Saturday, October 8, 2016

Things Went Down: Joel Selvin’s Altamont

Things went down we don’t understand, but I think in time we will.
– The Grateful Dead, “New Speedway Boogie”

It’s been 47 years: were The Dead right, wrong, or both? There are different kinds of understanding – factual, emotional, metaphorical – but even combined, they will never add up to any final understanding, any state of Zen, when it comes to certain things. The Altamont concert of December 6, 1969 – the free show that climaxed the Rolling Stones’ autumn tour of the United States – was a day-long cataclysm which the evidence suggests was, for the vast majority in attendance, a uniquely dumb and ugly experience. But it may also have been, as Joel Selvin calls it in the subtitle of his new book, “rock’s darkest day.” It was certainly, as has been pointed out many times, a gruesomely apt metaphor. It illustrated contradictions that were intrinsic to the era, to the people, and to the style of music which brought 300,000 to a racetrack in the windy voids near Livermore, California, to see Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead (who didn’t play), and The Rolling Stones. Like a knife, a metaphor needs its absolute edge, its implacable point. At Altamont, that point was the stabbing, as The Stones played “Under My Thumb,” of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old from Berkeley who happened to be black and flashing a gun, by Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro, a 22-year-old from San Jose who happened to be white and wielding a knife. Other, mostly unidentified Angels finished the lynching Passaro had begun, and Hunter was dead before the ambulance came. “A young black man murdered in the midst of a white crowd by white thugs as white men played their version of black music”: thus did Greil Marcus summarize the metaphor, the knife point of the event.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Critic's Crypt: Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator & From Beyond

Jeffrey Combs in Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985).

Critics At Large is pleased to present CRITIC’S CRYPT, a new column in which our writers compare, contrast, and explore two horror films that are linked by a common element. For our first installment, Justin Cummings tackles two Lovecraftian horror adaptations by director Stuart Gordon.

I mourn daily the gross appropriation of the works of Howard Philip Lovecraft in popular culture. I blame those (like the bacon-loving patrons of theCHIVE and its ilk) who attach empty-headed significance to the icon of Cthulhu the same way Bill Watterson’s Calvin is grotesquely bandied about by idiots everywhere on pickup truck window decals. Cthulhu is inescapable in today’s culture, filling store shelves with squid-faced plush dolls and bumper stickers, bought by consumers who couldn’t name you a single Lovecraft story, let alone have ever taken the time to read one. Lovecraft himself was a weirdo and a racist: a brilliant asshole through and through. His writing is the product of a deeply troubled mind, which grasped at the greater truth he desperately hoped was hiding behind the drudgery of daily life – an artist with great talent plagued by financial trouble and an inescapable sense of despair. He was what you might charitably call the “sadder but wiser” sort of guy, whose stories were almost always linked by a general fascination about “that which man was never meant to know.” It’s horror, to be sure, but intellectual horror; stories inspired by and largely about ideas that are too frightening for the human mind to comprehend. These tales were never typified by gore, sexual content, or general gross excess, although you could be forgiven for thinking so based on adaptations like Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). It’s these kind of representations of his work which, I think, have led to an inaccurate perception of what the tales of Lovecraft are really about, and of why his work remains so influential long after his death (at least to those who read it).

On their own terms, Re-Animator and From Beyond are terrifically fun splatter pictures. They’re among the premier examples of genre convergence in horror cinema, combining science fiction, comedy, and body horror in ways that still feel fresh and charged with energy. In fact, they share more than just genre: they both star Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, and are both directed and co-written by Stuart Gordon. Viewed as a double bill (an experience I can enthusiastically recommend), they feel like sister pictures – two different expressions of the same creative spark. Re-Animator is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West, Re-Animator,” which is both longer and far less entertaining than Gordon’s version, and From Beyond is a greatly expanded version of the original 7-page story of the same name. They were produced and released back-to-back in a storm of cheap shoots, fake blood, intense performances, and some genuinely excellent filmmaking craft, all inspired by Gordon’s experience in the world of theatre and his interest in the blood, the shock, and the passion of the Grand Guignol tradition.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Masculine Ideal

Paul Newman and Sally Field in Absence of Malice (1981).

