In Which We Combine Light And Sound And Story

Dark Side of the Rainbow is Real

by DAMIAN WEBER

The 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd not only syncs with The Wizard of Oz for the first playthrough but the second and third as well, to the end of the movie. Not only is Dark Side of the Moon one of the best-selling albums ever but as a sync to The Wizard of Oz it is also a great story (the fable of you).

But this is an unpopular belief. Not many think the sync is real—almost no one. Not one of the biographies on the band. Not one book. Each of them is dismissive of the idea. Disgusted and dismissive. The band scoffs at the idea. They’ve never watched it. David Gilmour, the guitarist and singer of the band, said that the sync is a conspiracy theory from “some guy with too much time on his hands.” If they had done it, they’d have done it better. And Alan Parsons, the producer of the album, said “There simply wasn’t the mechanics to do it. We had no means of playing videotapes in the room at all. I don’t think VHS had come along by ’72, had it?”

This is disingenuous. They made many film soundtracks, and they did it the old-fashioned way — watching a print and playing along to it. In many ways, being one of the most popular rock bands in Britain, with the full support of your label, at the best recording studio in the world, working with a team of the best engineers, would make up for not having a VHS or a computer. In many ways. The Floyd’s first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), was recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road and their producer was Norman Smith, who was the Beatles’ producer. The only reason he wasn’t producing the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was because he was stuck working on the Floyd album. Sgt. Pepper’s is commonly regarded as the first concept album. Dark Side of the Moon is commonly regarded as the best.

Light and Sound

Their shows in London 1967 were “happenings,” with the most important thing being the light show — even more important than their 15-minute songs. Even as early as 1967 they had movies projected during their shows. This experimentation was in place from the beginning, during their first practices, before their first shows.

“Word spread on the bush telegraph that something new and exciting was happening in Notting Hill and after only a few appearances by the band the hall was packed to capacity.” (Povey pg. 33) Joe Boyd said about the UFO Club, where the Floyd were the house band, “The object of the club is to provide a place for experimental pop music and also for mixing of medias, light shows and theatrical happenings.” (Miles, Barry. Pink Floyd: The Early Years. pg. 76)

“In addition to the bands, there was always a feature film—often a Marilyn Monroe classic or Charlie Chaplin—and other, more experimental films screened by the London Filmmakers Co-op such as films by Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol from the New York Cinematheque or Anthony Balch and William Burroughs’ Tower Open Fire. UFO was known for its light shows which were not only directed at the band, but at all the walls and ceiling to provide a total environment. Sometimes the films were used as a part of multi-media events, such as the time when a modern jazz combo improvised to old black and white Pathé newsreels.” (Miles, pg. 77)

 

Soundtracks

If we ignore that they were a psychedelic band begun with the purpose of experimenting with light and sound, we can dismiss their use of multi-media and their work on soundtracks — More (1968), Zabriskie Point (1970), Obscured by Clouds (1972). Barbet Schroeder, the director of More, said “I was a big fan of the first two Floyd records. I thought they were the most extraordinary things I’d ever heard, and just wanted to work with them. I went to London and took a print of the movie More, and showed it to them. I didn’t want typical film music—made to the minute and recorded with the image on the big screen. I didn’t believe in film music.” (Blake, Mark. Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd. pg. 132)

Schroeder said, “I remember this incredibly hectic two weeks. The sound engineer couldn’t believe the speed and the creativity of the enterprise.” They were able to make a soundtrack to a movie in less than two weeks and knock the socks off everyone with their creativity, professionalism, and efficiency—five years before making Dark Side of the Moon.

They did another soundtrack when Michelangelo Antonioni asked them to write songs for Zabriskie Point. The band were paid to live in Rome and work personally with the director. Only three songs were chosen for the movie and “of the Floyd pieces overlooked by Antonioni for inclusion was Rick Wright’s haunting piano-led ‘Violent Sequence,’ recorded to accompany footage of real-life student riots, which would later appear as ‘Us and Them’ on Dark Side of the Moon. But Antonioni didn’t use it — “Too sad, it makes me think of church!” In the sync this song is played when the four friends walk down the long hall leading to the Wizard of Oz with reverence and fear, like they are in basilica or going to meet a god.

Speak to Me / Breathe

The sync starts on the third roar of the MGM lion—that’s when you drop the needle. The album starts with silence. At 15 seconds we can hear a quiet heartbeat, which is all we can hear for the first 45 seconds. This interlude is called “Speak to Me” and gets us past the credits and to the start of the movie. The movie starts with the start of “Breathe.”

Breathe, breathe in the air/don’t be afraid to care
Leave but don’t leave me/look around, choose your own ground
For long you live and high you fly/and smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry
And all you touch and all you see/is all your life will ever be

The second time through the album, “Breathe” syncs with the Tin Man’s dance, leaning from one side all the way to the other (to a slide guitar). The third time through, the Wizard is giving advice to the four friends, much like the advice from the lyrics. But the best hits on “Breathe” are from the first time through, with Dorothy on the farm. But I’ll spare you.

