-appreciated performers in popular music. His place in rock history is particularly in need of attention as he is the connecting point between Bing Crosby's revolutionizing the art of singing to the emergence of Elvis Presley. Had he come to prominence just one or two decades later he would have been one of the great rock icons. His complex relaxed style can be seen in everyone from Bryan Ferry to Jarvis Cocker. For a man who supposedly didn't give a damn, I'd say he did more than just all right.
Monday, January 22, 2007
The Great Ones Vol.1 (Side B Track 3)
The IMDB has very little to say about Marina Pierro. It lists her as just having ten credits, that she was born in 1960,although a specific date and location aren't given, and when you click on contact information it shows you a blank. There is no trivia concerning her or photographs. Do an Internet search and you will turn up little else. You might find some sites listing her as appearing in Argento's SUSPIRIA or Bido's WATCH ME WHEN I KILL but good luck locating her in either one of those films.
Marina Pierro becomes even more mysterious when you start looking at that filmography. Her first three roles, including one with Visconti, were just bit parts supporting more well known people like Stefania Casini and Laura Antonelli, which leaves us with just seven credits left. Why should you care about an obscure actress with only seven roles credited to her that hasn't been heard of since 1990? I'm not totally sure if I can answer that but I know that I have seen, and continue to see, something truly incredible and unique in her that would cause me to call her one of the great ones.
I have often wondered how Walerian Borowczyk and Marina Pierro met. I am sure this is recounted somewhere but I have never read of it. I have wondered if Borowczyk knew right away, the way Godard must have felt the first time he saw Anna Karina or Pabst when he layed eyes on Louise Brooks.
Borowczyk is the only director that Pierro would work with, one exception will be discussed later, and it's their collaboration that continues to stick with me. Pierro was only 17 when she first worked with the 54 year old Borowczyk yet something clicked. I have started a series on this blog focusing on artists and muses because it seems to be something that is increasingly misunderstood and undervalued. There is an equality in these rare relationships until finally the line is blurred and they are both the artist seeking and finding answers in their discovery. Pierro's stare is just as important as Borowczyk's images, just as PANDORA'S BOX belongs to Louise Brooks as much as Pabst. A true muse is an artist.
Pierro thrived in Borowczyk's period settings, looking impossibly beautiful and almost alien like. Her astonishing face seemed tailor made for his obsessive painterly framing. She is so alive in these early period pieces like BEHIND CONVENT WALLS and THREE IMMORAL WOMEN that you almost forget you are watching a film, it's almost like you are watching some strange documented time capsule. It's only when she is placed in modern roles that her mystery begins to fail, her brutal fetishistic performance in her final feature LOVE RITES is as difficult to watch as it is engrossing.
Borowczyk wasn't the first director to take her out of the past, Jean Rollin would do that with his disturbing THE LIVING DEAD GIRL. Rollin, in his commentaries for LIVING DEAD GIRL speaks of how honored he was to work with her but it's in his fantasy that strips Pierro of her magic. Separated from Borowczyk she was capable of giving a good performance but, much like Irene Jacob away from Kieslowski, something was missing. Marina Pierro is literally torn apart at the end of Rollin's film and in a way she never recovered.
Borowczyk would make one more period feature with her, the beautiful ART OF LOVE, but even here Borowczyk would add an odd coda set in the present. The dream was over and LOVE RIGHTS would mark the final feature for each of them. The TV series that followed, SERIE ROSE, is the final mark in both their filmographies.
I have left out one film. The greatness of Browczyk and Pierro is evident in all of their work together but it is 1981's DOCTEUR JEKYL AND HIS WOMEN (Bloodlust) that stands as their greatest achievement.
Borowczyk's surreal take on the Stevenson novella is one of the great films of the 80s and one of the finest works of his influential career. He would pair Marina with another one of cinema's greatest faces, Udo Kier. Borowczyk creates the only film I have ever seen that feels like an hallucination. I have watched it many times and I still can't shake it's strange dreamlike quality. Watching it is like that moment right before sleep, when everything is almost as it should be but isn't. Borowczyk's cutting back and forth between close ups of Pierro and Kier's faces in the film's final moments literally feels like they are breaking the film apart. It's a film I can't shake and, like Anger's LUCIFER RISING or Roeg's BAD TIMING, even repeated viewings can't take away it's mystery and magic.
Watching these films today I always find myself wondering where Pierro is. I wonder if she is aware, or cares, that some of these films are finally getting DVD releases and some respect. I wonder what her thoughts were when Borowczyk passed away almost a year ago, had they kept in touch or had she disappeared from his life too? I wonder in her 47th year what she looks like, I can't imagine that she has lost much of her beauty. I can imagine her face is as before and her stare could still dismantle not only any camera filming her but any audience watching.
