Sunday, February 12, 2006

New Order: WAITING FOR THE SIRENS' CALL (Warner Bros. 2005)

Yet another solicited but unpublished review. Perhaps it's just as well - I somewhat overrated this latest from the greatest. But I still stand by the coda of "Who's Joe?" Usually by 4:30 of a 5:43 song, New Order would've already laid down all their cards (never mind that instead of jacks and queens, they turned up seers and mystics). But just as you're about to shout "Land ho!" up jumps this classic New Order fragment - guitar moans so archetypically misterioso they may be mocking their own pretension; drums skipping to catch up with themselves; bass straining against the stars. We jump over one wall of sound only to find another. And who IS Joe? He has no gun in his hand, not like Johnny in "1963." But he does have "eyes like a wounded soldier," perhaps the one returning home in "Love Vigilantes." In any event, Bernie's gotta find him (before he gets a gun in his hand?). Where Jimi Hendrix (and countless pimple-poppin' garage punkers) sang "Hey Joe" as both observer and observed, witness and murderer, Bernie sings as observer only or, more precisely, potential preventer. The deed (whatever it is) hasn't happened yet. And he still hasn't found Joe by song's end. How do we know this? The coda tells us so - it's searching, open to myriad meanings, myriad encounters. Classic New Order.

The quintessential eighties band, New Order mated punk with disco and took the concoction farther than any other post-punkers of the era. The Sex Pistols side of the equation afforded the British foursome a certain arty forcefulness while the Donna Summer half built in a sleek distance. By the end of the decade, they managed to score huge hits like “Bizarre Love Triangle” and True Faith,” gaining recognition in the public eye yet shrouding their private selves in enigma.

With that feat achieved, they released one album in 1993 then took eight years off. 2001’s Get Ready was a rock record that shined like a disco ball. But with Waiting For The Sirens’ Call, the dance moves recede further into the mix. The production still sounds like a million bucks. And Peter Hook’s ever-cresting bass still leads the groove. Only this time, those elements clear pathways towards clear, inoffensive rock. A song like “Turn” could be the mildly alternative cut on the next Matchbox 20 or Maroon 5 album.

Whenever a synthbeat lays down the rhythm, the tempos are too moderate to push you on the dancefloor. And only “Working Overtime,” the closing number, contains guitars loud enough to ruffle grandma’s feathers. It’s their most modest album ever, something you might put on after the storm and stress of New Order albums of old.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Amadou & Mariam: DIMANCHE A BAMAKO (Nonesuch 2005)

Unpublished review of one of my fave records of last year

The few records Amadou & Mariam, “The Blind Couple of Mali,” have released stateside underscored their status as hip, globetrotting world music stars. So it’s perfectly natural that their music skipped from the Paris café to the Delta back porch. This fabulous new disc strays even further from any pure Malian genre if such a thing even exists. The title translates as “Sunday in Bamako,” the capital of Mali. But it actually sounds like Sunday all over the world. This is less a function of genre hopping as it an immersion in sounds that are indigenous to most places on earth – crowds, overheard crosstalk, police sirens, music off in the distance. Thanks for the new direction can be given to polyglot musical genius Manu Chao. His production transforms even the longest songs into off-the-cuff, ridiculously catchy snippets. Awash in French folk song, Ali Farka Toure-style blues, and mild ska pulsations and yet as bright and slick as Sheryl Crow soaking up the sun, this is one mighty fine all-night festival.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

THE MAN WITH TWO HEADS (Andy Milligan 1972) or Oh Superbowl! Up Yours!

