Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Mann: an A-Z

Public Enemies is out this week, and in some sort of celebration, a few brief reflections on its Director in the form of an (at times very stretched) A-Z:

A. is for America
It can be argued that the grand theme in Mann's mature work is a study of America itself, its evolution, flaws and institutions. In Last of the Mohicans, he depicts the struggles between other competing Nations and peoples as a fledgling country seeks to define itself through violence, War and sacrifice. Hawkeye, in that film's scheme, is the first American, a man with a foot in two separate cultures, preparing to start a family in an entirely new culture partly of his own invention. In Heat, amongst many other things, we see a study of the modern American city and the relationship between crime and law enforcement therein. Mann shows us how much this effects dozens of people across several social strata - from the wives of cops and bank robbers, to white Collar criminals and suicidal teens. The Insider is about modern corporate America and its relationship with the media - it may be his most vital, thematically topical film. Jeffrey Wigand is just a man struggling with the morality of his work (for a corporation) as is Lowell Bergman. Ali is explicitly about America, about the 60s, the civil rights movement, the Nation of Islam, the FBI (even, in the Director's Cut, the CIA in Africa) - it shows and contextualises Ali's relationship with all these forces, revealing his singular importance in American popular and political culture. Collateral is another study of urban America as a melting pot of competing tribes (Hispanic, Korean, African-American). Miami Vice is about American borders and America as policeman - International crime leading to bloodshed on Americas shores means American agression abroad (again, very topical), and again a report on tribal differences (here we have South American drug gangs and White Supremacists). Public Enemies, like Last of the Mohicans and Ali, looks to be at least partly about the making of modern America.

B. is for Blue
Blue has an emotional resonance for Mann which he relates thematically to the stories he tells. I'm not sure what it "means". I could speculate, but nobody can be sure. Mortality and an awareness of such? Loneliness? A masculine awareness of the need for the family unit, domesticity and meaning? I doubt Mann himself really understands why hes drawn to the colour, and he generally resists thematic readings of his work in any case. But he knows how to make it look beautiful. He generally favours a cold blue tint, and some of his films don't even really contain much of it - Ali and Last of the Mohicans have much warmer pallets than some of his other work, as most period dramas tend to do. But its omnipresent in Heat and Miami Vice and makes telling appearances in just about everything else. Most notably used in scenes where men gaze into blue spaces of sky and ocean.

C. is for Crime
In a recent Guardian column, David Thomson (whose critical abilities have declined alarmingly in the last few years, even if he still writes beautifully) basically argued that Mann was not a genius because he makes "Crime Movies". That is, films which rely on a boyish enthusiasm for outlaws and action and the facile notion that criminals and policemen are actually alike under the skin, and which ignore the reality of crime and the impact and traumatic effect it can have on its victims. Which is a disastrous over-simplification, and a condescension to Mann's work (altough Thomson does acknowledge him as a "Master" in the way he builds sequences). But it cannot be argued - Mann's career has been dominated by Crime as a genre. He made his name writing cop shows for television, made his debut as a Director on a crime movie, had his greatest popular success as the Producer of a cop show on television and his greatest critical success for writing and directing an Epic crime film. Since then he has made another crime movie and another cop show for television. How much of his life, with his devotion to research and mastering any subject he addresses, has been spent interviewing cops and career criminals? This is a world he knows and understands. And like David Simon or David Chase, he knows he can tell stories about the way we live now through the prism of the crime genre. Heat, for all Thomson's wit, suggests that DeNiros Bank Robber and Pacino's Cop are alike, but then it has the characters identify what exactly it is that separates them. They both live by codes. But whereas DeNiro's McCauley's is based on survival, self-preservation above all else, Pacino's Hanna is motivated by a sort of civic interest. "If its between you and some poor bastard whose wife you're gonna turn into a widow, brother - you are goin down." he says. In the end, Hanna's code proves the stronger, his skill as a hunter outmatching McCauleys compromised survival ethos. But Heat is, like Collateral and Miami Vice, a film about the difficulty of personal communication in a modern world crowded with the apparatus of communication. It is also a film, like them, about men with guns. Mann layers his work, which is perhaps the key to its ability to reward multiple viewings.

D. is for Digital
In his determination to utilize new technical innovations in cinematography, Mann is something of a visionary. Parts of Ali were shot digitally, and they have a raw, harsh beauty in what is otherwise a more conventionally visually pleasurable celluloid production. Mann then made sure that his short-lived TV Series Robbery Homicide Division was shot exclusively digitally. It is at times a surreal look at modern Los Angeles in all its eclectic beauty, particularly that city's canyons and art deco architecture and grafitti and freeways as they appear at night. Digital photography captures light after dark in a way celluloid is denied, and hence the milky glow over a megapolis at midnight is recast as a cloudy purple canvas. Collateral transfers Robbery Homicide Division's aesthetic to cinema, and as such is at times hypnotically beautiful. Then there is Miami Vice, a swooningly, ravishingly beautiful showcase for digital photography. From digital grain to the pin-sharp resolution of just about any sequence, it is an unabashedly sensual exercise in photography, and a study of the sky above Florida, and how muzzle flashes are pretty in the night, and how the dull flatness of urban street-lighting has its own beauty and poetry if you look at it right. And yet some actually thought it "ugly". The same people who howl at the notion of a period film (Public Enemies) shot digitally, I think.

E. is for Ensembles
Mann attracts amazing casts for all his movies. Familiar faces everywhere. His leads are generally the biggest and best. Both heavyweight, high calibre thespians and Big Movie stars. DeNiro and Pacino, obviously. Daniel Day Lewis, Russell Crowe, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx. His movies are filled with talent even in the small roles. Because people want to work with him. The likes of Denis Haysbert and Jermy Piven, both pre-tv fame, in Heat. Javier Bardem and Mark Ruffalo in Collateral. He's viewed as a major director, and good with actors. He gives them good stuff to work with. Neither Pacino or DeNiro have had a scene as good as their coffee table chat in Heat since that movie. Russell Crowe has never ever been as good as he was in The Insider, ditto Will Smith with Ali and even Tom Cruise in Collateral. Daniel Day Lewis flirted with movie stardom in The Last of the Mohicans in a way he never had before and Mann seemed to make it work, to make him see the artistic value in it all.
Mann makes these actors better, draws gold from them. Mario Van Peebles, dragged from the Direct to DVD ghetto for Ali and proving Mann right in a few short scenes, is just further proof of this. Wings Hauser - Wings Hauser! - in The Insider is a more startling example. Part of the reason is his perfect casting - when he takes a gamble (Gong Li in Miami Vice, for example) he has to make it work. But its the perfection of all those faces in those small parts that really registers. Heat is the best example. Tom Noonan and William Fichtner and Hank Azaria all feature briefly but unforgettably. Jon Voight, unrecognisable, but incredible. Tone Loc and Henry Rollins, slipping into the ensemble like veterans. And they all just add to the tapestry, the portrayal of a modern insane city in all its variety and ugly humanity...

