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Review: “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon

July 30, 2016

GR

Posted here because of Goodreads character limits on reviews…

[note: pretty good chance I’ll be playing fast-n-loose with plot points, themes, and major developments in the book with this review; I’ll try to hide spoilers, but if you’re seriously planning to read this book and want to go in Downy fresh, consider this your warning.]

One of my favorite books about music and the musician behind it is Graham Lock’s Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton. It’s a book I recommend to anyone, not just fans of Mr. Braxton’s considerable musical oeuvre. Lock follows Braxton and his then-current band (his legendary ‘80s quartet) though their financially unsuccessful but artistically brilliant tour of the UK in 1985. Lock speaks to the band, follows the tour, and, mostly, lets Braxton speak at length about his music and his life. He allows much room to explore the workings of Braxton’s incredible musical and philosophical mind. As a composer, Anthony Braxton sifts through jazz, avant-garde composition (Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, etc.), serialism, free improvisation, gospel, court musics of East Asia and many, many other forms into a knotted polyglot of voices and inspirations. But most importantly, Braxton keeps referring to the fact that he’s just scratching the surface of his intentions.

A phrase common to Forces in Motion is “Upper Partials.” It’s a term that I believe Mr. Braxton invented himself (he has dozens of these self-made concepts: tri-axium structures, multi-language musics, gravallic weight), and it refers specifically to the ungraspable nature of his own writing and thinking. When Braxton refers to future compositions, “in which orchestras on different planets, operating via interplanetary interlink, will perform together, conducting an individual concert for people who will each have their own planet in the galaxy,” it sounds like a joke, but Braxton is dead serious. “Of course, I can still compose this knowing that it might not happen in my lifetime.” In particular, Braxton refers to Upper Partials when explaining his hieroglyphic-like (and ever-refining) collection of symbols and diagrams that he uses to title his works (for ease of reference, he also assigns them alphanumeric titles, i.e. Composition #96 or Composition #23B). Lock attempts to understand these titles as they relate to the music (go to http://restructures.net/ and look at the Braxton discography section to see dozens of examples), and doesn’t get the answer he hopes for. Braxton tells him that even *he* doesn’t understand them all!

“Upper Partials,” in other words, refers to forces, energies multi-directional musical approaches that Braxton is attempting to harness in his own music, symbols and systems of energy and tonality and rhythm and harmony and movement that he hopes will coagulate into new ways of thinking the feeling that will uplift the human race, that will be understood by future generations (insert now-standard cynic’s footnote: “…if we’re still here….”) and used to build new artistic movements, new systems of thinking and living, new modes of empathy and universal understanding.

Now that that’s out the way, let’s talk Gravity’s Rainbow.

Y’see, I just finished it this morning. I read the final words, read the last of Weisenburger’s notations, re-read his section intros (definitely save those until you’ve finished that section of the book – spoilers ahoy!), skipped past the last of the Pynchonwiki entries, scrolled around the huge flow-chart detailing the ways the major characters are related (sadly, Joaquin Stick did not warrant a mention), and kept thinking about Upper Partials. Weisenburger makes a pretty good case that GR is intensely circular in its structure: circular like a Mandala, circular like the 12 Test-Stands (rocket launch stations) arranged in a ring at Peenemünde, and, in one of the book’s most confusing explanations of ballistics, circular like a rocket’s path in the absence of ground – without an impact site to stop it (replaced perhaps by a perfectly-constructed tunnel back to the launch site), a rocket’s path would, in theory, loop back around under the earth and form a perfect circle.

Pynchon uses circles and cyclical narratives as well as reversals of cause and effect as structural aids. Over them, he layers religion and ritual from some very specific, obscure sources – the Kabbalah, Teutonic mythology, the Tarot, Rosicrucianism, Herero legends, Native American storytelling – over his story and characters. He finds the overlapping circles in each and overlays them on atop another. He does this to zero in on a target he can’t quite locate – how we as a species have become so desperate to fire missiles and drop bombs on one another.

Like Anthony Braxton, Pynchon is happy to let his reach exceed his grasp. The pieces fit together in an architecturally complex (even staggering) way, and the result is a piece of art and thinking that’s founded its own industry of fact-finders and theorists, but there’s no real end-point. Maybe that’s because human thinking (especially male thinking) hasn’t gotten beyond its obsession with the intermingling of sex and death, penetration and dominance. Perhaps that’s the only point, the point of any art created in response to war: not to stop war (what art could do that?), but to poke at the sore spot in the brain and the soul that the body (humankind) seeks to soothe by redirecting its pain outward, toward other human beings. The solutions aren’t big, they’re small, and they’re ultimately doomed. As a tree recommends in one of the book’s many flights of fancy – if you see bulldozers ready to knock down a forest and nobody’s keeping watch, jump up on that tractor and grab the oil filter. Anything to slow down the system. (“The Counterforce” in a nutshell.)

Beyond the Zero

Much of part one of GR is girded with strong Pavlovian and Freudian psychology. We see a wartime London bombarded by metal penises (the dreaded V-2), violence seemingly at perfect random, a Poisson distribution that, according to statistician Roger Mexico, shows no repeating pattern whatsoever, and therefore offering no way to predict the next strike, to get people to safety, to ward off this evil spell (hence the terror of the opening page. “It’s too late.”). Roger belongs to “The White Visitation” (always in quotes), an organization made up of psychics, occultists, soothsayers, telekinetics, statisticians, and other cranks tasked with predicting the pattern of the V-2 attack. It’s a perfect metaphor for the fear of the future, of war and violence – people turning to mysticism, magic, and math to try to predict the source of future pain and death and misery. But that’s hardly all – “The White Visitation” soon shows itself to be [spoiler, highlight to read]just another government agency protecting its funding even when the V-2s have stopped falling[/spoiler], just like so many other heroes in the book. Like Tyrone Slothrop, the books nominal protagonist, they seek to find the cause-and-effect mechanism of our current problems, but soon find that, somehow, forces higher than themselves have reversed it, gone “beyond the zero” (an insanely difficult to comprehend Pavlovian term that I now understand maybe 10% of) to a point where not only does the stimulus not produce the response, but the opposite occurs: the response causes the stimulus. In this, we see the horror of the V-2, a rocket so much faster than the speed of sound, it makes impact seconds before the sound of its arrival is heard by the victim. (British sources repeatedly report survivors of V-2 attacks who said you would see the explosion first, and only 1 or 2 seconds later did you hear the “screaming come[s] across the sky.”

The mysticism in part one is already overshadowed by much scarier forces in part two, as Slothrop begins to read and learn about how business cartels like IG Farben, Siemens, and the Bayer Company (yep, where the aspirin comes from, kiddies) often worked with US corporations, even in the heat of WWII, to standardize prices on gas, weaponry, and new plastic polymers. Slothrop’s inner narrator stammers into near-mania when he realizes that the missiles that are aimed at London (seemingly right at his erection) were launched from Germany, but with the assistance of radio guide towers in neutral countries. In the midst of war, corporations German and American alike gleefully click away on their adding machines, calculating profit in the face of unending loss. It may have seemed a radical belief in 1973, but our current, far more transparent (FOIA and all that) era has proved it to be true, time and again.

In the Zone

One of the most surprising things about GR as a novel is that it almost completely manages to avoid the key scenes of any WWII novel. There’s no ground battles, no monologues from generals, no tank movements across trenches, no moments of soldiers, sacrifice, and glory. GR completely subverts the WWII novel framework: there’s no beaches of Normandy, no Pearl Harbor, no Ostfront. We open on the tail end of the V-2 blitzkrieg on England, and from there, the bulk of the book takes place between V-E Day and the Atomic Bomb drop on Hiroshima, [spoiler]an event that effectively dissolves and scatters, philosophically speaking, our protagonist[/spoiler].

In this space, Pynchon treats us to the places of WWII few novelists (and not even that many historians) show us – the end of German occupation of Europe, yes, but also a time in which all of the smoking lands and resources left behind are furiously scooped up the allied forces, and, more importantly, small groups and individuals.

The true war is a celebration of markets. Organic markets, carefully styled “black” by the professionals, spring up everywhere. Scrip, Sterling, Reichsmarks continue to move, severe as classical ballet, inside their antiseptic marble chambers. But out here, down here among the people, the truer currencies come into being.

This is the entire thrust of part three, “In The Zone,” and a good portion of Pynchon’s interest from book to book. It’s one of the most fascinating things about this book – it lives almost entirely in the shadow left behind a war (with the battle in the Pacific still in full swing for a bit longer). It’s hard to imagine that “In the Zone” didn’t have a significant influence on that other, more explicit Vietnam allegory, the film Apocalypse Now. Sure, the plot is mostly based on Heart of Darkness, but it shares a lot of its weary trudging through wilderness-as-war-metaphor with GR. Slothrop traverses the gutted landscape of Europe, dressed in different disguises (including the superhero Rocketman and, later, in a colorful, stylized pig costume from a village’s parade ritual), seeing what the war machines left behind. In micro, we see small folks hustling dope (it’s hard to think of this as the “head book” it was marketed as until at least 500 pages in, when the hashish and amphetamines really start to flow) and “services,” Russian agents arguing about classical music, Spanish anarchists, a sex-crazed frigate called the Medusa, and a rundown German version of Disneyland called Zwolfkinder. Stranger in a Strange Land, indeed. It’s the war-time id, refracted through all of its most mindless pleasures (Mindless Pleasures was an early consideration for the title of the book).

