Friday, July 29, 2016

Friday Music Post Return!

Off on my journeys last week, through the hills and woods of northern New England. Fun times, but no blogging, not even a Friday random ten.

I had a moment of sheer terror yesterday though. I could not find my iPod: I didn't think too much of it - I did a lot of packing and unpacking in the last week or so, so it could be anywhere - but then I remembered: I had it on the train - I put it in the slip on the back of the seat in front of me - what if I didn't take it out?

The thought was shocking enough I had to sit down. I tried to remember - I thought I remembered unpacking it when I got home, but I moved so much stuff around, I couldn't trust any memories like that. It was terrifying - it's a 160gb iPod - those things don't exist. There's a lot of music on there - losing it would be truly traumatic. So I scoured the place again when I got home - looking in every bag, ever drawer, under ay clothes or papers or anything that could be hiding it - I didn't find it. I started to despair.

And then found it - on the floor, behind the cat's scratching post. A moment of desperate relief, that one.


1. Public Image Limited - The Room I am In
2. The Beatles - Piggies
3. Gomez - These Three Sins
4. Pere Ubu - Cry, Cry, Cry
5. The Kills - Getting Down
6. Mogwai - Hexon Bogon
7. Will Butler - Witness
8. Richard Thompson - Stumble On
9. Cheap Trick - Surrender
10. Liars - The Overachievers

Video - here's Gomez:

And the Kills:

And finally, any reason to post some Cheap Trick is a good one:

Friday, July 15, 2016

Thinking about What a Friend Had Said

(I put this post off last week because of the shootings in Dallas; yesterday, someone drove a truck into a crowd in Nice, on Bastille day. How long, how long... Well, Neil Young started out in the middle of chaos, and has always addressed it directly, so he's going up. What can you do?)

For this month's band of the month, let us go north of the border, and Neil Young. I've mentioned this a couple other times, but when I started writing this, I was amazed to see how few of his records I actually have on the computer. It's one of the artifacts of FM radio in the late 70s and 80s: these classic rock bands who got played to death - 4 or 5 songs from their best 4, 5, 6 records - to the point that you forget what you have and don't have. I had to go on to iTunes to get Southern Man on the computer just now - I've never noticed I didn't have it...

That's all right. The broader point is that old Neil has been at it a very long time, all of it solid, great swatches of it magnificent - I have not kept up for most of that career, dipping in and out of the new releases, and picking off the old classics when I can. Like Dylan, like Bowie, like Prince even, I haven't done justice to his career. A bunch of records, some of which I have listened to obsessively at times (a friend in college had Live Rust, and we went through that a few times, beginning to end, as I have since) - a bunch of songs on the radio - but a vast catalogue I have barely touched. So - well, we're into that stage of this series, I am afraid...

It is all right. He does have an impressive body of work. It's interesting, of course - being split into a couple fairly distinct streams: the hard rockers - the country rock - with a handful of songs that slide around the edges, like After the Gold Rush - folk, I suppose, but, really - hymns, right? that is basically a hymn... though even the rockers sometimes are basically hymns - the Unplugged version of Like a Hurricane comes to mind - sounding as natural on a pump organ as Rock of Ages does. They are all fairly simple, straightforward songs - always lyrically compelling, of course - and always played and sung with conviction. He bites into his songs, singing or paying - milking everything he can get from his voice and guitar. He isn't exactly a great singer - but he knows exactly how to use his voice to serve the songs. And as a guitarist, he can get as much from as little as anyone. That droned guitar solo on Cinnamon Girl, the album version especially, is as simple and as powerful as it gets. And I can listen to his epics all day - Like a Hurricane, Cowgirl in the Sand - he's always rewarding.

And finally - I have to say, he writes songs that inspire people. He's been endlessly influential, and inspired some really outstanding covers, from all across the rock spectrum. He's one of the greats.

