Sunday, December 11, 2016

Critics Notes & Frames Vol. XXI


Brian De Palma's Home Movies is a 1979 low-budget independent film made with the help of his film class at Sarah Lawrence as a hands-on training exercise. (They were given the primary responsibilities of raising money, arranging the shooting schedule, and editing the film, all under De Palma's supervision.) What they got was a spirited primal comedy laced with episodes from De Palma's early life that also came to make sense of his movie obsessions. Kirk Douglas (who had just starred in De Palma's last thriller, The Fury) plays a film instructor who uses the medium as a form of therapy. His prize student Dennis Byrd (Keith Gordon) decides to turn the camera on his family life, which is filled with enough neurotic issues to fuel numerous sessions. Besides competing with a favoured and pompous older brother (the hilarious Gerrit Graham, who played the glam rock star, Beef in De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise), Dennis also has to deal with a mother (Mary Davenport) who pops pills because of her philandering husband (Vincent Gardenia), a physician on whom his son ultimately turns his lens to catch him in the act. When his older sibling brings home his girlfriend, Kristina (Nancy Allen), Dennis is immediately drawn to this striking blonde while still torn by guilt over his parents' marital issues. Home Movies is a shaggy satire with Oedipal gags that pop like party balloons. While the picture has a relaxed charm compared to the fervently exciting thrillers, Carrie and The Fury, that preceded it, the themes of voyeurism and fear would carry over effectively into his next picture, Dressed to Kill, where the comedy and horror have a more lasting after-bite.



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Martin Scorsese's 1995 Casino is an overwrought melodrama with a jukebox of great genre music continually running in the background – totally disconnected from the action on the screen (unlike in Mean Streets, where the songs function perfectly as arias). As programmed by Robbie Robertson, the Casino soundtrack CD is like some radio program you've never heard, or maybe some dream show broadcast after midnight. On it, Georges Delerue's score from Godard's Contempt collides in a completely companionable way with Louis Prima, who then gets to play bumper cars with Muddy Waters. Hearing Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug" snuggle next to Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry," or Tony Bennett's plaintive "Who Can I Turn To?" setting up Little Richard's deliriously carnal "Slippin' and Slidin'," makes for better drama than anything in the actual film. Not to mention that it isn't likely that Bach's St Matthew Passion BWV 244 has ever before accompanied a gangster's getting blown up in his car.




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When Nick Lowe wrote this song in 1974, and recorded it with his band Brinsley Schwarz, he was taking the piss out of all the hippie utopianism from the Sixties. When Elvis Costello & the Attractions got their hands on it in 1979 for their album, Armed Forces (a record initially titled Emotional Fascism), they cast it in a very different light. Coming at the end of a series of songs ("Oliver's Army," "Green Shirt," "Goon Squad," "Two Little Hitlers") that abandoned topical protest for a claustrophobic tone that made you feel Orwell's boot on the human face forever, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" abandons Nick Lowe's irony and embraces a truer version of sanity. "The merging of our political shadows with our private affairs suggests a secret, shared longing for a real police state: a vengeful, guilty authoritarianism that, in the emotional fascism of everyday life, we are already acting out," wrote critic Greil Marcus on the theme of the album in 1979 (although he could have just written it yesterday. "Such a tale demands some release, and with '(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,' Costello provides it."





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On the date of his murder, I came across John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth" from his Imagine album, which I had always liked for its drive, its pulse, and Lennon's take-no-prisoners vocal. (And for George Harrison's slide solo, which has more bite than he usually provided on his own records, where he made his guitar sound like he was relaxing in the surf of Hawaii.) The word play here was always a little too didactic – especially compared to "I Am the Walrus" – but heard today, in an era where people are saying that facts don't exist (Ronald Reagan had already called them "stupid things" in 1988), I'm more in tune with its vitriol than I used to be.




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It will go down as one of the greatest World Series games in history for more than simply the bit of history it put to rest. CBS News described the game this way: "The Chicago Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in a mind-blowing, nerve-jangling, heart-stopping mess of a game, a 10-inning acid trip that tested the limits of your sanity, made baseball history and ended 108 years of anxiety. Every inning of this game pushed the night closer and closer to becoming a Salvador Dali painting brought to life. It was surreal, it was painful, it was delirious. It was four hours and 28 minutes of madness, culminating in an ending that still doesn't seem real."

It was also a series played with skill, drama, and professional respect, at a time when those words are getting cheapened regularly. The Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians raised the bar on what most of us demand as entertainment and if that night's thriller didn't make you a baseball fan, you never will be. It is a game. But baseball has its own narratives (like all great literature) that have mirrored and changed the course of a country – a nation populated with better angels who still refuse to lay the whip in the grave. The turbulent story of America's conflicts has been part of baseball from the beginning. But the series became more an antidote, even a salve, to the poisonous atmosphere of the current political season. Did the Cubs' win cleanse that atmosphere? Of course not. But it did settle a few things. The billy goat can finally go to spirit. Steve Bartman once again can return to Wrigley Field. And Steve Goodman can rest in peace.




