Monday, October 21, 2013
I had the blessing/curse of growing up a music (and the arts in general) freak in a small, rural town in the pre-Internet days. Our local cable didn't even include MTV. I was, and still am, a curious fucker, and I wasn't going to let my sheltered lack of options and scarce availability of non-mainstream cultural artifacts stop me from finding cool stuff. I relied on late-night local TV, which was pretty strange and varied in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s, the library, mail-order, road trips to the record store 40 miles away, and magazines to expose me to the old, weird America. Now, any outcast kid can go to YouTube and check out a huge chunk of most underground artists' bodies of work when an unfamiliar name pops up, but in the late '80s and early '90s, when I was buying every music magazine that made its way to the two local supermarkets, I would read the names of canonical underground bands hundreds and maybe thousands of times before I ever got the chance to hear their music. You would create your own internal, private mythologies about what Can or Kraftwerk or The Raincoats or Flipper or Sebadoh or Jandek or Gang of Four or Roxy Music or The Slits or The Feelies sounded like based on descriptions by rock critics or pictures of the bands and their album covers. I'd pore over interviews with famous rock stars like Peter Buck, Kurt Cobain, and Flea because those guys would always mention tons of bands that were new to me.
Lincoln, Nebraska doesn't have a national reputation as a mecca of the arts, but it's an interesting place, and when I started college there in 1995, I was a pig in shit. There were tons of interesting local bands (Jesus Lizard and Fugazi were the big influences at the time), a few great bookstores, a few great video stores, and its large student population supported 10 or 11 record stores (almost all of them are closed now, sadly). I was able to load up on all the records I'd previously only been able to read about. I was blowing my own mind on a weekly basis. Thanks to mail order and a few lucky finds in western Nebraska Wal-Marts my senior year of high school, I'd added Minutemen, The Replacements, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and the big indie-rock releases of the time into my collection, but now I could go wild. Besides the new stuff, I was getting my first aural taste of The Stooges, Hüsker Dü, Captain Beefheart, Patti Smith, Flying Burrito Bros., Michael Hurley, Tim Buckley, Robert Wyatt, Skip Spence, Pere Ubu, early Bowie, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, Charles Mingus, R.L. Burnside, Sun Ra, Boredoms, and the non-hits and deep cuts of Devo, The B-52's, The Kinks, The Who, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and The Beach Boys. I was in a receptive frame of mind, and great stuff was smooshing right into my still-developing frontal lobes.
Big Star was a band name I kept seeing in print without ever getting a chance to hear them. They were supposedly an influence on many of my favorite bands, and a song about one of the band members, Alex Chilton, was one of my two or three favorites on a Replacements CD I bought in a Denver mall a month before I graduated high school. I couldn't find their stuff anywhere, though. I was a fanatic Replacements and Guided By Voices fan by 16, still am, and Big Star's name kept popping up as an influence. They also got mentioned as a link between the '60s stuff I loved (Beatles, Kinks, Who, Byrds, Velvet Underground), some '70s stuff I loved (Cheap Trick, Flamin' Groovies) and some then-contemporary stuff I loved (Replacements, GBV, Sebadoh, Pavement, Teenage Fanclub, Nirvana). Who were these guys and why can't I find any of their stuff?
By my sophomore year of college, my geographical comfort zone around the campus area was slowly growing wider, and I decided to take an exploratory bicycle ride several miles past campus to hit up a record store I had yet to visit. (I would be working there within a year.) It was a longer ride than I'd anticipated and on busier streets, and when darkness fell as I arrived, I regretted my decision. I wandered around the store halfheartedly. It was mostly the same stock as the location near my dorm. My bad mood increased as I thought about the long, dark ride home. I decided to browse the used section to see if I could salvage the trip. My mood grew substantially better when I saw it. The #1 Record/Radio City twofer! There it was! Finally! I snatched it up, and also found a used copy of Cheap Trick's Heaven Tonight. Fuck the ride home. My future coworker who rang me up got a misty look in his eye and asked if I'd heard the Big Star records before. He grew very excited when I said I hadn't.