The album is structured strangely — it starts with a lot of silence and ends with a lot of silence. The heartbeat starts it and ends it, as if the album is in the round, never to stop. What album does that? What suite of music? What concept album? The album is structured strangely—“Breathe” is on the album three times—once again in “Breathe (Reprise)” and again in “Any Colour You Like (Second Reprise).” The album is structured strangely — it is almost half interludes.

The Great Gig in the Sky

The sync to “The Great Gig in the Sky” starts with soft piano as Dorothy runs home to the farm, the twister starting. Then the song reaches its peak as the house is flying through the air, matching the vocalizations by Clare Torry. The song calms down as the house lands and Dorothy goes to open the door. It’s a set piece, contained in the boundaries of the scene.

Rick Wright, who wrote the song, said “The band basically wanted another four, five minutes of music. And we thought it could be an instrumental.” That’s a funny way of asking your piano player for a song. Not “Do you have any songs you want to put on the album?” But “Could you give us a sad piano song longer than four minutes but not longer than five?”

Clare Torry said, “They explained the album was about birth and all the shit you go through in your life and death. I did think it was rather pretentious. Of course, I didn’t tell them that, and I’ve since eaten my words. I think it’s a marvelous album.” So when Roger later says, as he does now, that it is about life in rock ‘n’ roll, he is covering his tracks. To put us off the scent. No, the album is about becoming a more fully realized human being. We have his own words to use against him.

Money

There are 16 seconds between the last note of “The Great Gig in the Sky” and the first cha-ching of “Money,” which gives the viewer plenty of time to flip the record and put the needle on the other side. “Money” starts when Dorothy opens the door to Oz, when the movie goes from black and white to color. It’s the best sync ever, never to be topped again. We see the green of Oz and the gold of the yellow brick road as the cash registers cha-ching. It makes it seem like she’s in the money. Like she won the lotto. Then she starts walking around Munchkinland to the walking bassline of the song — a skipping 7/4.

The second time through the album, the song “Money” starts when the Wicked Witch of the West writes in the sky “Surrender Dorothy.” It feels like the citizens of the Emerald City could turn her in for the reward. Then the Lion sings about how if he were king of the forest his robes would be satin, not cotton. He’s so full of himself, he’s acting out the lyrics to “Money.”

Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit
I’m in the high-fidelity, first-class travelling set
I think I need a Learjet

Ballet Marseille

Before recording Dark Side of the Moon, the band performed live to a ballet in Marseille, France. They collaborated with the choreographer Roland Petit to make music for a dance production of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Could you get more arty?

Nick Mason said, “Playing live means that we’ve got to be note-perfect each night, otherwise the dancers are going to get lost, and we won’t be using a score, we’ll be playing from memory. That might be a bit difficult” (Povey, Glenn. Echoes: The Complete History of Pink Floyd. pg. 159). “The thing to do is to really move people. To turn them on, to subject them to a fantastic experience, to do something to stretch their imagination” (Povey, pg. 159). This from Nick Mason, who is the most dismissive of the sync.

The band were elevated above the dancers. One time, during one of the songs, the band kept playing after the dancers stopped, leaving the dancers standing on the stage. From then on someone in the crew held up cue cards so the band knew which measure they were on.

Concerts

The Floyd were one of the few bands to use theater during their concerts and to project movies, images, and animation. A lot of bands used lights and colored gels, like the Velvet Underground, but nothing that added story.

The song “Echoes,” the 23-minute epic on Meddle (1971), was the turning point. The band claimed that they were searching, groping for direction, when they found it in this song. It isn’t covered up by strings and a 20-piece orchestra, like the song “Atom Heart Mother.” It uses sound effects that are eerie and minimalistic, more like a song from Dark Side of the Moon. “Echoes” was featured in the surfer documentary Crystal Voyager (1973), used in its entirety, to images of ocean waves. The band would play that scene live in concert and play the song to it. This was the direction they wanted to go—they wanted to play along to a movie, a whole movie, live in concert. No, Pink Floyd was not asked to do the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Yes, Stanley Kubrick wanted to use the Pink Floyd song “Atom Heart Mother” in his movie A Clockwork Orange (1971). But Kubrick wanted to shorten the song, which was understandable considering that the song was 24-minutes long. But the band said no, they wanted Kubrick to edit his movie to it. They must have had other intentions for their music if they no longer wanted their songs to appear in movies unless they were played in their entirety.

Time / Breathe (Reprise)

Why is “Breathe (Reprise)” the third song? Isn’t a reprise usually at the end of an album? Aren’t they mostly in musicals? Kind of goofy to have the reprise so soon—unless you think of the whole suite as a cycle that repeats.

