One for Friday: The Candy Skins, “She Blew Me Away”

I find band names fascinating, especially considering the ways they can evolve over time to just feel like second nature. R.E.M. and U2 probably sounded a little odd at first, but they eventually developed natural associations with the bands and, in these instances, their distinctive sounds. I don’t even think about the other meaning of, say, the Jesus and Mary Chain. I also find it interesting when a band’s name can somehow completely convey the sound that’s going to be found on their records. Maybe I’m applying too much of the knowledge I already have rattling around in the record warehouse in my head, but I think you know exactly what you’re going to get from a band called the Candy Skins.

The preferred nomenclature for the band apparently pushed those two words together, but my copy of their debut CD, Space I’m In clearly has it listed as “Candy Skins,” so that’s what I’m going to stick with for our purposes today. However it’s written out, the band name promises a certain sleek, colorful brand of pop music. They should be delivering singles that practically explode out of the radio speakers, burrowing into the brain, as addictive as M&M’s. That was largely the case, although the song that I connected with most forcefully was a little more of a slower builder. “She Blew Me Away” had the same sort of pristine pop quality with a little tinge of moody longing that was completely irresistible to me as I was entering into my twenties and realizes that, no matter how much I held my breath and stomped my feet, it was time to give in to adulthood.

When I weigh what I really miss most about college radio, I rapidly come to the conclusion that it’s songs like this. It wasn’t the track that was most aggressively pushed (although I think it may have been an official single at some point), but it was the one that I found and loved. Any song could become a sort of hit, if only for a sole DJ.

The Candy Skins, “She Blew Me Away”

(Disclaimer: The Candy Skins’ debut album seems to be out of print, though I’ll concede that I was lazier in the hunt than usual. For all I know, they have a significant cult following and there are all sorts of compilations, reissues, box sets and QR code stamps that cause smartphones to project holographic images of old live shows onto low-hanging clouds. My point is that I post it here with the belief that it can’t be purchased from a local, independently owned record store, so sharing it shouldn’t hurt that much. I think it can be purchased digitally, so there are plenty of options to fill out the Candy Skins part of your iTunes if you’re so inclined. Should I be contacted by anyone with due authority to request it’s removal, I will delete it from the interweb at the earliest opportunity.)

Who’s gonna tell you when it’s too late

drive

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was one of the true sensations of this year’s Cannes film festival. Though it may understandably seem otherwise, I don’t mean it as a knock when I note that I can completely understand that the contrast it offered potentially elevated the critical assessment of the work. I’m not as seasoned as some, but I’ve been a dedicated participant at enough film festivals to know that prolonged exposure to the achingly serious, defiantly arid works that dominate the fest circuit can make any movie that has a measurable pulse to it seem like an astonishing bolt of aberrant filmmaking genius. If the movie in question also adheres to the deliberate pacing and casual nihilism of the arthouse circuit, all the better. Drive arrives in theaters with a nearly insurmountable rag pile of expectation. It redefines action films while also fulfilling the deepest desires of the most serious moviegoers with its existential gloom. Despite the fevered predictions, it can’t really be all things to all people. However, it can by a sly, evocative movie that outshines its elements of overt homage to feel like a hybrid that develops into something original.

Ryan Gosling plays a character named in the credits as “Driver,” but more commonly named only as “Kid” in the course of the movie. He’s a part-time movie stunt driver who also earns extra scratch serving as the wheelman for, it is implied, a variety of illicit endeavors. When he becomes enamored with a neighbor, played by Carey Mulligan with her usual sweet, slow burn charm that makes the whole enamored thing fully understandable, he’s also drawn into the surprisingly fraught scenarios that surround her, including a big, dark tangle with east coast mobster thugs. Part of the sleek appeal of Drive is the way it presents its terrible dilemmas with a sort of icy detachment. Other movies may aspire to play it cool, but Drive achieves it. In its transparent and effectively attempts to apply artistry to the trashiest of storylines, Drive doesn’t only walk the fine line between the two extremes of film styles, but calls into question if that line existed in the first place.

The film it consistently reminded me of was Ti West’s The House of the Devil. Like that effort, Drive lovingly adheres to all the tropes of a widely and wisely maligned genre of film in a specific era, while also transforming it, largely with a level of patience that emphatically belongs to the world of independent film. Devil was a tribute to horror films of that bridges the late seventies with the early eighties, and Drive is a devoted disciple to the action films of the exact same era, right down to the cursive scrawl of the credits and the bending electronica score by Cliff Martinez that plays like the great long lost Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It’s derivative, but proudly, knowingly so. It doesn’t strive to reinvent a genre, but it does make a herculean effort to reconceptualize it. This, Refn seems to say, is what an action movie can be if it embraces the sun-dappled pretensions of art. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, in particular, is an overt act of imposing gorgeous artistry onto genre conventions, a conceit best exemplified by the ludicrous golden sunlight that intrudes through the windows of a dirty garage where some of the dirtiest dealings go down.

Some have argued that Drive is a film that will be best appreciated ten years from now, when the hype and inevitable backlash have both died away and an actual film, with aspirations separated from constructed expectations, can emerge. That may be right. In the here and now, I can easily imagine arthouse audiences being put off by the overt car chase adoration and action fans feeling overly lulled by the film’s considered pacing. With a little distance, it seems more likely that the film will stand on its own as something that compresses different eras of filmmaking sensibilities into a single work, trading on archetypes for the purpose of finding stark, heartbreaking truths. For now, if it mostly comes across as chilly and challenging, that’s its own accomplishment. Drive may leave some audiences baffled, but they should certainly know that they’ve seem something crafted with outlandish ambition.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Fourteen

#14 — The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)
I noted at the start of this traipse through a decade of movies that these are the films that were arguably most formative for me. These were the films that I grew up with, evolving from a fidgety kid who found bawdy comedies to be the height of the form to a slightly less fidgety young adult who was beginning to see the deeper artistry that could be achieved when the right personnel was positioned on both sides of the camera. Given that, it should be no surprise that an effort which celebrates the elusive magic of the movies themselves ranks this high on the list.

The Purple Rose of Cairo begins with a keen understanding of the power of movies as a form of escape. Set during the Great Depression, the film stars Mia Farrow as a mediocre waitress stuck in a miserable, abusive marriage. She gets her meager doses of happiness by going to the local movie house, where she repeatedly watches a silly little romantic comedy about an archaeologist sporting a safari hat who’s brought to Manhattan from Africa by socialites and then winds up falling in love during a dizzying weekend of big city glamor. The woman’s mundane life takes a turn for the fantastical when the strapping hero of the picture, inspired by her devotion to the film, breaks the fourth wall by looking across the screen and talking to her. Then he does the seemingly impossible and steps off the screen altogether to take her hand and race off into the night.

Writer-director Woody Allen may be letting his imagination zip of in fanciful directions, but he’s not making some sweet, simple lark. The Purple Rose of Cairo is infused with the same sprightly mix of inspired humor and sullen cynicism that’s the hallmark of all his very best work. He also thinks through his conceit, dramatizes the logical consequences of a highly illogical situation. With the leading man suddenly absent, the other characters onscreen have no way to move the plot forward, leaving them to bicker with the dumbfounded audience and play cards on the penthouse suite set. It also creates a unique dilemma for the Hollywood studio bosses, since a movie that can’t end is also a movie that can’t sell fresh tickets. To fix the situation, the dispatch the actor who played the wandering character to the dismal New Jersey town in question, and one of the oddest love triangles in cinema history is the result.

Allen’s film has tinges of affection for the sweet diversions of old Hollywood movies–and he concocts one here with a master satirist’s accuracy–but the prevailing thesis of Purple Rose is a deconstruction of the false promises inherent in cinematic fiction. Movies promise happy endings that, in Allen’s estimation, simply aren’t available in the real world. Much of the film’s bite comes from watching all the subtle ways that the tender hopes of Farrow’s character are dashed. This film probably contain’s Farrow’s very best performance for her then partner and chief collaborator, representing the pinnacle instance in which her natural overwhelming vulnerability comes across as gentle and moving. She’s matched by a wonderful performance by Jeff Daniels as both the reality-hopping movie character and the actor who plays him. Without relying on bold, showy tricks and signifiers, Daniels artfully plays a tricky dual role. Both characters are elusive, uncertain, primarily defined by their lack of definition. Identity is a slippery thing. Both the actor and the acted, it seems, can shift as easily as going from one reel to another.

Allen was on a remarkable run at this point in his career, the eternally prolific auteur signing his name to an enviable number of spectacularly successful artistic achievements that began with a mid-nineteen-seventies transformation from a comedian playing around in movies to a director of astoundingly casual inventiveness. For a time, it seemed he could work pure magic with movies, so it only stands to reason that one of his best offerings was centered on the unlikely, if deceptive magic that movies could work.

You can get tangled in a ball of rubber bands and twine

moneyball

I never read Moneyball, the 2003 nonfiction bestseller by Michael Lewis that serves as the source material for Bennett Miller’s long-awaited follow-up to the wonderful Capote, but I didn’t come into the film entirely blind either. The film focuses on Billy Beane in his role as General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, beginning with the team’s elimination in the 2001 playoffs. Shortly thereafter, three of the team’s superstar players announce their intentions to take big dollars elsewhere through baseball’s free agency process. Being among the smallest of the so-called small-market teams with ownership that insists the payroll can’t be expanded, Beane is resigned to a constant cycle of developing young players that will be plucked away by the competing franchises with overflowing coffers seemingly at the very point when those players are reaching their performing peak. It is, as the original book’s subtitle proclaimed, an unfair game, and Beane’s only hope is to find a way to exploit the weaknesses that have developed from an atrophy of thinking endemic to a game that lives side-by-side with its own history.

