52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK NINE

Week 9: Got Me This Song, Ha Ha Ha Ho
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today



“Ana”
Pixies

Album: Bossanova

1990

4AD


She’s my fave

Undressing in the sun

Return to sea – bye

Forgetting everyone

Eleven high

Ride a wave

–”Ana” Pixies


With Bossanova the Pixies made what might be the best modern day surf record. Considering the band hails from Boston, Mass. this feat is all the more impressive.


My appreciation of the Pixies maturated in waves. When I was younger my father passed on to me a cassette rip of Doolittle that his friend had given him. Up until high school, this was my only window into the band. I didn’t appreciate everything on Doolittle at that young age. Lead singer Black Francis’ exercises in primal scream found on tracks like “Tame” or the frightening lyrics on “I Bleed” warranted pushing the fast-forward button on my Walkman.


As for the rest of Doolittle, however, I liked what I heard.


The Pixies are masters at producing seemingly cool sounds. “Monkey Gone To Heaven” was catchy enough to make me utilize the rewind button, “Silver” was eerie, in an intriguing way, and “Mr. Grieves” was just plain weird with Francis’ menacing laughs opening the fast-paced chaos of the song.


Doolittle was unlike anything I had ever heard at the time, and was almost too much to take in. The album is non-sensical at times–pairing familiar pastime musical genres–surf rock, bubble gum pop, traditional hymns–with bizarre, often terrifying surreal lyrics (read: “Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs” from the rip-roaring opener “Debaser,” which, as I would later discover in college, brilliantly pairs Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel with rock and roll).


Francis’ words aside, the adornment I have for the Pixies and Doolittle has always been attributed to guitarist Joey Santiago’s masterful blending of sound assaulting guitar shredding with Beach Boys era surf rock. While present on all of the band’s records, this style was best put to use on 1990’s Bossanova.


I uncovered the Pixies short, but sweet discography over a long stretch of time. For a long time Doolittle was all I knew (and maybe all I wanted to know). The release of David Fincher’s film Fight Club shed new light on the superb track, “Where Is My Mind,” which ultimately encouraged me to check out both song’s album of origin, 1988‘s Surfer Rosa and also The Pixies debut EP, 1987‘s Come on Pilgrim.


For one reason or another it took another four years, well-into my stint at University, for me to explore Pixies’ latter two efforts, Bossanova and 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Why, you ask? Not sure. Perhaps a band like this should be examined over time.


Attention was first turned to
Bossanova one summer towards the end of University after I raided my cousin’s iTunes music library, which happened to have a handful of random Pixies tunes, including “Ana.”


I remember vividly the moment I first heard the song when it came on while my stereo shuffled through my newly acquired library. I didn’t know at first that it was, in fact, Pixies and Black Francis. The song is a rarity in the band’s canon in that it is the epitome of sleepy beach sounds. If the Beach Boys had ever had a truly menacing trip, they might issued something like this.


Opening with a quick drum crash and build, Santiago’s melodic guitar harmonies come in to set the mood. Enter Francis‘ whispering lyrics as he runs through an acrostic poem about a dreamy surfer girl riding an eleven-foot high wave. Carry the groove on for over two minutes and that’s all she wrote.


The song is dark, fairly simple in its music and lyrics, but intoxicating.


It’s safe to say that before I even ventured through the rest of the tracks on Bossanova I was obsessed with “Ana.” It was like a fix for the addict in me. The song was on damn near every mix CD made during my Junior and Senior year of college, and more often than not when it was played, one singular listening was never enough.


Eventually I bought Bossanova and was blown away, yet again by its offerings. The album’s opener, “Celia Ann,” an obscure cover of a Finnish instrumental surf rock band (?!?!?!) called The Surftones, is perhaps Pixies best album opener, besting Doolittle’s “Debaser” and Surfer Rosa’s “Bone Machine,” respectively, in terms of setting the proper mood for the songs that follow. Bossanova is surf rock, stripped down, run through a wave of distortion and taken to some dark places. It’s surfer rock on peyote.


The album is twisted yet brilliant. Loud and jarring at times, then suddenly and without warning, cool and melodic. Its “girlfriend” series of songs–starting with “Cecilia Ann,” followed by the epic “Velouria,” then the concise, angry “Allison,” and finally ending with “Ana–remain four of the band’s greatest songs.


Deeper cuts like the album’s beautiful closer, “Havalina,” the haunting “Down to the Well” or the insanely-energized cluster fuck of sound that is “Rock Music,” don’t require much adornment but get some nonetheless.


Still if I had to pick a favorite on Bossanova and really, in Pixies’ oeuvre, it would have to be “Ana.” The song is simple but musically packs a lot. It’s a song to unwind to. A song best heard at night. It’s on a short list of my favorite driving songs, and has a truly mesmerizing guitar riff.


When listening to Pixies my ranking of which album is the best slides in direct proportion with Joey Santiago’s guitar meanderings. When I discovered Bossanova it was, for a time, number one. Eventually the ridiculous title undoubtedly returned to Doolittle. When I finally got around to uncovering Trompe le Monde, it was a surprising victor, thanks in large part to its standout masterpiece, “Motorway to Roswell,” a moving tale of an alien visitor’s capture and eventual tomb of experimentation told in a way that only the Pixies could.


Sure both Bossanova and Trompe le Monde showed signs of cracks in the band’s infrastructure, most notably the tenuous relationship between Francis and co-singer/songwriter and bass player, Kim Deal. Many are quick to tag the latter two records, primarily when referring to Monde, as essentially Black Francis AKA Frank Black solo albums. While Deal isn’t as present during these records, they’re very much Pixies efforts, especially when you consider Santiago as an essential part of the band’s unique sound.


