Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XXIII

In the last couple of months, like many viewers, I've been watching David Lynch's return and resurrection of Twin Peaks. Without going into great detail for those who haven't yet dipped in, I can safely say there isn't anything on television anywhere that comes close to what's going on here. Of course, that said, the show has also been a source of frustration, as much as a font of devious delight and pure shock. But partly that is due to the fact that Lynch has broken the wall of serial television. That wall (in both good and bad shows) always provides the predictable dramatic arcs, climaxes and cliffhangers which in the age of streaming give us full comfort and safety, plus the freedom to binge-watch. But who could binge-watch this? Time itself becomes something close to elastic on Twin Peaks, where even stasis sometimes has to be considered a twist in the story.

Last Sunday's episode ("Got a Light?") went the full distance in twisting our expectations and perceptions of what a television episode is. I'm not sure it was exactly what I needed a few days after a chemotherapy infusion, but it was certainly up to the poison that was running in my veins. Furthermore, as Lynch has done time and again, he fuses our pop dreams and nightmares so seamlessly that they create a seductive synergy. But where he takes us is inescapably unnerving. Beginning with a mood of contemporary noir right out of Mulholland Drive, the episode shifts without warning into a terrifying and slowly building sonic landscape of atomic horror that exists in the real world and also in the world of our worst imaginings. In that space, Nine Inch Nails creates a searing metallic-static soundtrack ("She's Gone Away") that marries Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima until we enter the haunting fifties pop of The Platters singing "My Prayer."

While it may be a slight joke to feature The Platters (since one of their original members was a singer named David Lynch), the song, first written in 1939, actually serves the same purpose as Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" did in Blue Velvet. But here, in that moment, dark apparitions of nuclear horror descend on a sleepy American town as lovers and listeners to the radio sway to the soft harmonies of this pining vocal group ("When the twilight is gone and no songbirds are singing / When the twilight is gone you come into my heart / And here in my heart you will stay while I pray"). Within these moments, as we hatch the angels of our romantic pursuits, there are also demons that take our pop dreams apart.

With the passing of Adam West recently, many are remembering his role as Batman in the sixties television series. As agreeably hambone as he was there, I'd like to draw attention instead to the unjustly forgotten role he had in Michael Tolkin's clever high comedy The New Age, set in Los Angeles. (The 1994 picture, which is a better La La Land than the musical bearing that name, has been forgotten as well.) Peter Weller and Judy Davis play a married Yuppie couple who lose their bounty and seek spiritual fulfillment. When they open a boutique (aptly called "Hipocracy"), they hope to raise the dough to divorce. While seeking enlightenment in New Age philosophies, they also come face to face with the realities of mortality. The quest for enlightened spirituality gets tangled up with a world defined and motored by materialism. Playing Weller's father, Adam West oozes insincerity with a smoothly unctuous charm that causes his son in one scene to comment, as West tries on a pastel-colored sports jacket, "You look too much like a Del Taco franchise owner who lives in Palm Springs, goes to the mall, walks into a store for guys who cruise the disco in the Holiday Inn, and got talked into buying something too slick. . . . But if you like it, buy it." The New Age, however, avoids a smug attitude towards those post-hippie philosophies by keeping its tongue firmly wedged in its cheek. "I find the New Age tenet of 'finding the power within you' an extremely American creed," Tolkin once remarked to the Los Angeles Times. "When I find myself practicing one variety of religion and others following another, best to follow the advice of Walt Whitman: 'Argue not concerning God.' I didn't want to take the predictable position of superiority." The New Age follows that creed with an expert precision.

The Moody Blues, once an R&B band led by singer Denny Laine (who in the seventies would join Paul McCartney's Wings) had a huge hit in 1964 with a cover of Bessie Banks' "Go Now." But in 1967, shortly after Laine departed, The Moody Blues brought on board singer/songwriter Justin Hayward and bass player John Lodge to reshape their music into a more classical rock ensemble. The band's sensibility then developed precisely in the spirit of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper (maybe even before that when Moodies' keyboardist Mike Pinder introduced Paul McCartney to the mellotron as The Beatles were set to record "Strawberry Fields Forever"). Their first venture, quite unthinkable without Pepper's "A Day in the Life," was Days of Future Past, recorded in 1967 with a symphony orchestra. More than Pepper, Days of Future Past was a concept album that traced a day in the life, or perhaps a life in the day, given the band's interest in the ephemeral. What was unique about the record was their deliberate attempt to forge a common vision where every song – each written by a different member of the group – had the goal of contributing to a common identity. No one songwriter dominated the album and every track was seamlessly wedded to the record's overall concept. (It sometimes was hard to tell the writers apart as the songs all segued into one another.)

Like Pepper, Days of Future Past ended with a song that lasted long beyond the time of the record. Justin Hayward's "Nights in White Satin" proved to live up to the group's name and suggested at the record's conclusion that the day the album spanned was likely a lifetime where one reaches the end and looks back at where that life has taken him. But Hayward was in his twenties and even as he caught perfectly the regrets and hopes one gathers through time, he hadn't yet lived them. In this more recent live performance, he has – and he's lost the innocence and imaginative leap the original recording possessed. "Nights in White Satin" here sounds lived-in, as if Hayward's drawing on particular episodes that give the tune a whole new poignancy. Rather than serving as a nostalgic look back in time, this version gathers time and Hayward no longer has to imagine what it has reaped in the years since it was first on the radio. He's finally caught up to it.

                                          Stephen Sondheim's Blues (for Eileen Whitfield).

RIP Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. You always knew you were in for a good James Bond film when the opening credits song was good as well. The feral intensity Cornell brought to "You Know My Name" in Casino Royale served as the kind of kick-off that both addressed our lingering familiarity with the series and brought the expectation that this time it wasn't going to be just fun and games.

Besides the melody and the affirmation expressed in "Brand New Start," what always came across as appealing to me in this Paul Weller song is that he doesn't dwell on the quality of life that preceded the realizations he sings about. Rather than use whatever ruin came before to bolster a need to be what he chooses for himself now, he simply embraces the changes he's come to accept. We don't need to know what he's given up to be reborn because the timbre in his voice let's us know it's substantial. Weller lets us bask in the clearing with the sun full in our faces so that the full mystery of what lies in the days ahead can be fully acknowledged.

                                                                The Sunshine Boys.

The foreboding spirit of Robert Johnson seeped into many songs from Eric Clapton's "Layla" to Free's "Wishing Well," but he could be heard and maybe felt most strongly in the music of The Allman Brothers Band. Fear and death stalked this band from the beginning and with Gregg Allman's demise their music has now reached the end of a long road. That path was littered with both the skeletons which rattle in closets and the shaking of bones that a sense of pure freedom provides. Their cover of Elmore James's "One Way Out," which was recorded live at the Fillmore East and included on Eat a Peach, confidently rides the jet fuel of Duane Allman's slide guitar in search of that freedom. Gregg Allman's voice – full of the terror of being chased – also possesses the joy in the possibility of breaking free. But the song also tells you that sanctuary is out of the question.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy 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 Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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