F. is for For Whom the Bell Tolls
Every film-maker has his unmade passion projects. Mann gets attached to a lot of material, partly because he is busy as a producer and partly because he is in great demand. An adaptation of "Gates of Fire", Stephen Presfeld's novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, which has presumably capsized following the success of 300. A film about the murder of Litvenenko. Before Public Enemies came together with unseemly pre-Writers Strike haste, he had been hovering around an Untitled Period Noir set in Hollywood of the 40s and 50s, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The budget was reportedly prohibitive and nobody would finance it. He has been linked with DiCaprio before. Firstly on a James Dean biopic in the 90s (Mann was linked to a couple of biopics before he settled on Ali - the other being Ferrari with Robert DeNiro), and secondly on what is supposed to be his dream project - an adaptation of Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls". Setting aside DiCaprio, with his little-boy-playing-grown-up-looks and manner, an actor I have never really appreciated, as Robert Jordan, Hemingway and Mann is surely a perfect fit. Both terse, masculine storytellers with weaknesses for moments of unexpected poetry and pure stylistic indulgence. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" sounds like a Mann film - a love story in a War zone, a focus upon a man who is brilliant at what he does and alone because of that, a handful of brutal action sequences, some amazing scenery for Mann's camera to faun over. Consider though, that in Sam Wood's mediocre 1943 adaptation, Jordan is played by Gary Cooper, then imagine DiCaprio in any role Cooper ever played, and the casting quandary becomes plain. Any of Mann's other recent Leading men - Depp, Bale, Farrell - would make a better Jordan than DiCaprio.
I would in fact suggest Mark Ruffalo to play this bruised Jordan, nearing his life's end, finding love in the most unexpected place. He has the necessary sensitivity and the machismo, and he is a fine actor. Though possibly not a big enough star.
And this will, if it ever actually happens, be an insanely big film with a colossal budget. Mann may need a star to back him up...

G. is for Gunfire
The central gun battle in Heat is the greatest shootout in cinema since The Wild Bunch, a terrifying, riveting assault on the senses but also a surgical account of the movements, advances and retreats of two opposing groups of men involved in a running gun battle in a modern urban environment. Mann understands the power of gunfire. He concentrates on the visceral shock of it, the booming muzzles and flashes of light, the sudden yawning maws of silence which rise up when the gunshots fade away. After the longest stretch of that battle in Heat (the technical advisor on which was Andy McNab), in the absence of gunfire we can hear sirens and screaming above the City's usual ambient noise, and there is a small shock to the realization that this madness - a scene from a Warzone, really - has all taken place in the midst of a normal day, in midtown Los Angeles. Mann's insistence on realism and verisimilitude makes it all frighteningly authentic, As are the shootouts in Collateral and Miami Vice. Key to the impact, however, is the sound design. The Heat scene is deafening, with each gun sounding different and the noise echoing off the glass and concrete of the city's manmade canyons. In Miami Vice, the final shootout is slightly more stylized, with the beauty of the muzzle flashes being captured with a disturbing sensual charge by the digital cameras. The climax of Thief opts for some lovingly edited slo-mo of its carnage, combining realism and poetry in one sequence. Last of the Mohicans, too, handles its violence beautifully, with a strange contrast afforded between the gutwrenchingly intimate brutality of most of the Natives - all tomahawks and scalpings - and the clean, if thunderous precision of the rifles used by the Mohicans and the Redcoats. In short; with Mann, gunfire is lethal, but surprisingly beautiful too.

H. is for Home
Which would be the city of Chicago. Mann has a strong Chicago accent, and its perhaps the toughest sounding and most obviously urban of American accents (alongside Boston and the Bronx) - all flat hard vowels and bitten off consonants. Having origins in Chicago could explain the fascination with crime, I suppose. It probably does account - to a certain extent - for that authorial voice, too. A certain terseness, a hardboiled quality to the concerns and the characterisations both. Elvis Mitchell wrote a piece in the New York Times some years back grouping Mann together with fellow Chicagoan Writer-Directors David Mamet and William Friedkin as the "Chicago Macho School of Crime FIlm", which is a cute idea but stands up to little scrutiny (altough Mann and Mamet do have shared concerns). He has made films there - Thief is set mostly in Chicago, as are much of Crime Story and some of Public Enemies.

I. is for Inluence
His style is so singular and so beautifully achieved that attempting to imitate it is to invite disaster. But still some try. Stephen Gaghan in Syrania, Olivier Marchal in 36, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak in Infernal Affairs, Peter Berg in The Kingdom (co-produced by Mann), and even Soderbergh in Traffic all go for the steeliness of some Mann. His thematic concerns are so focused and obvious that any attempt to address them would come off like outright plagarism, which 36 and Infernal Affairs both do. His biggest influence is in providing the visual template which now dominates commercial Hollywood cinema. He, alongside fellow London Film School alumni Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne, influenced by their work in advertising, basically created the precisely shot, crisply (over)lit look of much 1980s cinema. Mann brought the aesthetic to television with Miami Vice while Lyne and Scott gave it mainstream Hollywood acceptance in films like Fatal Attraction and Black Rain. Taken up by commercially savvy producers Simpson and Bruckheimer, that look has since been pushed to its limits by the likes of Tony Scott and Michael Bay, while Mann has moved off in many other directions..

J. is for Jaunpuri
At the start of his career, Mann made a few shorts, the most celebrated of which is Jaunpuri, an abstract experimental work. He also made the (lost) 8mm short Dead Birds and 17 Days Down the Line, a short documentary about the American working man. All this before he found an actual way into the industry through writing for television, and none of it available for viewing today. Mann classifies Jaunpuri, which won awards at a couple of Film festivals, as an "embarassment".

K. is for The Keep
And speaking of embarassments...
The Keep (1983), based on F. Paul Wilson's novel, is the great mystery in Mann's filmography. Unlike anything else he's done, it is unavailable on DVD and relatively little seen. It tells the story of a group of Nazis who occupy an ancient Romanian fortress and unwittingly unleash the evil force which has been held imprisoned there for centuries. It appears to make references to the Holocaust and the roots of Fascism, but is unequivocally a mystical horror film with a big dumb creature in a bad suit at its heart. This is a shame, as this physical manifestation of the creature, known as Molasar, comes to dominate and spoil the last act of the film, when the first half has been quite promising. Mann establishes a taut, eerie atmosphere through photography, a fantastic Tangerine Dream score and some brilliant production design. Much of the film seems to refer to German Expressionist cinema, especialy the design of the keep itself, and some of the lighting schemes, which makes sense, as Mann has claimed it was Pabst's 1925 Joyless Street which first inspired him to a career in cinema. The film features some brilliant scenes - an amazing slow, endless pull back away from a Nazi soldier into an enormous underground cavern, alien stone constructions visible in the dark, for one, and some nice work from a young cast (Gabriel Byrne and Jurgen Prochnow alongside Scott Glen and Ian McKellan), but finally its execution is not at the same level as its ambition. Any horror film which attempts to locate the fascist impulse within the human heart and incarnate it within it's monster had better have a good, scary monster capable of bearing the strain. Molasar is that until we actually see him, when we realise that he looks like an action figure. The climax is a generic light-battle without any tension or excitement. There have been rumours for years of a Director's Cut version on DVD, but nothing appears forthcoming for this, the black sheep of Mann's body of work.