In the pantheon of rock and roll the Pixies doesn’t demand much more praise than it already receives. The band influenced an entire genre of music. Its blending of music and surrealism is ingenious and Black Francis is a masterful wordsmith. His songs are dark, violent, funny, bizarre, lovely, and, as the cunning linguist recently said in an interview on NPR’s rock and roll radio show, Sound Opinions, he “likes words for word’s sake.”


“Ana” never ceases to blow my mind. It’s a song that I can always turn to if I want to cap a long night. If I smoked cigarettes I’m guessing it would be my favorite smoking song, especially on a beach with the sound of waves crashing in the background. I’m still waiting for someone to utilize the song in a film soundtrack since, like many Pixies tunes, it feels like a score to a “surf noir” film, if such a genre ever came to life. I can always fall back on a Pixies album to take me away from reality for a bit, even if it’s to a dark, dark place full of “Stormy Weather” or “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey.”


Summed up: if, according to Pixies reasoning, “man is 5, the devil is 6, and God is 7” then Pixies is just shy of a perfect 10.

Returning to the Lost Highway


ImageThe late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch’s films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t.” “Lost Highway,” Lynch’s seventh feature film, does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.


This is the grand trick of David Lynch. While disguised as motion pictures, Lynch’s films are more an exercise of the inner psyche than anything else–a film going experience rather than merely just an entertaining piece of cinema.

Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is undoubtedly part of the reason his works are so polarizing for filmgoers. Neo-noir is a term that has been thrown around when discussing Lynch–an appropriate tag for a handful of his films, mainly Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, but still just the icing on the cake when looking at his canon more closely. Many have applauded Lynch as a master of suspense–a modern day Hitchcock who can make the most unassuming scenes or situations frightening through the masterfully crafted use of sound, lighting, and camera trickery.

To say however that Lynch makes horror films, in the traditional sense of the medium, is like pinning Tarantino down to one sole genre. Lynch has always drawn from a number of influences molding them into a truly one of a kind final product. Lost Highwaymay be Lynch’s closest attempt at true horror but in end is yet another genre bending, mind-blowing experience that tugs at your emotions and senses long after the first viewing.

For the record I have seen Lost Highway at least five times. It’s not because it is a masterpiece, or that I’m some kind of Lynch fanatic (although admittedly I have always garnered a child like fascination for the director’s work) it’s because like all great filmsLost Highway keeps you guessing and pondering long after each viewing. Trying to make sense of a Lynch film is often as pointless as trying to get to the soul of a Pollack painting–it’s best to just let the work suck you into its world.

Like many of Lynch’s works Highway fails to follow the linear formula of the average movie. The first half plays out like a creepy home invasion thriller. Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette play a married couple confronted with a terrifying scenario after finding videotapes on their doorstep every morning featuring footage of their home’s interior and of them asleep in bed (the mere thought of this premise sends shivers down the spine). Both are typical inhabitants of the Lynchian world. He being a jealous, rage filled soul, she being of the sexy femme fatale type.

After Lynch introduces the menacing Mystery Man, a simple but horrifying pale-faced Robert Blake sans eyebrows, the film takes a sharp turn in terms of storyline (a good Lynch film will always have at least one WTF moment that turns the film’s flow upside down, and Lost Highway does this with flying colors at the film’s halfway point).

ImageThe second half of the film follows a completely new character played by Balthazar Getty, a promising young actor during the mid 90s who has since disappeared. Getty’s Pete character may or may not be the reincarnation or alter ego of Pullman’s Fred character, this tasty tidbit is just part of what one must chew on long after the first viewing. The film’s final act is also familiar Lynch territory showing the dark underbelly of society, in this case modern day Los Angeles, a world inhabited by mob bosses, pornography director’s who may or may not also dabble in snuff, and yet another tempting femme fatale, this time with Arquette re-imagined as a blonde.

The allure of Lost Highway is the difficult task of interpreting everything that Lynch throws at the viewer during the film’s two-hour plus run time. Released after the media frenzy of the OJ Simpson trial, many people believe Highway to be a reflection of lust-fueled murder, and escaping the consequences. Some look at it as a more basic example of marital woes including jealous and how these dark emotions will ultimately swallow your soul (the looming mystery man character seems to be a representation of the dark side of the human psyche). Finally careful viewers of Lynch films might view Lost Highway as the surreal nightmare world imagined (and/or lived) by a sinful man.

Lynch has always been interested in the idea of escapism, dream worlds, and then the idea that all surrealism is rooted to a harsh reality. Mulholland Drive was a surreal allegory for the pitfalls of the Hollywood dream and the seedy underbelly of L.A.’s bourgeois society. Blue Velvet and later the masterful Twin Peaks television series showed the evil of small town America, erasing all cliché misconceptions about suburbia and the blue-collar proletariat. Lost Highway is, at its core, about what Lynch views is the modern marriage–filled with jealousy, lust, a lack of communication and trust between spouses and ultimately the wrath that unfolds. Along the way Lynch takes the viewer on a mind-bending roller coaster.

“Lost Highway” is often overlooked amidst the auteur’s more renowned films but it remains one of his most puzzling and definitely his creepiest. While not a horror movie Lost Highway is one of the most suspenseful films out there, creating an uneasy feeling that lasts throughout the film and long after the viewing. Much of this can be attributed to Lynch’s use of light and shadow and the film’s eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Badalamenti’s creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock.