“Breathe (Reprise)” comes so soon because it ends the sync, at the last scene of the movie. It proves that the album was meant to be played to the end of the movie and not stopped after the first play through. Dorothy wakes up from the dream, back in Kansas, singing “Home, home again—I like to be here when I can.”

You would think it would be difficult to have the song sync early in the movie and then again at the end of the movie, but it’s not. The song needs to start at 13:30 in order to sync the first time and then again 86 minutes later, when Dorothy wakes up. There, the album needs to be 43 minutes long. There, the structure has been created, the most important element in place. The rest can be filled in. Just because you wouldn’t use a clock to construct your rock opera, doesn’t mean anything.

Of course it goes 2.5 times—what’s the point of only watching the beginning of the movie and not seeing Dorothy get home? What’s the point of starting an adventure and not learning anything? The reason why the lyric “I thought I’d something more to say” works as the last line to “Time,” even though it is early in the album, is because it is at the end of the sync. “Time” starts with bells ringing as Miss Gulch appears, riding her bike. They wake us from the torpor of Dorothy singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Miss Gulch is coming to take Toto. “That dog’s a menace to the community. I’m taking him to the sheriff and make sure he’s destroyed.” Miss Gulch rides away with Toto in her basket.

Ticking away the moments that make up the dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

The lyrics refer both to the small mindedness of Dorothy, wasting her days away, and Miss Gulch for taking away Dorothy’s dog—of our own small mindedness too. But Toto jumps out of the basket, runs down the road, and jumps through the window into Dorothy’s room. “Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.” She will need to run away or they will kill her dog.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

Brain Damage / Eclipse

“The theme of madness had now become central to the new album,” Roger Waters said, “most explicit on its closing “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse.” When I say, ‘I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon,’ what I mean is, if you feel crazy that you’re the only one … that you seem crazy cause you think everything is crazy, you’re not alone.”

Syd Barrett, the original singer of the band, who went mad and was left behind (dropped from the band), wrote a song called “The Scarecrow” on their first album. It doesn’t take much to picture Roger Waters watching the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, thinking of his friend who fell apart. But that doesn’t mean that Dark Side of the Moon and Dark Side of the Rainbow are only, or even mainly, about a rock star going mad. That will be The Wall.

The Scarecrow dances to “Brain Damage,” skipping like a kid, falling over himself he’s so happy to be down off that pole. He wants some smarts—he doesn’t understand why a park is roped off with a sign that reads “Keep off Grass.”

The lunatic is on the grass
The lunatic is on the grass
Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs
Got to keep the loonies on the path

Then comes the title of the album.

And if the clouds bursts thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon

The Scarecrow has something important to say—he’s using his brain. He pleads for Dorothy to understand.

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon

The song “Eclipse” isn’t separate from “Brain Damage,” it’s more like an extra chorus, an outro—to the whole suite. Being the last song, it brings all the parts together. It adds its meaning to the other songs, making all of the songs about it. It wraps around to the first song.

All you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be

The Wall

But the best evidence that Dark Side of the Rainbow is real is that they made The Wall (1979). They had finally achieved what they were working toward—with The Wall they had combined light and sound and story into a concert. They didn’t need to do soundtracks anymore, or give their songs to directors, or do surfer documentaries and ballets. No more Kubricks cutting up their songs, no more Antonionis saying their songs were too sad. Now they owned the visuals. Now they made the movies.

“The concerts remain the most spectacular ever staged by a rock band. As they played, a wall of cardboard bricks was built across the stage in front of them, meaning that they performed half of the show hidden from view. The wall doubled as a screen, onto which were projected images, including Scarfe’s animations…. The stage was also shared with forty-foot high puppets. Owing to the complexity and cost of the stage show, The Wall was performed in only four cities” (Mabbett, Andy. Pink Floyd: The Music and the Mystery. pgs. 80-81).

Why is it hard to believe that the band that made the greatest rock movie, The Wall (1982), wouldn’t have tried it first with an old movie? If anyone were to have done it, wouldn’t it have been them?

But what doesn’t make sense is that the band never watched it. Why not say, “Isn’t it pretty neat how it makes the story of Dorothy the story of you?” It’s not because they are too busy, it’s because they are flatly denying it. They say that it wasn’t possible, that the fans have too much time on their hands, too many drugs. But that rings hollow because it was possible and the only ones with too much time on their hands was your druggy band.

Damian Weber is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing in these pages here.


 

In Which We Remain Miserable Throughout France

screen-shot-2017-07-23-at-2-24-39-pm.jpg

No Time For Sad Lament

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Bonjour Tristesse
dir. Otto Preminger
115 minutes

This summer, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting an exhibition of films featuring Deborah Kerr, a subtle and graceful actor born in Scotland. Far and away the best of this group is Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse. This novella-type project feels today like an Americanized-Eric Rohmer moral fable, owing to a similarity in the source material. Anne (Deborah Kerr) is a successful fashion designer in Paris who is prepared to give everything up to marry Raymond (David Niven) against the wishes of his daughter Cecile (Jean Seberg) in a glorious house overlooking the French Riviera.