A kind soul left a comment pointing that Marina has an official website, and I urge everyone to check it out. It's a nicely designed site with some of the most beautiful photos you will find on the web, and shots of Marina in Argento's SSUSPIRIA so that mystery is solved for me.
It's so nice to see that she apparently has fond memories of her film career and I'm glad to see she is involved in stage work. She still retains all of her mystery and I am really thankful to have had this site pointed out to me.
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Artist and Muse #3
Robbe-Grillet Finally Hitting DVD.
The films of French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet have only been available in the worst possible grey-market dubs for years. I spent the mid to late 90's collecting these after reading about them in the indispensable Tohill and Tombs book, Immoral Tales. Apparently Robbe-Grillet has stopped the legitimate release of his films due to his wanting them only to be seen on the big screen. I have been hoping with the all of the advances in home theater that he might relent and that that might finally be happening.
Koch Lorber will release his visually stunning and erotic La Belle Captive on March 13th. This 1983 release looks to be uncut and will have English subtitles, something my blurry looking VHS dub did not offer.
La Belle Captive started life out as an odd written work in 1976 that Grillet had published with some of Magritte's paintings. The film uses Magritte as well Manet, according to Immoral Tales, as a constant reference point throughout.
I hope that this release signals the arrival of some of Robbe-Grillets earlier work on DVD. Films like Trans Europe Express, Slow Sliding Of Pleasure, Playing With Fire and Eden And After are all prime examples of the European art film. Robbe-Grillet's cinematic legacy might be flawed but it is wholly original and deserving of a re-release.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Overlooked Classics: Bad Lieutenant
Louisville, Kentucky's once proud Vogue Theater stands deserted now. Its doors closed for cine maniacs in late 1998 but the memories that it gave many of us will always exist. It was open for more than sixty years for the best foreign, arthouse, classic and independent films the world had to offer. The flickering light of the projector at one time offered for Louisville everyone from Monica Vitti in Red Desert to Bridget Fonda in Bodies Rest and Motion...hell, even Iggy Pop played played a show there. That's all over now though, while the marquee has been resurrected, rumor has it a series of shops will open inside and it will eventually become unrecognizable for us that remember.
I have many memories involving the Vogue including midnight movies and getting pulled over for speeding trying to make a screening of Casablanca. Many memories but one film I saw there stands out as my most memorable.
1992 saw Abel Ferrara un-leashing, on an unexpecting public, his most stunning tale of sin and redemption, the Zoe Lund scripted Bad Lieutenant. I'll never forget the first time I saw the poster advertising it's coming at the Vogue with a nude Harvey Keitel pictured under Abel Ferrara's name, which seemed to blaze. This wasn't just a film being announced, it seemed more like a war being proclaimed.
I was lucky enough to see the Final Ferrara-Lund collaboration the way it should be seen, in a darkened theater, completely uncut, original score intact witnessing more walk outs than I had ever seen before or since. The film that's available now isn't the one I saw, the available dvd is missing a major character in Schooly D's incendiary "Signifying Rapper". The song, which played such a major role, has been removed due to a silly and damaging lawsuit by Jimmy Page over a riff(I ask you who stole more riffs than Jimmy Page?). Only those who saw it in a theater or are lucky enough to have the very out of print original VHS have seen the film as it should be seen.
While the film contains one of the greatest of all performances with Harvey Keitel's shocking turn and stands as one of Ferrara's best works it is the story that the much missed Zoe Lund came up with that's the real star. The script might be co-credited to Victor Argo, Paul Calderon and Ferrara but it belongs to Zoe. I think she fashioned not only one of the great scripts ever but a major piece of spiritually enlightening literature. It's this spirituality and Lund's notion that even the most far gone and evil of characters can find redemption that sent people running out of the Vogue that night, not the graphic nudity, language or violence.
I would say that the theater was over half full at the start of the film but there were only a handful of us left by the end. I know that we all felt a bit transformed walking out after those closing credits, we all had a feeling that only a handful of the greatest films could have given us.
I've never seen a film that asked as much of it's audience as that one did. While many people left during the moments you might expect, the raping of the nun and Keitel pulling over the teenage girls, it was Jesus Christ appearing to Keitel's ravaged unnamed character that caused the most problems. I remember very clearly wanting to yell at a couple walking out that this is just the kind of man Jesus would indeed reach out to.
