Lucille Riley is an Oregon based photographer who has studied fine arts in the best schools in Canada, and who also has years of experience working in nurseries. She will be taking pictures for Culture Fusion sporadically. She prefers that her pictures speak for themselves, so without further ado, here are her photos!
All photography is the sole property of Lucille Riley and are licensed by handshake agreement to Culture Fusion.
The greatest power-pop album ever created is #1 Record by Big Star. This may seem like a bold, definitive statement, but I really don’t care. You can dispute me all you want, but if your opinion is otherwise, you’re wrong. I feel as if I could write a long essay about why “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen” are two of the greatest songs ever written, but it would just turn into me rambling and repeating myself. Instead, here’s a concise discourse on why you should be listening to this record right now.
Before I start gushing about how great this record is (too late – ed.), I’ll give you a little background information regarding it. Big Star were initially formed as Icewater in Memphis, Tennessee in 1971 and consisted of Chris Bell, Jody Stevens, and Andy Hummel. Subsequent to their founding, Chris Bell met guitarist Alex Chilton at a recording studio while they were both playing on different sessions where Bell – being impressed by the latter’s songwriting skills – invited him to join the band. Upon Chilton joining the group, they changed their name to Big Star, which was taken from a grocery store that the band often frequented when they wanted to purchase snacks. Bell and Chilton were the main creative force of the band and were both disciples of The Beatles, who were a huge influence on both of them; in fact, their stated mission was to be a songwriting duo with the same force of Lennon and McCartney.
Although they were certainly a team, the two had very disparate styles of songwriting. While, as I said, they were both extremely influenced by the Beatles, the Fab Four had a much bigger impact in Bell’s contributions to the band than Chilton’s. Chilton would write rough versions of songs, and Bell’s job would be to polish and refine them with pleasant vocal harmonies and arrangements. Bell was much more involved in producing the record than anyone else in the group; as such, his influence is very apparent on #1 Record. Chilton became more involved in the post-production of the following albums, and because of this, they sound much more rough and unpolished.
The one sentiment echoed by most scholars of rock and roll is history is that Big Star should have been huge (in fact, they should have been big stars and their records should have all been number one, hurr durr). After #1 Record was released in 1972, it received numerous critical accolades. Billboard went as far as to say that every song on the album could have been a hit single. Unfortunately, due to poor distribution, #1 Record sold less than 10,000 copies during the period surrounding its original release. Because of this, Bell and Hummel left the band. The group tracked two more records, Radio City and 3rd (Sister Lovers on some reissues), though only the former would come out during the band’s initial lifetime. Due to frustration with their label, poor sales, and a general lack of palpable success, they completely disbanded in 1974.
Of course, as most bands are wont to do, the Big Star banner was re-activated in 1993 – after nearly 20 years of silence – with a new line-up. Unfortunately, as Chris Bell died in a car accident in 1978, they were without his contributions. However, the revitalized lineup did contain some original members in the form of Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens.
That’s enough history for now – back to my ranting.
My personal highlights of #1 Record – as I mentioned before – are “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen”. The former is track two on the record, and while I have no idea who El Goodo is, Bell and Chilton sure did write a beautiful song about him. This piece is the best example of Bell’s beautiful falsetto harmonization on the album: they really shine through on this track. On the surface, it is just a simple ballad, but the arrangements and harmonies on the track really make it into something special.
“Thirteen” is even simpler than “The Ballad of El Goodo”. It utilizes acoustic instrumentation and has its lead vocal duties handled by Chilton. This track holds a special place in my heart, and I would say that it’s one of my favorite songs in general: it’s a beautiful, little portrait of teen love and perfectly captures the innocent spirit of the record as a whole.
Every other song on the record is fantastic as well, but those are the ones that really stand out for me. The lush production really shines on tracks such as the bright “Watch the Sunrise” and the somber “Try Again”, which sounds like it could have been an outtake from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. And, of course, who could forget the nostalgic teenage anthem “In the Street”? If you can get past the fact that a cover version of it was used as the theme song for That ‘70s Show, I daresay it is one of the best tracks on the record.
The thing that’s amazing about this record is how well it still stands up, even if you only listen to it for the first time later in your music-devouring career. If you’re like me, you probably heard a good number of the countless bands who were influenced by Big Star before you actually listened to this record and, because of that, one would think that this wouldn’t seem special at all. Yes, there have been countless other groups who have tried to imitate this sound; the simple pop structure, jangly guitars, and tight vocal harmonies were all oft-employed musical elements during the college radio days of the 1980s. However – even with all of the similarities to groups who found much more fame than Big Star ever did during their short career -, even being as familiar as I am with its derivatives, this record still feels magical to me. Most of the tracks on the album feel like adolescent anthems worthy of being blasted in a car filled with your best friends at age sixteen. (Yeah, yeah. Now I’m picturing That ‘70s Show). Chris Bell and Alex Chilton were magnificent songwriters, and their collaboration on this is truly wonderful.