I pedaled uphill as fast as I could in the darkness, back to the dorm, and threw it on. I was a little confused by the first track, "Feel." It sounded like '70s cock-rock. Good '70s cock-rock, but still. "The Ballad of El Goodo" followed, and I remained confused. I liked the song, and it quickly grew on me, but it still sounded like mainstream classic rock. By the time it ended, I was starting to feel the stirrings of something special. By the first few seconds of "In the Street," they had me. I was drawn to this band with the fervor of a crazed missionary. Once Radio City started, forget about it, I was almost catatonic with pleasure. "O My Soul" and "Daisy Glaze." Holy shit. A few months later, I found a copy of Third/Sister Lovers, and a few years later, Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbet was my Thursday night alone in the basement drinking music. Ever since, Big Star has remained in regular rotation on whatever device technology provides for the playing of music, and I've got a lot of shit to rotate.
Big Star was long overdue for the documentary treatment, but I was a bit worried going in. Some rock docs are pretty cheap and shoddy-looking, and too many others are full of a nonstop parade of talking heads telling you how great the subject is, usually including one or all of the following: Bono, John Cusack, Henry Rollins, and Johnny Depp, for some reason. Also, hardly any footage of the band exists. What was this going to be?
Mori and DeNicola did a fantastic job. My heart sank initially when an opening scene featured a parade of talking heads singing Big Star's praises, but this scene was brief. What followed was a detailed, entertaining, heartbreaking, uplifting, visual treat full of fascinating people and great music. Mori and DeNicola did the big work, finding a trove of archival material and interviewing tons of important people. Their timing was fortunate, too, as they interviewed several people who passed away shortly thereafter. They talk to almost everybody. Chilton gave the project his blessing, but wouldn't sit down for an interview. There's great footage of him, though, and his presence fills the frame while his absence haunts it, especially when his death becomes a part of the story. Almost everyone else is here, though, including Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, John Fry, Van Duren, Jim Dickinson, Rick Clark, Tav Falco, William Eggleston, The Cramps, Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, and Chris Bell's brother and sister. I'm especially grateful for the public access footage of Tav Falco's Panther Burns with Chilton on guitar inciting a confrontation from a combative and grumpy morning show host just by being themselves and having a sense of humor about it.
This movie just pops off the screen with energy and life and creativity, but it's haunted by death and broken dreams, too. The movie runs for almost two hours and is pretty thorough, but it breezes by quickly, and I would have been happy with another two or three hours. Every damn person in this documentary could be the subject of a fascinating documentary of his or her own. I'd love to hear more about Chris Bell's life, for example. What a sad, fascinating, contradictory, tortured guy, torn apart by trying to reconcile his closeted homosexuality, devout Christianity in a band with guys who didn't have much use for religion, just as devout worship of rock and roll, intense desire to be famous butting heads with his shyness and insecurity, and struggles with drugs and depression. Meanwhile, Chilton, a more irreverent, cantankerous guy, had experienced fame as a teenager with the Box Tops and found it ridiculous. He had no interest in pursuing that particular dream and went down his own bizarre, singular, admirable road, deliberately sabotaging his own songs when they had a potential for mainstream acceptance.
