2016 August 29 • Monday

Steven Spielberg's first feature film, Duel, a brilliant TV movie (which is not, I'm very sorry to say, presented in its proper aspect ratio on its blu-ray release) based on a Richard Matheson story, is something of a masterpiece. Considering how much talent converged on this picture, perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise.

Adding immeasurably to the tension, suspense, drive and development of the narrative and creating unsettling atmospheres of paranoia, isolation and dread is the Billy Goldenberg's score, our 428th Soundtrack of the Week.

Goldenberg coaxes strange and eerie sounds out of percussion, electric guitar and strings, freely using them in unconventional ways. Listen to "Truck Waiting #1" for a good example.

There's no time wasted, though. Goldenberg starts flexing his ominous and otherworldly mood muscles with the "Universal Emblem", not even waiting for the credits to roll.

"Truck Waiting #5" is clearly indebted to Bernard Herrmann's music for Psycho, one of a few tracks that reveal Herrmann's influence.

The crazy percussion, rolling thunder piano and frantic bad trip electric guitars of "Truck Racing Car" are like a nightmare. When it shifts to some remorseless and claustrophobic string figures, it's a relief.

There's some truck stop country rock instrumental source music which only sounds friendly compared to the rest of the score. There's a strong funereal quality to "Instrumental No. 4", for instance. It's compellingly downbeat. Our hero can't even catch a break from the radio or a jukebox!

Superb music for a fantastic movie. If you haven't seen it, go get it. But avoid the letterboxed blu-ray. In this case "letterboxed" means that the image has been cropped on the top and bottom. Sometimes that's done for good reasons but in this case I'm afraid it was done only because everybody has widescreen TVs now. The older DVD release is okay, I think.
2016 August 26 • Friday

The only reason I'm not the laziest person in the world is that I'm too lazy to be that lazy. Some other really lazy person can go get the gold medal.

And the silver. And the bronze.

Yawn.


2016 August 24 • Wednesday

Comics in the United States are generally associated with superheroes, newspaper comic strips, perhaps the underground comics of the '60s and '70s and, more recently, autobiographical works such as American Splendor and Persepolis.

What comics might do better than any other medium, because of the unique way it combines sequential narration with simultaneity of narrative (and other) elements, is straight non-fiction, the presentation of a thesis, a history, a biography.

One recent example is Edward Ross's Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film.


Ross has an impressive knowledge of both cinema and cinema studies and Filmish is a stimulating look at both.

The book is divided into chapters with titles such as "The Eye", "The Body" and "Time". The writing is thoughtful and the artwork very well thought out and virtuosic in its use of combining faithful and deliberately altered drawings of images from movies with text in balloons and caption boxes to make the author's points.


Ross's enthusiasm for his subject comes through clearly and as an overview of film and film theory it's an unquestionable success.

Inevitably there are things I wish had been done differently. A lot is written about sound, for instance, but nothing about music.

Various theories and ideas are presented without comment, though some of them struck me as wishful thinking, academics asserting their whims and point of views and impressions. There isn't anything wrong with that but these theories or ideas are often not so strong.

Ross quotes Michael North, for instance, on the silent film comedians: "As North puts it they 'seem to have made themselves into little wind up toys, as if their movements were not just recorded but actually created by the hand cranked cameras of the silent period'".

The way that quote is introduced makes it sound like Ross supports this idea of North. To me it just seems silly and North's use of the word "seem" indicates that this isn't anything more than a thought that just popped into his head. Such thoughts might be significant and lead to greater insight. Or they might not be much of anything.

François Truffaut's quoted take on Rear Window is also problematic: "The courtyard is the world, the reporter/photographer is the film-maker, the binoculars stand for the camera and its lenses".

That can't be right. Hitchcock movies are famous for scenes of voyeurism and Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window is plainly a stand-in for movie audiences themselves, who are engaging in a socially acceptable form of voyeurism. The different windows on the courtyard are all showing different movies of different genres: among others there are a musical, a sex comedy, a domestic drama and, of course, a murder mystery.

I also wish Ross's discussion of how women in cinema are represented had taken into account the very different conventions prevalent in East Asian movies.

But presumably Ross is here to fly us over the terrain, not to dig deeply. The subject is huge and growing larger all the time. Filmish is a great comic and also a great introduction to the world of film and many of its most important elements and ideas. This isn't gospel and I don't think it's meant to be, so best not to take it as such.


2016 August 22 • Monday

The 427th Soundtrack of the Week is this compilation of Bollywood music from 1959–1972, Bombshell Baby of Bombay.

The first track, "Mera Naam Hai Shabnam", is by one of my favorite composers, R. D. Burman, but is surprisingly underwhelming. It's a curious choice for a CD with only 12 songs on it, and an even more curiouser choice as the opener. Burman is better represented here by his "Ek Bottle Hogal Mein", an outrageously slinky, surfy and loungey number.

The second track on the CD, Shankar-Jaikishan's "Jan Pahechan Ho", has a seriously deep groove. There's some stellar electric guitar playing and the melody and harmonic movement are both gripping. Shankar-Jaikishan is also represented by "1956, 1957, 1958", a somewhat kitschy song whose title is the chorus, and by "Bombshell Baby of Bombay", a number with early rock and roll touches and the source of this compilation's title. Neither of these is as good as "Jan Pahechan Ho", though.

The saxophone shares the spotlight with the electric guitar in O. P. Nayer's "One Two Three Baby", another toe-tapper that nods to the big band era. Jazz idioms (and surf guitar) are also successfully combined with Bollywood grooves in the next tune, "Kahan Hai Woh Diwana" by Laxmikant-Pyarelal. Asha Bhosle's voice is mesmerizing here and a perfect match for the sinuous and alluring melody line.

Also by O. P. Nayer is the main title music from Kismat (the same movie that "One Two Three Baby" is from). Again the saxophone is prominently featured but the groove is deeper and stronger.

Accordionand saxophone make Chitragupta's "Bum Pam Bum Pam Pa Ra Ra" a litle different from the other songs here, though the electric guitar is still the instrument given the most space (though there are accordion and saxophone breaks). Of course, all these songs are really vocal features.

"Sambhalo Sambhalo Apna Dil" is is by R. D. Burman's father, S. D. Burman, and has an airier sound, perhaps the result of using almost (maybe all) acoustic instruments. The use of shaker in the percussion section is especially important and at one point it sounds like one of the vocalists is trying to imitate a guica.

Finally there are two songs by Kalyanji-Anandji. "Priya" sounds like it was influenced by European "beat" music and features a massive 12-string guitar (or something!) solo as well as some kind of electronic organ that sounds great. Then there's the title music from "Bluff Master", a heavy groove with a saxophone solo and 12-string-guitar-sounding instrument on it again and the only instrumental number on the record (if you overlook some sporadic wordless vocalizing).


2016 August 19 • Friday

Also recently available from Coin-Op is this elegant and petite volume, The French Drop.

"The French Drop" is a famous sleight of hand exercise and this book is something of a bagatelle using the well known magic trick as its theme.

The Hoeys only made fifty of these and one of the two copies I have is #47, so if you're interested, don't delay!


2016 August 17 • Wednesday

Another great Coin-Op (#6)!


Peter and Maria Hoey's comics always demonstrate how great the powers and possibilities of the medium are and their new book is no exception. I suspect that they're unusual if not unique in how they exploit comics' ability to draw strength from other media and forms, such as music, film, graphic design and literature.

The first piece in their new book, a second chapter of a story called Inter-Office Memo, is audacious in its use of what I think of as the paradox of comics' potential, that its magic comes from being at once simultaneous and sequential.

Recurring characters Saltz and Pepz return for what could be called, I guess, a Beckettian meditation on pop culture, technology, philosophy and psychology.

The focus then shifts from videotape to film, for a rich and poetic blend of Rear Window and Un chien andalou.

After that come a few pages of stand alone artworks with a common theme, more or less cinema vocabulary. This is a perfect lead-in to their biographical comic about filmmaker Nicholas Ray.

Finally there's a one-page consideration of author Cornell Woolrich, author of the short story that was adapted as Rear Window, as well as many other works that found themselves made into movies. And another few pages of beautiful art at the end.


2016 August 15 • Monday

Carlo Savina's score for Contronatura is the 426th Soundtrack of the Week.

About half of this score is dance music, a lot of it old timey jazz with banjo, that kind of thing. 1920s style?

The first cue sequence for the dramatic score is reminiscent of some of Elmer Bernstein's and Hugo Montenegro's moody, sweeping and jazz-tinged work.

The second sequence has that going on as well but also recalls Paul Misraki's music for Alphaville and has an opening that's hauntingly modern sounding.

Most of the score is like that, creating textural and suspenseful atmospheres, subtly using harpsichord and vibes while letting strings and reeds play off each other.


2016 August 12 • Friday

Bill James's Vacuum (2011) is the 28th novel in a remarkable crime series that takes place in an unnamed British city I imagine as being similar to Cardiff. The moral center of this world is Detective Chief Inspector Colin Harpur and a consistent feature of the series is his dizzying exchanges with his superior officer, the unhinged and demonic Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles.

Technically these are crime novels. Even more technically, they're about half police procedural, half criminal procedural. But the real point of this series is to craft a one massive story in which each volume is a chapter as well as a book that can stand on its own.

In 1976 the prolific James published, under his real name of James Tucker, The Novels of Anthony Powell and I think of the Harpur & Iles series as Bill James's Dance to the Music of Crime.

There's a great deal of wit in these books and the back and forth between Harpur and Iles has a Jeeves & Wooster quality to it at times. But it's a violent, cynical world in which keeping the peace has come to mean preserving a balance of power between the two strongest criminal gangs of drug dealers.

As long as "Panicking" Ralph Ember and Mansel Shale control the drugs trade, cautiously cooperating under an understanding of which areas are their respective turfs, there's no competition, no blood in the streets, no dead bodies on the evening news, no shame cast on the police.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so does Desmond Iles, who's deeply concerned that Shale might be letting down his end of things, inviting some very unfriendly competition.

This is the first line of the novel: "Following that dreadful business when his wife and son were shot dead in the Jaguar, Mansel Shale seemed to decide on very deep changes to his own life".

Losing himself and perhaps trying to find himself in religion, Shale hands over control of his business to his lieutenant, Michael Redvers Arlington. There's understandable concern about this move since Arlington goes back and forth, unpredictably, seamlessly, constantly, between his own identity and personality and that of General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

Here's how Arlington responds when Harpur asks him about another member of Shale's gang, a man called Edison.

'And, clearly, Edison is the sort I need beside me when I tackle this damned anarchist, Commie, atheistic, republican rabble government in Madrid, the so-called "Popular Front", with its fucking intrusive Lefty Brit sympathizers,' Arlington said. 'The International Brigade, spouting socialist junk. Have you heard of the Trotskyist George Orwell, so-called? That's not his real name. He's here. I hate people who give themselves false labels. I'm damn proud of my own name — Francisco Franco — amd would never change. Orwell's real name was Blair, so you can see he might want to get rid of it.

The speed with which Arlington changes time, place and identity is genuinely startling and a typically ingenious spin to put on a character. It's this kind of invention and unexpectedness that makes the Harpur & Iles series so unusual and rewarding. It also perhaps limits its readership to those who are definitely not looking for a straightforward, traditional "mystery" or police novel.


2016 August 10 • Wednesday

I was sure this day would come. One of my favorite newspaper headlines spotted in a TV show!


The Twilight Zone: "Time Enough at Last" (1959)


2016 August 08 • Monday

The 425th Soundtrack of the Week is a movie I saw a dozen times on the big screen when I was a teenager, pretty much every time it played at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. The music is by one of my favorite composers of all time, Masaru Sato, and the movie is the great Sword of Doom.

It must be about twenty years or so since I've seen this. Listening to the newly released soundtrack on CD is giving me the urge to watch it again.

Sato's scores often socialize well with the music of his peers Henry Mancini, John Barry and Ennio Morricone. The brooding, obsessive and oppressive nature of this score recalls Bernard Herrmann and Akira Ifukube. It should go without saying that it's still all Sato, his personal sonic world.

The story is one of moral dissolution, as a swordsman's quest for power rots him from inside as he chalks up victory after victory, whether in official tournaments or illegal assassinations, whether he fights one opponent or a dozen at once.

This samurai Dorian Gray has a misleadingly placid exterior. His signature move is to lower his sword and present himself as exposed and vulnerable, thus luring his enemy into a trap.

Sato's music is responsible for bringing to life much of the character's interior world. There's much effective use of space punctuated by unsettling and pounding percussion and insistent fragmented figures. Shakuhachi urgently describes the fraying of the hero's humanity while the inside of a piano is stroked to produce wave after wave of gloomy and menacing sound.

There are a beautiful love theme and some traditional Japanese music but this is ultimately a score of isolation and dread.


2016 August 05 • Friday

As somebody with practically no knowledge of or interest in the Bible, Chester Brown's new book, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and religious obedience in the Bible was a slightly challenging read.

The book contains Brown's adaptations of a handful of stories from the Bible, rendered in his beautifully assured and composed black and white drawings. The tone is restrained and matter of fact. Many of them were new to me and didn't make much sense.

The copious notes at the end of the book, which surround an additional Bible story adaptation, the story of Job, shed some light on the matter. Brown is interested in and supportive of sex-workers, considers himself a Christian and believes that the point of Biblical stories is that God wishes people to love, as much as they can love. Obedience to laws, whether divine or otherwise, is not as important as loving.

This is an attractive idea and Brown argues it in such a way that I was persuaded, but I'm an ignoramus on the subject.

Anything Chester Brown does is worth my time and attention, and Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus was no exception.

I especially liked his depiction of a calm Satan.


2016 August 03 • Wednesday

Here's yet another great surf instrumental record, Wipe Out! by The Impacts.

This one's actually on CD, so not so hard to find. The band has a colossal sound, particularly from the guitars, which is the most essential element in this kind of music. The lead guitar is consistently strong and tasteful and one of the things that helps them stand out from the pack is their occasional and precise deployment of steel guitar.

The tunes are texturally thick and musically moody, and, with the exception of "Church Key", not the same old songs you've heard a million times before. Even the title track is not the same "Wipe Out" that's been done to death but either a very similar sounding original or an inventive arrangement of the classic.


2016 August 01 • Monday

For the 424th Soundtrack of the Week we turn to a 1980s classic, Brad Fiedel's music for The Terminator.

Sometimes a score saves a movie. Sometimes it ruins a movie or at least brings it down a notch. Brad Fiedel's score for The Terminator is one of those which are perfectly in harmony with their movies. The mood, the story, the general idea, the inner and outer worlds of the main characters are perfectly served by the music.

This is one of the best synth scores ever created. Fiedel did it all himself except for some electric violin parts performed by Ross Levinson.

The general strategy is to have a cold, industrial sound with a mechanistic rhythmic track underlying everything and pushing the music forward.

On top of this Fiedel adds all manner of colors and moods and figures, from atmospheric textures to long prog rock-like lines and jabbing horns and strings.

He also composed some lovely music for Sarah Connor, the only hope for the future of humanity and the heart of the movie.

Interesting, Fiedel's music for the big love scene between Sarah and Reese is mostly understated, using very few notes and lots of space before reprising the main title theme.

If you've seen the movie the music almost certainly was a big part of your experience. Having it on CD is a joy.