Preminger brings his own moral judgments to this milieu, and they are decidedly different from anything Rohmer had to offer. As a result, Bonjour Tristesse is a great deal less heartening than its peer films like Claire’s Knee and The Collector, and probably one of the most depressing movies ever made. It begins with Cecile driving a young artist into the city. He asks her to marry him, but unfortunately she is largely dead inside, paralleling the real-life depression of Seberg, whose career in Hollywood slowed down considerably after she gave $10,000 to the Black Panthers.

Most well-known for her role in Godard’s Breathless, Seberg is always initially charming to look at and listen to, like a perfectly preserved slice of cake. Gradually and sinisterly, we begin to loathe her in any role. As soon as Kerr comes on the scene and suggests she take care to study for her philosophy exam, she is dead set on eradicating this unpleasant new stepmother from her life. In order to do so, Cecile enlists the help of the local Jews – namely her father’s ex-girfriend Elsa (Mylene Demongeot) and a law student named Philippe (Geoffrey Horne), with whom she never consummates a summertime affair.

Cecile’s colorful time during the summer is contrasted with the following winter, which she endures in harsh black and white. Paris resembles a baby perpetually trying to be born into a lusher, more omnipotent reality. Cecile’s severe depression as various men fight over her and request her presence at such amusing events as the racetrack, dinner and dancing is mostly due to her father’s inability to parent his daughter.

Indeed, the disturbing kisses that Raymond gives his daughter on the mouth are more inappropriate than invasive, but whatever the meaning of these pecks, it is clear that Raymond should not be drinking with her daughter, double dating with his daughter, or pincing the ass of a very violated local woman he has hired as the family maid. Seberg’s acting adds to the idea the relationship is rather unconvincing.

Still, reactions to Jean Seberg’s performance at the time Bonjour Tristesse debuted to mostly empty theaters were a bit out of proportion. Critics seemed to believe that somehow an American playing a coy French girl was on the level of a cosmic calamity. In the New York Herald Tribune, William Zinsser explained that Bonjour Tristesse  is “as self-conscious as a game of charades played in an English country home. In the pivotal role, Jean Seberg is about as far from a French nymph as milk is from Pernod.” The New Yorker suggested that Seberg required “a good solid, and possibly therapeutic, paddling.”

When Deborah Kerr’s Ann arrives on the scene, Raymond makes a big show of moving into the guest house while Cecile and Elsa occupy the other rooms in the main house. Ann’s closed-off room parodies her private self – the walls are lined with books, and one lonely window looks out on the sea as she constructs deft and appealing sketches of her dresses. Meanwhile, Elsa’s bedroom is atop the entire structure and features an astonishing amount of windows and doors, reflecting the transparency of her flighty, ethnic personality.

Preminger was the master of making do with what he had. Bonjour Tristesse‘s script, by Arthur Laurents, was written over the course of a few days, and Laurents passed on being on the set during film. “He really just left me on my own,” Laurents later said of Preminger, whose direction never impressed him, “with one basic instruction, that we are to be removed from the characters, who don’t have passionate emotions. Otto thought that kind of distance was ‘high style.'” Where the screenwriter parted ways with Preminger was in the casting of British actors to play French parts. “Then, in the midst of this chic atmosphere, there is Jean Seberg – Miss Iowa,” Laurents complained. He told Otto that Jean would sink all three of them and Bonjour Tristesse.

On the set of Bonjour Tristesse, Preminger was his usual tyrannical self. He particularly went after his pet project Seberg, who had little training as an actress. The starlet’s face was also somewhat sore from an operation to remove moles from her cheeks and neck before she left for Europe to begin shooting. While Preminger undoubtedly had a very good reason to get her upset, since she is meant to be angry in most of Bonjour Tristesse, it made for an uncomfortable atmosphere.

As Forster Hirsch recalled in his biography of the director, Deborah Kerr stood up for her younger colleague against Otto’s abuse.

I said, “Please, Otto, do you have to shout at the poor little girl like that? She seems to be taking all right but I’m not. I cannot work with this kind of atmosphere. I’m terribly sorry, but I just can’t.” The battering she received finished me, but it didn’t her. I used to be a bit frightened for Otto. I thought he was going to have a heart attack, with his eyes popping and his face purple. But the next minute, it was gone. Completely gone. And this man who could be such a bully on the set, and who could destroy people, would then be a charming, witty companion at dinner who knew the best wines and caviar. 

Part of Preminger’s antagonism towards Seberg was borne out of their previous collaboration, Saint Joan, a Joan of Arc biopic that had been Preminger’s most devastating box-office bomb up to that point. Seberg has her struggles in Bonjour Tristesse, but her mannered style of acting is not all that out of place today. The sets and tailored environments ultimately overwhelm and distract us from Jean’s inadequacies. Just to see the French Riviera in this special time and place transports us in and among the atmosphere so seamlessly that Bonjour Tristesse ages like the wines the man knew so well. Even a fake France of 1958 is substantially better than a 2017 anything.

The final scenes of Bonjour Tristesse, filmed in the somber black-and-white that Preminger slips into as a hokey conceit, accentuates Seberg’s total  despair. At the age of forty, Seberg disappeared from her Paris home, taking only a blanket with her. She was found in the backseat of her car, a white Renault, having taken a massive quantity of barbiturates. Jean was on her third husband by then.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

In Which We Move Our Base Of Operations

mastergeiger

Credit Where It Is Due

by ELEANOR MORROW

Ozark
creators Bill Dubuque & Mark Williams
Netflix

ozarkposter.jpgMarty Byrde (Jason Bateman) has perfected the art of the diet, and here is his secret. He never eats, not once in Ozark, but there is a good reason for this. He never sleeps either, which is maybe the easiest weapon Americans have against obesity. He can’t feasibly do either of these things, because he is very afraid of his employer, a Mexican drug dealer named Del (Esai Morales).

His wife Wendy (Laura Linney) becomes aware of this situation relatively early on in Ozark. Quite naively, she attempts to empty their joint checking account and bail on her husband with about $30,000. (She also counts on the financial support of a lover who is later out of the picture.) Linney and Bateman have very little in the way of sexual chemistry, but that is no problem, because once Marty finds out about his wife’s move against him, he dissolves their marriage in favor of a financial partnership intended to raise their two children, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skyler Gaertner).

vlcsnap-000gfljhjhhh00011

Everything in Ozark is generally gloamed in a somewhat annoying blue light, but not even less than stellar cinematography can take away the charm of this Missouri region. The Byrdes are forced to relocate out of Chicago because of a long monologue in which Marty saves himself from a bullet in the head, and they could not have selected a more lovely place. Wendy is designated with the task of finding the nuclear family an inexpensive home to house their belongings, and she chooses a gorgeous mansion directly on the water.

It is there that Marty spends a lot of time observing his children. He no longer has a day-to-day straight job that keeps him away from his kids. On an impulse, Wendy informs the teenagers that their father launders money for a living, and they generally take this news in good humor. During an extensive voiceover where Marty explains how tarnished cash can be magically transformed into useful assets, he makes it seem like the violent and evil business of which he is such a massive part is no more than the actions of a typical accountant.

vlcsnap-000gfljhjhhh00005

In fact, Ozark does a great deal to convince its audience that this family is has only been placed in an untenable situation. Early on, an FBI agent named Trevor (McKinley Belcher III) oftens Marty immunity against prosecution from the government. This is a pretty heady possibility, since Marty seems to know very little of his boss’ operation and basically only has $8 million in three suitcases that indicates he is on the other side of the law.

Watching him work that $8m is the primary fun of Ozark. He quickly employs a mendacious local woman, Ruth Langmore (the astonishingly talented Julia Garner), to rob a local strip club for him, and watching him interact with people who lack the income and power to resist the charms of his financial acumen is terribly enjoyable. Bateman has always been a disciplined and engaging actor, and this role, where all his comedy is bound up in verboseness without turning that way of speaking into something silly, suits him completely.

moshpidff

Linney has a somewhat broader challenge here, because she is the most unsympathetic member of the family with the least realistic character. Unsurprisingly, she turns Wendy into a much more multifaceted person than is ever evident in Bill Dubuque’s fast-paced, thrilling scripts for Ozark. Watching her work as a local realtor is perhaps too familiar of storyline, but on the plus side, it allows us to see the local poverty from a unique vantage.

Netflix has been missing on so many of its original offerings lately, that it is exciting to see something of Ozark‘s quality emerge onto the scene. Sadly, enduring repeated seasons of this milieu would probably be more trial than godsend. There is a fun, brisk comedy to this fish-out-of-water story that keeps us engaged in the action. The second the heat falls down and lingers on any of the stiffer characters, we feel considerably more bored. There is not really too much depth to this Breaking Bad-clone, but that is all right.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.

vlcsnap-000gfljhjhhh00006

In Which Wim Wenders And Sam Shepard Begin To Understand Each Other

The Irredeemable World

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Don’t Come Knocking
dir. Wim Wenders
122 minutes

Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard’s 1984 film Paris, Texas runs 147 long minutes. The central performance, by Harry Dean Stanton, is quite breathtaking in its solipsism, and the movie includes many of Wenders’ signature shots of the harsh environment of the American West with which he fell in love. Like any film by Mr. Wenders, you have to wait a good hour to decide exactly how much up its own ass this production will end up being. His collaboration with Sam Shepard, then, seemed so unlikely precisely because the playwright got through to what actual people wanted and desired so much more organically than Wenders ever did.

If you could not tell, I was never the biggest fan of Paris, Texas, although it is a gorgeous and moving film. Wenders and Shepard finally reunited to atone for the sins of the past with 2005’s Don’t Come Knocking, which is substantially better in every way. Let me tell you why.

First of all, there is the matter of Sam Shepard’s performance as the titular character, a vain and stupid actor named Howard Spence. Besides Harold Pinter, there probably has never been a playwright who was as good on film as Shepard, who is now no longer with us. Shepard was a genius for the stage; I mean he just knew exactly how everything should be played, but the amazing thing is he never wrote this in his scripts. His plays are all meant for the actors to do as they will, which is funny because he knew better than anyone how many bad actors there were after decades in the theater.

Buried Child was probably Shepard’s best ever play, but 1980’s True West was his broadest story and will probably end up his most well-known effort. The only Shepard play I ever saw live was Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly switching the main roles of True West, which kind of never made sense to me, even though they were both very good at it. The idea was it kept the concept of the two brothers fresh, and the actors enjoyed it. When I went to see True West at the Circle on the Square, Bruce Willis was sitting across from me. He was doing a filmed version of True West on Showtime, maybe the worst version ever done of the play. He was horrified by what he was seeing, probably because he knew the role did not suit him.

The best part of True West and every Shepard play is the language. He knew exactly how people talked, and his characters did not talk the same. This was not David Mamet where it turned into this weird omnipoetic thing or Suzan Lori-Parks where the language overwhelmed everything and became more like a chorus. This was people and how the main fact of their speech patterns indicated their desires, ambitions, and flaws.

In Don’t Come Knocking, he takes on this very slight, often drunken man who walks off the set of a Western he is filming in Utah. The first thing Howard Spence does after he escapes is go visit his mother (Eva Marie Saint). That’s one of the things I enjoy most about Don’t Come Knocking. His mother picks him up at the bus station, she has a couple scenes with him after that, and then he just goes on his way.

Howard heads to the place he passed through while he was working on another film. While he was there, he impregnated a waitress named Doreen (Jessica Lange) who he kind of had a thing for. He wants to get back to that, even though twenty years have passed. In Don’t Come Knocking, she never takes him back, because this is not a Hollywood movie, thank God, it is a Sam Shepard play only with better sets, if not actors.

In that town of Butte is a woman named Sky (Sarah Polley). She recently lost her mother, and carries the woman’s ashes around in an urn. It was clear then that Polley was a dynamic talent, and her mere presence in Don’t Come Knocking is completely overwhelming. Shepard has this great scene where he meets her and at first he thinks she’s a fan, and even after she convinces him that she is not one, he still warms to her slowly. When you’ve been hurt the thing you learn is how dumb it is to trust someone in those first five minutes.

Sutter (Tim Roth) is an insurance man sent to bring Howard Spence back to the set by any means necessary. When he finally finds Howard, he handcuffs them together. This is such a Shepard thing, and it is a great onstage conceit in general. Roth has always been terrific when it comes to bringing a basic humanism to every kind of role, even that of the traditional antagonist. But as in many Shepard plays, the true antagonist is far more difficult to discern.

Shepard and Jessica Lange, his one-time wife, have this supercharged scene that takes place as they are walking through the main drag of the town. In this sequence, Wenders works considerable magic with windows and reflections, and the dialogue is so completely right for how people who know each other a little, but not a lot, make sense out of the conflict intrinsic to their lives.

Howard Spence knows that he has a son named Earl (Gabriel Mann) this entire time, and he goes to see him. Earl responds by throwing all of his belongings out of his window onto the street and breaking up with his girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk). She sticks around anyway, sensing that this difficult moment is not really about her.

Polley is phenomenal in her scenes with Shepard, but she interacts with her potential stepbrother even better. in both circumstances she glows with a vital radiance all the other participants in Don’t Come Knocking are so keen to recapture. We never do find out if Sky is actually Howard Spence’s daughter, and it is implied that she is probably not. But that actually only improves thing for Howard, because he finds it easier to love someone he never was told he had to be responsible for than his actual son. In typical fashion for this great American author, one form of love ends up being a bridge, the only true path, to the other.

dont-come-knocking_1.jpg

In every narrative, the idea is that by the end something has to change. Shepard gave this rule of stage a clever and brutal twist. He conceived of the idea that people could try to evolve, but nothing could actually change them – not dialogue, not action, not violence, not death – they could only react to it imperceptibly like putting on a winter coat to repel a cool breeze. Things were altered, but not necessarily what was needed.

The most redemption Howard Spence receives is a soft hug. This is not only enough for him, it is beyond his wildest expectations. Years and years of loneliness change what gives us pleasure. The merest thought of those we truly care for, not even the return of the affection, can provide solace. It is enough to see and be around those we love.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

In Which We Pretend That It Never Happened

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to justhardtosay@gmail.com.

Hi,

I know that no one is perfect, but bad puns really bother me. I guess even more so when they are not actually puns and more like metaphorical descriptions of my boyfriend’s own invention. I have told him that I do not want to hear about his penis meadow or anything “humorous” about his balls. It’s not that the subject itself grosses me out, and testicular cancer is a leading cause of death among young bros. 

It’s more just his entire way of speaking has started to get on my nerves. We have been together more than two years and I know I should not let these niggling, trifling aspects of our relationship bother me. Is this indicative of a broader problem or am I simply nitpicking/blowing this way out of proportion?

Jana L.

Jana,

It is easy to get on someone’s nerves when you know them pretty well. At some point you gave your boyfriend a response to this behavior that he liked, even if that is not at all what you were trying to indicate. 

Since this is a problem with a simple solution, you need to approach it in the same way. Obviously you need a way to seriously communicate with him that this is unacceptable and potentially un-American. Sit him down like you are going to break up with him, and then reveal the situation. He will do anything you say after that.

Hi,

In the wake of my recent breakup, I have had a really hard time meeting people. It is very difficult to tell whether a guy is looking for something serious or not, and I find myself becoming more withdrawn – this is not the kind of person that I am, and I sense it is not super attractive when combined with the fact I sometimes bring up my ex or seem cynical about relationships. I don’t want to be like this, but questions about why I am dating online seem to come up no matter what I do. 

The larger problem is that I seem to be either moving things too slowly, or not giving off the right vibe to find a relationship. Do you have any tips for this?

Moana C.

Dear Moana,

I have tips for everything, even great lunches you can give kids. 

You have to demand the best from potential partners. If you do not, or excuse them for things, they will either identify you as not a romantic option, or learn that they can treat you however they want. Let me tell you a quick story about my friend Laura. Laura was dating a guy and he stood her up one time. He had an excuse, but I don’t remember what it was, but it sounded flimsy as fuck. She really liked him so she pretended it didn’t happen and accepted his apology. Two weeks later he was killed in a car accident. 

Did you like the twist ending? If someone isn’t treating you the way you want to be treated, you should tell them. The fact that they may not know you very well is all the more reason to set up those boundaries now. 

At the same time, it is important to push the momentum of a new relationship. If you like someone, you should want to spend a fair amount of time with them. Such activities not only leave a distinct impression on men, but they reveal a whole heck of a lot – like if he is texting other girls, or as he probably refers to them, possibles.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

In Which Nothing Blows Up To Our Considerable Chagrin

A Colder War Than Usual

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Atomic Blonde
dir. David Leitch
115 minutes

abl-rtdadv1sheet-rgb-1-5938474674f1c-1.pngLorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is fond of ice baths, brunettes, and cigarettes. She smokes seventeen of them in Atomic Blonde, which is quite the feat considering she never buys them and none of the other characters arranged in Berlin in 1989 ever offer her one. When two people enjoy smoking in the way that Lorraine and Percival (James McAvoy) do, you would think they would have a lot in common. At first, Percival believes they will.

By the end of Atomic Blonde, McAvoy and Theron have only had about three conversations with each other. Even though I appreciate the idea that they were simply not romantically inclined towards each other, Atomic Blonde runs so far away from this possibility that you wonder if the two actors ever saw each other on set. They don’t touch at all during the movie’s running time, at least not on the skin. Once, Percival takes her jacket.

McAvoy is a deft and exciting performer, and his supercharged supporting role as an English spy gone rogue is essential to this moody nothing-piece, because without him the only bomb going off would be the alarm at the conclusion of this feature-length nap.

Ms. Theron looks dramatically better as a brunette, or even bald. Blonde hair makes her look a bit goofy, really, but director David Leitch is keen to distract us from this fact by placing Lorraine in her undergarments as often as possible. She is nude in no less than five scenes, which has to be some kind of record. Despite this titillation, Atomic Blonde is rather dull, although that is not to say it does no attempt to make things interesting.

The film’s central sequence is a set piece where Lorraine and Percival attempt to transport an East German man (Eddie Marsan) and his family to the West. Unfortunately, Leitch’s budget did not really accomodate a crowd scene larger than 100 people. The action gets more chaotic in an apartment building nearby, where Lorraine fights for her life against members of the KGB. This is the closest we ever get to believing she is in serious trouble on her mission, but the drama is rather toned down because of the fact a frame story makes it quite clear she’s alive and well except for a black eye.

