Tuesday, August 31, 2010


As overstated as Francis Ford Coppola's fall from grace may be, there's no denying that he never hit the same heights as his series of '70s films, in which he made four films, all four of which were masterpieces. It seemed as if, like all other filmmakers, Coppola himself couldn't top The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, and only brief flashes of inspiration -- Tucker, bits of Rumble Fish and Dracula, which I seriously and unfairly underrated and will soon revise -- pointed toward the genius that was. After spending a decade at his vineyard watching his daughter carve out a sizable amount of respect for herself, however, Coppola has reemerged, and the titan of New Hollywood became the unlikeliest of things: an independent. Youth Without Youth, a twisty, hugely ambitious feature, packed as many different types of movie -- time travel, WWII romance, philosophical meditation -- about reversed aging as David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Coppola did so with a fraction of the budget.

Taken with his latest feature, Tetro, Coppola's comeback places a particular focus on the actual beauty and meaning of creation, that is, the art of art. Youth Without Youth, a film about a man miraculously aged backwards and allowed a second chance at youth with the wisdom of an aged brain, could easily be a commentary on how digital photography, decreased actor salaries and an increasing ability to work outside the major studio system and still have a few million dollars to work with have given the director a second lease on artistic life.

Tetro takes this one step further. Semi-autobiographical in its story of an Italian-American family of gifted artists, Tetro is infused with the history of filmmaking in the same way that his Dracula was infused with the history of, well, damn near all of Teutonic artforms. Containing clips and extrapolated reinterpretations of Michael Powell's The Tales of Hoffmann and The Red Shoes, Coppola's latest is appropriately operatic, and bizarrely melodramatic in the Almodóvar tradition. Its tale of family rivalry and scorn will set tongues wagging over which character represents which celebrity in the fertile family tree of the Coppolas, but the structure here lends itself to something more universal, not so much impersonal as overseeing.

The film's title refers to one Angelo Tetrocini (Vincent Gallo), who takes on an abbreviation of his surname as he hides out in Buenos Aires suffering from writer's block. His much-younger brother, Benjamin (Aiden Ehrenreich) comes looking for him, but Tetro makes it immediately clear that, though his feud with his family never extended to his brother, his mere presence reminds him of what he left. Bennie, who also left military school to defy their father, works on a cruise ship so he can still wear an approximation of a naval uniform, and he uses his week-long furlough in Argentina to spend time with his brother, who lets him stay only at the urging of Tetro's girlfriend, Miranda (Maribel Verdú).

Bennie, virginal and confused in a country full of people who speak an unfamiliar language, has all the more reason to hang on his brother while there, desperately trying to coax an explanation for why he never came back for the boy. It's clear that Tetro's resentment does not extend to Bennie, who's so similar to his older brother that the eldest snaps, "Don't do me, do you. I'll be me" when Bennie sarcastically refuses to answer questions to prove how irritating the silent treatment is. The last thing Tetro wants to be is a role model, though it's surprising that even his fresh-faced kid brother could do so. Gallo pours his reptilian ego into the role, a failed artist who holds onto his failure as if it had become his art, too proud to release it. He forbids Bennie from telling Miranda about their father and looks keen to send his brother back to America as soon as possible.

But Bennie stays, and his quest to dig up what drove his brother away and to uncover his own hidden past lead Coppola through a range of daring artistic devices. Shot mostly in high-contrast, digital black-and-white, Tetro lives and dies by the precise framing by the director and his cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., who also contributed to the beautiful compositions of Coppola's previous feature. The chiaroscuro mise-en-scène in Tetro is picturesque and provocative, not just emotionally but artistically: Tetro moves a mirror into place in his flat and the reflective effects allow for compounded compositions. When Bennie finally spills the beans about their father, a famous composer, to Miranda, the director cuts to Tetro frozen at the top of the stairs eavesdropping, shooting in deep focus to capture the stairs stretching behind and below the man in Expressionistic suggestion. The influence of the Germans is only exacerbated as the scene wears on and Tetro shouts down his brother as the camera remains on Bennie's face as the shadow of his brother bears down on him like Count Orlock.

When combined with the open quotation and literal presentation of Michael Powell's movies, the influence of Expressionism on Tetro opens up the true heart of the picture. Consider the outright usage of footage from Hoffmann: that was Powell's attempt to bring opera into the cinematic medium in a way that could only exist in that medium (much as The Red Shoes did for ballet). Coppola's features have always been operatic, especially his treasured Godfather series, but even his '80s youth movies have an unabashed melodrama, if the chief influence there -- making the logical step backwards in age and maturity -- is the musical and not opera. Here, as with Youth Without Youth, Coppola utilizes the broad emotions and half-cooked plot of the story to drive larger statements about art.

Tetro fled his father for being controlling and egomaniacal, insisting to both his sons, "There's only room for one genius in this family." The tortured son plans to write a play about his abusive childhood, but he stalls in Buenos Aires, content to live in his failure and refusing to work on his project. And when Bennie discovers his brother's manuscripts and sets out to write an ending for the work, his attempt to finish his brother's play seems less a validation of art as a means to link people than simply the latest spiral in the cycle of appropriation and plagiarism in the family (their father Carlo having achieved stardom by ripping off his older brother).

As in The Red Shoes, the characters of Tetro define worth through artistic talents -- the composing father, the writing sons, the singing first wife and dancing second -- but they do not find much pleasure in them. Wünderkinds battle it out for supremacy while the older generations rot in the wake of their own power struggles. Amusingly, the Tetrocini family resembles a liberal arts version of the Corleones, waging an internal war in which soldiers are decorated with grants and caporegimes win Pulitzers. The mediating voice in this conflict is the critic, personified by a garishly self-absorbed woman known only as "Alone," the biggest critic in South America. Alone has constructed a warped empire of half-analytical, half-gossipy tabloids, and her carriage and fashion suggests what Anna Wintour might be like if she insisted that Vanity Fair promoted "serious" criticism without sacrificing its glitzy side. Tetro seeks her validation so that he can throw it in Carlo's face, and Coppola has a grand time sending up the academics who so dearly loved him in the '70s before treating him like a leper and forcing him into a 10-year hiatus.

All of this makes for a melodrama that recalls, of all people, Pedro Almodóvar -- Carmen Maura, who plays Alone, is one of the Spanish director's regulars. Among the artistic flourishes in the film are a drag/striptease version of Faust that Tetro ruins by heckling. And if anyone still thinks that this is a gritty look at a broken family, lines like "Do you know what love is in our family? It's a stab in the heart" should adjust one's thinking to the proper perspective. In Gallo, Coppola has a deliciously aloof figure who seems most at home when he's at his most uncomfortable; when Bennie sustains an injury and winds up in the hospital, Gallo believably sells a joking moment where he slyly insists that he's only visiting his brother because they shared the same hospital room. Verdú is, of course, gorgeous and radiates grace, the only party who can stand outside the action and attempt to salve all the opened wounds.

The true find, however, is Ehrenreich. Looking like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, Ehrenreich with his first major role also proves that he can tap into the same well of simmering, brooding talent that the older DiCaprio now exhibits regularly. I wonder if Coppola saw the young man this way, too, placing him in a cruise ship uniform at the start to play on Ehrenreich's heartthrob looks by way of a vague Titanic reference before scuttling him away from the ship and letting his chops take over. Some fault the film for not being emotionally plausible or resonant, which misses the point but is an understandable error when Ehrenreich's mere presence makes one invest in him.

Enamored as the camera is with Ehrenreich, however, Coppola never loses focus, even if the film has a broad thematic makeup. Tetro opens suddenly on an extreme close-up of a light bulb humming as a moth flutters about and bumps into the lamp, and bright lights routinely hypnotize both brothers. When they head to Alone's festival in Patagonia, the light reflecting off the mountains resembles the flashes of adoring cameras, and Tetro stares at this sight with such intensity that an epileptic fit looks imminent. Bennie, too, is drawn to bright lights as he digs deeper into his family history, and thankfully Tetro snaps out of his own fixation in time to help his brother. "You can't look at the light," he tells Bennie, and in that moment Coppola takes a unique approach to art. Most films present the light as the escape from the horrors of life, the filter that allows us to confront reality; for the director just now getting back to work, focusing too intently on the spotlight or the beam of a film projector simply blinds us. With a vision like that, Coppola might yet prove to be a fresh, emerging talent of 70.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Stuff I Like: Buckethead

(For a while now I've debated occasionally including posts not about specific films, albums or shows and to focus on broader subjects like an artist, an actor, stand-up comedian or writer. While director spotlights typically come in the form of retrospectives, everything else would be too sporadic and random for each little thing to get its own subject. So, to lump it all together into a loose collection of things that I enjoy, I present the lazily titled "Stuff I Like." No, it isn't clever. Yes, it therefore fits in nicely with the rest of this blog's content. I'm not quite sure of the format yet, and maybe there won't be a definitive one, listing must-haves for some subjects and going into a broader career analysis for others. We'll see how it goes.)

