From the Archive — Flashback Friday: 1978

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I think I’ve already dug through and shared all the old reviews I have that detail the usually dire outcomes with film adaptations of Stephen King’s work. In order to tie-in with this weekend’s big new movie — which reportedly falls right in line in terms of its quality — I need to look to the “Flashback Fridays” feature I had for a few weeks at my former online home. It basically gave me a chance to write about whatever I wanted, as along as it related to the year I’d reached in a chronological procession. For 1978, I wrote about the King novel that I long maintained was his very best.

1978: Stephen King’s The Stand is released

I was a sucker for Stephen King when I was younger. He was probably the first author who wrote books for adults that I followed with a collector’s intensity. It started with a copy of The Shining that sat unread on my bookshelf for a long time because I had trouble getting past the fact that the persecuted, paranormally gifted little boy at the center of the story shared my name. I eventually overcame that discouraging factor, and consumed the book as rapidly as I could. The Shining may have been my first, but The Standwas my favorite.

That was in part because of the heft of the book. I was just over 800 pages in its original version, and the little brick of a paperback somehow made it seem like it was even longer. All those pages gave it the veneer of something that was a little more important than King’s other typed-out creepshows. That combined with the novel’s story of societal breakdown and reformation in the face of a devastating illness gave it a sense of literary weightiness, at least to my still juvenile palette. Every plot intricacy, every burrowed-in character detail, every broadly drawn theme felt imperiously significant to me. It was, I was sure, King’s masterpiece, the book that proved he deserved recognition beyond his reputation as a proficient, prolific crafter of genre bestsellers.

King revisited the novel for a “Complete & Uncut Edition” in 1990 that added around another 300 pages to its length. There was also a 1994 miniseries, and, more recently, a succession of comic book miniseries adaptations that strike me as utterly pointless. The tinkering and the variants have only served to diminish the memory of the original book for me. It’s made it feel more like a product than the book that I once loved. Selfishly, I want it to be just what it was when I first read it, a comparatively lesser known work from a writer who everyone knew with a daunting length that made it the province of the true fan. I want it to be that book I raced through in my basement bedroom, conjuring up the archetypal battle of good and evil in my mind. Of course, as I type that wish out, it strikes me as exactly the sort of thing I think we all want from those books that first captured us. We just want to find a way to preserve that feeling of immersion, of transformation, of ownership. I know there are the other versions out there, but for me there’s only one The Stand.

One for Friday: Big Audio Dynamite, “Just Play Music!”

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In this weekly feature, I invoke my days at college radio station quite a bit, especially those from my first year as an undergraduate. I mean it with utter sincerity and not an ounce of hyperbole when I celebrate everything my time on the left end of the dial has given me. That wonderful extended experience includes a hitch as the staff advisor to a college station several years later, in the sweltering not-so-wilds of Florida. But there was something different about my time at WWSP-90FM, located in the heart of Central Wisconsin. That’s partially attributable to the early go-round in radio corresponding to a highly formative time, to be sure. There’s something more, though. I believe there’s magic there.

Luckily for me, I get to dip back into that place of happy wonders every now and again. A few years ago, some intrepid friends of 90FM launched an annual fundraiser inviting station alumni to come home and play on the radio for a couple hours apiece. I listened enviously to the first few editions of this event, unable to justify the travel from distance perch in North Carolina. Little did I know that I’d have a home address back in America’s Dairyland before long.

This weekend is 90FM Reunion 5, and I’ll be attending for the second year in a row. Few things feel so right to me as sitting in that particular broadcast booth, filling the airwaves with music that moves me, thrills me, represents me. When I plunked down in the air chair at around this time last summer, it was immediately comfortable, even though it had been around fifteen years since I’d last commandeered that board.

I’d love to offer up a single song that represents the totality of my 90FM experience, but there’s no such thing. It was the exuberant variety, the rampaging wildflowers of an ever-changing music scene, that thrilled me the most. Instead, here’s a preview of my playlist for Sunday, when I engage in a sort of homecoming. If all goes according to plan, this will be the first song I humbly offer up to the listeners.

Listen or download –> Big Audio Dynamite, “Just Play Music!”

(Disclaimer: I’ve previously shared a track from the 1988 album that was the original home to the above song. At the time, it looked to me — somewhat improbably, I will admit — that the record is question was out of print. I believe that to still be the case. However, I am fairly confident that there must — must! — be a Big Audio Dynamite greatest hit compilation that includes this track, so it probably can be purchased from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. Let the shared track be enticement to do so rather than a replacement for commerce. Although I believe sharing this song in this space in this way should could for fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Now Playing — Dunkirk

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Dunkirk is exactly the film Christopher Nolan needed to make at this point in his career. I’m not referring to whatever artistic compulsion the writer-director may have felt in his pulsing, creative soul. Instead, I mean this is the sort of film we as moviegoers — by which I of course mean this is the sort of film that that I as a moviegoer — needed to see. It demonstrates Nolan may yet be able to escape the self-set trap of films that are so confined by ever-tightening overt structural and thematic cleverness that they blink away into imploded nothingness.

Even I typed it, I realize the above primarily reveals how much more I’ve soured on Interstellar since my original review (and I didn’t exactly love it then), but I think a basic truth of Nolan is present there, too. Just as his reputation for elegantly transformative narratives have given the helmer access to robust budgets, its helped box him in. His last couple of features have been weighed down with ambition, as if he wasn’t allowed to simply make a movie. He needed to preside over a cinematic event. The resulting works felt corresponding smothered.

Dunkirk isn’t straightforward, either. In building a narrative around the evacuation of Allied forces from the French coast early in World War II, Nolan (who is also the sole credited screenwriter) opts for a trio of storylines operating on different timelines with subtle and slowly emerging overlaps. What could be simple trickery — a way to impose modern craftiness on a well-worn genre — is instead lovely and useful, providing a different way for the audience to make sense of the terrible gravity and tragedy of men at war. In engaging a different part of the intellect, Nolan shakes the viewer alert to the aching travails of the soldiers and flyboys onscreen, even as he largely eschews the emotional sparklers of painstakingly shared backstories. These men don’t merit empathy because of the loved ones back home or personal aspirations to open shops after the war. They are people in a terrible situation, and that is enough.

Even as Dunkirk is freed of fussiness, it is bursting with — and emboldened by — breathtaking craft. Nolan has reasonably courted comparisons to Steven Spielberg previously, but he moves yet closer to claiming that esteemed predecessor’s mantle of master of visual narrative. Especially in the earliest scenes, Nolan is striving for a minimalist aesthetic, at least in terms of telling his story as much as possible with images rather than characters snapping off exposition at each other. He succeeds marvelously, so much so that I sometimes found myself wishing he had pared it down even more, building the film with the economical dialogue of a silent feature. Filling that gap, Hans Zimmer turns in the most compelling score of his career, heightening the already considerable tension with the seething insistence of his music.

Although I praised the absence of convoluted background motivation for the characters, the fact that I’m deep into this review without including the name of a single actor is telling. While there are some nice performances (Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, the perpetually revelatory Mark Rylance), no one fully breaks through and takes command, forging the kind of portrayal that could make this a film for the ages. The pains of people are achingly realized, but no person is memorable. As much Nolan transcends the contained realm in which he previously resided, Dunkirk finds him flying only so far beyond his borders. In the end, it’s still all about the director.

Great Moments in Literature

“None of us could stand it if every place were a grizzled Chicago or a bilgy Los Angeles — towns, like Gotham, of genuine woven intricacy. We all need our simple, unambiguous, even factitious townscapes like mine. Places without challenge or double-ranked complexity. Give me a little Anyplace, a grinning, toe-tapping Terre Haute or wide-eyed Bismarck, with stable property values, regular garbage pick-up, good drainage, ample parking, located not far from a major airport, and I’ll be the birds up singing every morning.”

—Richard Ford, The Sportswriter, 1986

 

 

“AS WE PART, JIM SQUEEZES MY SHOULDER AND GRINS. ‘YOU JUST NEED A WOMAN,’ HE SAYS. …WHILE IN MY GUT THE CREATURE WRITHES AND SNARLS AND TELLS ME WHAT I NEED… I LEAVE MY CAR IN THE LOT. I CAN’T STAND TO BE INSIDE ANYTHING RIGHT NOW. I WALK THE STREETS OF THIS CITY I’M LEARNING TO HATE, THE CITY THAT’S GIVEN UP, LIKE THE WHOLE WORLD SEEMS TO HAVE. I’M A ZOMBIE. A FLYING DUTCHMAN. A DEAD MAN, TEN YEARS DEAD…”

—Frank Miller, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT, Vol. 1, No. 1, “The Dark Knight Returns,” 1986

Now Playing — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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There may be no clearer demonstration of the artistic failure of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets than my exhausted disdain for nearly every bit of it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was an easy mark for the movie, but I was definitely inclined to buy into its vivid lunacy. I’m one of the rare souls who will expound joyfully on the many pleasures to be found in the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, meeting practically every dismissive complaint about outer space roller blades and volcanic Eddie Redmayne overacting with the eager retort “But that’s what’s great about it!”

I had the highest of hopes that I would get a repeat experience out of Besson, who found his own levels of beautifully unashamed absurdity with his prior film, Lucy. He even had the benefit of the hefty undergirding, since he was adapting the long-running French comics series Valérian and Laureline. He could reach back across fifty years of stories to find the chunks that work well for his big screen science fiction film adaptation. Surely, there could only be so many stumbles.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the result when a film is assembled in a confused, poorly thought out fashion around wildly imaginative concepts. The title character is Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) an intergalactic agent. His partner — important enough for equal billing in the comics, but not here — is Laureline (Cara Delevingne). The two engage in quasi-flirtatious banter as they bound across missions and sidebar adventures that barely make any sense, not because of the futuristic complications, but out of a misguided belief that playing coy about motivations will create suspense. Instead, it drains the narrative of a sense of purpose. The movie flits from one shiny digital bauble to another.

While it begins with a very shaky script — credited solely to Besson — it’s the landslide of other problems that do in the film. In particular, Besson has presided over the largest number of wooden performances in a major feature in recent memory. It’s probably not surprising that Herbie Hancock (whose jazz legend status hasn’t translated into more than a handful of true acting roles over the years) is leaden as a governmental official reciting orders over via hologram. It’s more problematic that presumably skilled actors are entirely. No one really excels, but poor Kris Wu is especially disastrous as a military right hand man laden with constant worried exposition. Even he’s enough of a novice to give him a pass. There’s no such free spin that can be afforded to the likes of DeHaan and Clive Owen. Acting is their day job, and they seem disinterested at best, cartoonish at worst.

I was genuinely eager for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to be a goofy, spirited romp, and I was prepared to accept a lot of nonsense as payment for this experience. Instead, ineptitude reigns. There’s no pleasure to be found in that.

 

 