All right - songs: Top 10:

1. After the Gold Rush
2. Like a Hurricane
3. Cinnamon Girl
4. The Needle of the Damage Done
5. Cowgirl in the Sand
6. Sedan Delivery
7. Ohio
8. Hey Hey My My
9. Heart of Gold
10. Southern Man

Video? Start before the beginning - Buffalo Springfield, miming back in the 60s:

Audio only of Cinnamon Girl, live, 1970, featuring the magnificent Danny Whitten behind Young:

The Needle and the Damage Done, on the Johnny Cash show:

Like a Hurricane, Live Rust:

And Southern Man, with CSN, in 2000:

And 3 songs from last year - After the Gold Rush, Hey Hey My My, and Helpless:

Perhaps a cover or two - starting with the pride of New Jersey, juicing up Sedan Delivery:

And Built to Spill, a band that seems built on the ghosts of Neil Young guitar anthems, doing Cowgirl in the Sand:

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Plan 9 From Outer Space

Cross posted to Wonders in the Dark, as part of their Science Fiction Countdown.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is the poster child for a lot of things. Worst film of all time? So bad it's good? Or more positively, as a piece of 0 budget filmmaking, and all that can go into that. But today, I want to write a bit about it as the poster child for the Limits of Intention.

Sorry that sounds so pretentious. But this is the point: that it is a hugely entertaining film, and while a lot of the entertainment value comes from mocking it, it's not just ineptitude that makes it fun - there are some surprisingly clever ideas in there, though you can't always be sure if they are supposed to be there. The film, even in a so-bad-its-good sense, holds its entertainment value. It is strange - see it a few times, and it might occur to you (it certainly occurs to me) that if you took the film as being deliberately made the way it is, as a parody, or as camp, or even as a low budget, slyly raw art film, it wouldn't look much different than it does. Think about parodies, camp, art films - films like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra or Sleeper, or Killer Klowns from Outer Space - or films by John Waters, Luc Moullet, Guy Maddin: what makes those good films in themselves, and Plan 9 not? Knowing what the filmmakers had in mind, basically. How different would Plan 9 look if it were intended as a deliberate parody? If you ignore the fact that Ed Wood was a real guy with a real career who made films as he did without that kind of explicit parodic intention - if you just accepted that he knew exactly what he was doing - would it be better? even that much different?

I don't think it would be all that different - and if you didn't know anything about Ed Wood, I'm not sure it would be too hard to make a case he meant it like that. It works perfectly well if you say he was Guy Maddin before the fact, instead of saying, he was trying to be Val Lewton (or some other low budget filmmaker, making the best of his material), and just wasn't good enough. I've seen this film in theaters, with people trying to make fun of it live - but what can you say to make it funnier? I used to be a fairly faithful MST3K fan - but I can't imagine they could make this more entertaining than it is. I have seen parodies of Z grade films - how many parodies come up with anything funnier than what is here? The continuity issues, the sets, the acting, the clunky dialogue, Criswell's speeches, Tor Johnson getting stuck coming out of his grave - can you improve on that? It's one of the reasons Ed Wood (the movie) works so well - Burton generally gives you Ed Wood's films themselves, pretty straight. There's some backstage comedy, but he doesn't have to change much of what's on screen. You can see the sets wobbling in the films - seeing them backstage is really just repeating the jokes.

Though of course, in the film itself, they aren't jokes, they're mistakes. But who cares? they are still funny. And sometimes - maybe more than mistakes. Maybe. Wood does try to write jokes - most of them don't come off, whether because they are badly written or the actors can't put them over - but some of them work. And sometimes - especially around the edges of the story - they work better than that. How much of the oddball details, or even the goofy action (cops scratching their heads with their guns, say) are intended as jokes? There's a lot of it - the body falling off its stretcher during the saucer flyby; the drunks reading about saucers over Hollywood; the weird little asides "let's ball it up in Albuquerque." It is full of strange little details that don't come off as just incompetent - they come off as absurd. Meanwhile, the dialogue sometimes slips into explicit metafiction, commenting directly on the action. It's sometimes innocuous, like people at a funeral asking why the wife is buried in the ground and the husband in a crypt - but at other times, it's more thematically relevant. Like all the talk about violence.

That's what makes the question of what is intentional and what isn't, and whether it matters, complicated - the fact that under all the nonsense, there is a pretty serious theme going on. The film certainly builds up to some directly anti-nuke speechifying by the aliens - but its woven into the story all along. "Are big guns the usual way of welcoming visitors?" the captain asks Colonel Edwards, during the big saucer attack early in the film. It keeps coming back: Colonel Edwards saying he has to believe "in what I saw and shot at." Jeff's reaction - "if I see any little green men, I'll shoot first and ask questions later." The aliens give it back, though: "how can any race be so stupid?" Eros asks on the tape; "all you of earth are idiots" - "your stupid minds! stupid! stupid! stupid!"

So Jeff slugs him.

The truth is, as science fiction - well, the plot is nonsense of the highest order, resurrecting the dead to march to the capitals of earth and do something - but it's nonsense with a surprising edge. It takes a big chunk of the plot from films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, with their benevolent (but arrogant and rather impractical) aliens coming to save or damn humanity - but gives it more of an edge. It's more cynical - humans are more instinctively self-destructively violent; the aliens are even preachier and ruder, and not exactly slow to reach for the decomposition rays themselves. All that stupidity and violence (and let's not forget misogyny - earthlings and spacemen alike are quick to put uppity women in their place, even if the women seem rather smarter than the rest of them in fact) is played out, and remarked on. People act like idiots, and someone else is sure to say so. And under it all - Eros is right - humans keep building bigger and better bombs, to the point they can wipe out themselves, and maybe more - and can't seem to do a thing to stop it, and won't listen to anyone telling them otherwise...

There is all that. But there is also this, which is also something that Burton's Ed Wood puts across: the sheer pleasure of filmmaking that comes across from Wood's films. That is true for all of his 50s output - the sense that at some level, he does not care if they are good films or not, because the product is not as important as the act of making the films. That is one of the clearest things they have in common with the camp and art films they half remind me of - the sense of the pleasure of making films that comes through in John Waters' or Luc Moullet's or Guy Maddin's films, or even lesser practitioners like Jared Hess. (A subject I keep coming back to.) These are films about making films: the act of making this film is what counts. There is art devoted to this idea - Michel Gondry's career seems to be built on it; obviously Ed Wood depicts it, and the complete abandonment to the material of filmmaking is certainly one of the things that separates directors like Maddin from Ed Wood. But Wood is the real thing, the way Moullet's films are, and Waters' - films where the film you see is almost a documentary about making a film (for no money at all.) Anything worth doing is worth doing badly - and really, the act of making these films is what really makes them exciting. In Plan 9, you can see the act of making the film through the film - the cheap sets, the one take acting, the accidents, the recycled footage. You can see how Wood wrote the story, dialogue, Criswell's narration around the stock footage he could find. You see it in some of his story telling - the stock footage, the stripped down sets for things like the airplane cockpit or the space ship, that indicate the location, without really trying to depict it. He's telling you the story with whatever he can find - and, whatever might be wrong with the story itself, he does it. The story moves along, it's quite compelling at times (however silly) - and once in a while, he really hits something square.

Tor Johnson rising from the grave is one of the most famous sequences in the film, with Johnson getting stuck halfway out of the grave. But the jokes about it hide the fact that it's a pretty cool sequence. It's edited cleanly and briskly with some decent footage of not-Lugosi and Vampira chasing poor Mrs. Trent, and the images of Clay's emergence are surprisingly spooky. Even when Johnson gets stuck, it comes off half comical, and half like a twist, a bit of pacing, drawing it all out a bit longer. Right up to the end, where the gravestone falls into the grave - a bit of absurdity again, since the stone that falls into the grave is nothing at all like the one looming behind Johnson as he emerges, but it's in moments like that, where the intentions of the scene, the meaning of the scene, clashes with the means of telling it that a lot of the humor, and maybe the joy of the film lives.

And that first shot of Inspector Clay's head coming out of the ground - it's a shot to savor.

It makes it a little harder to make fun of Ed Wood. He couldn't make films to live up to their best moments, and their best ideas, but there are enough moments and ideas to give you some honest pleasures along with the jokes.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Dallas Shootings

I have a band of the month post coming - but the news overtakes me this morning. A day after two awful stories about Black men murdered by the police (a depressingly common event), we hear of an ambush of the police at a protest in Dallas. 5 dead, I believe, at this point. I don't have much to say about this - any way you look at it, murdering cops in cold blood is a bad, bad thing. It is not easy to hold cops to a higher standard when they use violence, if they are targeted for violence themselves. For all the tension caused by controversy and protests about police violence, it's something we can, as a country, move forward on, and have - only to see the progress, and hope of progress, obliterated by terrorism against the police. It's depressing.

So - the regular music post is going to have to wait a bit. For now - this month's featured artist singing about another mass shooting. Back in 1970, it was the national guard shooting protesters; this week, someone shooting police. Different, I guess, but both feel like a hint of war coming to the streets.

Friday, July 01, 2016

First Day of the Somme

100 years ago today, the Battle of the Somme began. The results of that first day's attack are what we usually think of when we think of World War I: slaughter, quick and efficient on an unimaginable scale. 120,000 British soldiers attacked: something like 57,000 were killed or wounded, that day; 20,000 dead. Some gains were made, around the edges of the main battle, but nothing much was accomplished by the men who made the bulk of the attack. The Germans lost about 8000 men in the day's fighting. The battle then continued until November, with the Allies moving the lines forward a few miles, and losing another 700,000 or so casualties, to the German's 500,000.

Everything in WWI comes back to this (at least everything on the Western Front.) Individual battles all follow that form - a massive attack, usually unsuccessful, though sometimes with some progress - that always degenerates into a long brutal slog. You come across attempts to explain or justify some of the tactics and strategy of the war, but these all end up being explanations of how things went wrong in such a battle, and how maybe that didn't go wrong in quite the same way in the next one - though it always went wrong. The details are different in how Loos or Verdun or the Somme or the Aisne or Ypres went wrong, but they all went wrong, hundreds of thousands of casualties, minimal change in the fronts, and no change at all in the strategic situation of the war, except t convince the generals that they needed another battle to relieve the pressure of this battle. That's part of the story of the Somme - a massive British attack that was supposed to relieve the pressure from the massive German attack on Verdun. On and on, death breeding death.

So what happened at the Somme? The British blasted the hell out of the Germans for weeks (having learned, from Loos, that preliminary artillery bombardment was crucial) - but they still didn't actually break the German lines. Most of the German soldiers spent the bombardment hiding well below the surface, and popped back out in time to man their machine guns before the British soldiers arrived. The artillery didn't destroy the barbed wire, so the Brits were funneled directly into the field of fire of the machine guns. The bombardment didn't damage any of the German artillery, which responded quickly and to great effect. Etc, etc. And then - horrible as the first day was, the fact is - if the first day had gone differently, the rest of the battle would not have changed. Even had the British broken the German lines on July 1, they would not have been able to move past the battle zone fast enough: they wouldn't have run into more trenches and the rest of the battle would have gone just abut as it did. Until the tanks arrive, there was nothing anyone could do to end this warfare.

But they kept trying. There's not much more to say, besides to look in stunned horror at the stream of battles that look just like this - massive casualties, noting changed - that made up the bulk of the western front in the Great War. Only at the end, with tanks and a completely exhausted Germany, did it change. It's hard to say what anyone anywhere gained from all this death. It's hard to escape the conclusion that both sides could have sat in their trenches and waited for the British naval blockade to destroy the German economy and force more or less the armistice they signed. That might not have worked out so well for France (where all this fighting was taking place), but then again, France also bore unimaginable casualties in all this - it's hard to what they gained by trying to drive the Germans out. Millions dead. That's pretty much all you can say about the western front.

All right - let's move to some video - first, a 1916 Documentary about the battle:

And some music - Fairport Convention's version of The Battle of the Song, set to a painting of part of the British attack: