Friday, December 29, 2006

A Quiet Day at Home

I've been laid low by a post-Christmas head cold, and haven't felt like doing much of anything the past few days. My favored mode of relaxation and recovery has been converting tapes from the attic to DVD-R -- everything from the Paul Naschy DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (aka ASSIGNMENT: TERROR) to BEAT CLUB anthologies to THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS. It's an appropriately Christmassy thing to do, to focus on the things you're privileged to have, and to appreciate them.

The latest batch of pull-downs from the attic included MGM's 2000 exclusive, Elio Petri's A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (now out of print). I reviewed this film for VW in issue #72 and haven't thought much about it since; I reviewed it more enthusiastically than I remembered it, actually. I put it on expecting to walk away and do something else, but I found myself instantly gripped by its energy and peculiar way of storytelling. To my surprise, I not only sat there and watched the entire film in my bathrobe, but the movie now felt to me like something profound and significant -- I think it may have joined the ranks of the very limited number of films that have changed my way of seeing. Now I want to see much more Elio Petri.

This raises some interesting questions: Are our perceptions amplified or otherwise altered, when we are running a fever or in some way diseased? Under such conditions, do we respond to films and other stimuli the same way we would when healthy? Does an elevated temperature bring us closer to art and consciousness, or does it effect a distortion? It might be an interesting experiment to watch some other films I feel I didn't entirely "get" on the first pass, and see if they strike more lucid chords in my state of fever.

One thing I completely missed the first time around with this movie: Rita Calderoni, who plays Franco Nero's housekeeper at the villa, is seen earlier in the movie as a model playing a role in one of the "Supersexy" fumettis he reads. If you notice this, it makes her later appearance in the flesh all the more jarring... and it's also curious to see how mousy she is here, in contrast with how prominently sexy she could be in the movies of Renato Polselli.

Anyway, whatever the reason, today turned out to be an exciting day at the movies.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business

The Seed and Creed of Rock and Soul: Mr. James Brown.

The word "LIVE!", shouting from the covers of so many of his albums, seems inseparable from the soul and essence of James Brown. That -- and the boundless energy he showed onstage throughout a 50 year career, not to mention the boundless invention he showed in the recording studio over an equal period of time -- make the news of his death on Christmas morning hard to accept.

Back in the 1970s, when punk was starting to happen, I was in a record store and the seller, who knew my tastes, steered me gently but firmly in the direction of the newly reissued LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOLUME 1 by James Brown. I was a little hesitant because it was an earlier era of music than I tended to buy, and I was mostly listening to trancey avant garde alternative rock; also, the cover art was kind of kitschy, an airbrushed rendering of JB in a vast pompadour howling into a stage microphone. But I bought it and, lo and behold, it was one of the great musical discoveries of my life. I loved it.

I loved it enough to scoop up a used copy of JB's 1974 double album HELL as soon as I found one; it was recorded in a different era than the APOLLO disc, but it was, if anything, even more feisty and infectious. I especially loved the closing, side-long track "Papa Don't Take No Mess," which has the crackly sound of a groove-sampling epic decades before there were such things. It was around this same time that Robert Christgau devoted an installment of his "Consumer Guide" in CREEM magazine to JB, reviewing and grading all of his 1970s-80s work. I think I would have graded HELL a fraction better than he did, which gave me my bearings and stoked my curiosity. Then, just as I was starting to wonder how some things like "Soul Power" and "Get On The Good Foot" sounded, an Australian import appeared -- the first double-album Greatest Hits collection ever devoted to the full breadth of JB's work. Once I heard "Give It Up or Turnit A Loose" and "Sex Machine," there was no turning back. I had to collect the whole story, hear every track, leave no groove unturned. Again, as if by divine coincidence, GOLDMINE chose that precise moment to devote a feature article to James Brown, equipped with a complete discography -- my road map.

Mr. Brown's first record label, King Records, was Cincinnati-based, which made my quest a bit easier to accomplish, but over the course of the following 8-10 years, I subsequently found and bought every legitimately released JB album on vinyl, and then on CD. We're talking more than 100 albums, plus variants, repackagings, and special releases.

Little Richard calls himself "the architect of rock and roll," but James Brown made an epithet like that seem like so many small potatoes. JB was the architect of everything that came after rock and roll: soul, disco, rap, extended grooves and improvs, drum and bass, trance, sampling (he remains the most-sampled artist ever, possibly for "Funky Drummer" alone), and whatever comes next, probably. He was the first R&B artist to venture outside the box of 4/4 R&B shuffles. His rhythms and increasingly complex polyrhythms struck a mathematical counterpoint to the directness and simplicity of his message, which could be pro-social and constructive ("Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved!"), narcissistic ("I paid the cost to be the Boss"), or nakedly rut-hungry ("Can I get INTO it? Can I get INTO it? Can I pull the sheet off of 'em? CAN I GET INTO IT?"). Because the music cut deeper and deeper with each repetition of the groove, no music was ever sexier or more sensual.

I've heard everything he ever recorded, and it must be admitted that he recorded his fair share of material that was dumb or preachy (the very last track on his last album was called "Killing's Out, School Is In") or in questionable taste; and, if truth be told, his live shows have been half-spirited and often tacky since his 1991 release from prison -- but none of that matters in terms of the Big Picture. He was also a visionary artist, a dazzling showman, and he could be very, very funny. (Check out "For Goodness Sakes, Take A Look At Those Cakes," an epic paen to butt-watching in which he actually invites Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles to "lookie here" and "lookie there," or the great moment in "Make It Funky" when Bobby Byrd pathetically beseeches JB to NOT be so funky, and he fires back "I cain't hep it, Byrd.") He was way too prolific to be perfect (someone once said that, if JB sneezed in the studio, he'd release it as a two-sided single), and if his last fifteen years of live performance were not his best, the show with which he toured represented a lot of mouths he had to feed, and he remained James Brown and all that JB represented till the end. Despite that, the quality of his releases always remained respectable (his penultimate album I'M BACK is very good) and his archival releases (especially the unparalleled box set STAR TIME) were among the best on the market.

