Monday, September 26, 2011

Album Review: Warren Zevon - "Transverse City"


 Warren Zevon
"Transverse City" (1989)


So recently when I reviewed FEAR NO EVIL I offhandedly called “Transverse City” Zevon's worst album. It's a backhanded insult, since all Zevon albums are worthwhile, but this one is generally acknowledged to be among his most ineffective (and it was a big expensive commercial flop which pretty much ended his career as a mainstream pop musician). In the comments, longtime friend of the show Dan Prestwich actually contacted me while on his honeymoon to tell me that, “... for what it's worth, I dig TRANSVERSE CITY and think it's seriously underrated.” Well, if he could take a break to defend the album while traveling the world with his lovely new wife, I figured I could sober up long enough to at least give the thing a chance to defend itself.

After an extended, painful hangover followed by a good, serious listen, I came to the conclusion that I do think Transverse City is underrated, but its still one of my least-favorite Zevon albums. I don't mind the big-studio bloat (the synths do sound a bit dated; still they're not as overbearing as some of his contemporaries) but I think the big production necessitated a little too much studio exactness from Zevon. His songs are so consummately constructed anyway that they tend to sound a little dry when he's so focused on studio-ready professionalism. But that can be ok when he's in a rollicking mood; his personality alone is big enough to propel most middling studio productions into a party, and his brilliant songwriting does the rest. Here, he's unusually dour and staid, which –combined with the overbearing production-- makes the album as a whole feel like a slog.

Worst album? I dunno. It's certainly his most dismal album, though. Zevon has always had a dark side virtually no other American songwriter could even approach, but his signature move has always been to camouflage the macabre and malevolent horror stories in his lyrics in mordant humor and a gleeful sense of wicked fun. "Excitable Boy" --off his record of the same name-- has to be about as disturbing a tale as has ever been told in American pop music, but it's also a wild party of rockabilly horns and sugary background singers. Zevon has frequently worn his heart on his sleeve as well, but when it come to the rough stuff his MO is usually to dress it up so it slips past our defenses a little easier.

Not here. While he stays away from murder and mayhem this time, "Run Straight Down" and "They Moved the Moon" are easily among the bleakest and darkest songs in his whole canon, and they're done without even a hint of gallows humor. "Run Straight Down" is as grim as they come, a ponderous, almost lethargic ode to despair featuring anxiously swirling synths and a David Gilmour guitar solo. "Went walking in the wasted city/ started thinking about entropy" Zevon sings over a maelstrom of keyboards and growling guitars. The song begins with a chanted chemical formula which manages to be utterly menacing and evocative even if you don't understand what it means, and gets creepier and more alien from there. "They Moved The Moon" is even more desolate, a glacial, disorienting haze of abstract paranoia and crushing loneliness (featuring --of all people-- Jerry Garcia on guitar, conjuring a pensive flurry of sharp, angular guitar picking.)

It's not all quite so grim, but the heavy stuff seems to be where Zevon's focus is this time. More fun (and more typically Zevon) fare, like the call-and-response "Long Arm of the Law" and the bouncy Cold-War shaggy dog tale "Turbulence" feel a little under-baked. Zevon has made his name telling intriguing tales with the vaguest suggestion in his minimal (but highly literate) lyrics, but most of the mid-tempo stuff feels slight even for him, coasting on endlessly repeated choruses and big-studio bloat (“Long Arm” could probably stand to lose a whole minute and a half of filler). The only one which really fires on all cylinders is the classic "Splendid Isolation," a erudite and hilarious ode to an agoraphobic misanthrope. Witty rants like "Networking" (co-written by FEAR NO EVIL star Stefan Arngrim as part of his generalized quest to be the pimpest motherfucker ever) "Gridlock" and "Down at the Mall" are pleasant enough but dispensable. "Nobody's in Love This Year" finds Zevon in the lone pocket of heart-on-his-sleeve warmth, but isn't quite a strong enough song to provide the needed balance to the rest of the album's despair and cynicism; instead, it feels like a jarring tonal change which doesn't hit hard enough to get the album moving in a different direction or linger long enough to draw us into its world.

