Going Abroad

I recently had to make a tough decision about a very dear item. My Twin Peaks VHS box-set had to go. There is no way I could just throw it out; this is the series that started my high school obsession. It blew my mind and made me realize I wanted to make movies. It also introduced me to worlds I never knew existed.

Fortunately I’ve found the box-set a good home, and I hope the recipient will get from it even a fraction of what I did. I have a lot of history with those tapes. They were my first introduction to the work of David Lynch, who quickly ousted Stanley Kubrick as my favorite director. I think Kubrick is probably the greatest that ever lived, but there’s something mysterious about Lynch that I can’t resist.

I think it was in the biography Lynch on Lynch where he mentioned that Federico Fellini was one of his major influences. The first Fellini movie I watched was . I find it hard to talk about  because it hit me on such a personal level, but suffice it to say that I think it’s one of the most beautiful films ever made. So I lost myself in the Italian auteur’s catalog. This was a breakthrough for me because I don’t believe I had ever seen a foreign film before 8½, or if I had, it wasn’t memorable.

Now I had a taste for it. I was interested to see movies from other cultures, movies from filmmakers who had a different way of life. I quickly realized that the Hollywood system seemed content within a certain set of values, a homogenous morality and thin, nearly meaningless output. So I unconsciously decided to become a film snob. Fortunately, my brother Jay had a copy of Agurre: The Wrath of God.

That stunning, visceral, hallucinatory take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the same source material as Apocalypse Now) made me giddy, and Aguirre is still one of my favorites. German master Werner Herzog became my next guru. He is one of the most exciting and prolific filmmakers I know of, even to this day, and the book Herzog on Herzog made me laugh my ass off. His genius is unique.

From Germany my tastes headed north, to Denmark, when Lars von Trier hypnotized me with The Element of Crime. I really did not connect with all of von Trier’s movies, but he is a magician when he hits, and his recent return to form has me considering, maybe masochistically, of going to see his new film Nymphomaniac.

Near that time my brother showed me Alphaville by Jean Luc Godard. It was funny, it was noir, it was smart, and it was beautiful. Plus, it had Anna Karina. I balanced Godard’s panache with the solemnity of Ingmar Bergman in Sweden. While Masculin Feminin had me giggling, Scenes From A Marriage left me gutted.

But when I caught wind of Andrei Tarkovsky, I started a pilgrimage to Russia starting with the sci-fi classic Solaris. It could easily be argued that Tarkovsky films are boring. He even joked about it himself. But the word boring tends to lose all meaning for me when I get wrapped up in a journey of Tarkovsky’s. Even the bizarre, didactic Stalkera 2 hour, 40 minute sci-fi allegory about transcendence–ranks as one of my favorite films.

Just like that, I had made it from a small logging town in Washington state all the way across Europe. It’s rare that we can trace the cause of our decisions in such clear ways, but I have no doubt that if it wasn’t for that Twin Peaks VHS box-set, I wouldn’t have seen so much of Europe so fast. And now it’s time to move on. After all, the Twin Peaks Blu-ray box-set comes out this year.

Bottle Rocket

This is my review of Bottle Rocket, the Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Bottle Rocket on Blogcritics.

THE FILM

Bottle RocketBottle Rocket is the debut film from director Wes Anderson and introduces brothers Luke, Owen, and Andrew Wilson. The Blu-ray edition was released by The Criterion Collection in late 2008, fully four years after its release of Anderson’s second film Rushmore. Though less polished and flashy than Anderson’s successive work, Bottle Rocket remains Anderson’s most genuine, warm and sophisticated film. My appreciation for it seems to grow with every viewing thanks to its subtlety. Fortunately it is one of the most re-watchable comedies I have ever seen.

Bottle Rocket is a quietly funny masterpiece. There are no major gags, no crazy set-pieces, and it’s not a jokey movie at all. Its hilarity comes from the depth of its touching characters. A nuanced character study is not usually the most fertile field for comedy, admittedly, and it might take viewers a few watches to appreciate the precision of Anderson and Owen Wilson’s script (and of course Luke and Owen’s performances). But the film’s honesty shines in the hands of Wes Anderson and these talented actors.

James Caan has an good interpretation of the title, as mentioned in the commentary. A bottle rocket is a small explosive. As a kid, you might be excited to light one off, but the explosion is more or less tame and probably won’t get anyone into serious trouble. And that is true of these characters and the movie as a whole. All have a beautiful capacity to dream, but the goals are never as big a spectacle as the enthusiasm. As the film’s biggest dreamer Dignan plans a bookstore heist featuring explosives and a .357 Magnum, he draws himself as the star on the map because in his own mind, he is a star. Naturally he draws the getaway driver Bob as a “zero”.