At the time this transformation was taken place, I was spending way too much time on Baseball Prospectus and other sites that championed this different approach to the grand old game and celebrated those who were, by their estimation, getting it right. Beane was chief among those venerated souls, and I found myself rooting for the A’s, once a team that I really disliked. It wasn’t my natural inclination to root for an underdog that drove this. Instead, it was the satisfaction on cheering on people who seemed to be doing things right, and developing a more exciting brand of baseball in the process.

So I’ll concede to an automatic inclination towards Moneyball, or at least enough of a working knowledge of the ideas conveyed and addressed that it wasn’t difficult for me to parse the battle that centered around the fierce debates over evaluating talent on the basis of either stats or feel. It seems to me that Bennett handles these elements deftly–mostly by making the baseball arcana part of easily graspable conflicts rather than taking great pains to explain the competing theories–but, admittedly, I may not be the best judge. That noted, I’m arguably equally inclined to judge the film more harshly, to see the inevitable tweaks for the sake of developing drama to be misbegotten betrayals of the truth. Trying my best to put aside any preconceptions, I land on this conclusion: Moneyball is fantastic.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane as a baseball executive whose tenure is informed by his own experience as a can’t miss prospect who missed. He’s not bitter, but it does lend him a healthy skepticism about the prevailing philosophies of the old-timers who run the game. Pitt invests the character with personality, but always making sure the details of the performance reasonably match the clear nature of the man he plays. As was the case with Tree of Life, wearing the mild burden of age suits Pitt. It causes him to set aside the distancing sheen of stardom that has dogged him for most of his career and settle into the character with an enlivening ease. He has less vanity here than in the roles from earlier in his career when he scruffed himself up in a transparent stab at raggedness. He especially good in the scenes that allow him to play off Jonah Hill, admirably strong as the numbers whiz plucked from the Cleveland Indians front office to help reshape the team. Again, it may be my endearing love of the inner workings of the sport typing, but I felt like I could have happily watched a whole film about the two of them work the phones together on trade deadline day.

Working from a screenplay credited to Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Miller entirely rejects sports movies. A veteran player who’s challenged to be a mentor immediately discovers just how hard that is, and reality argued against a triumphant ending, at least one not reliant on a metaphor meant to be a balm on the pain of disappointment. Miller’s directing is as sleek and refined as it was in Capote, but with an extra surge of energy that comes naturally from a story about men who make the living by taking to a big green field and throwing a ball around. Capote was necessarily grave, but Moneyball allows for some fun to be had. Miller acknowledges the ingenuity and inspiration of what Beane and his cohorts did, but also, as evidenced by his light approach, doesn’t get bogged down by a belief that some transformation of the greatest import took place. It’s only a game, after all. It’s still a joy to watch a small group of smart people learn how to play it in a whole new way.

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 3

violent-femmes-3.jpg

3. Violent Femmes, 3

While I’ll admit to loving that an album titled 3 landed in the third spot of the Top 90 chart, I swear that the tally wasn’t doctored to make that happen. Sure, I might find the temptation to finesse a ranking to accommodate such symmetry entirely irresistible at times, but accurate reporting prevailed in the matter of assembling this list. The scientific method employed in determining the Top 90 may have had some gaps in it, but I followed it assiduously. 3 is at #3 because #3 is where 3 belongs.

3 was the fourth album by Violent Femmes. The number in the title seemed to refer to the number of members of the band. More explicitly, it could be read as a direct refutation of the band’s previously album, the Jerry Harrison-produced The Blind Leading the Naked, which was widely considered an overstuffed mess by the Femmes’ fan base. 3 was a back to basics effort, emphasizing the sort of the sounds that emerged when the original trio played together, the sort of sounds that got them noticed in the first place when Chrissie Hynde discovered them busking on the Milwaukee streets and invited them to open for the Pretenders that evening. Maybe more pertinently, the band was striving to make a record that sounded like their seminal self-titled debut, an album so defining that every mild deviation was greeted with disappointment. After the Femmes stumbled with the moodiness of Hallowed Ground and the rambunctiousness of Naked, maybe the clearest way to reestablish themselves was to embrace their original spirit.