As I write this article, I’m sitting in a coffee shop with my headphones on, and it just doesn’t feel right that I’m not singing along with it. I suppose that I could start belting out the lyrics, but I don’t think that the girl working on her chemistry homework across from me would appreciate that. #1 Record is just one of those perfect, infectious pop albums that begs to be echoed by an appreciative audience, whether that be one of the large crowds that saw them during their reunion concerts… or a single listener like me. In fact, I think that it’s time I finish my drink and go perfect my Alex Chilton impersonation.
Today, Kevin Pearson takes a look at Harmony Korine’s latest film, “Spring Breakers,” a look at the cultural decay that affects our youth, and examines how well Korine meets his goal. Read on to learn more!
Harmony Korine is updating the decadent life of youth. It was almost 20 years ago that he co-wrote the breakthrough film, Kids. At the time, the shock of seeing teenagers happily drink, do drugs and commit felony sexual crimes at leisure was enough to shock a portion of American life. Now Korine is at the helm and giving the world Spring Breakers, a charged look at what havoc bored teenage girls can cause when inspired to enjoy the wrong things at any cost. The update arguably has the youth committing worse crimes, but more pointedly, they are succumbing to an existential boredom and yearning to fulfill their idea of what goes hand in hand for enjoyment and debauchery in the American sense. Too bad the result for Korine is more an update in cultural clichés for what interests today’s generation.
The premise could be a joke, but it is not: four girls escape a humdrum college life to find paradise in Florida during spring break. The urban bleakness and decay of St. Petersburg is sublime enough to make them realize, “dreams can come true.” What they initially find is the idea of freedom and an endless amount of fun. For the four girls, their idea of fun comes with a hitch: to procure financial funds to even go on spring break, three of them take part in an armed robbery. It is simple means to just get enough money to do something they feel is owed to them. In the film, the phrase of it being their “right” to enjoy spring break is spread around. The fourth girl is Faith and she is more identifiable in trying to lead a good life (by belonging to a church group), so the cliché of her name serves its major purpose. However, she identifies with part of the rationale and joins in.
Upon arrival to Florida, the film is barraged by clips of partying. It’s the exuberance of being in a party zone and indulging fully. The thematic contrast is Faith begins to call back home to grandma and lie to her about the idea of what kind of peace she is finding in Florida. While trying to make it seem like an innocent trip, the images of her partying betray what she is saying. At this point she is happy to live the consequences of a double life when it comes to her grandma. The limitation is that this simple contrast is all the editing is concerned about. What Faith is saying to her grandma is dubbed over a barrage of party imagery. A two second editing idea is not really expanded upon. The only other consistent image present is the Florida skyline and the sun beautifully melting away in a sunset. An idea of natural harmony could be adapted since they appear when Faith seems to be most enthusiastic about the inner harmony Florida is providing her, but the film keeps her early characterization to what is fit to print back to grandma. Still, most annoyingly, the idea of making a character calling back to a grandma to show she is innocent is too tired of a subplot to trot out.
Innocent indulgence ends when the girls go to jail and get bailed out by a character named Alien. He saw them before, heard of their mishap and saw a chance to pounce on attractive tourists. At first his demeanor is kind to the girls, but he wants them to be excited so he’s enthusiastic about showing off his gangster lifestyle. The method is to tour them around his house and show off his collection of weapons and anything which can be prescribed to a gangster lifestyle. Obviously since Faith had no doing in the armed robbery, she is alarmed by Alien and the people around him. Inside she is stricken and lashes out by complaining to the other girls. Alien senses something is wrong and tries to softball her, but Faith wants out. The emotional payoff is seeing her personally twist and freak out on her friends. Indication for what it means is that she got in over her head and isn’t ready for the connection partying can have to violence. Her friends are more accepting.
The major transition happens when Alien challenges the remaining girls to succumb to his lifestyle. At first it gets another girl to reconsider everything and leave, but the remaining girls throw his world for a twist. They begin to threaten him with violence and an ongoing grudge with a rival gangster gets the girls to challenge Alien in uncomfortable ways. Instead of just talk the talk, they want to go full out with an assault and murder spree against his rival. It’s now more about their thrill. Alien goes along but it seems obvious he is uncomfortable. However, the consistent style is the editing of the two leftover girls talking about how their dreams are coming true and the imagery contrasting urban decay with pictures of natural beauty. I guess the update is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and these girls have now crossed over to a different level of savagery than what simple robbery can imply. If they can find idealism in something truly horrific the same way Faith could find it in just being able to party a little bit, it’s a comment.