For a spy thriller, absolutely everything is what it seems in Atomic Blonde. The four other contacts Lorraine makes in Berlin are a KGB agent, a British agent, a French agent named Delphine (Sofia Boutella) and a Swede named Merkel (Bill Skarsgård). None of them, including McAvoy are anything different from what they appear to be. This has the consequential effect of meaning that Lorraine never has a moment where she is taken by surprise, and as an audience neither do we.

More troubling is the absolute lack of a feast for the senses present in Atomic Blonde. Sure, the movie is pretty to look at, which is a major and important concern. But none of the characters ever smell, taste, touch or hear anything in each other’s voices outside of a moment where Lorraine is critiqued for her poor German. How could anybody tell? She only speaks one line in the language.

The music of Atomic Blonde is an endless churn of 80s pop. Except for when Lorraine is fighting, she constantly has this lame soundtrack purring around her, with the resonance of the lyrics striking the rare thematic aspects present in the story: e.g. “Voices Carry” and “Father Figure.” The songs are all way too familiar to be dropped into these mien, a fact that Leitch amusingly confesses to when he has Lorraine watch an MTV clip of Kurt Loder investigating the phenomenon of sampling.

Kurt Loder seemed absolutely ancient to me when he was on television, and Atomic Blonde does a good job of turning Berlin’s atmosphere into something that can be called modern when viewed through this future lens. In a few fleeting moments, we get a sense of Lorraine as a kind of disturbed alien temporarily visiting on a planet of beings that might as well be ants to her: she is that far above them. This is possibly true.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

In Which We Meet Our Friends In New Orleans

Bye Girl

by ETHAN PETERSON

Girls Trip
dir. Malcolm D. Lee
122 minutes

Ryan (Regina Hall) gives out two lectures at the beginning of Girls Trip. The first is to her white assistant Liz (Kate Walsh) who uses a lot of African-American slang and buzzwords around her boss. Since they will be spending the weekend at the Essence Festival in Louisiana, she warns Liz to stop saying these racist things, since she will be around people who might be offended by them. Liz accepts her admonition, while saying farewell to Ryan by stating, “Girl, bye.”

The second speech is to her friend Sasha (Queen Latifah) who runs a gossip blog. She criticizes Sasha for abandoning real journalism in her crusade for clicks, posting negative stories about celebrities that are sometimes nasty and unkind. Sasha does not really justify her occupation, but explains that she does this work in order to pay the rent on what looks to be a $4.5 million apartment.

In this lavish home, Sasha has no less than three desktop computers next to each other. Since she has nothing in the way of a staff, it is unclear what she uses these different terminals for. Ryan invites her to the Essence Festival, where she hopes to find a juicy story that will increase her pageviews. Fortunately, this bizarre character motivation is not really a huge part of Girls Trip, and Sasha later shuts down her blog, unhappy with her choice of work.

Anyway, Ryan is generally upset for most of Girls Trip. Surrounded by some of the finest black actresses of her generation, Hall (Scary Movie) struggles intensely as the centerpiece of her friend group, which calls itself the Flossy Posse. It is never mentioned why these four women adopted this name in the first place, but their FP necklaces and vests are very charming in the miasma of bright colors and alcohol that is New Orleans.

Director Malcolm D. Lee displays one image of the ladies in front of the Louisiana Superdome that is particularly heartwarming at the beginning of Girls Trip; this is later contrasted with the renovation of the building and the sale of the naming rights to Mercedes-Benz.

Everything went corporate, you see, even African-American culture. Ryan’s husband Stewart (a tragically bad Mike Colter) is a former NFL tight end who is cheating on her with a model named Simone (Deborah Ayorinde). He impregnates the lovely young woman.

Ryan, unaware of this development, and incapable of having children herself, smashes the woman’s head on a bar at the unexpectedly violent conclusion to a dance contest. Very little attention is paid to this aspect of Girls Trip, but her treatment of Simone is pretty horrid and possibly worthy of prosecution. Ryan tries to paper over the problems in her marriage by hooking up with a bass player, although he is not super into it.

It is pretty hard to watch Regina Hall’s scenes in Girls Trip, because her character is completely unlikable and seems to be kind of a nasty jab at Beyonce. Fortunately, Girls Trip is saved by the rest of the Flossy Posse, composed of Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Dina (Tiffany Haddish).

Both women are far more complicated and entertaining than their showbiz friends, and the contrast between the two types of people begins to make the parade of celebrity cameos in Girls Trip feel quite hollow. So much of the film seems like a series of segments from E! News, about people whose entire purpose in life seems to be getting publicity for themselves.

Small moments, like when Lisa talks to her children or Dina is fired from her job are absolutely the best parts of Girls Trip, where the edges of an actual film seem to encroach on the milquetoast main conflict. Haddish’s raunchy humor correctly takes all the attention, but she also listens and responds to her fellow performers with adeptness and grace. Besides when Jada Pinkett Smith gives a guy a blowjob with a grapefruit on his dick, it is the most exciting things ever get in New Orleans.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.