Then there are the bigger hustles. Corporations can again collude in semi-public, V-2 scientists are expatriated to Russia and the US, V-2 schematics are hunted and found abandoned in shit-caked lavatories and self-sabotaged laboratories. The tool of such suffering, the V-2 rocket, has been stolen by the Allies, who use Von Braun and others to try and reconstruct it. War isn’t about stopping the V-2. It’s about grabbing it and turning it in the other direction, from the edge of the mandala and back into the center again.

Between Zero and One

Two of the most potent stories (there are at least 24 separate subplots running through this book) are the search for the mysterious Rocket #00000, and, later, the assembly and firing of Rocket #00001. The first is fired by Captain Weissman (aka Blicero, the “white destroyer” of Teutonic mythology – as with other reversals, Pynchon uses the Teutonic symbolism in which white, not black, is the color of death [one of many reasons why adding Weisenburger’s guide to your experience is 100% vital]) early in the book, though the launch itself is only explicitly shown on the final pages. There are several horrifying elements to the rocket and the launch that I won’t recount here (more for spoilers than for your gentle disposition). Weissman (who, like a dozen other characters in GR, first appear in Pynchon’s debut, V.) is an embodiment of the Nazi leadership in their final days, gripped with the inevitability of capture, defeat, and probably violent execution. His sex urge and death urge are comingled in a reverie of hysteria and homicidal impulse, a desire to win, but also to lose on his own terms. The firing of Rocket #00000, containing the mysterious polymer Imipolex G (possibly a key element of Slothrop’s Pavlovian conditioning as a baby by Dr. Laszlo Jamf), is seen as some sort of finale, a final stab from the hand of death, but it’s really not. We hear that Weissman/Blicero goes West, the way of all explorers, and our narrator warns us, “if you’re wondering where he’s gone, look among the successful Academics, the Presidential advisors, the token intellectuals who sit on boards of directors. He is almost surely there. Look high, not low.” More chilling than all the buggery and shit-eating in this book, combined.

And then there is counterpoint, his brother, his opposite, the Herero commander Enzian, of the Schwarzkommando (Black Command), who are assembling Rocket #00001, aimed seemingly in the exact opposite direction as #00000, the direction of whose trajectory is opaquely described in the last paragraphs of the book. Its purpose, other than as a symbolic counterpoint to Blicero’s sacrifice to the god of Death, is uncertain. <spoiler, highlight to read>Weisenburger’s guide convincingly posits that it is aimed toward the heart of Germany, a final destruction of the country that brought Von Trotha’s extermination order to the Herereo (a West African tribe that was subject to brutal, genocidal German rule in the late 1800s and early 1900s) people. Another possibility is that the Herero, committed as they are to a final tribal suicide, perhaps aim it straight up in an attempt to eliminate themselves.</spoiler> For more on Hereros and their part in this saga, go read V. (You should do that anyway…it’s a great book.)

Two-Stage Launch

Part of the joy of reading GR is to read it after having read Pynchon’s debut, V. The realization that Lot 49 was almost certainly a stopgap meant only to keep food on the table while working on GR is all the more obvious after we see all the ropes (tendrils? Ha ha) lashing the first and third books together. The Herero struggle, as mentioned before, is covered in a chapter of V., and several of its main characters (Weissman, Kurt Mondaugen) make appearances again. Favored Pynchon character “Pig” Bodine (here only referred to, earlier in his career of sleaze, as “Seaman Bodine”) has appeared in both V. and the short story “The Low-Lands,” and his ancestor appears, I believe, in Mason & Dixon. Like David Mitchell, Pynchon likes to let his characters spill from book to book, and in this case, a number of the scenarios begun in V. are extended philosophically as well. V. stabs into the past with each alternating chapter, sometimes as far back as the 1800s, sometimes as far forward as the lead-up to WWII. If V.’s main point was the inability to escape the endless cycle of decadence into conflict, then GR turns the microscope to 1000x magnification, focusing precisely on the tail end of conflict and its return to a period of calm which will almost certainly lead to a complacency leading to newfound violence – V. predicted the Suez Canal Crisis as the next shock point, but it would only be a few years before bombings in Cambodia and the intimations of Communist subversion in former French Indochina that would prove to be the fire under Pynchon’s anvil.

Porky Pig vs. the Anarchist

Never one to tell a joke only once, Pynchon recycles his best references from book to book. In The Crying of Lot 49, a bookstore owner tells Oedipa Maas about a cartoon in which Warner Brothers favorite Porky Pig meets a bomb-throwing Anarchist. It sounds like one of Pynchon’s usual flights of fancy (like “The White Visitation,” a government-sponsored psychic agency, or Lot 49’s alternate postal system, W.A.S.T.E.), but this one is really true. There was such a cartoon! It’s called “The Blow Out,” and it’s from 1936. You can see it at DailyMotion here:

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2izh4m

Pynchon’s knowledge runs both deep and wide, he researches fanatically, and his interests have very little in the way of high/low distinctions. Steven Weisenburger, in his GR reader’s guide, notes again and again the depth of Pynchon’s understanding of the intricacies of V-2 production, the chronology of widespread collusion between worldwide chemical conglomerates, and the intricacies of religious and mystical systems ranging from the Tarot to Kabbalah to Teutonic myth (as chronicled by Grimm, he of the fairy tales). Yet, with nearly every head-scratching list, every realistically-plotted historical re-creation, every multilayered machination of war machine, profit center, and side-hustler, Pynchon can’t help add just one fictional element to reminder that you’ll never find every clue, and that Gravity’s Rainbow, as a book, isn’t meant to be solved like a 50-story Rubik’s Cube. It’s a parable, a movie in book form, a magic spell against future cravenness and corruption, a call to action, a big, horrible blast-mirror meant to incinerate (or at least embarrass) the homicidal, rabbit-brained profiteers in our midst.

(aside: a lot of novelists who came up in the ‘60s and the ‘70s alluded to capital-f Film as a primary influence. But in my experience, most of them only used the language of the script and the dialogue of actors, the language itself rather than the mis-en-scene as a whole. Pynchon, especially in this book, really does write a film before your eyes. Scenes open on an empty landscape, lovingly described. Sunrise over a field, a cloudy shore, a ruined flat in London. And then, several descriptive pages later, a character walks into frame, over a hill, from off-camera, like a ‘70s Altman movie, like Lawrence of Arabia slowly approaching from the endless expanse of desert. The tone shifts from sub-section to sub-section are a genre-busting mega-movie in which characters break into song one moment and deliver blood-chilling monologues about war the next, who engage in pie fights from hot air balloons and then engaging in gaggingly visceral bouts of coprophagia (talkin’ about eatin’ a poo-poo there, folks) immediately after. The scene in which Slothrop is subjected to various horrible British candies is as hilarious as Weissman’s subjugation of his slave, Gottfried, is nauseating. And through it all, we hear song after song, erupting with the non-sequiturial brilliance of Busby Berkeley, while still focusing on personal suffering as clear and unflinching as Bresson in Au Hausad Balthazaar.)

This overstuffing of research is a deliberate stylistic move. It would be perfectly possible to capture London during the Blitz without expecting the reader to have an encyclopedic knowledge of who was performing on the BBC the night of December 19. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life certainly doesn’t suffer from this lack of embedded detail, but its goal lies elsewhere. Similarly, Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful The Signature of All Things barely troubles the waters at all with the fact that you’re reading about a person from the 1800s – Alma Whittaker, for all her Victorian repressions and circumscribed opportunities, could just as easily be working in the 1920s, or in certain parts of the 1950s.

Pynchon’s obsessive construction, ESPECIALLY in the first section (it’s no surprise that most people who give up on GR say that they put the book down within the first 200 pages) is a specific choice on his part. At this point, with missiles falling all around us, fear makes time go slow. Every second we wait for the next explosion, we examine our surroundings with obsessive details, looking at every piece of furniture, every stained piece of silverware, every radio program as though it’s the last time we’ll ever see it. Once Slothrop begins his cross-continent excursion through The Zone (Pynchon’s term for the shattered conglomeration of countries [including Germany] and the countries occupied by it, now entering the first days of their reconstruction and regrouping), there’s time to think as you make your way from place to place, days spend walking and without seeing anyone. The narrative slows to reflect this, and, like long-distance communications, the reports from other characters (Russian agent Tchticherine, Enzian and the Schwarzkommando, Franz and Leni Pökler and the flashbacks to Peenemünde) take on slower, more linear dispatches. Like the legendary MC5 documentary (MC5: A True Testimonial), Pynchon increases and decreases the density of information as a form of tone and shading in the narrative to stunning effect.

Beyond Beyond the Zero

There’s a notion that books like GR aren’t really a thing anymore because we as a culture have moved on from wanting or needing them. The so-called Post-Postmodernists like Wallace, Chabon, Diaz, Atkinson, and others have grown past this meta-textual deck of cards, and that characters with deep backgrounds and real feelings have trumped Pynchon’s stock players and grandiose sets. But I don’t think it’s just novels. I think there was something about the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that made people want to suck up every influence and make them into these huge, nearly-toppling rococo structures that left nothing out. If you think about GR as a mirror of its time, you also need to think about The Firesign Theatre’s avant-garde radio plays, each of the first four albums as deep and multi-layered as each of GR’s four sections. Or the dense, meta-textual historical films of Ken Russell (The Demons, The Music Lovers) and Peter Watkins (The Battle of Culloden, Edward Munch). Or even long-form PBS mini-series’ like “I, Claudius.” There was something about that specific time, that specific cycle of decadence leading to conflict anew that lead artists and documentarians toward the grandiose. When people talk about GR’s declining influence now, they speak about the fact that WWII is no longer in recent memory, its final veterans leaving the earth via natural means, and Vietnam allegories of protest no longer resonant in the modern age.