I doubt if I will ever have quite as visceral an experience with another film and another theater again. Abel Ferrara has made many great films since and he is still obsessed with getting the idea across that no man, no matter how far gone, is completely lost. Not since Pasolini has a director made so many confrontational and profoundly spiritual works.
Harvey Keitel has never bettered Bad Lieutenant and he remains America's great lost actor buried in a sea of direct to video junk.
We lost Zoe Lund in April of 1999, ironically just a few months after The Vogue Theater closed it's doors for the last time. I remember watching her ghostly shadow whispering to Keitel, "We gotta eat away at ourselves. We gotta eat our legs to get the energy to walk. We gotta come, so we can go. We gotta suck ourselves off. We gotta eat away at ourselves til there's nothing left but appetite. We give, and give and give crazy. Cause a gift that makes sense ain't worth it. Jesus said seventy times seven. No one will ever understand why..."
I saw many films after Bad Lieutenant at the Vogue but somehow for me it was the last strip of film that its projectors light shined through. Somehow even in its deserted, sad state that film is still showing and a few of us are still left inside.
See Pan's Labyrinth At The Theater.
I am not going to write a review of Guillermo's del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, I just saw it and want to savor the strength and emotion of this masterful film. I will direct anyone whose reading this to check out the reviews by Tim Lucas or Roger Ebert instead or just head over to Metacritic to see the near unanimous praise this film is getting.
I am mainly writing to urge everyone to go see this at the theater, don't wait for the DVD and for God's sake don't download it. It's rare to see a film as powerful as this in wide release, Picturehouse films should be applauded for releasing this wide and uncut.
This politically charged, visually stunning fantasy is one of the best films I have seen in a long time and seeing it in a theater reminded me of the power of the big screen. Don't miss it, this is one of the greats.
Artist and Muse #2
Friday, January 19, 2007
Shocking Blue - Mighty Joe (1969).
The sad news that Shocking Blue's lead singer Mariska Veres had passed away in December had completely passed me until today. I have very fond memories of discovering their first album and still think their original Love Buzz blows Nirvana's cover out of the water. Mariska had one of the great voices of the sixties and will be missed.
This is a particular favorite and a great clip.
Nastassia Kinski on David Letterman
This has long been one of my favorite moments in television history. I first caught this being re-run in the late 80s and it's been a favorite ever since.
Nastassja is here promoting Exposed and is having a great time messing with Letterman.
Unfortunately this isn't the full interview but I'm thankful that some wise soul posted at least part of it on YouTube.
Missing parts, of what was a long interview, include her entrance with Letterman visibly shocked by her hair, discussion on her rumored affairs, talk on Exposed and her passionate defense of Roman Polanski.
I love this clip.
Jean Rollin's Les Nuit Des Traquees.
Encore Film's most recent addition to their splendid collection of Jean Rollins films is his 1980 La Nuit Des Traquees (The Night Of The Hunted). Long considered one of Rollin's weakest films, I was struck by how much this film has stuck with me since I first saw it several years ago. It is one of the most un-Rollin like films he ever made in that his typically Gothic setting is traded in for a more cold interior modernistic look. This film is often compared to Cronenberg's Shivers and I think that's pretty spot on, with both film's sharing a very chilly clinical feel.
Rollin's work stars the incredibly beautiful and talented Brigitte Lahaie and I feel that this is one of her finest performances, if definitely her most heartbreaking.
The plot centers around a group of people who have been affected by a radioactive leak and can no longer hold onto to any memories. As the film progresses the condition gets worse until they are literally just walking blanks. It's the plot itself and the lonely tone that Rollin so successfully gets that attracts me so much to this film. I have thought it is a bit like Robbe-Grillet re-writing Memento. It is absolutely a very flawed work that is hampered by a minuscule budget and extremely tight shooting schedule. Lahaie points out in one of the disc's interviews that she worked longer for four minutes screen time on Philip Kaufman's Henry and June than the she did for Rollin's whole feature.
The film, despite it's flaws, features some of Rollin's most poetic scenes. The love scene between Lahaie and the young man who finds her wandering at the film's beginning might seem overly prolonged, but when you realize that her character is desperately trying to find something her memory can hold onto it becomes one of the most poignant scenes in Rollin's whole oeuvre. The film's final moments of the two lover's extended walk is equally haunting and sadly triumphant in that they are joined together as an equally clean slate.
Dominique Journet is effective as Lahaie's friend who is also infected and several familiar faces from Rollin's past appear throughout the film.
Encore's new special edition continues the great work they are doing with Rollin's catalogue. The gorgeous slip case houses two dvds, the first holding just the film in it's original French language with no less than eleven subtitle options (including English) and the second disc houses the generous extras.