A big part of the problem, of course, is the album's unfortunate 80's studio production. This was Zevon's attempt at a big-budget studio album and its meticulous production is at best ponderous and at worst painfully dated. The more you listen to the album the easier it is to roll with it, but the layers of synths and endless parade of unnecessary guest stars mostly serve to make the songs feel stilted and unwieldy. Occasionally it works out in the song's favor, as with the busy hubbub of overlapping effects on the title track (also co-written by Arngrim) which neatly mirror the song's densely layered description of frenzied modern life; more frequently, though, it just serves to make tracks like "Gridlock" feel turgid and to kill the spontaneity that might make them seem more fun.

It may not help that even though the album is certainly among Zevon's most expensive studio efforts, his backing band (though sturdily professional) feels a little bland. Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward brings little of that band's funkiness to this rhythm work here, instead opting for a more technical drum-machine approach while the appropriately named bassist Bob Glaub globs thick stabs of bass onto his tracks, weighing them down when they ought to be dancing.The reliable Waddy Wachel shows up on only a handful of tracks (alas, mostly the less memorable ones) and while he has the most innate understanding of how to play Zevon's material his usually strident style sounds a bit restrained here, as if he's trying not to show up his colleagues' lack of enthusiasm. The guest stars do fine, but can't do a lot to save tracks which are fundamentally weighed down. It's interesting to hear the likes of David Gilmour and Jerry Garcia try their hand at Zevon songs, but only Neil Young really heightens the material. His belligerently rough guitar lead brings the otherwise unexceptional "Gridlock" briefly to life, and seems to goad Zevon into letting himself loose a little on the vocals as he drops the studio magic and gives in to the sweet embrace of the unhinged yelp.

The album could have used a little more like that. It's probably his darkest album so he rarely sounds like he's having much fun or feeling much spontaneity -- fine for the material, but then the weight of the production also kind of blunts the desolate despair in his vocals. Zevon's voice is such a rich and powerful tool that dressing it up in effects and mammoth production merely encumbers the deft way he can mine a single syllable and caustic phrase for pathos. There's plenty of possible quibbles with the album's production, but the biggest problem is that there just isn't quite enough Warren in there. The clamor of the studio musicians squeezes him out on one side, while he's under asserting himself vocally and lyrically on the other. A bonus track of Zevon performing “Networking” solo --with a simple acoustic guitar and harmonica-- reveal that even a Benmont Tench organ solo can't rival the complex alchemy of pathos and hilarity of the man himself.

But the real issue may be that it's not entirely Zevon's own instinct guiding things. The whole album is his take on the works of cyberpunk author William Gibson, whose grim futurism (while admittedly prescient) doesn't really seem to bring out the best in the interpreting artist. Zevon is caustic, cynical, macabre... but I don't buy that he's as fatalistic as the lyrics here would have you believe. While the gloom is faithful to Gibson's work, I doubt Zevon is quite as horrified by the idea of a world of globally interconnected robot zombies as Gibson is; in fact, I imagine he'd find that pretty cool in a mordantly funny kind of way. Hence, the songs can feel like a respectful interpretation of the sci-fi author's concerns rather than a full-on assault of Zevon's own indelible personality. It's true that the lyrics are neigh-on prophetic (who else was singing about uploading and downloading in 1989? But its so spot-on for today's world that it seems almost laughably obvious). Gibson's work is fascinating and holds up remarkably well, which is undoubtedly what caught Zevon's interest – but despite his obvious respect, Zevon just isn't the artist best suited to approach Gibson's work and it dilutes a lot of the things which make his own work so potent and original.

                                        Soon to be a film by Joseph "TORQUE" Khan. Seriously.

The album's not a wash by any means; actually, its just good enough to frustrate you that it's not better. But despite its flaws, Zevon's dependably brilliant songwriting and eccentricities are fully evident, and the album delivers plenty of pleasure. It's just as well he didn't do any more albums like this, but there's enough of interest here to make anyone with any sense glad he did this one. We're pretty much already living in the dystopian future hinted at by “Transverse City,” but as long as we have Zevon's discography there's always the possibility of a pretty wild post-apocalypse afterparty.

And Stefan Arngrim, if you're listening, keep on rockin.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fear No Evil

Fear No Evil (1986)
Dir. Frank LaLoggia
Starring Stefan Arngrim, Elizabeth Hoffman, Kathleen Rowe McAllen



     Frank LaLoggia is one of those odd directors who directed one movie interesting enough to take seriously, but never built up a big enough filmography to make a name for himself. His 1988 film LADY IN WHITE is somewhat flawed (its melodrama a tad overwrought, its performances uneven, its score overbearing) but also manages to be a unique and somewhat classy affair, unique to its time for its deliberate pace, classic storytelling, and emphasis on atmosphere over shock. I was curious to see if his debut film, 1986’s FEAR NO EVIL, would confirm that he was a worthwhile director who never got the chance to blow people away or if LADY was a fluke success.

      The answer --as is often the case with this movie-- is unclear. FEAR NO EVIL is a worse film than LADY, and lacks most of the things I liked about the later film (slow pace, classic style, atmosphere). This one is closer to a teen horror film than a classy ghost story, but its still packed with unusual touches and interesting ideas which give it a distinct personality.

      The story is this: Many years ago, the Devil was reincarnated and, at adolescence, prepared to bring about the apocalypse. He was stopped (via impalement) by this old Irish priest, who himself was apparently an arch angel in human form (didn’t get that from the movie, but I’ll trust the IMDB description, I guess. I was pretty drunk.) Now, it’s the 80s and Satan is back in human form again and under the guise of a 20something high school kid, he's moving closer to his dark purpose. Opposing him are the sister of that priest from before and also one of his high school classmates, a young lady tragically born without any personality whatsoever.

      This has all the clich├ęs you’d expect from an 80s high school horror film, including the feathered-hair hot ride-stealing bully, the obligatory boiler room teen sexcapades, the inevitable locker room humiliations, the conspicuously hip punk soundtrack. But it also has a lot of stuff which is pretty much unique to this one, including a series of surprisingly overt escalating homoerotic scenes, a bunch of religious hand-wringing, an enormous crumbling castle location on a lake in New York, a death via dodgeball, a high school jock suddenly sprouting boobs, a severe case of man-bites dog, a crucifixion. So that much sets it apart from “Welcome Back Kotter” in my opinion (though to be fair I haven't seen every episode, its possible they got a crucifixion one in there).

      What makes this one kind of interesting is that despite all the worn 80s high school tropes on display, the film is surprisingly ambiguous. Everything is so familiar that you feel like you know where this is going, but the film craftily (or perhaps obtusely) confounds your expectations and does something weird instead. By the halfway point, you realize you have no idea where all this is headed, or even what kind of movie this is. Is it a campy gore-fest, as the film's memorable death-by dodgeball scene would have you believe? Is it a religious anxiety film soaked with atmospheric dread, as its OMEN-esque opening suggests? Is it a weird high school drama with some supernatural elements, as its long middle sequence seems to believe? The answer --as is often the case with this movie-- is unclear. It seems to be kind of its own thing, but then again its all sown together from the parts of more familiar things. It's a Frankenstein's monster kind of movie and I genuinely cannot say with any confidence if that reflects ambition or incompetence on the part of the filmmaker. It doesn't seem like anyone on set is aware of what a weird film they're making, but then there is is, boldly letting it all hang out (like a good portion of the male cast ends up doing by the film's end).

        Say what you want about the antichrist, but he knows how to rock some fab sideburns.

      The female lead is so milquetoast that I didn't even realize she was the protagonist until finally there just wasn't anyone else. But Stefan Arngrim*, who plays young Satan (now going by the name Andy Williams**) does a great job, and plays a key role in keeping the proceedings off-kilter and interesting. He plays Andy as an intelligent, somewhat effete (if not outright gay) loner, but manages to make him seem more sympathetic than menacing. We hear from his alcoholic, abusive, murderous father that he's “a manipulator” and “the devil's spawn,” but the father seems like a way worse guy himself and so we're not inclined to take him seriously. Are we being manipulated by him, or is just a poor misunderstood kid who doesn't know what he's doing any more than any other high schooler does?

      It gets even more confusing as we begin to see him manifest his powers. In one scene, a bunch of bullies (all fully naked) start abusing him (also totally naked) in the gym shower, and one, to demonstrate just how gay this weird kid is, grabs him and kisses him full-on the mouth (you know, like high school bullies always do?). Things get weird fast though and they end up getting kind of stuck together at the mouth as Andrew pulls some kind of supernatural soul-sucking business on him. When it ends, the bullies run for it, but the interesting thing is that Andrew looks even more traumatized than they do, slumping down in the shower and looking drained and upset. But the next thing you know, he's killing a dog with an ax and drinking its blood. So, what, is he starting to get all Antichrist-y and doesn't know what's happening to him, or is he just a weirdo sensitive Satan who gets tired after some strictly platonic male-on-male nude shower open-mouth kissing? The answer --as is often the case with this move-- is unclear. But the ambiguity makes it more interesting.

