Saturday, August 29, 2009

Chicago

I went to Chicago last week. This was great for a number of reasons, though I’ll limit myself to the usual subjects.


Twelve years after disbanding, Red Red Meat played their one and only reunion show at the beautiful Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millenium Park on Monday. I know because singer Tim Rutili at one point said, “You’re never going to hear these songs again.” That made me feel bad about not having heard those songs before, and not being able to lament their retirement, but Red Red Meat don’t strike me as a band I would ever come to love. When they get going on a blues riff or a steady backbeat or a mountain of fuzz, they’re unstoppable, but too often their idea of “atmospheric” is guitar scraping and cymbal tapping beyond reason. They seem to have soaked up a lot of the Chicago ether back in the old days, little as I know about it, and I fault no one, Chicagoan or otherwise, for missing them dearly.

Canadian indie pop act The Rural Alberta Advantage opened. Excessively frenetic drumming is a modern musical trend I’m not crazy about (No Age, Los Campesinos!, Japandroids), but, unlike the wailing vocals, it is one of the virtues of the Advantage’s moderately charming tunes.

I found a couple record stores.


Dusty Groove America specializes in jazz and funk, but its workers seem like keepers of the entire musical canon. I bought Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, and the cashier told me it was his first Mingus album, along with the one that includes music heard in John Cassavetes’ Shadows. “That’s a great movie,” I said, only to lapse into silence when the cashier’s look indicated to me that he had a better understanding of why it’s a great movie than I do. Anyway, Ah Um already interests me a great deal more than the other Columbia jazz classic of 1959, Kind of Blue, as it is less a sequence of solos and more a showcase for the compositions of a great bandleader.


Reckless Records has three locations in Chicago. The one in the Belmont/Clark area is pretty impressive, especially after you notice that their CD jewel cases are hidden behind the counter and begin to ponder how vast their inventory must be. I bought Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement from one of their cadre of trendy bearded city dwellers, and realize I have been too long without fresh synth pop. Heaven 17 were Human League breakaways; their ambitions are more of the dance-until-the-revolution variety, but with their clunky, now outdated machines, they’re able to put their signature all over some impressive soundscapes.

Fate (and train schedules) conspired against me seeing both You, The Living at Facets Cinematheque and Edward Albee’s adaptation of Carson McCullers’ Ballad of the Sad Café at the Chopin Theatre, but I went inside both buildings, and picked up a top ten compendium at the former in which man of cinema Robert Pollard lists among his favorites Husbands by John Cassavetes, auteur of drunken banter.

MOVIES

Inglourious Basterds finds Quentin Tarantino doing what he does best, relentlessly, for two-and-a-half hours. Minute by minute, it is the most thoroughly entertaining movie of the year. Tarantino’s mythmaking is intact, and I’m surprised after seeing this that his own mythic origins lie not in the theater, but in the video store. I’m surprised because Basterds is a remarkably self-contained movie, tightly bounded by its own structure and locations and framings, nearly as free of context as Long Day’s Journey Into Night (which I’ve also just seen) or any other great piece of drama. Tarantino has never been a director who has thought he can have it all. Sure, he has it all in terms of subject matter—World War II, German cinema, and the rest—but Basterds in particular is built up of the simplest pleasures: well-composed shots, well-chosen gestures and inserts, musical cues, cinematic references, loopy metaphors. The best joke here is the way that the Nazi-scalping plotline is pushed to the margins before it even takes off, giving Tarantino time to let his handful of scenes progress toward narrative dead-ends. Someone said that no one in the movie gets enough screen time. That’s true, but it’s also true that there’s not a scene in the movie that should have been left out, nor anything left out that should have been put in. Everything that happens in the movie could have been told in 15 minutes, but the pace is leisurely, the film not bogged down with story information.

Goodbye Solo
is slightly more artificial than Ramin Bahrani’s previous two films (I mean that only as an observation, not a criticism). In Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, life happens, and the camera is nowhere. In Goodbye Solo, from the moment that we learn that one man has a goal, and needs another man to help him achieve it, events unfold for the sake of the camera, and the film suggests that Bahrani could be very successful as a mainstream director. Solo is not an anomaly in his already impressive filmography by any means, but still, subtly, a different kind of filmmaking.

