Category: Inventory

Inventory: Stuck in Folsom Prison: Great music from behind bars

Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin

Although country legend Johnny Cash never served time in prison himself, he had his share of scrapes with the law, and always had sympathy for people who’d done wrong. “Folsom Prison Blues,” with memorable lines like “I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die,” was one of the first songs he ever wrote, inspired by a viewing of the film Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison while he was in the Air Force in 1953. Cash played several jailhouse shows throughout his career, but the two most important and iconic are inarguably his 1968 and 1969 concerts at California’s Folsom and San Quentin prisons, which provided a big boost to his then-flagging career and realized his longtime dream of actually recording a live album from inside prison walls. Although some of the crowd reactions were sweetened in post-production before the albums’ release, Cash’s fiery passion and rapport with his captive audience are genuine and magnetic. Both concerts were filmed for subsequent documentaries. 2008′s Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison has been making the rounds of film festivals and arthouses around the country. The San Quentin concert was also filmed for Britain’s Granada Television, and later turned into a documentary by filmmaker Michael Darlow—which screens at south Minneapolis cinema The Trylon tonight at 7:30 and 9 p.m.

Originally published on avclub.com Jan. 6, 2010 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Johnny Cash, Bukka White, James Carter, and Roky Erickson. Read the complete article.

Inventory book excerpt: No, seriously, you’re next! 15 movies where the crazies are right

13. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Although the first Terminator movie ended on a hopeful note, with Linda Hamilton destroying the robot sent back in time to kill her and the unborn son destined to protect humanity from a future machine revolt, it didn’t solve the biggest problem—there was still going to be a nuclear war, and billions of deaths. Director James Cameron brilliantly picked up that loose plot thread for the sequel, in which Hamilton discovers that knowing the future is a curse if nobody believes you. Obsessively driven to survive the coming apocalypse, she winds up locked in an asylum, where her shrink treats her outlandish stories of time-traveling murderous skeleton robots with the seriousness they seem to deserve.

14. God Told Me To (1976)
B-movie auteur Larry Cohen begins his creepiest film with a sniper on a New York City water tower firing randomly and with deadly accuracy at the crowd below. When city cop Tony Lo Bianco corners him, the gunman smiles beatifically and explains, “God told me to.” He seems like a lone psycho—until similar murders break out across the city, with no apparent connection beyond “God” causing ordinary citizens to develop a homicidal religious mania and send their loved ones to heaven the hard way. (In God Told Me To’s most infamous sequence, a beat cop played by Andy Kaufman begins shooting wildly during the St. Patrick’s Day parade—a scene filmed guerilla-style during the real parade.) Lo Bianco is horrified to discover that the prime mover is a sinister Jesus-meets-Jim-Jones cult leader whose brainwashing powers come from the UFO that kidnapped and forcibly impregnated his virgin mother. The God story sounds sane by comparison.

Originally published on avclub.com Nov. 16, 2009 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Terminator 2: Judgment Day and God Told Me To. Read the complete article.

Inventory: The Old Cult Canon: 16 cult films that paved the way for the new cult canon

5. Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972)

A line of Spanish conquistadors and their Indian porters wind their way down the mountainous slopes of Amazonian Peru, nearly swallowed up by the jungle like a puny stream of ants. This long, unhurried, and gorgeous tracking shot opens Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, the breakthrough movie for Werner Herzog, one of the leading lights of the New German Cinema movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Aguirre was also the first of five movies teaming Herzog with Polish-born actor Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s bleak view of human nature was enlivened by, and gave shape to, Kinski’s uncontrolled ferocity. Their relationship was stormy, to say the least; they loved each other like brothers, hated each other like enemies, and together made the best work of either man’s career.

Kinski stars in Aguirre as a mutinous, scheming soldier in Pizarro’s army. Sent into the rainforest to find the illusory golden city of El Dorado, he seizes the opportunity to rebel and claim South America for himself. Inspired in part by Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, it’s far from an action film—it’s moody and slow, with long stretches of inactivity. But it builds to a suspenseful, dreamlike state of dread—the cruel, seemingly infinite jungle makes a mockery of Aguirre‘s dreams of conquest, as his expedition descends into chaos before they see a single native to oppress.

Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Sure. Existential dread doesn’t follow a clock.

Films that couldn’t exist without it: Apocalypse Now, Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Mission, The Blair Witch Project, Herzog’s blistering documentary My Best Fiend

13. Suspiria (1977)
The Italian film genre known as giallo enthusiastically embraces the most lurid, trashy side of the scary movie, thanks in part to the abiding influence of the particularly sex-and-violence-crazed Italian pulp fiction that was its immediate predecessor. Dario Argento crowned himself king of the giallo film with his 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, the first in a loose-knit trilogy based on three female spirits of darkness mentioned in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions Of An English Opium Eater. Jessica Harper stars as an innocent young woman who discovers that her new ballet school is also the home of a murderous coven of witches, and works to uncover its secret while the body count rises and supernatural menaces loom ever larger. Suspiria‘s plot is often thin, and the acting is haphazard at best (all the dialogue was dubbed in postproduction), but logic has never been Argento’s goal. He thinks on a grander scale to create a nightmare world that feels like a monstrous version of a fairy tale. He achieves this through a bold, inventive mix of bright colors (using a palette based on Disney’s Snow White), whip-crack editing, and an aggressive, creepy score by Goblin, the rock band that also worked on George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead.

Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Not really. Almost all horror is more effective in the dark, and this is no exception.

Films that couldn’t exist without it: Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street, the slasher-film craze of the 1980s

15. Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959)
Ed Wood’s sci-fi crapterpiece has often been called the worst movie ever made, which isn’t quite true. There are movies with worse scripts, flimsier set design, clunkier acting, and more boneheaded directorial choices—several from Wood himself—but Plan Nine From Outer Space is entertaining nonetheless, because the sheer volume of incompetence makes the film more loveable. Wood’s catalog of blunders and heroically misjudged attempts to overcome disastrous setbacks are seemingly innumerable, starting with the basic storyline, a nonsensical plot about aliens whose previous eight attempts to conquer Earth have failed, and who have decided to try reanimating the dead this time. The script is full of clumsy lines and howlers, such as the narrator’s solemn pronouncement “Future events such as these will affect you in the future.” The flying saucers are clearly on strings, and the cardboard gravestones in the cemetery set tend to wobble when the actors lurch past them. The tiny budget left room for only a single take of most shots, resulting in reams of flubbed lines, visible boom mics, and other mistakes. Most egregiously, Wood’s plan to have Plan Nine star his friend Bela Lugosi, the iconic star of Dracula who had since fallen into Z-grade obscurity, were scotched by the actor’s death. Instead, Wood used a few minutes of previously shot Lugosi footage and filled the rest out by recasting the role with his chiropractor, who was a foot taller than Lugosi and “disguised” his lack of resemblance by keeping his cape over his face at all times. It wasn’t meant as a comedy, but Plan Nine is best viewed as an unintentional one: Call it a secret success.

Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? This movie doesn’t work no matter what time it is. But this is really a midnight flick: Plan Nine is best enjoyed with a crowd of fans who will laugh when Tor Johnson trips over the gravestone.

Films that couldn’t exist without it: Without Plan Nine to cap his career, Wood’s legend might not have lasted long enough for Tim Burton to memorialize him with the biopic Ed Wood. The movie’s more lasting influence is probably subtler: Who knows how many budding filmmakers were emboldened by Plan Nine? After all, if Ed Wood could make movies, anyone can.

Originally published on avclub.com Sept. 11, 2008 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and Suspiria. Read the complete article.

Inventory: Dark Side Of The West: 17 Truly Grim Westerns

1. High Noon (1952)
Westerns are almost inherently grim: Traditionally, the quintessentially American genre would have us believe that the country was wrested from the wild by a few unrelentingly strong, stubborn, self-sufficient men bravely facing incredible odds and probable death. Still, Westerns tend to be about heroes, and heroes usually win. Which makes stark, morally muddy features like High Noon stand out. Gary Cooper won an Oscar for his portrayal of a weary-looking Old West marshal who, literally minutes after marrying Grace Kelly and hanging up his badge, learns that a killer he put in jail has been released and will be back in town for revenge in less than 90 minutes via the noon train. Operating in real time, Cooper re-dons his badge and scours the town, trying to assemble a posse to deal with the killer and his band, but all his friends and neighbors turn their backs on him, out of apathy, cowardice, denial, naïve hope that the problem will just go away, or even ambition for Cooper’s job. As his hopes for help disappear one by one, Cooper looks increasingly strained and exhausted, and becomes more and more of a Christ figure, abandoned by his disciples and desperately wanting someone to tell him this cup will pass from him, yet holding to the courage of his convictions. In the end, Cooper dutifully faces the problem and triumphs, in a manner of speaking—he’s alive, but his faith in humanity, virtually all his friends, and his belief in the things he spent his life fighting for are irrevocably gone. High Noon isn’t about Western heroism, it’s about surviving utter betrayal and moving on.

Originally published on avclub.com Sept. 3, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on High Noon, Once Upon A Time In The West, The Wild Bunch, High Plains Drifter, and Dead Man. Read the complete article.

Inventory: “I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That”: 17 Dangerous Cinematic Computers

2. Colossus, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Film in the 1970s had an oddly awestruck notion of the power that computers might hold over our daily lives, with much hand-wringing and nightmares over the potential loss of our free will to cold, unfeeling machines. That played into the era’s Cold War fears as well, of course, since computer control was increasingly part of the strategy of both superpowers’ nuclear arsenals. Human error might send a nuke to kill millions by accident or insane design, but could computers really be trusted not to make their own mistakes? The 1970 thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project imagines the horrifying consequences of abrogating human responsibility over our own fate, as the all-too-foolproof computer system Colossus develops its own sinister agenda almost immediately after the U.S. missile system is placed in its control. Developing an alliance with the Soviets’ computer, Colossus decides that humans cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs, and takes over the world by threatening nuclear annihilation if its demands aren’t met. Though the movie is frustratingly slow, like a Twilight Zone episode padded to 90 minutes, Colossus’ malevolent pronouncements are truly chilling, proclaiming its new world order in a way worthy of a Bond villain: “I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content, or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours. Obey me and live. Disobey and die.”

Originally published on avclub.com Aug. 20, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the section on Colossus: The Forbin Project. Read the complete article.

Inventory: 10 Surprisingly Good Tribute Albums

3. Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus
The 1992 album Weird Nightmare is something of a stealth twofer: The compositions and poetry of jazz bassist Mingus form the backbone of the disc, but Hal Willner also incorporates the unique instruments of avant-garde composer Harry Partch, adding a subtly unearthly quality to the music. Though Nightmare’s core band includes jazz heavy hitters Greg Cohen and Bill Frisell, the album’s refreshingly wide-ranging scope of personality comes from a crew of vocalists including Henry Rollins, Elvis Costello, Robbie Robertson, and Requiem For A Dream book author Hubert Selby Jr., with Public Enemy’s Chuck D putting his definitive stamp on a reading of Mingus’ autobiographical recollection “The Fire At The Coconut Grove.” None of it necessarily sounds like what Mingus would have done himself, but that, of course, isn’t the point.

7. Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: Roky Erickson
Psychedelic pioneer, cult icon, and infamous LSD and Thorazine casualty Roky Erickson has experienced an amazing personal resurgence in the last couple of years, documented in the film You’re Gonna Miss Me. But in 1990, he was living in poverty, in legal trouble for hoarding his neighbors’ mail, and less interested in music than in dampening the voices in his head by switching on seven or eight radios and TVs simultaneously. Friends and supporters organized Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye to bolster Erickson and his musical legacy, and the results were splendid. The album is still uneven, and several of its covers are workmanlike at best. But Pyramid‘s numerous brilliant moments, including John Wesley Harding’s scorching “If You Have Ghosts” and T-Bone Burnett’s beautiful take on the lonely ballad “Nothing In Return,” drove home the point that even during his unbalanced “Martian” phase, Roky was still a powerful songwriter, well worth exploring.

Originally published on avclub.com July 15, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Charles Mingus and Roky Erickson. Read the complete article.

Inventory: 14 cover songs that are better than the originals

1. Stevie Wonder, “We Can Work It Out”
The Lennon/McCartney-penned single “We Can Work It Out” comes from the middle of The Beatles’ most radical creative reinvention, the 1965 shift from the straightforward pop of Help! to the multifaceted Rubber Soul, which would revolutionize their music, and by extension, everybody else’s. So it’s fitting that when Stevie Wonder covered the song on 1970′s Signed, Sealed & Delivered, he was in the middle of a similar transition from Motown’s teenage wunderkind to the socially conscious and superfunky artist he became in the mid-’70s. Wonder’s performance is so powerful, in fact, that it changes the meaning of the song without changing a word. The Beatles’ original is a desperate plea for reconciliation, delivered with passion but little hope. (The song was inspired by Paul McCartney’s fractious, doomed relationship with then-girlfriend Jane Asher.) But Wonder’s version is all about hope, and his joyous, sizzling funk makes “We Can Work It Out” a promise, not a plea.

3. The Blind Boys Of Alabama, “Way Down In The Hole”
Tom Waits’ offbeat gospel song is one of the highlights of his 1987 disc Frank’s Wild Years, and it’s even better on the subsequent live album Big Time, where Waits interjects a grizzle-voiced sermon about using hydraulic-powered faith-healing to blast the devil out of your soul. But both versions take a mockingly ironic tone toward Waits’ perspective character, a tent-revival preacher promising heaven in exchange for your cash, and neither completely shakes a sense of theatrical artificiality. That’s definitely not the case for gospel group Blind Boys Of Alabama, whose smoking, bluesy rendition of the song on 2001′s Spirit Of The Century hits with genuine fire and fervor. It also picked up added resonance when the producers of HBO’s terrific The Wire used it as the theme song for its first season, perfectly encapsulating the series’ complicated dance with good and evil.

6. Elvis Costello, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding?”
Nick Lowe’s original version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding?”, recorded in 1974 with his pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz, is a minor classic of English pre-punk, and it doesn’t sound terribly different from the one recorded by Lowe’s buddy Elvis Costello five years later. On the plus side, it actually kicks in with some sweet harmonies after the line “where is the harmony, sweet harmony?” On the debit side, there’s Lowe’s dated, hippieish talking bit about how we need to save the world for “the children of a new generation.” Costello’s arrangement is tighter and more assertive, all the better to get right to the point: Why the hell can’t people stop being total bastards to each other? The passionate fury in Costello’s voice transforms “Peace, Love, And Understanding” into a condemnation of humanity’s propensity for cruelty, violence, and war—and elevates it into one of the greatest songs in the rock canon.

Originally published on avclub.com March 12, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Stevie Wonder, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Elvis Costello, and Langley Schools Music Project. Read the complete article.

Inventory: 13 sidekicks who are cooler than their heroes

1. Tonto, the Lone Ranger movies
The Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion debuted in the 1930s, an age not known for its enlightened attitudes toward minorities. And writers like Sherman Alexie have pointed out Tonto’s more problematic aspects, like his stereotypical broken English. But from the beginning, Tonto was depicted as a heroic figure in his own right, and not so much the Lone Ranger’s assistant as his friend. Tonto was saddled with pidgin dialogue, but he wasn’t dumb, and could track bandits and right wrongs with a skill equal to the masked man’s. Also worth noting: The similar character dynamic in the Lone Ranger spin-off The Green Hornet, between the Hornet and his Asian sidekick Kato, led to Bruce Lee’s American breakthrough role on the short-lived 1966 TV series. And few people, sidekicks or not, are cooler than Bruce Lee.

9. Dr. Pretorius, Bride Of Frankenstein
It’s so hard to find good help these days, as Dr. Henry Frankenstein found out. In the original movie, his lab assistant steals the wrong brain. In the sequel, Bride Of Frankenstein, his old teacher shows up and nearly steals the entire film. Though Henry is nominally the lead scientist in their partnership, Dr. Septimus Pretorius wins hands down in the “mad scientist” department, swanning through the movie with such gleefully macabre abandon that he makes the wet-blanket Henry instantly forgettable. Where Frankenstein is plagued by his wishy-washy conscience, Pretorius revels in his blackmails and grave robberies, and even goes tomb-looting with a sense of style, sticking around after the corpse is dragged away, and having a light supper and a smoke inside a mausoleum.

11. Marvin, The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy
Douglas Adams’ science-fiction satire contains no shortage of characters who’d be fun to get drunk with. And even terminally bewildered protagonist Arthur Dent seems like a nice enough guy. But no character captured the hearts of Adams’ fans as much as the gloomy Marvin, the Paranoid Android. Though Marvin’s constant melancholy was a source of irritation to his shipmates on the Heart Of Gold, it was easy to sympathize with the slump-shouldered robot. Marvin may have exaggerated and obsessed over his many burdens—pain in all the diodes on his left side, or being forced to park cars for millions of years while his friends went to a fancy restaurant. But in Douglas Adams’ mixed-up and often terrifyingly random universe, Marvin’s weary resignation was one of the only sane responses to life. Besides, Marvin was more than a piece of miserable machinery, he was also the series’ stoic hero figure—often the only character smart enough to know what was actually going on, he repeatedly saved the lives of his (usually ungrateful) friends at great peril to himself. Whether it meant facing down an intelligent battle tank unarmed or staying behind on a doomed starship while the others teleported to safety, Marvin was always willing (though never eager) to put himself in harm’s way. Perhaps Marvin’s popularity also owed something to Adams’ own identification with the character—though it was inspired by a fellow writer named Andrew Marshall, Marvin’s disconsolate pessimism also came from Adams’ own bouts with depression.

Originally published on avclub.com Feb. 26, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Tonto (and Kato), R2D2, Nobody, Inigo Montoya, Dr. Pretorius, Marvin, and Mouse. Read the complete article.

Inventory: 8 Songs About Sexual Mishaps

1. Ike Turner, “She Made My Blood Run Cold”
These days, Ike Turner is mainly remembered as the violent, abusive ex-husband of Tina Turner, but in the 1950s, he was on top of the R&B world with tracks like “Rocket 88,” often cited as the first true rock ‘n’ roll song. He recorded the chilly classic “She Made My Blood Run Cold” in 1957, lyrically riffing on Little Willie John’s earlier sexiness-as-sickness R&B hit “Fever.” Turner’s tune turns down the temperature with the tale of a woman whose kisses literally cause a drop in his body heat. Turner complains to his doctor of symptoms including a frozen heart and “icicles hanging from my eyes”—especially unusual since STDs typically cause a burning sensation instead. Perhaps reflective of Turner’s view of women, the frosty femme fatale doesn’t appear to have any remorse for her icy touch, even after she kills Ike’s doctor merely by flirting with him. Now that’s cold.

5. Bob Dylan, “Ballad Of A Thin Man”
In the ’60s, “Thin Man”‘s stinging refrain—”you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”—became a widely embraced reference for a square who couldn’t see the revolution right in front of his eyes. But there’s another meaning hidden not-so-deeply in the song’s hazy identity issues, suggesting a far more personal confusion: Mr. Jones is a deeply closeted, self-loathing gay man slowly forced to confront his true sexual identity. Dylan fills the song with blatant phallic imagery and metaphors for male-on-male oral sex wrapped in the description of a hopelessly bewildered man lost in a circus sideshow, strangely compelled by visions of naked men and sword-swallowers in high heels. And then there’s the “one-eyed midget” who demands that Jones give him “milk.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but not here.

Originally published on avclub.com Feb. 2, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Ike Turner and Bob Dylan. Read the complete article.

Inventory: 12 Songs About Shopping

10. Billy Bragg, “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty”
It’s only to be expected that rock’s most outspoken socialist would view shopping with a skeptical eye. In this song from Billy Bragg’s fiery 1983 debut EP, he mocks the notion at the heart of the modern advertising industry—namely, that a person can simply buy happiness as long as she “buys what she’s told to buy.” But he isn’t being a grinch: His proletarian anger isn’t directed at the girls trying to buy their way into better lives, but the lies they’re fed that try to get them to hand over cash for a chance at a mostly illusory “mail-order paradise.”

11. The Handsome Family, “24-Hour Store”
Where Billy Bragg worries that the world of commerce damages people by making them see things that aren’t real, Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family is troubled instead by lonely, isolated people who might be happy if only they could see the miraculous world that’s hidden from them. “24-Hour Store” is a typically Sparks-esque combination of ghostly mysticism and detached observation of mundane life. It’s easy to imagine Sparks off in a corner at her neighborhood Wal-Mart at midnight, watching the insomniacs pushing broken carts down the aisle in a mild, sad stupor, while invisible angels “fly through lights… in particles of light that fall from the sun.” Whether she’s talking about God, art, or some other spiritual lack is, well, immaterial.

Originally published on avclub.com Dec. 1, 2006 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Billy Bragg and the Handsome Family. Read the complete article.

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