L. is for List
Mann contributed a list of his favourite 10 Films to the last poll by "Sight & Sound". You can find the longer version, alongside his typically verbose, erudite comments, here, but this is the resolutely Classic list:
Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
Citizen Kane (Welles)
Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)
Faust (Murnau)
Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais)
My Darling Clementine (Ford)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
Raging Bull (Scorsese)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah)

M. is for Music
Manhunter, arguably Mann's most complex and faultless film in other respects, is damn-near ruined by its music. Not Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-da-vidda" which makes for a creepy, hypnotic soundtrack to the final confrontation, or some of the electronic instrumentals, which just add to the mood of foreboding. No, I mean some of the soft-rock by the likes of Shriekback and the Prime Movers, which play as iredeemably dated and jarring in a modern context. The use of Audioslave in both Miami Vice and Collateral approaches similar territory. Mann loves to cake his films in music, as it plays an important role in that impressionistic effect he's seeking. His first two films both make use of terrific Tangerine Dream scores, and he would have great success later on when he stuck to these electronic-oriented instincts. So Heat's combination of Elliot Goldenthal's near-ambient score with instrumentals from Moby, Michael Brook and Brian Eno is brilliantly sympathetic to the modernist feel, and Miami Vice combine's John Murphy's subtle work with Moby (again), Mogwai, King Britt and Blue Foundation to similar effect.
His other two period films are more traditional. Last of the Mohicans features a classic score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, which is responsible for much of the films epic emotional sweep. Ali, however, relies mainly on use of vintage soul music in its American scenes, switching to Salif Keita when the action shifts to Africa. Interspersed throughout is a score by Lisa Gerrard, who also worked on The Insider.
Mann is brilliant at cutting to music. The opening sequence of Ali, a non-linear trip through the making of the young man in question and the run up to the Clay-Liston fight, is all set to Sam Cooke singing "Bring It On Home to Me", which is also intercut with the footage. It may be the best passage in all Mann's work. The use of "Iguazu" by Gustavo Santaolalla in The Insider is also fabulously judged to reflect the mental and emotional turmoil of Russell Crowe's Jeffrey Wigand. Then there is the transcendence of Moby's "One of these Mornings" in Miami Vice over shots of a speedboat cuttng across the ocean into an azure horizon.
All this without even mentioning the use of Del Shannon's "Runaway" in Crime Story or the revelatory score by Jan Hammer for Miami Vice, several selections from which were international hit singles...

N. is for Notes
The best book on Mann for me is FX Feeney's "Michael Mann" (Taschen), which is a beautiful coffee table tome, full of stills, on-set photos and research pictures. But also, thanks to the quality of Feeney's critical thinking and writing, an illuminating guide to Mann's work, explaining and questioning in just the right amounts.

O. is for Outlook
As in Landscape. Mann has a brilliant eye for landscape photography, and is possibly the best director of modern architecture since Antonioni. He knows that the architecture of a character's surroundings can speak for that character, can help us understand and feel how they feel. Consider the strip at the bottom of the runway at the climax of Heat and how it suddenly becomes an elemental arena of white light and white noise and two souls stripped back in combat. Or the beauty of the primordial forest in Last of the Mohicans, a system through which the three Mohicans move comfortably, until it provides a natural theatre for the operatic death of one at the end. Or the interior of Dollarhyde's house in Manhunter, which perfectly expresses his delusional state of mind. Or the freeway in Miami Vice where John Hawkes' Alonso looks beyond Crockett and Tubbs at the bleak beauty of Miami, its pylons and power lines, its purple night sky, thinks about his family dead because of him, and decides to step in front of a lorry.

P. is for Photographers
Donald Thorin was the DP who alongside Mann created the gritty, neon-lit world of Thief. He has never really lived up to that in his subsequent career and nowadays he tends to shoot mid-level medium budget comedies like Head of State and First Wives Club, altough one would imagine it was his work with Mann that attracted John Singelton's attention and got him work on Shaft (2000).
Mann is tough on DPs. Demanding, hard-working, he knows more about their field than they do, and is relentlessly perfectionist. He also picks the very best, so if he works with a young DP then their earlier work should be checked out at the earliest possible opportunity. The experienced Alex Thomson shot The Keep, fresh off John Boorman's beautiful Excalibur and Nicholas Roeg's Eureka, which tells you all you need to know about his reputation within the industry. He would go on to work with the likes of Michael Cimino and David Fincher (on Alien 3).
Mann's longest and most fruitful relationship with a DP has been with Dante Spinotti. Together they made four films in a row, from Manhunter through to The Insider, each visually sophisticated and lovely in its own way. Spinotti has returned for the digital photography of Public Enemies, having struck up a relationship with Brett Ratner in the interim (definition of sublime to ridiculous, for me) for whom he shot the vastly inferior Manhunter remake, Red Dragon.
The beautiful Ali was shot by Emmanuel Luzbeki, possibly the world's leading contemporary cinematographer, and he lived up to his reputation with his work for Mann. As did Dion Beebe, the talented Australian responsible for the brave digital experimentation of Collateral and Miami Vice.

Q. is for Quotes
"I'm a disco guy" - Yero, Miami Vice
"Your criteria are so far up your ass, they can't see daylight!" - Frank, Thief
"It is in your nature to do one thing correctly: Tremble." - Dollarhyde, Manhunter
"Graham: I know that I'm not smarter than you.
Lecktor: Then how did you catch me?
Graham: You had disadvantages.
Lecktor: What disadvantages?
Graham: You're insane." - Manhunter
"Duncan: There is a war on. How is it you are headed west?
Hawkeye: Well, we kinda face to the north and real sudden-like, turn left." - Last of the Mohicans
"McCauley: What am I doing? I'm talking to an empty telephone.
Van Zant: I don't understand.
McCauley: 'Cause there is a dead man on the other end of this line."- Heat
" I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be." - Hanna, Heat
" Sorry? 'Sorry' does not put Humpty Dumpty back together again." - Felix, Collateral
"Yo, homie. Is that my briefcase?" - Vincent, Collateral

R. is for Research
Mann likes it. He wants to know what his characters ate for breakfast, where their clothes were made, and where they bought them. He becomes an expert on the subjects of each of his films. He shoots on location when he can. He expects his actors to be good with their guns, and mostly they are. This all goes back to the weeks he spent with Cops riding in Squad cars and out on patrol when he was first writing Starsky & Hutch. He stayed in touch with many of these men, interviewed many from the other side of the law, and all of that knowledge became the basis for everything he's done in the crime genre since. Which doesn't mean hes stopped interviewing and researching. If anything, he seems to do even more now he has the means. Imagine the amount of research that must have gone into Ali or Public Enemies...