Spring Breakers isn’t serious about its allusions. Harmony Korine is more stylized than Larry Charles (director of Kids) and likes to play fiddle more with abstracting the reality of the scene, but both still believe in a first person-documentary adherence to personalizing extreme situations and forcing the audience to get as close to collectively breathing the same air the characters are. There is no Sydney Lumet rule of the close up shot being a major pay off moment late into the film. The filmmaking decision is simple: stay as close to the character’s actions and their reactions to everything. Since filmmakers have always been obsessed with finding ways to cut out plot and delve into the bowels of what a powerful personal experience on film can feel like and how it should be filmed, we should accept (in the digital-handheld world) every technical trick is now available. There is no Robert Bresson today who has all the imagination and is limited by his generation’s lack of technical innovation. The question now is what aesthetic choices is Korine making in Spring Breakers?
For me, the choices and vision of Spring Breakers is depressing. Charles already maxed out the potential of the documentary candidness of youth debauchery with later films like Bully. Whatever felt could be deemed exploitive in Kids and its repetitiveness with documenting bad behavior was more honestly rendered sad and depressing with the true story in Bully. Spring Breakers, however, loses any potential interesting hook line and flings itself into absurdity with a third act that sees youthful girls with no experience at operating guns, taking out a number of armed men, and riding off into the sunset. I guarantee irony and skepticism is implied in finale. Early in the film, the characters tell themselves they need to see real life gunplay situations as “video games”. As a joke, Korine could be saying the girls got their unlikely talent from video games – or it could be mocking the idea. The problem is that the style and tone throughout the film is sincere about rationalizing absurd characters as (at least) sincere in what they say and mean in their moments of saying them. Of course, the problem is that the characters are all over the place. Like every character in Dr. Strangelove over acting and their craziness being a reflection of the nervous system of the American government at the time, these girls could be their own version of today’s youth being tightly wound and ping-balling off every imagined ordeal. It is farce masquerading as realism to imply their childlike idea of what serious aspirations and ideas should be. In staying true to comedic perspective, the characters at least fail in every regard.
The problem with this idea is that it’s still a rationalization. Spring Breakers has no real inventive filmmaking idea to string together the realism or unlike Dr. Strangelove, no different way to heighten the level of implied craziness which could possibly criticize a cultural phenomenon. The film is a developed montage of imagery and clips our society is already berated with. The result is an attempt at repackaging something people already know. What felt new with Kids quickly became exhausted because our society has eaten the idea whole. Original ideas have better wall-space life in the art world and can allow a painter ability to make a career out of. What Kids accomplished (at the time) was interesting in its own tunnel vision way, but it was also easy to see little future beyond the film. The French Shock Cinema movement in the 90s feels like a similar victim and only has one real talent left in Gaspar Noe. What Harmony Korine is trying to add the American counterpart isn’t much.
Postscript: No real comment on the actors or acting. It’s easy execution of clichés and exaggerated generics. Since the material they are performing is darker, the illusion could be what they are doing is more dramatic or interesting. It is not. Just a series of mimicries that are easy to duplicate.
Audrey takes a look at the darker side of the 70’s music scene with Manson family connection, Jimmy Page, and more, all connected to a strange rock and roll album…
From the beginning, there were always connections between the Manson family and music. The obvious story was the one of Charlie’s own failed music career, and the horrible crimes that were committed because of that. I’m not going to talk about that today, though: there was another member of the Manson family was also creating interesting music before any of the murders happened in ’69. That man is Bobby Beausoleil, and much like Charlie, he is currently serving a life sentence for murder.
Though this article obviously isn’t meant to be about his motives or the details of the crime (this is primarily a music blog, after all), I will divulge a bit of information about what happened: Beausoleil was involved in the murder of Gary Hinman, a music teacher; allegedly, Hinman owed money to the Manson family for a bad batch of mescaline that they had purchased from him and sold to a biker gang, who subsequently demanded their money refunded when they realized the drugs were faulty. On July 27, 1969, Beausoleil (along with family members Susan Atkins and Mary Brunner) showed up at Hinman’s house in an attempt to get their money back. When he refused to pay them, Hinman called Manson to the scene, who arrived at the house and promptly chopped Hinman’s ear off with a sword. When Hinman still insisted that he didn’t have money to give them, Beausoleil stabbed him to death. Afterwards, they wrote “Political Piggy” on the wall in his blood. Alongside that, they also drew a paw print in an attempt to make it appear that the crime was committed by the Black Panthers. This was the first of the string of gruesome murders committed by the Manson Family: a little over a week later, Beausoleil was arrested after he was found driving Hinman’s car.