Yet again, a sports event has rendered a communiqué from the artworld into a non-event. This time, it was the Superfowl, I mean bowl, and it preempted a screening of Andy Milligan's fuck-you THE MAN WITH TWO HEADS a full two hours before the Superbowl even started. But that's sports for ya, innit? They colonize time and space as surely as fine forefathers did. An American pastime indeed. Never mind that the film ended at 4:20pm which would have given the football drones a full 40 MINUTES to get back to their tvs-cum-metronomes. (Actually, it was longer than that since we started the film a few minutes before three and several splices would have saved the drones another full minute at least.) NO - the whole freakin' daaaaaay had to be reserved for the pigskin parade. It isn't enough that football games have traditionally preempted the season premieres (!) of The Simpsons (!!) and Jack Smith knows what else. It's also isn't enough that this Bevo fuck dominates the visual schema of Austin more than green lights do (and yeah, I know Bevo is college and the Superbowl is professional - the oppressiveness is all of a piece; now what can YOU tell me about Andy Milligan?!?). Football's gotta have it all. And they got it. Well, 99.99% of it. The .01% was one of the most visceral screenings I've ever experienced (or non-experienced).

It all started when The Film Loop (UT-Austin's premiere film-on-film film society) needed a cheap film to screen. We could get THE MAN WITH TWO HEADS for free so I chose it as our first film of 2006. Here was my calls to arms:

(D. Andy Milligan US 1972 80min. 16mm)

"Come spend an afternoon in the tortured mind of Andy Milligan – the Fassbinder of exploitation cinema. As per exploitation practice, this film features no man with two heads. Instead, we witness a Dr. Jekyll (apparently channeling Dirk Bogarde) who torments prostitutes in 19th century London (or the microbudget approximation thereof) and partakes in a remarkable S/M orgy which rivals Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures in its sheer ungraspable extraterrestriality. Less bitchy than the Milligan norm, The Man with Two Heads still seethes with his characteristic nihilism and hatred for all things breathing. So here’s your golden opportunity to buy into the Andy Milligan cult now and reap huge cultural capital rewards tomorrow!"

A shot heard...round the corner? Down the Alamo Drafthouse staircase? Barely. Only two Loopers showed up and we barely counted. I programmed the thing and was there to introduce it (and also to, ya know, see it!). Afsheen projected it but couldn't hear a thing in the booth. Ten other lost souls drifted in, none in raincoats, all sentient. One fresh faced lad led Afsheen to suspect they were all here for the Steve Martin vehicle THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS. But where was my student who was disappointed we weren't screening THE THING WITH TWO HEADS? If he knew THING existed, how could he resist a true rip-off like MAN from the very same year? Very easily, it appears. Battleworn, Afhseen and I decided to let everyone in for free, small pittance for resisting the insidious pull of the Superbowl Shuffle.

So: a film society without a society. A film screening with barely an audience there to see it. We were the "no one" in "if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" This was somehow appropriate to THE MAN WITH TWO HEADS because Milligan's films court no one. Where the Superbowl wants to travel down your every capillary, a GHASTLY ONES or a BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS or my beloved SEEDS is barely concerned you're here to witness it. Nothing is shot for your optimum point of view. Milligan shamelessly bucks the 180 degree rule. A mouth talks below the frame. The insipid, found, wall-to-wall non-diegetic music obscures much of the dialogue.

Superbowl cameras will frequently jump over the entire stadium and give you the illusion that 99.99% = 100%. Milligan rarely has much space behind his camera so his interiors (and even exteriors) are necessarily tight, a visual reminder of the economically disenfranchised .01% (but really much, much more). That's why his preposterous overuse of fog is so endearing - it fills in for the space that isn't even there in the first place. Superbowl time is obsessively regimented - preshow, halftime, quarters, stop and start, stop and start, postshow bullshitting (not to mention the PREpreshow purchasing of beer and nacho hats). Milligan pulls time out of shape like a piece of taffy. It becomes distended drearily in the many scenes of hetero chit-chat, as if to throw their hegemony right back in their faces - you wanna dominate screen time? well there ya go! But in the amazing final act (if one could call it that), time gets bewilderingly compressed, most memorably in that horror show of an orgy. What is its spatial/temporal relationship to what has transpired before and what will happen after? We never know. It shimmies down into the text and in just a minute or so, levitates back up again. Overseen by a wart-infested hag, the orgy brooks no introduction. Dr. Jekyll communicates with the hag in grunts and shoves and therefore, we know not when/where he is. At the end of a hellish tour of nipple torture and syringe play (all grunged over with Milligan's hand-held, swirling camera), Dr. Jekyll beckons a naked woman towards him. Who, we don't know. What happens next, we don't know. The scene fades.

From that moment on, we can barely catch our breaths. Decapitations skid into conversations. A splice in the print brings Dr. Jekyll into a room without a knock on the door. Fog follows him wherever he goes now. Shrill music hall piano and absurdly canted angles makes us loose our footing. Everyone looks more haggard, especially the beauty-exhausted Berwick Kaler who sleeps lustfully in the nude and gives us a judicious look at his ass. This is late 19th century England where .01% of the population slept in the nude. Kaler played one of them and Milligan caught his gorgeous orbs on film. Alas, we never get to examine the thin white pajama in which he subsequently hides his bottom half - Dr. Jekyll soon slices him dead.

It all winds down in the basement. Or one must suppose. Dr. Jekyll's meets his end in a smoke-filled, jerky space that looks collaged together like a ransom note. A larger audience might have snickered at the pathetic cap gun shots that kill the man and his two heads. But in this uncomfortably intimate setting, they were one more cog in a chaotic, unrepeatable sequence.

The print lobbed off the "THE END" title. Fuck you! It's over! Get outta here!

The guy in front of me turned around and let out a beat-up sigh. We had all been kicked around like a football for 80 minutes. But recounting the experience would inevitably fall on Superbowl ears, deaf ears. We had all heard a tree fall in the woods. But outside of the Superbowl energy ball, we were no one. If an Andy Milligan film plays "during" the Superbowl and "no one" is there to see it, will we make a sound?

Fuck you! It's over! Get outta here!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

My IT'S PAT - THE MOVIE party was a triumph!

Could I have picked a more perfect movie for a secret movie party? Eerily perfect. Our movie parties have devolved from CODE UNKNOWN to LADY TERMINATOR to not even watching a movie ("devolved" is thus not a value judgment on the films themselves, such as they are). IT'S PAT - THE MOVIE is a crowd pleaser that actually elicits art film-like concentration - utter silence greeted much of it. In a room full of 15-20 increasingly drunken grad students (with yours truly leading the pack in both drunkenness and grad studentness), that's no small feat. I was moved. Thanx y'all for attending. But gawd, what film could live up to it now? SEXTETTE? But only the first half. THE APPLE? Again? LA CICATRICE INTERIEURE with the volume on full blast? Maybe. SUSAN AND GOD? Only the first half hour there, if that. Ah! I got it...

And afterwards - whoa boy! This was clearly another party-as-therapy event in the sweat-salt-on-the-shirt style of David Uskovitch (who did NOT attend - hmph!). Everyone seemed hammered even though I bet less than half of us actually were. Somehow I got the feeling we were all reduced to the same quasi-human level - scary to those on the outside (Stuart!) but perfectly communicable to one another inside. Cronenberg's RABID as if it were never a horror film. DAWN OF THE DEAD without the humans. Denizens of Dante's Inferno awaiting their punishment (which came in the form of a two-day hangover for me, another week of school for others, I imagine).

Anyhoo, it's a shame the great Kyle Barnett could not attend. He and the Mrs. were doing the Ira/Georgia shuffle (oooh just realized how Gershwin-esque those names are!). I cannot hear the man's name without thinking of the character Kyle from IT'S PAT so perhaps it was best he wasn't here. EVERYONE would have said his name in a Pat-like snicker all evening.

Other points:

1. My fave line will always be: "Well, I can't do it right now; I have to come back when it's convenient for me" only when I say it, I drag out the last "me" in my highest Pat pitch. But I think my new second fave line is the bit about the requirement of a full-frontal nude pic to be on TV (how did Abe Vigoda get his own show then?).