S. is for Style
"I don't like style. Style is what happens when form is orphaned because content left; its good in commercials. My attitude is that the audience is a highly sensitive organism sitting there in a dark room and everything has an effect." - Mann
Olivier Assayas, a fine and influential Cahiers du Cinema critic before he began directing, has placed Mann alongside Bresson, Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Visconti and Hou Hsiao Hsien in a high rank of cinematic grand stylists. This does not seem like hyperbole to me. Mann is probably the greatest stylist working in contemporary cinema. The strange paradox of his methodology - and his reputation - is that he is seen as a great realist, for his "method" approach, for his perfectionism. And yet often he is dismissed as a stylist, which is probably where the testiness of the above quote comes from.
What is his style and how is it defined? Well, he keeps his often handheld camera mobile, and is never afraid to let focus drift a little into abstraction. He often deliberately sets up his establishing shots this way - a quick cut to a surface we cannot recognise, only given context by a crawl or a pan. The undoubted lyricism of his style is often to be found in these moments. Miami Vice, perhaps his most rarified piece of art cinema (while also a movie about undercover Vice cops) is full of instances where the camera drifts away or Mann cuts away from the central action. Crockett and Isabella sit in a Havana bar, an open doorway behind them, and mid-conversation, Mann cuts to a shot of the feet of children passing a car's shiny hubcap outside that doorway.
He has defined his style as "classical" and also professed a desire for a "you are there" experience for the audience. The classicism is apparent in his handling of dialogue scenes, which he normally shoots in a traditional two-shot with a pair of close ups, as in the coffee shop scene in Heat. The immersive side comes from the detailing - obsessive, impossible to ignore - and the intimacy of his shot choices and acute editing. This is most obvious during action scenes, when a shaky, adrenaline-pumping current enters the film, the mix of precise masters and handheld cutaways, the flowing and unostentatious moving shots and the perfectly timed editing combining to give a sequence a powerful visceral charge.

T. is for Television
Mann is still referred to in media profiles as "the creator of Miami Vice", which shows just how deeply that show embedded itself in the cultural consciousness. It was revolutionary - stylish, big budget, well written and with an attractive cast and some great locations. Miami itself was the protagonist, and it came off as beautiful, contradictory and fascinating. Mann's original brief - "MTV cops" - was more than fulfilled, and one of Miami Vice's legacies was in its use of pop music. The justly celebrated scene of Crockett and Tubbs in preparation for a violent confrontation driving through the city outskirts at night to the tune of "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins was like nothing television had ever seen before in its stylistic confidence, cinematic ambition and slickness.
He had enjoyed his first notable success as a director in television, too, when his TV movie The Jericho Mile was such a popular and critical success.
Mann surpassed Miami Vice with Crime Story, his next televisual venture, and something of a masterwork. Following one cop's obsession with bringing down a single criminal and spanning years and US states and dozens of major characters, Crime Story was a HBO epic before such things existed. Inspired, in its approach to a long arcing narrative, at least, by Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, it was more stylized than it's elder brother and less successful (especially after it was moved into direct competition with Moonlighting). It was also more courageous and experimental in it's bold visual palette and terse narrative. The cliffhanger ending to Season One is one of the riskiest, most audacious gambles I have ever seen a TV show take - and it works.
Over the next few years he shot Heat-prototype L.A Crimewave and produced two "Drug Wars" mini-series, before returning to TV in a more complete sense with Robbery Homicide Division in 2002. Basically a series following a character not unlike Heat's Vincent Hanna and his squad, it was shot almost completely digitally, and as such is a crucial step in the journey Mann has made with the use of digital photography in his work. Cancelled after only a handful of episodes, its a sporadically brilliant show, if a little generic and subtle for a modern audience.

U. is for Underappreciated
Mann is a director who seems to inspire extremes in people. You either love him or hate him. Critically, the story is much the same - none of his films, except for perhaps The Insider, has ever received unanimous critical praise. Many critics praise his technical ability yet criticise his work as either pretentious or slick and empty.
His work has never been recognised by the Academy. The Insider received multiple nominations but no major wins. A film like Heat, now rightly recognised as a Modern Classic, received a mixed reception and garnered no Oscar nominations. He is controversial, in a way, his mix of an arty sensibility and a definite, deliberately high-minded aesthetic with popular genre cinema seeming to annoy some cultural commentators, as if he should decide on either the multiplex or the arthouse. While the true glory of his work is the fact that it would be comfortable in either venue.
But then he has his vocal acolytes - the web is full of Mann-fans rhapsodising about his work. Yet I feel he has not quite received his due, in America at least, as a major artist, and probably, since Scorsese's quality control slipped and
alongside Malick and P.T. Anderson, the greatest working American director, with a handful of classics in his body of work.

V. is for Variety
Mann's work as a producer has seen him produce a Scorsese period film (The Aviator, 2004), alongside Mario Van Peebles' Badasssss! and Peter Berg's The Kingdom. It makes sense that since his own body of work as a director is so unified and thematically central, that his interests would lead him to other subjects and styles in his career in production. He also makes the occasional advertisement for a ridiculous fee...

W. is for Women
A reputation as a resolutely "male" director sticks to Mann. Continually making films in a traditionally male genre - crime - only adds to the weight of this. And yet, and yet - Mann's films are full of strong, indominatable women, going their own way, doing what they believe is right, often suffering for it. Take Madeleine Stowe's Cora in Last of the Mohicans, choosing her own man, fighting for her life, always proud, always courageous, every inch a match for Hawkeye. Or Gong Li's Isabella in Miami Vice. If it wasn't for Crockett's deception, she would be in full command of their affair, and as it is, she makes all of her own choices and is never less than a lioness, never moreso than in her fury at discovering his lie. Or Tuesday Weld's Jesse in Thief, who enters into her relationship with Frank with her eyes open, knowing exactly what she can expect, and wanting it enough to go for it anyway. Mann, it seems, is a romantic. Love affairs in his world are often doomed, and more profound in their ecstasy and suffering as a result. So his women fall in love, follow their hearts and suffer for it. In Heat, three women love three men, and all of them make a sacrifice by the story's end. The story may be the men's story, but the women play a massive part in it, indeed they drive it. Ashley Judd's Charlene allows Chris to escape at a personal cost to herself, despite the rocky status of their marriage. Diane Venora's Justine lets Vincent walk away after coldly acknowledging their problems, and though she needs his emotional support, because she understands what drives him. And Amy Brenneman's Edie goes against her better judgement and agrees to leave with Neil, only to watch him follow a vendetta to his own death, leaving her marooned, bereft.
Miami Vice may be, alongside Last of the Mohicans, Mann's most romantic film, and at its ending Isabella has lost almost everything - her livelihood, her security, her reputation. Yet the film's emotional climax is in her pain at losing Crockett, in the sadness of their separation. In their last scene they cling to each other and he says "It was too good to last" and we see what Mann the romantic really makes of love and its tragedy in such a pitiless world. In such a world, any woman who risks losing everything must be seen as a strong character.
Plus - and this is no small thing in Cinema - he knows a classy dame, and a real beauty, when he sees one. Gong Li, Madeleine Stowe, Tuesday Weld, Marion Cotillard...

X. is for X-Rated
Mann does sex. Miami Vice has a couple of sex scenes, as do Ali and Heat. But he doesn't really seem all that interested, and there is more passion and heat in the scenes of seduction and first meeting in most of his films than in the actual bedroom scenes. Last of the Mohicans, which contains no sex, is probably his most erotically charged film. He should make a film lacking any genre tropes - no guns, no villains, no set-pieces. An emotional drama, about men and women and the way the world is now. Film it all the Michael Mann way and say something about the human condition, sex and love and laughter and all. But of course he never will. He is a Big Movie guy now, and he does them better than just about anyone else, and that is as it should be, I suppose...

Y. is for Youth
One way Mann is out of step with modern Hollywood is in the target audience for his films. They are not made for adolescent boys. They - even Collateral, even Miami Vice - are made for adults, who are willing to do some of the work themselves, narratively, emotionally. Then they are marketed at adolescent boys, the cars and guns front and centre, and people are confused. Adults don't go, adolescents do, and nobody wins. Except me. This seriousness probably derives from Mann's education - he has a Degree in English Literature and a Graduate degree (from the London Film School) in Cinema. He was never going to be McG. Altough if he was, Charlies Angels would be a lot more interesting...