It may be a measure of how far Violent Femmes had slipped that the arrival of 3 was something of a surprise. There was a widespread impression among the radio station staff that Violent Femmes had broken up, speculation that largely seemed to be based on the lukewarm feelings toward the more recent records and the releases of various solo outings and side projects by the band members. There was no expectation of another Femmes album, and no one was especially clamoring for it, either. Most of the staff had happily resigned themselves to busting out “Blister in the Sun” or “Kiss Off” every once in a while (the line “Why can’t I get just one fuck?” meant that “Add It Up” was reserved for party mix tapes). There was no real need for something new.

But 3 was a surprise in more ways than one. Beyond its mere existence, the record was damn good. Opening with the marvelous lead single “Nightmares,” songwriter and lead singer Gordon Gano established that he was back to the lyrical preoccupations that made the band’s music the life raft of relatable angst for sullen teens everywhere. There’s a thin line between romantic longing and damaging obsession, and the most earnest expressions of existential pain lap over into unsettling emotion quicker than the average person can count to ten. Paring back the music brought all that subtext back to the surface, giving special prominence to the bracing expression of a hypersexual id in songs such as “Dating Days” and “Mother of a Girl.” The warped sense of bravado was nicely tempered by the painful fragility of “Nothing Worth Living For” and the goofy skewering of hypocrisy on “Lies.” And, as if to demonstrate that they weren’t solely relying on old tricks, there’s “Fool in the Full Moon,” which was, at least to that point, one of the sharpest, most pile-driving straight-ahead rock songs the band had recorded.

Being a fine collection of songs from one of the touchstone bands of college radio would have been enough to guarantee 3 a generous amount of airplay, but there was one other little detail that added uncommon enthusiasm around the radio station. I suspect most college radio kids have a mildly antagonistic relationship with the campus programming board, the group of students charged with bringing in comedians, hypnotists and other performers to campus. At a lot of schools, especially back then, there was a disconnect between the bands celebrated on the radio station and those brought in to play live shows on campus. At the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, for example, the campus radio station was a relatively prominent part of the community with a respectable listenership, and yet the campus programming board paid no mind to the music radiating out of the antenna one building over and had used their budgetary outlay for “major” concerts to bring in the likes of Paul Young and Quiet Riot in the mid-to-late-eighties. So when the rumor started spreading that Violent Femmes were coming to play a spring concert at Quandt Fieldhouse, those of us who spent our days playing records in the radio booth thought surely it was untrue.

Our cynicism was misguided. Violent Femmes did indeed come to our humble university that spring, playing a concert in the darkened gymnasium to a large group of beer-addled college kids and similarly woozy high schoolers. It was, if I recall correctly, the show that kicked off the tour to support 3 and their first live gig in a few years. And, being central Wisconsin in the spring, it took place on a day that was notable for a huge blizzard that dumped several inches of snow on the town. In fact, we spent most of the day anxiously wondering if the band was actually going to make it. Sure enough, they made it there in plenty of time. Through tactics that I no longer recall, I wound up in the gym during the sound check and even chatted with drummer Victor DeLorenzo for a bit. He even took me up on stage to see his tranceaphone, the metal washtub inverted atop a snare drum that he invented and contributed mightily to the Femmes’ signature sound. That night, he was proud to tell me, he was using the original one.

Our collective enthusiasm for the show led to a lot of spins for 3 at the radio station (the debut was sampled a lot, as well), both before and after the date in question. We also felt a certain sense of obligation. Another part of the college was finally staging a program that suited and reflected out sensibilities. Of course we needed to support it as vigorously as possible. Thankfully, there was no reluctance on our part. It was no burden to play a track from 3. If anything, many of us were glad to have an excuse to repeatedly revisit the album.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate
11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop
10. The Pogues, Peace and Love
9. The Weeds, Windchill
8. Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk
6. The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul
5. XTC, Oranges & Lemons
4. Lou Reed, New York

Spectrum Check

My posted work came entirely from the movie beat this week. I started with a French film that was a little wisp of of a thing. It may have sometimes felt like a foreign film softened into an American sitcom but it also featured Gérard Depardieu, who remains a marvelous actor, at least in his mother tongue, despite his recent unseemly exploits that made him the fodder for silly jokes.

I also reviews a documentary about the Black Power Movement of the late-sixties and early-seventies. It had some basic structural flaws, but much of the footage was amazing. Angela Davis, in particular, comes across as a wildly charismatic figure. A strong documentary that’s just about her is greatly needed.

Finally, I made my first contribution to the new round in our ongoing Oeuvre series, this time tracking through the films of Samuel Fuller. He’s one of those towering old figures of Hollywood that the cool kids gravitate towards, but I’m woefully incomplete in my viewings of his work so this will be a perfect impetus for me to play catch-up. As it rolls along, I was also finally get the chance to review a Burt Reynolds movie for the site.