It’s interesting that, as we stand face to face with an enormous, seemingly limitless, array of information about both the past and the present – the great, hoary old series of Tubes we call the internet – art’s tendency (as far as I can see) is plunging ever inward, singular, personal. Which could be awesome, if the plunge inward tended toward philosophical transcendence from technological dependency or moral uncertainties rising from the overwhelming flood of information the internet has brought us. Think about Delillo’s “Joycean book of America…the book in which nothing is left out” in Libra. A book like that, with the resources available via the internet, would be more possible now than ever. Where are the novels dealing with the complexities of the vastly more complex-than-1972 military-industrial complex? What would a GR of 2016 look like? What would its mystic touchstones be? Scientology? Corporatism? In some ways, I think of Robert Ashley’s mountainous operas from the last three decades as a continuance of Pynchon’s book. Much more so than the novels of Mark Danielewski, which appear to be raw data in search of a guiding principle.

“It Has Happened Before, But There Is Nothing To Compare It To Now”

Certainly, plenty of other things date GR. Its depiction of women, for starters, not to mention most non-whites in the book. It’s a pretty standard trick from the early ‘70s, white dudes talking Black or Mexican to show they’re not like those regular bigots – they know the score, man! The Firesign Theatre have this for days. It was meant well – I sincerely believe is was done as a gesture of solidarity, an extension of Lenny Bruce – but as the years go on, it sounds weirder and uglier, a poor way to show solidarity with those who have less privileges in this world than you.

And yeah, when Pynchon talks about “high magic to low puns,” he also means a lot of emphasis on the lower organs. There’s a lot of rape, lotta buggery, lotta sexual slavery, lotta women giving up BJs to random dudes under the guise of “there’s a war on, and we’re all scared, let’s let off some steam!” Maybe so. This, again, is a tactic that has started to fade into obscurity, which I call “it’s gettin’ so bad, they’re even rapin’ our WOMEN!” Rape’s been a shorthand from male writers for decades to represent any escalation of decadence or war atrocity, and it’s not hard to see why it might push female readers away. As a fairly coarse, privileged white dude myself, I plowed through it with ease, but I would, wouldn’t I? I still think there’s plenty of reason to use horrific material in literature, but even Pynchon’s later books seem to approach these same topics without the nihilistic fervor on display here.

At the same time, I hope these reasons aren’t used to explain why it’s not worth approaching GR on its other merits. This is such a philosophically enormous, morally focused book, it would be a shame to see it relegated to the status of something like Memories of Things Past.

Why We Fight (and How)

No matter how smart or clued-in you are to Pynchon’s weirdo wavelength, you’ll never encompass this book in a single reading. It is an enormous, durable set of moral and philosophical inquiries (encased in a bizarre, hurtful, hilarious story) that are capable of absorbing ideas about the world and centering them to their targets, like the radio tower in Belgium directing the V-2 strikes. Already, as I start reading other people’s thoughts on GR and the whole of Pynchon’s “German Period” of writing, I see that people far smarter than me find all sorts of possibilities in this book, and many of them are pretty damn right on! I especially enjoyed Alan J. Friedman and Manfred Puetz’s “Gravity’s Rainbow: Science as a Metaphor” from Harold Bloom’s excellent compendium of essays on Pynchon’s work to 1986. “Science as Metaphor” ties all of the novels – V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow – as well as the early short story “Entropy,” and specifically ties notions of the scientific principle of Entropy to each of them in Pynchon’s understanding of how to order a world, the implications of a world of chaos, and the way that energy must be expended to induce order. It’s a pretty head 12 pages; I highly recommend it. Most important to my own understanding is the way that resisting entropy, i.e. adding energy to a system in order to reverse the flow toward stasis and inaction, full breakdown and energy dispersal to the universe.

One of my big questions from the book was about section four, specifically the activities of The Counterforce. What did they actually do, or accomplish? Are they only doing Merry Prankster activities like Bodine at the dinner party, grossing out executives, or peeing on boardroom tables like Pirate Prentice? Is resistance to an unacceptable system only accomplished through small, futile gestures? Is all we really have to work with the possibility of stealing the oil filter from the bulldozer? We do know, after all, that someone’s going to find another oil filter sooner than later, and the destruction of the forests will continue. The essay argues that a tremendous amount of energy must be expended to reverse the will of entropy, but that re-ordering an existing system (one that may be slowing toward total collapse itself) requires even more. They note a telling line from a person tending mice in a testing lab: “I’d set you free but I don’t know how. It’s not very free out there.”

Whether The Counterforce makes real changes or only keeps putting the blocks on top of one another, resisting the efforts of the universe to move toward complete heat death, is almost beside the point. The struggle is the thing, above all. “It’s not just a resistance/it’s a war.”

Then We Came to the End of another Dull and Lurid Year

Much like my experience reading V. last year, the immersive experience of Gravity’s Rainbow was beyond words. It made me think not just about literature, not just about the money and corporate influence behind the war machine (though that…yes. Very much of that. War is a racket. That must never be forgotten.), but in the way one immerses into the creation of a world, a master statement. The way writing is architecture, and when executed properly, architecture can make you cry and laugh and be a better person in the world. Like James Ensor’s massive, multi-panel work The Temptation of St. Anthony, it’s a testament to the desire to leave nothing out, to take a concept that seeps into our lives and pick at it from every conceivable angle, religious to scientific to philosophical to mystical to profane.

I already can’t wait to re-read it, but I’m going to wait for a while. I’m taking a few months off from Pynchon on Weekends, partly to simulate the 17-year gap between GR and Vineland, and partly so that I can do some other reading (August will be spent with Eleanor Catton’s enormous historical novel The Luminaries, an experience I expect will inform my 2017 reading of Pynchon’s next doorstop, Mason & Dixon), and partly to read some criticism about Pynchon’s first three novels and stories – when he returns in 1990, he’s a changed man. There’s hope, and light, and family, and further retreat from dull, craven society amidst the paranoia. Hopeful hopelessness?

Like Gravity’s Rainbow, I’ll end on a song:

I’m so glad we had this time together,
Just to have a laugh, or sing a song.
Seems we just got started and before you know it
Comes the time we have to say, ‘So long.’

 

Thoughts on Anthony Braxton

November 23, 2015

Anthony Braxton isn’t just trying to build up complexity of sound. He is working with complexity of thought. All human endeavor, to my mind, is striving toward a ambitiousness of thought. Writing, composing, filmmaking. Notwithstanding the desire to “make the complicated simple” (which is an artistic in nature and linguistic in process), we write and create with the idea of joining ideas together, making them larger, planet-sized, universe-sized. Anthony Braxton is clearly a giant thinker in his own mind. He’s blessed with more smarts than most. But in composing with these increasingly interconnected musical systems, these ways of unifying his musical output into a universe-sized system, he is trying to impart big thought (and big emotion) to his listeners, just like Aristotle or any of the great thinkers that we are still simply refining upon without ever surpassing. Once you think your though, and put it out in the world, you give the world a step upon which to climb up one level. And once enough people climb up that one level, then their own thoughts, which are like putting steps to a higher level in place, they start that much higher in the process, like mountain-climbing for altitude, but starting your journey in Denver.

The Stiff-Legged Film Festival presents: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG

March 10, 2015

Quick schedule (scroll down for pics and descriptions):

FRIDAY, MARCH 13:
[Pre-first feature shorts, student films, and TV episodes]

8:00 p.m. – From the Drain [short]
8:15 – Stereo [short]
9:20 – Crimes of the Future [short]
10:30 – Programme X: “Secret Weapons” [TV]
10:55 – Peep Show: “The Lie Chair” [TV]
11:20 – Teleplay: “The Italian Machine” [TV]
[done by midnight]

SATURDAY, MARCH 14:

1:00 to 4:00 p.m. [optional] – recap of Friday’s program, guest’s choice (re-watch of rare stuff from night before for those who couldn’t make it, or even films from previous fests)

4:15 – Shivers [+ start of VHS simulcast]
5:45 – Rabid
7:15 – The Brood
8:45 – Fast Company
10:15 – Scanners
Midnight – Videodrome
[done by 1:30 a.m.]

SUNDAY, MARCH 15:

11:00 a.m. – The Dead Zone
12:45 – The Fly
2:20 – Friday the 13th: the TV Series [TV]
3:05 – Dead Ringers
5:00 – TV Commercials + Maniac Mansion [TV]
5:30 – Naked Lunch
7:30 – M. Butterfly
[done by 9:10 p.m.]

FRIDAY, MARCH 20:

7:00 – Crash
8:40 – eXistenZ
10:30 – Camera
10:37 – Spider
[done by 12:20]

SATURDAY, MARCH 21:

3:35 – A History of Violence
5:10 – At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World [short]
5:20 – Eastern Promises
7:00 – A Dangerous Method
8:40 – Cosmopolis
10:30 – The Nest/Consumed
10:45 – Maps to the Stars
[done by 12:30]

SUNDAY, MARCH 22:

Great big making-of/featurette/documentary blowout day (+ optional re-watches, if anyone wants)
[done by 7:00, if not sooner]


Overview:
After several short festivals in a row (“Gene Hackman in the ’70s,” “The Films of Robert Downey, Sr.,” “The Films of Paul Bartel (and Mary Woronov)”), we’ve finally rolled up our sleeves and cobbled together an appropriately epic multi-weekender.