Z. is for Zeitgeist
Public Enemies is released in the middle of a Global Economic Depression at a time when many in the West are angry at the banking system, which they hold responsible. So a film chronicling the brief career of a man who spent his time robbing from banks during the last great depression seems almost impossibly topical. But then Mann has always been good at skating the zeitgeist. Miami Vice arrived on TV in the 80s at just the moment America was ready for it. Last of the Mohicans gave birth to the boom in romantic historical epics over the next decade or so (First Knight, Braveheart, The Scarlet Letter etc), leading ultimately to the likes of Gladiator.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Football - No. 20 : Latin Wonderkids

South America has long exported its football talent to Europe.
In recent years, however, the talent drain has been beginning earlier as young players flee Economic and social uncertainty at home in Brazil or Argentina in order to live more comfortably, funded by their new European owners. Lionel Messi and his entire family left Rosario in Argentina because his boyhood club, Newells Old Boys, could not afford to pay for the hormonal treatments needed to stimulate his growth if "the flea" was ever to develop enough to give him a shot at a career as a professional. Barcelona could afford it, and afford to employ his father and put up the family in town. The Da Silva twins left Brazil before ever featuring for the first team at Fluminense. Manchester United had spotted them at an International Youth Tournament and moved quickly to sign them up.

This is increasingly common. And South America continues to produce great players, with new wonderkids appearing on the conveyer belt every season. They shuffle off to a mid-ranked European club, struggle with just about everything, go on loan, and finally return home, older and wiser, career more or less wasted. The odd exceptional talent - a Messi or a Kaka - thrives on or ahead of schedule. Many others take a few years to adapt to the weather, the rigours of the training ground, the physicality of the European game and the expectations upon their shoulders. Life must feel different once you're worth millions of dollars. Still, European Club football is full of South Americans. The latter stages of the Champions League positively teem with Brazilians and Argentines, alongside the occasional Uruguayan. And they keep coming. There will be more this summer, and in the January transfer window, and after the 2010 World Cup, when a few new talents have been unearthed.

I watch a lot of Argentinian football, and as much of the Copa Libertadores as I can. So I know a little about Uruguayan and Brazilian and Chilean football too. Enough to have spotted a few up and coming stars. It helps, too, that the media in those countries carefully monitors young talent in order to predict the next big thing as early as possible - many of these kids (none older than 22) have been persistently linked with the usual suspects (Man Utd, Liverpool, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barca, Milan, Inter etc) for years, and its as if the local media wants them to leave and further weaken domestic leagues. Go figure. Anyway, a short primer of some names to watch out for over the next few years:

Nicolas Lodeiro of Nacional (Uruguay)

Lodeiro, 20, is always being compared with Lionel Messi, which suggests how highly he is rated in South America. There are similarities - he is short (5ft7in) and plays on the wing yet with a licence to drift inside and link up attacks. But his game is very different to Messi's. He is more old-fashioned in that his playmaking comes more through passing than through the penetrative dribbles which Messi favours. He reads the game well and has an eye for a killer ball, which he appears to have an eerie knack of seeing before it actually materialises. He scores fewer goals than Messi, altough this part of his game looks to be improving. He is also a hard worker, tracking back and ferreting for the ball and displaying some trademark Uruguayan grit when contesting possession. He really emerged at the South American U21 Championship in January, where he scored three goals in six games and ran the show for Uruguay, who qualified for the U21 World Cup as a result. Since then he has played a key role in Nacional's successful run to the semi-finals of the Libertadores for the first time in over a decade. Uruguayan football never holds onto its brightest stars for very long, and the odds are that he will be in Europe soon, and the loudest talk has been of a move to either Barcelona or Liverpool...

Javier Pastore of Huracan (Argentina)

The Argentine League has been quite topsy turvy of late. The traditional "Big Five" (Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente, Racing Club and San Lorenzo) have suffered through sales of young stars to Europe and financial crises brought on by mismanagement and concerted attempts at Libertadores success. River won the Clausura last year, then came bottom in the Apertura, and Boca are not too far off repeating that feat in this Season. Which means that the dominant sides at the moment are a lowlier trio of Buenos Aires clubs - Lanus, Velez Sarsfeld and Huracan. Huracan have a historical reputation for attractive, attacking football (which in a country as devoted to attacking football as Argentina is no small claim) and under current coach Angel Cappa, they more than live up to that reputation. they also feature a duo of young stars who are stealing headlines in Argentina and attracting attention in Europe. Matias De Federico is another half-pint dribbler, blessed with explosive acceleration and feet seemingly magnetic to the ball. Inevitably, he is continually compared with Messi. Javier Pastore, on the other hand, is a playmaker for whom the term "elegant" might have been coined. Graceful of movement and with a fine range of creative passing, Pastore is also a deceptively strong runner, covering lots of ground with his rangy 6ft1in frame. This allows him to arrive late in the box on a regular basis and has meant he has scored 8 goals this Season for Huracan, including two in a 4-0 hammering of River Plate (he provided an assist for another). He seems always calm and composed, and his use of the ball, given any space at all, is often sublime. His agent reported that Man Utd bid £8 Million for him a month or so ago, but at 19, he may need another Season or two in Argentina before a move really appeals. He also needs to impress his National Team Coach, who snubbed him when picking an entire squad of domestically based players for a recent friendly against Panama. De Federico was selected (and scored) and the suspicion stands that Pastore was excluded because Huracan would not release him for the U21 Championship. In the past, Maradona has similarly punished Gonzalo Higuain, so at least Pastore is in good company...

Juan Forlin of Boca Juniors (Argentina)

The Argentine National team, struggling somewhat under the guidance of Diego Maradona, have a few problem positions if they do reach the World Cup in South Africa. Chief amongst them is Centre Back. Since the retirement of Roberto Ayala and the long term injury to Gabriel Milito, nobody has satisfactorily made either of the central defensive positions definitively his own. Maradona has experimented with various different players and combinations there, with mixed results. Which explains why Juan Forlin was fast-tracked into the squad during his first full Season as a first team player at Boca. If he continues at his current rate of development, then he could well be first choice for his country by the time the World Cup rolls around. He is certainly good enough. At 5ft11in, he is short for a centre half, but he makes up for it with incredible anticipation, smooth, apparently effortless pace and clean, precise tackling. He makes many sliding challenges, yet rarely concedes a free kick, instead often emerging with the ball at his feet, his opponent baffled by this lightning ghost. His spring is good in partial compensation for his stature. And, in the Boca tradition, he is adept at passing the ball out from the heart of defence. Barecelona have been sniffing around...