Whether Big Star should have been huge is not something I'm that interested in chewing over. There's more to life than the big time. They had fantastically great songs and were all good-looking, charismatic guys, but their songs were out of step with the mid-'70s. Like most works of high quality that fail to achieve mainstream acceptance in their immediate present, Big Star slowly built a small but devoted following that gets a little bigger every day. Those songs will last until the sun burns out, and this documentary should bring some new people to those songs. Even if it doesn't, it's a good watch for the already converted.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
A handful of times a year, someone I don't know that well will ask me if I've seen some new Hollywood blockbuster or if I'm looking forward to seeing some new Hollywood blockbuster, and I usually give this person the polite but honest answer that Hollywood blockbusters aren't my thing. I don't go into my whole spiel about how the last 15 years of Hollywood product has been a dreary, depressing slog to sit through, how entertainment and craftsmanship have been replaced by CGI, homogeneity, noise, spatial incoherence, monochromatic color palettes, bloated running times, franchises, sequels, remakes, films that are nothing but bombastic climaxes, and motherfucking superheroes up the wazoo, how these films are empty, soul-deadening experiences that bludgeon their viewers into apathetic comas, how actual fun has been replaced by the idea of fun, a fun in quotes, a fun substitute made of thin colorless paste. I just smile politely and say, "Blockbusters aren't really my thing." Somehow, I get the same look I get when I tell people I don't like sports, that subtle look that says, "Oh, you're one of those guys. You hate fun, and I feel a little sorry for you." Sometimes, they even tell me I need to lighten up.
But I don't hate fun. Honest, I don't. I love many crowd-pleasing, mainstream Hollywood films, from '30s screwball comedies to '80s and early-'90s action movies. But I find the recent Hollywood blockbusters so depressing, so dreary, so not fun that I'm baffled and confused by their continuing popularity. For rare blockbusters like Iron Man or Spider-Man that actually capture some of that childlike wonder and light entertainment uplift, you get 40 billion depressing pieces of shit that make you want to hang yourself. You may want to check my math, but you get the idea.
I don't see many big Hollywood movies in the theater, especially tentpole summer action spectacular extravaganzas with kid's meal tie-ins, but there are some rare exceptions. Pacific Rim is one. (It probably underperformed in the United States because I was interested in seeing it. Sorry, everyone.) I'm a fan of Guillermo del Toro. I trust him. I love the way the creatures in his films look. I love the care he takes with the framing of his shots and the intricate design of his settings. His films are actually fun, and he's one of those rare guys who can bounce from small canvases to huge ones, from personal independent projects to big studio movies, with his talent and personality intact. We lost Peter Jackson down the hobbit-hole, but del Toro is still, mostly, here.
Much like the battles between the giant robots and giant monsters that make up the bulk of the film's running time, Pacific Rim sees the del Toro of old battling the form and structure of the modern blockbuster. It's an uneasy and not always successful marriage, but del Toro comes out ahead in the end. The film's weaknesses are very much a sign of the current blockbuster times. Unlike in his other films (I'm excepting his for-hire direction of Blade 2), del Toro's characters here are underdeveloped and thin, a few of the battle sequences have the cameras in so tight to the action that it's hard to tell what's going on, and it's a loud and noisy film full of climactic scenes. Nevertheless, there's a human heartbeat thumping underneath all the blockbuster trappings. The monsters are, once again, fantastic, as in every del Toro movie, and the robots are also meticulously designed to elicit childlike glee. Though I have quibbles with some of the camera placement during the big fights, each battle has moments of visceral, kinetic action that most blockbusters lack. Most of the jokes land where they're supposed to. The cast is unusual for a big sci-fi action movie, made up of cult TV actors Idris Elba, Charlie Day, and Charlie Hunnam, Japanese art-film star Rinko Kikuchi, and the mighty Ron Perlman, a del Toro regular. Perlman, in particular, gets some great moments, and his black market operation has some of the best set design in the whole film. The CGI actually looks good and is integrated pretty seamlessly into the frame, but I still would have loved to see an '80s-style foam and latex handmade edition of this thing. Still, you're left with the feeling that cast and director are having a great deal of fun, and that spirit is infectious.
I'm always going to prefer the Cronos/Devil's Backbone/Pan's Labyrinth del Toro to the Pacific Rim del Toro, and I think I prefer the first Hellboy as a better example of mainstream del Toro, but Pacific Rim gave me something the vast majority of recent Hollywood blockbusters haven't -- a good time, and that's worth something in this sour, divided, alienated present.
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