I’m not sure why David Cronenberg didn’t come up as a Stiff-Leg contender before. He’s really perfect for it. While really spending his entire career circling around the same topics (mutation, physical and mental augmentation, the triumph of the organism, the tribal nature of violence, fast cars, telepathy, the history of psychiatry, subversive literature), his output is wildly varying in style, impact, and experience. From his earliest days as a student filmmaker into his avant-garde period, his work within the confines of Canadian TV in the ’70s, to his early low-budget Canadian horror masterpieces, all the way into the years of filming unfilmable books, probing the core of violence, exploring the fleshy side of the internet, documenting the violent birth of the talking cure, culminating with the latest and greatest film-length “Fuck You” to Hollywood. There are at least four really violent tone shifts over the course of this festival, and we’re going as deep as my research would allow (sorry, I just couldn’t procure those CBC interstitials — I’m sure you’re weeping tears of blood like I am), but I’m so looking forward to enjoying some great films with you all and watching for little through-lines that connect them all.


 Logistics:

ALL START TIMES ARE RIGID!

Unless we’re running late (unlikely!), the start time listed is the exact time we start. No whining, no “wait wait, I’m just circling the block looking for a parking space,” no excuses. 2-3 minutes is all you’re given on average between films; just enough time to queue up for the bathroom.

This year, we’re trying something a little different, both to accommodate more people (if necessary) and just for fun. For Cronenberg’s first five major feature films (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome), we’ll have a second viewing room. A 19-inch color TV equipped with a VCR will be simulcasting VHS versions of these films in a second room. If you want to experience these visceral horror classics the way many of us experienced them for the first time, in grotty VHS fidelity, you’re welcome to do so. If nobody wants to do that, we’ll just treat it as installation art that no one’s interested in. After the first, the VHS room will stay open for the rest of the fest. If you’re not feeling M Butterfly or the Freud/Jung movie, you’re welcome to toddle off to the other room to watch Scanners on VHS again. If no one objects, you can even spend your whole time rewinding and rewatching the exploding head scene, just like the old days.

Some food and drink will be served (possibly even themed food for certain features), but bringing some to share is never a bad idea. If you want to run out and grab dinner somewhere nearby, I have a handful of suggestions of places that are a five minute walk away. And of course, carryout is plentiful and accommodating.


The Schedule

FRIDAY, MARCH 13
Student films, art films, and the confines of Canadian TV

The first night contains no films longer than 65 minutes, and most much shorter. This is the embryonic DNA of the Cronenberg style — the roots of a young filmmaker discovering the things that drive him the most. It might not be as fully realized as tomorrow’s program, but if you’re already a fanatic, you won’t want to miss these rare offerings. (hard to find films will be marked as such — look for the “HELLA RARE!!” graphic on every package!)

(Click images for enlarged versions…some of these movie posters are beautiful)

8:00 p.m.
FROM THE DRAIN [short]

FromTheDrain

This is actually Cronenberg’s second short film — his first, “Transfer,” is damn near impossible to find. (Trust me, I tried. Hard. Ask me about it sometime.) The scarcity of these works is partly due to the fragile nature of the original prints (the Canadian National Archives has them in their archive, but they might be too fragile to even run through a projector to make a digital reference) but mostly to the fact that the director has rejected them as awkward, poorly paced, and amateurish. No matter. Someone threw a timecoded print of his second short, “From the Drain,” onto Youtube and Dailymotion for our edification. It’s a really rough copy — no idea if you’ll be able to see much — but it’s presented for the historical nature of it. The plot: two men sit in a bathtub, talking about an unspecified war they fought in. A snake slowly rises from the drain and strangles one. The other keeps talking, and finally throws his shoes in the closet.  

In short: a student film.


8:15 p.m.
STEREO [short]

Stereo-poster

It was seeing this film at last year’s Sci-Fi and Horror Extravaganza at the Patio Theater that was the catalyst for this festival. (in unison: “Thank you, Stereo…”) If you only know Cronenberg from his visceral horror films, this one is a double-shocker. On one hand, the film — almost a full-length feature at 65 minutes — is eerily similar to Scanners, in which a research campus brings people with possible psychic abilities together for some hard-to-explain reason. Something about enhancing their skills through conditioning or group exercises or something. However, unlike Cronenberg’s later films about homicidal psychics (Scanners) or just people without the abilities to control their minds (The Dead Zone), Stereo is shot as a faux-documentary in beautiful black and white, completely silent save for occasional voiceovers talking some pretty nonsensical scientific gibberish. The main aim of this film is developing a visual language, and is one of the more beautiful and austere films I’ve ever seen, by this director or anyone else. It’s quiet and weird and forces you into its confusing academic rhythms. It also marks the start of the collaboration with the director’s first multi-film “star” actor, one Ronald Mlodzik (pictured below), a scholar at the school who Cronenberg describes as having a “medieval gay sensibility” and a “Catholicism [that] was very medieval.” When I first saw this film, especially in light of its release year (1967), my thought was “do they even make people who look like this anymore?” Clearly, they barely made them like him even then! He’s an amazing, idiosyncratic force in the film, and it’s hard not to be completely mesmerized by him.

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9:20 p.m.
CRIMES OF THE FUTURE [short]

CrimesOfFuturesm

Crimes of the Future is very much in the style of Stereo, with a few twists. This one is in color, and the soundtrack is a little more populated, though still in the “silent with overlaid dialogue” style of its predecessor. Cronenberg calls it a vague follow-up to Stereo, sort of a future look at the world created at the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry in the previous film. It explores a future in which women disappear from the gene pool. As a result, men attempt to adapt by adopting feminine traits. Cronenberg speaks a great deal about dealing with the contrasting energies between men and women, and though it’s still not that heavy on plot, there’s a sense of story progression that Stereo largely lacks. It is also filmed at the same architecturally impressive school as the previous film, the University of Toronto, Scarborough.

Crimes-of-the-Future-Screenshot


10:30 p.m.

PROGRAMME X: “Secret Weapons” [TV]
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Cronenberg calls this his “suppressed film.” It was shot for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) in 1972, right after a stretch where the bulk of his film work was a series of short interstitial pieces created to run between other CBC programming. (No, I wasn’t able to get copies of those either. Ask me about it sometime.) “Secret Weapons” is a stand-alone episode of Programme X, an Alfred Hitchcock Presents-style anthology program. It concerns a secret government organization and a scientist who creates a weapon that turns otherwise passive soldiers into homicidal killers. It also has biker gangs. Like Stereo, it’s a little egg sac filled to rupturing with ideas and obsessions that would recur again and again through Cronenberg’s filmography. It’s an essential piece of the puzzle that you’ll want to see to unlock the full fragrances of the later films.

SecretWeapons


10:55 p.m.
PEEP SHOW: “The Lie Chair” [TV]
TheLieChair 

Also filmed for a Canadian anthology series (lots of those going around in the early-mid ’70s) called Peep Show, this is considered a less compelling contract job that’s noteworthy for being one of only two or three times that Cronenbeg shot direct-to-video. The other is the “Samurai Dreams” section of Videodrome. It’s written by someone else, so the stylistic continuity with the other films might not be there. But, it still might be fun. And besides, it’s only a half hour long! (Peep Show‘s opening credits are great, too.)

TheLieChair2


 11:20 p.m.
TELEPLAY: “The Italian Machine” [TV]
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Presented slightly out of sequence, this made-for-TV mini-movie was released a few months after Shivers, but made more sense to be included here with the other TV material. Funny and weird, this is noteworthy for being the first big appearance of one of Cronenberg’s lesser obsessions, namely fast cars (or, in this case, motorcycles). The Italian machine in question is a beautiful vintage motorcycle acquired by an art collector, who intends to display it in his house and found art. For crying out loud, he’s not going to ride it or anything!! Bikers come to liberate the bike to let it ride free as they know it wants to. Folks who have seen it (I haven’t) compared this to Ballard, which is no surprise — Cronenberg would later collaborate with Ballard to bring Crash to the big screen (and my TV screen). After a few years of wandering about, creating smaller works for TV while working on his long-delayed and hard-to-sell feature film, we’re now ready to go over the precipice tomorrow afternoon and re-start with a bunch of the films that made David Cronenberg the man to beat for visceral horror.

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SATURDAY, MARCH 14

The bloody roots of venereal horror

The thing about this festival is that it’s way too large to do in one weekend, but a bit too short to stretch to two weekends. And besides, nothing lines up where I want it to when I just re-start the next day at noon, like usual. So, in contrast with most of my other festivals, Saturday’s films don’t start until 4:15 in the afternoon. If anyone wants to come out before that, I’d be up for re-watching anything from the night before (or even something from previous festivals?!). Otherwise, have your St. Patrick’s Day fun (note: you puking green beer on my floor does not count as “a piece of Cronenbergian performance art”), get in a nap, run some errands, and we’ll see you later in the day for…


4:15 p.m.
SHIVERS

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Shivers is the one. It just is. If you only want to see one or two by David Cronenberg, make sure it’s either this or Videodrome. Or, ideally, both! Or, really ideally, this whole span of films on Saturday. Because this is the raw, nasty, ooky, brilliant stuff, the first flowerings of a new style in visceral horror cinema. Within its low-budget trappings (shot for only $180,000), the film probes every painful, lurid, and squeamish fantasy and nightmare you can imagine, and pushes buttons you didn’t even know you had. 

A strange parasite infects an isolated resort hotel (the opening credits, featuring a voice-over presentation with slide show about the virtues of the resort, is brilliant), turning its inhabitants into sex-crazed lunatics. The parasites, far from microbial, are nasty slug-like creatures that go in and out of people’s mouths and into each other’s mouths. Everyone is susceptible – women, children, the elderly — and once they’ve got it, the only thing to do is cut it out of them. Even now, it’s a pretty shocking film with ahead-of-its-time special effects and great performances by gothic horror icon Barbara Steele and others.