2. Notorious Britney Spears hater Andrew Scahill thought the film homophobic. Dare I contemplate?

3. I always slip and call Pat "her." But I call Chris "her" as well. Dare I contemplate?

4. Is this NOT the best Preston Sturges film since THE PALM motherfuckin' BEACH STORY?

5. No one cared that Pat's sex was never revealed! At least not that I heard. I love it!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

C-O-F-F-E-E Coffee is not for me

It's a drink for total flaming snobs. What is it with you coffee ass motherfuckers? While in line at a Starbucks or Starbucks-like establishment, I'll sometimes sheepishly confide in a friend that ordering coffee intimidates me. But at least twice my voce wasn't so sotto because a stranger will swing around and confide the same. Us coffee rookies need to step up to the counter en masse and revolt when some caffeine queen turns up the nose when we say "I'll have a Americano grande...and make it a large." (P.S. This actually happened to me when I was getting a coffee for the Mr. before a long road trip. When I returned to the car all dejected cuz the cashier treated me so snottily, he explained that "grande" IS the size. Ya know, large? How the superfreak was I supposed to know we had to ORDER in Italian?) I imagine Starbucks and its ilk need to don this steely demeanor as a sound business strategy. Else who would take a chance on buying all those Antigone Rising CDs in the racks next to the pure cane sugar and Madagascar cinnamon (apart from Rob Thomas, that is)? Just being in the same room as these coffee nazis confers a sort of secret handshake coolness upon any object/person. Or not, as the case may be. And that's the point of Starbucks, is it not? Where at McDonald's, you buy time, at Starbucks, you buy hip. Can you measure up?

Well, I've tried and I still can't. Not even at this dumpy little coffee kiosk right outside the Communications building where I attend/teach most of my classes. Rarely open and frequently without milk or steam or, um, coffee, it's more a reassuring site marker than a place of business. Last week, I was running on about three hours sleep and desperately needed something to keep me awake during my 9:30am reading group. So I kiosk it.

Cashier dude (already looking overwhelmed even though he just opened): Can I help you?

Me: I'll have a iced mocha latte. (This is my stock order, one that seems to require no further Italian specifications. I'll never know for certain if I ever want anything besides an iced mocha latte.)

CD: Um, our machine is broke so I can't make a lot of the coffee drinks.

M: Not even an iced mocha latte?

CD: No I can't steam the milk.

Hmmm...So THAT'S what I've been drinking all along. Really? Ice and steam, huh? Ok, what do I know? But I'm losing it during Reading Rainbow. So at break, I suck up my pride and approach the kiosk again. Now dude is talking to a friend but oddly enough, still has this overwhelmed look on his face (another business strategy?).

CD: Can I help you?

M (a bit sheepishly): I know your machine is broke but can I have an iced coffee?

And then he gives me this pained "ooooh, I don't know about that request" kind of look.

M (losing it): Can you just put coffee over ice?!?!

CD: Yes, that I can do.

Ok what the MOTHERSHIP did I ask wrong? What ELSE could iced coffee be?!? Seriously - I wanna know! Please feel free to respond here.

And this kind of social menace isn't relegated to the coffee monde. Again last week, I go to this tony bistro-type joint to meet with a prof for an independent reading course. (The menu is on a gorgeous flat-screen TV. Hmph!) Anyhoo, I want to order this sandwich that has a plum tomato on it. Like an idiot, I ask...

M: What's a plum tomato?

Cashier chick: Pardon me?

M: A plum tomato?

CC gives a blank stare.

M: It's on your menu; it's in one of your sandwiches.

CC: Oh yeah! A plum tomato. That's just a type of tomato.

Nooooooooooooooooooo shit, Miss Marple!!! Do I have a face that screams "Please please please don't let me get what I want this time?!?!?" This shit never happens at Long John Silver's. In fact, a few years back, I remember asking if scallops were still on the menu to which one of John's pirates responded with an adorable "Sir, I don't even know what scallops are."

I rung the fuck outta the bell that day. ;)