Lost Highway was recently given a formal U.S. DVD after years of being restricted solely to international DVDs and older videotape copies. While one could go fork over ten bucks to see Saw V or any other predictable horror film inhabiting theaters and televisions this Halloween, a trip down Lynch’s Lost Highway will tug at your emotions like no film before it and possibly well into the future, until of course we get the next Lynch experience. The film is not for everyone and requires more focus than what the average popcorn moviegoer might expect but the payoff is worth it and like all great pieces of art (and Lynch has always been an art house auteur) the film keeps you guessing long after the closing credits.

Top Ten Underrated Thrillers

(Article written for starpulse.com in time for Halloween)

Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, and resurgences have come and gone, but one thing remains true: people will always yearn for those cinematic chills.

The demand, however big it may be, is always constant. The golden age of cinema through the 60s brought on big studio monster movies, sly noir thrillers, and of course, Hitchcockian suspense (a subgenre, respectively). The 1970s, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the genre and gave filmgoers some of the best nail biters out there.

The creation of VHS and movie rental houses triggered a massive wave of low-budget, schlock video nasties from across the globe during the 1980s and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, dominated by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films-the Party of Five horror heyday.

Some say the new millennium has been a breath of fresh air for the genre with an overall rise in popularity of no holds barred gore fests (Saw, uh hum, V opens soon) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the “fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx” genre. It could be said that the horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still, over the years (despite a saturated market of genre films) there have been a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time.

The following is a run down of some of the most underrated thrillers out there. Some have a large niche following, others have gone under the radar for too long, but all are worthy of checking out this Halloween season.

Lost Highway – David Lynch, 1997
Lost Highway
Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is part of the reason his work is so polarizing for filmgoers. Lynch does not make horror films in the traditional sense of the genre but he is a master of crafting horrifying scenes and psychologically disturbing stories. “Lost Highway” is often overlooked amidst the auteur’s more renowned films but it remains one of his creepiest. Much of this can be attributed to Robert Blake’s bone chilling portrayal of the Mystery Man-a pale-faced spook with shaved eyebrows and a knack for videotaping people while they sleep. Add this to an eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Baldamenti’s creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock-and menacing cinematography and you get what is not so much a horror movie but rather a surreal, nightmarish, and mind bending viewing experience. The late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch’s films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t.” “Lost Highway” does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.”

Suspiria – Dario Argento, 1977
Suspiria
Dario Argento has always been an atmospheric weaver of gruesome films, which are drenched with stylized cinematic technique. From a storytelling point of view his films are full of plot holes, laughable dialogue and the kind of low-brow over dubbing that was the norm of so many 70s genre flicks. “Suspiria” is no exception. It is, however, one of the most frightening films for the senses. Already an established giallo or crime genre filmmaker, “Suspiria” was Argento’s first foray into the supernatural, blending classic ghost story themes with eye piercing gore. Thanks to a driving score from Euro prog-rockers Goblin and a visionary color and shadow palette, “Suspiria” manages to make some of the most unassuming moments truly hair-raising. A blind man walks a dog in an empty plaza, the protagonist is awoken to a spine chilling wheezing sound, even the creepy Bavarian dance school where the film is set carries the kind of unsettling gothic feel to arise suspicion during the daylight scenes. A possible remake is in talks with indie filmmaker David Gordon Green at the helm, but nothing will ever come close to capturing the brutal suspense of Suspiria.

Jacob’s Ladder – Adrian Lyne, 1990
Jacob's Ladder
Lyne is often painted as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like Fatal Attraction andUnfaithful but his true masterpiece is this little psychological thriller. Tim Robbins (in one of his best performances) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and uncover some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and true-life conspiracy theories regarding government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh but it should be noted that one of many horrific dream sequences set in a hellish hospital ward remains one of the most frightening sequences on celluloid.

The Fly – David Cronenberg, 1986
The Fly
To be fair Cronenberg’s gross-out remake of a mediocre, late-50s Vincent Price sci-fi vehicle is widely considered to be one of the best monster films of time. Those who view it as just that are missing Cronenberg’s true raison d’etre. The film is an allegory for themes of madness, romantic jealousy, the pitfalls of modern science, the deterioration of the human anatomy (flesh has long been one of Cronenberg’s many twisted fascinations) and even abortion and fear of childbirth (as seen through a truly horrifying larvae labor sequence). Then again it also lives up to its clichéd monster movie tagline of, “be afraid, be very afraid.” An operatic stage re-imagining of the film is in the works but there is no replacing Cronenberg’s grotesque but strangely poetic vision of modern day horror.

The Descent – Neil Marshall, 2005
The Descent
Amidst a slew of procedural teen slasher flicks, remakes of Asian ghost stories, and countless torture porn gore fests there are a handful of modern day horror films that have joined the ranks of some of the staple horror classics. “The Descent” is one of these recent examples. Tagged as the ultimate spelunking nightmare film, “The Descent” is a one of a kind terrifying experience that taps into that exhilarating emotion of fear-fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of tight spaces, fear of heights, etc. Sure the film features subterranean Gollum like monsters brutally terrorizing a group of fearless cave explorers, but the real horror comes in the films claustrophobic moments (an homage to Alien) as the characters descend deeper into the crevices of the unknown. By the time the monster element to the story arrives halfway into the film the viewer is already exhausted from the nail biting climbing sequences and that mounting sense of unavoidable doom that the protagonists are soon to face. See also Marshall’s premiere outing, Dog Soldiers, a smart little werewolf flick shot in Scottish forests.