The screenplay was written by Cronenberg 3 years earlier, and was funded (very reluctantly) by the nascent Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), who were trying to jump-start a film culture in Canada by giving opportunities to emerging directors. However, it was soon clear that their idea of great movies was something decidedly more provincial and pedestrian (think the SCTV parody “Garth and Gord and Fiona and Alice“) than stories about parasites that turn people into nymphomaniacs. After endless fights with the gatekeepers (and some help from credibility-boosting producer Ivan Reitman), the untested Cronenberg got his first big break. And, by his own admission, he had to fake his way through the first few weeks of the ins and outs of the movie-making machine. (“I knew my cinematographer, but what does a Focus Puller do?”)

Shivers was an enormous financial success for Cronenberg and the Canadian film industry (and, by extension, the taxpayers of Canada), and made its money back many times over. It was a hit in the US (where it was briefly retitled They Came From Within) and all over the world. In the early days of VHS culture, Shivers was a staple among horror fanatics, which is why we’ll be simulcasting this (and most of the other films playing tonight) on VHS in a second room. You get your choice of viewing experiences! Absolutely not to be missed!

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5:45 p.m.
RABID
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Noteworthy as an extension of the contagion idea of Shivers, this time with an affliction that rampages through the entire city, the real story of Rabid is its lead actress. Marilynn Chambers, the former “Ivory Snow” cover-girl was only recently being discovered as one of the first queens of the newly decriminalized X-rated movie circuit. Beyond the Green Door and The Resurrection of Eve are porno classics, largely on the strength of their lead’s sexual charisma and girl-next-door beauty. Cronenberg originally wanted Sissy Spacek (based on her performance in Badlands) for the lead, but she was already booked to film Carrie and was unavailable. Chambers was eager to try her hand at a serious acting role, and Cronenberg was more than happy to give her the chance. The symbol of her infection — a throbbing, mutating pustule nestled in her armpit — still makes my toes curl a little bit. Jury’s out on whether Chambers really rises to the acting occasion here, but Cronenberg has indicated time and time again that he thinks she did great work for the film.

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7:15 p.m.
THE BROOD

 TheBrood

Sometimes art imitates and life, and sometimes art is created as a bastardized reflection of life. The Brood was written during a particularly acrimonious divorce between Cronenberg and his first wife that involved messy custody of their children. The film’s a harrowing look at a marriage in ruins, with a reveal at the end that’s among the three or four most well-known Cronenberg images, right up there with the exploding head in Scanners. Cronenberg calls this his most “angry” film of the time, and its nasty edge is still there. While we’ve all seen our fair share of “creepy kids” as horror villains, the sum total here is a pint-sized terror that packs a full-size wallop. Again, not to be missed.

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8:45 p.m.
FAST COMPANY

fast company poster

 Here’s one of those oft-spoken but seldom seen gems from Cronenberg’s early canon. Following along from “The Italian Machine,” we again return to one of his lesser obsessions — fast cars. In the book “Cronenberg on Cronenberg,” he speaks of obsessively subscribing to hot rod magazines as a pre-teen, learning everything there was to learn about motors and engines and the different ways they can be put together. He has also said that he’s had many different life-changing experiences; not just books or movies, but scientific discoveries and even driving certain high-performance cars. All life-changing, in their way. So, even if it’s mostly a by-the-numbers ’70s drag racing movie, it’ll be interesting to see what Cronenberg-specific details make their way in. And yes, as the pic below attests, there’s a bit of nude frolicking involving a can 10W-30. Get stoked.

(fun trivia: there will be no VHS simulcast of this film because “Fast Company” was the only one of Cronenberg’s early films to come out exclusively on Betamax! [No, I did not buy a copy {though I saw one on Ebay} and a Betamax player. I’m obsessive, but I have my limits.])

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10:15 p.m.
SCANNERS

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I should hope I don’t need to tell you that this is one of the three or four films you MUST see by Cronenberg, if you haven’t already. An enormous hit on release (it even spawned several sequels and reboots, none of them by the original director) and a visually iconic movie of the ’80s. If you didn’t see the exploding head in the theater or on video, you probably heard someone talking about it on the playground. It’s just as rangy as you’d expect it is, and was accomplished by taking a balloon, filling it with animal entrails, and exploding it from behind with a shotgun. (A featurette about the special effects in Scanners will be shown a week from Sunday.) The rest of the movie is no slouch, either, a taut and compelling techno-thriller about the hunt for a new breed of mutated humans with dangerous telepathic abilities. It has a great soundtrack, great locations, a terrific story, and a bad-ass final showdown. (It also has some nice footage of vintage Canadian shopping malls, if that’s your thing.) NOT TO BE MISSED!

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12:00 midnight
VIDEODROME

Videodrome1

I’m hoping that something blows me away at this festival even more than Videodrome, but I seriously doubt it. Do I really have to sell this one to you? This is IT. Videodrome, man! C’mon! Simply the apogee of the VHS-era horror genre, and has the added bonus of being about VHS and underground horror and public access culture. It also has a fairly high-profile cast (James Woods, Debbie Harry), incredible special effects, and a nasty bite to it that leaves all predecessors in the dust. It also turns its cameras on its own fans, positing hardcore pornography and violence as almost cancerous agents to the human body. You won’t soon forget these images — the hand with the gun trying to poke through the skin-like TV screen, the fuzzy underground programs, James Woods’ gnarly stomach-fissure and his work with a bullwhip and a TV set. It’s fuzzy and ambiguous in all the best ways, and it’ll linger with you for ages and ages. It’s also the best of the early films at blurring the lines of what’s really happening and what might just be a dream or a hallucination. If you’ve seen it before, you already know this and want to see it again, either in a tight and shiny Criterion edition, or in a just-as-God-intended VHS variant. Starts at midnight, because it’s a Midnight Movie. TOP RECOMMENDATION.

Videodrome2



SUNDAY, MARCH 14

Big budgets, big stars, big transformations

Videodrome‘s massive success lead to higher-profile work and much bigger budgets, but the animus that drives these films is still the same. Cronenberg still films in Toronto, still gives us visceral imagery, and writes his stories with more complex and ingenious plot lines than ever, whether adapting previous books or movies or creating his own. Last night was the best night, but Sunday has a lot going for it, too.


11:00 a.m.
THE DEAD ZONE

DeadZone1

The massive success of Videodrome raised Cronenberg’s profile significantly, and he was now being offered opportunities like this one, to direct with a bigger budget ($10 million), bigger stars (Christopher Walken), and with a story from the biggest writer of the time (based on a novel by Stephen King). The overt gore of the previous films is toned down here in favor of another Cronenbergian theme — psychic powers. Considered one of the better Stephen King book-to-film adaptations, it’s still kind of a low-key film in the Cronenberg universe, hence its early-Sunday start time.

DeadZone2


12:45 p.m.
THE FLY

TheFly1 

One of the best intersections between Cronenberg’s big-budget/high profile Hollywood hits and his queasy body-horror films. This time its Jeff Goldblum, clearly quite in love with his physique (check the left photo below), as a scientist who is a bit too eager to use his own biology in his studies of other organisms. I mean, I’ll stop here — whether you know the original from the ’50s or the Simpsons parody, you know the bones of the story. Once again, this had really wide distribution and a big budget, and I suspect that a lot of people expecting a fun, campy remake of the ’50s so-scurred-I-dropped-my-popcorn classic got more than they bargained for. 

TheFly2


2:20 p.m.
FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE TELEVISION SERIES (Episode: “Faith Healer”)

Friday_The_13th_The_Series

 Because I wanted to make this as complete as possible, I found a copy of Cronenberg’s episode of the weekly anthology show branded with the Friday the 13th name. It’s a good premise, this story — a fraudulent faith healer finds a magic glove that allows him to actually heal people. However, there’s a tradeoff: for each person he heals, someone else must die. Since it’s made-for-TV, I don’t know how explicit it’ll be allowed to get, but we’ll see. 

Friday the 13th2


3:05 p.m.
DEAD RINGERS

DeadRingers1

Another all-time classic, including a classic double performance from Jeremy Irons, who plays twin brothers who are also gynecologists. The impression of twin Ironses is achieved not just through excellent motion-capture work, but by Irons’ skill at creating two siblings who are identical physically but thoroughly contrasted emotionally. There’s drugs, double dealings, sexual role-swapping, and some truly horrifying gynecological instruments that you can see below, so tread lightly. Beyond all of that, though, we get a really nuanced and disturbing story, almost like a Phillip K. Dick novel of the ’70s, in which peoples’ perception of the world and themselves starts to blur through paranoia, drug use, and stress (I’m thinking “A Scanner Darkly,” especially). I found an out of print Criterion edition of this which all the internet fidelity nerds say is the cleanest and sharpest print of this you’ll see until a blu-ray happens.

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DeadRingers3


5:00 p.m.
MANIAC MANSION (TV Series) & TV COMMERCIALS

 Maniac Mansion1

I was told that Cronenberg directed an episode of this strange, short-lived, largely unfunny but apparently beloved Canadian sitcom starring Joe Flaherty and based very loosely on a computer game from the ’80s. But it’s not true — he just makes a cameo appearance. But I’m leaving it in, dammit, because as the icon says, it’s HELLA RARE!! (And I had to pay more than I wanted to to get it.) Also, I found a clutch of TV commercials Cronenberg filmed around this time, for what reason I don’t know. Watch a tycoon try to protect the Caramilk secret, a Nike shoe hatch out of a Alien-like egg pod, and the cleaning men of Ontario Hydro beg of you (BEG OF YOU!) to turn off the lights and electrical equipment at the end of your work day.

