Wednesday, June 28, 2006

One of the Greats

Antonioni's "The Passenger

Michealangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger”, originally released in 1975, was re-issued in theaters late last year. It’s clear that the film’s leading protagonist, Jack Nicholson, holds a special place in his heart for this existential thriller since he was the primary force behind the film’s re-release (and how often does an actor labor for something like that?). Filmed in languorous long shots that give more precedence to space than the emotions of the actors, this was Antonioni’s bid to capsulate his artistic, European senses into a somewhat commercially viable American vehicle. It succeeds on both levels- carrying forward Antonioni’s penchant for static, internalized filmmaking while never losing sight of the fact that it’s a minor league thriller with big actors (Nicholson and his unnamed girl, Maria Schneider). Nicholson plays David Locke, a journalist working in Northern Africa. After a long search through the desert for someone (or something) that never materializes, Locke returns to his hotel room and finds his neighbor, David Robertson (Charles Mulvehill) dead of a heart attack. Locke inexplicably changes identities with the man, keeping his appointments across the globe and leaving his old life behind. Locke soon discovers that he’s traded places not just with an ordinary man, but a man whose job is to sell guns for various organizations. Soon, Locke finds himself hunted both by his past (in the form of his wife once she receives his things and realizes his passport has been doctored) and Robertson’s shady business partners. Along the way, he enlists the help of a young girl (Schneider), fresh from he role in Bertolucci’s “Last Tango In Paris”.

Sounds like a globe-trotting thriller right? The glory of Antonioni’s film is not in the plot mechanisms…. Very little happens during certain parts of the film and there’s not a single gun fired. The real purpose of the film is to propagate Antonioni’s lust for the inexplicable. Like previous films in his career, there’s no reason for Locke to do what he does. He’s as well adjusted and popular as Lea Massari in “L’ Avventurra” (1960), Antonioni’s main female character who disappears 30 minutes into that film. The remainder of “L Avventurra’s” 2 hours is devoted to the search and bonding of this girl’s friends. In “The Red Desert” (1964), a woman (Monica Vitti) wanders around the city and engages in a tryst for no reason other than her angst in a provincial marriage. There are no outward motivations in “The Passenger” either. Antonioni elicits a fairly muted performance from Nicholson, giving him some passion in the form of Maria Schneider, but even then he cuts beyond their sex scene to expose them lying naked in bed in long shot. “The Passenger” cuts at much deeper ideas- space and time (there is not a single wasted shot in this film, each image opening up and out to give us glimpses of people scurrying about at the edges), frustration, and certainly the basis of identity. The fame of “The Passenger” is in the final five minute shot, which tracks slowly through a barred window and out into a dusty courtyard as every player in the game of Locke’s life collides in a quiet, unsettling moment. But even greater images, to me, include the overhead shot as Nicholson rides over a lake in a wire trolley cart and the traveling shot as Schneider asks, “Why do you run?” and Nicholson replies “turn around and look” and the car speeds down the road, the camera fixed on the trees and road that darts away behind them. There is more truth (and motivation) in that 10 seconds than a lot of films muster in 2 hours. This is one of the best films of the 1970’s.

The picture is not a trick. I doubt many people will know who this is. I just stumbled across this tonight. Film lovers can now geek out. The man is Andrew Sarris, respected film critic for the New York Observer and author of the invaluable book called "The American Cinema" which put forth, for American audiences in the late 60's, the radical French theory of director as "auteur". I've long respected this writer's opinions and outlook, and now we have the above collection of his Top Ten lists for the last 30 or so years. If anyone has seen more than 50% of the films on his lists, you truly are cool.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Memories of Music

Much more than films, music is a form of entertainment that seems critic-proof. There are a few genuine turkeys produced every year (such as when you have Jennifer Love Hewitt or Robert Downey Jr. belting out classics), but the state of the music industry is so varied and so independent, that you have certain types of music that will find an audience no matter what. Case in point- check out metacritic and compare the ratings of all new compact disc releases versus new movie releases. See how the green of music far outweighs the yellows of film? If you release a four hour film that documents the mating rituals of a Brazilian hog, then it’ll get marginal distribution in 25-30 cities on 1 art house screen- which is a virtual gravesite for any film. But if a certain band makes a marginal breakout within the scene, they have gigs, they start touring with more well known bands and they get their cd printed into, maybe, 20,000 copies. And, this band is guaranteed airplay within a radio station that tailors to the tastes of a given audience. Unlike the film, the audience doesn’t have to discover this artwork through a 35 mile trek to the local art-house, they simply have to turn on a predisposed radio station (most likely set in a “favorites” mode) and have this new track of music delivered within the confines of a genre of music those appeals to the listener. And the joy of discovering a new musical talent is often more overpowering than discovering a new filmmaker because the music can travel with you. So, what does all this lead up to? I’m having a heyday right now churning through new music with ease. There is so much out there, buried online (another positive fact for the music industry, myspace and online music services give any computer owner a veritable Ipod) and elsewhere.