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On those deserted and apocalyptic city streets where Charlton Heston goes one way in search of his Omega Man, and Will Smith goes another to have imaginary conversations with mannequins, Kristen Stewart chooses instead to burn rubber and wake up the dead to The Rolling Stones' tribute to Eddie Taylor's "Ride 'Em On Down" (a tale of fear to join Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail"). Whether the dead, the vampires, or even the survivors (like one she meets) are even paying attention appear immaterial to Stewart's joyrider -- who figures that as long as her car stereo is working and her hips keep swaying, there ain't nothing dead or alive who can stop her.




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Critic Steve Turner once said that "Little Richard didn't make records to be appreciated or even whistled along to. He made records to ravage the senses." I'd say that maybe he created a pure frenzy for the senses which arrived with a gospel urgency. Salvation and deliverance were laid at the heart of each track - whether religious or sexual - and Prince was unthinkable without him. Even when he played a comically inspired scene of neglect as a rich record producer in the heart of Beverly Hills, in Paul Mazursky's Down and Out in Beverly Hills, he commanded our full attention as he turned his rant into the bedrock for a possible song that, with a little luck, could have torn up the charts.




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On The Avalanches' "Because I'm Me," from their album, Wildflower, a young singer in a subway station imagines himself perhaps reborn as Frankie Lymon (before the tragedies and the heroin), or maybe even the young Michael Jackson at the time of "The Love You Save," and before long the whole glorious history of rhythm and blues comes together to back up his claim. Greig Dymond (co-author with Geoff Pevere of Mondo Canuck) says it best: "It's pure aural joy, featuring a non-stop torrent of retro samples with a heavy disco and R'n'B flavour. This is cut-and-paste genius on the same level as De La Soul, The KLF, and David Holmes. For me, the transcendent pop moment of the year comes at 1:49 on this track, when the horns and strings kick in full blast. It's been a tough year in so many ways – this song offers blissful, sweet relief."




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While John Mayall has for years been something of a finishing school for blues guitarists - from Peter Green to Eric Clapton to Mick Taylor – his own work has been relegated to a respectful backstory. That may well be because, as Lester Bangs once wrote of Mayall's USA Union, his sound is so "[elegantly] subtle [and] understated it broaches background music." Nevertheless, the joyful interplay in Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, the jazz stylings of The Turning Point and the country blues swing in Empty Rooms make that background still shine bright. On his 1974 The Latest Edition, Mayall offered up, among the usual topical blues entries, a lovely gospel blues meditation, "A Perfect Peace," which would almost fade innocuously into its own contemplation if not for the biting guitar work of High Tide Harris, which helps the song earn the peace it strives for.



                                 
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While in all honesty I'm a bigger fan musically of Tina Turner from her days with the tall, lanky and brutal Ike, she never lost her soul (as some claimed) when she shifted from R&B into pop in the eighties. Despite the shimmering synth glitter on the grooves, her voice cut through the gloss with the force of a chainsaw. Which is why, despite having little (or nothing) to say about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, or her role in it, or the lyrics to the track, "We Don't Need Another Hero" (we just needed another movie), Turner's presence and performance of the song in this video commands the screen and makes you believe, if you didn't already, that Turner is like Mavis Staples reborn as an Amazonian princess.




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In light of Fidel Castro's recent passing, I began thinking back to my first listen to Cuban and Latin American music from the ridiculously campy – but delightfully loopy – 1969 Hollywood bio, Che!, with fiery Jack Palance (!) as Fidel and Omar Sharif (!!), with his liquid peepers, as Che Guevara. The revolution itself is played out by director Richard Fleischer as some kind of hothouse romantic melodrama where Palance and Sharif continually fight for the camera's attention in the Sierra Maestra (while Batista waits off screen to be deposed). Eventually they move from the mountains and into the bedrooms of Havana at night for government briefings, Palance muttering often, "You know, sometimes, Che, I just don't understand you." They stop short of lighting each other's cigars. But the Lalo Schifrin score is no joke; it stayed with me while I was convulsing with laughter at just about everything else. There's a nice mix of Argentinian folk melodies and Cuban jazz plus some gorgeous Flamenco guitar that ultimately paints a musical portrait of romantic hopes doomed by hubris and political ruthlessness.




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The Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action" is a really prime example of a song where the greatness is in its sound. The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" is all that and more. Real Estate, an American band from Ridgewood, New Jersey, has a little of that in "Talking Backwards" from their 2014 album, Atlas. The song says nothing new about the travails of a long-distance romance, or even anything very interesting to ponder, but the melody does display the frustration of crossed wires and pining in the sky.