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Caramilk

OntarioHydro


5:30 p.m.
NAKED LUNCH

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Cronenberg doesn’t just film books — he seems to specifically go out of his way to film what are generally considered unfilmable books. In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, David mentions that his twin loves in his youth (apart from race cars) were literature and science, and that “William Burroughs, Henry Miller, and some of the people T.S. Eliot introduced to America” were his earliest loves. He wisely avoids a literal and “faithful” rendition (which he and others have said would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to be done right and would be banned in every country) in favor of a woozy, hallucinatory combination of elements of the book with highly fictionalized and altered details from the life of Burroughs himself. The fabulous Peter Weller plays Bill Lee, an exterminator in Tangiers who has gotten hooked on his own supply…of bug powder. The shifting realities are so pervasive through the film that it’s hard to know from step to step whether your foot is coming down on solid ground. It’s funny and creepy and it has great bug-riddled special effects and the soundtrack (by Ornette Coleman) kicks fucking ass… I mean really, it’s as good a Sunday blues chaser as you’re likely to find without resorting to Bug Powder.

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7:30 p.m.
M BUTTERFLY

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Closing the night on a film I kind of suspect nobody is going to stay for. Oh well…there’s one in every bunch. That said, what would make Cronenberg want to direct a film based on a 1988 play about the relationship between a French diplomat and a male-dressed-as-a-female Peking Opera singer? Is this an update of Crimes of the Future, in which gender roles and identifies are ever-shifting? Maybe! Come and find out. Your DVR can tape your Sunday night stories for you.

M Butterfly



FRIDAY, MARCH 20

Crash into the future, live in the past, game in another world

A bit of this and a bit of that as we channel J.G. Ballard, get jacked in video-game world, and untangle the filament-thin threads of memory and pain.


7:00 p.m.
CRASH

Crash1

Unfilmable book, part II. J.G. Ballard’s Crash is absolutely positively one of my favorite books of all time. I discovered it around the time this movie came out, but didn’t see the movie until much later. It’s really a masterful book. It’s clinical and precise and exacting and lurid without being leering or cheap. Ballard basically creates a fetish — people who are sexually aroused by the sight of, and being involved in, car crashes — out of whole cloth, and follows it down to its final, monstrous conclusions. It was written at a time when Ballard’s every new book seemed more extreme and stunning than the last (starting with Atrocity Exhibition and following through with Concrete Island and High Rise), creating a completely unique corner in the world of dark, exotic fiction — it would be misleading to call his work from this time “sci-fi.” And of course, Crash influenced so many Industrial bands, especially The Normal, whose song “Warm Leatherette” is one of those songs it’s impossible to cover poorly; I’ve heard five different renditions, including one by Suzi Quatro, and they’re all great.

Anyway, Cronenberg doesn’t stick strictly to the book, taking the case history feel of the book and translating it more into a linear story. The movie has its detractors, mostly Ballard fans who feel outraged on his behalf of some of the big changes in look or style, but Ballard himself heartily approved the final product, saying that it was everything he could have hoped for.

Because we’re all adults here, we’re watching the NC-17 version (the DVD includes a tamed-up R rated version), so don’t come crying to me.

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8:40 p.m.
eXistenZ

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Arriving in theaters in the same year as The Matrix, critics tended to pit these two films against each other. Both deal with a “real” world and an artificial world achieved by technology. The Matrix is a more straight-ahead adventure story with a glossy sheen, state of the art CGI, and a taste for Chosen One mythology (and, of course, two piss-poor sequels). eXistenZ (man, that fucking spelling…) is Cronenberg, so of course it’s a lot more fleshy and pulsating. It’s dark and psychotropic and intellectually calculating and brooding. It has loads of great performances (Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe) and it’s a great return to his most body-mutating style with the benefit of next-generation technology and of-the-minute obsession. You really ought not miss this.

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10:30 p.m.
CAMERA [short]

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A little 5-minute diversion, created for an anthology short-film collection. Story is based on a dream Cronenberg had about rapidly aging while watching a film in the theater.


10:37 p.m.
SPIDER

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A dark-horse contender in the canon of best Cronenberg films. Snapping back from eXistenZ and its focus on the body surrounding the mind, Spider takes us into memory, mental illness, and childhood trauma, with one of Ralph Fiennes’ best performances ever. Based again on a novel (by Patrick McGrath), it’s just heavy and beautiful and intense, so stop pretending like you’re going to leave early tonight, dammit.

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SATURDAY, MARCH 21

Violence of the body, violence of the mind, violence of the market, and violence of stardom

We start in full-on brutality mode with two of Cronenberg’s neck-breaking best, then put our clothes back on and talk it out before crashing the system and clawing our way to the top. Cronenberg’s latest films are a crazy-quilt, but still very much of a piece with his classic work. No downdrafts here.


3:35 p.m.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

 HistoryOfViolence1

The first part of a diptych of films exploring very similar themes, namely the primal human impulse toward violence. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a mild-mannered family man who becomes an overnight hero after violently confronting a robber in his diner. The act of violence brings him national attention and unwanted hero status, as well as the attention of some much more violent people who mistake him from someone they knew before. The man who made the split-second decision now must fight harder for his family and his life than he ever has. This is another violent tone-shift in Cronenberg’s work, in which all sci-fi, horror, and psychic undertones of scrubbed out in favor of a story about violence. And sex. Bit of sex.

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5:10 p.m.
AT THE SUICIDE OF THE LAST JEW IN THE WORLD IN THE LAST CINEMA IN THE WORLD [short]

Suicide

Another short created for an anthology collection called To Each His Own Cinema. Cronenberg plays the titular character, contemplating suicide by pistol while a pair of announcers provide color commentary. Unsettling, but maybe a bit corny?


5:20 p.m.
EASTERN PROMISES

EasternPromises1

The other half of our diptych about violence. And tattoos. And the Russian mob. Again starring Viggo Mortensen. This one is a real gut-churner — check the image below. You’ve been warned.

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7:00 p.m.
A DANGEROUS METHOD
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Huh. didn’t see that coming, did you? Following an afternoon of films all of which promise “Strong Brutal and Graphic Violence, some Graphic Sexuality, Language, and Nudity,” we get…a period piece based on the working relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen again), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and their star patient (Kiera Knightley), who wishes to become a doctor herself. Again, all of the tendrils in Cronenberg’s catalog of obsessions keep tying and re-tying themselves. All the way back to “Transfer,” his first short film in which a patient won’t stop following his shrink around, the psychiatric profession has fascinated him, and with movies about schizophrenia, psychic powers, and shifting interior worlds, maybe it’s less than surprising that he’d take it all the way back to its core. Still, if you’re waiting for someone to pull a strop razor or detonate someone else’s dome with brain rays, you’re going to be waiting a long time. This is all talking cure, all the time. Kiera Knightly does give a fairly heated performance as a patient being treated for “hysteria.” Also noteworthy for being one of the few Cronenberg films not to be shot in Toronto.

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8:40 p.m.
COSMOPOLIS
 cosmopolis1

Another novel adaptation, this time by my homey Don Delillo. One of Delillo’s late-period novels (2003), Cosmopolis is one of his shorter works (as they’ve all been after Underworld), taking place in one day in the life of Eric Packer, an obscenely rich asset manager who takes a limo across town to get a haircut. Structured loosely on Ulysses and predicting the rise of Occupy and the collapse of the Western economy, it’s not a half-bad book, if a bit slight in the Delillo corpus. Having read it just a few weeks ago, it’s fresh enough in my mind that I can image all of the touches Cronenberg will add to certain key scenes to make them his own. Of course, because I sort of knew who the cast was going in, I couldn’t see Eric Packer in my book-mind without imagining his screen equivalent, Head Vampire in Charge (HVIC) Robert Pattinson. Might not be for you, but I’m rooting for it to be good.

Cosmopolis2


10:30 p.m.
THE NEST/CONSUMED [shorts]
Nest1

Two more nasty little short films, basically promotional work for Cronenberg’s recently-released first novel, Consumed. The jump to print isn’t that surprising — Cronenberg on Cronenberg points out that he basically started out aspiring to be a novelist after switching to the sciences and before switching again to filmmaking. His treatment for Stereo was basically written as a novel in order to secure funding from an arts company that was more interested in print than film. Anyway, it’s a topless woman in a grotty examining room who thinks she has bugs inside her or something. I haven’t watched it yet.


10:45 p.m.
MAPS TO THE STARS
 MapsToTheStars1

“Damn, Sienko,” you’re asking, “how’d you find this movie? I thought it just played at the Music Box for the first time two weeks ago??” You’re right, it did. But you’re going to get to watch it in my living room instead! (Thanks, UK!) Another hard-right-turn from our venereal horror man, this time a scalding attack on Hollywood and everything it represents, using his trademark body disfigurement and psychic breakdown to make visual the subtitle of Cintra Wilson’s book A Massive Swelling: “Celebrity Reexamined as Grotesque Crippling Disease.” Julianne Moore goes full-on terrifying for this one, along with Pattinson again, John Cusack, Olivia Williams, and Carrie Fisher as herself. What might seem on the surface to be a modern re-work of The Player is likely going to be a lot nastier and heavier. Unsurprisingly, it got no Oscar nods. 

Maps to the Stars



SUNDAY, MARCH 21

Documentaries, making-ofs, interviews, ephemera

The last day of any of these festivals ends with a day of going through the DVD supplements, featurettes, and special effects documentaries that come with each DVD. In addition, I found some rare TV appearances (Late Night with David Letterman, Canadian news broadcasts of Cronenberg on the red carpet, local TV interviews, Cronenberg self-spoofing appearances on Canadian sketch-comedy shows) and other weirdness. It’s all a bit too loosey-goosey to give you a full minute-by-minute rundown of what’s going to happen, but I’m sure you’ll have fun. And if you don’t, we can always put in Shivers on the VCR again.

