Friday, December 26, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. X

Singer Joe Cocker, who sadly died over the holidays at 70 after a battle with lung cancer, could get to the bottom of heartache in a song like no other. Listening to him perform, with his gravel voice, was like hearing Louis Armstrong cured in a blue funk. Containing a melancholic soul that rivalled Billie Holiday, Cocker's ecstatic surrender to the naked emotion in a romantic number, at its best, could transcend masochism. Of all his memorable tracks from "Hitchcock Railway" to his soulful take on "With a Little Help from My Friends," his gospel tinged "Do I Still Figure in Your Life?" asks with maybe the greatest urgency the most poignant demand of his audience.

Film director Carlos Saura has made many dazzling dance pictures before, from Carmen (1983) to Flamenco (1995), but Iberia (2005) may be his most erotic work. Using a studio outfitted with minimalist backdrops of scrims, curtains and mirrors, Saura adapts sections of composer Isaac Albeniz's "Iberia" suite for a number of the biggest stars in the Spanish dance and music world to perform. Yet like Jonathan Demme in Stop Making Sense (1984), Saura makes us conscious of the artifice he's creating, letting us see the cameras, the lights, and the recording equipment, only then to employ the magic of performance to evaporate the artifice. Saura isn't content just capturing that alchemy, though, he goes further inside the process of performance art itself and, while using expressionistic techniques, reaches the purest essence of dance to create a fully realized expression of love for the sensuality of movement.

When you're just too wicked for Parchman's Farm, Calvin Leavy gives you a hint as to where you'll be heading instead  and with a guitar solo that outdoes the electric chair.

Helen Mirren recently wrote a lovely and touching tribute to the late Bob Hoskins where she not only speaks well of him, but also quite eloquently in capturing his dynamic impact as an actor - especially in The Long Good Friday (1980), in which she co-starred with him. "The role was perfect for him, displaying that incredible energy that trembled inside of him, simmering, seething, turbulent, about to explode," she writes. "His neck would swell, his face redden, his eyes become like two little shiny black olives. It was terrifying. And yet… and yet he managed to be something quite miraculous."

Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren (photo by Brian Moody/Scope Features).

After 40 years, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II is still the most satisfying gangster film. Besides its incisive study of American corruption, the way it develops with even more assurance the dramatic themes of its predecessor, and fulfils the genre with new depths of tragic realism, The Godfather, Part II also provided with subtle nuance the shadow side of JFK's Camelot while it parsed the dark paranoia of the Nixon era. In my book (and lecture series) Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism, I use the scene below to put forth my idea that there are key American films from each Presidential era  from Kennedy to Obama  that trace not only the arc of broken promises, but also those trying to be kept. When Michael poses to Tom that "if history has taught us anything, it says you can kill anyone," I usually ask the class who they think of when he says that. Everyone, of course, names JFK. But the scene takes place in 1959, just prior to the election that made him President. Yet they're right. Coppola intends us to think of Kennedy. (To make the point even more explicit, he has the staging of Hyman Roth's murder look like Ruby shooting Oswald.) As I tell the class, you have a scene set in 1959, from a movie made in 1974, and it makes you think of Dallas in 1963. That's a hall of mirrors.

As an early birthday present to myself, I gathered up Bob Dylan & The Band's The Complete Basement Tapes and I heartily recommend this expensive, yet expansive, collection over the two-disc primer which is also available. The tracks on the two-disc set may give you some of the best songs, but on the expanded edition you can hear the full process of an informal master class  with plenty of good ribald jokes included. Dylan brings his folk, blues, country and American songbook background to the basement of Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York, where a mostly Canadian bar band known as The Hawks (and later dubbed The Band) would with miraculous ease quickly transform these tracks (which critic Greil Marcus said ranged from the confessional to the bawdy house) into a gathering of true community and fellowship.

Unlike the 1975 CBS release, which gathered some of the basement songs plus including some very fine Band demos, the sound is rich and clean of the overdubs sprinkled on the Seventies set. There's such intimacy in the sound that you can feel the air in the room and hear the intent behind each strum. Since The Basement Tapes were never meant to be an album what you are listening to is an evolution of songs being composed and developed, where artists are finding a tone, or "killing time" as Robbie Robertson of The Band once called these sessions. But you quickly discover that there's no clock to kill, no studio to close, no label to sell it, and no deadline to keep  only total freedom to create music. Woody Guthrie once said he composed his songs out of the air, but Dylan and The Band give theirs back to the air. Whether it's the astonishing "I'm Not There," a song being created as its being sung, the playfully cryptic "Lo and Behold," the dark, deep well of "This Wheel's on Fire," or the down home humour of "Get Your Rocks Off," The Complete Basement Tapes is a spirit and a feeling long gone from popular music. But its recent release provides some twisting road maps to finding its recovery.

Like the work of James Gray today (We Own the Night, Two Lovers, The Immigrant), Philip Kaufman is deserving of a larger following than he has. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is still the funniest and scariest (and prescient) SF films ever made. The Wanderers (1979) captures the shifting values between the late Fifties and the early Sixties better than American Graffiti did (and the music is placed more poignantly instead of for its nostalgic value). The Right Stuff (1983) is a truly hip and beautifully cadenced epic drama. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Henry and June (1990) are stirring erotic dramas containing all the fear, trembling and excitement of sex. Rising Sun (1993) is a clever contemporary noir set in the global economy. Quills (2000) should be in theatres now given the recent furor over Seth Rogan's The Interview. In the clip below, Kaufman riffs his way through The Criterion Collection picking out some of his favourite pictures, movies that seem to trace a fine line through his own sensibility.

For those who lament that jazz today is either dead, or smells funny, fifty years ago John Coltrane unleashed A Love Supreme (with Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones) in a burst of pure joy and innovation. In every way a spiritual calling, as Van Morrison's 1979 Into the Music would also be, Coltrane gives the music a future it couldn't fulfil while never losing sight of its past. As Ralph J. Gleason once said: "Coltrane personifies the young jazz musician who, in searching for a personal style, in striving to establish his art as valid and individual and real, takes chances in forging a style which, by definition, challenges the form of tradition while remaining loyal to the essence, and assaults the conventional and the orthodox."

In 1978, French painter and film-maker Hugues de Montalembert returned to his New York apartment to encounter two robbers who viciously assaulted him, ultimately throwing paint thinner in his face before escaping. By morning, he was in a Soho hospital and blind. Black Sun (2005) is a riveting impressionistic study of an artist coming to terms with his lost sight by finding new ways of seeing. Director Gary Tarn provides a new way of seeing for us, as well. He allows de Montalembert to tell his own story, as a narration track, while we are slowly and persuasively drawn into his forgiving perspective. We watch images of New York and its people that are distorted, but with a lyricism that is fluidly evocative. Unlike the tedious cosmology on parade in Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (1983), Black Sun is truly transcendent.

I wanted to extend to all my friends who celebrate the holiday season a very Merry Christmas with your family and loved ones.

 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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