Saturday, March 20, 2010

"I'm drivin alone, sad about you"

I saw Big Star live on their 2001 European Tour in Dublin. By Big Star, I mean the reconstituted modern version featuring two of the original members, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, alongside the two frontmen from modern power-pop underachievers the Posies, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer . I was pumped for the gig. Big Star had long been one of my favourite bands. In fact, when I rank the bands I like, the only one I love more than Big Star are the Beatles. So, as you can imagine, I was excited. The crowd was a strange mix of Dublin hipsters and musos, but there was a good atmosphere, eager and enthusiastic.
The gig was alright.
You could tell Chilton’s heart wasn’t really in it. He did what he had to do, but without any great enthusiasm. He was this little, slightly grumpy middle-aged guy in denim, singing these songs his voice couldn’t quite reach anymore, playing guitar. He came most alive during a cover of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. It was enough for most people there to hear those great Big Star songs sung by the man who had written them, played by a good, tight band. I was happy to have been there but somewhat disappointed, too. I’d read it in enough interviews, but seeing him live made me finally believe it – Alex Chilton hated Big Star. Go figure.

In the pre-download world of the early 90s, I started off with the wrong Big Star album. I’d read plenty about what kind of band they were, who they sounded like, who they had influenced etc. I found “3rd/Sister Lovers” in a second hand shop and bought it. On that first listen I was instantly surprised by the opening track (different editions feature different sequencing), in this case “Stroke It Noel”. It seemed improvised, with no evident structure, for all the beauty of its melodies and arrangements and the pin sharp crunch of the production. After that the remainder of the record was a long line of surprises – from the bizarre “Downs” to the instantly awesome “Thank You Friends”, “Big Black Car” and “For You” to the desolation of “Holocaust” and “Kanga Roo”. I wasn’t as blown away as I had expected to be. I knew “Kanga Roo” from Jeff Buckley’s cover version, but that version was cleaner and straighter (its rock out riffathon apart) than this tormented, fractured, even slightly disturbing rendition. But I stuck with it – I knew the Replacements’ “Alex Chilton” and a part of me reckoned that if it was alright for Paul Westerberg, then it was alright for me - and soon I loved the record in all its twisted, strange glory. Its moments of beauty, I could see, were incredible and hinted at another side to this band than the chaos much of the record seemed to have captured.
A little later, after a conversation about the band, a friend played me a few standout tracks off his copy of the twofer cd containing the other two Big Star albums – “Number 1 Record” and “Radio City”.

The songs he played were “The Ballad of El Goodo”, “Thirteen”, “September Gurls” and “I’m In Love With a Girl”. Right then, I was in love. Its one of the great musical memories of my life, being hit by the perfection and majesty of those songs in that little living room, knowing I had to have this cd as soon as possible.
I bought it, consumed it, and became a Big Star evangelist. Every compilation tape or cd I made after that had to feature a Big Star song. Because nobody seemed to know this band. Nobody I knew, at any rate.
I got the Chris Bell solo stuff, and a couple of Alex Chilton solo records. I got the ecords Chilton had made with the Box Tops before he and Bell had formed Big Star. I bought the two live cds, “Big Star Live” and “Nobody Can Dance” purely for the cover versions they contained (Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues” and T-Rex’s “Baby Strange”). I was a fan of power-pop, the subgenre Big Star had helped to create and define, and I got into Badfinger and the Raspberries and Todd Rundgren and more modern acolytes like Teenage Fanclub and Jellyfish, all in an effort to recreate that thrilling feeling I got when I first heard that Big Star sound.

But heres what made Big Star and Alex Chilton special. For all that they were undeniably power-pop, with those Beatlesque melodies, and the Byrdsian harmonies and the punch of the Kinks all colliding in each song, they had an x factor. Badfinger, for all that they wrote and played some amazing songs, aren’t a patch on Big Star. There is a darkness floating somewhere under the surface in the music of Big Star, an ineffable quality that lifts it, enables it to transcend genre. Its almost queasy, this feeling, an edge to the bright and shining beauty of the songs. Maybe it is the anger in Chilton - the anger that made his solo career such a quixotic ramble of challenging records and self-destructive tendencies. Maybe it was Bell's struggle with his faith and his sexuality. I don't know, I just know its there, I can hear it in the music, and it is a big part of what makes Big Star a special band.