      Overall, the film is a little too uneven to really recommend, but it has a few sequences which genuinely work up some grotesque dread, and even more that are memorably crazy if not entirely successful. Like its central antagonist, it can be hard to tell what it's really trying to do, and even when it seems to know it's not always great at pulling it off. But its still pretty interesting to watch something this weird develop, even if you can't quite figure out what its going for. The mystery of whether or not LaLoggia is a director worth serious study remains unsolved, but I'd say this movie is a net gain for the world. 


*according to IMDB, Arngrim is a musician who co-wrote many of the songs on Warren Zevon's arguable worst album, “Transverse City” (wikipedia credits him with only two, the title track and “Networking,” but those are both pretty decent songs so we'll give him a pass). 

**Yes, Andy Williams. His father is John Williams. I have a hard time believing that they didn't realize the hilariousness of those names, but if it means anything I sure as hell have no idea what it might be.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Kick-Ass

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Kick-Ass (2010)
Dir. Matthew Vaughn
Starring Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Mortez, Nicholas Cage


So I took another look at this one, wondering if having seen it in the midst of its initial run I was being reactionary in finding it an unpleasant experience. Nerdom at large fell all over themselves for this one, finally getting their “hard R” superhero movie and feeling very grown up about themselves. The critics, too, mostly praised its kinetic pace and lightly postmodern take on the subject (this was back in the days before postmodern “What if a real person became a superhero?” films actually outnumbered legit superhero films). But I thought it was a kind of nasty, stupid, ugly little thing just barely concealed in a sugary coat of glossy Hollywood professionalism. Most of the people who seemed to share my point of view were the typical crazy family groups, but both Roger Ebert and Vern from outlawvern.com agreed with me, which is pretty good company to be in if you’re going to be defending an unpopular opinion. Still, I wondered if I would learn to love this one like all my peers did if I took a little time away from it and returned knowing what was in store.

Nope. Turns out I was right the first time, this thing is a craftily concealed little pill of pure hate dressed up in fun action tropes. I guess I might have known that considering it came from the comic by Mark Millar who wrote the indefensibly vile WANTED. But the weird thing is, I’m not sure it’s his fault here. I’ve never read his comic, but the film seems to me to be weirdly unaware –willfully, even—of what the story it's telling is actually about.

Here’s the thing: This is about a bunch of bitter, deluded, pathetic, hate-fueled losers who feel better about themselves only when they successfully commit acts of violence against other people. No one here even pretends to have humanitarian motives – they do what they do because it’s a nice confidence booster, to be able to beat people up or murder them and get away with it makes them feel special. And because they’re fighting crime, it’s all nice and morally justified.

Which would be a reasonably interesting take on the Superhero trope, had they chosen to actually develop this subtext (which admittedly was already better explored in the WATCHMEN movie, and already much, much better explored already in the Watchmen comics waaaay back in the 80s). The scary thing about the film, though, is that instead of exploring what seems like the most obvious thing to draw out of the story, it’s totally on these guys’ side. It really thinks they’re fucking awesome, and the more violent they get the more awesome it thinks they are.

Which is, I think, what makes it such an unsettling experience to me. It's the kind of film which plays into all the worst tendencies of nerd culture – validating their misogyny, their secret feelings of superiority, their bitter, simmering rage. This is the movie where the geeks are right, girls really do only like jerks. Nice guys might as well be gay to them (this is literally depicted in the film). But if you become a successful enough bully, the girl who previously ignored you can hardly wait to fuck you in an ally (again, no exaggeration. Literally depicted). The subtext is about empowerment, validation, and popularity through violence, and there's no other way to see it. The movie even makes explicit this point. Kick-Ass is a selfish, whiny little prick who's ready to retire after committing one “heroic” act and feeling better about himself. But he has one thing to do first: go tell his crush that he's a hero so she'll fuck him. “What's the difference between Peter Parker and Spider Man?” Kick-Ass sneers, “Spider Man gets the girl.”

