Saturday, September 24, 2005

Brian Jonestown
Massacre, We Are
the Radio Mini-Al-
, Tee Pee Records

We Are the Radio
in the wake of the award-win-
ning documentary DIG! and
the double-disc retrospec-
tive Tepid Peppermint Wonderland. It also represents the
Brian Jonestown Massacre
's 15th anniversary.

According to the band's website, a staggering 60 members
have shuffled through its California-based ranks during
that time, although the All Music Guide "only" cites 40.

That's a lot of history. Can We Are the Radio bear the weight?
Well, it's just a five-song "mini-album," but I would argue that
it can. Co-writer SaraBeth Tuceck provides vocals for the first
three tracks ("Teleflow 5 vs. Amplification," the weakest, is
an instrumental) with Sir Anton Newcombe, as he's billed,
providing the occasional counterpoint or backing vocal.

It all sounds much like the Spacemen 3
of which New-
combe is an enthusiastic fan
as fronted by the ghost
of Sandy Denny. Others have compared Tuceck to
Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, but I don't hear it.

While some may find the former Smog associate's wordless ut-
terings and oh-so-British inflections a bit much, Fairport Con-
vention fans aren't likely to mind. Even Newcombe sounds
like an Olde English folksinger, in Incredible String Band
mode, on the sitar-embellished "God Is My Girlfriend."

Although none of the songs are terrible memorable, all
are quite pleasant. I pronounce the venture a success.

Note: Image from the All Music Guide.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Reviews and Such for
the Month of September

A few days ago, a friend asked
me to name some of the titles I
had reviewed most recently,
so I sent him a short list. In
case anyone else is interested,
I've posted the full list for Sep-
tember below. Currently, I write reviews for Amazon (CDs and DVDs) and Resonance (CDs). I've been writing for Amazon since 2000, whereas I started writing for Resonance this month. I've also written for the All Music Guide, Cinema Seattle's Reel News, The Northwest Film Forum (10th anniversary book), The Queen Anne News, The Seattle International Film Festival (program guide), Siffblog, Tablet, and Trouser Press. For the most part, these are music, film, and TV reviews, although I also reviewed graphic novels for Tablet (R.I.P.).

Amazon: Nada Surf - The Weight is a Gift, The Detroit Cobras - Baby, Saturday Night Live - The Best of John Belushi, The Out-
- The Complete Novel
[two-DVD set], Over the Edge, The Pretender - The Complete Second Season [four-disc set], Bratz - Rock Angelz, Ned and Stacey - The Complete First Season [three-disc set], Havoc, Happy Endings, and The Amazing Race - The First Season [four-disc set]. (My second reality show review after The Apprentice...hey, it beats working for a living.)

Northwest Film Forum: Short piece on Douglas Sirk. (In 2003,
I wrote a 3,000-word essay for Reel News about Sirk's influence on today's filmmakers). I also provided research assistance for
the new book and am thanked in it (twice!), which is cool.

Reel News: I didn't provide any writing, but I edited several ar-
ticles for the next issue, including former SIFF director Helen Lov-
eridge's take on a trip to Australia ("Helen Goes Down Under").

Resonance: Animal Collective - Feels, the Skygreen
Leopards - Jehovah Surrender EP, and New England Roses -
Face Time with Son
(debut with Le Tigre's J.D. Samson).

Siffblog: NWFF's Super Hits, Vol. 10 series and two short
about their Down by Law benefit screening and
SIFF's David Cronenberg series. (Incidentally, I just saw A
History of Violence
. Viggo Mortensen has never been better.)

Random thoughts: Both The Weight is a Gift and Death Cab for
Cutie's major label debut, Plans, were produced by Death Cab's
Chris Walla. The Weight is a Gift is the better album. (It's more fun,
at any rate.) The Best of John Belushi doesn't include Belushi's in-
famous duet with Joe Cocker. Anyone who thought Thomas Haden
Church's performance in Sideways was without precedent in his
career has never seen Ned and Stacey (or Flying Blind, for that
matter). He's great. And I guess he's finally getting his due as he'll
be playing the villain in Spider-Man III. Of the two Matt Dillon
movies, Over the Edge is the best. Even the commentary is better
(although commentary on The Outsiders is good and there are
more extras). Feels is one of the best albums of the year. It's shor-
ter and less song-oriented than 2004's unfortunately named Sung
(although I suppose it beats Smog's Dongs of Sevotion), but
works better as an album (in the 1960s/'70s sense of the word).
And lastly, Havoc is the incredibly disappointing straight-to-vi-
deo collaboration between Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen
Gaghan (Traffic) and Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple (A-
merican Dream
). It's like a cross between crazy/beautiful and
, and stars Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) in a
performance that's definitely brave, but not necessarily good.

Endnote: Image from Fat Cat Records.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Review: The Deadly Snakes, Porcella, In the Red

Amazingly, I'd never heard the Deadly Snakes before their fourth full-length arived at my doorstep. I'm a little embarrassed to admit I'd never even heard of them, but then there are an awful lot of "snake" bands out there these days--the Charming Snakes, These Arms Are Snakes, Ruby Dee & the Snake Handlers, etc. It takes a little effort to keep them all straight.

In any case, Porcella, to be released on vinyl as A Bird in the Hand is Worthless (with different sequencing, cover art, and extra tracks), is pretty nifty. It's the Canadian sextet's first to feature a string section and it works quite well. There's plenty of brass, too, which brings to mind such far-flung artists as Sketches of Spain-era Miles Davis, Love, and Calexico. As with the UK's Gomez, the vocalists--Age of Danger (don't look at me, that's his name) and Andre Ethier--take turns on these 13 tracks. One sounds like a cross between Peter Perrett and Gordon Gano, the other like a reedy Nick Cave. I prefer the former, but both are all right by me.

Although I liked the album from the start, after living with it for a couple of weeks, I like it even more. Listening to Porcella is like hanging out with your longtime record clerk friend as he plays highlights from his extensive collection of vintage vinyl. Red wine is part of the equation, too. Bottomless glasses of it--and none of that cheap boxed stuff--his wine is as old as his records. Maybe you don't like everything he plays and maybe some of his scratchy old LPs skip, but all of it captures your interest. Everything has mood, texture, personality. He may not be one of the more mirthful chaps you know, but no one has ever accused him of being tacky or shallow.

Porcella is an ambitious recording that encompasses a number of different styles: folk, gospel, garage, etc. It's a mite pretentious at times, but highly recommended to fans of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, the Tindersticks, and fellow Torontonians Royal City.

Note: Image from the AMG.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Quick Hits: Digable Planets 
& the Irving Fields Trio

A couple of reviews that just missed the last issue of Tablet. 

Sorry to say I was unable to catch the Digable Planets at Bumbershoot this year (though I did catch the re-formed Pharcyde).

Digable Planets, Beyond the Spectrum:
The Creamy Spy Chronicles
, Blue Note

It's hard to believe 12 years have passed since the Digable Planets released the platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space), but time flies in the world of hip-hop. Now the trio, including Seattle's own Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, has re-formed and Beyond the Spectrum arrives with a well balanced combination of greatest hits, like "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," and non-LP tracks. Fans of harder-edged beats may find these jazzy, low-key jams a little soft, but to my ears they've held up well--as well as those of Gang Starr and the Dream Warriors (if not better).

Click here for my review of Shabazz Palaces - Black Up.

Irving Fields Trio, Bagels and Bongos, Reboot Stereophonic

And now for something completely different...Reboot Stereophonic is a non-profit collective dedicated to the preservation of obscure Jewish music. This 1959 recording is their first release, to be followed later this year by Gershon Kingsley's Jewish Moog. For the most part, Bagels and Bongos leans towards the latter, with the exception of "Havannah Negilah," a Latin take on the wedding traditional. Incredibly, the original LP sold two million copies and spawned several sequels. If Martin Denny's your man, then the 90-year-old Fields, who still performs regularly, should be right up your tiki-bedecked alley.

Image: AMG (Beyond the Spectrum album cover).

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Interview: Illuminating Actor (and Music Fan) Elijah Wood

As with my piece on Mick Collins, this interview with Elijah Wood, scheduled prior the announcement that Tablet had ceased publication, will never see print, although it should also be posted to shortly. Here it is in its entirety.


In August, Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings) came to Seattle to talk to the press about his new film. Along with four other writers, I met with the actor to discuss Everything is Illuminated. Based on the acclaimed novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), the funny-sad road movie marks the directorial debut of Liev Schreiber (The Manchurian Candidate) who, like Safran Foer, is of Ukranian descent (Schreiber also wrote the screenplay). The story concerns a young Jewish man based closely on the author--also called Jonathan Safran Foer--who travels to the Ukraine to track down the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Aiding him in his "very rigid search" are gold chain and tracksuit-sporting translator Alex (Eugene Hutz from the gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello), whose command of English is amusingly shaky, his "blind" grandfather Alex (Boris Leskin), their driver, and grandfather's demented "seeing-eye bitch," Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (Mickey and Mouse).

In person, Wood looks and sounds pretty much as you might expect, although he's better looking than he appears on screen. Yes, his eyes are big and blue, but not as prominent as his films would lead you to believe--especially those in which he sports spectacles like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sin City and now Everything is Illuminated. As for his personality, I found him to be relaxed, charming and forthcoming. Despite having worked in Hollywood from a very young age (Avalon, Radio Flyer, etc.), there was nothing phony or calculated about his responses or about his attitude in general. He listened carefully to the questions that were asked of him and provided thoughtful, articulate answers. In short, I was impressed.

Naturally, we wanted to know what it was like to work with the inexperienced, but charismatic--and Ukraine-born--Hutz, who practically runs away with the film. According to Wood, he was "a blast to have around." Schreiber originally "met with Eugene in reference to music," but "realized very quickly that Eugene embodied quite a lot of what Alex is in the script." That said, his band's material is well represented in the movie (including the group themselves in a funny scene at the beginning). I read that Wood and Hutz bonded over their love of music, so I was curious as to the bands or recordings that united them. "We traded music a lot," Wood confirmed. In fact, they still do. (He then pulled Gogol's Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike CD from his bag, exclaiming, "You guys all need to own this.") During filming, Hutz turned Wood onto Sweden's garage-rockin' Mando Diao and Franco-Latin sensation Manu Chao, while Wood turned Hutz on to bluesmen like Skip James. Some of the groups they listened to during filming included the Stooges, James Chance & the Contortions and the Birthday Party. In fact, Hutz appears in a no-wave documentary called Kill Your Idols, that features Chance. When I asked, Wood said that he's seen the film and found it worthwhile for the interviews.

But back to Illuminated. When Wood was asked whether he based his version of Jonathan on the book or the real-life author, who visited the set during filming, he said his characterization came straight from the script (which is what convinced him to do the movie in the first place). He explained that Schreiber "took relative liberty to a certain degree" with his adaptation and that "my choice was to just go with what Liev had written." He also mentioned that Schreiber drew inspiration from the Chauncy Gardner character in Being There, in that the film's Jonathan is more quiet observer than garrulous participant (like Alex). "He has this whole other world going on that is very different than the outside world...and yet there's this beautiful stillness to him, as well." Wood acknowledged, "He's weird...very neurotic and practical." In the film, Jonathan is seen constantly placing every kind of object--dirt, a prized necklace, even a potato--into plastic baggies, which then go into his very dorky-looking fanny pack (to later be tacked up on his wall). When asked if he could relate to Jonathan's obsessive-compulsive packrat instincts, Wood said yes: "I can definitely relate to that," adding, "I find value in the tiniest pieces of paper...I'm a bit of a hoarder in that sense. The main difference is that I'm completely disorganized."

When it was suggested that he might have a master plan in terms of his career, Wood begged to differ: "It's always the material." If patterns emerge, they're largely coincidental, like the fact that he's been in a lot of literary adaptations...or played three characters in a row with bizarro eyewear. (Regarding Eternal Sunshine, Wood said, "I would have done anything to be a part of that movie, because I'm such a huge, huge fan of Michel Gondry and think he's such a visionary, and [Charlie] Kaufman as well.") As for all those adaptations, "I've never really consulted the source material," he confessed, adding that he reads some books, like Huckleberry Finn, but not others, like Everything is Illuminated (he's a particularly big fan of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels). His approach is, instead, "relatively organic." Also, he likes to "challenge myself as an actor," so he tends to gravitate towards "films that are very different than the last." Consequently, he's currently looking into a bio-pic about a particular musician. He wouldn't say who, but admitted he was both scared and excited about the prospect. He also emphasized that the worst thing he could imagine would be "to compromise any kind of integrity; I can't really see myself doing that." When asked if he had any interest in directing, he said yes--producing, too. He also confirmed that he has started a record label and is looking at a few different bands to sign. When I asked if he would ever do TV again, he said, "I'm not opposed to it." "You should be on Lost," I suggested (featuring his old pal, Dominic "Merry" Monaghan, from The Lord of the Rings). He laughed. "To do a cameo on Lost--I would love to do that!" he admitted.

Aside from Illuminated, which opens September 16th, Wood has another film coming out this fall called Green Street Hooligans, co-starring Charlie Hunnam (Nicholas Nickleby) and Claire Forlani (Meet Joe Black) and directed by newcomer Lexi Alexander. The story concerns a young American (Wood) who travels to London to flee a bad scene in the States (he's just been expelled from college for a crime he didn't commit) and ends up falling in with a gang of football hooligans. From what I've read, the movie is more like Bill Buford's Among the Thugs than Chuck Palahniuk's--or David Fincher's--Fight Club. Hooligans opens on September 9th (in limited release). After that, it looks like he'll be working on Bobby (alongside Anthony Hopkins) about the goings-on in the Ambassador Hotel during the hours leading up to Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. The movie is the dream project of actor/director Emilio Estevez, who also wrote the script. The more Wood talked about the film, the more passionate he became, particularly in regards to the speech Kennedy gives that day. If it turns out even half as well as he described it, Bobby should be very good indeed.

After our conversation came to a close, it occurred to me Wood used the following words the most: "organic," "beautiful" and "blast" (as in "it was a"). They seem to sum him up quite well. He came across as a guy who knows just how lucky he is to get to do the thing he loves and can't wait to see what lies around the next corner. That said, his tone became slightly elevated whenever he talked about music. For all the passion he has for his craft, it's clear that music holds a place in his life that film will never be able to touch.

Image: IMDb (Elijah Wood with Boris Lyoskin and Eugene Hutz).  

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Tablet Interview: If You Don't Already Have a Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs

Here's the complete text of an 
interview with the Dirtbombs front man from early July. The edited (950-word) version should be posted to Tablet
shortly. Unfortunately, it's the last issue and this piece got lost in the shuffle. Regarding Houserockin', the record is in print domestically, but only on vinyl, with the CD only available as an import. If anyone knows otherwise, please give me a shout.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

I've been a Mick Collins fan ever since I stumbled across the Gories' Houserockin' back in 1989. Since then, the busy musician has been involved with a number of groups, most notably the Dirtbombs. What they all have in common are his impassioned vocals and impressively eclectic taste. The new double-disc compilation, If You Don't Already Have a Look, offers a convenient snapshot of one of America's finest—and most underrated—rock bands in all their magnificent glory. I recently had a chat with Collins, via email, about the CD and other topics.

Hi Mick. Thanks for agreeing to answer these questions. It's a thrill to get the chance to chat with you (virtual or otherwise). Hope you don't mind a few Gories questions to start. Old news, I know, but inquiring minds and all that... Any plans to make Houserockin' available again? I didn't realize it was out of print until just recently.

I didn't know it was out of print, actually.

Most people who are familiar with your work know about the Alex Chilton connection (I Know You Fine, But How You Doin'). How did that come about?

A mutual friend played him a copy of Houserockin' one night and, so the story goes, he flipped. He got us the record deal with New Rose on the condition that he be the producer, and got in touch with us shortly thereafter.

Have you been in touch since?

We see each other occasionally (the last time was in a bar in NYC)...

Is there any other producer you'd like to work with?

The producers I would most like to work with are Nick Lowe (possibly the only human alive to whom
I would willingly hand over control of a mix of one of MY songs, these days), RZA, and Ry Cooder.

On that note, since you've also worked as a producer (Andre Williams, the Red Aunts, etc.), do you have any other production projects in the works?

The only production gig I have on the docket right now is an Australian band called the Exploders; I'll be doing their record later this year, for a 2006 release.

Any other artists you'd like to produce?

Yeah, sure. The Motown singing group The Velvelettes are still an ongoing concern; I'd like to get something going with them, and also the Marvelettes, who just did a show here recently. There's an L.A. band called the Lipstick Pickups that I think sound kinda interesting, and there's a German band
called ElectroCute who keep saying they want me to produce their record, but to date they've never tried to contact me about it.

Who are you touring with this fall? And who are some of the artists you've played with that you're most excited about? I noticed you mention C.O.C.O. in the If You Don't Already Have a Look liner notes. I wrote their bio for the All Music Guide and made sure to reference the Gories and the Dirtbombs, since there seems to be a mutual admiration thing going on there.

We haven't picked any of the opening acts this year; I wanted to see if there were any good bands out there that I hadn't heard of; all we've gotten pretty much have been execrable tattoo-rock bands—y'know, the soundman's friend's Oi! band kinda thing.

What are some of your favorite cities to play (and why)? On your website, you mention New York and LA. Any others?

Glasgow, Scotland, and Kalamazoo, Michigan. Most of our shows in The Netherlands have been really good as well. The reason why is simple: those are the places where the audiences are INTO it. I don't think we've ever had a bad audience in the NY/NJ area.

[Note that he didn't mention Seattle. Damn! -KF]

Would you—could you—ever live anywhere other than Detroit?

That question for me is fraught with political and spiritual overtones right now, and so I'll give you the most honest answer I can: While it's possible I could live someplace other than Detroit, it's unlikely I would be happy more than 90 minutes away from one of the Great Lakes. The Lakes are my Home; in my mind, I live in a country called the Great Lakes Republic which is neither Yankee nor Canadian, and is not overrun with didactic schweinhunden.

Have you met any of the legends of Detroit rock/funk? I'm guessing a lot have moved/passed away since their heyday. This is a bit of a Seattle "problem," too—a lot of the bigger names end up moving away eventually (though I don't think too many locals are mourning the loss of Kenny G...).

I met Rob Tyner a couple of times, George Clinton a couple of times (once while in line at a Chin-
ese restaurant), Kim Weston once, Pat Lewis once. I'm sure I've met others, but I couldn't tell you who.

If someone offered to make a documentary about you/the Dirtbombs, what would you say? Seems like it could make an interesting film in the right hands. Then again, it often means dredging up stuff from the past and I'm sure a lot of living musicians would rather not do that (hence the proliferation of films about dead folks, like Klaus Nomi, Gram Parsons, etc.).

I wouldn't really mind if it was JUST about the Dirtbombs. If it was just about ME, though, I'd probably stipulate that it begin in1985, with the Floortasters, the band I was in before the Gories. Nothing before that matters.

From the start, you've done a lot of covers and you've tackled some great stuff. Are you constantly listening to music when you aren't playing/composing/performing, or does a lot of it just come to you--from your past, from things you've heard on the radio, etc.? I've always been particularly fond of "Trick Bag," but I haven't heard a bad one yet. Just loaned Ultraglide in Black to a music-loving friend, who hadn't heard several of the (original) tracks before, which is really an achievement. We both quite like "Your Love Belongs Under a Rock." (Great title.)

I am constantly listening to music. (As I'm writing this, I'm listening to a record called Dub the Millennium - Manasseh Meets the Equaliser. After that, it'll either be a Comets On Fire tour record, or a
compilation of psychedelic music from Africa.) I listen to all types. I have almost 7,000 LPs, and I'm buying more records all the time. Apart from the occasional short story, music is What I Do.

On that note, are you an Electraglide in Blue fan? I haven't seen it, but I love Robert Blake in In Cold Blood, Baretta, and Lost Highway. Bummer to think he'll be better remembered for the events of the past few years than for his acting, but I digress...

The sad part is that RIGHT NOW, Robert Blake could probably turn in the performance of a lifetime, after the emotional ride he's just gotten off of, and I bet he can't even get a walk-on in Hollywood.

You're easily one of my favorite vocalists. Are there any singers you wish you sounded like? Any you've tried—or try—to emulate? I was really impressed by your vocal on "Executioner of Love." You sound nothing like Robyn Hitchcock and yet the song is a great fit for your voice (he's also one of my favorite vocalists, along with his forebears, John Lennon and Syd Barrett).

(laughter) I have enough trouble sounding like MYSELF, without trying to sound like somebody else!

Speaking of which, did you consider putting "Executioner" and Brian Eno's "King's Lead
Hat" on If You Don't Already Have a LookI have the CD (Dangerous Magical Noisewith the bonus tracks, so I didn't notice at first, but I think they're two of your best covers.

Well, they SHOULD have been on there, but there the pressing plant, and so a lot more copies came out with the bonus tracks than originally planned.

You've worked with female musicians before (Peg O'Neill, Janet Walker, Stephanie Friedman, et al), so this is nothing new. With the addition of Ko Shih (Ko & the Knockouts) to the line-up, the Dirtbombs are now a mixed-gender band. Is this the first time?

No, Kathy Carroll was a drummer in the very first lineup, back in 1992. Also, Deann Iovann was on fuzz for about two weeks in 1995.

Also, which of the If You Don't Already Have a Look tracks does she play on? Any plans to let her do some singing...?

I know for sure she's on "Trainwreck." (grin) She's on all the new stuff: "Sharpest Claws," "All My Friends Must Be Punished," etc.

Who's the stone-faced guy with the grey hair in the CD booklet? (The one with the red jacket and black shades.) My guess: Kim Fowley. Or his doppelganger...a rather scary thought, come to think of it.

Yeah, it's Kim Fowley. He's come to see us numerous times. He's great.

And speaking of the CD packaging, I just noticed the pic of Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek's Lt. Uhuru) hidden behind the second disc. Nice touch! Did you get permission from the powers that be to reproduce it or are you hoping they won't find out...?

I had nothing to do with the packaging for the record, it was all done in-house at In the Red. I didn't even get to sign off on it. They just called and said "We're sending you a printer's proof, you're gonna love it."

You've spent over half your life as a working musician. If things hadn't worked out, is there any other career you'd have liked to pursue? On that note, in the liner notes, you say you'll pull the plug on the Dirtbombs once the band has achieved the musical goals you've set out for them. I'm not gonna ask what those goals are, but rather would you then go solo, retire...?

I like to think I could just go back into IT if I ever really soured on the music business, but it would be hard. I'm not lacking in non-Dirtbombs projects: plans are underway for a second Voltaire Brothers record, I have a techno record coming out later this year, and I'm about to start recording my other
rock band, Man Ray Man Ray, so hopefully, on the day I decide to demise the Dirtbombs, nobody will notice.

This is off-topic—and it isn't even a question (unless you have any thoughts on the matter)—but I think it's cool that you share a name with an Irish freedom fighter. My grandfather knew Michael Collins back in the day (worked for him, actually). Anyway, I noticed in your website bio that Guinness Extra Stout is your favorite beverage, so it appears you were well named. Then again, if your first name isn't actually Michael, um...

The rather cryptic, but very true, answer is that my name is SUPPOSED to be Michael, so we'll call it a "yes," and I'll add that, despite the fact that many people resented the treaty he negotiated, the fact that Ireland is now the wealthiest country in the EU is testimony to his perseverance and belief in his cause... And if there's no Guinness in Heaven, then I don't see the point in going. ;)

Lastly, are there any misconceptions about yourself that you'd like to clear up? Or anything you'd like people to know?

Not off the top of my head. Something will come to me an hour from now, though...

Thanks for taking the time. Very much looking forward to seeing the Dirtbombs this October and hope you have a great tour!

Thanks; see you there...

The Dirtbombs have now been together for over a decade and, according to Grunnen Rocks, as many as 17 (!) line-ups. In the liner notes for If You Don’t Already Have a Look, which consists entirely of singles, Collins explains that he prefers making 7-inches to LPs, but more than anything—he prefers playing live. So if you should get the chance, do whatever you can to catch Collins and crew in concert, doing what they do best and love the most.

Note: Image from Tim Castlen / Flickr.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Rant: Notes on David Mackenzie's Asylum

(David Mackenzie, 2005, UK, 93 minutes) 

Boy, did the critics—and yes, I'm purposefully referring to them as a nameless, faceless mass, but then the film was reviewed that way—miss the boat on Asylum. I was planning to see it anyway, but a couple of nice write-ups in Salon and Sight & Sound encouraged me to hasten my trip to Seattle's Uptown Theater. I'm glad I made it before it left town. The Edukators, which received better reviews and which I was also looking forward to seeing, had a much shorter run. Consequently, I completely missed it. That said, I was the only person in a 515-capacity theater for a 5pm matinee. Boy is that depressing. For the film, not for me.

In any case, despite the asylum setting, the film isn't gothic. It is dark, in both senses of the word, and has elements of noir, but it's really a melodrama, despite a very subtle score. It's unclear to me why it wasn't reviewed as such. And although it looks a bit like David Cronenberg's Spider--also based on a Patrick McGrath novel--it doesn't feel like it, so that comparison is pretty misleading.

Further, contrary to most other reviewers, I found Stella quite sympathetic; Natasha Richardson does an excellent job. Yes, she makes some terrible decisions, but that's the point. There are no "good"—or even better—options available to her. She's damned if she does, damned if she doesn't—so she does.

Like Vera Drake or Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven, she's
a modern woman living in archaic times. She's also trapped in a loveless marriage and bored to tears. The only bright spot: her son Charlie. When handsome inmate Edgar (Marton Csokas) takes a shine to her boy and then to her, what's she supposed to do? He even warns her, seconds after they meet, "I killed my wife." She could run away, she could ask why, but she does none of those things. Why? Because she doesn't care. She's attracted, interested--hooked.

And that's the biggest problem with many of the reviews—the writers are putting themselves in her place and saying, basically, she shouldn't have gotten involved with the guy, but they're not her (next they'll be saying Othello shouldn't have listened to Iago...). It's a specious argument. She isn't an idiot, just desperate. So, along comes Dr. Cleave (Ian McKellen) to warn her away from Edgar. Does she listen? Of course not. I strongly disagree, by the way, that he's a bad guy—not until the end, at any rate. The advice he gives Stella is actually quite sound, but she suspects he has ulterior motives, and she's right.

Granted, Cleave ends up making some pretty bad decisions himself, but he ends up paying for them just as dearly as Stella does hers.

In fact, everybody loses in the end, and maybe that's too bitter a pill for some critics to swallow, but any kind of a happy ending would have invalidated the entire enterprise.

I could go on, but I won't. I doubt it compares to the book, but as a film in and of itself, Asylum deserves much better than it's gotten. And I liked the nods to Leave Her to Heaven and Vertigo, especially since they were thematic rather than stylistic homages (I'm assuming those sequences came straight from the book, but couldn't say for sure).

Click here for more thoughts about the film and the star

Images: IMDb (Richardson and Csokas), Senses of Cinema (Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert), and Google Images (Kim Novak).