Friday Rentals

All this talk of classic horror films from when I was a boy in short pants has me reminiscing about Friday nights of my youth. The Friday night video rental, to be exact. It was a semi-regular thing for my parents and I to go out after my dad got home from work and go grab a pizza at Pizza Hut, stuff ourselves, and then head to Video World and rent some movies for the weekend. Of course, I’d head straight to the back room(not THAT backroom, you perv) and start perusing the horror and sci fi. Video World had a back room dedicated to nothing but horror, sci fi, music docs, and weird odds and ends. That’s where I spent a good portion of my time. This was my formal education into the world of the undead, vampires, alien creatures, soulless slashers, and general weirdos that I’d carry around in my memories for years to come. At first it was an appreciation for being scared, but then it changed. It was the whole aesthetic that I loved: the effects, the music, the set designs, and yes even the stories that were attempted. Some were better than others(much better at times), but each movie carried with it something endearing, no matter how horrible the film was. If it was really bad it would sometimes transcend into something even greater than scares. The horror film that tried so hard but missed the mark would become something else: parody. Something so bad that it became a completely different genre. Even a lousy movie could make for fun viewing.

This Friday night ritual continued on through high school. One of my best friends and I would crash at either my place or his, grab a Tombstone pepperoni pizza from the store along with a bag of Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles, hit Video World for the newest horror film(by this time we’d rent from either Video World or Video Plus), and spend Friday night distorting our minds(and our intestinal tract with that Tombstone Pizza.) Oh, and if you hadn’t guessed, we weren’t the partying types. Were we dorks? Nerds? I don’t think so. But we definitely weren’t “popular kid” material. Listening to Rush and Joe Satriani and pining over Daphne Zuniga didn’t win us any cool points, but we were cool with that.

I don’t think much has changed for me(except I make my own pizza nowadays.) The video store has turned into renting movies off of Amazon, and Fridays are also shared equally by watching movies and spinning records. If I’m going to waste time, I might as well waste on things I love to do, right? I do miss the video store, though. The strange cast of characters that haunted the aisles: whether it was parents and their kids looking for something to watch together, teens looking for something they shouldn’t watch, or the creepers disappearing into the “other” back room. And of course the folks working behind the counter, renting to the folks hungry for entertainment on a Friday evening. Spending their weekend making ours a little more interesting. I had much admiration for them. I was one of them, as I started working at Video World when I was 18 and worked their for nearly a year. A great year it was, too.

So here’s to Friday rentals and making the most of those little moments.

Who Goes There?

The first movie I watched that truly disturbed me to my core was John Carpenter’s The Thing. Sure, I’d seen films that made me jump and that had given me nightmares for a week straight. And yes, there were films that made me not want to go downstairs for fear of creature hands coming through the steps and pulling me underneath for a grotesque fate. Did Poltergeist make me fear clowns and looking under my bed? Absolutely. Friday The 13th cured me of ever wanting to be the outdoors-y type. Nightmare On Elm Street made sure I’d always try to wake up before I hit the ground in a bad dream where I was falling, for fear of never waking up. And The Food Of The Gods made me fear…well, giant worms? I don’t know, but I had nightmares for a week after my parents took me to see it at the drive-in when I was 3 years old. But the film that really grabbed me and viscerally messed with my head was The Thing.

I remember watching Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World on Nightmare Theater, a local Friday night “creature feature”- like show, as a little kid with my dad and not really thinking much of it. It was interesting, but for some reason I remember thinking James Arness’ “Thing” was a giant carrot. Maybe my dad told me that(he liked to mess with me as a kid…much like I like to mess with my own children.) I got to see a lot of great and not-so great horror flicks on Nightmare Theater, which I credit for my love of horror in general. But it wasn’t until I was 10 and we bought our first VCR that I truly began building up my horror knowledge. The first two movies we rented? Romero’s Creepshow and the Bob and Doug McKenzie flick Strange Brew. I was off to a great start.

Within that first year of renting movies from Video World The Thing came about 6 months into our Betamax journey. I’d heard things about the movie, mainly from my dad talking about it, and knew I wanted to see it. My parents weren’t super strict about what they let me watch growing up. There were some “off limits” films, for sure. Mainly movies with lots of sex and lots of bad language were gonna be on the “no way” list. I remember mom and dad usually watching those after I went to bed. I could hear Risky Business, Dressed To Kill, and Scarface through the wall as I tried going to bed. The TV was directly on the other side of the wall where my bed was. Horror movies, though, my parents were a little more lenient with my brother and I. I can remember mom and dad taking my brother and I to see the original Fright Night, Silver Bullet, and even Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. I wasn’t even in middle school for any of those. We were just a horror film household I guess.

So The Thing. Both the original and Carpenter’s remake were based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell(writing as Don A. Stuart.) Hawks’ version was more loosely based, where Carpenter took a more direct approach to the adaptation. I think, whether they were direct or not, there were nods to McCarthy-ism in the original as it was released around the time of the McCarthy trials and the Communist witch hunts in Hollywood. The idea of not knowing who you can trust among your peers felt very close to home to those working in the community at the time, as well as in the country as a whole. In 1982, Carpenter was coming off of a stream of classic films. Halloween(1978), The Fog(1980), and Escape From New York(1981), as well as a much-loved TV movie Elvis starring Kurt Russell in 1979. He proved he was capable of doing a hell of a lot with not much bank. He went from a $6 million dollar budget with Escape to $15 million for The Thing, and it showed. The movie’s special effects were unlike anything we’d seen before. Rob Bottin, then only in his early 20s, pretty much revolutionized special effects in film.

So for those that aren’t aware of The Thing, I’ll give you a synopsis(why aren’t you aware of this classic??): At an American research station in Antarctica, the crew is encountered with an alien life form that can take the shape of its victims, which causes the all-male crew to start wondering who’s really themselves and who’s actually the alien in disguise. How they come in contact with the alien I’ll leave that up for you to find out(if you haven’t seen it.) Like I said, the special effects in this film are impressive, even by today’s standards. CGI does some great things, but it doesn’t begin to compare to practical effects. Between Bottin’s special effects crew(and one memorable effect by effects wizard Stan Winston), this film was viscerally and stomach-churningly on-point.

The score was written by Ennio Morricone. Unlike most of Carpenter’s other films, he let someone else take the reigns this time around, and that person was the spaghetti western master himself. After recently picking up the Waxwork Records release of this stunning score, I have to say that I never noticed just how incredible it was. I think watching as a kid I was so engrossed with the film that the music just didn’t register with me. Even after watching it less than a year ago the music still didn’t register with me. I think more than anything after listening to it recently was that it sounds nothing like what I imagine Ennio Morricone and his scores to sound like. That’s probably due to my ignorance more than anything else.

Like I said before, I correlate Morricone to Eastwood and spaghetti westerns. On The Thing, Morricone goes for a much tenser vibe, complete with trickling strings and brasher symphonic sounds. At times it sounds more like Bernard Herrmann scoring Alfred Hitchcock, which for a film about isolation and paranoia you couldn’t ask for anything more. There’s also a real classic feel to the orchestral movements in this film, like you’re hearing pieces from a classic Universal monster film. You can almost see Dracula’s castle in the distance, or smell the electrified corpse of Frankenstein’s monster as its being lowered from the roof into the famous laboratory. There are also moments where Morricone seems to be pulling from Carpenter’s playbook here, with minimalist notes and quiet tension. “Humanity, Pt. 2” feels like something John Carpenter would’ve come up with, while “Eternity” sounds like it could’ve been used in Carpenter’s The Fog. “Humanity Pt.1” is all slow burn with lilting strings and piano. It puts me in mind of what Jeff Grace did years later in Ti West’s excellent The House Of The Devil.

All in all, this is a beautifully arranged piece of orchestral work.

So the film was universally panned when it came out in 1982. Carpenter was crushed as his great efforts were ignored and his classic science fiction film was downplayed as “excessive” and “a wretched excess”, “the quintessential moron movie of the 80s”. One reviewer states of John Carpenter, “Astonishingly, he blows it.” Of course, dear reader, none of these critics got it. In fact, hardly anyone did at the time. It was as if everyone in the cinematic-reviewing community felt as if John Carpenter had broken some cardinal rule when he mixed both science fiction and horror together in one film. Of course it had been done before. Anyone heard of Alien? Yeah, me too. Of course, science fiction and horror go hand in hand. Some of the most astonishing evils have come from science: the atomic bomb, chemical warfare, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. I’m all for science, folks. I’m just saying there’s a lot of scary stuff to come from scientific progress, as well some great stuff. But having said all that I don’t think John Carpenter was trying to say any great truths with The Thing. He just wanted to make a hard-boiled, bloody version of Ten Little Indians and he succeeded wonderfully. It was a film about a group of rough dudes stuck together in a place where there’s no escape, trying to figure out who’s who and what’s what. If the beast doesn’t get ’em inside, the sub-zero temps will get ’em on the outside. Even though it’s still basically a monster-in-disguise movie, there’s still plenty of “who can you trust when the enemy is hiding in plain sight” fodder that you can mull over and compare to the times we currently live in.

Everything about The Thing is perfect. From the casting to set design to the special effects to the frigid isolation. And of course the music. When Carpenter first asked Ennio Morricone to score his film, Morricone said “Regarding The Thing, by John Carpenter, I’ve asked him, as he was preparing some electronic music with an assistant to edit on the film, “Why did you call me, if you want to do it on your own?” He surprised me, he said – “I got married to your music. This is why I’ve called you.” I was quite amazed, he called me because he had my music at his wedding.” If I could tell John Carpenter why I spent so much time writing about and obsessing over a movie made 35 years ago, I guess I’d say it’s because it completely messed my prepubescent mind up.

But in the best way possible.

 

The Satanic Path Is The Right Path

The Satanic Path(1983) -courtesy of Gorgon Video

A young woman named Jamie, after just turning 18 years old decides to leave her cushy Midwestern upbringing after her mother dies from mysterious circumstances. She moves to Europe in order to search for her biological father whom she has never met. Her search leads her to a small village in the River Avon valley named Hedonshire where she encounters a mysterious and beautiful older woman called Zans who tells Jamie she knows the young woman’s father and that she can lead her to him, but for a price. That price? Jamie’s eternal soul? 

The Satanic Path works off the whole “Satanic Panic” fears of the 80s beautifully by incorporating the loss of innocence with also thea2059325644_10 liberating possibilities of “finding oneself” through spiritual, sexual, and even self-destructive means. The protagonist, the innocent and naive Jamie, knows there’s something dark and mysterious about her mother’s death and the man who is Jamie’s biological father whom her mother kept secret all these years. But after Jamie’s mother’s funeral Jamie comes across a letter hidden in a locked cedar chest in the basement of her grandmother’s home. A letter written to her mom by a man named Ezekiel. Ezekiel speaks of a forbidden love and of rituals, blood sacrifices, and wanting to see his daughter, whom Jamie realizes is her. The return address is Bristol, England, which is Jamie’s first stop on a journey for the truth. She finds the truth; as well as a coven of witches, Satanists, a demonic monastery, killer lesbians, a portal to an alternate universe, horny backpackers, a possessed church organ, dim-witted occultists, and a gateway to the “Dark Realm” where all of Jamie’s deepest, darkest desires come to life, but at a very steep price.

The Satanic Path was written and directed by Roberto Bava, the famous Italian B-movie director of such lurid(and at times X-rated) horror and occultist films The Dead In Your Bed(1965), Souls For Sale(1969), Bravo, My Dear(Fear Eater)(1973), and his game changing My Lesbian Summer(1976). The Satanic Path marked Bava’s return to the genre he helped to define after several softcore film adaptations of Shakespeare plays in the late 70s and early 80s and one catastrophic, orgy-filled production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream that played one time and one time only at the Herzog Theater near his home in Cologne, Germany.

The idea for The Satanic Path came to Bava after dropping his daughter off at her private school in the Swiss alps. He immediately returned to Cologne and spent the better part of September of 1981 writing. After securing funding from Spanish film producer Diego(Diablo) Garza and a small group of Italian investors filming began in the summer of 1982. Shot on location in both Columbus, Ohio, the River Avon Valley, and Zurich, Switzerland, the film was complete and edited within a mere 3 months.

The biggest change with The Satanic Path in regards to Bava’s previous work was with the film scoring. His brother-in-law, the famous German film composer Herman Wagner, had scored nearly every Bava picture since his 1959 debut Sisters, Lovers. With Path, Roberto Bava felt he needed to step away from the romantic, wind-swept drama of Wagner’s more traditional approach to scoring and he instead went with the mysterious Pentagram Home Video. He wanted the film to have a more modern feel, so the cold, detached sounds of analog synthesizers seemed to be the way to go. Pentagram Home Video would go onto to score the cult film Who’s Out There(1986) and most recently the short Slumber(2015). But with The Satanic Path, Pentagram Home Video would create a dark and foreboding aural companion to what might be Bava’s best work(it was his last as he died in 1985 at the age of 73 in a boating accident.)

PHV went about creating the musical pieces for The Satanic Path much like they created dark, dance floor ambient techno they used to perform in the dingy, smokey clubs of London in the late 70s and early 80s. Their approach is a minimal one, but one that pulls maximum reaction. With just simple synth lines and programmed beats, Pentagram Home Video can create a sense of dread and dark emotion. Pieces like “A Satanic Perspective On Youth Television”, “A Problem For The Occultist”, and “The Black Mass Part I/II/Leviathan” build upon Bava’s moody scenes, set designs, and help to fill the gaps that are apparent in Roberto’s sometimes thin script. PHV’s “The Parallel Realm” exquisitely captures the luridness and dark sexuality that surrounds Jamie’s quid pro quo near the end of the film. The music turns what could’ve been an exploitative scene of dark lust and sexual shock into something far deeper.

Overall, Pentagram Home Video helped turn Roberto Bava’s swan song of a film into something far richer, deeper, and compelling.

The Satanic Path will not make someone who’s not a fan of the genre a fan. It’s still lurid, exploitative, hedonistic, filled with sex and nudity, and can be quite shocking when it wants to be(Hell, what’s not to like about any of that?) If anything, it may have you searching for those old Pentagram Home Video soundtracks, as they’re absolutely stellar albums. The Satanic Path is one of the best. Look around, you may be able to find a copy…if you’re lucky.

Nuts & Bolts & God Complexes

As I’ve gotten older I’m finding myself more drawn to the world of science fiction as opposed to the world of horror. As a kid I was all about horror films. That’s where it was at for me. I liked science fiction, as long as it was based in jump scares and gore. Yeah, I wasn’t much of a scholar. I wanted some visceral experiences while I enjoyed VCR time. I didn’t want to have to think about this stuff. Existential dilemma? Morality? The battle between what we CAN do and SHOULD do? Pfft. I want half naked chicks being chased by a chainsaw/electric drill/machete/razor glove-wielding psychopath. And a frozen pepperoni pizza. And a two-liter of Mountain Dew. That’s entertainment, dude. Not morality plays and technical jargon about man’s ego getting the better of him and making contact with lifeforms from deep space. Some intellectual sci fi/horror did make its way into my brain as a kid, but those movies were few and far between.

Then my junior year of high school a few friends and I went to see Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. It was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who up to this point had made a name for himself by writing the screenplay for the Patrick Swayzee goo-fest Ghost. While that film wasn’t a horror or sci fi necessarily, it completely blew my mind(Jacob’s Ladder, not Ghost.) The idea of redemption, the pain of letting go, and the struggle of figuring out reality from fantasy. It was a stunning work and still is to this day. It was also a movie that opened my mind to other possibilities in film. The “psychological drama”, as they say.

Now that I’m in my 40s I’ve completely made a turn in my cinematic proclivities. I seek out the intellectual story. A film where stunning visuals collide beautifully with thought-provoking storytelling and mind-altering ideas. 2015s Ex_Machina was one of my favorite films in 2015, and one of my favorite films in general in recent years. Alex Garland, who’s collaborations with Danny Boyle have been some of my favorite movies in the last decade, made a science fiction classic with Ex_Machina. Beautifully shot, written, and acted it pulls you into the world of a madman with delusions of grandeur.

The story, in case you haven’t seen it, is about a brilliant and enigmatic CEO of a software company who invites one of his employees to stay with him for a week at his isolated mansion/bunker in the woods to help him on a project. The project is a female humanoid robot named Ava that the CEO, named Nathan Bateman(played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac), is working on. He wants the employee named Caleb Smith(played by Domhnall Gleeson) to talk with Ava and figure out if she has developed her own conscience and free thoughts. Of course, there’s much more going on and Nathan Bateman is far more than just eccentric.

As far as maniacal evil scientists go, Bateman is one of the more interesting. He drinks too much, punishes himself for it by excessively working out and drinking protein shakes to cleanse his system. He’s incredibly smart and equally full of himself. His gestures of friendship towards the mildly skeptical Caleb feel anything but earnest. He’s one of the more endearing genius creeps I’ve seen in film for quite a long time.

Caleb Smith is the patsy in this. He won a drawing at work that allowed him access to his bosses stunning and luxurious bunker in the middle of nowhere(you can only get to this place by helicopter.) He’s thrilled to be a part of whatever is going on, but soon enough paranoia and skepticism seep into his brain when he realizes that Nathan Bateman is equal parts Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ava, the humanoid robot of which the story and experiment evolves is so convincing it’s not hard to understand how the lonely Caleb would fall for her. Played wonderfully by Alicia Vikander as both a robotic babe lost in the woods and a sly machine pulling one over on the naive and lovestruck Caleb.

Kyoko is a Japanese assistant/lover of Nathan Bateman that we later realize there’s more to her than meets the eyes.

What’s amazing about this film is how we start out with a sense of awe with Caleb as he first arrives at Nathan’s fortress of solitude in the woods. The excitement for Caleb at being involved in such a forward-thinking and pivotal experiment, and the feeling that this brilliant and successful guy wants lowly office worker Caleb to assist in such an important scientific endeavor. But that excitement quickly turns to tension as we figure out CEO Nathan Bateman is suffering from a serious God complex. His drive to create life through his brains and circuits overpowers what humanity the guy may have started out with in life. The effects are stunning and realistic as Ava sits and talks with Caleb. You see the mesh body she sits in with the face of a beautiful woman. A scene in the film where she slips on skin and picks out a pretty dress to wear in order to impress is just incredible. What Alicia Vikander can do with just facial expressions is unbelievable.

The score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is a less-is-more affair and that works perfectly for this film. It’s quiet interludes are occasionally interrupted by blasts of noise and heavy synth. For the most part it’s subtle enough that you don’t notice what’s really happening until it creeps up on you. Having recently picked this score up and I can say it works beautifully as a standalone. Much like Cliff Martinez’ Solaris S/T and Ben Lovett’s Synchronicity score, Salisbury and Barrow keep things at low boil for the most part, which allows the story to pull you in. On its own it’s an incredible mix of ambient tones and slow-churning tension.

When I look back on all the film’s I watched in my teen years that I thought were great horror films there were a few that were also great science fiction. Movies like Hardware, The Hidden, Altered States, Scanners, Phantasm, and Alien were great science fiction disguised as horror. More recently films like Beyond The Black Rainbow, Synchronicity, and both of Shane Carruth’s films Primer and Upstream Color are fine examples of great modern science fiction.

And of course, Ex_Machina.

SEX=DEATH

No, this isn’t a pro-abstinence post. It really has nothing to do with abstinence. Please, continue the fraternizing and heavy petting. No, actually I’m just sitting here on a blustery December Sunday afternoon with the snow accumulating outside. We’ve been under a winter storm warning all day and will be until late tonight. We could see as much as 8-10 inches of the white stuff(I believe we’ve gotten at least 7 inches up to this point.) It was a weekend of laziness on my part. Other than my dad coming over for coffee yesterday morning, I spent the rest of the day in pajama pants and my Wooden Shjips pullover hoodie and did nothing. I did some writing, then sunk into my leather recliner and let Netflix guide my moves from then on.

The wife and my 13-year old headed out of town for some Christmas shopping, and my son was over and my mom and dad’s house so I took advantage of the quiet and watched the film White Girl. The story of a promiscuous, drug-addled pixie of a blonde college girl living in Brooklyn. Her and her roommate get high, hang out with the drug dealers across the street, have sex, get high, go to clubs, get high, have sex, sell drugs, get high, party, have sex, and get high. There are a couple redeeming characters in the film(including the Chris Noth-played lawyer and the drug dealer with a heart of bronze played by Brian ‘Sene’ Marc), but everyone else are just horrible people. Well made, but Kids it is not. After that I watched the excellent documentary DePalma. It’s Brian DePalma talking about his career and films for nearly 2 hours and it was amazing. I forgot how prolific of a filmmaker he was. I’ve always been a huge fan of his, but this film made me think about all of his movies I haven’t seen in years. Raising Cain, Carlito’s Way, Body Double, Dressed To Kill, and Femme Fatale just to name a few. He seems to have a pretty good head on his shoulders after so many ups and downs in his career, and he tells some great stories about Bernard Herrmann, Sean Penn, and Orson Welles. My son and I watched A Christmas Horror Story. It’s an anthology horror film about the events on one Christmas eve the involve the Krampus, zombie elves, a Changeling, and a ghostly possession. It was a pretty funny and gory flick that the boy and I quite enjoyed. Stupid fun.

I suppose Saturday was in response to last weekend where there was no downtime. Honestly, it felt great to just do nothing and get caught up on some movies I’ve wanted to see for some time. I also finished up the first two volumes of Jessica Jones : Alias. It’s the 2001 series that created the Jessica Jones character for Marvel and is also what the Netflix series is based on. It’s a great series. It’s more like a noir tale with hints of superheroes strewn throughout. I highly recommend it to all you comic book folks that haven’t read it yet.

mansellIt’s now Sunday on this lazy weekend and I’m listening to Clint Mansell’s score to the horror short In The Wall. This was one of those LPs I got back in January of this year that I’ve only recently just begun to enjoy. I haven’t seen the movie yet, which is sad as it’s free to watch on VEVO. I’ll fix that very soon. If the score is any indication it’s a tension-filled 26 minutes. Mansell is another favorite composer of mine. He’s done some amazing work, with his scores for Requiem For A Dream and Moon being two of my favorites. I’m just finding myself being drawn to scores and instrumental fare lately. Gives more space to explore ones own mind without all those pesky lyrics and vocals. Mansell goes for a more classical approach to his composing and arranging, but likes to throw in elements of noise and dissonance here and there. On In The Wall there’s a couple of spots where loud explosions of distortion break up the quiet.

Well that’s all for now. I’ve got a great one cooking up that will be up very soon. Until then, take a weekend off here soon if you can. I highly recommend it.

 

wall

Dime Store Nihilists

I suppose the fact that I spent the money I did on the Mondo release of the Fight Club S/T would put me in bad graces with the film’s titular angry imaginary best friend Tyler Durden(oops, spoiler. If you haven’t seen the film by now you obviously don’t have internet on the compound in which you live so it doesn’t really matter.) Anyways, I don’t really care what Tyler Durden thinks because I have a vinyl problem and when I saw the nifty unpackaging video Mondo posted I was pretty much a goner. “Here’s my digits. Where’s…my…vinyl?!” If you haven’t seen that exquisite piece of marketing, here you go:

Okay, so I feel like kind of a sucker about this whole thing, but man the Dust Brothers completely went above and beyond for this score. Truth be told, I didn’t even remember the music from Fight Club. In fact I’d pretty much written off the movie altogether after trying to watch it around 5 years ago. It had been years up to that point since I’d last seen the cult-ish hit by auteur David Fincher and on a night when the wife and I didn’t know what to watch I thought I’d throw the two-disc special edition DVD into the player for fun.

I loved the movie the first time I watched it, which was June of 200o. We were newly anointed parents with an itch to spend some money and get out of the house, so we headed to Best Buy and bought two new cameras(one digital and one 35mm film) to document our happy, exhaustive, mentally draining, but ultimately happy first years as new parents. A quick browse through the movies and I found the Fight Club Special Edition DVD so I grabbed that, too. Cause you know, nihilistic violence and a middle finger to consumerism was what I was all about as I was checking out at the Best Buy.

Anyways, this movie knocked me on my ass then. The deadpan gallows humor, the creative cinematography, the middle finger to corporate America, and the overall bloody smirk the film shoved down our throats was just what an overweight, new father and employee of the “machine” needed to see in June of 2000. Fincher had(and still does) a knack for framing a shot and creating something unique for the  big screen. Everything about Fight Club just screamed “This is the future of film, people!” I was already a fan of Fincher prior to Fight Club. Se7en was one of my favorite movies of the 90s, and The Game was another visceral movie experience with Fincher’s unique dark cinema color palate. Fight Club was proof to me that Fincher was bound for great things. Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Jared Leto, Meatloaf, and a slew of other great actors came together and made this movie the monster that it was.

So, back to 5 years ago.

About 30 minutes into Fight Club I shut it off. I’m not sure who I was back in 2000 when I watched it, but that guy and me five years ago would’ve disagreed wholeheartedly on our interpretations of the film. I was kind of appalled at what I was watching five years ago. The gallows humor just seemed tasteless. The middle finger to corporate America just seemed empty and shallow; more like a wink and a smirk than actually raging against the machine. The direction, cinematography, and acting were all still good, but the overall vibe just made me a little sick. The irony of spending the extra cash on a Special Edition verison of a film that extols the virtues of nihilism, chaos, and the complete rejection of consumerism was a little too much for me to bare. I even took a shot at Palahniuk’s book to see if maybe there was something deeper within the pages that the movie could explain. Maybe I’m just not jaded enough to get it anymore. Maybe had there been more of an emphasis of the ridiculousness of it all I could appreciate it more.

Or not.

dsc04992So here I am, five years later with the Fight Club S/T spinning on the turntable and not an ounce of irony is touching me. Why? Because even though this is the score to Fincher’s flick, this is also a hell of a trip hop album by two guys that changed the game in terms of innovative album building and production.

The Dust Brothers(aka Michael Simpson and John King) have helped to create some of the most iconic albums of my youth. Odeley by Beck pretty much told the world that Beck Hansen was more than just a one-album wonder. It really sort of defined Generation X, for better or worse. The record was solid start to finish. It was also a huge success. Or “yuge”, in the Trump age. Anyways, this wasn’t the album that made me a Dust Brothers fanboy. No, that distinction goes to Paul’s Boutique, a record that Time Magazine rated as one of the best records of all time. I really can’t argue with that. It took three Jewish punks from New York and turned them from drunk Frat guys to stoned and trippy harbingers of the new musical frontier. There was still the college humor and sophomoric goofiness that defined them on License To Ill, but the production had turned into this labyrinthine cacophony of dusty samples and enlightened fart jokes that sort of sounded like Yauch, Diamond, and Horovitz having their heads opened up to the universe for the first time in their lives. The work Simpson and King did on that album is this massive patchwork of funk and rock samples carefully sewn together with THC resin, LSD, cheap beer, and a drive to push things to the next level. I don’t think this album could be made today with all of the licensing issues, so it stands as this shining beacon of creativity and an album from simpler era.

dsc04985Having said all of that, why wouldn’t I buy The Dust Brothers’ score to Fight Club? It really seems to be a no-brainer. Who knows, maybe I’ll sit down and watch Fight Club here soon. It’s been 5 years. Maybe seeing it with newer eyes I might not find it as reprehensible. Stranger things have happened.

Neon Violence : The Music of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’

So I was invited to take part in a post series on film soundtracks by the incredibly awesome Bruce over at Vinyl Connection. I love soundtracks and blog posts and talking about them in great detail so I said absolutely. My first post is one of my favorite soundtracks, Drive by Cliff Martinez. Read and enjoy, and head over to the Vinyl Connection site and check out some other great posts about soundtracks. You might find one you like. Or maybe one you’ve never heard. Or just read. Reading is good for the soul. 

 

If there was a point in my life where the soundtrack to a film really made an impression on me, I suppose it would’ve been in 1980. I’d seen Star Wars in the theater when I was 4 or 5 years old, but it wasn’t John Williams’ score that made the biggest impression on me then: it was Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. With her cinnamon bun hair, plucky attitude, and that kiss she planted on her savior Luke Skywalker before they swung to safety in the Death Star, I was a smitten little boy. Of course, just a year or so later Princess Leia was partying with the cast of Saturday Night Live, snorting coke like a Hoover, and generally burning out, but I’ll always feel that Leia was my key into loving George Lucas’ space opera. But in 1980 The Empire Strikes Back was released.  I was a few years older and full-on a Star Wars nerd. I’d gotten my first action hero(Luke Skywalker, natch), and was just a few months away from a Christmas haul that would include the Snowspeeder, Millenium Falcon, AND the X-Wing fighter. I was old enough to be geeking out over the release of what is easily the best Star Wars film made, and as soon as “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” donned the movie screen I felt the tingles run through my whole 6 year old body. Then, Williams’ score burst through the theater speakers like Gabriel’s trumpet and I was gone. I was in that movie with those characters. A witness to the rebel struggles against the Empire. That John Williams score was the unique element needed to transport me heart and soul into that movie. Williams was that integral piece in most movies he composed scores for, at least for me. E.T., Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind; those were all transformative pieces of musical art. I can’t think of those films without humming their main themes. A transcendent film score can push a so-so film into heights it otherwise didn’t deserve.

Odd as this may seem, this piece isn’t about John Williams. It’s about Cliff Martinez’ score for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. While I knew the importance of a great film soundtrack, I was never one to seek out and own those scores. Sure, I owned Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas S/T because it was just that damn good, and a handful of others like The Crow, Pump Up The Volume, and even Martinez’ own Kafka S/T, but I didn’t start to seek out scores until Drive. There was something about that movie that locked into this nostalgic vein with me. It was sleek, stylish, and put me in mind of Michael Mann’s Manhunter. It was quiet menace. It was tension under the surface that you were waiting to erupt at any moment. In that same spirit there were elements of John Carpenter as well in the film. Ryan Gosling’s “Driver” character was this almost mute anti-hero. A high plains drifter that traded a horse for horsepower; a cigar for a toothpick and a six-shooter for a hammer and fists. What the film may have lacked in story or explanation it made up in noir-ish mystery and cold, steely looks. It was also bloody violent. In that regard Drive had a David Lynch-ian way of handling violent scenes in that it didn’t tip toe around it. Refn made the violence a character itself. It was over the top and gratuitous, but it never felt out of place in this dream-like, neon-lit Los Angeles. Wild At Heart’s world of kooky characters and blasts of hallucinogenic violence seemed channeled in Nicolas Winding Refn’s cinematic world.

dsc04942Cliff Martinez helped to define the film as well with his electronic score. He gave as much to this film as did cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. He kept things minimal and visceral. It’s almost a dark ambient vibe Martinez’ vintage synths are creating with the feel of late-70s work by Tangerine Dream. There’s also a feeling of repetition in a piece like “Rubber Head” that brings Steve Reich to mind. It’s hypnotic and hazy. The songs by Kavinsky, Desire, College(featuring Electric Youth), and Chromatics used on the soundtrack add to the 80s mystique of the film, but Martinez seems to be channeling darker sounds with his instrumental pieces. He was creating music for stalking the streets of LA at night. A lonely, dangerous predator slinking through city streets in a souped up hot rod, eyes always ahead looking for that moment when things go to Hell in a hand basket. Each of his pieces on the soundtrack are named after what’s happening in the film. “Rubber Head”, “I Drive”, “They Broke His Pelvis”, and “Hammer” are very self-explanatory titles. If you’ve seen the film(several times if you’re like me) then you’ll know what each of those titles are describing. Martinez has done this with all three films he’s scored for Refn. They seem a good fit for each other, Refn and Martinez. They’re true auteurs in their respective worlds.

dsc04943For a film like Drive, the score doesn’t need to be bombastic and over-the-top. In a lot of ways I think that would have been a detriment to the film as a whole. It’s a quiet film for the most part. That is, until it isn’t. Subtlety, restraint, and atmosphere are the name of the game with Cliff Martinez’ Drive S/T. They are what make it such a powerful piece of film scoring. They underscore the turmoil, the tension, and the violence that lays waiting just under the surface.

There’s plenty of amazing scores to pine over and waste a thousand or so words on, I know. But Cliff Martinez made one that turned me onto a whole new world of sounds and opportunities to blow my money on. He tapped into a way to communicate musically that seems to have a main line directly into my brain. I just instantly connect to this album(and this film.) There’s a supernatural element to both the movie and the music that speaks to my pondering mind. Open your head and let it speak to yours as well.