One of the first movie soundtracks I ever loved, that wasn’t strictly pop music, was the soundtrack to Michael Mann’s Heat. Moby, U2, and Brian Eno do make appearances, but vocals are kept to a minimum. The music is mostly hauntingly beautiful, with occasional forays into tense discord. Rarely do film and music link up so well together. Mann’s film is full of shades of blue, modern and sleek. The music has the same sleekness, full of ambient soundscapes that recall a city in the wee hours of the morning. The music rarely tells you how to feel. It is instead full of wonder, opening the door to a higher emotional state. The same piece may be lonely, beautiful, or tense, depending on the mood that you listen to it in. Above is a Michael Brooks instrumental called Ultramarine. It is a good piece to listen to because it features several elements that appear elsewhere on the soundtrack. It has percussive textures like Brian Eno’s Force Marker, a beautiful theme like Moby’s God Moving Over the Face of the Waters, and an overall ambience to it like much of the soundtrack.
The other night I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator for the first time since seeing it in theaters in 2004. I was struck by how good it was, much better than I remember it being when I originally saw it. This is Scorsese’s account of the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).
I seem to remember it mostly for its first half hour, of when it gives a kind of synopsis treatment of early Hollywood. It seems the work of a lesser filmmaker, tying to recreate a historical moment, without providing us any kind of insight into the actual moment. It looks good, but it is emotionally empty. The first section of the film almost plays more like a music video than a fully realized film with strong characters.
However, once Scorsese really starts showing us the struggle behind Hughes’s outward can-do facade, the movie really starts to become interesting. You start realizing that the same things that allow Hughes to succeed are the same things that will eventually destroy him. Hughes struggles with an extreme case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This personality trait drives him to be a perfectionist in the world of aviation and film, cause him to later be a shut-in that can no longer function in any kind of normal capacity.
That the film doesn’t adhere to the normal biographical film structure is a huge plus. Scorsese is too smart for this. The final shot, which leaves the viewer with a shot of Hughes obsessively repeating a phrase makes the film depart on a haunted note, that hints at what is to come, while leaving just enough ambiguity to make it work as symbolism rather than just strict biography. Although Scorsese provides viewers with a possible explanation for Hughes’s insanity, he never overplays this hand either, not allowing simplification of the mystery of the human condition.
If the film follows any traditional narrative it is that of the classic tragedy, where the hero’s strengths are exactly what destroy him. Before the last moments of the film, the hero’s strengths allow him to rise for one final triumph.
Although Hughes’s demons are largely the result of a inner struggle, the film also seems to be commenting on how society tries to destroy the dreamer. Hughes dreams bigger and bolder than everyone around him and for the mundane everyday nature of commerce and bureaucracy try to bring him down. We like to tell ourselves the narrative that we reward hard work and bold ideas, but we really only reward those a great deal of the time if they fall within a pre-established order. If someone doesn’t kneel before the powers-that-be, those powers, which have the backing of the majority, will try attain retribution.
It’s also interesting that the very things that Hughes struggles with, outside of his own personal demons, are the same thing that haunts our society today, which is the unholy alliance of big business and government. When big business is allowed to corrupt our government, the results are not only bad for the individual, but for society at large. When we look at the freak power that is now the Republican party, we see these forces at work in our own time. In a way this film is not only an interesting character study, but timely as well.
I just got done writing a review of Ryan Gosling’s Lost River. The music plays a huge role in the film. Above is the theme song from the movie by the band the Chromatics who also contribute to that films soundtrack. I also posted the title song of their great album Kill For Love. They are a band I have really fallen in love with over the last couple years. There are many bands in recent years that use the 80’s as a kind of stepping off point for their sound. However, I think the Chromatics succeed where many others don’t. They are great at not only creating great mood pieces, but also at writing great pop songs, something that is trickier than it appears. And though some may view what they do as style over substance, I think they always deliver on an emotional level. Song after song they are able to create a beautiful haunted quality. And although they definitely use certain retro sounds, I believe they combine them in a unique way. If you listen to their records enough you will notice certain sonic hallmarks which identify the band as having achieved their own sound.
Last night I saw Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, and I loved it. If you are a fan of directors like Nicholas Winding Refn or David Lynch, I think you will like it. It’s definitely a strange fever dream of a movie, and one I don’t think you would like if you are not comfortable with abstraction. It’s certainly a late night art house kind of a movie. The whole thing is visually gorgeous, with vivid colors that explode onscreen. I kept thinking of describing the movie as looking like “melting cotton candy” while I watched it. Even horrific images of things like houses burning, are darkly beautiful.
The movies takes place in an imaginary version of American, filmed in the depressed areas of Detroit. Christina Hendricks, best known for Mad Men, plays a mom that is trying to keep hold of the family home. In order to make payments she takes a job working in a nightclub, hired by an unsympathetic bank manager who also runs the nightclub at night. It is later observed that even his one act of kindness, providing employment, have malicious intentions. The club, a place that looks like New Orleans on acid, excels in acts that are full of mock blood and gore that distract its patrons from real nightmares of their days. What goes on in the basement of the club is even more sinister.
The other plot line centers around Hendricks’s son, Bones. Bones trys to help provide by finding useful scrap that can be sold. In doing this he runs afoul of the local gang lord, Bully.
The plot in and of itself may not sound like much, as visuals, sound design, and dream logic play every bit as much of a role in the proceedings as the story itself. What the camera sees, how things sound, tell you as much as the dialog and the overall story arc. This doesn’t mean that the general story arc is not clear, even if there are ambiguities, but the movie is more of a poem than a novel.
The performances of many of the main characters are great. The characters are more archetypes than fully fleshed out personalities, but in this kind of movie it helps, as it does away with exposition and allows the movie to attain a kind of dream state. You know who those people are and where they stand in the universe after only a scene or two. Particularly great is Matt Smith, formerly of Doctor Who, as the psychopath Bully. Also great is Ben Mendelsohn, who takes a Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet turn at the microphone, as the bank manager/nightclub manger. Out of the protagonists it is Christina Hendricks that makes the most impact, as she makes the most out of her scenes, and seems visually created to be in this film. Also great is a cab driver played by Reda Kateb, who makes a strong impression with very little screen time.
There are political overtones in the film, but this is not a political film in any traditional sense. Kateb’s cab driver talks about the disappointment between how immigrants view this country and the reality that they find here. One can’t help but be in disbelief of the world that in front of ones eyes, the dilapidated buildings, the seedy gas station, and know that however beautiful it all is in some strange way, due to the colors of the film and its dream like nature, it is equally horrific, especially realizing that this is all filmed in real world Detroit. The closing scene also is especially meaningful, though I don’t want to spoil it, if one thinks about the symbolism behind it.
However, make no mistake. This film is first and foremost about creating an emotional experience. Helped by this is the great music created by Johnny Jewel, and the title song by his band The Chromatics. Much like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, which starred Gosling and also featured music by the above participants, the movie has 80’s cinema overtones, even if these overtones are more about how we remember certain movies from that period, less than the reality of those movies themselves.
This movie received many negative reviews and was booed by a large part of the audience at Cannes, where it debuted. However, I think this movie will gain a cult audience overtime. I understand how there are people that will never like this movie, as it is very unsettling and requires work on part of the viewer to interpret its many charms. However, if you love batshit insane movies that deal largely in imaginative visuals and ecstatic emotions, then definitely give this one a try. Despite all of its obvious debts to other works, it still manages to create a unique and compelling world that is worth spending time in.
It’s been another busy week here in Texas. Last weekend was four show, this weekend there are four shows, and two of my three days off I have been recording. Going on the road this week with the Shinyribs band:
I’m hoping to get a book worth discussing before I hit the highway. Musically I have been living exclusively in the world of Jamaica.
Recording just a few songs with my good friend Mick Flowers who, aside from being an excellent drummer and producer, is also a prop master, and an amazing one at that. I just saw the last movie that he did, Joe starring Nicholas Cage, and it was fantastic. A gritty southern grotesque with a dark heart and an even darker sense of humor. It’s on Netflix right now and it is worth seeking out if you like your movies jet black or if you are a fan of southern writers like Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor. It was filmed around Austin and apparently many of the people in the film, although excellent, are not trained actors, but regular people recruited for the film.
In Austin we went from last year, where you couldn’t swim because all of the swimming holes were dry, to not being able to swim this year because the creeks are overflowing due to an abundance of rain. I know better than to substitute weather for climate, but the weather sure has been strange down here the last few years.
The more I think about it the more I am extremely happy that I read Voltaire’s Candide. It is a satire of the human condition of the highest order. You will never hear anyone say, “All is for the best”, or “Everything happens for a reason”, again the same way.
Been reading Stephen King short stories the last couple of weeks. It is amazing how prolific he is. I know there are some critics that criticize his writing style, but he has an ability to tap into the uncanny in a way that few other writers can. I like genre fiction, or songwriting, or movies, as long as they are done well. There is something interesting about taking a certain genre, trying to work within its limits, and deliver surprises along the way that is appealing. I always believed that a lot of creativity comes out of limitations.
Anyway, I am off to enjoy some rare sunshine before I head into the studio.