During the Christmas season, back in 1981, while visiting some friends of mine in rural Caledon, Ontario, I suggested going to neighbouring Orangeville to see a movie. The theatre in town was a duoplex with Sydney Pollack's legal drama, Absence of Malice, in one, and Burt Reynolds' adaptation of William Diehl's pulp potboiler, Sharky's Machine, in the other. But rather than making a quick choice on arrival, we ended up hitting a great divide. A huge argument broke out that almost sent us back home. The women were keen on Absence of Malice, where Paul Newman played a Miami liquor wholesaler, the son of a deceased mobster, who suddenly became a suspect in a front-page story about the possible murder of a union official. The men were primed and determined to see Burt Reynolds as an Atlanta narcotics sergeant working a drug case who gets demoted when, in pursuit of a drug dealer, he accidentally shoots a bus driver. We ultimately decided to split up and see our respective films before we ended up seeing nothing. (Full disclosure: I went with the women.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Dueling Guitars: John Scofield and Charlie Hunter

Nothing brings me more pleasure than listening to two musicians who are still growing as guitar players. Case in point: Charlie Hunter and John Scofield. Both players have recently released new albums that are interesting to the ear, full of energy and in the groove.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Airbourne: Carlos Saura and Jota

A scene from J: Beyond Flamenco, directed by Carlos Saura.

Director Carlos Saura has done it again: he has used dance as a source of inspiration for one of his masterfully made movies. But instead of fiery flamenco -- the subject of the trio of dance films, Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983) and El Amor Brujo (1986), which first made him internationally famous in the 1980s -- Saura, now 84, has turned to jota, a lesser known dance and musical genre born of his native Aragon.

J: Beyond Flamenco (also known as Jota de Saura), a 90-minute art-driven documentary that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, tells the story of jota (the j is pronounced like an h), a traditional dance performed in rapid 6/8 time and to a variety of instruments, from Galician bagpipes to Castilian guitars and castanets. Jota, as Saura proudly shows, is the dance of the Spanish people, what they have performed since the 1700s at burials, weddings and street festivals like the one reenacted for the camera at the film's end. But over the centuries it has morphed into an art form of great intricacy, delicacy and poetic expressiveness. The high elevations and airborne allegro movements – including sautés, jetes, cabrioles and entrechats – show jota (the word means "jump") to have a strong affinity with ballet. The artistry is elegantly sublime.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Master Acting Classes: The Firm (1993)

Sydney Pollack’s 1993 The Firm, out of a John Grisham novel, is a thriller about a young Harvard Law graduate named Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) who is wooed and hired by a prestigious Memphis firm and then discovers that anyone who’s ever tried to leave it has wound up dead. This sounds like the premise for a sci-fi fantasy – you expect to find out that the partners are body snatchers or the undead – and considering how preposterous the plot is, it might have been more satisfying if it had been. (The firm’s real secret, that it launders money for the Mafia, is both dumb and flat.) And Cruise is awful. In one episode, his mentor, Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) – the characters’ names are more entertainingly florid than the story line – takes Mitch along on a business trip to the Cayman Islands, where he’s seduced on a moonlit beach by a young woman (Karina Lombard) he rescues when he finds her being slapped around by a date. Cruise is so inexpressive in this interlude that all he can manage is a wary, semi-frozen stare. Like a lot of his parts, this one shows off his athletic prowess, in this case his running, and it sure is a lot more impressive than his acting.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Mind Control in Stephen King’s End of Watch

Author Stephen King. (Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)

When I began reading the first installment of Stephen King’s hard-boiled crime trilogy – the critically acclaimed and Edgar Award-winning Mr. Mercedes (2014) followed the next year with Finders Keepers and concluding with End of Watch (Scribner, 2016) – I wondered how long King would confine himself to the genre’s conventions. He did pretty well for over two and a half volumes, then he veered into his comfort zone, the realm of horror that draws upon tropes of the Gothic. As a crime novel, End of Watch generally works because King finds a way to retreat and provide the police with a reasonable explanation for the resolution though we, the readers, know that the conventions of a police procedural cannot explain what has occurred.