Playing Catch-Up — Citizen Jane: Battle for the City; Concussion; The Debt

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Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (Matt Tyrnauer, 2017). This documentary is the sort of non-fiction filmmaking that willingly, happily tips toward hagiographic agitprop, treating its central figure as a beam of inspiring light rather than a complicated person. As is usually the case with such endeavors, mileage will vary. My own political inclinations make me inclined to appreciate the spirited rabble-rousing of Jane Jacobs, who picked up her lance in the nineteen-sixties and tilted at the windmill of Robert Moses, the figure who spent decades controlling most urban planning efforts in New York City. Her story is that of democracy in its most boisterous, hardscrabble form, fighting callous or indifferent power with the shield and sword of collective refusal to bend. Tyrnauer tell the story effectively, interlacing archival footage and modern-day interview testimonials to give the impression that Jacobs almost single-handedly kept some of the most disruptive projects from moving forward. And Moses makes for a fine villain, repeatedly meeting news cameras with caustic dismissals of impoverished citizens that could have been put in the mouth a sneering silent movie fiend. All his missing is a oily, curled mustache and a looming top hat. I think Citizen Jane would be a better film if Tyrnauer were more even-handed in his appraisal of the skirmishes between Jacobs and the Moses-led system. But even if he’s made more of a heated editorial than a film, at least it’s soundly convincing.

 

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Concussion (Peter Landesman, 2015). As the recent blockbuster article from The New York Times proved, the problem of players hobbled later in life by the long-lasting effects of multiple concussions isn’t going away for the NFL anytime soon. This drama depicts one of the key starting point to the rumbling scandal. A Pittsburgh-area pathologist (Will Smith) is called upon to perform the autopsy on a former Steelers great (David Morse) who died in a decrepit state, alone in a pickup truck. Through his research, he discovers evidence of enduring and escalating brain damage, evidently caused by years of hard hits on the gridiron. In showing the uphill battle to bring to light unpleasant truths about a fixture of U.S. culture, the film recalls Michael Mann’s The Insider. As a cinematic stylist, though, writer-director Peter Landesman lacks both Mann’s intensity and panache. The film is too pedestrian to be fully compelling, even if its driving purpose is noble. Smith does a nice job as the doctor, taking care to prevent him from becoming too much of a cardboard crusader. The supporting performers face more of a struggle with roles that fall into overly familiar patterns. Albert Brooks and Gugu Mbatha-Raw have their moments, but poor Mike O’Malley is left to bark our lines of implausibly heightened hostility as a coworker of Smith’s doctor. He’s then to provide a first-act obstacle and nothing more.

 

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The Debt (John Madden, 2011). A remake of the Israeli film Ha-Hov (which translates to The Debt) this drama follows a trio of Mossad operatives dispatched in the mid-nineteen-sixties to capture an East Berlin doctor (Jesper Christensen) who is suspected of being a Nazi war criminal nicknamed “The Surgeon of Birkenau.” Told both in modern day and in flashback, the film takes what initially seems to be a fairly simple story and injects it with some slippery morality. The script and direction both sometimes get a little tedious. This is a plot that cries out for potboiler energy, but all involved are clearly more inclined to keep it all at an inoffensive simmer. The primary appeal is archival, since it contains an early performance by Jessica Chastain. The film made the film festival rounds in 2010, but didn’t see theatrical release until the following year, when Chastain rocketed from an unknown to an ubiquitous figure in prestige film fare. She’s still finding her way, but is already vividly present in a way that sets her apart from everyone else onscreen, including greats such as Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 13 – 11

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13. The Replacements, “Alex Chilton”

It’s probably fair to say that “Alex Chilton” remains the most iconic song ever delivered by the Minneapolis band the Replacements. There is probably comparable safety in declaring that the song would not be nearly as enduring had it maintained its working title: “George from Outer Space.” By the time Paul Westerberg, the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, determined the song wasn’t working, he found himself fortuitously toying around with a different idea. “I just thought it would be fun to write a song about a living person,” Westerberg said. He found inspiration in Alex Chilton, the former leader of the cult hero Memphis band Big Star, even cribbing from his first encounter with mini-legend to find some of the key lyrics. When Westerberg first met Chilton, at CBGB in 1984, he fumbled in trying to name his favorite Big Star song, saying something to the effect of “I’m in love with that one song of yours — what’s that song?” Westerberg remained uncertain about “Alex Chilton” as a song, but bandmates Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson offered encouragement. In the end, Westerberg confirmed his reticence was a good omen. “If there’s a sense of ‘Oh God, what if this is looked on as being stupid of weird?’ — that’s usually a tip-off that its worth doing,” he explained. “Those are generally the best songs, and I had that feeling about ‘Alex Chilton.'” The track was released as a single from the band’s 1987 album, Pleased to Meet Me. Westerberg even learned to embrace the embedded advocacy in the song. “We want people to know who Alex is,” he said. “He doesn’t need our help, he doesn’t want our help, but, dammit, he’s gonna get it, whether he likes it or not.” As for what Chilton actually thought, his response was mildly combative and a little muddled (and surely Westerberg and other true blue Chilton fans wouldn’t have it any other way.) “Uh well, I didn’t feel any way about it,” he told Buzz magazine, in 1987. “I mean I’m so used to having these kind of fawning, imbecilic fans you know. To have it take on some coherence is refreshing.”