Sebastian Blanco of Lanus (Argentina)

Over the last two or three years, Lanus have easily and consistently played the best football in Argentina. They won their first ever League title two years ago (Apertura 2007), a triumph for their inimitably Argentinean short passing style. They possess a surfeit of creative, positive midfielders. Diego Valeri, the most classical, old-fashioned playmaker to emerge from Argentina since Juan Roman Riquelme (but with pace and a better work ethic, even if he does lack Riquelme's genius), was their lynchpin when they won that League title. Since then both Eduardo Salvio and Sebastian Blanco have become fixtures in the team. Blanco has often been preferred to the out-of-form Valeri this season. A truly two-footed attacker, he can play either wing, as a support striker, or in the Playmaker role at the tip of midfield, which is where he seems best used. Beautifully balanced and with a quick turn, it is that ability to use either foot to deliver his passes which marks him out, and the way he has started to shape Lanus' attacks with changes of play and sudden slide rule balls which suggest he could have a very bright future indeed. Lanus have done a good job holding onto all of their their young talent so far, Blanco included, for fear of selling off all of their success, but sooner or later the money on offer will prove too good to resist...

Maxi Moralez of Velez Sarsfield (Argentina)

Maxi Moralez stands out on this list for having done it all already. Aged 22, he has already moved to Europe for a lot of money, already failed and returned with his tail between his legs. And somehow it seems to have improved him as a player. He built a great reputation for himself at Racing Club in his teens, his technique, link up play, quick passing and incisive runs all impressing observers. At the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, he was the outstanding performer in the victorious Argentina side which also included Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Franco Di Santo. Moralez, clearly at home in the traditional Number 10 position in the hole behind Di Santo and Aguero, made his strikers look good with his clever prompting and numerous fine assists. FC Moscow promptly bought him for $5 Million. He didn't adapt well to Moscow, barely played, and was loaned back to Racing after 6 months, out of shape and in poor form. It took him around another 6 months to recover form, fitness and confidence, and by then it was unclear whether Racing actually wanted to keep him. So Moralez joined Velez Sarsfield instead, was given the Number 10 shirt and the responsibility to make things happen, and has driven the club to within one game of title success. He is the definition of a livewire - quick on his feet and with them, always looking for options, always a threat. at some point a return to Europe seems inevitable, perhaps in a more hospitable league than Russia's.

Douglas Costa of Gremio (Brazil)

A left-winger with a penchant for lots of step-overs and stunning swerves above the ball, Costa has already been compared to Ronaldinho, Robinho, and Cristiano Ronaldo in his native Brazil. One thing he definitely has in common with these players is an uncommon cockiness - he swaggers with belief in his own ability. Which does seem partly warranted by his undoubted potential. He has vision, astonishing pace and is a magnificent dribbler. His dead-ball ability also belies his youth (he is 19). But he is far from the finished article and above Brazilian ball wizards of his ilk always must loom the shadow of Denilson, who never came close to living up to the huge transfer fee which took him to Europe (he went to Real Betis for £21.5 Million in 1998). Douglas could do with at least one more Season in Brazil before his inevitable move materialises. He has been, unsurprisingly, most prominently linked with Man Utd as a Ronaldo replacement...

Gary Medel of Universidad Catolica (Chile)

His nickname: "El Pitbull" probably tells you all you need to know. A defensive midfielder in the Gattuso/Mascherano mould, Medel is a gritty competitor with fine footballing ability and a fantastic engine. Universidad Catolica are one of Chile's "Big Three", and for them he patrols the midfield, but Chilean National Coach Marcelo Bielsa usually uses him on the right side of a three-man defence, while encouraging him to forage forward, employing that amazing energy to burn his way through a match. In the recent 2-0 victory over Argentina in Santiago, Medel was probably Man of the Match, his drive and hunger for the ball and awesome sight. He will undoubtedly impress many at next year's World Cup, where Chile, who play a lovely high tempo passing game which is the most exciting, attractive sight in current South American football, could well be a surprise package. Independiente of Argentina seemed to have a move for him tied up a few months back, but that appears to have dissolved at the contractual stage. He will undoubtedly be anchoring the midfield of a major European club very soon, however...


Friday, June 19, 2009

Pointless List : Morricone

(You Might Not Know)

Everybody knows Ennio Morricone, you say. But the mans scored nearly 500 films. Of which I've only seen a tiny fraction. I've heard and loved lots of music from those films on dozens of compilations, but his output is undeniably intimidating and I'm a million miles from being an expert. These are just some generally underloved Morricone moments that I happen to know and love. Nothing too obvious, I hope. No Dollars or Once Upon a Time, no Mission or Cinema Paradiso, no Untouchables or Casualties of War. I could have done fifty, but I stopped at five...

1. Il Grande Silenzio (Restless)
This is the melancholic main theme from Sergio Corbucci's fabulous "The Great Silence", which is a Spaghetti Western quite unlike any other. It is set in the Rocky Mountains and as such is visually utterly unique, occupying a landscape and a frame of mind far removed from every other Spaghetti I've seen. Barren desert and scrubland vistas of pale yellow and pure blue are replaced by a white world, looming mountains and pine forests covered in snow, log cabins and dark rooms barely lit by fires. Morricone echoes this with a delicate piece founded upon a steady guitar arpeggio and (slightly wintry) bells. The melodic theme is quiet and romantic but unmistakably sad, picked out by strings and finally by a subtle chorus. Yet there is something implacable about this music, its steady creeping progress forwards suggesting the evil at the heart of the world the film portrays, while the melody addresses the sorrow and pain. It couldn't really be any further from the music of the Dollars trilogy, but then neither could the film, which has an unbelievably dark ending...

2. Deus Irae Psichedelico
Psychedelic rock with a choral chant thrown over the top, this batshit number sounds like something the Electric Prunes would have forced David Axelrod to throw away out of abject terror at its manifold dark properties. It rocks in that way Ennio can when of a mind to (see "A Fistul of Dollars, The Battle of Algiers etc) and yet that big dumb melody soars and dips throughout and makes it compelling and addictive, like much of the best of Morricone. The highlight or me is when it rises up near the end in a duel of horns, higher and higher and more and more martial. Its from a 1968 Italian social satire called "Escalation" that I havent seen...its one of the many glories of loving Morricone - you hear the music to all these many unseen films, most of which sound intriguing but you know you'll never ever see them.

3. Two Mules for Sister Sara
The thing that made Morricone so different when he first emerged was his willingness to take risks. He used electric guitars to make Western scores sound like surf-rock instrumentals. And he made it work. Nobody had ever done anything like it. Here he combines electric synthesisers, banjo, flute and a vocal choir with an orchestra. And there seem to be about five different melodies running at once. And at least one of them is in imitation of a mule's "eeyore" sound. But it is beautiful, and offbeat, and nobody elese could have written it.

4. Hells Kitchen
"State of Grace", from which "Hells Kitchen" is taken, is perhaps my favourite Morricone score. Its a minor-key masterpiece, suffused with sadness and longing and always beautiful, always haunting. If any of it comes on my iPod when I'm out and about, then the most banal scene is instantly lent a melancholy and majesty it doesn't deserve. The opening piece plays over the credits, a (too) close-up of the St Patricks Day Parade in Manhattan in slow motion, so slow and close as to become near abstract imagery, with this mournful elegy making it all but unbearably poignant. All this without any plot or characters to cling to. This is a film full of pain, it all says, there is no light here. Then the story starts, Morricone seems to ramp up his score, and its turbulent and agonising until that amazing final gunfight (which plays out intercut with that St Patricks Day Parade, and so the film lives up to Morricone's opening promise). Anyway, "Hells Kitchen" is all soft strings, but with a rising (and disturbingly dissonant) counter-melody floating under the surface every few bars. It recalls Jack Nitzsche's superb score for "Cutter's Way", but with that distinctive Ennio romanticism. Its relative obscurity is evident in the fact of its unavailability on cd or as a legal download, and by the fact that there are no samples on youtube. Morricone himself obviously liked it, since he ripped it off so shamelessly for both "Lolita" and "U-Turn" over the course of the next decade.

5. Kalidors Theme
Sword and Sorcery movies were the spaghetti westerns of the early 80s, in one way. Made largely in Spain, featuring casts of has-beens and unknown Europeans and relatively cheap to produce, they made big money at the International box office. So it makes sense that Morricone would score at least one. "Red Sonja" was retitled after Arnold Schwarzenegger's character all over the world, and Morricone's best work on the score is on his theme, one of his straightest, most purely heroic pieces. Its all uplifting, energetic, optimistic horns, all forward motion and suggestions of derring-do. It restates the main movement with more pomp and vigour with every instance. It sounds like he wrote and arranged it in about thirty seconds. Its also incredibly old-fashioned and lovely, in its way.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 31

One of British cinema's great Cult Classics, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's film is also an absolute one-off. A verite account of the aftermath of a Nazi Invasion of Britain, it took almost a decade to make and yet makes a virtue of its low budget.
And the sight of Nazi uniorms and Swastikas in front of famous London landmarks is strangely shocking, even today...


Sunday, June 14, 2009

niyas tsuj

- This spot was reserved for a teaser for HBO's "The Pacific" that was on YouTube for about two days in late May. It originated in Australian tv, and brief though it was, it suggested something of the scale of this show. Except HBO got rid of all signs of the trailer sharpish, perhaps unwilling to begin any marketing for a programme which will not air until 2010. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, it is the companion piece to "Band of Brothers", only focusing on the intertwined stories of three US Servicemen in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. Its the most expensive television production ever attempted, its got some quality talent behind the camera and writing the scripts and the cast is composed mainly of unknowns and barely-knowns. It looks great, and if its anywhere near as good as "Band of Brothers", then we're in for a treat.

- Glen David Gold's second novel, "Sunnyside" is finally released this week, eight years after his fine debut, "Carter Beats the Devil" made its bow. Writers can be terrible this way, stretching out a novel, endlessly tweaking, trimming and thinning, stopping and starting. This one is about Charlie Chaplin, WW1 and America, and it sounds intriguing. A couple of other writers I love have books out over the next few months. Again, they're extremely long-awaited:

James Ellroy's "Bloods A Rover", the final part of his USA trilogy, which is out in September. Long long awaited by Ellroy disciples...

David Mazzuchelli's even longer-awaited "Asterios Polyp", which has gotten unsurprisingly rave reviews and is out in July.

- Simon Kuper is, for my money, the best football writer working today. He once edited the short-lived periodical of literary writing about the Beautiful Game; "Perfect Pitch" and his book "Football Against the Enemy" is something of a masterpiece, and hugely influential. In this month's issue of "Four Four Two" he contributes a dazzling portrayal of Johann Cruyff which for anybody too young to appreciate the man's genius, is an absolute must. The article mentions several legendary goals and tricks, and almost all of them are included in this short clip:

- Gustav Hasford was a former combat reporter in Vietnam who became quite a celebrated Nam novelist upon this return. His novel "The Short Timers" formed the basis for "Full Metal Jacket", and great stuff it is too. However it, like all his books, is bafflingly, currently out of print. But available to read in its entirety here at his official website, as are all of his books and seemingly everything he ever wrote. He was an interesting character - at a dlunch meeting with Stanley Kubrick and fellow Nam scribe, Michael Herr (who went on to write the screenplay of "Full Metal Jacket") Kubrick leaned over to Herr and whispered "I can't work with this man"...

- A beautiful and limited Yojimbo print by Paul Pope, available to buy (if you're lucky to find there are any left) right here:

- It is an irresistible idea; bringing an Asian Warrior to the old West. The obvious examples - "Red Sun", "Shanghai Knights", and even "Kung Fu" all fudge it somewhat in the execution, however. Either not really Western enough, or half-hearted in their martial arts shapes. Recently the cross-pollination seems to be going the other way and so we end up with "The Good, the Bad and the Weird" and "Sukiyaki Western Django". This, "The Warriors Way" is a directorial debut, and it looks a little bit insane, if in a good way:

- Lee Weeks is a much underrated artist, perhaps too old-fashioned for current tastes, and under-utilized as a result. I love his stuff, though, and its suggestions of Toth and Wally Wood and Gil Kane. He gives good cover, too, as this "Tarzan vs Predator" shot proves:

- I'm currently reading Dean Wareham's fantastic memoir, "Black Postcards", which has made me go back and listen to more of my Galaxie 500 and Luna stuff, which I've always liked. And this eerie, beautiful, poetic, magical song stands out:

Top? Where? Who?
Oh, her...

Joanne Whalley. (Kilmer?)

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shuffle : I Will Dare

I used to be a pretty big music missionary. By which I mean I spent a lot of time trying to convert my friends into fans of the stuff I was a fan of. I made an awful lot of mix tapes. I ranted about the brilliance of various bands, singer-songwriters, obscure, semi-forgotten soul singers. I bored a lot of people, I guess.

But I was generally right, I think. I was right when I told people that the La's debut album was better than the Stone Roses' debut album. I was right when I made mix tapes of the Beatles' post-Beatles material for supposed Beatles fans who hadn't gone there yet. I was right when I went on and on about the dBs or Eric Matthews or Harry Nilsson or Lewis Taylor or Marlena Shaw. I was right when I said that Evan Dando was a sort of genius, or that "Ram On" is a masterpiece, or that Van Halen were one of the best American rock bands of the 1980s. I really was. I think. I was arrogant too, of course. This blog is probably a sort of way to continue my missionary activities in a slightly less offensive, less aggressive manner, I hope. But one thing I know for certain I was right about is the Replacements.

The Replacements are probably the band I was the most fervent missionary for. Because nobody liked them. Nobody I met, anyway. I have only ever had one friend who liked them before we met, which instantly made him alright in my book. But I bought "Pleased to Meet Me" (1987) without having ever heard anything by the band at around the age of 20, and though it's production was problematically dated, and some songs were undeniably filler, and it wasn't quite what I had been expecting, I loved it. It was a rock and roll record, messy, exciting, angry, funny, unexpectedly moving - that was a rare thing in 1980s rock music, dominated, or so it seemed to me at the time, by post-punk on one side and Metal on the other.

In retrospect, "Pleased to Meet Me" wasn't the ideal place to start with the Replacements. Their second major label record, its perhaps their most nakedly commercial. And while this means that it contains arguably singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg's two most perfect pieces of pop-rock magic in "Can't Hardly Wait" (to my mind, one of the greatest songs of the 1980s) and "Alex Chilton" and also makes space for one of his trademark beautiful ballads ("Skyway"), it also makes it somewhat unrepresentative of the band. It's too poppy and too concerned with sonic eclecticism, even if Westerberg's writing is consistently brilliant. There is a faux-lounge number ("Nightclub Jitters"), a scratchy, self-aware singalong criticising the band's own self-destructive tendencies ("I Don't Know"), an almost Brian Adams sounding suicide note ("The Ledge") alongside a handful of vaguely disappointing rockers. I loved it all, but it wasn't what I had been led to expect. I needed to investigate further. Back then, in Dublin at any rate, Replacements records weren't all that easy to get hold of. So the next time I saw one, I bought it.

That record was called, with hilarious cheek, "Let It Be" (1984), and it fairly blew me away. In retrospect it stands as the definitive Replacements album. Its the one with the era-defining songs. Its the one that gained them a major-label contract. Its the one that has been included in the 33⅓ series of books (in an enjoyably autobiographical volume written by the Decemberists' Colin Meloy) and Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Albums list (Number 239, sandwiched between Run DMC and "Can't Buy a Thrill" by Steely Dan). Its the one I recommend if anyone asks me which album to start with. And as a "definitive" record, it perfectly sums up the band. Its a mess. Bruised Westerberg romanticism rubs up alongside comedic punk-pop throwaway songs with titles like "Garys Got a Boner" and "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" and there is a seemingly sincere - and actually pretty awesome - cover of Kiss' "Black Diamond". But to understand the record, it has to be examined in the context of the bands career up to that point.

The Replacements started as a midwestern American version of a punk band. Their debut record, "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash" (1981) is filled with 18 examples of garage hardcore, each song a flatout sprint through a noisy adolescent world of crude jokes, casual substance use and kneejerk rebellion. Only one is longer than three minutes, and in some of them you can hear the seeds of Paul Westerberg's genius - an insistent hook, a great turn of phrase. The second record, "Stink!" (1982), is more of the same, but Westerberg was tiring of the hardcore sound and was already exploring other genres and styles in his writing. An early b-side, the country-blues shuffle of "If Only You Were Lonely", and the unreleased ballad "You're Getting Married One Night" were evidence that he was continually trying to convert his reluctant band-mates to broaden the band's sound. The third album, "Hootenanny" (1983), is where he began to have some success, most obviously on "Within Your Reach", a sublime mid-tempo love song on which Westerberg plays every instrument. However, the album is something of a blueprint for "Let it Be" with its mix of surf-rock instrumental, Beatles pastiche and jokily improvised spoof alongside more familiar Replacements material.

"Let It Be" was a huge step forward, however. It features four classic examples of Westerberg at his most sensitive and angsty; "Unsatisfied", "Sixteen Blue", "Androgynous" and "Answering Machine". These songs all have complex arrangements and make use of a variety of instruments unimaginable in the band's early days - piano and slide guitar, or instance. But the mood is complicated by the presence of the aforementioned comedic rockers, which lighten the tone where Westerberg's deeper songs darken it. And then there is the opening track: "I Will Dare".

It is a pop song, danceable, infectious, undeniable. Its keynote sound is a Rickenbacker guitar, instantly evocative of Classic Rock but not, because here its crisper, more aggressive, and played expertly by REM's Peter Buck*, who had once been lined up to produce the record. The way that guitar just rings to life and then jangles throughout, the song following after, letting that bouncy, melodic, oddly chipper bassline do all the work is beautiful in its simplicity and insistence on the song, always the song. This sense is only underlined by the choruses, when the guitars chop out the same melody as the vocals, ragged electric backing singers of a sort. The solo is an odd moment of finger-picked delicacy, all clean lines and sharp notes. And then a mandolin enters, played by Westerberg and running alongside the guitar until the climax. A mandolin! The young men playing on that first album would have fainted with outrage. And it shouldn't really work, either, but it does, somehow. You wonder if Buck took the idea and used it all those years later on "Losing My Religion", or if he donated it to Westerberg, recognising the brilliance of this particular song.

The lyrics are simple and catchy in their list of reversals and opposites: "How young are you?/How old am I?/Let's count the rings around my eyes/How smart are you?/How dumb am I?/Don't count any of my advice". Yet they capture the everyday emotional risk and romanticism of teen love ("Ain't lost yet, so I gotta be a winner/Fingernails and a cigarette's a lousy dinner"), the momentousness of it all summed up in the use of the word "dare" in the chorus, the sense of something at stake which will never be properly acknowledged: "Oh, meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime/Now I don't care, meet me tonight/If you will dare, I might dare." More importantly perhaps, they fit perfectly with the rushed optimism of the song's sound, the blurred sense of a drunken good time the Replacements always delivered.

"I Will Dare" was a single, but it wasn't a hit. The Replacements never really had a hit, even after they got that major label deal and released "Tim" (1985), a brilliant, focused mainstream rock record with some immortal songs, and followed it up with "Pleased to Meet Me". When a song as perfect as "Can't Hardly Wait" is not a hit, it is just not meant to be for a band, frankly. Especially when that band consistently sabotage themselves by playing deliberately awful gigs, have multiple drug and alcohol abuse issues, and refuse to make conventional videos for MTV. But this was part of what made the Replacements what they were - a chaotic riot of problems and genius, primarily a fan's band, hostile to the industry itself but blessed with Westerberg's songs. They soldiered on for two more albums of variable quality - the final album, "All Shook Down" (1990) is a Westerberg solo record in all but name - before splitting. Westerberg began a solo career which has been interesting and occasionally brilliant but never as inspired as the best days of his old band.

They are one of my favourite bands, and I like and understand them more with every year. Over the last year all of their albums have been reissued with bonus tracks, and they reassembled a few years ago to record a couple of middling songs for a Best of compilation. But watching their influence spread and grow has been strangely even more satisfying. They basically invented grunge a decade early, a fact acknowledged by Cameron Crowe when he commissioned two new Westerberg songs for the soundtrack of "Singles" (he also gave "Within Your Reach" a great moment in "Say Anything"), and also by Kurt Cobain, a big fan. Their influence is also obvious in alt-country, with Jeff Tweedy having written a Wilco song about Westerberg ("The Lonely 1") (as did They Might Be Giants and Art Brut) and people like Ryan Adams admitting their influence. Their songs continually pop up in films - always jarringly, for me - and yet they remain a cult band, the kind of act you can never be certain somebody will have heard of.

Over the years, then, I've made an awful lot of Replacements compilations. I had it down to a fine art. I'd mix in some solo Westerberg ("Things", some Gramapaboy, some "Suicaine Gratification") and balance the rockers with the sensitive stuff. It was surprisingly hard, but easy at the same time. He has written so many outstanding songs, and though his legacy and ouevre don't measure up to that of say, Neil Young, to borrow a comparison a friend once made, when Westerberg hits the spot, he is better than Neil Young has ever been. His best songs are as good as anybody's best songs, and better than most. "I Will Dare" is one of the best things he ever wrote. It was always the opening track on every Replacements compilation I ever made. I figured that would settle the issue straightaway.
Because if you didn't like this song, then you wouldn't like this band.

The studio version isn't on YouTube, but you can listen to it here, and this is a live version from 1991:

*At one point in the early to mid eighties it seemed almost a straight race between three Indie bands to make it and break through into the mainstream - the Replacements, fellow Minneapolis residents Husker Du and REM. Who won that race, you ask?

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Vintage Trailer of the Week 30

David Carradine had an interestingly mixed career. Some good work in bad stuff, some great work in good stuff (The Long Riders, Bound For Glory), and a handful of cult classics. This martial arts/fantasy epic conceived by Bruce Lee is a pretty stiff introduction to Eastern philosophy combined with lots of fight scenes. And its leading man just about ruins the movie, which I think is evident even rom the trailer: