Sunday, December 27, 2015

"THE HATEFUL EIGHT", Tarantino's verbose near-masterpiece

I just viewed Quentin Taratino's latest, "The Hateful Eight" and, for all the excesses and repetitions of favorite gimmicks that seemed, to me, half-hearted and coasting with his last two films ("Inglorious Basterds", "Django Unchained"), his new western is something of a return to form. Not that he's knocked off any of those tricks that made him famous--unnaturally formal dialogue cast in different accents and idioms, a surfeit of action-stopping siloquies, title cards and the "Pulp Fiction" trick of letting the narrative unexpectedly backtrack to reveal elements that were at first withheld. "Hateful Eight", though, sees these elements deployed with a conviction and a sure hand that lures you closer to the prolonged doings of these trapped miscreants even as your wishing the pace would pick up.

Not to give too much away, but the plot concerns a bounty hunter , played by Kurt Russell, transporting a condemned prisoner, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, to Red Rock, Wyoming for hanging and to collect a reward. Due to a horrible winter blizzard blasting over the mountain , the private stage coach the Russell character had hired for the transported unexpectedly takes on more passengers stranded along the pass and the coach is forced to stop at a way station until the storm passes, a station already filled with a collection of characters no one would not want to witness in the same room. Tarantino is generous with this loquacious dialogue and the exceptional cast each have their turn introducing who their characters, revealing a back story and a chance to reveal an articulate, if demented, world view and how it came to be formed. This does, of course, slow the film to a pace that is painfully slow, and this verbosity could easily have been pared back a good fifty minutes without sacrificing Tarantino's uncanny knack for giving the various kinds of evil a voice and a rationale, an ethos.

At times the movie becomes work to stay seated for. Still,there is so much that is being done right here, from the camera work and editing,the way scenes are framed, the absolute sizzle of the dialogue when the verbal build up between one character to another builds to secrets that are revealed, and yes, the violence. Tarantino's tales are revenge plays in large part, a genre that he's exploited brilliantly and less well, but he exceeds his best work by the deceptive complexity. There is a multiplicity of duplicitous motives; this is a pit of angry rats justifying their inevitable urge to kill everyone in the room with a the kind of deliciousely gratuitous locution that is foremost among Tarantino's script writing hall marks. Smartly, Tarantino's tone for each of the way station inhabitants, none of the speeches go so far in their waves of expressive finery to suggest sympathy or provide a clue who the film's eventual hero maybe; the impressive accomplishment of the film is that what we have here is a story populated mostly by personas that would normally be treated as villians; as with Shakespeare or canniest of the Revenge Play tragedians, a prime Tarantino makes the guilty among the roster of characters sufficiently complex without romanticizing the life as means for transcendence. He doesn't let you forget that each of these folks are heading for a bad end.

The camera is an untrustworthy narrator, recording what is revealed with regards to motivations, the insanity of well argued dualistic , black and white points of view coming to a head. Agendas are exposed, but they only give clues to secret agendas , undisclosed machinations that themselves camouflage other plots . There are no heroes, everyone has committed sins against everything we consider righteous and just, and everyone shows that are more than they at first seem, unpredictable, capable of anything. And rest assured , there is plenty of the famous Tarantino violence, gruesome, ironic, unsparing. If nothing else, QT's film world is a universe of verbal characters who , despite their ingenuous habits of expression, are not able to talk their way out of the dour fates they've made for themselves. Theirs is a case of talking a great game to justifiy their horrific acts, but the universe seems not hear not a word of the self-serving eloquence . The universe, rather, greets human action with consequences that cannot be negoiated with.This film, not quite a masterpiece, is still a definitive piece in this film maker's oeuvre.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

U2 are duller than you are

I was trying to watch a U2 concert on Showtime, motivated by the delusion that I would be able to remember precisely why I was briefly obsessed with this band in the Mid-80s. Ten minutes into the performance, the Edge's echoing chord work and Bono's humorless, crucified bellow did me in, the choicest of the choice songs. Even a band as pretentious as the Doors were reliable for crafting tight rock-pop hits that were all the things a radio-friendly tune requires. These qualities achieved a particular state that is a combination of hard work and luck: listenability. The songs got you, it kept you, and the next you know, the experience is over, and you're on the other side of it all whistling the chorus, mumbling lyrics you only half understood.  It's an old aggravation, and many bands have displayed it and kept it in my decades as a music writer, but it still applies to U2 especially. It's a pose, hewed with honest emotion and genuine conviction, but it is a pose, all the same, a stylized sheen that is set to make them attractive in theory.

 I despise this band. Hardly the worst band, mind you, as there is a bottomless pit of worthy candidates for that honor, but certainly the most overrated by my estimation. The fundamental problem is that so much has been ascribed to them on matters separate from the actual music they write, record, and perform. My complaint is this: they have arrangements, not songs in their repertoire, which is to add a variation to other like describers as “all glitter, no gold,” “all sizzle, no steak,” and “all hat, no cattle.” One can, of course, name a few good songs these fellows have offered us, and indeed, my assertion that they cannot tunes at all is unfair. Still, the fact is that what comes to mind with U2 in terms of sonic signatures are not single tunes but rather their approach, their singular sound of the Edge’s slow, heavily flanged, and eventually monotonous guitar build-up, Bono’s braying tenor shouting half-witted spiritual tropes, a bombastic middle portion where the band hammers the chord progression into submission, and then the eventual fade into silence, an attempt here, I suspect, to make the listener reminisce about their own privately held best moments, whether romantic, sexual, romantic. It’s a style that’s been old for a while, for decades. 

This, for me, makes them agreeable intellectually, but it doesn't mitigate the monotony that makes their music a self-regarding drag. Missing, perhaps, is the old "hit song" aesthetic, where there was an emphasis on tunes that were differentiated stylistically, given manageable time constraints, given hooks, beginnings, middles, ends, and concerning things that are not the result of a crisis of conscious or the search for a nebulous spirituality that no one seems able to find. I have to say that after 3 chords, U2 becomes loud tedium. 

They don't have songs; they have a "sound." Some find it stirring, rocking, bracing. I find it bracingly the same from tune to. It's not that they haven't written a solid rocker and a cogent ballad in that massively reverbed catalog of theirs; it's just that unlike mining the albums of the Stones or REM (among so many others), there are not that many good-to-great tunes to amuse yourself with until you come upon a song, usually a track halfway through the second side, that kicks in the vitals and moves inside your head, playing its primary and primordial riffs and significant chords to a moronic, reductive and unceasing drumbeat and hands-free bass part that will not get out of your head. As we can guess, those kinds of tunes do not come along often enough, whereas sorry-Charlie Kitch mongers like U2 are in abundance.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Gimme Shelter

The Rolling Stones have many great songs in their catalog, but 'Gimme Shelter" is one that qualifies as a masterpiece. The stunning, foreboding weave of simple guitar lines at the outset, slow, cautious, stealthy, suggest two kinds of apprehension about the world outside the walls one lives in, both that of the stalker creeping up on a prey, and the stalked, shivering, rained on, seeking something to provide at least a moment's respite from the unpredictable, the nasty, the brutish possibilities of being alone. The thunder guitar lines, swooping bass and the short, simple, shank edge harmonica riff are then all around you, a house collapsing, a cliff falling into the sea, rockets bombing your home town, an earthquake. It is that crushing, smashing, lacerated feeling that the truth gas denied is about to enter and take center stage and proceed to uproot everything fastened down and not. Think of the feeling when you haven't enough money to pay the rent, when there is no more dope and the sickness is tearing you apart from the inside out, when a loved one dies, when you're confronted with someone with a bat with a nail through it, or a gun , or a knife. No solace, no quarter. The Stones dealt obsessively with life on the edge in their songs, inspired by a lifestyle they could afford in their off time , and anyone with a more than an glancing familiarity of the aftermath of having gone on an extended drug run, whether heroin, speed, cocaine, there is the phenomenon that the world has ceased to be anything else than a mere rumor of something that was attractive or worth fighting horrible wars to preserve order in. Not all of this was approached from the stance of panic or fear that is the spirit of "Gimme Shelter". "Moonlight Mile", a fragile, beautiful evocation of coming down from a needle-point, catches the half-conscious figure in mid-nod, addressing the drift he finds himself on as though it were a wonderfully calm and foreseen ascent to the next life, a transcendence of a sort. 

There are other roles that are played out in this theme of decadence, decline, and degradation, with the Stones, and Jagger especially, playing along with the age-old cliche of the romantic artist, the poet, the seer, pushing their senses to the limit to attain experience and to gain something of that fleeting, elusive knowledge that senses reveal only when they are placed drugged out duress. Most, though, wind up a wallow, a boast, a casual nod to the audience that it was either a put on or they survived the worse the drugs had to offer and walked out of the other side of the experience, ragged, battered, damaged, but alive to write more poems. "Gimme Shelter" differs, though,  because it really is one of the few songs where the voice doesn't sound like a well-constructed pose maintained with a professional distance from the subject.

 The ennui sounds not just real, but nearly fatal, Jagger plays the perfect role here, abandoning the poses, the personas, the macho -libertine man of destiny and expresses the naked fear that nothing quite suddenly and brutally makes the sense it used to; everything falls apart. There is the remarkable effect of the singer admitting that there is only the unknown forces of a world that have slid off the rails. Jagger's vocal and the lyrics sound like a man who is coming to the uncontested eventuality of his demise. Merry Clayton offers the defiant cry, a brilliant, rail-splitting wail that says that the worse of everything we can imagine is about to happen. She is the hard truth overshadowing Jagger's fatalistic admission. Mood, atmosphere, texture, a hook that comes in at the right time like a badly constructed car hitting every pothole on a troubled, abandoned road, this song remains foreboding, menacing, a song that continues to resonate and will always do so, I think, as long as we contain the imagination to devise our specialized means of insanity. It's an interesting set of perspectives that are represented by the presence of both white and black vocalists. Clayton, we may say, comes from a particular set of cultural conditions of racism, slavery, poverty, institutionalized and normalized violence, that makes the Hellhound- on -My- Trail not a poetic device for yet another woe-begone tale, but rather an allegorical representation of what is a fact of their existence. Mailer insists that black Americans have a knowledge unknown to most whites that violence can be visited on them for any reason at anytime precisely because they are black and "other". Jagger is the character, the young man, who enters into a Life on the edge and entertains his senses with the expectation that nothing matters and that this state of bliss, or the naive arrogance of thinking that one's pleasure is all that actually matters. Jagger's horror is that of the sudden, brutal and blunt realization that there are prices to pay for the indulgence, the excessive use of self-seeking. It is a knowledge that comes too late and the singer here trembles when there is a crushing sense that he is near the end of his tether. This fits in with what I think has been Jagger's real genius as an artist since he wrested command of the Rolling Stones away from Brian Jones, his ability, in conjunction with Richard's uniquely primitivist approach to rock and roll roots music, to assume several personas--droogy punk, drug addict,revolutionary, Satanist, hedonist, Sadist, bluesman, troubadour--without overburdening the songs with so much detail and contrived attitude that the music collapses under so many layers of baloney. He's been someone who has pretended to be many things but who, himself, is not pretentious, a distinction in that Jagger's interest is in the emotion, the sensation, the real stuff of experience. The emotional range he's been able to write from over the decades is extraordinary, far broader than his contemporaries, say, Lou Reed, Dylan, Lennon. Only Bowie, from what I think of at the moment, comes close to the variety of attitudes he's been able to inhabit, but even there-there is something always a little calculated in Bowie's keep--them-guessing stance. Jagger, in his best work, which I believe is a big part of his total ouvre (discounting the solo albums), is more fluid in his transitions from one voice to another. 

Jagger has the ability to create from a constructed identity and convince you of his empathy with the plight and drama of antagonist and protagonists; he has the instincts of a good short story writer, no less than Hemingway, O'Conner, Cheever. Fundamental to all this is Keith Richard, who's music contributions keep Jagger focused, believable, credible, relevant to the loud and soft noises that occupy a listener's life. Jagger is in awe of the sheer magnitude of a universe and existence that could make his life less than the sum of a box of burnt matches, but along with the fear is the attraction to the foul powers that lurk outside. There is a going back in forth through the song, while that persistent, descending chord progression hammers away, like a pounding at the door from a debtor claiming what's due him, the short blues riffs and the wailing, two note harmonica screeches that seem nothing other than a hard, cold wind blowing against the windows. It's a tension that builds and won't build, panic and exhilaration, extinction and transcendence felt in an overwhelming rush until Merry Clayton's unyielding exhortation of the chorus gives you release; the iconic cracking of voice on her final reading of the lyric is powerful enough to suggest that a door you've been pounding on for the shelter you've been demanding, praying for finally opens and you collapse, relieved, shivering, twitching under the might of the storm that seeks to extinguish you. It is a brilliant song, a masterful performance, a musical masterpiece, all that. This is one of these tracks where one needs to confront the raw phenomenology is experience and rethink any all certainties one has about what life owes them.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

My new knee and the rise of soft core optimism

Aches, pain killers, a stiff knee, a new scar, relearning the fundamentals of walking all over again. As reported , shared , revealed (or whatever term you prefer for the phenomenon of someone in the throes of compulsively giving you too much information), the total knee replacement surgery has happened, and the surgeon and members of his team were pleased to report that the procedure went well. That was November 16th, some four weeks ago, and let it be said that the quality of the recovery is fairly much as they laid it out to me in various classes and pre-operation consultations . No surprises , nothing unexpected , no  complications, all of which is great news and something that I kept in mind as I hobbled through the early  sessions of physical therapy and pain.

A great stiffness overcame me, my left leg was one purple, swollen mass of tissue and retreaded nerve ganglia, my pain was , for a time, out of this world. It chafes my pride a bit to admit that I had lost interest, for a period, in the doings of the world outside my sphere of pain; it was the only thing I could focus on. But, as I said, the team involved in aiding back to the world of the ambulant were good and attentive and knew how to manage a patent's pain. Select pain medications, of course, were called for in this endeavor, both to give me respite from the searing agony of intense discomfort and, most importantly, to allow me to commit to the exercise required to acquaint myself with my new substitute  knee apparatus . The mission now, with the physical therapists, is to build up strength, to build up the muscle that has diminished , to learn the right methods of crossing the streets in a city that at the moment seem to be little more than broad avenues that exist only to form busy intersections full of cars   trucks, motor cycles,skate boards and punk motor  bikes on patrol to keep those with canes , walkers and wheel chairs on their side of the street. 

Yes, that's not how I truly see the streets of hometown San Diego; it's just an idea that forms as you begin to miss the mobility you had as pedestrian. That said, it's a view I can get over, as my career of being myself seems to involve a continual process of getting over myself, which is, mostly, conquering fears, or at least stepping ahead of them after making a decision --the worst thing in this existence is suffering the consequences for refusing to change with the currents or ignore the protests of the body that only get louder and sharper with time. What I looked forward too is writing more, a lot more, much more writing, playing more music, much more music, involving myself more in the occasionally inspired photography I've done in the past few  years, and , of course, a longer life of walking , of being a professional pedestrian, touring my far flung neighborhoods without pain. There is a new adventure on the horizon. I pray, simply and too a higher power that knows no political allegiance that I continue to roll with the punches and keep the willingness to change when the change is underway. As always, keep a smile your face and your wits sharp. The conversation, I suspect, is about to start anew.