Before his incarceration, Beausoleil played in several different bands; the most notable of which was Arthur Lee’s Grass Roots (no relation to Creed Bratton’s band of the same name), who later became the very influential Love. He also played in a psychedelic rock band called The Orkustra following the Grass Roots’ dissolution. Not only was Beausoleil involved in music, but he was also an aspiring actor, which is incidentally where his most famous recording Lucifer Rising comes into the picture.
It’s impossible to talk about this album without bringing up yet another important ‘60s icon: Kenneth Anger. If you’re not familiar with the name, Anger made a lot of experimental short films throughout the ‘40s up until recent years, usually blending surrealist imagery with occultist themes. Anger was a follower of Aleister Crowley’s religion of Thelema and made many references to it in his works, including the short film Lucifer Rising, which featured Beausoleil in a major role. The original plan was that Bobby would be the star of the production and that the music would be composed by Jimmy Page. Unfortunately, there were many issues during the production of the film. The actual filming was delayed many times due to a number of problems: Anger claimed that Beausoleil stole the original footage, but the rest of the cast stated that this didn’t happen and that Anger simply ran out of money. Another major issue involved the soundtrack; Page and Anger had a falling out during the creation of the film: one story says that Anger began to question Page’s devotion to the Thelemic way and, because of this, he placed a curse on the Led Zeppelin star. Another, likelier story is that Page wasn’t working as quickly as Anger wanted him to and, in his stead, the filmmaker tapped Beausoleil to compose the score in addition to being involved as an actor. Either way, after an argument with Charlotte Martin – Page’s longtime lover and the mother of his first child – Anger washed his hands of Page.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad decision on Anger’s part considering that Beausoleil is an extremely talented musician in his own right. The most amazing thing about this record is that it was entirely recorded behind bars. Even more remarkable, especially considering the occult and otherwise taboo themes of Anger’s films, Beausoleil was given permission by the warden of Tracy State Prison – where he was incarcerated for his involvement in the Manson crimes – to create this soundtrack. With the help of some incredibly skilled inmates, the record was created in the late ‘70s. I really wish that I could find more information about the recording process of this album: it sounds absolutely incredible given where it was recorded. I can’t imagine that a prison in the 1970s would keep very many (if any) decent musical instruments around, let alone any recording equipment, so the amount of cooperation between the prison and the outside world would have been unprecedented. Despite the locale where it was made, this album sounds as if professional engineers were on hand to record it using somewhat decent studio equipment. While this technical consideration would be quite remarkable if true, I suppose it made sense that they were able to find such great musicians among the inmates given that this was a prison in southern California during the drug-conservative 1970s: there were probably plenty of talented musicians who were incarcerated for narcotics and other minor crimes.
The album is completely instrumental and separated into six movements. The music contained within is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd; all the tracks are dreamy psychedelic soundscapes that act as a showcase for Beausoleil’s exquisite compositional skills and guitar work. That’s not to say that Beausoleil’s playing is the most important part of the record; the session musicians are incredibly tight and focused as well – especially the horn player. There are moments in the fifth movement where the trumpet becomes the main focus, and is just as beautiful as the guitar on the rest of the album.
While it isn’t necessary to do so if one merely wishes to enjoy the record as a musical statement, it helps to watch the film to see how the portions of the score that were selected for inclusion (the soundtrack album’s runtime is about 46 minutes to the film’s 29) complement Anger’s visuals. Due to all of the production delays involving the soundtrack’s rather unique circumstances, Lucifer Rising – although completely filmed by 1972 – wasn’t released until 1980. Although it features luminaries such as Anger himself and Marianne Faithful (as well as Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris, in a minor role), there is no dialogue to speak of, giving Beausoleil’s musical contribution an even greater importance. The finished work is loaded with Thelemic symbolism as well as a lot of very dated looking psychedelic effects, which makes for an entertaining watch if you’re in the right mindset (stoned *cough*). Honestly, I would have probably enjoyed Anger’s film a lot more if I were knowledgeable about Crowley and his teachings: as I’m only mildly aware of Crowley’s philosophies, I’m sure that most of the symbolism went straight over my head. Even if I didn’t completely understand what was going on, it’s still cool to have Anger’s cinematography in the back of my head while listening to the album: I can’t hear it now without picturing pyramids and volcanoes.
Since this record was written by a famous murderer and completely performed by inmates, one would think that this album would only hold value as a curiosity for record collectors and outsider music enthusiasts, yet this is not the case at all. It is probably best not to get caught up with that notion since this album doesn’t deserve to be cast aside as simply a novelty: It is a remarkable achievement, especially considering the ostensibly limiting conditions under which it was created. Anyone interested in hearing some really great psychedelic instrumentals and guitar work should check this one out, since – even casting aside its interesting context – it really doesn’t get much better than this.