The extras consist of two informative audio commentaries, one featuring Lahaie and the other with just Rollin. Lahaie is obviously enjoying watching the film again and mentions in her interview that she had just recently seen it. Rollin remains as fascinating as ever and it's always a pleasure to listen to him reminisce and he is very open about the films flaws as well as strengths.
The disc also features interviews with Lahaie, producer Lionel Wallmann and a fascinating talk with Alain Plumey. The Plumey interview also showcases clips of his Museum of Eroticism that he has obviously worked very hard on and is very passionate about. A nice photo gallery is also included with selections from the minimalist score by Philippe Brejean, working here under the name of Gary Sandeur. Rounding out the extras are some trailers and some pretty unnecessary harder outtakes of two love scenes, neither involving Lahaie. Finally a very nice 32 page book is included, only about half the size of the earlier Encore releases but still a lovely thing to have.
Encore's transfer is much more crisper and colorful than the previous Redemption disc from several years ago. Some grain is still evident but this is the best this film has ever looked and it is a fine print, it's actually nice to see that this film hasn't been overly digitized.
Rumor has it that this is the last of the Rollin special editions from Encore, I really hope they continue with his catalogue as possibly his finest film Fascination is still in the wings. Encore should be commended for putting together a really great special edition of a very flawed but important film to one of France's most iconic auteur's.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Artist and Muse #1
I Want You (You Don't Get Well No More)
Sundance is showing Michael Winterbottom's, increasingly most difficult film to see, I Want You this month. Winterbottom is a hard director to nail down, since his twisted 1995 road film Butterfly Kiss he has worked in several genres and released everything from the period film Jude to the improvised digitally shot 9 Songs.
His films, regardless of their stylistic differences, almost always feature characters engaged in an obsessive and dangerous love. Winterbottom's films share this obsessive nature with one of his idols, Fassbinder, and while his films might seem as different as night and day it's this obsessive interest in people relating to each other that sparks all of his work.
I Want You was released in 1998 to mixed reviews and apparently had distribution problems from the get go. It's history in the States has been very problematic, after being granted a surprising R Rating (more on that later) it had a brief theatrical run followed by a VHS release that quickly slipped out of print. It has become available in Europe on DVD but has never found it's way to that format here.
Used video copies fetch high prices on ebay, so Sundance is doing a service to people who have been hoping to see it.
The version currently running on Sundance is apparently uncut, with it's graphic sexuality intact. It is unfortunately full screen and Winterbottom's 2.35 compositions' suffer from this. The opening credits play widescreen before switching to the full-screen ratio, a frustrating occurrence that took me back in time to old VHS releases.
Winterbottom, and screenwriter Eoin McNamee, apparently got the idea for his film from Elvis Costello's classic obsessive track I Want You off his album with the Attractions Blood and Chocolate. The song is played throughout the film and plays an important role at one point to the plot. The song is rightly considered one of Costello's finest as well as darkest. It matches the film's dark worldview and increasingly oppressive nature perfectly. The film's bright opening expansive outdoor shots viewed from a train soon begin to sink into more foreboding and darker interiors as it progresses.
I Want You features the talented Rachel Weisz in one of her first starring roles. Her character Helen is the object of three obsessive characters. Helen is also hiding something which gives the film a final act twist that isn't entirely satisfying but work's due to Weisz's greatly nuanced performance.
The film also features a young Alessandro Nivola as the mysterious Martin whose character is revealed more fully as the film progresses. Much like the song it's based on, the film reveals more and more clues as it progresses. It short running time of 87 minutes is as deceptive as the main characters as this an exhausting, but rewarding, film to watch.
The strongest aspect of the film, along with Weisz, is the cinematography by Slawomir Idziak. Winterbottom was obviously inspired by Idziak's great work for Kieslowski and I Want You is visually a feast of color. This is especially evident in the earlier brighter scenes of yellow and gold that play such a crucial contrast with the later dark blues and greys of Martins and Helen's homes. Weisz's underwater swimming scenes throughout the film also clearly invoke Binoche swimming in Blue. Both films use the pool and Idziak's color scene to reflect internally what is happening with the characters. The pool, as in Blue, also becomes an invaded sanctuary. Kieslowskis extraordinary shot of Binoche surrounded by diving children as she is attempting to deal and escape from the death of her own family is mirrored here stylistically by the nude Helen attempting to sink to the bottom to forget her dangerous relationship to Martin.
Winterbottom, as evidenced by the controversial 9 Songs, has never been a director to shy away from sexuality. It's surprising that I Want You was granted an R Rating considering that it has two things the rating boards typically can't tolerate; explicit sexuality and explicitly adult ideas. The actors might all, at one point or another, be nude but it is ultimately a film of thought and the character's fulfillment of separate cycles of abuse that give it its strength.