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"Long, Long, Long," is not only one of George Harrison's most moving tracks about reconciliation to his spiritual beliefs (where he uses as his inspiration Bob Dylan's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"), but it also casts an eerie, dark mood as it uncovers wounds in need of healing. By the time the bottle of Blue Nun rattles on an amplifier to Paul McCartney's portentous concluding note on the organ, your bones, too, might be shaking from the recognition of what those wounds are and the doubt that they can ever be fully healed.



 
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When Phil Ochs performed his song "Crucifixion," a somber and poetic meditation on the Kennedy assassination, live in concert in Vancouver in late 1968, both the country and the artist were suffering great disillusionment. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy that year, the horrible violence of Chicago at the Democratic Convention, and the advent of Richard Nixon, the sense of saving the nation seemed painfully lost. Instead of slaying dragons with his topical folk songs, it was Ochs who was left defeated. (In his first album after the Chicago riots, Rehearsals for Retirement, he even featured a tombstone on the cover for both himself and his country.)

Some of that melancholy crept into that Vancouver show and coloured even some of his more comical songs. Since it would be years before the public became aware of Ochs's struggle with depression (which ultimately led to his suicide), the concerts came across as hangovers from the era about to end. Maybe it is that wistful aspect that gives a certain pungency to this version of "Crucifixion." "And a blinding revelation is laid upon his plate / That beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate / And God help the critic of the dawn," he sings. If the earlier studio take had the stridency of a news bulletin, the Vancouver performance reaps the horror of knowing that the song maybe didn't end in 1963 – and it might not ever.




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Given the kind of year it's been, Eric Dolphy's solo stab at Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence's standard "Tenderly" on his 1960 album, Far Cry, addresses with both wistful abandon and aching warmth the fleeting nature of love and compassion. Sarah Vaughn most famously took "Tenderly" to the top of the charts, but everyone from Pat Boone to Amy Winehouse wrapped their lips around images of trembling trees tenderly embracing the breeze as a couple fall in love. There are no words in Dolphy's version, only his alto sax painting impressionistic images of a shore being kissed by the sea as if he were a lonely bird hovering over the romantic idyll. And just like that bird, as the scene vanishes from sight, you can hear him flapping away into the night.




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A while back, Mojo Magazine was doing a tribute to The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers album and included as a free disc the whole record with different artists performing each track. Mojo does this frequently in their record tributes and it's usually a disaster. Either the artists play the tracks with such reverence that the song ends up playing them, or they try so hard to be offbeat that they lose the beat. But the Sticky Fingers tribute, which was called Sticky Soul Fingers, was one of their Mojo's rare successes. Inviting on board a number of R&B and gospel performers (Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens, Alice Russell), Sticky Soul Fingers feels less like a mass lighting of incense sticks and more like a roots album where the underpinnings of The Stones' music bubbles to the surface. In particular, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings bring a gospel intensity to "Wild Horses" that serves to turn the song's desire for romantic commitment into a quest for something eternal. 




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Sometimes behind great artists lie equally exemplary performers who work in anonymity like drummer Hal Blaine (The Beach Boys' "Wouldn't it Be Nice"), bass player Carol Kaye (Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman"), bass player James Jamerson (any great Motown song you care to mention), and pianist Johnnie Johnson (any great Chuck Berry song you care to mention). Guitarist Hubert Sumlin was hardly invisible, but his playing with Howlin' Wolf was substantial without being ostentatious. In a sense, like Ringo Starr in The Beatles, Sumlin added both personality and an abiding generous rapport. In this rare and amazing television clip of Wolf singing "Shake For Me," which also features Sunnyland Slim on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Clifton James on drums, Sumlin's hefty rhythm helps keep this chugging train on the tracks.




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While, as a result of the dramatic inertia under the beautifully evocative landscapes, Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven fails to fully illuminate the themes of loss and longing in an America about to vanish, the score by Ennio Morricone does its damnedest to capture a faint nostalgia that brims with the kind of melancholy that keeps you yearning for what's been lost.



 
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When you get cancer, you can't help but contemplate about what you've done in your life that has lasting value and what will continue to have impact beyond the time you occupy this sphere. Songwriter Gord Downie has, through his music with The Tragically Hip and his support for First Nations' peoples and their history and culture, exemplified a true patriotism that doesn't wrap itself in the flag, but asks that a country live up to the values that the flag is supposed to stand for. What is genuinely moving in these moments that so quickly can evoke tears is the recognition that one's life has larger connections, to a continuity that is both spiritual and physical, and will loom equally large in the future when those who took this stage today have long passed into time.





– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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