Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Writing Roundup: Movie and Music Reviews


I reviewed Christine (2016) recently for The After Movie Diner.

Wow. A few weeks since seeing it and I'm still processing my feelings. Even though I knew what was coming, it was still a gut-punch of epic proportions. That's because everything leading up to Christine's on-air suicide is so thoughtfully portrayed. It's a compassionately crafted film centered around one absolutely transcendent performance by Rebcecca Hall. In nearly every scene of the film, Hall is riveting, unforgettable, and heartbreaking. I haven't seen a better performance in years.

John Carpenter's classic Escape from New York is my latest Cult Classics Review at the Diner, and you can check that out here. Writing that review made me realize there are at least five Carpenter films that could each make my list of all-time top five films: Escape, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. Very few filmmakers have ever equaled that quality. I sense an essay on Carpenter in my future...

Over the last month or two I also reviewed three albums for Spectrum Culture and wrote turned in my first contribution for DC in the 80s. That one's an origin story of sorts, which seemed appropriate.


The reviews run the gamut: from Imelda May's new album, to Incubus' first record in several years, and finally to a "Revisit/Rediscover" review of a band and an album I love unconditionally, Divinyls' 1983 killer full-length debut, Desperate.

You should drop everything and listen to May's new album, Live Love Flesh Blood. I had to reign in my gushing for the review, but I really wanted to gush. The album's that good. I'd like to write more about the song "Should've Been You" in particular, so look for that in this space someday.

Reading It, Part 3


It's been awhile since I've checked in here about It, but I've made my way to page 870 (less than 300 more to go!). I'd always heard that after a fast start things drag a bit in the second half; so far, that's been partly true. As a King fan, I'm more than happy to read his dialogue or narration and just get lost in his writing, which is always so immediate and forthright, but also at times reveals great depth. Even if things have gotten a bit bogged down in recent chapters—did we really need that many pages to reveal that Eddie's asthma is all in his head?—King is always able to right the ship, usually with an assist by another appearance from the ancient evil, Pennywise, which reminds us exactly how much danger lurks around every corner for these kids.

But it's the emotional beats in the relationships between the kids that's really drawn me in and made me care about them. Taking so many pages to tell their storie allows King to paint extremely rich portraits of Bev, Bill, Eddie, Mike, Ben, Stan, and Richie. They feel real, as if I grew up with them myself. My heart breaks when their innocence is continually shattered, but their resolve in the face of such horror is nothing short of inspiring.

Before I had children, reading King's work always made me both wistful to have my own and also straight-up terrified at the prospect of raising them in in this crazy world. King presents familiar stories that we've all grown up with—dysfunctional families, bullying, and first crushes—in ways that resonate deeply with us as adults. There's a nostalgia at play, but it's also because King simply nails what it's like to be a kid. His stories featuring children aren't usually lumped in with Young Adult novels, but they certainly could be. Few writers have ever gotten inside the minds of children and young adults quite like King. One more reason why the man is a national treasure.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

RIP Chris Cornell


He was Louder Than Love.

When we were younger and knew nothing, people like Chris Cornell were our mentors, leading us down some interesting paths. They didn't have answers and they made that clear; they just made incredible, invigorating, heartbreaking, and memorable music that helped us get through most anything. "My Wave" was like a mantra: 
Don't come over here
Piss on my gate
Save it just keep it off my wave
I used to scour liner notes back then and when I discovered Cornell's music publishing name was "You Make Me Sick I Make Music" I thought, that's perfect. Take your defiance, your anger, your disgust with how cruel the world can be and channel it into something. Music, art, your friends and family, anything productive.

His death is devastating. To me, my friends, the world. Every time someone of his stature dies, people ask "You didn't know him personally, why do you care?" And I feel anger and a fury inside well up because those people must live the saddest, most pathetic existence to not understand why. For the last time: it's because we grow up with people like Cornell. They were there for us when no one else was, they spoke to us in a language we could connect with, and they helped us see things in ourselves we never knew existed before.

Thank you, Chris. You were there for us when we needed you, and we'll always carry you in our hearts.




Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Desperate for Divinyls: Introduction


This is the introductory post in a series where I'll focus on songs from one band or musical artist, typically featuring one song per post. First band up? Australian rock royalty, Divinyls. The essays might vary in style and length, some might even focus on some aspect of the band and not just a song, but the plan is to simply get at the heart of why Divinyls' were a truly great band.