Winterbottom has made better films than I Want You, Jude, Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People spring immediately to mind, but it's a very much a film worth seeking out. It's the last film that features this type of look by Idzaik, which isn't to take away from his great more mainstream subsequent work, and one of the first great performances by the now Oscar winning Weisz. Most importantly it's an authentically good adult film, one that exposes as much of the heart and mind as the flesh.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Bloody Award Shows.
I must crave frustration, that's the only reason I can think of each year when I am watching an awards show. It's hard to complain too much about this years Golden Globes show though. The Warren Beatty tribute was nice, although leaving out Mccabe and Ms Miller as one of his major films was an incredible oversite. It's also hard to argue with a show that manages to give both Scorsese and Eastwood awards on the same night.
I knew going in that none of my favorite films from the past year were nominated and I admired some they did like Babel. Still watching Meryl Streep win another award was a bit grating. I love the woman but does anyone need to see her win any more awards? There are actually other incredibly talented actresses who go unnoticed each year. Seriously they should just make a special Meryl Streep category, 'And The Best Meryl Streep Performance of the Year is'.
The years biggest omission to me, and the one that soured the whole show, was Gretchen Mol's incredible performance as Bettie Page. There wasn't a better performance given this past year and it's amazing to me that it's gone so unnoticed. Oh well, great work lasts with or without awards and I'm sure her work will get more and more attention as time goes by.
Still, I've had more frustrating viewing experiences. Dustin Hoffman's pitch for an Ishtar Two was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time and it almost made me forgive any of the evening's oversites.
Roxy Music - Ladytron (Full Version)
Thought I would post a favorite YouTube clip each week. Couldn't think of a better way to start in light of Roxy Music being passed over again by the Rock Hall Of Shame. No band influenced more people and Bryan Ferry remains rock's most underrated visionary.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Lamenting The Printed Fanzine
Much like the lp after the cd revolution, the printed Fanzine has virtually disappeared since the Internet explosion. Some of my favorite things in my collection are these wonderful small paper collectibles, some printed up by smaller publishing companies while others started out in fan's basements. The Internet has made everything so readily available and easy that I rarely come across these labor of loves anymore. It seems the people who were once working so hard to get these printed can now just post their collections online and be done with it.
The Internet is an addictive thing. I can find a rare live recording to download in a matter of minutes whereas before it might have taken years to locate. Photographs of everyone from the biggest stars to obscure cult figures are just a few clicks of the keyboard away. Something seems lost though, that loss of surprise that Tennessee Williams once spoke of so eloquently. The easiness has taken a lot of the magic out of it. I still feel a sense of excitement flipping through the brief 40 pages of rare photographs of Barbara Steele in the 1991 collection An Angel For Satan that I just don't get online.
The printed page, like the grooves on an lp, will never lose it's power for me. The paper is real, it's something I can touch and keep. I can carry to a friends house or put it on display in my apartment. It has something that the Internet, for all of its draw and power, will never be able to posses. It has a soul.
I, of course, am a part of this soulless creation and take great,if at times guilty, pleasure in it. I salute the dedicated collectors of yesterday who had the fore site to print their rare thoughts and images. I hope that somewhere a generation comes along who will take their obsessions offline and put it back in our hands, that's the only place they will really survive.
The Last Gang In Town
I rarely get excited anymore about the emergence of a new group. The last time I got really excited about a new band was, I suppose, Goldfrapp six years ago. Last year when word came out that Blur-Gorillaz founder Damon Albarn had formed a new band my interest was sparked. When I heard that the new band that Albarn had gathered together consisted of Paul Simonon (The Clash)on bass, Simon Tong (The Verve) on guitar and 66 year old Tony Allen (Africa 70) on drums my interest was a bit more than just sparked.
Supergroups are a tricky matter, they either work incredibly well or are colossal misfires. Since the band was announced their have been the typical naysayers but with Albarn at the head of the project I have never been worried that this would be anything less than interesting.
The elusive Simonon seems to have gathered the most attention it seems, mostly from proclaimed Clash fans who apparently don't listen to anything after the first Clash album. When the astonishing first GBQ single, Herculean, was released in October their were many shouts complaining that it doesn't sound like The Clash (i.e. that it doesn't sound like the two chord punk a lot of people were wanting).
Herculean is an off kilter exhilarating piece of work that would have sounded right at home on Blur's last studio album Think Tank. The band falls into place perfectly with Simonon delivering a slinky bass line that measure off perfectly with Allen's amazingly timed drumming. Simon consistently delivers inventive guitar licks and Albarn's always present piano perfectly compliments his lyrical lament on England's working class.