 

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12. Talking Heads, “And She Was”

Leave it to David Byrne to prove that songs about transcendent drug trips weren’t the sole province of psychedelic bands slumping through the late-nineteen sixties. For the lead track and third single from Talking Heads’ 1985 album, Little Creatures, Byrne took his songwriting inspiration from a tripping acquaintance. “I used to know a blissed-out hippie-chick in Baltimore,” Byrne wrote in the liner notes to the greatest hits compilation Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads. “She once told me that she used to do acid (the drug, not music) and lay down on the field by the Yoo-hoo chocolate soda factory. Flying out of her body, etc, etc. It seemed like such a tacky kind of transcendence… but it was real! A new kind of religion being born out of heaps of rusted cars and fast food joints. And this girl was flying above it all, but in it, too.” Since this was the mid-eighties, it was understood that an eye-catching video was necessary, a priority that fully aligned with Byrne’s growing multi-media sensibility. For the video to “And She Was,” Byrne recruited Portland filmmaker Jim Blashfield, who’d sent the Talking Heads leader one of his short films utilizing an animation technique termed Xerography. Although Byrne providing some initial sketches, he let Blashfield take the creative lead on the clip. And it was a painstaking process. “Basically, you can see the black and white sequences for David’s lip synch — those are shot on 16mm film,” explained Blashfield. “But all the rest were photographs. I’d set up a still photograph, like when David holds his head up. I’d take a picture, then we’d do another pose, so we’d do about ten pictures of his head moving. Then we’d take those slides, put them in the photocopy machine, actually going down to the photocopy place, and bring those back, and we had people cut them out with X-ACTO knives.” The resulting video became an MTV mainstay, helping “And She Was” become the only single from Little Creatures to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.

 

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11. Tears for Fears, “Shout”

The members of Tears for Fears made no secret of the ways in which Arthur Janov’s primal therapy technique inspired and fed into much of their creativity, including the band’s very name and a huge chunk of the material on their debut album, The Hurting. So it was only logical that most attributed their 1984 single “Shout” to the same inspiration source, especially since primal screaming was arguably the most famous of Janov’s innovations. According to Roland Orzabal, that assumption is faulty. “It is actually more concerned with political protest,” he said. “It came out in 1984 when a lot of people were still worried about the aftermath of The Cold War and it was basically an encouragement to protest.” Orzabal said the bulk of the song was written in his home with a synthesizer and a drum machine, with the initial version built around a mantra-like repetitiveness. he also conceded that the backbone of the song was borrowed from the Talking Heads track “Listening Wind.” The instrumental bridge and the rhythm — we sort of put in a Linn drum, and then wrote ‘Shout,'” said Orzabal. “Some elements of that we kept, but sort of made it slightly heavier and a little bit more hip-hop.” In much of the world, “Shout” was the lead single from the album Songs from the Big Chair, but label execs decided U.S. audiences needed a different introduction to Tears for Fears, opting for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” over the band’s objections. Regardless of the dispute, everything worked out well. Both songs went to the top of the U.S. singles chart, with “Shout” spending three weeks in the position.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.