And they really are a special band. For my money, "Radio City" is their best record, and indeed one of the great rock albums, containing not a single weak song, brilliantly played and sequenced. From the surprisingly funky opener, "O My Soul", with its fluid structure, through the greatest Number One that never was, "September Gurls" to the moving simplicity of the closing "I'm In Love With a Girl", it covers a wide variety of moods and tempos but always sounds like this unique, distinctive band. They could play tough rock when it suited them, they could do soulful balladry, bright pop and - since they came from Memphis - a little bit of r'n'b is suggested, too. But Chilton always sounds like himself, like the young man he was, who had been a star in his teens but rejected it and gone to New York alone to be a singer-songwriter, sorta failed and retreated to Memphis where he had finally begun a band with a Beatles-obsessive that made music America wasn't quite ready for at that time. His later material is interesting, and sometimes even inspired, but its never great in the pure way Big Star was.

When I read that Alex Chilton had died a few nights ago - on Twitter, where I seem to hear all news these days -I felt a sharp sense of loss not really felt about a Musician since Elliott Smith died. But then I listened to some Big Star, and as usual, all I could feel was joy.

1950 - 2010

All three original records are must buys, as is the box set from last year, "Keep An Eye on the Sky", full of demos and covers and alternate takes and live numbers, and for a Big Star fan, absolutely orgasmic. Rob Jovanovic's book "Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop" is a great read for fans, too.

Below, "Daisy Glaze", my favourite Big Star song, with such a euphoric guitar moment at 1:54 it still catches my breath:

Kanga Roo:

O My Soul:

And the Replacements sublime "Alex Chilton":

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

10 from Marty

In the Observer recently, to mark the release of Shutter Island, Jason Solomons picks "The 10 Best Martin Scorsese moments". Its an irritatingly stupid list, not quite personal enough to excuse its omissions, not quite definitive enough to justify its strange inclusions. Who but a commitee could pick the actual "10 Best" moments from Scorsese's extraordinary career? I could pick 10 moments from Taxi Driver alone, or from Raging Bull. The only way to make such a piece in any way interesting or compelling, then, is to make your selections personal, then explain how and why you've chosen them. Instead we get "Scorsese Wins an Oscar for The Departed" and his "Bad" video for Michael Jackson. Would anybody really rate Scorsese winning a desultory Academy Award for a film which is far from his best work as a sop for all those times he should have won as a best moment? Anybody besides a Guardian journalist trying to fill up numbers on a lazy top 10 list, that is...

Anyway, an alternative list. More personal, I think, and more interesting, I hope:

- A Personal Journey Through American Cinema
As Scorsese's work as a director of motion pictures has lost some of its quality and vibrancy, so he has branched out and become involved in other areas. He makes documentaries, for example. He is involved in the restoration of old films. He acts, he produces, he publicises films he loves. It is as a documentary-maker that he is perhaps seen in his best light. His brilliant A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies was made for the BFI and shown on Channel 4 in 1995. Its four hours long in all, and Scorsese dips in and out of dozens of films he loves from Hollywood's Golden Age, commenting, dissecting, rhapsodizing, and sometimes just letting a clip run because its so damn good. If nothing else, after watching this you will want to see many Classic films and previously neglected B-movies in their entirety. But Scorsese is a great talker and his love for cinema shines through whenever he speaks about it. Add that to the fact that he has chosen these excerpts and edited them together into this mammoth essay, and you can imagine that it is a great piece of visual entertainment, too, allowing for the many moments when its just Scorsese in black tie addressing the camera in that staccato way of his. Scorsese breaks directors down into three categories: Illusionist (D.W. Griffith, Murnau), Smuggler (Sam Fuller, Douglas SIrk) and Iconoclast (Chaplin, Kubrick, Welles) and ends his arguments around 1970, when he first began making films. He also addresses the depths and importance of the work of some near-forgotten directors: the incredibly prolific pioneer Allan Dwan, for instance. My only criticism of this film is that he never got around to making a sequel, covering 1970 - 2010. I would love to see his takes on Michael Mann, Spike Lee, Wes Anderson and David Lynch, among others. He has, however, made My Voyage to Italy, covering Italian cinema, which is excellent, and is still working on a companion piece on British Cinema. If you love movies, then you need to see this. Its available on a BFI DVD and much of it is on YouTube in big chunks.

- The opening of Mean Streets
Solomons chooses a scene - an undeniably fantastic scene, too - from Mean Streets (1973), but the moment which best announces Scorsese's great talent is the very first scene of the film. Scorsese's camera finds a just-woken Harvey Keitel sitting up in bed in what looks to be cold dawn light. He rises, studies himself in the mirror, then lies down again, the camera feet from him and steady throughout. As his head strikes the pillow, the familiar bass drum intro of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" kicks in and we get treated to Super-8 scenes as the credits roll. It feels somehow revolutionary even from thirty-five years remove. Here is a film which is going to be personal, intimate, introverted, searching, a film not afraid to depict this unknown man in his vest in a darkened room studying himself in the mirror as its opening gambit, as if it were a Bressonion character study, as if it hadn't been made with money from Roger Corman. And yet, here is also a film made with an energy and style that recalls the earliest days of the Nouvelle Vague - signalled by the cut just as Keitel's head hits that pillow and that Phil Spector production rumbles in, the cut of a born filmmaker, and also by the device of the home movies over the credits. And the music! Scorsese, along with George Lucas in American Grafitti, would transfrom the use of pop music in cinema, and that is perhaps his greatest legacy. "Be My Baby" was its first expression, and it remains one of his finest.

- Cape Fear
Cape Fear (1991) was the first Scorsese film I saw with some awareness of what I was about to see. I was 16, and really beginning to discover Cinema properly for the first time after an adolescence devoted to music and comics and genre fiction. I knew that this was a film by a serious, acclaimed director, I'd seen Goodfellas and would soon binge on the earlier masterpieces, and I was able to concentrate on it as a piece of visual storytelling on that first viewing, in a packed-out Dublin Cinema (the Adelphi, which no longer exists and where the Beatles made their only ever Irish appearance in 1963). It was perhaps the first time that I understood how a director could tell an entertaining tale and do it with great visual style. Perhaps the first time that I noticed recurring techniques in editing and composition and camera movement. Perhaps the first time - aside from Spielberg films, and they are a different and equally fascinating case - that I was aware of a directors authorial signature as a film unfolded. Needless to say, I was absolutely blown away. Not only by Scorsese's evident artistry (though nowadays I realise it was more like craftsmanship) but by that incredible Bernard Herrman score, taken from the 1962 J. Lee Thompson original, and by an impressive cast including a Nick Nolte playing against type, the ever-wonderful Jessica Lange, a young Juliette Lewis as good as she would ever be, and most memorably, Robert DeNiro chewing ham and scenery and still absolutely terrifying as the horror movie villain of the piece, Max Cady.
On more recent viewing, Cape Fear is revealed as minor Scorsese. He swapped projects with Spielberg, who had developed Cape Fear, exchanging Schindlers List for it, and there is still a whiff of that alien sensibility in its portrayal of a family in peril from an implacable monster. Its also the film that Shutter Island most obviously resembles, in its unabashed desire to thrill and scare. Scorsese as entertainer, throwing in whip-pans and shock cuts and homages to keep himself interested.
As such it works beautifully. It is atmospheric, gripping, darkly funny, and sensitive in its characterisation and handling of the tensions between these people. It also received a quite beautiful skit from the Simpsons with "Cape Feare", in 1993, one of the greatest ever episodes from that great series.

- The Last Temptation of Christ
Possibly Scorsese's most underrated film, there are a number of reasons to love The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). A mature, realist take on the story based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel, it refers to past Bible films on a few obvious occasions. Most blatant is the shot from the top of Jesus' cross Scorsese favours as the cross is raised, a more or less direct lift from Nick Ray's King of Kings (1961) (see above). The production design and locations, meanwhile, are reminiscent of Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). Scorsese also casts his actors the way Ray might have done - British actors play the Romans while Americans play the Disciples. But where in Ray's day those Brits would have all been RSC actors, here Scorsese casts contemporary actors. This means we get David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, cockney Centurions, and a miscast Harvey Keitel as a bizarre Judas. Scorsese's style is pared down and minimalist as a result of his small budget and a hurried shoot under pressure in Morocco, and that brings a different sort of intensity to the material - he seems more focused, his storytelling somehow purer and more in keeping with the material . Christ's time in the desert and his three temptations are eerie and disturbing, Willem Dafoe is extraordinary as Jesus, and Peter Gabriel's soundtrack - which was massively important in popularizing World Music in the West - is brilliant and groundbreaking. The controversy around the film was ridiculous and has damaged its reputation by association. But it needs to be seen.

- "Did you fuck my wife?" from Raging Bull
As Quentin Tarantino has pointed out, if you listened to an audience reacting in a cinema to this scene from Raging Bull (1980), you would conclude that they were watching a comedy.
I think its probably Scorsese's finest film, but its a brutal watch, so harrowing in its emotional content, so operatic in its violence. But beautiful, exhilarating, poetic and funny too. The boxing bears little resemblance to boxing, but its great cinema, which is more important.
A snatch of the scene in question:
Jake: Did you fuck my wife?
Joey: What?
Jake: Did you fuck my wife?
Joey: [pauses] How do you ask me that? I'm your brother and you ask me that? Where do you get you're balls big enough to ask me that?
Jake: I'm gonna ask you again, did you or didn't you? Just answer the question.
Joey: I'm not gonna answer that. It's stupid. It's a sick question and you're a sick fuck and I'm not that sick that I'm gonna answer it. I'm leaving, If Nora calls tell her I went home. You know what you should do? Do a little more fucking and a little less eating, so you don't have to blame it all on me and everybody else, you understand me? You're cracking up! Ya' fucking screw ball ya'!

- Light and the The Age of Innocence
I find The Age of Innocence (1993) Scorsese's most moving film. Its also one of his most ostentatious in various particulars - featuring a lushly beautiful Elmer Bernstein score, incredibly busy art direction and costume and set design and some golden Michael Ballhaus cinematography. Even the cast, full of plummy British character actors, has a certain ripeness. But Scorsese brilliantly captures the power of Edith Wharton's superb novel and his film builds and builds through a series of magnificently mounted set pieces (obvious in their debt to Visconti's The Leopard) to a devastating set of final scenes wherein everything is resolved, unhappily. The screenshot above originates in a pivotal scene in which Daniel Day-Lewis' protagonist, Newland Archer, lets himself off the hook by refusing a choice, ascribing that decision to chance rather than actually having to make it, and in doing so dooms himself to a life of settled discontent and disappointment. The blinding reflections of the sun off the sea dominate the visual impression left by the scene and Archer - whose view the camera shares - makes that sight a part of his decision, as if implicating the very beauty of Scorsese's film. Archer decides to reject that beauty and the beautiful woman at the centre of it, a woman he loves, because of social convention. Its a fine example of Scorsese's genius for unifying image and content, as is the Parisian coda, with its transcendent flash of light from an upstairs window.

- "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" in Casino
Scorsese's films grow with each viewing, as is the case with many great directors. This means that I'm often lukewarm to them the first time I see them. I hated Casino (1995) when I saw it in a cinema. It seemed an interminable Goodfellas knock-off, and possibly the most self-indulgent, excessive thing Scorsese had ever done. But when I watched it again on DVD a few years later I instantly got it - the visual excess reflecting the setting and themes, the Goodfellas elements undeniable and yet richer and with more depth than in that first, dazzling if superficial film, DeNiro and Pesci as great as ever, Sharon Stone the best she's ever been. And that soundtrack. I've written about my love of the Rolling Stones "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" here before, and Scorsese is a massive Stones fan (as his direction of the so-so Shine A Light film from a few years back attests). He uses a handful of Stones songs in Casino, and the montage of discovered bodies set to "Gimme Shelter" is sublime, but the montage to which he fixes "Cant You Hear Me Knocking" is among the greatest scenes he ever directed.
There are so many things to admire in the scene: the way it begins as a series of moving shots, pans, dollies and zooms of varying speeds. The ease of the voiceovers, as if in conversation with one another. That opening shot, beginning with imagery straight from a Western (a cow skull against timber) and ending with Pesci's "desperados". The many hilarious exchanges. Every single time Pesci utters the word "fuck". The obvious but inevitable and effective visual comedy of his waddle beside the statuesque showgirl and the payoff in his car. The numerous cameos - characters briefly encountered before the film moves on, including a jeweller bemoaning his loss, bellboys and secretaries, a politician at dinner, policemen whose lunches have been ruined, and even the victims of his home invasions who have their pictures turned down so their eyes can't witness the robberies.
For me it surpasses the justly celebrated "Layla" montage in Goodfellas.

- Visual beauty in Taxi Driver
Considering how rough and grimy and awful it makes New York City in the 1970s look, Taxi Driver (1976) is a quite exceptionally beautiful film. Scorsese finds these images and that dirty scuzziness falls away before the acuity of his eye. He works a particularly profitable line in the contrast between the shiny yellow of the cab and the neon reds of the lights of the city nightscape, and also with the cyans and sicklier greens of streetlights on deserted alleys and tenement blocks. The only real break from these images of nocturnal beauty are the sequences set in the campaign office where the Albert Brooks and Cybil Shepherd characters work, which are always light and airy. Scorsese's use of colour is generally distinctive and marked by his appreciation for Michael Powell - those bold reds! - in their heightened realism.
Then there is the famous mobility of his camera. The most celebrated example of that is the gods eye crawl through the room after Travis' climactic rampage, but a more subtle and effective example is the moment where the camera drifts away from Travis as he talks on a payphone to take in a featureless, seemingly irrelevant hallway, as if Scorsese and the camera itself are rejecting this alienated protagonist, an outsider in his own film.

- Funny How? from Goodfellas
When your average filmgoer thinks about Martin Scorsese - if they ever do - what they think about is Goodfellas (1990). His influence in modern cinema is most obviously apparent in the series of films slavishly devoted to its specific genius. Films like Ted Demme's Blow (2001) and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) or Mereilles and Lund's City of God (2002), the last two of which surpass Scorsese's film in quality in my view, all of which feature long rambling narratives told with with an abundance of stylistic devices (jump cuts, freeze frames, captions, slow motion etc) and foregrounded soundtracks filled with vintage rock and pop music. Many of the young directors who emerged in the 1990s were indebted to it in terms of its self-conscious presentation of the director as star - from Tarantino and Danny Boyle to Guy Ritchie and Wes Anderson.
And it is a thrilling cinematic experience. Scorsese knows and understands his medium and can harness its power as well as any director working in the world today. He brings the many techniques he utilises to bear without it ever really feeling like pointless style, successfully integrating every device into the narrative or his storytelling.
For all that, I have massive problems with the absence of sympathetic characters and the titilating, shallow way it skims across its subject matter without ever really illuminating much about these people. The Sopranos, another piece of pop culture that probably would not exist were it not for Scorsese's film, suggests that there are depths to this world that Goodfellas never acknowledges.
For me, what really works in Goodfellas is a quality at the heart of every great mob movie: tension. There is the relentless dread, the awareness of imminent violence that must exist in such an environment. We are in a world where everyone is vulnerable, and Scorsese even addresses this tension in the second half of the film, where the fall follows the rise and characters start to get whacked. Nobody is safe, and paranoia becomes the films main topic, its editing rhythms and camera movements matching this jittery, nervous energy.
Any scene featuring Joe Pesci's Tommy is made doubly tense purely because of his hair-trigger presence. The scene where he shoots Spider dead due to a tiny personal slight offers a pay-off to that, but the biggest tease is the "Funny how?" scene, where he winds up Ray Liotta's Henry, exploiting his own fearsome image. Its hilarious, unbearably tense and utterly terrifying all at once, and Nicolas Pileggi's script is brilliant:

Henry: You're really funny.
Tommy : What do you mean I'm funny?
Henry: It's funny, you know. It's a good story, it's funny, you're a funny guy.
Tommy : What do you mean, you mean the way I talk? What?
Henry : It's just, you know. You're just funny, it's... funny, the way you tell the story and everything.
Tommy : [it becomes quiet] Funny how? What's funny about it?
Anthony: Tommy no, You got it all wrong.
Tommy : Oh, oh, Anthony. He's a big boy, he knows what he said. What did ya say? Funny how?
Henry: Jus...
Tommy: What?
Henry : Just... ya know... you're funny.
Tommy: You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me, I'm a little fucked up maybe, but I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I'm here to fuckin' amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?
Henry : Just... you know, how you tell the story, what?
Tommy: No, no, I don't know, you said it. How do I know? You said I'm funny. How the fuck am I funny, what the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me, tell me what's funny!
Henry : [long pause] Get the fuck out of here, Tommy!
Tommy : [everyone laughs] Ya motherfucker! I almost had him, I almost had him. Ya stuttering prick ya. Frankie, was he shaking? I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning.

- Life Lessons
The first part of the portmanteau film New York Stories (1989) (the other two parts are by Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola), Scorsese's short is a near-perfect piece and one of the best films aver made about being an artist. Written by the great Richard Price it follows Lional Dobie (Nick Nolte), an acclaimed abstract artist, as he prepares for a big new exhibition and his relationship with his assistant and lover (Rosanna Arquette) collapses. Its easily the finest chapter in the film - smart, satirical and unexpectedly powerful, its a fine character study of an egotistical artist and the way he chews up people as raw material. Viewed in the context of Scorsese's career, it looks like a prologue to what would be a decade of great revival. If the 80s had been a bad decade for him as a director (and they surely had, for all that none of his films from that decade is exactly bad), then the Last Temptation of Christ, as spartan and realist and minimalist as it is, can be seen as a palate-cleanser. Life Lessons, in contrast, is full of the tricks and stylistic flourishes which would fill Goodfellas - it feels like Scorsese was warming up.
He also seems unusually emotionally invested in the material, but then he surely understands the demands of making a life in art, of the sacrifices and pretensions one must encounter. He draws a great performance from Nolte, and the film is full of other pleasures - Nestor Almendros' splendid photography captures the massive modern art that fills the screen and makes it live and vibrate as Nolte throws himself and paint upon it. Scorsese excels at shooting some scenes subjectively so that the world narrows down to the way Dobie sees it - when he speaks to a woman and feels attraction we see inserts of various parts of her body; her neck, her ear, her lips, her toes. Thus the unsympathetic Dobie is rendered sympathetic and even somewhat heroic in his devotion to his true calling. Steve Buscemi plays a performance artist who cuckolds Nolte and his art is shown - basically a stand-up routine about being assaulted, delivered beautifully by Buscemi, who wrote it. And then there is the music - Dobie works with paint-smeared cassette taps blaring in his studio and so the film is full of Dylan and the Band, and perhaps most memorably, Procul Harum's lovely "A Whiter Shade of Pale". As Scorsese films go, its relatively underseen, which is a damn shame.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Vintage Trailer of the Week 46

A genuinely great and important movie, Haskall Wexler's Medium Cool (1969) is that rare thing, an American film which bears the real influence of the European cinema of the 1950s and 60s. Following a cameraman in Chicago during a few turbulent weeks in the last year of that decade, its drama is loose and elliptical, without any of the leaden ironies or contrived plotting of most Hollywood product. Shot documentary style on location, its cast and crew find themselves at one point amidst a real riot with tear gas and fleeing protesters all made part of the narrative.
Yet its still a lovely piece of cinema. Wexler made his name as a genius-level cinematographer, and this film is frequently inspired in its visual storytelling and lighting. A young and beautiful Robert Forster proves a magnetic lead, too:


Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold, 2009

DP: Robbie Ryan

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