Kevin Pearson takes a look at the film career of James Agree, which has been potent. A series of reissues mark a flurry of new excitement surrounding Agee’s work. Take it away Kevin.
If you’re a James Agee aficionado like me, the past few months have been exciting. Not only was the original prose for what would later be expanded and molded to become his masterpiece, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, finally published (entitled Cotton Tenants: Three Families), but so was his unique travel guide, Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island. It’s all pleasant and expected news as the writing life of a writer generally extends past their earthly existence. The only sadness is that since Agee died in 1955, these two publications may be the last things able to be unearthed.
I’m haunted by a million thoughts, feelings, and hopes for what kind of artist James Agee could have been. If any writer had a measure of immense talent and potential and failed to live up to either, Agee certainly belongs. He extended himself a million ways through journalism, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that he could never fully concentrate on one outlet. One of Agee’s main interest and arguably most doomed to fail was his fascination with writing about and making film. Like many novelists and writers at the time, Agee took advantage of the Hollywood boom of the 30s and 40s and banked on jobs which were more guaranteed pay days than almost anything a writer was going to put out (even amongst established novelists at the time). The grudging difference is that unlike most of those writers, Agee dedicated himself to film out of passion.
First, Agee transitioned by doing so in the easiest way. Having committed the bulk of his career to journalism, Agee found himself furiously writing film reviews. At the time, film journalism was an open market. You were likely to see a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance musical be reviewed by a dance critic or anyone else. More importantly, there wasn’t a ledger guideline in how to format reviews. Agee took heed of this openness and developed a quasi -diary format for his pieces. He didn’t care if he touched every production detail able to be reviewed. The concern of his reviews was the running dialogue and how he mixed a personal experience in watching a film with an objective review. Before Citizen Kane became fodder for academics who rightly understood its historical genre implications, Agee wisely positioned the film as an American take on techniques established in German Expressionism during the 1920s. It’s not the most exhaustive thing to say about the film, but if you’re writing a front-line review and have no literature to help you establish parameters, there is more truth to looking at the film that way than any other. Agee got that essential truth correct.
The ability to write about film got Agee start admiring certain directors. Most famously, his infatuation for John Huston spanned a number of reviews. In the filmmaker, the writer saw a champion of something more in film, “Huston’s pictures are not acts of …benign enslavement but of liberation, and they require, of anyone who enjoys them, the responsibilities of liberty.” The admiration transitioned into a relationship when the two began to work together. If a chemical reaction was going to lift Agee into moviemaking, it would be through this. While Agee did experiment with a documentary short prior, writing the screenplay for John Huston’s The African Queen was his foray into major motion picture work. The travel adventure, starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, follows in the vein of realism much like Huston’s previous effort, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The other major writing feature was The Night of the Hunter which became more famous for Robert Mitchum’s performance than anything. Do I consider these scripts to be major works by Agee? Not necessarily. Both are adaptations of novels and both, for me, had varying successes with two different directors. Being directed by Huston, The African Queen played more into Agee’s attraction to naturalism in writing. If you consider one of the bends of his career in film criticism, there is a heavy dose of him being attracted to films which could extend themselves past genre conveniences. Most notably, he would mockingly write about some films and say only a few paragraphs were necessary to really evaluate their genre stock existence. It’s well known the American genre films were influential for French New Wave cinema, but for Agee, he was a man already pedigreed in other arts related to language and was interested in different ways film could evolve.
Both films were made in the 1950s and Agee’s life exhausted itself by 1955. Whatever promise he would have to transition into film was going to be cut short. Similar to the playwright Bernard Shaw (known now as George Bernard Shaw), interest came too late. During the sunset of his life, Shaw admitted he wished he had the chance to devote himself to film instead of theater. Agee has no formal comment on the subject and his passion may have been too varied and fleeting for him to really comment or know whether or not he would have been all in with film. The other basic problem is both writers grew up in an age that yet had no basis in watching film or movies every day. One of the better comments about why all the New Waves (i.e., young filmmakers revolting against studio norms) happened around 1960s or 70s in numerous countries is that was the first generation of younger people who came of age during heyday of movies in their respective countries and were first able to make films themselves. It was the first generation of people who knew film inside-out and wanted to put their own stamp not only on what changes they were interested in making, but also reflect on what their history with cinema was. Generational difference was difficult for the likes of Agee and Shaw.