I don't think any other one person could be said to have changed (hell, revolutionized) the world of music and the art of live performance to the extent that James Brown did. Mick Jagger didn't dance onstage until he stood in the wings and watched JB dance his way through his T.A.M.I. SHOW performance in 1964, a performance the Stones had to follow, which remains one of the very greatest live pop music performances ever captured on film. In 1986, he was one of the first inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Little Richard and many other fathers of the form; he was the only inductee that year to simultaneously have a new single zooming up the charts (ROCKY IV's "Living In America").

James Brown may be dead, but I guarantee you he's not resting in peace. Somewhere, he's dancing with the renewed energy of a newborn and already scoping out the thangs ain't never been done.

"What I was doin' thirty years ago is what the rest of 'em are doin'... tomorrow." -- JB

You could do a Top 10 of Best Ofs with JB, but I'm not going to cheat you like that. It should go without saying that nascent JB collectors need the STAR TIME box set first and above all, followed by ROOTS OF A REVOLUTION, FOUNDATIONS OF FUNK, FUNK POWER 1970, MAKE IT FUNKY - THE BIG PAYBACK, and DEAD ON THE HEAVY FUNK -- all fabulous archival overviews of specific periods in Mr. Brown's 50 year career. You can live content with the knowledge that you know your James Brown if you have only those, or some of those. THE GREATEST HITS OF THE FOURTH DECADE collects some worthwhile cuts not included elsewhere. For this list, however, I wanted to focus on JB's individual albums. I consider everything listed below a stand-alone album; though IN THE JUNGLE GROOVE and MOTHERLODE look like hits compilations, they are actually compilations of archival tracks previously unreleased, or in previously unreleased form. Albums are listed in my personal order of preference. Can't do a Top 10, but this isn't a Top 10, so I don't have to.

1. IN THE JUNGLE GROOVE 2. LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOL. 1 3. LIVE AT THE APOLLO, VOL. 2 (original version; Side Two's suite of "Let Yourself Go/There Was a Time/I Feel Alright/Cold Sweat" may be the single greatest side JB ever cut) 4. LOVE PEACE POWER 5. THERE IT IS 6. HOT PANTS 7. THINK! 8. I'M REAL 9. HELL 10. IT'S A NEW DAY - LET A MAN COME IN 11. IT'S A MAN'S MAN'S MAN'S WORLD 12. MOTHERLODE.

Radomir Perica, 1924-2006

It is with great sadness that I must announce the death of Radomir Perica, on December 23, from congestive heart failure; he was 82. Radomir, whom we met through our friendship with his daughter Simonida Perica-Uth, one of our closest friends, was an accomplished graphic artist and designer. When Radomir heard that we were launching a magazine, back in 1990, he insisted on bringing his expertise to bear on the project and gifted us with the basic template for our front cover -- including our magazine logo, with its imperfect closing capital G and angled star-- which has been the basis of every VIDEO WATCHDOG cover we've produced in the past seventeen years. And, by extension, the logo you see on this very blog.

In Belgade, Yugoslavia, Radomir (whose name is also transliterated in some sources as "Radomira Perice") worked for many years as a cartoonist, a comics artist, an illustrator of books, and finally as the designer of title sequences for Yugoslavian feature films. I often tried to get him to talk about this period in his life, to help me track down examples of his work in this field, but he disliked talking about himself and blew off any attempt to make his past work the subject of discussion. In the early days of VW, Radomir helped me to obtain helpful information about his former colleague Rados Novakovich, the director of OPERACIJA TICIJAN, which Roger Corman subsequently transmuted into PORTRAIT IN TERROR, BLOOD BATH, and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE; he even drew a sketch of Novakovich to accompany the first part of my three-part article about the film's history in VW #4.

It was Simonida who told us most of what we knew about Radomir, including that his own story had been the historical basis of a character in the 1986 film HEY BABU RIBA, who is jailed for getting and flaunting a Mickey Mouse tattoo -- which was seen by the authorities as a flagrant and unacceptable endorsement of American imperialism (and, by implication, a nose-thumbing at Leninist rule). In hindsight, it was an heroic gesture of his belief in the freedom of artistic expression in the face of oppressive government. His wife of many years, Vera, passed away not long after the family's relocation to Washington, D.C.

Radomir never lost his love of cinema (or Walt Disney) and attended new movies with his second wife, Mary, weekly. The films of Luís Buñuel and Ken Russell were among his great enthusiasms (we agreed that CRIMES OF PASSION was a masterpiece), and when he insisted to me that Joel Schumacher's BATMAN FOREVER demanded to be taken seriously -- not as a film, perhaps, but as a visual spectacle of rare scope, achievement, and taste in American cinema -- I was compelled to take a second look at it and came away convinced of what should have been obvious to me on the first pass.

Radomir was a brilliantly unique yet adaptable artist; some of the most outstanding examples of his interpretative art can be found here (these are available as stunning lithographic prints, including "Eve," pictured above), while some samples of a more basic, storybook nature can be found here. He also portrayed Nikola Tesla in the docudramatic passages of his son-in-law Robert Uth's award-winning PBS documentary TESLA: MASTER OF LIGHTNING.

Donna and I will miss Radomir for his absolute mastery of his craft, his warm endorsement of our projects, his animated spirit of fun and mischief -- in short, his beloved and singular place in our extended family.