Wait Until Dark – Terrence Young, 1966
Wait Until DarkOne might not consider the oh-so-dainty Audrey Hepburn as being a horror movie icon but witnessing her shear brilliance in Wait Until Dark changes on all common misconceptions. Adapted to film (the original text was a play) during the grand old days of simply told tales of suspense, Dark is horrifying account of trust, loneliness and overcoming a physical disadvantage during harsh times. Hepburn stars as the blind tenant of a dimly lit basement apartment who is drawn into a home invasion scheme perpetrated by a gang of drug smugglers trying to track down some lost goods. The storyline is not without its flaws but the film is all about moments of intense shock, often shot in the dark. When the film was released theater patrons around the country killed the house lights during crucial moments of terror on screen as a neat little gimmick to enhance the experience. While not as grisly as the horror of today, this is film is an essential viewing for Hitchcock enthusiasts and those who like jumping out of their seats.

Repulsion – Roman Polanski, 1965
RepulsionPolanski is generally credited for Rosemary’s Baby, an essential in the genre, respectively but two of his lesser known works, 1976s The Tenant and “Repulsion,” remain his unspoken masterpieces. Repulsion is, above all, a disturbing look at psychological trauma induced by sexual angst. The film was the first in what has now been coined Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” (“Baby” and The Tenant completed the run) due to its characters trip to madness in a confined space. “Repulsion’s” Carol (played by a very young Catherine Deneuve) is trapped inside a surreal world of paranoia, ill thoughts of her sister’s sexual habits and some external threats from male visitors. A scene involving a dark hallway with hands suddenly reaching out through the walls, boxing our protagonist in, is one of the film’s many unexpected scares.

Session 9 – Brad Anderson, 2001
Session 9Director Brad Anderson may be one of the most underappreciated thriller filmmakers working today. His most recent film, Transsiberian, is a sly “fear of travel” picture set largely on a confined Soviet train en route from China to Moscow and 2004s The Machinist (featuring one ofChristian Bale’s finest performances to date) was the type of twisty psychological thriller that someone like M. Night Shyamalan wishes he was still making. Session 9 remains one of the best modern ghost stories that actually avoids the supernatural. Set inside an extremely creepy and perfectly chosen mental hospital this film is dripping with atmospheric frights. The camera follows a group of asbestos removers as they roam the abandoned wards and discover secrets from the hospital’s twisted past, while also uncovering their own personal mysteries. Anderson is all about building a feasible story (in this case one part Poltergeist one part Blair Witch) and then destroying all preconceptions towards the climax. The scenes filmed at night (in that nauseating handheld camerawork style) are certain to draw unease no matter how well seasoned you are at scary movies.

The Begotten – E. Elias Merhige, 1991
The BegottenArguably the most obscure films on this list, “The Begotten” is a visually horrifying but fascinating piece of the avant-garde that is, dare I say, biblical horror. God, Mother Earth, mortal man, and evil humanoids make up the dialogue-free story, which plays out as a twisted end of days scenario with the self-induced death of God opening the film. If you thought the deadly videotape featured in The Ring was creepy, “The Begotten” may or may not be for you. From a filmmaking standpoint E. Elias Merhige’s film is one of those cinematic achievements that is both dazzling and disturbing. To this day there is nothing that even remotely matches the film’s lasting effects. Shot in grainy black and white and then painstakingly altered and deconstructed during editing (Merhige has said that each minute of the film took ten hours of alteration to create the signature, almost primitive look), “The Begotten” is a mystery of a film with unforgettable nightmarish imagery. Merhige would eventually follow his masterpiece up with the interesting but overly preachy Shadow of a Vampire and the disappointing psychological serial killer vehicle Suspect Zero.Marilyn Manson enthusiasts will see much of “The Begotten” in the equally creepy music video for the song “Cryptorchid,” which Merhige helmed.

Them – David Moreau, 2006
While the international horror scene is currently favoring all films coming out of the “Extreme Asian” movement of Japan, Hong Kong and S. Korea (a subgenre which has grown rather tired thanks to recycled themes and Americanized remakes), some of the truly best thrillers are being made by the French. Them (or Ils in its native tongue) is the ultimate home invasion thriller. Set deep in the woods of Romania (always an effective setting for horror) the film involves a French couple being plagued by a group of hooded evildoers who raid the large farm house and make lots of goose bump inducing noises along the way. The focus on silence interrupted by man made sounds (party noisemakers never sounded freakier) is part of this film’s charm not to mention the director’s knack for crafting quick, jump out of the shadow scares. Clocking in at a surprisingly appropriate 77-minutes, this film benefits from edge of your seat tension that erupts in the film’s opening and carries through to the end.


Once Upon a Time…


Many artists have tackled the leap from music video filmmaking to full-length features, with few successfully making the change. Music videos, like film shorts, carry the luxury of not relying on solid narrative but rather focusing almost solely on stunning visuals.


Take your pick of some of the greats–Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Ferris, David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry, to name a few–all made sly transitions from artistic music shorts to acclaimed feature films by bringing along their unique artistic visions and pairing it with good, old fashioned story telling. Then there’s Tarsem Singh (most commonly referred to simply as Tarsem), the Indian born music video and commercial director whose second film, a sophisticated, beautifully imagined but ultimately flawed fairy tale called The Fall, is currently enjoying a limited release, two years after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.


Tarsem jumped on the scene after directing the award winning video for R.E.M.’s hit single, “Losing My Religion” in 1991. You might remember it as the video in which Michael Stipe waves his hands a lot while an emotionless Peter Buck somberly strums a mandolin. Actually this video and many other commercials helmed by Tarsem, feature a unique style of lighting, set and costume design, and an overall artistic vision seldom see in music videos.


The director made his feature debut back in 2000 with the visually stunning but mediocre psychological thriller, The Cell.The film starred a still up and coming Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn and benefited from eye-opening and highly imaginative effects but was ultimately weighed down by an uninspired script.


The Fall is a film that took a little over four years to make and was filmed in 28 different countries damn near spanning the globe, including India, Argentina, Indonesia, China, Egypt, South Africa, Romania, and the Czech Republic, among others. Much of the film was financed by Tarsem himself and above all seems to be a personal dream project that the director has been conjuring up in his imagination for a long time. Unfortunately the film, like its predecessor, excels in its stunning visual beauty but falls short due to shoddy acting by a cast of no-name players and dialogue that at times is laughable.


It’s a shame that The Fall managed to get bogged down in something as trivial as the script but then again, therein lies the fine line between visually acute music video directors and feature filmmakers–story and substance must be as important as what the viewer sees. The Fall had the potential to be one of the great modern day fairy tales, a wonderful genre that has almost become extinct amongst the slew of Hollywood blockbusters, remakes and super hero adaptations.


ImageTarsem no doubt envisioned The Fall as an extravagant way to transport audiences into the tender imagination of a child–the stuff that the best fairy tales are made of. Technically set “once upon a time” in Los Angeles during World War I, The Fall tells a story of a stunt man whose heart (woman) and body (accident) are broken. Stuck in a hospital bed he finds comfort telling a wild tall tale of bandits and magic to an innocent little Romanian girl who unfolds the story in her mind and for the viewers delight.


The story itself is a bit simple, albeit predictable, dealing with fairy tale staples like revenge, love, an evil emperor, and a slew of colorful heroes. Told in the classic “an you were there, and you were there,” Wizard of Oz manner, The Fall is undoubtedly the result of one filmmaker’s nostalgic love of escaping to dazzling worlds via the magic of motion pictures. It has everything going for it and carries the potential to be one the great modern day fairy tales had the director focused more attention on the dialogue and laughable cast.


Watching The Fall is a treat for the eyes and it brings up memories of countless other memorable fairy tales that no matter how they age never cease to electrify the imagination. There are the classics such as, The Wizard of Oz or Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride to more recent greats like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s City of Lost Children, Guillermo Del Toro’sPan’s Labyrinth, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (or the equally great Howl’s Moving Castle).


Then there are the early films of Terry Gilliam, particularly Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which it’s safe to say influenced Tarsem in terms of brining to life mature tall tales. Gilliam was one of the pioneers of the adult themed fairy tale with films that were eye opening for adults and children alike while maintaining a link to realities of modern life.


Visually The Fall showcases our planet’s natural beauty in an entirely authentic manner, without the reliance of computer generated background effects. It’s no wonder the film took a whopping four years to complete. Watching the film is as much about trekking the globe in search of the perfect panoramic shot, the perfect temple, the perfect island, the perfect mountain, you name it, as it is about watching the fairy tale unfold.


Certain shots and sets pay homage to surrealists like Dalí or naturalists like Winslow Homer, while the costume work is reminiscent of the old Hollywood big budget epics. Finally the pristine cinematography of the natural surroundings brings to mind naturalist films such as Baraka, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, and most recently BBC’s Planet Earth mini series, not to mention filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick.


Coming from a man who spent most of his career dolling up Nike and Levis ads or encouraging Michael Stipe to wiggle for the camera, The Fall is an impressive sophomore release for a director who is just shy of becoming one of the more visually brilliant filmmakers working today. With his third film, an intriguing sounding thriller called The Unforgettable slated for a 2011 release, Tarsem is a promising filmmaker to keep an eye on.


Side note: While The Fall is hardly a flawless film it is definitely worth seeing and deserves to be experienced on the big screen. Like most small films with limited releases it will not be around for long.

The European Canon is Here


During 1975 David Bowie’s body weight lingered between a frightening 80 and 90 pounds, rivaling that of even the lightest of jockeys. It is said that his diet consisted of milk, the occasional indulgence of plain vanilla ice cream, and the finest cocaine a decadent life in Los Angeles could bestow. His life had become a haze of paranoia fueled by a heavy dependency on drugs (he also dabbled in amphetamines) and an unhealthy fascination with the occult. 

While The Thin White Duke (his self-appointed title/persona at the time) was on the brink of a serious physical and mental breakdown he was also about to embark on arguably his most innovative and bizarre creative periods in not only his career but in rock and roll history. 

Much has been written about Bowie’s many reptilian musical transformations over the years but few rock historians have meticulously examined the musician’s late 1970s flight to Western Europe.

As far as rock and roll books go Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town is about as good as it gets. It is a comprehensive look at Bowie’s experimental escapades in and around the once divided city that strays away from the clichés of the modern rock biography. The book is the newest edition to a budding series of tomes from Jaw Bone Press chronicling notable musical periods–the first documented Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes period with The Band. Author Thomas Jerome Seabrook is hardly the first author to tackle Bowie but rather than put out a biographical retelling of the artist’s various incarnations over the years the author takes on his most curious and often misunderstood era. 

Prior to Bowie’s mid-70s stint of drugs and debauchery the artist had already changed the face of rock and roll on more than one occasion. He brought androgyny to the forefront of popular music, helped jumpstart glam rock, and coined the term plastic soul by blending his former sounds with the likes of Philly R&B and Soul, first with Diamond Dogs and more successfully with Young Americans. He even made his first foray into acting via the possibly biographical role as an alien in the cult sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He managed to do all this before the age of 30.

At a time when Bowie seemed to have the world at his fingertips–international stardom, high selling pop records, critical acclaim–the artist moved in a completely unexpected direction both musically and personally.

Seeing a need for a major life change Bowie headed for Western Europe, first to Switzerland and eventually Berlin to clean up his act. In one of Bowie’s many career acts of kindness he also coaxed ex-Stooges frontman Iggy Pop into joining him. Pop himself had established a far more severe drug dependency than Bowie and was also in dire need of a career jumpstart (prior to Berlin Bowie had already pushed Lou Reed to start his solo career when he produced Reed’s Transformer).

Most music fans (or at least Bowie fans) are familiar with Bowie’s unofficial “Berlin Trilogy” of albums–1977s Low, and “Heroes”, and 1979s Lodger–recorded with Brian Eno during the late 70s. Few may be realize that besides recording three radically different art rock albums Bowie co-wrote and produced two Iggy Pop solo albums (the grim proto punk of The Idiot and a return to Stooges form in Lust for Life), starred in a film, organized a couple European tours and even managed to narrate an audio version of HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Prokofiev”Sergei Prokofiev’s HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_and_the_Wolf”Peter and the Wolf, you know, for the kids. A busy two years and an extraordinary close to a career high decade. In many ways both Pop records, primarily The Idiot, served as testing grounds for Bowie’s vision of where his own music was headed and are as much, if not more, Bowie’s records than they are Pop’s (for the research of the book Seabrook discovered that most of the music for The Idiot was written by Bowie with Pop merely stepping in for his signature impromptu lyrical flowing).

ImageThere are those who dismiss Bowie for his glamorous showmanship and over the top publicity stunts (to be fair the stage elements of the glam rock movement aren’t for everyone). What’s most fascinating about Bowie’s late 70s projects is that he traded the glamour for artistic acclaim and a chance to give listeners a glimpse of the future of music.

Gone were the elaborate costumes and fluorescent hairdos. The disco sounds were replaced by slow building instrumental symphonies and rhythmically complex fragments of songs drenched in production experimentation. Even Bowie’s lyrics, which once wove tales of cosmonauts and paid homage to musical idols, now took on a starker realism with references to new age art and social politics–mainly the division in Eastern Europe brought on in the shadow of the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain.

In his book Seabrook draws a number of comparison to contemporary musicians holding Bowie’s Berlin period in the highest of regards. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor often cites Bowie’s Low and later Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) as inspirations for his electronic noise compositions. It’s also hard to deny the comparison made by Seabrook between Bowie’s experiments and that of Radiohead. 

Both changed the face of rock with pinnacle albums and decided to follow the newfound success with radically polarizing ventures into experimental art rock. The fact that Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac were recorded and released back to back in a short period of time only furthers this argument when looking at Bowie’s ’77 release of both Low and “Heroes”. One could go even farther to argue that Bowie’s less adorned/misunderstood trilogy conclusion, Lodger in 1979, was received with the same “so-so” feelings as Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief

It’s easy to overlook how influential and fascinating Bowie’s 70s decade must have seemed to music fans at the time. Very few musicians or bands can accomplish as much as Bowie did in a single decade, let alone continue to shed his musical skin along the way. Seabrook’s retelling of Bowie’s European period also serves as a reminder to what has become of Bowie since Berlin.

As the years went on the space between album releases grew and the quality of music diminished, especially in the 80s. Many say the artist’s last true masterpiece was 1980s Scary Monsters, which at the time must have sounded like a promising start to a new decade (it as shortly followed by another, more profound wave of mega stardom with the ultra poppy Let’s Dance).

In the 90s Bowie reunited with Brian Eno for the fan favorite 1.Outside, the first of what was proposed to be another Bowie/Eno trilogy of concept albums. Instead he followed with a string of decent but not spectacular modern sign of the time records. It should be noted that Bowie is currently in his longest stretch without a major record release with 2003s Reality being his last contribution. While rumors continue to fly about a new record or the leak of formally unreleased material, Bowie future remains a mystery.

It could be that Bowie has officially jumped the shark in terms of releasing monumental records but it’s important to remember how much of driving force Bowie once was. Ten albums plus countless side projects in ten years is a feat few musicians even dream about now and days but Bowie managed to pull it of during the 70s with a number of the records being christened masterpieces. And who knows, perhaps the Thin White Duke still has a couple more musical visions left in him. 


The Best Films You’ll Never See


For every movie that makes it to the big screen there are hundreds of other projects or ideas that never reach production, let alone an actually release. Budget issues, lack of major star power, legal conundrums, constant script rewrites, political strife with major studios, whatever the reasons may be, there are countless cases of potentially major films that never see the light of day. 

Recently I read an article about Michel Gondry’s (one of the more interesting directors working today) proposed next project falling through. Set to direct an adaptation of Rudy Rucker’s novel, Master of Space and Time, a story that chronicles two mad scientists quest to control time, Gondry has supposedly moved on thus leaving the film’s future questionable.

The story is supposedly prime material for Gondry’s knack for surrealism and interests in bending the line between dreams and reality. Still the film, at least Gondry’s version, seems destined to join the long list of films you’ll never get to see. Below is a short-list of what I feel are some of the best examples. Some are projects that were simply too big or problematic to be completed. Some are alternate versions of pre-existing classics. All have gone down in history as some of the best films never made.