Is that really the difference? Peter Parker isn't like Batman, he's not living a life as cover for his superheroing. He's actually living a real life, trying to balance work, life, and family while grinding by in a low-paying, unflashy working-class kinda job. He's got plenty to complain about, but instead he's sweet and upbeat, heroically taking abuse from people who think he's irresponsible andunreliable due to his anonymous webslinging. He could easily tell everyone that he's Spider-Man and probably do a lot better for himself, but he doesn't. That's not what it's about. Besides, it's not like Spidey is thorax-deep in women, either. Yes, Black Cat is admittedly pretty hot, but it's Peter Parker, not Spidey, who ends up finding happiness with long-term babes like Mary Jane and (briefly) Gwen Stacy. Not because he's a hero, but because he's a good guy and an unselfish friend. He doesn't get the girl because she thinks it's hot that he beats up baddies -- he gets her in spite of feeling obligated to put his own life second in order to make the world safer. Spider-Man is Peter's burden, not his fantasy. He lives a double-life as Spider-Man because he's cursed with abilities which make him uniquely suited to helping the world.

At the end of Kick-Ass, the title character mocks the classic Spider-Man ethos by musing, “With no power comes no responsibility,” and its supposed to count as character growth that he goes ahead and kills a few people even though he didn't technically have to and probably won't even be substantially rewarded for it. But do you really think Peter would have just led a life of smug self-satisfaction had he not been bitten by that radioactive/genetically altered spider? If Uncle Ben had been killed and Peter didn't have superpowers, would he just have shrugged it off and gone into middle management at an investment bank? Fuck no. He's in the game to help people, to make the world better. And that's something Kick-Ass (both the character and the movie) just fundamentally misunderstands about Superheroing. Every so-called hero in the movie is in it for entirely selfish reasons. In many cases, they make life considerably worse for other people. When Kick-Ass learns that an impersonator has been savagely murdered in his stead, it doesn't even occur to him to feel a twinge of remorse or regret for what he's started. He's just glad someone else got killed first so he has a heads-up to save his own ass.

Only one person in the film seems aware that they’re playing a sociopath, and that’s the reliably eccentric Nicholas Cage in one of his court-mandated 5 good performances per decade. As much as the movie wants you to think this guy’s awesome, Cage lets you know what an spaced-out psycho he is with his Ned Flanders mustache (he actually puts on a fake handlebar mustache in his crime-fighting persona, a touch of genius I must assume came from Cage) and hilariously nutty gay southern drawl (he should have a talk show with Gary Oldman from THE FIFTH ELEMENT). He's good at killing but he's a total failure as a father and as a human being. The movie is totally with him and falls all over itself showing you how effective he is, but Cage brilliantly undermines the effort by putting just a hint of overblown theatrical flair into his superhero persona. Cage knows how to look cool as a superhero type, but here he (intentionally, I truly believe) makes the character look like a kid playing in a Batman costume, subtly reminding you that this guy isn't so much a serious gritty hero as a big self-absorbed child who happens to own a lot of guns. 

                  Nic Cage auditioning for BLACK SWAN 2: UGLY DUCKLING

Other than that, though, the movie is dead set on convincing you how awesome these guys are, and the scary thing is that it’s devilishly good at making the whole thing fun, funny, and kinetic. It’s a pretty good time, objectively, and I have to imagine Matthew Vaughn has a genuinely fun action comedy in him somewhere. But this ain’t it. This is a serial killer film where we’re supposed to cheer for the killers and think they’re cool. It idolizes violence, makes a tacit (and occasionally even explicit) argument for violence as a necessary tool for self-actualization. Which gives the screen violence an unpleasant, pushy feel, like an aggressive drunk getting in your face about something you basically already agree about. Shit, I love screen violence. I didn’t watch every FRIDAY THE 13th just for the sex scenes. But this thing worships the violence so feverishly, and so steadfastly refuses to introspect about the obvious horror story playing out in its narrative... that its actually a turn-off. 

If it had anything to say about anything at all, that might even be ok. With a film this short on ideas, though, it just feels uncomfortably close to trying to win friends by feeding into people's worst traits and validating their most selfish fantasies. If you let yourself get sucked into its nasty little fable about discovering how special you are by beating people up, I imagine it can be a kind of powerful, seductive fantasy. But watching from the outside is pretty horrifying.