When Anthony’s enthusiasm ignites Dignan, we want to see his dreams explode into reality. Although he’s not that smart, has skewed morals, and is a terrible criminal mastermind, we want Dignan to succeed because we know how happy it makes him to live out his fantasies. Characters without cynicism are rare these days. Owen Wilson’s enthusiasm is hilarious, but his fragility is heartbreaking. That is the theme of Bottle Rocket. These characters struggle to bring their dreams to life, to have that explosive moment of danger.

These characters are products of an environment that requires no risk. Anthony has retired to a mental hospital for exhaustion despite having never worked a day in his life. Dignan has a criminal mind but uses the money he steals for pinball and fireworks. Bob is well dressed but still lives with his parents, where he grows marijuana plants. Only Mr. Henry (James Caan) seems to be successfully living his dreams. Mr. Henry inspires Dignan to make his mark as a criminal while Anthony’s little sister, the most cynical character in the film, acts as the voice of reason.

Anthony is on the verge of growing up. When he meets Inez, a housekeeper where the gang is laying low, his emotions threaten Dignan’s 75-year plan. But Dignan is an iconic dreamer. Like Henry Hill from Goodfellas, Dignan always wanted to live outside the law. But his dreams take him further from reality; when his big heist falls through he literally seeks escape in a door labeled “No Exit”. His plan of incorporating dynamite, laughing gas, and pole vaulting into crime were never going to happen. His dreams are destined to fail because they are unrealistic. Even still, we get the sense that for Dignan, their attempt, their brief brush with danger, might have been enough. Maybe his dreams were only ever meant to be dreams.

THE DISC

The video, 1080p at 1.85:1, is a nice improvement from standard definition, but the clarity does not blow me away. I am able to make out some nice background action, out-of-focus business I hadn’t noticed before in standard definition. But some noise is there if you look for it, especially in scenes with washed-out, overcast skies. Considering Criterion released Bottle Rocket several years after its first DVD release, I was hoping for a better image.

The making-of documentary, new for Criterion, is an interesting 25-minute retrospective that incorporates the memories of several key players including the three Wilsons, Wes Anderson, James Caan, James L. Brooks, Mark Mothersbaugh and plenty more.

The disc includes a commentary from Anderson and Owen Wilson. Recorded exclusively for Criterion, it’s a nice casual dialogue which starts slow but adds a few nice insights and two likeable opinions. One story told by Anderson fits nicely: a big screening in Santa Monica went brutally, and only one comment card was full of enthusiasm for Bottle Rocket. They kept the card and memorized it for inspiration. Later Anderson coincidentally met the girl who left the card and said, “Here’s our audience. One in five hundred.” Fortunately the careers of the key players following the movie have helped that number significantly.

Deleted scenes are raw and unpolished, but a welcome bonus of somewhat indulgent scenes. Correctly edited out, in my opinion, there are still good laughs and more content for enthusiasts. An anamorphic screen test gives us a taste of what could have been a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it has promise. Murita Cycles by Barry Braverman is a strangely tangential short film that chronicles the life and junk-hoarding of a bicycle shop owner in Staten Island. Murray fills his shop and house with junk and excuses this with a type of sententious dementia. The short film shows a depressing version of the life of a dreamer and in truth, I would rather not have seen it. Though it was supposedly a heavy influence on Bottle Rocket, the tone is just the opposite.

A photo collection from Laura Wilson is a fine special feature; storyboards are for the completists. A storyboard is a tool and I don’t really get the appeal of looking at them. Yes, they came from Wes Anderson’s own hand, but he certainly didn’t imagine stick figures talking in the final film, and he’s no Picasso. The Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1 is a mildly interesting talk with Tony Shafrazi, an eccentric art dealer, but the feature feels too pointless and egotistical to take seriously, despite being called a “lecture”.

As with most Criterion Collection films, this Blu-ray is the current definitive edition on the market. The supplements exclusive to his verison make it a worthwhile purchase. Bottle Rocket is a gem, and in my opinion one of the best comedies of all time. Martin Scorsese thinks so too.

Blog Critics

The holidays, despite being holidays, have been very busy. When I realized Christmas and New Years both landed on Tuesdays, the thought occurred to give myself a week off. Well, this is that week. Clearly I’m only posting something now because I value consistency. As I’ve done in the past, I’m copping out this week and instead posting a couple of my recent reviews.