Divinyls were the first Aussie band to sign their initial deal with an American record company right out of the gate. Their career spanned nearly two decades and five studio albums and contained countless Australian hit singles and several international ones as well. Still, while the band is rightly revered in Australia, they're not nearly as popular in the U.S., where a lot of people know them mostly for the international mega-hit, "I Touch Myself." I've already written about when that song was ubiquitous on early 1990s radio and MTV as a way to explore generational conflicts that arise when arrogant youth butts heads with humorless maturity.

As great as "I Touch Myself" is (and it is a great song), Divnyls' produced even more incredible songs over their career. An uncle once introduced me to their music and that's when I realized just how good they were. Today, I'm hooked on their addictive sound and the truly unique voice of the late, great Chrissy Amphlett. I'm especially fond of their first two or three albums, containing some of the finest '80s New Wave/pop rock you'll ever hear.

I'll be covering a lot of songs off those early albums. The band seemed to arrive fully formed on their classic debut, Desperate. The album came after the band's debut soundtrack album for the film Monkey Grip and was released with variations in track listings in Australia and the United States, which was common back then. For further reading, I reviewed the U.S./international release of Desperate recently, for Spectrum Culture.

Photograph by Robert Hambling

Which song will kick things off  next time? Will it be "Science Fiction," the lead single off their 1983 full-length debut? Or how about their very first single, "Boys in Town," which predates Desperate? Stay tuned.

Also, a few last words about why I've chosen to start this feature with a band many of you might not know well. First, Divinyls' music brings me enormous joy, and if I can share even a little of that with others, then that seems like a no-brainer. Second, my earlier post reflecting on "I Touch Myself" is, as of this writing, my most popular to date. I think that's a testament to Divnyls' devoted fan base. Which reminds me, I'd like to thank the kind folks in the Chrissy Amphlett & Charlie Drayton Facebook group. Y'all have been especially supportive and your song suggestions for this series are a big help.

As a teaser, here are a few of the songs I'm most eager to cover. This list is fluid, of course.

Boys in Town
Science Fiction
Siren
Only Lonely
Elsie
Ring Me Up
Take a Chance
Temperamental
I'll Make You Happy (cover)
Don't You Go Walking
Good Die Young
Hey Little Boy

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Underrated: Shelley Duvall in The Shining


Admit it: it's nice to have our opinions validated. Those moments are usually uplifting, even invigorating. Recently reading this precise, critical analysis of Shelley Duvall's performance in one of my favorite films, The Shining, was one such moment.

I've always found Duvall to be astonishingly good as Wendy Torrance in The ShiningShe breathes life into a thankless role, giving an absolutely heartbreaking performance as an abused spouse. In the annals of horror, few actors have expressed real, palpable terror any better than Duvall does in the chaotic final act, when tidal waves of blood gush from elevator doors, a man wearing a dog costume suddenly appears, and Jack is maniacally axing his way through the hotel towards her and Danny. That she claws her way out of that timidity and fear to be the hero of the story, fighting for her son's life with every last gasp, is all you need to know, really.

Yet over and over again, for decades, Duvall's been slagged off as "whiny" or "shrill" by one (male) critic and film nerd after another. Valid criticisms, because Wendy is indeed meek and intimidated by her psychologically (and possibly physically) abusive husband. Yet she's also holding it all together because that's what society tells women they must do: make a happy home for their son, keep him protected (from the world and his father), and, above all, don't make her partner upset. Wendy knows the game. She hates it, clearly; there are moments when Duvall gives a subtle tell, a certain look here, or overly fake pitch to her voice there, to reveal just how over it all Wendy really is.

Duvall's performance is one of the finest cinematic portrayals of a woman living in constant fear of a man she once loved, before the abuse started, which is something far too many women in the real world experience every single day.

Monday, May 8, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Polly Jean Meets Ze Monsta


This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

In 1995, Polly Jean Harvey released her third studio album, and first proper solo outing, To Bring You My Love. It received near-universal praise and, while Harvey was already a star, helped elevate her into even greater worldwide stardom. This exceptional album retained elements of the awesomely heavy alt-blues rock sound of Dry and Rid of Me while adding more musical and lyrical textures to the mix. Its songs are about desire and loss, with many of them loaded with Biblical references and imagery. The album felt like a major artistic statement from Harvey at the time and hasn't lost any of its urgency over the years.