The Good The Bad and The Queen performed the album, scheduled for release in late January, in it's entirety on October 26th at Camden's Roundhouse. The recording by the BBC has been readily available on the Internet and it signals a major album.
The opening, History Song, sets the tone for the whole album showcasing a band that sounds more like a jazz unit than a typical rock band.
Albarn's lyrics continue the obsessive forecasting of England that he has been doing so potently since Blur's 2nd album Modern Life Is Rubbish. Lyrically this is very much Albarn's baby. The potent second track, 80's Life, compares modern England to the Thatcherism of the 80's that Albarn's generation has struggled so long to get away from. "I don't want to live a war that's got no end in our time." is as potent a line that Albarn's ever written.
Northern Whale and Kingdom Of Doom both seem to reflect the growing unease in modern society that things are completely out of control and on the verge of collapsing. Musically the songs all have a unique lamenting quality that never resorts to nostalgia or overt sentimentality, as dark as Albarn's lyrics get the band's free playing gives them a much needed lightness.
Simonon fans will recognize this album as being much closer to Sandinista rather than Give Them Enough Rope. His love of dub is apparent on his playing here and the guy has become a wonderfully fluent and accomplished musician.
Fans of The Verve will find much to appreciate here as Simon Tong delivers some of his most subtle guitar work, the guy's intelligent enough to never overwhelm the songs with needless solos but what's here is quietly devastating.
Brian Eno called Tony Allen the greatest drummer who ever lived and one listen to the live Intermission Jam highlights this well. The afrobeat founder is nothing short of astonishing and he centers each song with a furiously perfect rythmic sense that Simonon is obviously having a great time playing off (and probably keeping up with).
Albarn's keyboard and piano work has never been stronger than it is on these songs, listen to the opening of the haunting Bunting Song. Damon's music perfectly compliments his lyrics throughout the record and never as much as on this track. The closing lines, "They put a party on and waited for the sunlight to recall all the days a ticking gone." recalls not only Blur's Death of A Party but also the apocalyptic final moments of The Clash's Sandinista.
Nature Springs recalls Bowie's Berlin trilogy with it's hummed background chants and instrumental breaks. Simonon's bass is particularly good here and Albarn's whistling interlude gives this lyrically spare song an eerie folk feel.
A Soldier's Tale continues Albarn's simultaneous mistrust and reliance on the computer age. The line, "Emptiness in computers bother me" sounds almost like a sequel to one of Blur's final singles Out Of Time. Albarn's work, like some of our finest writers, struggles with the problem of hating the conventions that we rely upon so heavily.
Three Changes is one of the oddest of the new songs and it's the one that fell apart during the performance, Albarn restarts it a couple of times and at its most manic it sounds like Ornette Coleman performing deranged rockabilly.
The album closes with the amazing title track which is one of the best things any of these players have ever done. Chugging along like a near out of control train Albarn's lyrics dart between hope and despair with the band finally just splintering out in separate directions. The most free-jazz like track on the album is centered not by the Rythm section but by Albarn's great piano work. Live you can hear him yelling to the band as if to say keep up and the final minute long collapse is as mind blowing as anything you'll hear in modern music. It's like the Kinks Last Of The Steam Powered Trains hurling itself off the tracks into a lost dream.
Albarn is gearing up for a big year, first with this album and then the return of Blur with Graham Coxon. He's one of the great voices in modern music and The Good The Bad and The Queen will be one of his great works, don't let it slip by.
Friday, January 12, 2007
The Great Ones Vol. 1 (Side B Track 2)
The exploitation films of the 1970's have long been a cult favorite, inspiring fans and artists from all over the world in music, painting and other films. What they haven't ever achieved is mainstream recognition which, while perhaps fitting, has caused many of the finest actors of the decade to have become either forgotten or at the very least unjustly looked over. Look no further than these maligned genre films from the 70's to see some of our greatest leading men and women and most importantly some of our finest character actors. Many actors from this period combined both the charisma of a leading player with the stability of a classic character actor, one of the strongest was Glynn Turman.
Turman has had a very long and distinguished career from early theatre roles starting in the late 50s all the way to his television work today. He has one countless awards in the theatre and television and has long been respected among his peers. After all this he remains, for many people, one of those great faces without a name. Like many of our greatest character actors, he slips from role to role giving the best performance he can and never selling himself, or his character, short.