I can honestly say that I arrived at music much earlier than I did with movies. To this day (like everyone) I can think of a given song and immediately conjure up an image in my life to go along with that song. Road trips with friends, house parties and clubs- music truly does give us a soundtrack to life. It effectively dog-ears time and space, distilling and enhancing an emotion or a moment with rhythmic vulnerability. Two radio stations, both now sadly defunct, played a formative role in my life- Z Rock, 98.9 out of Austin, Texas and The X, 103.9 out of College Station. Z Rock was one of those late 80’s/early 90’s stations that changed with the tide once alternative rock came in. But in those 4-5 years that I listened to Z-Rock, I was exposed to hard rock and heavy metal that wallpapered the drinking nights at my friend Craig’s house. People poured in and out, but the only constant was Z-Rock. This is where I first heard the likes of Metallica, Pantera, Helmet, 80’s European heavy metal… much like MTV’s old “Headbanger’s Ball”, Z-Rock was the station that growing boys like myself listened to and imagined we were much tougher than we really were. Then, as I grew older and learned that music is sometimes more than adrenaline and screaming (not to demure the bands I just listed), I found my way to The X out of College Station. I remember finding this station by mistake. My job through school was in a retail store where we’d often clean up and stay until 11 or midnight. I’d often spend much more time adjusting the rabbit ears of the radio, desperately trying to affix a signal from outer space that would cut through the electrical wasteland of this department store rather than the tasks of cleaning at hand. And I quickly discovered that the radio worked much better posited on top of a box, peering out of the metal roofed toy stockroom than inside the store! And then, I could get 3 signals. Two country stations and The X. The music that streamed from the speakers was, in a humble word, life-altering. This is where I heard alternative and indie rock from a slew of bands that I’d never heard before. This is where I learned about The Pixies, The Toadies, Weezer, Afghan Whigs, The Cranberries, Bush, At the Drive In, They Might Be Giants and a host of other semi-marginal experimental bands who are now either dead, regarded as godfathers-of-indie-rock, or managers at Taco Bell. This is where I learned that music can be transcendent and edgy and a little different, full of odd vocal inflections, out of key and fuzzy, or simply more complex. Z-Rock and The X taught me a lot about music, and ultimately, about life. And when I hear The Cranberries “Zombie”, a flood of images rushes back to me. Good or bad, it’s always nice to reflect on younger times when you could run faster, jump higher and your stomach was a little flatter. And that’s the real power of music. The power to transform and transport. There is still great music being made, you just have to dig a little deeper. There are no more X’s and Z-Rock’s to serve it up. Everything has become more corporate. I regularly listen to 102.1 The Edge here in Dallas, and while the station tries hard, I can only take so much Green Day and Staind. The reaffirming factor about the Edge is the Sunday night line-up that features “The Adventure Club” from 6-9 p.m. in which they give springboard to a lot of great independent bands from across the country. Then, at 9 p.m. “The Local Show” gives musical props to local bands in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. These 4 hours on one night a week will never forgive the other 164 hours spent on mind-numbing Top 40 hits, but at least it shows that, sometimes, musical originality will explode on the radio. You just have to know when to listen. So, massive tangential conversations aside, here are a few of the new bands I’ve stumbled across:

The Appleseed Cast- “Peregrine”- probably the best album I’ve heard so far this year. This quartet from Kansas, featuring layered sounds of guitar and distinctive vocals, mesmerize from start to finish. If nothing else, a comment on the cd cover should inspire anyone to pick it up, calling The Appleseed Cast America’s closest thing to Radiohead. Check out a sample of their work here

Wolfmother- self titled- The likeability of this band depends on how much retro 70’s hard rock ala Led Zeppelin and Argent one can handle. For my tastes, they rock. This is nothing groundbreaking, but the vocals are strong and Wolfmother are a band who understand their roots without sinking into self mockery or condescension.

Black Tie Dynasty- “Movements”- A local Dallas Fort Worth band that are just now beginning to get some airplay with their single “Tender”, their sound is eerily reminiscent of Depeche Mode, and that’s not a bad thing. The rest of “Movements” is fantastic stuff. I need to check out their earlier stuff.

She Wants Revenge- self titled- If you’ve listened to Interpol, you’d quickly jump to the conclusion that She Wants Revenge is a splinter of that band’s members. Borrowing that band’s driving guitar style and somewhat flat vocals that passes as spoken word music at times, She Wants Revenge is something different and just beginning to make a mark in the musical world. Don't let the "emo" look fool you.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Anyone who remembers the short-lived televison series called "The Job", which ran on ABC for only 6-8 episodes during the spring of 2001, will fondly recall these moments that gravitated Denis Leary from stand up comedian to full bodied actor, complete with venemous diatribes and side splitting humor. Each episode of this 30 minute series was a mini-masterpiece of situational comedy. The times spent frentically bouncing between his wife and girlfriend and the infamous episode where Leary is trapped in the restroom of a police station with a crazed gunman solidified Leary's conviction of creating a new kind of televison comedy- one without strict rigors of plot. The fun within "The Job" were the tangential conversations that carried on for 3-4 minutes and the show's (almost) disdain for plot resolution. At times, nothing happened in this show, but it was funny as hell. Now, Leary and producer Peter Tolan are back with "Rescue Me" on FX. Now in it's third season, I didn't catch on to this show until late last year. Like so many fantastic marketing coups in the home video market, FX wisely released the first 2 seasons on DVD shrewdly before the season's new episodes, giving us slackers the opportunity to catch up before a new barrage of humor and emotion were layed out on the screen. And those recurring faces from "The Job"- Lenny Clarke as his uncle Teddy and Diane Farr as Laura Miles, the first female firefighter in the house- immediately signal that "Rescue Me" is more than a new series, but a fresh progression of things started four years ago on "The Job". "Rescue Me" is endlessly entertaining, casually shifting gears between rapid-fire dialogue that strikes the funny bone and sobering moments of dramatic invasions. This is a show that's dares you to pick up on things the first time. There are scenes where one liners are tossed at random, barely giving us a chance to catch our breath from laughing before another line is dropped. If nothing else, "Rescue Me" is best when it captures the macho casualness exuded by six guys as they sit around a small table, smoking and chatting. Fighting fires is secondary to the documentation of how this group of guys interacts. Chasing pussy, weaseling out of a given circumstance and gay jokes are MUCH more important in this world. Still, "Rescue Me" succeeds on the charms on its acting and writing. It's bracing and energetic television that deserves to be seen. Oh, and "The Job" complete series (19 episodes) is now available on DVD.