MUSIC REVIEW: SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE – ASCENT

Article first published as Music Review: Six Organs of Admittance – Ascent on Blogcritics.

"Ascent" by Six OrgansDrag City released a new installment from psychedelic folk pioneer Ben Chasney on August 21, 2012, entitled Ascent. He has been recording under the moniker Six Organs of Admittance for over a decade now, and this time out, offers up typical mysticism wrapped in a package of space travel and cosmic resonance.

More band-oriented than any of his previous works, the influence of working with groups like Comets on Fire and Rangda is felt substantially here. While I appreciate the evolution of Chasney’s style over the last decade and a half, I find myself missing the quiet, droning, meditative acoustic work that was the hallmark of the outfit for the first half of its existence. Ascent is more like a rock album than the previous dozen albums. But fans are mightily used to experimentation when it comes to Six Organs, and should be pleased with this record.

The band, a slightly reorganized Comets on Fire, does play well together, and the opener, “Waswasa”, is a dynamic, riff-based jam that evokes the familiar noise and chaos of Chasney’s electrified solos. Recorded live from the floor in Louder Studios by Tim Green, the LP sounds fantastic and the players mesh beautifully. Simultaneously clean and dirty, loud and subtle, Six Organs and Green have stepped their game up from The Sun Awakens (Drag City). And “Waswasa” has the perfect psychedelic drive to set the stage for a real Ascent.

Second track “Close to the Sky” has a nice mellow feel reminiscent of “Blue Sunday” from The Doors, but after five minutes the cyclical bass groove begins to wear. Chasney seems to be comfortable in a band setting these days; the drums, bass, and rhythm guitars fill the frequencies while his solos arc overhead. Earlier recordings highlighted Chasney’s acoustic folk-raga style, and fans of old-school Six Organs might find some of these tracks a bit diluted. Chasney relies on his bandmates a bit too heavily and some tracks lack the direction of earlier Six Organs.

The best example of this is “One Thousand Birds”, a re-imagined oldie from the Six Organs classic Dark Noontide (on Holy Mountain Records). The original has nothing but clattering percussion and one gloriously stringy acoustic guitar until an electric squall discharges and takes it to the next level. Ascent‘s version spreads the parts between more people without adding to the complexity and impulse of the song. And Chasney’s iconic voice, usually used like such an integral instrument, falsettos on top of the music and doesn’t sell the message like the original.

Fans of the droning profundity Six Organs uses to warp us through the interior maze will be happy with “They Called You Near”. It’s a deep, murmuring, dark space that drips down the brain stem with layers of guitar and noise supporting Chasney’s chant-like vocals. The acoustic coda is beautifully clean (both recording and performance) and melds with the slow Side A closer, “Solar Ascent”.

Side B is a four-song mix of familiar styles starting with the aforementioned “One Thousand Birds”. The dreamy, lilting “Your Ghost” gives way to a rocking entreaty to burn memories (“Even If You Knew”) that makes it past the seven-minute mark without getting old. And the finale, “Visions (From Io)” is a gorgeous slow jam that blends science fiction and magic to send us out into the world in a cloud of oneiric bliss.

The packaging of the LP is one of the slickest in the Six Organs collection. The cover hints at the sci-fi narrative Chasney has in mind for this record, while the back cover is a forthright magical symbol. This dichotomy works for the record and the themes can be seen across Chasney’s career.

Six Organs has always been about Ascent, both inner and outer. The simple liner notes (including lyrics) are printed on a lovely dot matrix one sheet. Though I haven’t heard the digital version, I’m betting fans will be happy purchasing the vinyl version, which is a great value for less than $20. Not the best Six Organs record, it’s still light years beyond most contemporary music.

 

BLU-RAY REVIEW: BLUE VELVET

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Blue Velvet on Blogcritics.

Blue VelvetIn 1986 David Lynch created his most concise and iconic film, Blue Velvet. A modern noir and a pervert’s detective story, it offers the most succinct iterations of the themes that have spanned his career. His first film with the coveted “final cut” clause (under De Laurentiis Entertainment Group), Blue Velvet is distilled Lynch – a textural ride into our subconscious where dark desires hide from the light of day. “It’s a strange world,” is the perfect mantra for this psychosexual masterpiece.

Blue Velvet is one of David Lynch’s most accessible films for those new to his work. Perhaps more balanced and commercial than any of his other movies, the film offers a striking blend of high school innocence and psychotic despair (embodied by the two female leads). The seeds planted by Blue Velvet blossomed into the cult television hit Twin Peaks by Lynch and Mark Frost, and both projects continue to influence popular culture from American Beauty to AMC’s The Killing. Other projects from Lynch feel much darker and esoteric. While I can watch Lynch’s films just about any time, I can confidently say that Lost Highway is not the best movie for a first date.

It’s obvious that mystery is what turns Lynch’s crank, and protagonist Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is the perfect surrogate for the auteur. Jeffery is an amazing blend of gee-whiz Hardy Boy and torrid voyeur. Mild-mannered, geeky, and friendless in his hometown, he is drawn irresistibly into the deep river of mystery just below the surface of his familiar world. It’s his compulsion toward the unknown that drives Jeffery. Lynch uses him as a key to our restrained impulses; we find ourselves drawn into the act of observation, afraid of how deep and dark our own desires go.

Dennis Hopper creates one of the most terrible villains in film history whose erratic and drug-induced violence shows us just how dark things can get. Frank’s twisted sexual behavior leaves us feeling gutted, but his emotional vulnerability to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” adds such a specific and bizarre dimension to his evil that we’re drawn into his mania even as we fear it. When Frank commandeers Jeffery for a wicked joyride, he leers at Jeffery in the back seat, and at us through Jeffery’s POV, and says, “You’re like me.” It’s chilling because we recognize Jeffery’s perversion as a faint reflection of Frank’s, as well as our own desire to look into the darkness of Blue Velvet.

Familiar themes of light and dark, love and fear, order and chaos, are set in motion in the first scene of the picture. Fifties-era white-picket fences and manicured lawns give way to a dizzying horror of bugs crawling and scratching the dirt. The iconic severed ear is a perfect symbol for Lynch’s work, acknowledging the senses before diving through perception to Something Else. And it’s his unique ability to show us that Something Else that distinguishes Lynch as one of the most important artists in the medium.

The 1080p video looks amazing. The digital transfer was supervised by David Lynch, as was the previous Special Edition DVD, which looked pretty good. But the Blu-ray edition blows the doors off the DVD. It’s unclear whether the bump in quality is from the resolution alone, or if they’ve carefully recolored and timed the whole movie, but the HD version captures much more of the original film look with beautiful fidelity. The dark scenes have depth and the colours are resplendent. I detected only a slight trace of noise in a few shots.

What impressed me even more than the picture was the sound. From the start of his career, Lynch has understood that video and sound are two equally important halves of filmmaking. One reason his films are so absorbing is because of his emphatic attention to sound design. From Eraserhead to Inland Empire, Lynch’s meticulous sound work builds the environment around the characters, forming a fuller sensory world than traditional filmmakers. Layering room tones, distant machinery, wind, humming lights, and musical score, he fleshes out the mood of each moment, bringing us more in touch with the psychology of the character.

One of the disappointing things about the old DVD version was the sound. Obviously a lot of time had been spent trying to manicure the soundtrack, but I believe the digital technology just wasn’t capable of delivering a satisfying product at the time. Background noise in the dialogue wasn’t blended properly with the ambience of the scenes, and so the dialogue seemed haloed with a subtle hiss. This may simply have been the result of bad compression. But the Blu-ray edition has fixed this impressively.

I marveled throughout the movie at how clearly I could make out subtleties in the quiet moments. Particularly with the sultry voice of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), the dynamic range of the soundtrack really shows off the depth of the original recordings. As both a cinephile and an audiophile, I can’t stress enough how important the sound is to the movie-watching experience, and I think this fact alone is reason enough to buy the Blu-ray edition. Even if you’ve only recently bought the DVD version, as I have, it’s well worth it (until the next jump in technology takes place later this afternoon).

The Blu-ray edition offers great special features as well. Over fifty minutes of deleted scenes have been found and beautifully restored in HD for fans who can’t get enough. Previously seen as only a “Deleted Scene Montage” of stills on the DVD, fans will enjoy Frances Bay’s comic timing, a hilarious jazz stand-up routine, and a gorgeous, electric scene with Jeffery and Dorothy on the roof of her apartment. A smattering of outtakes and vignettes only leaves us wanting more, but the “Mysteries of Love” documentary (previously on the DVD) bulks up the package.

Twenty-six years after its original release, Blue Velvet is still as fresh, shocking, and cool as ever. This Blu-ray release is as satisfying as I could have hoped. Not only are the video and sound leagues better than any previous version since the actual celluloid, but the restored deleted scenes make this the definitive version to own.

P.S. For a more plot-oriented review of this product, El Bicho has written a good one.