Thursday, September 30, 2010

Vintage Trailer of the Week 51

Aside from his most famous work - the influential and justifiably acclaimed Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, my favourite film by the recently-deceased Arthur Penn is Night Moves (1975).
Its a noir following an ex-football player turned PI (Gene Hackman) as he investigates a knotty missing persons case involving fading movie stars and a bunch of Hollywood stuntmen.
Penn will forever be remembered for the way Bonnie and Clyde imported the stylistic risks and innovations employed by the French Nouvelle Vague, and made them work within a defiantly American context, but his work maintained this odd European flavour right up into the 1980s. Night Moves is the best example, its downbeat tone and complex characterisation making for an impressively adult approach to this genre tale.
Writer Alan Sharp (also responsible for a stretch of minor classics such as The Hired Hand, Ulzana's Raid and Rob Roy) provides Hackman with a big, fascinating character to wrestle with, and he carries the whole thing impressively, aided by a very young James Woods and Melanie Griffith. Theres also a score by Michael Small, a bleak finale, and some great one-liners.

ARTHUR PENN 1922-2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Shuffle: For Real

Regular readers (insert mandatory "Hello, you two" type joke here) will know that I do a "Shuffle" piece every so often, all about one song I choose, sort of at random. But the point of an actual iTunes shuffle is the sequence, the juxtaposition of songs from different artists with different styles in different moods. So this is an actual shuffle, taken verbatim as it played, together with a few quick impressions and self-indulgent thoughts:

You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful - XTC (From Wasp Star)
Ah, a good start - Andy Partridge combining a nervy, jerky pop-rock song with a lyric starry-eyed with ardent declarations of love and some nifty wordplay. Its chipper and bouncy the way some XTC is, and horns intrude late on - Partridge just couldn't help himself. Then the coda is different - a drift toward the end. Its all lovely. The record its on is the more traditional "rock" album of the two they released way back in the late 90s. Great title, I think.

Osalobua Rekpama - Sir Victor Uwaifo & His Melody Maestros
Off a Nigeria Special Compilation (the Afro-Beat and Nigerian Blues one) this has horns that sound like mariachi horns, wah wah guitar, a great singalong chorus, and shakes and swings throughout: it is awesome. Put it on anywhere, ever, and somebody would dance.

My Lover- Bert Jansch (from It Don't Bother Me)
It Don't Bother Me is the only Jansch record I own, but its pretty damn good, and this hypnotic raga-style folk-blues may well be the best thing on it. British folk isn't a favourite genre of mine, but this sounds like nothing else.

Washer - Slint (from Spiderland)
Slow brood. Guitars holding back, all the threat in the heavy, slow drums. What is a singer doing here?
The explosion, when it comes, is worthwhile..I got to this album late. Its a pivotal Post-Rock record, but by then I knew the next wave of that sub-genre (Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky etc) pretty well, so its originality and importance had been somewhat watered down. It is still powerful, however, and the songwriting is surprisingly classical in places.

Everybody Have Fun Tonight - Wang Chung
Any song that mentions the singer/band by name is a song for me. Wang Chung do that, turn it into a verb, and in teh chorus, no less. Proving to my mind that "Everybody Wang Chung tonight" is maybe the stupidest/cleverest lyric of the 80s. So it has that going for it. That and wall-loads of synths, which sound like strings. The 80s was full of odd sound combinations, which should be jarring but often work well. Here its hose synths with a sharp bass and spiky, plastic-sounding guitar. Anyway, its catchy and insistent and whenever it comes on I feel happy about it.

Boy With a Problem - Elvis Costello & the Attractions (from Imperial Bedroom)
My favourite Costello album, Imperial Bedroom is full of lush pop-songs and torch ballads, and this is a mixture of the two, with his usual great lyrics: "Came home drunk/Talking in circles/The spirit is willing/But I don't believe in miracles". Sometimes his oft-criticised voice is just perfect on his own songs because he understands his own range and even when to push it, and this is one such case - gentle and soft and flirty. The Attractions are always tight and sharp.

Boston Ball Game, 1967 - Jack Bruce (from Songs for a Tailor)
No surprise that this has such an amazing bassline, considering that Bruce is one of Rock's great bass players, but its the way it just builds and builds, riding that groove to nowhere: great song from a fantastic, and disappointingly little-known album. Cream aren't even all that listened to nowadays, are they? So what chance does Bruce solo have?

Blister In the Sun - Violent Femmes (from Violent Femmes)
You know this, right? Its a classic for a reason. Yet it still thrills, with that shuffle, the solos of the middle eight, the euphoric chorus. As classics should, it stays fresh. It was an every-week fixture at an Indie Club night I regularly attended back in the day and it always filled the dancefloor.

Pandora's Golden Heebie-Jeebies - The Association
Ah, the 60s. Much of the other Association material I own is dull and sickly-sweet as treacle. This is sublime, though. The delicate backing vocal harmonies alone would be enough, but the arrangement (Curt Boettcher?) is beautiful. The lyrics: a load of rubbish.

Mama Soul - Harold Alexander
From a David Holmes DJ compilation, so i must be good, and lo, it is. Pure vibe, a demonic bassline, doesn't linger any longer than necessary. I know nothing about Harold Alexander, though I've got another song of his off another compilation somewhere.

Radio King - Golden Smog (from Down By the Old Mainstream)
Golden Smog are an old-fashioned Super-Group, wherein members of other bands team up and donate the songs that weren't good enough for their day-jobs. Here its sort of an Americana collective, with members of Wilco and the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum and Big Star all together. Jeff Tweedy wrote and sings, so its basically a Wilco song with Gary Louris backng vocals. This is a good thing. Tweedy's songs for the next Golden Smog record, Weird Tales, are among the best he ever wrote, by the way.

Baby Its You - Smith (from Death Proof OST)
Best version of this very great song I've ever heard. Does what so few covers do: makes it sound fresh and exciting.

I Fell Back Alone - World Party (From Goodbye Jumbo)
Desolate, destroyed breakup ballad from Karl Wallinger. What happened to Karl Wallinger? He could write a Beatlesque popsong as well as anyone. Goodbye Jumbo and Bang, the second and third World Party records, are full of them, and enjoyed some chart success. This is beautiful, sparse for the most part - guitar, drums, piano, bass. Synths well up halfway, imitating a string section. But its his delivery of the lyrics that sell it. They sting with truth, with felt experience. The first lines say it all, after a sadly pretty little acoustic guitar figure: "If we walk through each other/As we leave the room/You don't have to tell me/Thats its over/Whoever you were then/I never really knew/And you've got no need to know me now." Altough these lines are worthy of Elvis Costello: "But how can two souls still eat together/When life has lost its taste/ How can we lie together/In bed and face to face/And not see anyone at all?"
Great song.

(You Caught Me) Smilin - Sly & the Family Stone
Effortless, with a chorus for a verse, an instrumental break for a chorus, seemingly improvised harmonies, amazing bass by Larry Graham, and yet it sounds like the smoothest piece of pop-soul imaginable. Sly Stone was a genius. I have this on an old Greatest Hits, which is, song-for-song, one of the best records I own.

Wear Your Seat Belt - Cliff Martinez (from Solaris OST)
One of my favourite modern soundtracks, this. Spooky and atmospheric, its been much-used in advertising and trailers in the years since: it supplies a mood in seconds; dislocation, angst, melancholy. It is lovely. Its what I want to hear walking through the dark streets on the way to the tube in the morning.

Wounded - The Cookies
The Cookies were a girl-group who eventually mutated into the Raelettes. They're probably best known for "Chains", later covered by the Beatles. But this song - which I've got on a Warner Vaults compilation - is two distinct songs stitched together, full of overlapping vocals, with about five hooks, a vaguely psychedelic backing track; and its great.

School - Nirvana (from From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah)
"Wont you believe it/Just my luck/Wont you believe it/Just my luck/Wont you believe it/Just my luck/No Recess!No Recess! No Recess!/You were at school again/You were at school again/You were at school again/No Recess!No Recess!No Recess!"
...and thats it. But its the pulverising song beneath, squalls of feedback, a ridiculous guitar solo, caveman drums, Cobain screaming it all: this is rock music as primal therapy. My friends and I loved it in our teens - that version was on a 12" b-side, and if anything, it was even louder and rawer than this one. But live versions piss on the version on Bleach, which sounds insipid by comparison.

I Think I'm In Love - Spiritualized (from Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space)
Eight minutes of bliss: a slow fade in, instruments falling into the song around Pierce's numbed drawl until the beat kicks in around 2.33, and then its a rock song, its danceable, its a rhapsody. I've never loved anything Spiritualized have done as much as this album, which is epic and moving, rocking and funky, and often astonishing. Though I've tried, and I like much of Pierce's subsequent output. But this is monumental.

Love Is Strong - The Rolling Stones (from Voodoo Lounge)
Yeah, from Voodoo Lounge, thats right, Voodoo Lounge. Every Stones album has at least one great song on it. Mick & Keef demand that much. This is Voodoo Lounge's great song. Its only good song, actually. Lots of harmonica.

Sacred Heart Hotel - the Stars of Heaven (from Sacred Heart Hotel)
First line: "We conduct our affairs/Like the gentlemen we are". Strummy, americana-esque Irish indie band from the 80s, who were culty in the UK at their peak, and wrote some great songs. I found this album in London, actually, after drawing a complete blank in Dublin.

Hayfever - Trashcan Sinatras (from I've Seen Everthing)
Late 80s/early 90s Scots band habitually compared to the Smiths in their time, but, to my ears, they're far more emotional, and not as musically inventive. This 1993 single is fantastic, however.

Curls - Girls (from Album)
This is a gentle little instrumental, much more mature and measured than much of their debut, which I still don't know fully despite owning it since release.

Theme de Camille - Georges Delerue
(from Le Mepris OST)
Just beautiful: a keening wall of strings throughout, rising to a crescendo of sound and emotion then subsiding once again.

Love and Affection - Joan Armatrading (from Love and Affection)
Ah, an 80s FM Radio Classic. I basically learned about music in a few places: My Dad loves music and he played it throughout my childhood. He was (is) into 50s rock & roll and Easy Listening. I watched MTV obsessively from around 1986 onwards, which obviously skews ones tastes in a certain direction. In mine towards hard rock, heavy metal, and ultimately grunge. But parallel to that I was listening to FM radio, classic rock stations and late night DJs who played nothing but 70s and 80s chart stuff, which I loved. So much of my iPod is filled with people like Tom Robinson, Joe Jackson, Scritti Politti and Joan Armatrading I could probably run such a show for a few months with no repeat plays. Anyway, this weird mix of singer-songwriter ballad and soul is awesome, and has a really ugly sax solo in the middle. In a good way.

More News from Nowhere - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (from Dig! Lazarus! Dig!)
A casual but addictive, insistent low-slung blues beat and Cave just riffing verses over the top, tossing off amazing lyrics in every line ("I spent the next seven years between her legs/a pining for my wife") for seven minutes or so. And its absolutely ace. What a lyricist.

Katy Song - Red House Painters (from Rollercoaster)
One of my favourite songs ever.

Mojo Hannah - Tammi Lynn
Southern Soul funky goodness produced by Jerry Wexler, this has got a great vocal performance from Lynn and a real stomping band. Its on one of Warners excellent Right On! compilations.

Till I Get My Way - The Black Keys (from rubber Factory)
Still my favourite Black Keys song, due to that absolute beast of a riff which basically runs away with the song under its arm.
I love the clattering drums and Auerbach's vocals are always soulful, even when he has to holler to be heard over his own guitar.

Send In the Clowns - Judy Collins (from Judith)
This version of this song is devastating, I think. Perfectly judged production - the strings not too heavy, the piano weaving in and out in the right places. But above all theres Judy Collins, and her incredible voice. She caresses this song, never sells it too hard, allows it to breathe and lets it break our hearts. Beautiful.


Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Anton's Eye

Most of the Directors I love are notable for their visuals.
That may sound obvious, even dumb. But it is strange quite how many film directors get by with a rudimentary grasp of visual storytelling and no distinctive visual style. Even fewer have what could be termed a great, or even good, eye. In the last decade or so the rise of the young director schooled in the world of advertising and the pop video means that your average action blockbuster is a visually bombastic experience. These are young directors with a great grasp of the technical side of filmmaking. They understand lighting and cutting, they use movement within the frame in concert with movement of the camera, they allow CGI to work the magic of which it is plainly capable (but all too rarely responsible). A much-maligned director such as Michael Bay, for example (and he is older and of a different generation, but something of an example and idol for some younger directors) is almost a great visual stylist. He possesses a good eye. He tosses off amazing shots in his films, scatters them like confetti - beautifully lit and composed into some sublime tableaux - but he never allows them to develop a rhythm, he snaps them off before their beauty can even really register or resonate. And so many younger directors, in Hollywood at any rate, drunk on huge budgets and new technologies and raised on MTV and Jerry Bruckheimer, do the same.
What is the point of having a good eye if you don't understand what to do with it?

Anton Corbijn was a photographer before he began directing. A big-name, big-time photographer. Which suggests that he had a pretty decent eye.
Well, not only that, Corbjin had an utterly individual style. High contrast black and white portraits were mainly his thing, stretching back to his early work shooting Joy Division when both he and they were unknown.

It was a natural step for Corbijn to move into pop videos. Always able to form close bonds with his subjects because of his access - he became U2's favourite photographer and shot the covers for The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby - and with the talent of making all of his subjects look darkly glamourous, what was remarkable about this new career was just how personal and identifiable his style remained throughout. He kept the high contrast on occasion, together with the ineffable ability to make his subjects look eternally cool, effortlessly iconic. Naturalism was never a feature of his video work, just as it had rarely been important in his photography. Instead he embraced a highly stylised aesthetic, making for some stunning and unforgettable work.
Always evident was that eye of his.

Nirvana's 1993 "Heart-Shaped Box" was given a visionary video set in a cartoon world of exaggeratedly blue and red skies, crucifixions and sinister crows. Cobain spent much of the song out of focus and frighteningly close to the camera when he and his bandmates weren't miming on what looked like a set from The Wizard of Oz or on death-watch in a hospital room. The look seen in the video would prove extremely influential, and now it instantly dates itself as a product of the early 90s, but it maintains a power through Corbijn's imagery and how well it fits the music, which is, of course, the key to success with any pop promo.

His video for Joy Division's extraordinary "Athmosphere" combines his own photography of the band and Ian Curtis in particular with eerie footage of hooded figures engaged in some act of ritual worship - a funeral is the suggestion -on a desolate beach, to great effect. Its the best connection between his work as a film maker and as a photographer, featuring as it does rudimentary animations of photo-sequences.

Aside from U2 and Joy Division, Corbijn has been most closely associated with Depeche Mode, contributing album covers as well as photography and video direction. His video for "Personal Jesus" cross-pollinates his sensibility with that of a spaghetti Western director, with almost surreal results. The band, in leathers and cowboy hats, wander Almerian locations, all colour and sunshine drained from them. The "Enjoy the Silence" video features Dave Gahan, wearing a crown and cape and carrying a deckchair, strolling across mountainside and cliff-top. The rest of the band feature in shots of them emerging from the blackness of a tunnel-mouth and staring directly at the camera. With these two videos and the rest of his work with them, Corbijn had given Depeche Mode a powerful and unique visual identity which they continue to use - and tweak - today.

As countless young directors have shown, however, the move from pop videos to feature films is a forbidding and difficult one. Perhaps it was to Corbijn's advantage that he is not a "young" director, for his feature debut, Control (2008) is confident, assured and seemingly effortless. A wrenching, intimate biopic of Ian Curtis, its a film with which I have many problems. Narratively, its far too generic and predictable in its adherence to the rock-biopic template which has resulted in some truly awful cinema, from Walk the Line to The Doors and La Bamba. It suffers from having been released in the same decade as Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People (2002), which covers the same ground far more fleetingly but is much more interesting, original and amusing (and represents a brilliant example of what a rock biopic can be in the right hands - Winterbottom's film is a post-modern comedy, an Epic social and cultural history of Manchester and a great piece of rock criticism all at once). But Control works. It understands the dark power of Joy Division and the Curtis myth. It combines rock biopic with something of a kitchen sink drama, all stained wallpaper and cups of tea, and makes that seem a natural fit. Sam Riley is hugely impressive in the lead and the music is given the proper weight within the story. In fact Corbijn summons good performances from his entire cast, suggesting that the charm he wielded on rock stars to get what he wanted works just as well on actors.

But most impressive is how the film looks. Corbijn and his cinematographer Martin Ruhe ensure that every frame is beautiful. The lighting, composition and movement are staggeringly accomplished, and never at the expense of narrative or spatial coherence. This suggests that Corbijn has manifest natural gifts as a visual storyteller. The film also maintains some continuity with his earlier career: it looks, just as many of his pop promos did, like one of his photographs, and that is definitely a very good thing. Indeed, the black and white photography seems to enhance the detail and attention he gives to the film's many competing textures. His eye is superb, finding the beauty in a Rochdale council estate or in a band sweating their way through a set in a provincial club.

Corbijn's new film, The American, is a drama about an assassin, on the run and awaiting his next target, who hides out in a small Italian village and becomes involved with some of the locals. Again shot by Ruhe, the rather second-hand premise is reportedly transcended by the quiet, subtle "European" style of the film. Based on Control and Corbijn's other work, this is eminently plausible. The below trailer, meanwhile, makes it look like The Limits of Control (2009) with a little Antonioni thrown in or Jason Bourne by way of Jacques Audiard. Either of which would be more than fine with me. I would go anyway, because its generally worth seeing the world through Anton's extraordinary eyes.

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