1:00 p.m.
LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG [documentary]
LongLiveTheNewFlesh

The first big career-wide documentary about Cronenberg, and still the one most people think of. Features interviews with Martin Scorsese, Stephen King, Jeff Goldblum, and critic Robin Wood.

And with that…

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU MADE IT!
NOW GO HOME!!

Dalton Minor & the Ladies of the Canyon

May 30, 2009

Dalton

No, no, that’s a common mistake…you’re thinking of KAREN Dalton, the ’60s folkie with authentic Billie Holiday replica pipes under the hood and Fred Neil compositions in the glove box. This is KATHY Dalton. She had a record on Zappa’s label in the ’70s. No, DiscReet, the one after Bizarre/Straight, I think. Something about one-night stands. I know it’s not “Whiskey Bars and One-Night Stands” because that doesn’t rhyme, and the title rhymes, but it’s something like that. Just found it on Wednesday, only five bucks!

Kathy Dalton is the latest pin in the map of one of my favorite areas of musical geography, the ’70s female singer-songwriter genre. I’m not sure what vitamin deficiency suddenly manifested in my bloodstream, but about six or seven years ago, with no real precedent or reason given the rest of my musical tastes, I started getting really itchy to hear any records from Women On Their Own in the ’70s. All of a sudden, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Janis Ian were especially fascinating to me. Whether weirdly abstracted (Joni’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, featuring the otherworldly “The Jungle Line,” played on Moog, acoustic guitar, and tapes of Burundi drumming), AM golden (Tapestry, duh), hide-the-razorblades depressing (I will gladly pit Janis Ian’s Between the Lines against ANY Jandek record you care to throw at me for uncut, 24-hour-suicide-watch depression), or just plain anemic (even the Muscle Shoals rhythm section just can’t inject much oomph into the iron-deficient vocals of Ms. Joan Carol Butler, but I’ll never sell it), it all sounded good. The sound, style, and frayed-nerve emotions of these tough ladies of mellow music really zonked me! Even now, as I feverishly attempt to fill in the gaps in my Crawl Unit collection, or squint my ears in hopes of decoding the threads of variation that differentiate assorted practitioners of Wall Noise, I still get mighty giddy when stumbling upon a confessional classic like Wendy Waldman’s Love Has Got Me, Bonnie Koloc’s After All This Time, or Teresa Trull’s femme-secessionist classic The Ways A Woman Can Be, in which the all-woman/all-lesbian production company really take the phrase “Sisters are doing it for themselves” to its impeccably-designed conclusion.

Obviously, the gingham dresses (or smart pantsuits), absurdly long and straight hair (or giganto poodle-fros) and soft-focus album covers evoke a comparatively innocent era of instant Sanka, hiding the therapy session bills from your husband, A-Frame houses in the Valley, and Mary Hartman as feminist hero, a time before Phillis Schlafly and took a riot hose to the ERA, and a time that feels, as my friend Eddie Flowers once put it, “like a comparatively saner era, unlike our present day, which resembles a William S. Burroughs novel.” But I don’t think I can lay thanks (or blame) purely at the feet of historical escapism.

There’s a toughness at work in these albums that is completely different from just-one-of-the-lads machoness of Suzi Quatro, Betty Davis, or The Runaways, but without being coy, male masturbatory fantasies like Olivia Newton John, Linda Ronstadt, or, well, The Runaways (all of which I love, don’t get me wrong). It may be maudlin, it may be pithy, but damn it, it’s real, and it’s homemade…except when it’s contrived and studio-glossed, and even then, it’s great!

The best part is that “female singer-songwriters of the ’70s” is not a strict genre classification, so my obsession can shuffle seamlessly between folk, country-rock, piano ballad, and L.A. “Mellow Mafia” pop morsels. Artifacts of this era can be found as far back as ’68 or ’69 (the title track from Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon kind of sets the template, enough so that I’ve decided to appropriate the title to classify this loose conglomeration of women/styles/albums), and credible classics (or at least intriguing missteps) can still be found well into the ’80s (check out Janis Ian’s crazed handshake with techno-disco, 1983’s Uncle Wonderful), with Joan Armatrading proudly carrying the flag forward well into the era of Reagan/Thatcher. At which point, it seems like the roles for musical women further polarized into sexy-slinky or butchy-punchy in the style of Riot Grrl. No room left for a gal and her piano to bend your ear about last night’s mistake at the bar, and the stranger in her bed this morning.

Several times in last few years, I’ve seriously considered creating a really janky-looking Geocities web site under an assumed character name, a housewifey fan of this type music who has been listening since the ’70s, but just now set up a web page to talk about “all these great albums from when I was younger, back when I had less problems in my life,” and have her critique the albums as I find them. I think I was going to call her Lynn something-or-other. I’m not sure why I felt I needed a pseudonym to write about this music…I just thought it would just be funny. For now, this blog will suffice…truth be told, I don’t have time for costume parties these days, anyway.

There will be lots more on this subject, including copious reviews of individual albums, but until then, here’s an annotated Hot 10 to get you started. As you can imagine, you probably won’t have to pay much more than a tenner to pick up most of the entire list, and you’d probably have just as much luck finding these at your local Goodwill as any high-end record store.

1. Janis Ian, Between the Lines (Columbia, 1975)

This is the blueprint for the whole damn thing — the icy piano, the pristinely-recorded accompanists, melodramatic strings, songs of loneliness and alienation, somehow appropriated as music to do macrame to. Starting with a relatively upbeat number (“When the Party’s Over”…seriously, “When the Party’s Over” is the UPBEAT number here!), the album spirals quickly into a funnel of gloom, regret, and anxiety, starting with the alienated classic, “At Seventeen,” surely one of the most morose songs ever to make it onto the top 10 in the pop charts, right? My favorite is “In the Winter,” a fable of fears of impending spinsterism that includes a cruelly clammy encounter with an ex-:

I met your friend
she’s very nice, what can I say?
It was an accident
I never dreamed we’d meet again this way
you’re looking well
I’m not afraid.

You have a lovely home
just like a picture. No, I live alone
I found it easier
you must remember how
I never liked the party life
up all night, lovely wife
you have a lovely wife.

(And yes, I am aware that decisions in Ms. Ian’s life a few years later made the gender of the person being spoken to quizzical, but it in no way blunts the impact. So don’t hand me that smirk.)

We only get a spoonful of relief at the record’s closer, the elegiac “A Lover’s Lullaby,” a song that comes at a point when you pretty much need a shoulder to sob on, and possibly, a talking-down. I admit, I only came upon Ian’s music after her brilliant essay on file-sharing, which spurred me to pick up some of her early classics. I love that her brilliant career has had not only a second act (this album and the albums that followed throughout the ’70s and early ’80s), but something of a third one as well from the late ’90s/present, crafting her bitter anthems into a format that casts her as the matriarch for modern bile-spitters like Ani DiFranco (not my cup of tea, but I dig the fact that she and Janis are BFFs very much). Her recent autobio, Society’s Child, is very near the top of my to-read pile.

2. Joni Mitchell, Court & Spark (Asylum, 1974)

Sometimes, the obvious choice is the best choice, and with Joni, you don’t have to traverse the deep cuts or hard-to-find obscurities to hit gold. (Doing so will yield rich fruit, though: I highly recommend Hejira, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and the double-live Shadows and Light for more spot-on ’70s Joni.) Blue is perhaps a more solid album from end to end, but this one gets the tone just right for the purposes of this list, from the smooth horns on “Help Me,” to the chooglin’ L.A. Express rock of “Raised on Robbery.” Plus, as anyone who’s ever tried to actually play a Joni Mitchell song can tell you, these deceptively straightforward hooks are girded on their undersides with all manner of stinging nettles and sharp barbs, so watch those wandering hands, fella.

3. Essra Mohawk, Primordial Lovers (Reprise, 1970)

Possibly the one album on this list you’ll have to spend more than a fiver to acquire on vinyl, due in part to her connection with Frank Zappa (she played in an early, pre-Freak Out! incarnation of the Mothers, and various legends contend that she was the first person to be named “Uncle Meat” by Frank, long before the album of the same name) and also to the relatively small copy run of this Reprise album. Rhino Handmade recently published an essential twofer pairing this one with her hit-and-miss third album, both of which are well worth your ears. (Her debut, recorded under her birth name Sandy Hurvitz, is titled Sandy’s Album is Here at Last! [Verve/Straight, 1967], and is recommended mostly for fanatics, Zappa or otherwise.) Most of the tracks are piano/vocal, with long, meandering, cyclical structures, and accompaniment ranging from sparse to overblown, conducted by Essra’s occasionally childlike, frequently feral vocal gymnastics. “I Have Been Here Before” was the partial inspiration for CSNY’s “Deja Vu,” and the countrified “Thunder in the Morning” was a “cheer up, honey” song for her then-lover Graham Nash, giving you a sense of whose coffee nooks she was using to scribble lyrics into a notebook in those days. She later went on to write “Change of Heart,” which was a huge hit for Cyndi Lauper in the 1980s (you might also remember her for her vocals on the Schoolhouse Rock! classics “Interjections!” and “Sufferin’ ’til Sufferage“). She also tried her hand at a new wave album in the mid-’80s which I will never sell, and you probably do not want (but should). The weird-girl-in-her-bedroom-vs-the-world vibe on this record, combined with its frequently shocking references to physically and emotionally-fulfilling sex (gasp! put the kids to bed before they hear!) make this record a hard act to follow.