During the '95 tour supporting the album, Harvey elevated her live act to new heights as well. She exploded out of her shell, unleashing a new style, charisma, and electricity to her performances that only broadened her appeal. For proof, surf YouTube or look for full-show streams or downloads from that year. She was an absolute beast on that tour, setting aside her guitar to prowl the stage like a panther, moaning and screaming one minute, singing softy and beautifully the next. This video of "Meet Ze Monsta" from the '95 Glastonbury Festival is a perfect example of what made Harvey so appealing during that era: she's absolutely on fire, seemingly able to will herself to do anything, all while making it look organically effortless.


The spectacular pink catsuit!  The glam-rock makeup! The epic hair flips! The mesmerizing dancing! From the first note, she's in constant motion: swaying her hips, prancing with a mischievous confidence, stomping emphatically, crouching down low, springing up like a cat, and slyly smiling with knowing delight throughout. Her band tears into the song too, ratcheting up the already menacing heaviness of the album cut. It's an incendiary and iconic performance.


Iconic is an appropriate adjective to use when discussing Harvey during the To Bring You My Love era. The album and her live shows, including television performances, moved Harvey into the upper echelons or rock. Songs like "Long Snake Moan" and "C'mon Billy" practically seethe with passionate longing, while "Down by the Water" and "To Bring You My Love" are richly expressive and moody dirges infused with a palpable sense of dread. In the slinky slow-groove "Working for the Man," she asks, "Don't you know yet who I am?" and the answer, clearly, is that she can be anyone she wants to be. No longer just the quiet, petite woman from the English countryside who could produce a ferocious racket with her voice and guitar, she was now also achieving a level of performance art often reserved for the most accomplished of rock and pop stars. She was like Jagger, Madonna, and Prince on stage, all rolled into one, except with a modern rock integrity that was unparalleled. Plus, she held onto the smaller-scale charms that made her so intriguing to begin with.


As a faithful devotee for decades—there is no musical artist I love more than her, period—I'm captivated by all of her many musical shifts in style and composition, but this era will always be extra special. In '95, it was clear that she was reaching the big time, which can often signal the apex of an artist's career. Instead, she used it as a springboard to achieve further greatness.

Anyone who's followed Harvey's career knows she's made a habit of taking hard left turns, album after album. That's one of her strengths, and something both critics and fans love most about her. She can create an album of immaculately constructed pop music perfection like Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and then follow that up with the starkly abrasive punk rock of Uh Huh Her. Consequently, her anti-formula is her formula: for more than twenty-five years she's built as unique and diverse a catalog of music as anyone. You can try to compare her to other musicians, but ultimately she's incomparable. In '95, she proved this repeatedly, first with an absolutely killer album, followed by a live act that left audiences awestruck by her beautiful, raw, and explosive performances. After two phenomenal studio albums, plenty of us recognized her as a star. In '95, the rest of the world simply caught up to this fact.

*****

Let's close out with an audio-video salute to PJ Harvey in '95  First, here's an essential hour-long compilation of Harvey's television appearances that year promoting To Bring You My Love.


Here's the full audio from the transcendent 6/24/95 Glastonbury Festival set.


And in case you want to see further video evidence of just how good that Glastonbury set was, here's Polly Jean performing "Long Snake Moan" from the same show.



This one's from 5/11/95 at the Kentish Town Forum in London. The video's a bit dark and the audio's not great, but it's worth checking out because the power of the music and her stage presence still shine through.


Finally, a brief interview with MTV where she discusses her musical evolution, how much she's enjoying using her body to articulate the words on stage now, and how much fun she's having playing dress up with her glamorous new style. She's thoughtful and reserved, providing a fascinating juxtaposition with her vampy and extroverted stage persona of the period.

Monday, May 1, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Falling Down


Joel Schumacher's 1992 film Falling Down has been on my mind a lot lately. It seems to have predicted a certain white-male-as-victim narrative that's playing out all over the United States today. April Wolfe looked back at the film recently for LA Weekly. It's a terrific article, examining both why the film works so well and how that may have contributed to audiences cheering on the main character ("D-Fens," played by a buzz-cut, bespectacled Michael Douglas). Yet, as Wolfe writes, he's clearly the villain, and that's only become more evident over the past twenty-five years.