Two of my favorite roles Turman came within just a year of each other and represent two of the finest, and least recognized, performances of the 70's
Michael Schultz's great coming of age drama Cooley High, released in 1975, gave Turman was one of his most memorable roles. His performance as the thoughtful Leroy "Preach" Jackson is one of the great portrayals of teenage confusion and angst. It's a remarkably internal performance where Turman always seems just on the point of breaking loose and the film's final moments, set to the Four Tops phenomenal "Reach Out", is one of cinema's greatest escape endings. Preach stands as one of the most positive and honest portrayals of urban youth, and Cooley High remains a watershed moment in 1970's cinema.
The indispensable book What It Is...What It Was features a chapter written by Turman where he says of Cooley High, "Another thing that we were so proud of, as black people, was to share with the rest of the world what our life was like. It was like a greeting card. This is how we are. And so many other people were able to say, 'we're like that too'. I think that's wonderful, just wonderful."
Turman, and the rest of the cast including a young Lawrence Hilton Jacobs and the beautiful Cynthia Davis, is so good in the role that for its 107 minute running time he remains frozen in a dream of authentic adolescence. Cooley High is often called the 'Black American Graffiti', this comparison doesn't hold with me as I think it's a finer film than George Lucas' more renowned work.
Turman would charter much darker waters in 1976's J.D.'s Revenge, a controversial film firmly planted in the blaxploitation genre while, at the same time, rising above it. Turman plays Issac, a mild mannered law student, who becomes possessed by the spirit of a vengeful dead gangster named JD. Turman gives an uncommonly good performance that shows just how far reaching his range was, as Isaac he is totally unrecognizable from the iconic Cooley High character just a year earlier. It's a daring film that mixes blaxploitation with the horror film in a much more successful way than the more well known Blacula.
JD's Revenge would be un-officially adapted several years ago as Bones but without a great actor like Turman and inventive direction of Arthur Marks it was little more than a pale shadow.
Turman has made many films (including Gremlins and even one with Ingmar Bergman!) but for me Cooley High and JD's Revenge show him at his finest and most diverse. These and other 'exploitation' films of the seventies will always be frowned upon in some circles. They remain favorites to me and many of the people who made them are among the greats, as Turman himself said, "I think all those films, negative and positive, have contributed positively to the things that are happening now."
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Grim Year Coming?
It has been ten years since Hal Hartley released his masterpiece Henry Fool. It has been a film that has stayed with me this past decade and I haven't let one of those ten years slip by without watching it. It's the work of an artist catching up and, ultimately, passing himself. It's a work, of great feeling and human longing, made by a man who might not have realized what he was capable of.
The characters of Henry, Simon and his sister Fay have remained in my thoughts through these years. Henry Fool's ambiguous ending have made them all the more vivid in my imagination. I could create their outcomes and they could go on living just in my mind, until now.
When it was announced last year that Hal Hartley was to make a sequel to Henry Fool centered around the character Fay Grim my initial reaction was one of excitement. After all since Henry Fool Hartley has been struggling. He has only managed two full length films since, No Such Thing and The Girl From Monday, both are flawed and were barely noticed. His best work since Henry Fool was a shot on digital hour long film concerning the second coming entitled The Book Of Life. Like many great past directors and artists Hartley has seemed unable to follow up his greatest work with anything truly substantial.
My initial feelings of excitement have of late began to switch into doubt and fear. I won't judge Fay Grim before I see it but it doesn't feel like the film Hartley should have made. I hope I am wrong, I hope the film turns out to be an honorable attempt at following, what I consider, one of the great American films.
The main thing, without doubt, the new film will have going for it is Parker Posey returning as Fay Grim. It will be a rare leading role for one of our finest actresses and she will be getting the chance to reprise one of her greatest characters. I have no doubt she will bring everything she can. James Urbaniak is returning as the garbageman turned poet Simon and rumor has it that Thomas Jay Ryan will return as the mysterious Henry Fool for one scene.
Each year American cinema seems to get a little more hollow, Hal Hartley's Henry Fool was one of the final reminders of its capabilities to transcend and inspire. Fay Grim will be released and it'll be great or it won't. Several of my heroes have been setting things right lately and while it may be true that Hal Hartley was never one of my heroes; his foolish, man out of time character Henry Fool is. Let's hope he's not let down.
These days I seem to find myself buying more re-issues of albums I already have than new music. It started happening several years ago and it's now pretty much the norm for me. I suppose part of it is getting older or, if I really want to sound old, today's music just doesn't have the same magic. I still manage to find each year some new albums that intrigue and seduce me so I thought I would throw out one of those dreaded best of lists. Some here are returning, some never went away and thankfully some are new. I would recommend any of these as proof that the world might not totally collapse in 2007.