Kubrick’s Epics

Steven Spielberg once said in an interview that he was shocked that Stanley Kubrick passed away at 70 because he had expected the director to make his magnum opus well into his 80s, similar to Japanese great Akira Kurosawa’s late masterpiece Ran. The truth is Kubrick had been toying with a number of potentially epic films throughout his career, most notably a grandiose and highly detailed biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte with Jack Nicholson set to star. The film was originally to follow 2001: A Space Odyssey, then later during the time between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket but somehow never developed. Many speculate that the film’s scope and more importantly its budget was just too big. Some believe the coinciding release of the epic film adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and the film Waterloo played into the projects delay. Others believe the major studio system shot the idea down. 

What little is known about the project comes from Kubrick’s estate, which featured countless articles, books and roughly 25,000 note cards chronicling day-to-day happenings of France’s notorious tyrant. Rumor has it Kubrick even had ties with the Romanian army, which was going to lend the ambitious filmmaker roughly ten thousands soldiers for extensive battle sequences. 

It’s possible that Kubrick spent much of his life dwelling on this one project. Add this to Kubrick’s original vision of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (another project he supposedly worked on for much of his life) and a proposed Holocaust film calledThe Aryan Papers that was scrapped around the same time as Schindler’s List and you have a director who still had some tricks up his sleeve before his untimely departure. 

Tackling Cervantes

One of the most fascinating film projects that failed to launch on a number of occasions was the adaptation of the Spanish literary giant Don Quixote. Following Citizen Kane Orson Welles was attached to the project and actually shot a great deal of footage but the project eventually fell through due to Welles’ reliance on independent filmmaking and the death of the film’s star. Welles continued editing the film throughout his lifetime and was supposedly set to complete the film before his death in 1985. Unfortunately much of the footage was eventually lost and what little was left was released in the early 90s as an incomplete version of the film directed by smut filmmaker Jesus Franco. (It should be noted that Welles was notorious for having countless other projects under way during his career. Another notable example was a proposed adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was later loosely adapted by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now)

In 2000 director Terry Gilliam took on the Quixote tale and added his own modern twist. The project entitled, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, eventually crashed and burned due to countless obstacles during the production, including, yet again, a serious injury inflicted on the film’s star. At the time the film boasted to have one of the largest budgets of any film shot in entirely in Europe (roughly $40 million) and Gilliam had admitted that it would be his most ambitious project to date. In 2002 a fascinating documentary, Lost in La Mancha, was released chronicling the film’s rise and fall.

More Terry Gilliam
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is just one of many films that Gilliam failed to complete. His most recent effort, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was put on hiatus after the unexpected death of its star, Heath Ledger but is not back on board. Gilliam once tackled another literary opus, The Tale of Two Cities, originally with Mel Gibson (he dropped out to direct Braveheart) and then Liam Nesson (not a big enough star according to the studio) on board to star. Ultimately the film fell apart due to conflicts with the studio financing the project (money has never seemed to agree with Gilliam’s creativity). During the early 90s he twice attempted to get Alan Moore’s monumental graphic novel Watchmen made into a film and was J.K. Rowling’s first pick to helm the first Harry Potter film, The Philosopher’s Stone. Fans of Gilliam might also be interested to know that he’s long had a script for a Time Bandits sequel floating around, another possible classic destined to go to his grave

From Star Wars to Dune to Blade Runner

Often times films shuffle around the creative players with projects often going through multiple scripts and different visionaries. George Lucas had always expressed his admiration for surrealist David Lynch, particularly his film Eraserhead, and at one point tried to woo him towards the director’s chair of Return of the Jedi (originally titled Revenge of the Jedi). Lynch instead ended up taking the helm of another sci-fi epic, the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. 

Dune itself went through many different incarnations. In the 1970s epic filmmakers David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) and Alejandro Jodorowsky were both set to take on the novel. Jodorowsky was very close to making a version starring Mr. Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and, get this, Salvador Dalí as the emperor. If Jodorowsky’s version would have gone through it is said Pink Floyd would have provided music for the soundtrack. Later in the 80s before Lynch finally took the reins Ridley Scott was attached to direct (he would go on to later direct Blade Runner and Alien shortly after).

ImageThe Best of the Rest 
Dalí Disney Project: 
Around the same time painter Salvador Dalí was collaborating with fellow surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchock he began storyboarding an animated short film for Walt Disney entitled Destino. The film remained as just that–a vision and a collection of drawings and test animation footage–until 2003 when it was finally completed by a group of animators with the blessings of Roy Disney for use in the never finalized Fantasia 2006. NOTE: The film was eventually released for film festivals and briefly played before the filmCalendar Girls during its theatrical release. The original Dalí incarnation will never truly be imagined on screen though. 

Stalingrad: Italian Spaghetti Western auteur Sergio Leone was hard at work at the end of the 1980s on a film chronicling the siege at Stalingrad during World War II. With a supposed large budget of over $100 million, half funded by Americans, half by Russians with Robert De Niro in line to star, this project might have been Leone’s final epic masterpiece.