What I didn't know before reading Wolfe's article was that Schumacher was filming Falling Down concurrently with the L.A. riots, in April '92. The smog in the opening traffic jam sequence? That's actually smoke from the raging fires less than a mile from where cast and crew were filming. Wolfe eloquently notes:
That Falling Down was filmed in L.A. amid the riots is both ironic and telling: D-Fens’ entire narrative is driven by his misconception that he is the true victim, even as he marauds through the city, terrifying fast-food cashiers, construction workers and immigrants — people who have far less privilege than the white, college-educated D-Fens does. The riots, of course, were a reaction to the jury’s and public’s sympathy for the white police officers who beat Rodney King; the cops were portrayed by some media outlets as the real victims with everything to lose, even as King himself suffered unquantifiable brain damage. The film itself is a caricature, but it carries the stain of this reality in every frame.
Wolfe sums up how this misconstrued white male rage against perceived enemies can intensify:
That opening scene — mimicking Fellini’s — is an object lesson in editing tension: A close-up shot of D-Fens’ sweaty upper lip cuts to a Latina child listening to Spanish radio cuts to rowdy children in a school bus draped in the American flag and on to two rich, white assholes yelling into a car phone. Then come insert shots of bumper stickers reading “Financial Freedom?” and “He died for our sins” and “How am I driving — call 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” Full dissertations could stem just from the glimpses we get of a Tropic Sun billboard emblazoned with the company’s 1990 tagline: “White is for laundry.” Schumacher continually zips back to D-Fens to get his agitated reactions to each new outrage in this buffet of symbolism. To be clear, this is the world from D-Fens’ claustrophobic POV — not reality — and the message he thinks he’s receiving is that he’s no longer welcome in this country.
D-Fens and other American men of his ilk feel threatened, even though facts and evidence flatly reject their histrionic misconceptions of reality. Their jobs aren't being stolen by non-whites or "illegals"; the digital age and shifting global socioeconomic factors have combined to create an entirely new landscape, one in which these men can't seem to find footing. So they lash out, blaming everyone else for their misfortune.

In the case of D-Fens, he's suffered enough, to his way of thinking. He abandons his car in traffic, declaring "I'm going home." Wolfe sums up the significance of that reference to home:

Going home becomes a central theme of Schumacher’s film, and as D-Fens travels across Los Angeles, we come to understand that “home” means the past, that simpler, fictitious time politicians invoke when they want to win elections, and pundits hammer on when they want to drum up fear and paranoia.
What follows is a series of disturbing confrontations between D-Fens and those he cannot tolerate: a Korean convenience store owner, fast-food employees, and even a white supremacist. These scenes show Schumacher confounding audience expectations—are we meant to side with D-Fens, or be revolted by him? Clearly, it's the latter, but the film regularly complicate matters. Wolfe explains:
D-Fens, disgusted by overt racism, eventually kills the white supremacist, but only after the man has smashed D-Fens’ daughter’s snow globe (a conspicuously symbolic gift). D-Fens can’t — and won’t — face the fact that he, too, is a caricature of white male rage. He won’t speak the slurs but he’ll seethe with anger when he hears that Korean store owner’s broken English. Today, we might see D-Fens and the white supremacist as the infighting sides of the far right — one couches racism in coded words like “thug,” while the other wants an outright ethnic cleanse. Ultimately, what both want is to return to their idea of a purer America, unburdened by the concerns of minorities and women.
Later we learn more about D-Fens' past with his family. Watching an old VHS tape of his daughter's birthday, we witness his explosive temper, aimed directly at his then-wife and child. This terrifying moment, from that fictionalized, bullshit "purer America"—when he was happily married and gainfully employed—exposes the lie behind his rage, which existed long before his wife left him, or the Korean store owner raised prices. Still, D-Fens is occasionally positioned as a sympathetic antihero in the film, or given more leeway by other characters than he deserves.

There's a reason for that. White men are allowed to express their anger, be abusive to their spouses, lament the loss of a way of life that never actually existed, and blame everyone else for their problems. Despite all of that, they'll continually be afforded more chances to redeem themselves than their female or non-white counterparts. 
If you doubt this, just flip on Fox News, or passively follow the NFL, for example. That some audiences have celebrated D-Fens and his actions is an indictment on a decades-long fomenting of hate and division in our country that certain politicians and media personalities have stoked and exploited in order to win votes or ratings.

Falling Down captured a moment in time: the racially charged powder-keg that was Los Angeles, circa 1992. It also provided an early glimpse at the white male victim lingering on the fringe, a character who would only inch closer to the mainstream over time. Wolfe succinctly points out, "Falling Down remains one of Hollywood’s most overt yet morally complex depictions of the modern white-victimization narrative, one both adored and reviled by the extreme right." That's the scary part: it hasn't lost any of its relevancy and in fact may now be more relevant than ever.