Weird footnote or accidental masterpiece, Blast of Silence reimagines film noir as a genre whose potential for exciting action sequences is limited to peanut pushing contests. The film was released by Universal in 1961, and not being a fan of B-movies, I sometimes forget that major studios have always been financing movies with such unappealing casts and haphazard thrills as this one. That said, there’s a sort of wayward genius to Blast of Silence. It’s that rare movie with a second person POV, achieved by a growling voiceover narration (You’re alone now… Your hands are sweaty… You hate Christmas… Remembering other Christmases…). That narration must have been an attempt to accentuate the story’s grittiness, but there is at times a Jim Thompson sort of poetry to it, and in retrospect it reads more like a directive or genre commentary, a la the first scene of Pedro Almodovar’s Law of Desire.

Allen Baron is the film’s director and star, and he looks like George C. Scott in The Hustler with all his sleazy charisma stripped away, or John Belushi with dignity intact. This is one of those movies without stars and without the means of creating new stars, so it makes every attempt to crush its actors under a mountain of style and structure, even as it seems to offer a view of life outside of the world of Hollywood glamour. Luckily, the filmmakers don’t lack for creativity. There are enough great things in Blast of Silence to make it the heir of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, although its virtues are primarily a result of Baron’s inexperience as a director. Anomalies like this film can often be more instructive than great movies. A successful movie forces you to take it on its own terms, while Blast of Silence can be approached with open eyes.

BOOKS

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty : I like to keep this blog strictly opinionated and impersonal, though I will say that this novel, about an ailing parent and a return home, was a timely read. Eudora Welty has lived more life than me, though. Young writers always let each idea follow logically from the last; Welty’s cast of characters is large and her world is untidy yet contained, lucid detail followed by lucid detail, like Robert Altman on the page. What we learn about the characters depends upon what the characters choose to reveal, and even the title character remains a mystery—“the mystery of how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much”—until she begins searching through the past and “a flood of feeling” descends on her, and she yields at last, weeping in grief “for love and for the dead.” That’s a great moment, and leads to Welty’s culminating observations: “The past can never be awakened. It is memory that is the somnambulist.”

Design for Living by Noel Coward : Less carefully structured than the other plays I read, but also more personal and self-reflexive. It’s been misunderstood as immoral, unpleasant, anti-social, on account of its characters who see themselves as set apart from the masses, but I’d say Coward is simply being honest and true to his characters. He’s also very clever in the way the divergent sexualities in the love triangle of Gilda, Otto and Leo are both implicit and explicit, so that I imagine this play wasn’t nearly as controversial in 1933 as it might have been. The phrase “spiritual television,” in regards to communication without words, is wonderful.

MUSIC

Has anyone heard those two new Radiohead songs? I’m holding an informal poll to determine which is better. I vote for the weird “Harry Patch,” as the other one is kind of boring.

I’ve never cared a lot about No Age, but I mean it as a major compliment when I say they’ve outdone themselves with the new song “You’re A Target.” They almost beat Times New Viking in the melody department, and this is the first song I’ve heard in which they don’t sound like a couple of talented bashers and thrashers, but like they’ve studied the classics as thoroughly as Bradford Cox.

4 comments:

aaron said...

have you ever thought of adding a "television" section to the all-purpose (b)log?

my vote is also for "harry patch", tho either would probably have been the worst song on "in rainbows"

Geoffrey said...

I'll write about TV if I ever feel the need to. Weekly updates about Mad Men, 24 Rock, 30, Lost and American Idol might get boring after a while. I think AO Scott and Michael Phillips' takeover of At the Movies starts this weekend. You can come over and watch if you're able. There's a ridiculous promo on the archive site.

aaron said...

a.o. and michael phillips? i hadn't heard about that. it will be good, no doubt, but neither of those guys is particularly charismatic so i wonder how it'll do ratings-wise. if they're smart they'll take the show to p.b.s.

***

Someone said that no one in the movie gets enough screen time. That’s true, but it’s also true that there...[wasn't] anything left out that should have been put in

i'm not clear on how both of those things can be true, but then i think i know who said that

Geoff said...

You're right, I was a bit imprecise. You meant the not-enough-screen-time comment as a minor complaint (I believe), whereas part of what I loved about IB was that it was rarely the movie I hoped for/expected.