In the future, when all’s well…
When I watch the news I often think of the movie Apocalypto. This is a Mel Gibson directed movie that deals with the Mayans. The movie is an insane spectacle filled with ideas and blood. The characters speak in ancient Mayan dialogue, but the movie is brilliant because it manages to tell the story in ways that are mostly visual. It is an extremely intelligent piece of entertainment, an action movie with ideas. It is barbarous, batshit insane, kinetic entertainment.
Now why do I think of this movie when I see the news? This is not due to the themes of the movie. The Mayan empire is depicted as a civilization on the verge of collapse due to environmental calamity and human exploitation. It came out during the Bush years and the Iraq War. Gibson even commented that the Mayan rulers were very similar to Bush in his boys. Sure, the invading Europeans put the nail in the coffin of the Mayans, but the Europeans are aided by the Mayan leaders’ tyrannical rule. That is not to say that is true in history, but Gibson is trying to draw a parallel through art. He is saying if we don’t quit oppressing people, if we don’t protect the environment, history shows that we and our way of life is in trouble.
However, none of that crosses my mind when I watch the news. The greatest emotional quality of Apocalypto is insanity. When I watch the news and they focus on the trivial and ignore the important, I feel emotionally like I do when I watch Apocalypto. When I see war and oppression trumpeted as normal, when I see global warming treated as not real, when I see celebrity eclipse the common good, I feel the same as when I watch Apocalypto.
There is intellectual truth and emotional truth in art. Even if you argue that the movie doesn’t have the former, it has the latter in spades. It feels like what happens when the world turns upside down. It’s why the movie makes me happy, even though it is largely an action movie and a quite dark one at that. Someone connected to an emotion that is all too common in the modern world. It’s always uplifting to know someone feels like you do. If there are others, you might just stand a chance.
The truth is never simple and yet it is. The truth is we did kill him. By silence we consented… because we couldn’t go on. But by Ares, what did we have to look forward to but to be discarded in the end like Cleitus? After all this time, to give away our wealth to Asian sycophants we despised? Mixing the races? Harmony? Oh, he talked of these things. I never believe in his dream. None of us did. That’s the truth of his life. The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams. – Old Ptolemy, regarding Alexander the Great, in the movie Alexander
Last night I watched No No: A Dockumentary, a documentary about the baseball player Dock Ellis. He was famous for, among many things, throwing a no hitter on LSD. The documentary was worth watching, really good even, but not exceptional. The footage and the interviews were fantastic, but something about the way the different pieces were put together, the narrative arc, seemed a little loose and unfocused.
One of the things that I found disappointing, but did not take away from my enjoyment of the film, was the end of the film’s focus on Ellis getting clean and teaching prisoners how to reenter life. Now this is true to life. I also don’t wish to discount what is obviously a noble pursuit for anyone. But for most of the film Ellis is Icarus before the crash. You know, because he is mortal, that his wings will melt, but you can’t help but enjoy watching him fly to close to the sun. So often society wants the outcome of the Icarus myth. They show a brief shot of his obituary and the newspaper’s headline says something about how he overcame drugs. For much of his life Ellis was the black ball player that, during a time of extreme racial prejudice, refused to keep his head down. He not only was a physical mutant, succeeding in MLB while being extremely high, but also quite fearless in his behavior. When black ball players were expected to keep their mouths shut, enduring things that can only be seen as outright ignorance, Ellis refused to play by the rules of society. He was never one of the silent masses, guilty by consent.
Early in the movie the film talks about how black ball players, in certain parts of the country, were supposed to stay in different hotels than the white players. This is obviously insanely stupid. Black ball players also had to deal with everything from racial epithets to threatening letters. Ellis never let this kind of discrimination water down his personality. He was bold and proud when the world wanted him to be meek, quiet, and safe.
Society, even today, wants people to know their place. I don’t even necessarily mean this in a racial way. It wants people to tow the line. It wants people to apologize for their personal transgressions. But the world needs people like Ellis. It needs freaks and mutants that by design or will can’t conform. Although there are many ways to challenge the absurdity of the world, one way is to match its absurdity blow by blow, to refuse to bend to the will of the ignorant. For a longtime Ellis out-crazied the whirlwind.
He eventually takes it too far. As one ages their body can no longer handle the excess of youth. Society is more powerful than the individual and it eventually will take the edges off someone or destroy them. Very few, like George Carlin, actually get bolder with age. Even if you refuse to bend to the will of society, life will eventually defeat you. But for a little while he was out their defying the powerful, even defying the gods. He was up there in the clouds, free and beautiful, a mythic character in the flesh.
I’m not saying his later deeds do not deserve commendation. His work with those on the outskirts of society were noble, good, and worthy of respect. But don’t for a second discount his earlier accomplishments. He was a heroic mutant, momentarily shaking off the shackles of the mortal. I’m glad he was out there, for a little while…