There comes in a time in every boy's life when he falls in love with the electric guitar. Not coincidentally, this usually coincides with the time that he falls in love with his penis, and the broad phallic overtones of the rock guitar line up nicely with initial forays into solo sexual gratification. While ladies certainly admire guitarists too, the support given to the most technical of guitarists -- the kind that play squeedling, noodling solos on metal albums -- is overwhelmingly young and male. Even older guys disparage the talents of Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani, dismissing them as "wankers for wankers," overgrown man-children who devoted so much time to learning the intricacies of arpeggios that they never bothered to find an actual groove.

I myself have emerged from an adolescence of worship at the heels of Malmsteen, Marty Friedman and, yes, Dream Theater, looking back on such obsessions with the same regret one days failed high school romances. While I can still enjoy some -- Shawn Lane had the jazzbo's gift for improv, Eric Johnson the bluesy groove and soaring melody, Steve Vai the compositional training under Zappa -- shred no longer particularly excites me. After all, someone can lock himself in a room for 10 hours and day and learn the most advanced techniques, but you can't teach feel.

The biggest exception, if you somehow couldn't figure this out, is Buckethead. Born Brian Carroll, Buckethead has the speed of Paul Gilbert (who actually taught him for a time) and the prolific output of Frank Zappa. Just a hair over 40, Bucky has already released 28 solo albums, a handful of demo compilations, several gargantuan box-sets, and has guested on enough albums to bring his total discography above 100 entries. And that's not even counting individual, non-album tracks like his Guitar Hero reworking of an old live jam named "Jordan."

Naturally, the sheer number of available albums translates to a whole lotta fluff, and numerous side-projects are so out-there even by the standards of a man who plays with a KFC button and Michael Myers-esque mask on his head that you can steer clear of certain groups wholesale. Yet Buckethead is truly one of the most gifted guitarists around, and if he needs someone to tell him when to leave songs on the cutting-room floor, the range of his output serves him well even when specific songs and even entire albums fall flat. However, that prolific nature also makes it difficult to get new fans to come aboard and not feel so overwhelmed that they move on to more manageable artists. So, here are 15 albums featuring the lanky virtuoso that showcase not only the best the guitarist has to offer but also the wide range of styles that keep me coming back long after I grow tired of other shredders.

1. Colma

Buckethead laid the smallest of hints at his softer capacities in the final track of his second album, Giant Robot, entitled "I Love My Parents." A soft number, it morphed from a lilting acoustic melody to a more orchestral sound that stood in sharp contrast to the sheer madness of his collected material to that point, save the ambient looping of his Death Cube K production Dreamatorium. But Colma is something else altogether: made for his mother to give her a relaxing album while recovering from colon cancer. The result is a sparse, deeply melodic album with haunting acoustics and gentle electric soling. The riff for opener "Whitewash" will sit with you for days, while the echoing acoustic snippet "Big Sur Moon" is as exciting as his fastest and most distorted freak-out. When he breaks out the electric, as he does for "Machete," the results are no less gorgeous. Previously, Buckethead's quieter moments were more processed and electronic, but he strips everything away here, revealing an emotional well that drives his playing more than the strange references to Japanese television and favorite basketball stars.

2. Population Override

While Colma may be my favorite and my go-to selection to woo the uncertain, Population Override likely comes the closest to being an objective "best" in Buckethead's canon. While not expressly stated, the mission of the album is clear to those in the know: rework the classic funk guitar masterpiece Maggot Brain by Funkadelic. Buckethead cites Eddie Hazel as a prime influence, and this work, wisely avoiding the usual production wizardry put upon Buckethead albums, captures Hazel perfectly. Like Funkadelic's guitar god, Buckethead here manages to be both incendiary and subdued, crackling with technique to shame all who approach yet emotive enough to provide a hook (Hazel, after all, played the 10-minute title track to his own magnum opus as if eulogizing his mother through his guitar). Starting with the loose funk jam of "Unrestrained Growth," Population Override quickly transitions into the "Too Many Humans," a tune that manages to successfully recreate the best of Hendrix's style even with the much cleaner and more accurate style of Buckethead, without the jerking gear shifts of earlier stylistic leaps. "Humans Vanish" is delicate, while "A Day Will Come" has the edge of his heavier material while still retaining the album's flowing melody. Aided by keyboardist Travis Dickerson, finally stepping out from behind the producer's soundboard to lend a hand, Buckethead crafts his most complex and rewarding work to date, marrying the more contemplative side of Colma with an edge. By the time you get to the pure blues of the untitlted bonus track, you can scarcely believe that the guy behind Giant Robot could have made this.

3. The Dragons of Eden

Flanked by Dickerson and frequent drumming collaborator Brian "Brain" Mantia, Buckethead's The Dragons of Eden stands in sharp contrast to the old story about Bucky trying out for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and being rejected for failing to "kick a groove." To be fair to the Chilis, Buckethead, despite participating in so many groups, has always had a small sign around his neck reading "Does not play well with others." Even the great work he did with Praxis and Deli Creeps worked in part because the players didn't so much groove and bounce sounds off each other (Praxis especially with Laswell's programmed sonic collages). This album, however, shows Buckethead more in his element in a group where he is not the clearly dominant figure than he has ever been before. You could feel the discomfort before, but he's on fire here, working in perfect harmony with Dickerson and Mantia through a series of jams long enough to build on themes but short enough to prevent sliding into extending wanking sessions. Most of the songs are led by Dickerson's retro organs, but even he never launches himself too far ahead, simply venturing out as if a guide with a lantern and waiting patiently for his followers to make their way forward before advancing once again. We all knew Bucky could play and play with the best of them, but this album, made just in 2008, shows that he might finally be ready to be a true team player.

4. Decoding the Tomb of Bansheebot

Buckethead put out enough CDs in early 2007 to essentially set him for life, but he never flagged for a second, saving his finest offering that year for October. The title is pure Buckethead silliness, but the range of playing covered here rivals his much bigger box sets. A continuation of the underrated Pepper's Ghost, Bansheebot features more melodic playing after Buckethead had turned increasingly to more jam-oriented compositions. While an improvisational tone seeps in here and there, the seamless transitions and precisely plotted instrumentals sound as if the man actually sat down and thought about where each song would go beforehand. The key track, clearly, is "Sail On Soothsayer," a continuation of Buckethead's tributes to his Aunt Suzie. Like the original "Soothsayer," it's gorgeous and searing, restrained but passionate and among the most emotional work in his catalog.

5. Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis) -- Praxis

The first outing by Bill Laswell's supergroup is at once their least focused and by far their best. Laswell, an accomplished bassist, stays in the other room producing here, letting Buckethead unleash with Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell of P-Funk fame as well as Brain, forging three separate professional relationships that have served the guitarist well. Here, they contribute to Laswell's collage, mashing up funk with heavy metal before dropping into dub and ambient and climbing out yet again. Only the single "Animal Behavior," the only track with vocals, sounds anything like something you've heard before, but the whole album is a wild ride that carries over the best of Buckethead's early eclecticism and marrying it to a sense of direction, however loose. You may find yourself covering your ears a mere second after bopping along to a beat, but this album keeps you guessing in the best possible way.

6. In Search of The

If I told you that everything you needed to know about Buckethead was in In Search of The, you'd probably be so grateful that you'd thank me and leave before I had the chance to finish my sentence, adding to no one in particular, "But it's a 13-CD set." Yep, not content to simply release multiple albums each year, Buckethead went for broke in 2007 with this gargantuan collection of jams performed entirely by the multi-instrumentalist. You name the facet of Buckethead's playing -- fast, soft, jazzy, avant-garde, joking, -- and it's here somewhere. If you balk at the prospect of including all of it on your iPod (an understandable wariness; I don't keep it all either), at least stick with the sixth volume of the set, opening with a 20-minute guitar solo that ranks as probably the most complicating playing of Bucky's career. The rest of the CD is a great deal funkier, and the ending jam is one of the more solid in the whole set.

7. Shadows Between the Sky

Even when the man takes a break for illness, he just can't help but work. Sidelined from touring with an unspecified disease, Buckethead did manage to put out three albums this year -- including yet another multi-disc set and an all-banjo album -- but by far the best is this, easily his finest mellow offering since Electric Tears. At times, Shadows Between the Sky flirts with post-rock (especially on the track "The Cliff's Stare"), and Buckethead here refines the melancholia that touched his previous work, A Real Diamond in the Rough, into something less downbeat yet more believably sincere. Shadows is already basking in the spotlight among Bucky fans who hold it to be one of his best works, and its status may well raise even further in the coming years.

8. Axiology -- Thanatopsis

Before The Dragons of Eden definitively proved that Buckethead could work brilliantly in a unit, there was Axiology, the second album by Thanatopsis (a trio also including Dickerson and drummer Ramy Antoun). The first album bore all the trademarks of the worst Buckethead collaborations: unfocused, competitive even in the forced interplay between artists. But Axiology smooths out these issues. While it's still largely an avenue for each player to show off, the album's greatly increased melody allows for actual songs. There's even a humility to Carroll's playing that only rarely creeps into his group work -- strangely, he seems cockier in the room with others than he does on many of his solo albums.

9. Electric Tears

It's easy to separate Buckethead's heavier material from his more mellow stuff, but the range of emotion displayed in his softer side should prevent people from lumping his albums into only two groups. Colma had a harder edge but was ultimately uplifting and serene. Electric Tears is at the other end of the spectrum: it's bleak, icy and borderline depressed (Shadows Between the Sky lies somewhere in-between, though closer to this). Even the extended solo "Padmasana," pushing past the 11-minute mark, is so insular that you wonder if it's not simply a four-minute tune that feels three times as long. Yet the beauty is undeniable, and Electric Tears can be as calming as it is ominous.

10. Octave of the Holy Innocents -- Jonas Hellborg

Jonas Hellborg wrote the book on bass, literally (two, in fact), and his collaborations with Shawn Lane rank as some of the finest fusion ever made. But this all-acoustic affair, made with Buckethead and drummer Michael Shrieve, lets go of the hyperspeed Indo-jazz that categorized Hellborg's work with Lane. Instead, the bassist sought to find a lighter side in a time when he felt depressed by the world around him (ironically, he named the album after the Massacre of the Innocents, the infanticide raged by King Herod hoping to prevent the coming of the savior). The trio works over Gregorian-style chants, running through both Medieval and Middle Eastern music while still banging out enough riffs and fretwork to sound almost like something you'd normally expect from Buckethead or Jonas. Hellborg knows how to bring out the best in people even as he allows them to demonstrate their skill like no other, and he clearly has a great time with a player of Buckethead's talents.

11. The Elephant Man's Alarm Clock

Cuckoo Clocks From Hell is still Buckethead's heaviest album, but it lacks the cohesion and drive of this album. Its centerpiece, a four-part number called "Lurker at the Threshold," winds, stop-starts and doubles back so often that it sounds as if it contains a dozen more parts, but it works in a way that no single track on Cuckoo does. Other shred numbers, including "Thai Fighter Swarm" and "Final Wars," never lose the melody as Bucky's freak-fests sometimes do, and "Bird With a Hole in the Stomach" proves a remarkably catchy tune complete with a more chord-heavy solo that gets you grooving. (Note: the final track ends at 3:14, followed by silence until 6:20 when a hidden track kicks in.)

12. Monsters & Robots

Colma snapped heads to attention, but the subsequent Monsters & Robots was the first Buckethead album to make any sense of his early sound. The hilariously nonsensical "Balled of Buckethead" establishes a screwball mythos for the guitarist, while "Jump Man" and "Nun Chuka Kata" propel his shredding to new heights, as does a rerecorded version of "Jowls." The ballad "Who Me?" isn't as convincing as the softer material on Buckethead's previous album, but it still scores amid the more metal-oriented material. Sure, there's a definite split between the Claypool-assisted jams and the more solo-oriented numbers, but Monsters & Robots is the first of Bucky's harder albums to work as a unit.

13. Bermuda Triangle

Yet another side of Buckethead's playing is the influence of hip-hop, more visible on collaborations than in his solo work, but Bermuda Triangle is easily his best foray into rap-oriented musicality. This is techno drums-'n-bass as played by a virtuoso, and it's every bit as hilarious yet enjoyable as you might think. I actually bop along to "Forbidden Zone," even after the guitar comes in and changes the flow of the song. "Bionic Fog," on the other hand, runs on a much sparser beat and works better as ambient music. This isn't what you'd first expect from Buckethead, despite his propensity for robot dancing and the amount of hip-hop in his Praxis work, among other collaborations. But the sea-oriented electronic beats of Bermuda Triangle manage to be as calming as Colma while giving you something to dance to.

14. Dawn of the Deli Creeps (Deli Creeps)

Buckethead's high-school band never managed to put out a proper album, yet they managed to create a buzz before disbanding, even impressing and influencing Mike Patton and his Mr. Bungle project. In 2005, the men got back together to finalize their old demos, and damned if the end result isn't terrific. The same mental wash that made so many of Bucky's early albums a chore is focused here by the equally off-the-wall contributions of vocalist "Maximum Bob," whose voice can jump octaves and delivery styles at any second. You can instantly hear what Patton loved about them, and they sound remarkably fresh for a group of guys getting together for a musical high school reunion.

15. Unison (with Shin Terai)

It's not entirely clear what producer Shin Terai has to do on this album with Buckethead, Laswell, Worrell and rhythm guitarist Nicky Skopelitis so ably holding things down that his programming touches seem unnecessary. Unison doesn't quite live up to its name, ceding control back and forth from Laswell to the guitarists rather than functioning as a whole, but the music they make is so damn good you won't care. Whatever direction the others take it in, Buckethead deftly swoops in like an eagle and tears everything apart, especially on "Dream Catcher," which he just destroys with his soloing. When the group finally does gel, however, as they do on "Tug of War," the groove they create could shake the bones out of you.

Miscellany -- standout tracks and works that didn't quite make the cut

Soothsayer - Crime Slunk Scene

A major live favorite, "Soothsayer" will prove why it's so beloved after only one listen. All of Crime Slunk Scene is damn listenable (it just missed the list), but nothing can top this loving tribute to Brian's aunt. Rooted in an alternately moving and groovy riff, "Soothsayer" transitions effortlessly through quieter passages and more intense expressions of pain. The solos are among the most complex and deep in the guitarist's canon, ranking up there with the material on Population Override, and even when he finally gives in to tapping and arpeggios he infuses his technical playing with passion. One of the five best things Buckethead has ever written.

Nottingham Lace - Enter the Chicken

Enter the Chicken was a misguided effort, something that looked great on paper -- match Buckethead with a series of vocalists suited to his brand of weirdness -- but failed in execution. Yet one track stood out, and unsurprisingly it was the instrumental. "Nottingham Lace" is one of Buckethead's finest moments, building off a slick groove into a fiery, mid-tempo solo that wisely builds to an expected tempo jump but never crosses the line, keeping the fast fingers in check even when they creep into the mix. That bottlenecking of technique gathers the emotion into a fine point, and the song's sudden end leaves you momentarily unsure what to do.


I mean, it's "Jordan." Most people came to Buckethead because he tortured them so at the end of Guitar Hero II, yet they kept trying to play that damn thing because it was so enjoyable. Inserting a solo into the verse-chorus structure of the song turned a fun riff into the ultimate mini-summary of Buckethead's incredible ability, a shred-fest packed into four easy-to-digest minutes with infinite replay value. When Buckethead appeared with Guns 'N Roses, people were just confused, but this was his true arrival into the mainstream, even if he didn't stay there for long. How could he?

I Love My Parents - Giant Robot

This aforementioned ballad is so gorgeous I'm bringing it up again. It's weird that so arch an artist would make so plain his love for his family, but they've inspired his most beautiful work. I still can't believe my ears when I reach the end of the broadly comic Giant Robot and get to this.

Magua's Scalp - Pepper's Ghost

Pepper's Ghost was another album that narrowly missed the list along with Crime Slunk Scene and Albino Slug, but this track is the best of the bunch. Buckethead plays great metal guitar, but he doesn't particularly write great metal songs. This is not true, however, of "Magua's Scalp," opening on a thrash metal riff that gets your head banging before slowing down into a crunchy groove and amping up again. It's not the greatest example of Bucky's technique, but it shows how compelling he can be even in a harder context without relying on his fretwork.

Destroyer - Day of the Robot

One long-as-hell metal solo that comprises the parts of other solos laid over the main track, "Destroyer" is almost comical in its sonic overload of shredding goodness, and in my post-noodle worshipping days I listen to it in more of a tongue-in-cheek fashion. But Buckethead seems to intend it that way regardless, so why not kick back with it every now and then? A little masturbation, even the metaphorical kind, is good for the soul.

Death Cube K - Dreamatorim

I know it's weird to put a whole album here, especially since, if I was going to do that, I should have mentioned Crime Slunk Scene as a whole or maybe even Pepper's Ghost before this, but there's no way to discuss this ambient project with individual tracks. Future DCK works lacked the spark of this, but Dreamatorium is minimalism at its finest, a series of loops to drift you into a deep sleep, albeit one that might give you some dark dreams.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Brian De Palma: Carrie

Stories about young men seeking to enter "adulthood" are a dime a dozen, but the field of girls-becoming-women movies is notably less fertile. Perhaps it's because males consider themselves men when they shove themselves up a birth canal -- which raises all sorts of questions -- but womanhood gets defined through puberty as there is one facet of biological change that becomes immediately noticeable, and it's something no man ever wants to talk about. Even I stop dead in my tracks when any one of woman friends uses the phrase "on the rag" with such horrifying frankness that I get the urge to enlist in the military just so I can one day speak so casually of bleeding for an extended period of time.

Brian De Palma keenly understands how badly every man going into the theater never wants to think about menstruation, and he stages one of the funniest visual gags in the history of cinema right in the opening credits. After a short establishing scene of young women in a high school gym class, De Palma cuts to a slow-motion shot of these nubile teens in various states of undress, playfully teasing each other as the camera moves through them, finally settling on one girl, Carrie (Sissy Spacek). De Palma cuts to close-ups of Carrie as she rubs soap over her body, letting water slowly cascade off her legs, down her neck to her stomach. Then she moves to wash genitals, and she comes back with a bloody hand. In an instant, De Palma flips the male gaze and causes all the men in the audience who were a half step away from getting off and terrifies them.

Carrie, too, is terrified, and the ingenious comedy of the moment gives way to concern for a young woman who was never told about this fact of life, reacting to her first period, well, the way any man would if he noticed blood coming out of his penis: she screams in terror and begs for help. The other teenagers, having already had their first periods and, more importantly, known about them before they even got them, mock her. The group, led by Chris (Nancy Allen), pelt the poor girl with tampons and shout, "Plug it up!" until the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) finally intervenes, but by then Carrie is so worked up that Miss Collins has to slap her to get the woman to stop hyperventilating and crying. Later, as the teacher discusses the event with the principal, Carrie can hear her sympathize with the other students, amazed that Carrie didn't know about periods.

Still, Miss Collins and the principal take pity on the girl, and they let her go home for the day and exchange vague glances and half-words about Carrie's home life. De Palma then cuts to Carrie's mother and instantly all questions about the poor young woman's insecurities are answered. Mrs. White (Piper Laurie) is a fundamentalist Christian, traveling around the neighborhood barking her rhetoric to uninterested parents about their hell-bound progeny. When both return home and Carrie tearfully recounts her day and asks why her mother never told her about menstruation, the old woman slaps her daughter and condemns "the curse of the blood" as punishment for sins. Before Carrie (or the audience) can bother to ask how sinful that must make the mother for having lived longer, the witch locks her daughter in a closet and forces her to pray for forgiveness. Carrie just can't catch a break.

De Palma, heretofore concerned with women only so far as voyeuristic targets (up to and including the credits of this film), suddenly offers a grim portrait of young womanhood. Other girls tease, boys ignore, and parents just don't understand. Oh, but there's a catch: Carrie has telekinetic powers. We all go through some pretty big changes in puberty.

Like Stephen King, who wrote the source novel to dispel accusations of his own macho fixation, De Palma uses the supernatural powers as an exaggerated take on biological growth. But De Palma refines some of the glut of King's novel, his first published and thus not the peak of his craft. He better captures the unfocused stress of adolescence, highlighting how the tiniest thing can drive Carrie to such nervous fright that a light bulb explodes or an ashtray flips over. Small actions all of them, but they build as the pressure mounts, until she finally reveals her powers to her mother in an emotional flash, causing the woman to denounce her daughter as an agent of Satan.

Spacek was the perfect choice to play Carrie. Certainly one of the most dependable and adventurous actresses ever, Spacek had already worked on a mixture of innocence and darker energy for her breakthrough in Terrence Malick's Badlands. Here, both sides of that dichotomy are further developed. To look upon Carrie is to pity her, a young woman who does not even need to take off the stereotypical glasses and let down her hair to be beautiful, but her mother has tortured her so much that Carrie believes herself to be worthless. Because she thinks this, the cruelty of youth is happy to cater to that perspective, with people like Chris enraged at Carrie for no discernible reason. Even Miss Collins joins in, reacting to the genuine remorse of Sue (Amy Irving), who tries to make up for teasing Carrie by encouraging her boyfriend (William Katt) to ask the nervous girl to prom, with distrust because she cannot imagine anyone being truly nice to Carrie without an ulterior motive. Yet Spacek can also turn 180 degrees with remarkable speed, and when Carrie starts to stand up for herself she becomes not-so-subtly intimidating before she finally snaps.

Spacek gives such a compelling performance that you might miss some of De Palma's usual cheekiness at first. Besides that wry opening shot, De Palma also gets out his kitsch in a tracking shot of all the cruel high school girls in Miss Collins' boot camp-esque detention. The director relocates the action from a Maine hamlet to the town of Bates, and Psycho references abound in the soundtrack, with screeching violins piercing the mix often. The goofy acting common in his films can be found in spades in the supporting roles, from Laurie's wildly melodramatic performance to the hilariously sleazy double act of Allen's Chris and her boyfriend (John Travolta in an early role). And when Chris and Billy prepare to sabotage Carrie's time at the prom by dumping pig's blood on her, De Palma draws out the suspense of the moment with a sequence that would feel excruciating without the slow-motion (but of course he uses it anyway). In his previous film, De Palma ended with an endlessly circling shot of reunited father and child, an overflow of emotion that made the first great argument for De Palma as a Romantic. Here, however, a similar shot, encircling Carrie and Tommy as they share a dance, comes before the end, the clear implication being that this is as good as it will get, and it's all downhill from this moment.

When the bucket of blood finally falls, De Palma shows just how far down it can go. Carrie's climactic breakdown is not so much scary as the creepiest comedy I've ever seen. With blood dripping down Carrie's head turning her homemade, white dress red, Spacek's face tightens in a rage as she imagines the stunned and silent crowd laughing at her. The corners of her mouth stretch back and her eyes bulge out as if she managed to tighten her eye sockets as well, and her vaguely amphibian appearance looks menacing instead of comical. Carrie then goes on a psychic rampage, killing all inside and dispatching Chris and Billy when they attempt to run her down in revenge. When she makes her way home, her mother will not even try to console her, attempting to kill her daughter to deliver her from Satan. Carrie responds by driving knives into her mom, and Mrs. White dies posed exactly like the crucifix she keeps in the house, a farcical piece of iconography with arrows sticking out of Christ's flesh and absurd eyes magnified to animé proportions to stress His pain. Leave it to De Palma to give us a fundamentalist whack-job accusing her daughter of Satanism only to have that young woman use a murder to purge her of Christ.

Even the "For Sale" sign planted in the collapsed and cleared wreckage of the White home (crushed by Carrie in guilt and grief) takes on a bizarrely Christian tone, doubling as a headstone for Carrie's smothered and buried corpse. That final scene, certainly the most infamous in the film, has appeared on various lists of the scariest moments in cinematic history. However, the shot of Carrie's hand reaching out of the ground to grab Sue in her dream is as funny as the opening sequence, one last "Boo!" moment that's as briefly frightening as someone sneaking up behind you and making you jump and as amusing to De Palma as such pranks are to the people who pull them. That playful attitude defines Carrie more than any outright horror, and it's amusing how this film, possibly the one De Palma is most known for -- it's either this or Scarface -- gives people a certain view of him as a director when it's not particularly any different than his previous features. But it's fitting, considering that the grand joke of the film is on those who buy the scares at surface value.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Crumb is one of the most profoundly disturbing horror films ever made. That it is a documentary about a comic book artist makes no difference. If anything, the fact that what the films shows us is real only deepens the level of discomfort, and the opening title card, attributing the film first not to the director or the subject but producer David Lynch is but the first clue that this story will bring with it the sort of homegrown horror lurking beneath the surfaces of all of Lynch's work.

The actual director, Terry Zwigoff, made a film about Robert Crumb, iconic (and iconoclastic) underground comics pioneer, solely off the back of his standing relationship with Crumb. Had Zwigoff not already been friends with the artist, there's no way he could have so completely captured the life of such a fame-averse man. (One of the film's first scenes, after all, shows the mustachioed, cheap-suited man speaking before a group of students and slamming his own work for becoming adopted by the mainstream -- specifically his Fritz the Cat comic, his album cover for Big Brother and Holding Company's Cheap Thrills, and his "Keep on Truckin'" panel that became a bumper sticker.)

Or maybe not. Part of what's both compelling and repelling about Crumb's art is how completely candid it is. As he notes in the film, he draws what comes to his mind as it comes to mind, and a great deal of his work features an interpretation of himself, an interpretation that always depicts the poor man as a wiry, unloved freak scarcely capable of controlling his sexual desires. Indeed, in the flesh, the seeming recluse opens up without provocation. He calmly discusses his sexual hangups, his process, his traumatic upbringing, and Zwigoff slowly pieces together not simply a portrait of a loopy counterculture figure but a complex rumination on the nature of art as both a therapeutic tool and a sign of psychological implosion.

"If I don't draw for a while I get crazy. Depressed and suicidal.," Crumb says of his need to work. "But then, some nights when I'm drawing, I feel suicidal too, so..." That paradox is immediately evident in his work, so filled with contradictions that Zwigoff cannot hope to unpack them all. Is his work empowering or misogynistic? Liberating or repressed? Is R. Crumb "the Brueghel of the last half of the 20th century" as a Time art critic asserts (or "the Daumier of our time" as another admirer gushes) or is he simply a skeevy outcast sketching cartoon pornography, unable to move past a childhood fixation and fetishization of Bugs Bunny?

Zwigoff attempts to dig into these questions for a time, setting up Robert Hughes, the art critic, on one end of the spectrum defending Crumb's work with veracity, and placing Deirdre English, former editor of Mother Jones magazine, on the opposite end. Though he does include one wry cutaway from Crumb dismissing the charges that his work is racist by attributing such remarks entirely to white liberals to the white, middle-class English ranting about Crumb, the director refreshingly does not set up opposition to his friend's work as the screeching whines of the P.C. police. English is articulate, prepared and, most importantly, measured, not lambasting Crumb but speaking of his work with an almost sadness, as if she feels that, were he to change just a few things, he truly would be as brilliant as his supporters think.

Monetary problems limited the range of Zwigoff's talking heads, but English and Hughes make for terrific counterweights, and only those with continued personal relationships with Crumb pass in-between them. Old girlfriends and his wife, Aline, speak gratefully of Robert's art, thrilled that Crumb, with his extreme fixation on Amazonian women with big thighs and buttocks, depicting a vision of female beauty outside stick figures with DD racks. But even they occasionally question some aspects of Crumb's work, and their conflicted feelings over Crumb's style provide a more wholesome idea of the beauty and revulsion in his oeuvre than proposed celebrity fans could have elaborated upon (though I share in Roger Ebert's disappointment that Steve Martin, with his deep knowledge of comedy and satire, could not appear to speak of how much Crumb's comics influenced him).

Without the clutter of too many talking heads, however, Zwigoff can simply follow Robert around town, and in the process he avoids falling into the trap of endlessly debating and celebrating the artwork and focus on what drives the man. Crumb, always clad in a tacky suit and a straw spring hat, looks as if he's spent his life following Tom Waits around on tour, and he laughs off any association with the hippie movement. One can scarcely imagine this man, seemingly trapped in some satiric costume of '50s life, hanging out with the freaks around the Haight-Ashbury, and he even slams the Grateful Dead's sonic ramblings, preferring to kick back with his extensive collection of moldy 78s of early-20th century blues. For him, the hippies were just as subject to herd mentality as the conformist society they supposedly rejected, and he feels similarly about the modern rap culture, which he feels manipulates the righteous anger of its consumer base into buying all sorts of brand clothing instead of inspiring them.

Crumb comes off as deliciously sarcastic about the whole affair, deadpanning his wife's mention of his shyness and discomfort with strangers with, "That's what makes me such a great subject for a movie." Despite his goofy, awkward charm, Crumb reveals a great deal of loathing, not just at all those aforementioned trends he trashes but toward himself. One of the most deeply uncomfortable moments of the film shows the artist in a photo shoot surrounded by nubile young models. Zwigoff reveals in the commentary that the studio was hot and most of the women were lesbians, but Crumb likely would have looked as strained and disinterested had they all been infatuated with him. He prefers to handle his repression through his art rather than confront it directly; all of his former partners plainly discuss how strange he is in bed.

And yet, Crumb doesn't look so bad when compared to his family, who in many ways are the focal point of the documentary more than Robert. Having spent some time in Crumb's family home in the '70s, Zwigoff manages to get a camera in there to document Robert's older brother Charles, who got Robert and youngest brother Maxon drawing as children to deal with their abusive father and drugged-out mother. The director clearly wanted Charles as much as he did Robert, and the image we get of Robert's older brother serves to deepen the film's survey of art as a means of expression.

Just like the underground icon, both Charles and Maxon are incredible artists, and just like Robert their work is infused with their sexual hangups. Charles started drawing Disney cartoons before moving on to more perverted subjects, and Maxon also turned to painting his fetishes. As Zwigoff spends time with them, a question arises: how could one family be so warped? Even Robert's two sisters, who declined to be interviewed for the film, carry their sexual scars, Robert having described one as a "separatist lesbian," so militantly misandrist that the only man she allows in her home is her son. One cannot look upon Robert's brothers without horror: Maxon turned to molestation in his teens to act out his repression, and now he practices celibacy altogether because the prospect of sex sends him into epileptic seizures. He also engages in an insane form of ritual, sitting on a bed of nails for hours each day, begging not for money but as part of the routine, and passing a long strip of cloth through his digestive system once a month. Though he does not belong to any faith, his lifestyle mirrors that of a disturbingly devoted monk.

And then there's Charles. The snippets of information we receive of the Crumb brothers' father hints at trauma the boys faced -- his career as a military man and as a employee motivation trainer suggests a genesis for Robert's hatred of Establishment conformity. But we also sense that Charles, as much as being the child most tortured by the upbringing, also enacted brutality of his own. He forced his brothers to draw to match his own childhood passion for comics, and Maxon appears to be as uncomfortable thinking about his elder brother as he does his parents. Robert, too, bears some scars, and he titters nervously in Charles' presence as the man, practically catatonic from tranquilizers and antidepressants, flatly discusses old fantasies of murdering his younger brother with an axe. Trapped in his mother's home, having never left, Charles still tries to live a bit off his status as the eldest brother, teasing Robert for never getting any dates in high school even though he himself has never had sex. Charles notes that he used to be handsome, but now he sports greasy hair, stubble and rotted teeth, skin clammy from unwashed sweat. At last all becomes clear: for all the legitimate, intriguing debates over the merits and madness in Robert Crumb's art, he's the only one in the family who managed to adequately get a handle on his mental instability. As he lovingly watches over his young daughter Sophie and proudly advises Jesse, his son from his first marriage, over the boy's drawing, Robert looks normal and fairly contented, more so when he trades some sketchbooks for a house in France.

Charles is the counterpoint, not only to Robert but to the idea that art is a means of therapy. Looking over Charles' old sketchbooks without the man nearby, Robert drops his nervous giggle and speaks with deep sadness as he scans over his brother's childhood brilliance. Charles was cleverer, more driven and a better drawer, but he never progressed, returning over and over to his love of the movie Treasure Island and his sexual obsession with young Bobby Driscoll. Reflecting his childlike fixation, Charles never moved on to ink, sticking with pencil and crayon etchings. Then, something went wrong. As Robert flips through the final book Charles penciled, the drawings begin to feature a wrinkle effect in every panel, concentric lines wrapping around each object. Robert continues flipping, and the words in the speech bubbles begin dominating the panels, edging out all white space not already filled by the wrinkles. Finally, the book becomes just text, then simply coiled scribbles of asemic writing. It is one of the single most haunting shots I've ever seen: if the final shot of Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up was as beautiful and poetic a summary of art's capacity to heal, inspire and better, then this close-up, on a sheet of gibberish, is the flip-side. Sometimes, art isn't the release of madness but the exhibition of it, a solar flare that belches some of the artist's insanity out of him before being reabsorbed as the effects of the aberration disturb the surrounding area. Crumb is a hopeful and witty film, spotlighting a man who fought his way to sanity through psychosis, but it also demonstrates how art can consume its vessel, leaving him or her worse off than before. Charles Crumb committed suicide before the film's release.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

If I told you I'd just watched a 3-1/2-hour movie about a woman who performs the same routine for three days, would you have any desire to watch it? Probably not, and I would imagine that even film classes would rarely screen the film for fear of dealing with antsy students. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is not likely to be a film to leap to one's lips when suggesting French films to neophytes for fear of losing a friend forever. Yet it deserves the strong reputation it's built around itself over the years as one of the great feminist works of the cinema, an unflinching look at loneliness and disconnect, especially in women only just becoming free enough to assert themselves.

Director Chantal Akerman, armed with a mostly female crew, clearly draws from the structuralist cinema developed a decade previously by such luminaries as Michael Snow. In fact, her film, about a widowed woman caring for her young adult son and herself through prostitution, recalls Jean-Luc Godard's own semi-structuralist work 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Yet where Godard's film routinely cast the story of its protagonist against images of social reconstruction and presented prostitution as the result of capitalist expansion and heightened consumerism, Akerman's opus roots her film in a realism that exposes how manufactured so many of the supposedly neorealist films were.

For more than three hours, Akerman captures Delphine Seyrig's Jeanne with static long takes, holding over the pure banality of everyday life with meticulous detail. How could anyone stand this? Berlin Alexanderplatz doesn't feel as long as Jeanne Dielman, and that film was 15-1/2 hours long. And yet, Akerman holds your interest. By never breaking away, always staying on the aspects of life normally elided over in the movies, Akerman not only creates a compelling tension but effectively points out that most films, even the ones purporting to be realistic, skip over the perfunctory moments that define so much of our lives.

Besides, the sheer length of the film, when married to the near-total lack of action, forces the viewer to pay closer attention, and even the bored will find themselves eying the film more critically than usual, even if unconnected to the actual movie. Of course, even those engaged with the film's structure and feminist ideas cannot fully interact with it, as the uncompromising distance Akerman keeps from her character deliberately keeps the audience at arm's length.

The result is a dragging behemoth on a microcosmic scale, forcing the viewer to sit there until it finally becomes clear that we're being made to understand how a person, be it a male or female, feels when trapped in an endless loop, so locked into perfunctory motions that even other people do not register unless they're a part of the rhythm. Even those who do appear in Jeanne's almost solipsistic life barely rate more than a few lines, save her adult son, whose continued dependency upon his mother saddles her with a man to take care of even without her husband.

Akerman spends an entire hour charting Jeanne's first day, laboring over such menial tasks as preparing food, halting dinner conversation and bathing. Amusingly, the only moment elided over in the entire hour is the sex she has with her first john. Where another director would have skipped over everything else to focus on a sex scene, Akerman remains outside Jeanne's bedroom and holds the shot over an instant cut that darkens the frame with passed time. Jeanne receives her payment, places it in a tureen and sends the john on his way and returns to her boiling potatoes, now ready to serve. The director has actually skipped sex to get back to the cooking.

Spending so much time watching these tasks allows us to memorize Jeanne's pattern, which is important when chaos subtly creeps in the next day. Jeanne's hair looks a bit disheveled at times, she forgets to put the lid on the tureen where she keeps her money and she overcooks the potatoes. Such actions would not register to us in any other film, or indeed in our own lives, but Akerman focused so intently on Jeanne's actions in the first day that the audience intuits that each of her chores and mannerisms is the result of years of rote repetition. In this frame of mind, insignificant aberrations and human error stand out, as if Jeanne were a robotic program that suddenly malfunctioned.

Even the nature of the framing changes to alert the viewer that something is going wrong. Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte cycle through carefully placed shots all throughout the first day to communicate the ideas of the film. The camera stays in the doorway of the kitchen, peering in to watch Jeanne work as if trapped in her gender prison. When Jeanne heads out into the hallway to meet her john, Mangolte angles the camera to visually decapitate the protagonist, showing her only from the breasts down as if communicating what men first see in a woman. On the second day, however, some of the camera positions shift, such as a shot of Jeanne from inside the kitchen looking out the door. Chaos reigns, but in a manner far less simple to suss out than in Lars Von Trier's most recent look at tortured women.

As with Antichrist, however, Jeanne Dielman runs on twisted sexual energy. Whenever Jeanne leaves a room, she turns the light off, a seeming gesture of financial concern that is done so absent-mindedly that it ultimately feels like another part of her routine. The constant on/off switching also suggests a subconscious walling-off of the bedroom from the kitchen, separating completely her "mother" and "whore" locations within the house. That the son should leave the lights on as he moves through the house is the first suggestion that he is blurring the lines between the two, and his vaguely Oedipal fixation with his mother elicits the only long dialogues of the film. Even without a husband, Jeanne is still shackled to a man, always trying to please the boy, who ravenously devours all set before him while Jeanne knows exactly how much to portion her meals. On some level, Sylvain understands this, as his quasi-entreaties for her show him reciprocating the husband-worthy attention she places on him with a husband's matrimonial "responsibilities."

For her part, Jeanne exhibits pent-up sexual aggression and anxiety in her activities. Under Akerman's watchful eye, Jeanne's potato peeling takes on an aggressiveness, as does her post-coital bath and scrubbing. Before her shocking final act, the biggest indicator of the character's mental suffering is her frustration with her coffee on the third day. When she tastes her cup, she finds it too bitter and sets about adding milk and sugar, but to no avail. So, she brews another pot, staring at the liquid pouring through the external filter as if watching the hourglass trickle away her life (or sanity). At last, she meets with the third john, and Akerman finally takes us in the bathroom to show Jeanne achieving an orgasm, something that finally makes her think of sex as more than just something between trips to the kitchen. As the man lies on the bed in post-coital relaxation, Jeanne suddenly takes a pair of scissors out of her drawer and stabs the john in his heart, killing him.

Naturally, after three hours and twenty minutes of uneventful shots, the audience suddenly snaps to attention, and the first thought on anyone's mind is, "Why did she just do that?" Any number of explanations exist, depending on the perspective with which you view the film. In rigid feminist terms, maybe the man stand for masculine oppression -- he does, after all, collapse on top of her after he climaxes. More literally, we can assume that he is a previous client, thus raising the question whether he did something in the past. Perhaps the orgasm shook Jeanne awake after walking through her life like a zombie and she killed the man either in the panic of shock or as revenge for making her aware of the awful repetition of her life. Hell, the ending is so open to interpretation that even a writer as analytical and thoughtful as Jonathan Rosenbaum can suggest that the ending exists merely to serve as an ending, that the final act means less than everything that came before it.

Therein lies the brilliance of Akerman's structure: the "story" and cinematography of Jeanne Dielman trap the main character, crushing her in a rectangular prison even on the occasions that she leaves her house. The film itself, however, is limitless with possible meanings and symbols. I have never seen a more realistic film -- and I'm quite tempted to included documentaries in this statement -- yet the film achieves such realism that it becomes abstract. Even the barely perceptible, pulsating light from an outside source that reflects inside the house takes on a surreal flavor, growing from a throbbing dot on the first day to a spread-out wash of flashing light in the aftermath of the murder like a warning klaxon building in its silent scream. Rarely has a director so completely challenged the conventions of cinema, and if some viewers might view the ending of Jeanne Dielman as a broad sign-off for a film that had already frustrated them enough, I found myself as excited as I've been in a while by the freedom and the trust placed in the audience by a director who spent 195 minutes proving beyond a doubt that she knew exactly what she was doing before donating the final six to let the audience start doing some work.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Made only a decade after he first garnered attention for his Britcom, Spaced, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could serve as a bookend to his brief but infinitely rewarding career to this point. Spaced was about the VCR Generation, late-Gen-X slackers who communicated solely through pop culture references to cult movies and genre T.V. shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Scott Pilgrim, adapted from Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic series, plays like Spaced jumped forward a generation, charting millennials whose basis of shared knowledge is video games, animé and the Alpha and Omega of the Internet.

The key difference between Wright's breakthrough series and this film, of course, is that in the interim between them, he create two of the funniest, wildest and most visually astute genre films of the last 25 years. Shaun of the Dead turned a minuscule budget into a zombie spoof that worked perfectly as a zombie film, and therefore it also worked as a piercing social critique. The same slackers who wandered around dead-eyed in Spaced were now equated with zombies, forcing the protagonist to beat down creatures whom he somewhat resembled. Hot Fuzz, of course, was about a hero cop foisted onto a calm hamlet where the police force was made up of slackers of all ages, as if the refuse of each generation somehow trickled down their separate paths into the same delta.

With these films, Wright stands with Quentin Tarantino as the most daring and insightful genre movie director around, and both work so well because of layers not easily gleaned from their wild rides. As I argued in my defense of Tarantino's masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds, the director is a surprising moralist in the vein of Sam Peckinpah, capable of reveling in everything he's subtly warning us against. If Peckinpah warned us against fascism by becoming fascist himself in Straw Dogs, Tarantino left glimpses of meditation in the middle of the animé lunacy of Kill Bill, and he celebrated his Jewish revenge fantasy even as he condemned the good guys for becoming terrorists to fight terror. His fans are routinely as blind to this as his detractors, hence the proliferation of movies that simply glorify violence entirely.

Wright, on the other hand, eschews moralism for a sense of empathy. Beneath the wild mash-ups of Spaced is an interest in character that develops a cast of oddballs to the point that their quirks no longer seem an added flight of fancy to give the material a hook but genuine, identifiably human traits grounded in feelings of loneliness and doubt. Shaun of the Dead may have suggested that only something as destructive as a supernatural holocaust could snap youth out of their self-consumed reverie, but it nevertheless advanced its characters, touching upon responsibilities in relationships both Platonic and romantic. Hot Fuzz played up the latent homosexuality rampant in buddy cop films, but Wright developed the story until the two leads felt more convincingly like friends and partners than in nearly any "legitimate" buddy film.

Now, without Simon Pegg helping as his writing partner, Wright tackles material that almost seems as if it were written to be filmed by him. Scott Pilgrim follows a world so similar yet so completely removed from '90s geekdom that even the older siblings of teenagers may feel culture shock. Where the layabouts of yore connected through all those geek movies and TV shows, now the linking element is YouTube and video games. People form clans on World of Warcraft, discuss battle plans for Modern Warfare 2 as if actually going into a fight and communicate through written snippets sent instantly on Twitter, Facebook, Skype and other programs. Everything is flashy, pixellated and brief, and the kids who grow up this way are attention deficit and emotionally transient, capable of moving from fad to fad so quickly that even the fading pop culture items of the '70s and '80s seem permanent hallmarks in comparison.

Within minutes, one can see that Wright understood all of this. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has a kaleidoscopic, kinetic mise-en-scène to shame the previous example of mainstream sensory overload, the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer. A mash-up of video games, action movies, frenzied electropop, comic book drawings that blend American styles with manga and everything else that occurs to Wright, the film borders on the avant-garde in its visualization of the modern worldview. You cannot focus not because you're dumber than your parents but because you have access to all the world's information simultaneously. The Internet's capacity for storage and real-time access may well be the equivalent to hearing God's voice, an endless void of knowledge and power suddenly forced into a gray, mushy bundle of synapses and nerves that cannot handle the strain. Much of the comedy of the film and the comic series comes from Scott's perennial inability to retain anything, but that's not because he's an idiot but because his hard drive simply crashed.

The first thing you should know about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is that it is funny. Damn funny. As Gene Siskel once raved about Kingpin, every time it wants you laugh, it will make you do so. Visual gags litter the screen, from hipster-flecked title cards to sidebars indicating characters' ages, coolness ratings and fun facts. This is a film where the protagonist goes to the bathroom, and his bladder capacity is shown via a "Pee Bar" that drains as the young man urinates. We even see his thoughts visualized as a roulette wheel that spins through a series of excuses to give to his girlfriend and what appears to be a voltmeter that jumps from "No Clue" to "Gets It" when something finally sinks into Scott's thick skull.

When we meet Scott, he's a 22-year-old nobody who plays bass in a band he cheerfully admits is terrible, showing up for gigs that may or may not pay and not bothering to support himself with anything so ridiculous as a "job." His bandmates -- ex-girlfriend Kim Pine (Alison Pill, so frosty that the constant snowfall in the film's Toronto setting may be her mental projection), bandleader/only person with any emotional attachment to the group whatsoever Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and hanger-on Young Neil (Johnny Simmons), whom no one can consistently recognize despite the band's practice room being his apartment -- are just as shiftless. When Scott brags at the beginning of his new girlfriend, a pure-as-the-driven-snow Chinese-Canadian named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), only Kim has much to say, and all of it about how she's only 17 (and a Catholic schoolgirl, no less).

