One for Friday: Possum Dixon, “Watch the Girl Destroy Me”

Listen, we’ve all been there, reeling from some disastrous relationship. And for most college radio DJs, there are probably some wounds that are fairly fresh. So I always had a strange admiration for those bands that could tap into those feelings, not just because I could often relate to those songs, but because, on some level, I recognized that it was a great way for those artists to earn some airplay that may have otherwise eluded them. I’m not saying it’s all cold calculation. Many of the bands we played at the station were populated by individuals whose ages were in close proximity to those of us fitting in on-air shifts around core classes and electives, so it’s not crazy to think that they were preoccupied with the same heart-wounded matters, and would, in turn, chose to write songs about it. Still, a record has a distinct advantage when a sullen, spurned DJ shows up for their shift and spies a song entitled “Watch the Girl Destroy Me” on it.

I’ll also concede that I may have related to it a little bit more strongly because the lyrics provide foundation for a relationship as “I like the movies and she likes the movies/We like the movies together.”

It’s part of that great phenomenon of college radio that is now lost completely in commercial radio: the sense that every on-air shift is an expression of the personality, passions and even moment-to-moment mood of the DJ presiding over it. When one of our late night DJs came in feeling angry at the world, the sound of their shift shifted as they pulled together the art of others to make their own prolonged musical statement. There were DJs who were good all the time, but there were a few who were amazing when they practically turned their show into a concept album. On that front, Possum Dixon’s college radio hit can make a pretty good track one.

Possum Dixon, “Watch the Girl Destroy Me”

(Disclaimer: Admittedly with less digging than usual, I believe I’ve determined that Possum Dixon’s self-titled effort is out of print on CD, though it is available for digital purchase. Certainly anyone who enjoys this song should about purchasing the whole album or even selected songs with the hope, however unlikely, that proper compensation will trickle down to the artist through the added buffers than labels and online proprietors have created. Despite my cynicism, I will gladly delete the posted song from this corner of the Interweb should I be contacted by anyone with due authority to request, suggest or demand its removal.)

Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number One

#1 — Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
For me, the moment that best demonstrates the brilliance of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas isn’t one of the most commonly cited. It’s not Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito asking “Funny how?” to Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, making a gag out of his own unpredictable rage, a bit of self-spoofing made even more chilling when DeVito attacks the bar’s owner moments later for the the transgression of asking for the bill to be paid, an act of actual violence met with the same laughter by his gangster friends as the prank he’s just pulled. It’s not the cascade of fatalities after a big score as the various figures with a claim on the spoils are dispatched to increase the main share, the mounting array of bodies revealed to the sounds of the piano part of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. It’s not the bravura extended sequence leading up to Henry Hill’s final arrest, as he juggles a busy day of cooking and drug drops while coked into a state of peak anxiety, a showcase for the astounding editing skills of Scorsese’s regular collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s not even the famous tracking shot that follows Henry and his future wife Karen, played by Lorraine Bracco, as they enter the Copacabana nightclub through a labyrinthine back door route that takes them through busy hallways and the kitchen to emerge in the main room where they’re given not just an open table, but a fresh one, placed next to the stage just for them, a perfect evocation of the privilege and suspicious sordidness that go hand-in-hand in Henry’s world.

Great scenes all, but the moment that really gets me comes near the end of the film. Henry has been arrested and chosen to become a witness against the mob as a plea bargain, spilling everything he knows from a life that’s been immersed in that world since he was a kid. The details of this are conveyed, as is much of the information in the film, via voice-over narration delivered by Liotta as Hill. The film shifts to a shot of Henry on the witness stand, continuing a thought that had begun as part of the voice-over, a seamless shift from a filmmaking device to a sort of storytelling fully grounded in the reality of the film. Suddenly it seems that the entirety of the narration could have been Henry’s testimony. That thought only has a fleeting moment to register, however, before Liotta breaks the fourth wall, getting up from his seat and addressing the camera directly, striding through the courtroom as the action within it continues, the other characters onscreen seemingly unaware that the central figure of the scene has broken away. In the time it takes to breathe in and out, Scorsese wrenches his narrative from a commonplace cinematic contrivance to a more literal rendering of the story to an even more pronounced bending of reality that belongs most firmly, if not solely, to the movies. He’s already violated a convention earlier in the film when the narration briefly shifted from Henry to Karen, but at this moment he completely tosses out the rulebook. Without being showy or pushy in the manner of some other directors willing to make their films into hyperactive freak-outs to prove their creativity, Scorsese simply and confidently asserts that he can do anything if it serves the film.

Based on the non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas was adapted for the screen by Scorsese and the author, transforming the lengthy reportage about mob life into a stunning piece of film art that subverts every expectation about gangsters and hoods established by decades of movie fascination with their powerful and frightening society. Scorsese directs with the headlong passion of someone with nothing left to lose, and a command of structure that rivals that of anyone who’d ever peered through a camera before him, a skillfulness that reflected both his own experience and his efforts as a tireless, lifelong scholar of film. There’s an incredible mix of the regimented and the unleashed within the film, as many scenes have the satisfying smack of improvisation to them, even as there’s never a doubt that Scorsese is always fully in control, actually orchestrating the sorts of happy accidents that will add authenticity to the work. The movie is brash and tough, but never resorts to becoming a mere wallow in the messiness of the gangster life, scoring cheap points with celebratory depiction of violence. Everything is purposefully, included out of a duty to get the story right, to be accurate, to be honest. There’s no showboating or judgment, just a driven filmmaker’s constant push to properly understand the characters he trains his lens on.

As I’ve written previously, I was literally trembling when I left the theater after seeing Goodfellas for the first time. I’d seen great films before, but they hadn’t impacted me like that, in part because the sense of discovery with Scorsese’s film was so profound. It was as if the great director had given me the code to see movie the way that he did, as an endless realm of opportunity. From there on in, the good movies looked a little better, the noble failures looked a little braver, and, yes, the bad movies looked a little worse, like villainous and thoughtless refutations of the possibilities of film. This was right at the beginning of the time when I officially moved from casual, devoted moviegoer to someone spouting my opinions on the radio, someone who was going to wrestle with the films I saw in an effort to name what did and didn’t work within their frames. I couldn’t ask for a better film to usher me towards this more engaged way of approaching the artistry of cinema. It was utterly transformational for me. And now, with the safe hindsight of twenty years between that first viewing and the moments I tap out these words, I think it’s safe to evaluate the excellence of Goodfellas without fear of rushing to judgment and say that it’s one of the three or four best American films ever made.

Banksy, Jackson, Parker, Scorsese, Wright

The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009). So poorly conceived that it borders on tragic. Jackson and his regular collaborators adapt Alice Sebold’s acclaimed and beloved 2002 novel about a murdered teenage girl, demonstrating such a bizarre lack of empathy that whole film takes on an off-putting robotic sheen. The movie is senseless in every definition of the word, over-directed and utterly tone-deaf. The actors all seem to have stumbled in from other movies with Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci approaching satire in their broadly drawn roles, Rachel Weisz looking bored and Mark Wahlberg thoroughly perplexed. It is cluttered with garish afterlife landscape and crass emotional manipulation to such a degree that the previous film is most resembles is 1998’s What Dreams May Come, which is about as unkind of an observation as I can make.

Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978). Parker’s grimly effective adaptation of the prior year’s nonfiction book by Billy Hayes detailing his harrowing experience in a Turkish prison has a bracing single-mindedness to it. The script by Oliver Stone may be his first, but his penchant for bludgeoning simplicity is already in place. Luckily it works well here, perhaps because Parker has some feel for injecting some humanity and personality into the story. Brad Davis is quite good as Billy, laboring believably through one of those roles that’s about conveying the anguish and endurance of the character as much as showing flickers of inner life. There’s also nice character work by John Hurt as one of Billy’s fellow inmates. The film doesn’t have an especially surprising or engrossing arc to it, but it definitely fulfills its mission of making a Turkish prisoner seem like about the most unpleasant place on the planet.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010). Bryan Lee O’Malley’s terrifically successful series of graphic novels about a lovelorn Toronto twentysomething is taken by Edgar Wright and recalibrated into a bright, energetic and ingeniously creative film. As opposed to directors who simply slavishly recreate comic book stories, mistaking their pages for storyboards, Wright uses O’Malley’s original work as inspiration, remaining true to it while also stamping it with his own voice and ideas better suited for the medium he’s working in. The result is a thrillingly kinetic film that employs the syntax of video games, Web-based communications and anything else Wright can think of with notable deftness. It’s not so much a new way to tell a film story as it is the perfect way to tell this film story. Fortunately, all this wonderfully employed technique doesn’t cause Wright to lose sight of the simpler, equally vital parts of his film such as character and performance. The roles are fully realized, and there are especially fine supporting turns by Kieran Culkin as Scott’s roommate, Alison Pill as the perpetually dissatisfied drummer in his band, and especially Ellen Wong as the youthful girlfriend who Scott spurns when his dream woman enters the picture.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010). This documentary is credited to the famed guerilla artist, but who knows? The story of an amateur and relentless videographer named Thierry Guetta who becomes obsessed with street artists and then spontaneously becomes one himself, mounting a massive art show in Los Angeles, has generated enormous skepticism about its authenticity since its Sundance debut. That’s partially because the general hostility towards the contrivances of the art world that’s woven through the commentary of Banksy and others interviewed in the film reaches its fitting apotheosis when Terry’s exhibition of derivative and suspect works becomes a roaring success. Despite Banksy’s continued insistence that the film is completely legit, the whole closing third feels has the waft of scam about it. This isn’t especially damaging to the film’s effectiveness, however. If anything, it enhances it, drawing the film’s themes and ideas together into a tight little knot. If there is a dose of surreptitious artistic invention to the film then trying to parse the real from the fake is both engaging in and falling for the joke.

Public Speaking (Martin Scorsese, 2010). One of clearest current pleasures of my current movie attentiveness is seeing Martin Scorsese’s status in the entertainment super-structure changed from acknowledged-genius-who-struggles-to-get-his-films-made to acknowledged-genius-who-basically-gets-to-make-whatever-he-wants. That doesn’t mean that everything he stitches together represents masterful filmmaking, especially in the realm of nonfiction work. However, it’s still uniquely satisfying to watching a movie he made about Fran Lebowitz for seemingly no other reason than he thinks sitting and chatting with the caustically funny author for a few hours is a pretty good time. He’s right. It is. It’s also a perilously thin justification for a movie, despite Scorsese’s admirable efforts to mine the video record of Lebowitz’s career to add some context to her various sardonic pronouncements. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it greatly every time I could hear Scorsese cracking up off camera.

What separates me from you? What separates me from you now?

The most important scene in the Coen brothers’ new adaptation of the Charles Portis novel True Grit occurs early on. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross has journeyed to the Old West town where her father was shot and killed to retrieve the body and also begin her single-minded quest to bring the murderer to justice. While there, she seeks to sell back a pair of ponies that her father purchased from Colonel Stonehill, the local horse trader. The scene is played for comedy, thanks in no small part to the wonderfully performance of mounting exasperation by Dakin Matthews (who’s used to highly fraught confrontations in his day job) as the set-upon trader. The scene explains how Mattie has enough money to hire a professional lawman to track down her scurrilous foe, but, more crucially, it firmly establishes her own formidable nature. By the end of the scene, it’s fully believable that Mattie could cause this seasoned, cynical man to bend to her will, and, by extension, every successful act of cajoling that follows makes perfect sense. With one perfectly constructed and executed scene, the Coens put the power to drive the narrative any direction needed in the hands of their youthful protagonist.

This is the sort of effortless command of storytelling mechanics that Joel and Ethan Coen have when they are at their best, and True Grit is yet another mighty peak in the mountain range of their filmography. There may have been times when taking on a western would have inspired the siblings to indulge in cheeky tomfoolery, making a movie that spends as much time slyly satirizing the conventions of the genre as it did indulging in them to elevate their tale. That protective ironic distancing seems more and more a thing of the past, as the Coens instead make a film that is devoted and majestic. There is plenty of humor, but it’s always derived from sturdily built characters, including the two men who join Mattie on her quest: the ravaged, pickled marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn, played with a Sling Blade guttural slur and crafty reserves of spirit by Jeff Bridges, and the conceited Texas Ranger La Boeuf, played by Matt Damon. And the Coens correctly read that the heart of the original Portis story is Mattie herself, played by relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld with an endearing resolve and welcome acknowledgment that, for all her strength, she remains a kid who may not be in over her head, but is precariously close to slipping beneath the waves.

The film is fair-minded about the grim bloodiness of the mission without ever becoming exploitative. It is violent and dark, and coldly efficient in its depiction in a way that suits the grizzled gunfighters that populate the landscape. There’s no real attempt at revisionism or reinvention of the studio western as much as there’s a conviction to do it correctly while still planing off the hoariest elements. The film feels both classic and modern, wisely bridging the distance between its cinematic forbears and the sort of painfully aware existential deconstruction that often threatens to turn modern stabs at westerns into airless drags. It is pure in its accomplishment, displaying a mastery of every bit of filmmaking, including Carter Burwell’s striking, stirring musical score and the beautiful cinematography by Roger Deakins. It is lean and fierce, with nary a wasted moment. It lives up to the satisfied appraisal offered up by Mattie that provides the title. The Coens, and their art, is bursting with truest of grit.

Whatever it was he was about to say, everybody understood everything was gonna change

It’s no wonder that The King’s Speech moved to the top of Oscar prognosticators’ lists as soon as it’d been seen. It’s not that it’s good, although it is. It’s that it is packed, from its production company logos to its pledge of animal safety, with all the sorts of things that inspire the devotional voting of Academy members. It is about World War II, the most important of all cinematic subjects, but it is approached from a nice, safe angle that allows for minimal consideration of the actual hardship of battle. It alternates expertly between the playful and the dutifully solemn. It features honorable thespians playing real-life figures while also staying within earshot of their established onscreen personae. And, perhaps most catnippy of all, it is very, very British. Quite.

Colin Firth plays King George VI, who ascended to the British throne just as his nation was on the brink of war with Germany. With the role of monarch largely reduced to figurehead, the primary obligation of the new king is to provide leadership to his countrymen, especially as they hurtle towards the darkest of times. However, that’s precisely the task most clearly beyond him as he struggles with a debilitating stammer that turns brief ceremonial remarks into an exercise in endurance, both for the speaker and the listeners. After every other treatment attempt has proved fruitless, his wife seeks out the assistance of unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue. Played by Geoffrey Rush with a spirited confidence, Logue tries to address the psychological underpinnings of the impediment, leading to plentiful scenes of the commoner daring to challenge the king. Oscar voters like that sort of thing too.

The screenplay by David Seidler is full of nice byplay between the two men, and director Tom Hooper largely films their scenes with a welcome directness, trusting the actors do the work of selling the story. Hooper has a tendency to let dramatic visual signifiers sometimes run away with the film. In the HBO miniseries, it manifested as an overreliance on canted camera angles. Here he chooses to frame his shot to make the walls behind figures loom massively, as if the screen itself had been replaced by wallpaper. It’s unnecessary and inscrutable, distracting from whatever moment happens to be at hand. The film also wavers whenever it strays too much from his royal highness and the man charged with untwisting his tongue, but that’s as much a testament to the quality of their duet as it a condemnation of the scenes of domestic tranquility or political maneuvering.

Since Oscar talk has already been so prominent in this review, I’ll make a point of noting that I have zero doubt that Colin Firth will win the Best Actor trophy for his performance here. Part of that is due to the sort of political considerations that impact publicists instead of armies as there are plenty of people who feel he is owed for applauding the de facto career achievement award Jeff Bridges picked up in the category last year over Firth’s widely loved and respected performance in A Single Man. It also helps that the role, all verbal struggle and affected voice, can be pulled out into decontextualized clips that still demonstrate much of the built in showiness of the role. The real value of his acting, though, is the way in which Firth uses these details to help him bore into the man, letting the full scope of his struggle, frustration and fragile self-worth register in his eyes as he chokes out each word. He’s given a role that invites both gimmicky fuss and overt reverence, and he manages to sidestep both pitfalls to emerge playing a wounded, knowable man. Oscar voters don’t necessarily always have to sense to love that, but this year, whether they know it or not, they surely will.

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 62 and 61

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62. Mary’s Danish, There Goes the Wondertruck…

Many bands have influences, but few can trace them with the same sort of precision that Mary’s Danish can. Co-founders Gretchen Seager and Julie Ritter forged the plan to start a band while in the middle of watching a concert by the seminal west coast group X, inspired equally by their punky drive and sparer leanings. The endeavored to capture that dichotomy in their own band, naming it Mary’s Danish after a lyric in one of their initial stabs at songwriting. Those earliest efforts may have gotten them little more than a band name, but they clearly improved after that, as evidenced by the batch of great songs on their debut album There Goes the Wondertruck…, led by the attention-getting and propulsive lead single “Don’t Crash the Car Tonight.” Hopefully, they made John Doe, Exene Cervenka and everyone else in X proud.

 

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61. Will and the Bushmen, Will and the Bushmen

Hailing from Mobile, Alabama, the band Will and the Bushmen built up quite a reputation as a rambunctious live act. In fact, it was exactly that growing reputation that inspired the fledgling major label SBK Records to make Will and the Bushmen one of the first acts they signed. The resulting self-titled album, their second overall, surely bears the marks of a band that’s figured out how to build their songs for maximum crowd-rousing effect in an environment full of distractions like clinking beer bottles, pinging pinball machines and darts hurled through the air. The record didn’t break through nationally, perhaps in part because the label’s idea of a clever way to promote it involved using the perplexing phrase “All’s Will that starts Will.” It found a loving home on the 90FM airwaves, though, especially around the yuletide, when the happy chorus of the single “Blow Me Up,” boasting that a lovely young woman is “much better than Christmas,” sounds just right rubbing up against holiday standards.

Previously…
Introduction
90 and 89
88 and 87
86 and 85
84 and 83
82 and 81
80 and 79
78 and 77
76 and 75
74 and 73
72 and 71
70 and 69
68 and 67
66 and 65
64 and 63