4. Wendy Waldman, Love Has Got Me (Warner Brothers, 1973)

Bit of a left-fielder (seriously, Wendy who?), and maybe not as lyrically astute as any of the above (okay, DEFINITELY not as astute), but never fear: this album is a perfect, sunny little nugget of goofy-grin pop with mild musings about smart women making bad decisions in their choice of suitors (“Vaudeville Man,” for example). “Gringo en Mexico” is absurdly first-world (and yes, she pronounces it “Mehico”), but I love it just the same. “Train Song” has the type of sun-pouring-into-my-third-eye harmonies seldom heard outside the best albums by Saint Emmylou. The rest of her output’s got no flies on it, either.

5. Carole King, Tapestry (Ode, 1971)

I really, really, REALLY wanted to give this slot to Carole’s solo debut, Writer, mostly for its slightly rockier sound (thanks in part to the sizzly guitar of then-beau Danny “Kootch” Kortschmar on “Spaceship Races,” “Raspberry Jam,” and others) and its ramshackle, rough-around-the-edges sequencing. But I just couldn’t do that in good conscience. To ignore Tapestry is to ignore the 2000 lb. elephant in the room — an elephant in a loose-fitting cableknit sweater with a cat in the foreground. This record is straight-up unfuckwithable: “It’s Too Late,” (I realize that I’m the last person on the face of the planet to be an electric piano apologist, but seriously, the el. p. fills in the chorus are just SUMPTUOUS) “I Feel the Earth Move,” “You’ve Got A Friend,” “Smackwater Jack,” “So Far Away,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and on and on…anon anon anon. Ignore the 10 million who have bought this record before you, and pretend that you’re the first person on your block to own this. It might just set your puny mind on fire. (Alternate theory: I could be full of shit.)

6. Laura Nyro, Eli & The 13th Confession (Columbia, 1968)

As mentioned before, the form definitely got its start in the late ’60s, and lady Laura’s hot platter number deux hits all the right buttons several years before this style became an industry. You may know many of these tracks from charting versions by the 5th Dimension (“Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness”), Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Comin'”) or Blood Sweat & Tears (“And When I Die”), but Laura’s got her own thing going, working both ends of the spectrum, both fussy perfectionist and skinny-white-lady-sings-great-big-gospel bawling, pretty much simultaneously. After a few more great albums in the early ’70s, she took a hiatus to raise a family, resurfacing in ’76 with Smile (more Joni-ish), up through the early ’90s, before dying of ovarian cancer in 1997. (Essential bookend volume: 1971’s New York Tendaberry, which is probably even more LOTC than this, but is a bit involuted and rococo as an introduction to Ms. Nyro’s work. As graduate-level LOTC studies, though, it’s worth 2 solid credit hours, one for each side.)

7. Bonnie Koloc, After All This Time (Ovation, 1971)

A local Chicago lesser-known who came up in the same coffeehouses as John Prine and Steve Goodman. Her debut contains an indelible image of Ladies of the Canyon-ism, Bonnie sitting in an antique armchair, decked out in a heavy peasant/folk-inspired muumuu, eyes closed in throes of moderate ecstasy, gray light coming through heavy drapes, surrounded by potted ferns, antique lamps, and a shaggy dog (probably named Boo, or possibly Sinclair). My girlfriend says it reminds her of every image in the book Our Bodies, Ourselves that isn’t a drawing of a uterus. I think it looks like a conscious attempt to take the visual motif of Tapestry and amplify it to the next level of the absurdly womblike. Heavier curtains! More comfy furniture! A cuddlier pet! Comfier clothing! The weather outside is more grim! Bonnie is too deep in contemplation to even look wearily at you! The inside cover paints another picture, the band (plus a young child) giving off that “desperate hippie enclave” vibe I usually associate with edge-of-towners like Amon Duul, MC5, or Ya Ho Wa 13 (albiet with more clothes and less shotguns). Starting with the roiling psychedelic opener “Don’t Leave Me,” the album simmers down quickly into less occult waters, including a song called “Jazz Man” that’s totally different from the song which would later become a hit for both Carole King and Lisa Simpson. Bonnie would later have a local hit in “You’re Gonna Love Yourself in the Morning,” a sunny ode to the one-night-stand (?) without shame or regret, doing for it what Altman’s California Split does for gambling — both are morality fables where the moral of the story is “try it, you’ll like it!” (Released on the Glenview, IL-based Ovation Records, a classy bunch if ever there was…all their albums were pressed in Quad!)

8. Maggie & Terre Roche, Seductive Reasoning (Columbia, 1975)

Best known at the time as Paul Simon’s backup singers on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, these two Roche sisters later added younger sister Suzzy, amping up their (last-)name recognition in the late ’70s and setting the bar high for ambitious dorks with vocal harmonies from a land far beyond our comparitively tin-eared one. This record keeps the sexual tension, but roots it in a country-rock framework with a more standard ’70s presentation. Less jokes, more heart, and more ache. No Robert Fripp interjections here, but at the same time, you get far fewer faux-Andrews Sisters moments, either, so it balances out. “Telephone Bill” is a favorite (and is no relation to Bootsy Collins’ “What’s A Telephone Bill?”).

9. Ellen McIlwaine, We The People (Polydor, 1973)

Ellen’s flowing red tresses fill the field of the album cover, her face downcast in some sort of serious contemplation (the farm problem, the afterlife, how much bourbon was really in those “doubles” last night). Most of the Ladies in this canyon play either acoustic guitar or piano, and Ellen’s no different. She plays guitar. But man, she PLAYS guitar! A short-time mentee of Jimi Hendrix (she claims she was more influenced vocally than instrumentally), Ellen’s hyperkinetic slide work gets a bit much at times, as do her constant post-verse vocal interjections, especially recurrances of phrases like “yes I do!” or “no I won’t!” to reinforce something she said in the verse. But it hardly matters when they’re harnessed to the service of ripping through a cover of Jack Bruce’s “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune,” which transform the original’s convoluted riff into a propulsive, streamlined equivalent (avec cowbell) that makes the song feel like a funky streetcar thundering off the tracks down a hill in San Francisco. Also, a few instrumental tracks showcase McIlwaine’s jaw-dropping slide work and vocal interjections in a seriously in-the-pocket way, especially the opener, “Ain’t No Two Ways About It (It’s Love)” and the omomatopoeic “Sliding.” When it works, it works, and when it doesn’t, it’s pretty overdone (“I Don’t Want To Play”). Bonus: a capella take (with The Persuasions!) on the gospel standard “Farther Along,” and a seriously locked-down rendition of  “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven (But Nobody Wants To Die)” that just kills. Oh, and lest you think I’m stretching the boundaries of my own personal canyon to absurdity, I promise you that tracks like “All To You” and “Underground River” provide this album with ample mellow, contemplative, moody faire. Whatever, man, don’t sweat it — sometimes just undulate in the kitchen isn’t going to cut it. Sometimes, a lady’s just gotta be like Jazz Jermaine and go downtown to DANCE!

10. Teresa Trull, The Ways A Woman Can Be (Olivia Records, 1977)

She smiles a toothy smile. She holds a spotty dog. And inside, she introduces us to “The Olivia Records Collective,” a women-run organization that attmpted to make recording facilities, graphic design, and record distribution available to other sisters in the community. And don’t think me flippant with that out-of-vogue piece of terminology…The Ways A Woman Can Be is spilling out on all sides with sisterhood, with tracks like “Sister I Love You,” “Woman-Loving Women,” and “Don’t Say Sister (Until You Mean It).” And man, do I mean it! Everything about this record, EVERYTHING, is a treasure. The band is shit-hot, and every style, from pop-rock choogle to rim shot-heavy, percolating ballads hit all the right spots, both inside and outside (and underside!). Most songs have rousing backup chorus vocals (presumably some or all of the “Olivia Records Collective” joining in during coffee (light with sugar) breaks), and a lot of good feelings in its lean 34 minute playing time.  A certified jam.

One modern classic that is firmly “in the tradition”:

1. Azita, Life on the Fly (Drag City, 2004)

I refuse to stop quarreling with Blastitude‘s Larry Dolman about which is the better Azita album, this or her debut. I know he might be qualitatively right, but I stand my ground here. Empress Youseffi has made her love of Steely Dan and their influence on her music plain, but there’s more at work here than just Becker and Fagan…I hear flecks of Essra Mohawk’s lurchy angst, Laura Nyro’s intellectual defiance, and Janis Ian’s bags-under-the-eyes world-weariness on both this album and Enantiodromia, her debut. The instrumentalists flash their stuff throughout these often-convoluted choruses and strange structures, creating both snapping pop and convoluted, rather prog-like sequences, with Azita’s pinched, nasally vocals dancing on tip-toes through the minefield of changes. One of the few CD-era albums that must be had/heard on vinyl; it just feels so right.

Most honorable mentions: Bonnie Raitt (pre-’80s), Karla Bonoff, Phoebe Snow, Rickie Lee Jones, Carly Simon, Jessi Colter, Joan Armatrading, Joan Carol Butler, Mary MacGregor, Cyndi Grecco, Dana Gillespie, The Roches. Honoraries to Maria Muldaur and Mary Kay Place, even though they were more “interpreters of the canyon” than anything. All will be revealed soon.


Oh yeah, the Dalton LP. How is it? It’s pretty good! I find myself playing the last track on side one, “A Light That Shines,” over and over. An upbeat, anthemic number with a background “la la la la” chorus that makes me think of vintage Coca Cola commercials for some reason, with Dalton’s vibrato-heavy croon waxing majestic, reminding me of Bonnie Koloc before she smoothed it out in hopes of a big AM hit.

My Top 10 poses for a group shot, Azita bemusedly standing off to one side of the group:

Ladies of the Canyon - Group Shot

Coffee Made Me Do It

May 24, 2009

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

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