His short-lived quasi-romance ends, however, when he sees a strange, roller-skating woman in his dreams with hot pink hair, a seemingly innocuous occurrence until Scott begins to spot her in real-life. Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is too cool for Scott -- so is Knives, frankly, but Ramona has the added points of being hip and from America -- but he manages to win her over and enters into a new-new relationship that seems great. Until a strange Indian man crashes a band gig and challenges Scott to a fight for Ramona's hand, that is.

In cramming the six graphic novels of the comic series into just under two hours, Wright devotes most of the film to these battles with the League of Evil Exes, seven specters from Ramona's past who make normal ordeals with dealing with partner's exes seem trivial in comparison. Because so much of the movie involves various fights, Scott Pilgrim can feel repetitive, or at least it could have if Wright hadn't been in charge. Understanding the need to keep things fresh, Wright brings something different to each fight: one plays as a sort of dance-off, another a competition between bassists, yet another as a fight with an action star (Chris Evans) who forces Scott to fight all of his stunt doubles. Each fight has its own moves, unique color palettes and a host of contextual jokes that don't let the humor flag for a second.

From a writing standpoint, the percentage of one-liners that land with precision accuracy in this film is stunning. Rare is the film that can make a decently filled theater laugh incessantly, but the barrage of Scott's vacuous incredulity, Kim's venomous put-downs, Ramona's bemused observations and the contributions of everyone else ensure that every scene, even the more serious ones, get at least one good chuckle. Characters rarely speak for longer than a sentence or two, reflecting a generation raised to express themselves in 140 characters or less, and poor Knives' face even turns into a shocked emoticon when her musical heroine (and Scott's conniving ex-girlfriend) comes to town.

Everything about the film, in fact, plays off of the idea of a generation prescribed ADHD medication en masse. Film courses could and should use Scott Pilgrim to demonstrate match cuts, as the opening arc of the film jumps time and place as conversations continue seamlessly, noting how little Scott ever seems to remember and how often you just seem to end up where you were going without processing the journey there. Reality breaks apart more often (and with more oneiric an atmosphere) than in Inception, with Scott slipping in and out of dreams, walking through eerily pitch-black, snow-covered Toronto streets and surrounding by flying streaks of onomatopoeic letters whisking about for telephone rings, landed punches and the rarely changing D chord he pounds out of his Rickenbacker. Wright's usual trickery slips into the film, such as his penchant for using his quickest edits for the most banal moments, ridiculing the action movie conceit of the superhero suiting up by quickly showing Scott zipping up and slipping on armbands and then arduously drawing out the boy tying his shoe until it becomes the funniest bit in the film. In one instance, Scott returns to the apartment he shares with his roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin, playing Middle America's worst nightmare as a gay man who can instantly seduce heterosexuals with his charm), and Wright plays a sitcom laugh track over it, recalling its usage in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, previously the most daring and experimental mainstream feature on the market. Incidentally, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage purportedly loved Stone's deliberately overcooked satire, and the influence of Brakhage creeps in here too, with an opening credits played over jarring and jittering displays of pure color and a devil-may-care attitude toward traditional film grammar.

Beneath the rambunctious battle sequences and the endless one-liners, however, is that same empathy that powers Wright's previous efforts. While not as prominent as in Shaun of the Dead or Spaced, the heart of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is as vital to the film's memorability as its gleeful destruction of whatever boundaries still existed for action films. The entire arc of the film concerns Scott's growth from a listless twentysomething who cannot process anything other than his own desires into someone finally reading to accept maturity. Ramona, too, has an uncertainty about life she needs to figure out, and while Scott has a right to be indignant when she sums up their relationship by saying, "You're what I need right now," he doesn't understand that she's just as confused as he is. As I approach the end of my collegiate years, I understand these feelings: you think college will prepare you for life, then you leave and realize that, even if you excelled, you spent 4-6 years with routine breaks between classes, nap times, endless trips to coffee houses, partying. I'll go into the job market less prepared for a full 9-5 occupation than I would have been after high school with its rigid scheduling. These young men and women reached some imaginary border and were told, "Now you're adults!" and then cast into the void, and they don't know what to make of it. If their journey looks flashier than ours, it's no less daunting.

Nary a hair is out of place in the film. Michael Cera's presence has been a sticking point for many I've spoken to, citing Cera burnout, but he works in charm in a way he hasn't before: Scott Pilgrim is once entirely innocent and incredible corrupt, so attention-deficit that he cannot really remember how many people he's actually hurt -- in a way, he recalls the amnesiac Leonard from Memento. Winstead finds a similar balance, never apologizing for her life but not remotely proud of it either, and the fact that she's more clearheaded than Scott only makes her sadder and more filled with regret. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, from Culkin's incessant witticisms to Pill's bitter musings to Aubrey Plaza's foul-mouthed Julie ("Has Issues," as a bit of text helpfully explains) and Anna Kendrick's lovable bitchiness as Scott's Sister. Jason Schwartzman, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and more make for film villains, all with enough personal and physical differences to prevent the lineup of Evil Exes from feeling samey; Schwartzman in particular hasn't been this hilariously smug since perhaps Rushmore. Wong deserves to break into some other work, effortlessly conveying Knives' naïveté and overall sweetness and playing off young actors with years more experience without once flagging.

Remarkably, they all understand what the story is really about as much as Wright does. Only just in their own adulthood, the actors realize that we all spend our youths trying to find our identity through movies or the Internet, objects that are paradoxically shared experiences even though we process them alone (and I loved the moment where a character says something witty and Scott asks, "What's that from?" expecting a movie title, only for the other to spit, "My brain!"). Then, we enter into relationships, but they're not yet serious because we're feeling our way around new territory. Only when we finally expand our perspectives to wonder how the other people in our lives see us do we ever figure ourselves out. This is a revelation more thoroughly covered in the comics, but the beauty of Wright's film is how deftly he manages to fit the core of this theme into a movie that could easily have been two hours of flashy nothingness. Instead, he mixes the avant-garde with the tangible, crafting his most frenzied genre mash-up yet but never losing sight of the heart that gives it meaning, and even the seriousness adds to the exhilaration of one of the most purely enjoyable films in years.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hoop Dreams

With At the Movies ending this week after a storied history that has seen numerous title changes, lineup shifts and not one but two tragedies, the benedictions are already underway. Rankings of favorite moments and the best arguments (if there is much of a difference between the two for many) have cropped up here and there, and I cannot wait to read some of the touching posts eulogizing the program and what it meant for many. To be sure, most of the blogs that will say something about the show were first inspired to write about film from watching Siskel and Ebert go at every Sunday.

But I would like to send-off the show in the way I feel most appropriate, by looking at one of the films I came across solely through the attention it received on the program. Everyone loved to watch Ebert and Siskel, or Roeper, or Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott spar over a disagreement, but the classic team were never better than in agreement. When Gene and Roger both hated a film, they goaded each other into funnier and funnier takedowns. When they loved it, they would peel back an impressive number of layers in a three- or four-minute exchange. And when they really loved a movie, they turned At the Movies into a platform for extolling the virtues of the object of their affection. In some cases, this spotlight could be the deciding factor in getting a festival film distribution, or drumming up commercial success.

There is no better example of Siskel and Ebert's desire to use At the Movies to highlight films than Hoop Dreams, a planned, 30-minute mini-doc that evolved into a 3-hour rumination on youth in America's urban centers and the state of the American Dream. Steve James and his crew track William Gates and Arthur Agee, two Chicago teenagers with dreams of making the NBA, through high school as recruiters send them to private schools and grades and performances fluctuate on a weekly basis.

With the first shots, James communicates the style of the documentary, objectively moving over poor districts in Chicago and taking in the sights without comment. Yet when he touches upon footage of basketball, either of kids playing in neighborhood courts or of professional games being watched on TV, the film slows down, lingers on these shots. For so many of these poor, black kids, the NBA may be the only way out of the ghetto, and basketball represents not only fame and wealth but simply happiness. Young Arthur vocalizes this in his first scene, telling the documentary crew that "when" he makes it, the first thing he'll do is give back to his family. He's not thinking about the models or the diamonds yet, just getting his family out of the projects and into a nice house. That shared desire among nearly all inner-city youth leads to competition, to the point that basketball recruiters now scout for kids in middle school to send them to high schools with good programs. James follows around one Earl Smith early in the film as the man talks of helping kids along "the road to success," but he's part of a twisted system that finds and bleeds these kids early -- much later in the film, a host of college recruiters use terms like "meat market" and speak to each other knowingly about hooking 'em while they're young.

Yet Earl is indeed someone who can set them on the path to realizing their dreams, and he takes his interest in both Agee and Gates to St. Joseph High School, a private school out in Westchester. St. Joe's is Mecca for Chicago urban youth, the place where a young Isiah Thomas was sent to perfect his game, leading to his professional career and freeing him from the same ghettos these kids live in today. The school even brings in Thomas to talk to all the kids culled across the state, and when he plays a fun one-on-one with Arthur, the 14-year-old looks like he might pass out from joy. The school's legendary basketball coach, Gene Pingatore, promises the two young men partial scholarships, practically drawing up contracts just to attend a high school, and William and Arthur prepare to train for the big time at the ripe age of 14.