1. Goldfrapp (Supernature) Imagine Marc Bolan coming back
to life to write a series of songs for the 21st century, now cross that with Marlene Dietrich in a disco and you've got Goldfrapp. Music made for 1974 in 2024 by the coolest woman on the planet.
2. James Dean Bradfield (The Great Western) Manic Street Preacher
singer comes out from the shadow of Richey James and Nicky Wire to create the best and most thoughtful rock album of the year.
3. Clint Mansell (The Fountain) Mansell's stunning score
to the most underrated film of the year performed by the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai.
4. Charlotte Gainsbourg (5:55) Charlotte returns with
Air and Jarvis Cocker to help craft an album that recalls her father and mothers finest.
5. The Who (Endless Wire) Pete Townshend is on fire again and this is a major
record. The songs are great but it's the mini-opera that really smokes.
6. Arctic Monkeys (Whatever People...) Worth every bit of the hype, the most
frenzied, frenetic and best debut since The libertines.
7. Susanna Hoffs + Matthew Sweet (Under The Covers)
Perfect selections, Hoffs lovely vocals and Richard Lloyd supplying the best guitar work of the year.
Bring on Vol. 2 please.
8. Camille (Le Fil) Kate Bush's Dreaming for the modern age, takes Bjork's
Medulla and makes it all the more listenable but not a bit compromised.
9. Hooverphonic (No More Sweet Music) Still one of the most sublime bands on the
planet. A daring double disc set that has them rethinking the album they just delivered.
10. Elvis Costello + Allen Toussaint (River in Reverse) My main man EC delivers another masterpiece this time with the great Toussaint.
11. New York Dolls (One Day....) I wish it was higher, still it's great to have
Johansen back believing in RocknRoll again.
12. Cat Power (The Greatest) Chan Marshal in Memphis, sobering up and playing with
some of Al Green's rhythm section. As great as the album is it's the live work that's leaked since that is even better.
13. The Raconteurs (Broken Boy Soldiers) Jack White, with my beloved Meg nowhere
in sight, delivers the best classic rock album of the year. Play it in the car
loud but it's still no Satan Get Behind Me.
Dust Off Those Grooves (Chapter Five)
Curtis Mayfield is, of course, incredibly well known as being one of the great figures in soul music history. His work with the Impressions as well as the solo career he launched in the early 70's is legendary but his work as a producer is at times overlooked and undervalued.
One of the finest albums that Mayfield composed and produced is the soundtrack to the wonderful 1974 film Claudine. The group that performed Mayfield's songs was none other than Gladys Knight and The Pips at the height of their power.
The film, which centers on a single mother raising her children, garnered an oscar nomination for its star Dianne Carroll and is widely regarded as one of the finest African American films of the 70s.
Claudine, the album, while a success upon initial release as since slipped into obscurity and is hard to come by. It had a brief cd release in the late 90s but now fetches high prices on Ebay and Amazon. The quality of the cd was poor compared to the original vinyl copies and it's an album that screams for a remastering and re-releasing.
The album kicks off with one of Mayfield's most politically charged and impassioned songs, Mr. Welfare Man. Knight establishes herself as on the great soul vocalists on this cut as she totally inhabits the songs raw anger and frustration. Mayfield would later perform this song himself but it's this original that has the juice, it's simply put one of the most important socially aware tracks of the period.
The heartbreaking To Be Invisible follows with Knight delivering another definitive performance, the Pips continue to show throughout the album that they were one of the great back-up groups. The harmonies and intelligence of the arrangements really shine through throughout this album.
Side one closes with perhaps Knight's two greatest performances with the funky On and On followed by the gorgeous The Makings of You. The Makings of You had already been done in a hard to top version by Curtis on his first solo LP but Knight nearly outdoes him here. The song here becomes the woman's response to Mayfield's original and it stands as one of the great love songs ever written. The biggest hit from the album is On and On and it really smokes. Knight's vocal performance on this one is as funky as it gets and the songs final over the top declaration is one of the 70's most exhilarating moments.
Side two consists of only three songs, the sublime title instrumental, Hold On and Make Yours A Happy Home. The vocal tracks here perfectly echo the films message of family and solidarity against the powers that be that the film focuses on. They are a dare as much as advice and the message Mayfield delivers is still as viable today as ever.
The film, Claudine, features several different vocal takes not available on the album. Including these would be an ideal way to flesh out a deluxe re-issue, as well as including the single mixes that were released. It's a splendid soulful record from two of modern music's finest voices, it's also a socially important document confronting issues that are still as relevant today as they were 30 odd years ago.