Problem is the story mostly ends there. The legacy of James Agee in film is mostly comprised of an excellent critical career (available in the book, Agee on Film), a few shorts plus two scripts for major features. The task I like to daydream is what kind of filmmaker he would have been if better timing and facilities were available. First, I would have seen Agee extend out of John Huston’s realism. If he had been fortunate enough to come out of the 1960s, John Cassavetes could have been a kindred spirit in comparison. For independent American cinema, Cassavetes saw a documentary-grit approach to storytelling less as a genre choice (opposite of French New Wave) and more of a sightline in how to depict the harshness of American life. Agee also was less interested in plot invention or playing up other fanciful methods to allude to problems in his story and was more about extending out the depths of personal grief in poetic, but densely realistic and harsh ways.
Another consideration is the structural oddities in Agee’s work. The poetry in Let Us Praise Famous Men is a key component. There are also lists of varying elements of daily life about the Cotton tenants in the story. The book has personal story about the people, but backs it up with so much poetry, documented lists, and photography to make it much more of a rounded picture. For this, there has to be European consideration to similar filmmaker traits. Alan Resnais is excellent in making structural works which will get down to the gritty details of life in poetic fashion (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), but considering Agee praised Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible films by calling the first part a “corpse”, Resnais may be too dry. Francesco Rosi has more humanitarian interests in his structural essays while I’m sure Agee could have been excited by Federico Fellini’s later filmmaking flair but also willing be to disregard some of his fancier storytelling ideas. The ideas are endless to what keyholes in filmmakers could have fit.
I imagine most fans of James Agee stick mostly to his criticism. It’s the most fulfilled thing he ever did in film and amongst critics; his work is still standout for a profession that has some excellent voices and thoughts. It’s a depressing though to delve too deep into his script work because the major feeling is how one always is left wanting more. In the existence of time, Agee’s place with film is too short.
Kevin Pearson, the latest addition to the Culture Fusion review crew, is a movie fanatic with the kind of in-depth knowledge of movies that would frighten Roger Ebert (were he still amongst us). There are few people who’s insight into movies I respect more, which is why I’m thrilled he’s decided to contribute a regular look at movies. Today, he takes a look at director Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths.”
When The New Republic’s film critic, Stanley Kauffmann, was overseeing the terrain of 1972, he happily admitted the offbeat comedy, Pocket Money, (notably written by Terrance Malick) was his favorite film of the year. He didn’t wash the film in any other acclaim. From my disposition, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is my favorite movie of 2012. Instead of stop comment as short as Kauffmann did when he made his remark in passing during a review for another film, I think McDonagh’s work has some relevant updates on the relationship between violence and comedy.
The simple story of a struggling writer (played by Colin Farrell) trying to come up with screenplay ideas for his titled script, “Seven Psychopaths,” becomes fodder for metaphysical mishaps when his friend (played by Sam Rockwell) unexpectedly gets him mixed up in mob action, meeting potential candidates for psychopathic inspiration, and finding other ways for the script to begin writing itself with Farrell orbiting around a host of crazy characters and situations. Also making things more convoluted is when Farrell begins pawning stories he hears as his own and finds them unexpectedly having truths to people around him.
Scene to scene explanation of the story involves too many highs and extremes to canvas in any word limited review. Probably, that’s the point. At the beginning, Farrell’s character, a loathing alcoholic, proudly announces he wants his film to be about psychopaths but have an antagonistic relationship to playing up the violence. The continuing feud between him and Rockwell’s character is how depraved and isolated Rockwell is in any logical bearings and wants the film to be over violent. Rockwell continually tries to be sensible and fails in most regards. Throughout the film, the two flex the extent of a friendship by bouncing antics off of each other and riding the other to be better versions of their selves.
One of the ways in which Rockwell’s character digs an emotional foothold into the story is through his friendship with Christopher Walken’s character. The two scheme to kidnap dogs from people and return them to collect reward money, but at the heart of their misdeeds is a genuine love for each other. While background for Walken’s character is eventually elaborated through a simple story that the film later reveals to be about him, the characterization begins by depicting his loyalty and sense of romance to his ailing wife. She is hospital bound to a cancer ward. Seven Psychopaths isn’t meek in trying to play up the music and the sympathy card. In Walken’s own way, he’s a disheartened psychopath, too. The film collects personal anecdotes to tally up the whole of his behavior.
During interviews for the film, Martin McDonagh did say he wanted the film to be different from other films in today’s landscape of easy violence in movies. Right now, most American films interested in violence and its relationship to irreverent humor all descend from the altar of Quentin Tarantino. With movies like Pulp Fiction, Tarantino pried violence away from mostly being the cause and effect result of extremely tense moments to an element of everyday reality for some extreme characters. You can be a gangster who just got done with the ordeal of an accidentally killing a man in the back of your car and grimace more over the cleaning issues of a blood sprayed car than anything else. The comedy of complaining who is more to fault and what body parts the guilty party should clean has its inherent comedy in contrasting sanity with insanity.
The problem is with this innovation came duplication and instead of violence being aged to a fine wine of any sophistication, filmmakers began to compliment every imaginable situation with its greatest violent possibility. Ability to be judicial also ended because filmmakers in America were blessed with the rating of PG-13 and knowledge the rating board would approve most things under the content sun when it came to violence. Sexual content was another matter, but copycats of Tarantino could live happily knowing they were able to show most things and expand their audience reach. The normalization of this commodity also made Tarantino’s original effect of a violent statement almost obsolete. The audience no longer churns and stands back at humor and violence. One still should appreciate Pulp Fiction because it is well written and acted, but comparable to Hitchcock and his original idea of shocking suspense, the effect could only be short lived.
Seven Psychopaths exists thanks to this history. To make a comment, the film purposely plays up the comedic faults of the characters and whirls generalizations and stereotypes into a frenzy. Also stretching itself out of Tarantino, the film revolves around conservation and interaction between characters. Tarantino did tap into something uniquely humane by basing his vision of violence in domestic ways through violent characters because it better reflects how people interact, but Seven Psychopaths is a more honest projection of our desire to carry on friendships. There is an intangible love between Rockwell and Farrell that spans as many narcissistic and insane ideas of problematic friendships people may see or experience every day. The film just so happens to mesh the whirling madness of a friendship with a number of violence clichés in movies.
It also avoids some previous problems by other filmmakers. Mr. and Mrs. Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie was intended to be satire of action films, but its cast two action stars in the roles instead of more recognizable dramatic actors who would have been out of place trying to ham up action clichés. Sam Rockwell will never be confused for an action star (well, same would have been said for Bruce Willis pre-Die Hard, too) but the build-up to his idea of the perfect shoot out is pitch perfect comedy for our time. Like I said, Farrell wants the film to be anti-climactic about violent outcomes, but Rockwell continues to badger him about the necessity of violence in his script. In trying to help out Farrell, he acts out his idea of what a perfect gun fight would look like. The film graciously provides depiction of what his shootout looks like and it’s filled with enough over-the-top craziness. The film also captures fair amount of Rockwell’s inspired performance of it.
In interviews, Martin McDonagh said he wrote Seven Psychopaths at the same time as In Bruges but made the latter first since it required less technical knowhow as regards to filmmaking and production. Transitioning from theater, there needed to be a professional development in film before McDonagh could exploit tricks of the action trade in this story. He also said the film was written specifically with Sam Rockwell in mind. All the actors (Farrell included) are better actors at comedy than anything else, but Rockwell is one of the better comedic actors in recent years and it’s easy to say he has the standout performance. The film takes advantages of his talent with playing neuroticism and extending out reaction to people/things in scenes a little longer and with more detailed nuance. Many actors can play neurotic and play up neurotic characteristics well enough, but Rockwell knows how to operate in the spaces between the actions and how to delay the payoff funny reaction. Emma Thompson once said screen acting was the ability to master the look of concentration on film. Rockwell is able to find a way to concentrate while in a state of neuroticism and make it feel both fluent with the character and detailed enough to be relatively realistic (well, for as much realism as a comedy can grant).
Seemingly at ease with a slower process, Martin McDonagh has admitted his next intended feature film is written and pre-planned for a number of production details, but like Seven Psychopaths, he will wait a few years before formally moving forward with it. As a fan more than anything else, I’m hoping the next four years pass by and when they do, not too much time feels lapsed to make the waiting process feel cumbersome on any level. More Martin McDonagh is needed for our everyday cinema.
Audrey is back with some words of wisdom on a far out band from Japan. Dig it.
A lot of feird music comes from Japan. Thinking about this has inspired me to write about one of my favorite groups to come out of Nihon. What I’m reviewing today is going to look pretty tame compared to the ridiculousness that is the Gerogerigegege, but bear with me: this is still pretty weird, especially considering when the band began creating records. Les Rallizes Dénudés may not have recorded themselves shitting their pants (at least, not that I know of…) or masturbated on stage, but I promise that this is worth your time if you like avant-garde music.
Are you still there? Good. Les Rallizes Dénudés (a linguistic mash-up of Japanese and French that translates to ‘they who are fucked up and naked’) formed as a concrete entity in 1967, its members originally bound together as an avant-garde musical theatre troupe. The band was led by the incredible guitarist and vocalist Takashi Mizutani. LRD became infamous in Japan for their intense, visual live performances and extreme leftist politics. In 1970, they became even more infamous when one of the members decided it’d be a good idea to hijack a plane.
Bassist Moriaki Wakabayashi was a member of the Japanese Red Army – a Communist group formed in the early ‘70s whose ultimate goal was to overthrow the Japanese government and eventually spread their message all over the world. Nine members of the JRA, including Wakabayashi, boarded Japanese Airlines Flight 351 on March 31, 1970 with the intention of hijacking the plane and flying it all the way to Cuba. They apparently didn’t plan this very well, since the flight that they hijacked was only traveling 45 minutes away and there wasn’t actually enough fuel in the plane to make it all the way to the Caribbean. The plane ended up landing in Pyongyang, North Korea, where the hijackers were given refuge and treated as heroes. Most of them stayed in the country for over thirty years until they were eventually allowed back into Japan: those who returned were immediately arrested. Supposedly, Mizutani was also asked to join in the hijacking, but he declined, choosing to stay in Japan. It’s a good thing that he did, or some of the heaviest music ever to come from that part of the world wouldn’t have been created.
The most direct comparison that one could make with this band would be that they’re somewhat like the Velvet Underground: the band even dressed similarly, wearing all black clothes and dark sunglasses; Mizutani looked like he could have been the Japanese Lou Reed. Their live shows were also very similar to Warhol and the Velvets’ Exploding Plastic Inevitable revue, featuring bright strobe lights and crushingly loud feedback. While they were very obviously influenced by the group, Les Rallizes Dénudés can’t simply be discounted as Velvet Underground rip-off: after all, they went a step beyond what the Velvets did. By turning the volume up even higher, playing their songs for much longer, and adding much more reverb to their vocals, their sound was significantly more disorienting and psychedelic than anything the Velvets ever did.
Aside from the Japanese noise music enthusiasts and the artists they influenced (most notably High Rise, Fushitsusha, and the Acid Mothers Temple collective of music groups), the band was largely forgotten by most until 2007, when Julian Cope’s brilliant book Japrocksampler was published. Les Rallizes Dénudés were one of the bands he chose to focus an entire chapter on, leading to a resurgence of interest in the band among aficionados of avant-garde sounds.
If you’ve ever heard anything by this band, it’s likely that the recording was a bootleg: Rallizes had almost no official releases, and next-to-nothing of their cumulative output was recorded in the studio. However, when looking at the massive array of unofficial material, deciding where to start can certainly seem intimidating: their rateyourmusic.com page lists over 70 third-party records, many of which are sourced from grainy live recordings and contain multiple discs. In my opinion, a good place to start is the aptly titled Heavier Than a Death in the Family: this bootleg record – a collection of recordings the band made mostly dating in or around 1977 (with the exception of the track ‘People Can Choose’, which was recorded in 1973) – is widely considered to be one of their best.
The thing about Les Rallizes Dénudés is that while their discography is enormous, there really isn’t much variety in it. That’s not to say that this is necessarily a bad thing – after all, their recordings were consistently pretty good, if you’re into that sort of thing. The only problem is that – for me, anyhow – it gets boring after awhile. Since I’m kind of insane, I’ve done the hard job for you and listened to hours and hours of their recordings. I can honestly say that Heavier Than a Death in the Family is probably the most solid overall. The record features only six tracks, although most clock in at over ten minutes. In terms of musical content, the core of the record is just primitive rock and roll. It features simple, repetitive riffs, throbbing bass lines, and steady drumming. Sounds easy enough to get into, right? Wrong.
The thing that really sets this band and this album apart is the noise. One of the main things Les Rallizes Dénudés are known for is how ridiculously loud they are. Honestly, if you listen to this album all the way through and your ears aren’t ringing by the end, you either need to get them checked or turn the volume up to a listenable level: I can’t even imagine going to see them live. Every recording I’ve heard by them (except for the odd folk songs on their Mizutani record – one of three band-sanctioned recordings) is incredibly loud, and sounds as though it would have been deafening if experienced live. Not only were Rallizes very noisy, their sound also had a lot of psychedelic elements to it; consequently, they’re most often classified as psych-rock. Although the long guitar solos were obviously influenced by American psych and experimental bands, I find this to be a gross oversimplification of what they do, and anyone checking them out for this reason will either be in way over their head or pleasantly surprised.
One time, in a disgustingly Garden State-esque moment, I told a former professor of mine that this band would change his life. While I can’t say that this will be true for everyone, if you like noise, psychedelia, or any sort of avant-garde rock, you definitely need to check LRD out. When I first heard them, I was already into weird Japanese stuff like Boredoms and Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O., so this was a step down in terms of strangeness, but the experience made everything suddenly click for me: I finally realized the point of influence that all of these forward-thinking Japanese bands shared: Les Rallizes Dénudés started the wave of all the cool experimental and noise bands that came from the land of the rising sun, and I’m incredibly grateful for their existence.