During their freshman year, William and Arthur find themselves in their element on the basketball court but lost at sea when they have to leave playing with all the other recruited black teens and go to classes with wealthy white children. The students of St. Joe's are ahead of the curve with their private educations, but William and Arthur come from underfunded, understaffed inner city public schools, are hopelessly behind. William reads at a fourth-grade level but his dedication powers him through his setbacks and by the end of the year, he's up to par. Arthur, however, is not so lucky and, combined with his inferior performance on the court, he begins to tailspin.

At this point, you understand exactly why James stuck around for more than a few months: Hoop Dreams takes on a drama that could shame most fictive films, and certainly the overdone, clichéd realm of the sports movie. In this movie, every failed test, every missed free throw carries weight. A professional player can blow a game and come back later, but a teenager trying to impress the people who will set him on the path to that fame faces more brutal competition than contracted NBA ballers. If their grades slip too much, not even the interference of coaches can help out. And if their game suffers even for one match, someone else might move up the ladder over them. With William seemingly destined for greatness and Arthur burning out his freshman year, James has a modern version of Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, two identical individuals, one of whom is well-adjusted and happy and the other miserable as life continues to wear him down. Once those roles begin to reverse and reverse again, however, Hoop Dreams morphs into a complicated tragedy.

In the process, James captures the richest portrait of modern American life until David Simon eventually brought The Wire to the small screen. There are no villains in the film, not even St. Joe's, but the perversity of America's values is nakedly on display. As Arthur's new coach at John Marshall High School says, someone at St. Joe's would have ignored his poor grades and his poverty if he'd played like they thought he would (just look at the help that materializes around William when he runs into money problems and his grades slip). Everyone representing a school always tells the prospects and the cameras that they value education over sport, but coaches never seem to care about the players' grades beyond the minimum requirement to qualify for scholarships. This warped perception of value, in which the kids see basketball as the only way out of the ghetto because people like Pingatore, Earl Smith and everyone else in the sports system has turned it into a business that processes people from adolescence through adulthood, is stunning in its vacuity. As William's hobbling knee injuries that plague him through his junior year demonstrate, a basketball career can end at any moment.

So, when Arthur admits that he never put much stock in academics, one does not wonder why he does not care but instead questions how something as vital as an education became so unimportant to people while entertainment rose to such a position of prominence. St. Joe's works almost like a factory, well-educated white coaches always in charge of impoverished, barely literate black youths. There isn't any racism in Hoop Dreams, but race is a key component of this system: the white children at St. Joe's benefit from the recruiting program in that they grow up exposed to people of polar opposites -- a touching scene near the end of the film shows Arthur returning to the school for a visit, where he is greeted ecstatically by some friends he made there who want to hear all about how he's been -- but there's something subtly disturbing about the idea of upper-class white parents allotting their tuition money to gathering up black children for their entertainment. The poor in America's slums are by no means exclusively black, of course, but school districts are not-so-subtly carved along the same racial lines that Congressional districts are gerrymandered. Arthur feels uncomfortable around the white people at St. Joe's because he's never interacted with many whites and does not know how to relate to them, and when he leaves for public school, he ends up at a place with a 99% black student body. At times, it feels as if segregation never really ended in some inner-city schools.

Then again, you can't even call basketball entertaining once you've seen how it affects these kids. The titular dreams give way to cold disillusionment as the only thing in the boys' lives that demonstrably changes is their perception of the game. With the practice of recruitment and playing now shifted down the age line to focus on high school, even sports commentators get in on the action as if discussing NBA players. When they call William and, later, Arthur, the next Isiah Thomas, they put an absurd amount of pressure on kids too young to handle their current responsibilities, much less struggle to make those predictions come true. And isn't there something messed up about players with multimillion dollar contracts being able to get away with so much when a single misstep could derail these teenagers' lives?

As soon as William and Arthur court the recruiters, they find themselves besieged by hangers-on hoping to ride their coattails to the big time. Curtis, William's brother, was himself a star back in the day, but his arrogance held him back despite his considerable talent. Now, he tries to live out his failed dream through William, who quickly grows tired of the endless lecturing. "Seems like everybody I know is my coach." Later, his long-absent father comes calling and even offers him a used car he fixed up, but the high school senior knows better by then. Arthur, too, must face off with his father, Arthur "Bo" Sr. Bo speaks occasionally of his basketball dreams, but his initial love and support for his son gives way to absences in times of financial straits and even incarceration.

It is nearly impossible to discuss Hoop Dreams without cataloging at least some of the seemingly endless tragedies that befall the two families. Both Bo and Arthur's mom, Sheila, lose their jobs and cannot secure public aid, so the Agee family lives in a darkened apartment with no utilities for a while. When Bo returns after one of his leaves, he plays one-on-one with his son on a neighborhood court, but only when he slinks away and James matter-of-factly states that such places have now become prime locations for drug dealing do we understand why Bo really showed up out of the blue. Both Arthur and William impregnate young women, adding to the financial burden and the crippling responsibilities crushing them. And no moment of the film is more searing and heartbreaking than the scene of the Agee family returning hat in hand to St. Joseph to request Arthur's transcripts be released, which the school has withheld pending the settlement of unpaid tuition. Again, St. Joe's is not in the wrong here: the Agees owe money whether Arthur finished there or not. But to see the family practically begging when the shadow of St. Joe's and the effect its rejection had on Arthur, destroying a boy whose whole problem on the court was a lack of confidence, is devastating. At some point you start to wonder why the simple presence of the cameras didn't change something for the better, but it seems the Hawthorne effect cannot withstand the force of the Earth crashing down on it. Hell, when Spike Lee comes to talk to high school seniors with college recruiters just out of earshot, his outsized rant about the value of these kids as human beings being derived entirely from how much money they can make coaches, recruiters and team owners, his comic, aggressive persona seems the only voice of reason.

There are no easy outs in Hoop Dreams, a tragic realization given that the film concerns two kids' desires to free themselves through what they think is the easy way: just play ball, and you'll never have to eke your way out of the ghetto with brains. Quickly, they understand that the easy way out is the most difficult path of all, requiring them to get up at 5:30 every morning to catch trains and buses out to St. Joe's, study harder than any of their equally doomed peers in the city to get grades just good enough to pass and torture themselves with endless practicing. This toughens the young men, and if both have lost their dreams by the end, they at least come away with knowledge, however bitter. When Bo challenges him to another one-on-one, Arthur refuses to take his dad's joking deflections and dirty playing, venting frustrations than run deeper than a personal foul when he declares, "Ain't no con game going on anymore. I'm older now." William speaks of going to Coach Pingatore about the problems he's been having with his girlfriend's family and his own over taking responsibility for his child, and Pingatore -- consumed by his own basketball dream, one that's come true but been perverted by the system he helped construct -- tells him simply to "write 'em off." As William relates this, he sounds infinitely older and wiser when he looks at James behind the camera and asks rhetorically, "What kind of advice is that?"

Still, glimmers of hope break through the pain. An event as lauded but banal as an 18th birthday takes on a much greater significance when Sheila notes that not every child in the ghetto makes it to 18. That both boys graduate high school -- and William with a full ride to Marquette, the school Curtis couldn't qualify for years ago because of his grades -- is a victory for their parents, especially Sheila and William's mother Emma, both of whom only ever wanted their children to get an education. But the best moment of the entire film does not actually concern anything remotely connected to basketball, or even involving the boys. James brilliantly withholds the news that Sheila has entered nursing school until he springs the revelation on the audience on the day that she graduates with the highest GPA in the class. James likely showed only this one scene because he already had a three-hour film on his hands, but the omission works to his advantage, suddenly confronting the audience with something more worthy than all the basketball games in the world. As Sheila cries with irrepressible joy and screams, "And people told me I wasn't going to be anything." Whether he intends to or not, James contrasts all of the screaming, enthused crowds of basketball matches placed before and after this sequence with the sparse ceremony attended only by a handful of relatives and the other graduates. Here is the one moment in the lives of all these people that deserves wild cheers, a woman pulling herself up out of her unwitting dependence on welfare that couldn't feed her, much less her family, without being torn apart by agents and coaches.

"People say, 'When you get to the NBA, don't forget about me,'" William tells the camera in the final moments of Hoop Dreams. "I feel like telling them, 'If I don't make it, make sure you don't forget about me." This is a far cry from the Gates who thought he'd be the next icon of inner-city ball players, a man with all his boyishness burned out of him. At the end of three hours, we've changed as he has, made distrustful of the promise of fame and confused how anyone can really succeed who wasn't born into a family that had already done so. Both the Gateses and The Agees would endure further setbacks after the film: Curtis was murdered on September 10, 2001, while Bo would also be gunned down three years later. But, as in the film, life goes on, and both Arthur and William have stabilized and seem to have found contentment. Made before the explosion of reality TV, Hoop Dreams did not translate into the sort of fame for William and Arthur that we expect to see from reality "stars" today. They spun the film in their favor, mind you, but they settled for a comfortable life away from the slums rather than chase fame in the hopes of briefly living in opulence. Their humility is unsurprising, given all they've been through by the end of Hoop Dreams, and if they only ever made it out of the projects because of James' presence, is their struggle any less meaningful?