Kaleidoscope: Hitchcock’s Darkest Film: After Alfred Hitchcock hit a low point in the mid 60s after his film Marnie failed to capture the same suspense as previous endeavors he began work on a radically different script about a violent killer who dabbled in necrophilia. Much to the dismay of studio execs Hitchcock wanted the film to be shot from the POV of the killer, he was keen on utilizing more experimental or “European” filmmaking techniques, and also planned for an elaborate death sequence involving an acid bath. The 60s title was originally Kaleidoscope, however, after the film failed to get a go-ahead from any studio, despite Hitchcock’s plan to film with a miniscule budget, aspects of the story were eventually fleshed out a decade later on screen in 1976s Frenzy

Cronenberg: A Curious History of Violence

Tackling Cronenberg’s Canon


There are only a handful of directors working today who, thanks to an extremely distinctive cinematic style and an unparalleled repertoire behind them, have created their own personal subgenre of film. Surrealist auteurs David Lynch and Terry Gilliam, new wave hipsters Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson, post-modernist European art house filmmakers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Pedro Almodóvar, and indie legends the Coen Brothers come to mind. Few directors though have had as curious and diverse a career as the Canadian born psychological film weaver, David Cronenberg.

Last week marked the opening of Cronenberg’s 16th feature film, the harsh but mesmerizing Eastern Promises, which is not only one of the director’s finest contributions yet but also a film that proves that his broad range and natural maturation as a filmmaker continues to pay off.

There are a number of certainties one can expect walking into a Cronenberg film. The film score will no doubt be contributed by longtime Cronenberg musical muse, Howard Shore, the chances of scenes of the grotesque generally involving gore, mutilation, deformation, or unnervingly realistic violence are high, there will no doubt be an underlying fascination with the human body, mind alterations via drug use, and sexual curiosity pulsing through the film’s veins, and above all viewers will be drawn deep into the harsh and sometimes surreal realms of the human psyche, even just for 90 minutes.

To truly appreciate and possibly understand Cronenberg’s unique style it is important to know his roots. Beginning as a TV filmmaker in Canada, Cronenberg spent the early part of his career focusing on low-budget horror schlock. Films such as 1975’s Shivers (a sci-fi B-grade horror film dealing with infectious parasites, sex fanatics, and of course gross out violence), 1977s Rabid (a medically themed zombie film starring a then famous female porn star thespian) and his cult favorite 1981’s Scanners (a film that Garth in Wayne’s World sums up nicely as the one where “that dude’s head blows up!”) are sub par in comparison to his later works but were no doubt important to his cinematic growth.

After the low-budget, but still fairly fascinating and ‘ahead of their time’ gross out horror lineup, Cronenberg broadened his style in this niche genre taking on socially conscious themes and focusing more on suspense than merely gore. The Brood showed the director’s true thriller chops and ability to get the most out of his actors thanks to a standout performance by the late great English actor Oliver Reed. In Scanners and 1983’s Videodrome Cronenberg explored science fiction, the latter also serving as a fascinating commentary on pop culture, violence in the media and the negative effects of television addiction, a theme that is still relevant today.

Then there was The Fly, a remake of a horror classic that truly helped land Cronenberg as an auteur with a promising future. The film paid homage to classic horror themes, particularly the mad scientist, Frankenstein storyline, utilized beautifully grotesque and realistic special effects and makeup (watching it today it’s still hard not to cringe at the bizarre sights Cronenberg dishes out), and stellar acting performances by Gina Davis (still her best role to date) and the distinguished Jeff Goldblum.

While The Fly remains one of Cronenberg’s landmark films it was 1988’s Dead Ringers, arguably his career masterpiece, that allowed the director to branch out yet again into drama, psychological thriller and above all tragedy. Fueled by a riveting performance or should I say performances by Jeremy Irons (curiously overlooked by the Oscars) playing twin gynecological surgeons whose psychological equilibrium is challenged by themes of lust, love, paranoia and drug use. The film was a radical 180 from The Fly or any of its predecessors, save Videodrome, but still managed to standout as a Cronenberg film thanks to the director’s ongoing fascination with the human body, medicine, mutation and a number of gruesome bloodstained visuals.

Cronenberg’s 90’s career was just as notable, again showing cinematic growth but is often overlooked. His bizarre adaptation of the puzzling William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch again explored drug use and paranoia with the weirdness and surreal vision that the story needed. M. Butterfly, a stage to film adaptation set in China circa the 1960’s, was a radical departure for Cronenberg tapping into the realms of quiet melodrama and romance but was done was a level of grace that again showed the director’s range.

The sexually controversial 1996 indie sleeper Crash (not to be confused with Paul Haggis’ Oscar winning film) was panned by critics, had a limited release due to its NC-17 rating when in reality it is a fascinating look at psychological and possibly perverse sexually fascinations that is really a clever allegory for any of humankind’s many obsessions and addictions.

The new millennium brought on yet another Cronenberg persona this time straying away completely with his horror and science fiction roots and focusing almost exclusively on dramas in which characters tackle their inner demons, troubled pasts, and unforgiving realities. The brilliant but under-appreciated Spider featured a brilliant performance from a Ralph Fiennes that was completely overlooked again due to limited distribution. It wasn’t until 2005’s A History Of Violence that Cronenberg truly returned to the forefront.

The film marked the first collaboration with Viggo Mortensen, a wonderfully versatile actor who, through his work with Cronenberg, is successfully shedding his majestic Lord of the Rings typecast. Adapted from a graphic novel, the story of revenge and redemption divided audiences (always a good thing in my opinion) due to a clever tongue-in-cheek script and standout scenes of sex and violence but is not to be missed.

Eastern Promises like all of Cronenberg’s films is not for everyone but it is a sophisticated and in many ways an important look at the realities of the mafia and the underground international prostitution market coming out of Russia and the former Soviet satellite states. The Cronenberg experience can be grueling for some. His use of violence has always been realistic and in-your-face. Tapping into the human psyche is not for casual filmgoers but for those looking to be challenged by films that aren’t afraid to tackle themes seldom explored in celluloid then Cronenberg’s impressive gamut is one to be explored.