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The Studio at Webster Hall, New York City
Body Language, a Brooklyn four-piece, played colorful synth pop shaped by Tropicalia climaxes and a compelling lead singer, Angelica Bess. Saccharine synthesizer lines harmonized three ways, along with bells, forged dreamy melodies under a dance beat. Though their sound was saturated in electronica, practically all of it was played live on multiple keyboards creating a refreshing live dynamic and a lush full sound many electronic-focused bands couldn’t touch. Their last song, “Holiday,” showed off more of their melancholy vocals over another strong but ethereal beat.
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At this point in its cinematic history, the zombie has been reduced to a journeyman horror workhorse. In a genre that once saw it as a frightmare superstar, rabid fanboy love (and the accompanying desire to show such affection via homemade imitation) has reduced your standard cannibalistic corpse into a hackneyed terror tenet. Gone are the days when the novelty of the creature could carry an entire film. Now, if there aren’t CGI hordes of these flesh craving fiends defying logic and physicality as they sprint across the screen like undead athletes, fright fans groan in disapproval. It will be interesting to see how they greet Jorge Grau’s 1974 old school scary movie The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Also known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, there’s a lot here that a new fangled macabre maven could love. There is also a great deal to test their post-modern patience.
While on his way to a holiday in the country, antiquities dealer George has his motorcycle totaled by inconsiderate driver Edna. They strike up a bargain - she will take him to his cottage, if he will first let her visit her sick sister. Lost along the way, they seek directions from a local farmer. He is in the process of using a newfangled government device that kills bugs and other parasites via radioactivity. What they don’t know is that the machine also resurrects the dead. Edna is attacked by a strange man, and when they arrive at her sibling’s, the crazed woman is screaming about the death of her husband. Of course, the conservative police inspector doesn’t believe a word of their story. He thinks the duo are murderous hippies ala The Manson Family, ready to turn his lush part of England into their own killing fields. It will take more than a few hysterics to convince him there’s something more sinister going on. The reanimated bodies tearing up the hospital may be all the proof anyone needs.
If you’re looking for the missing link between George Romero’s zombie epics and his splattery Italian copycats, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue might just be that absentee connection. Combining the American ideal of suspense and social commentary with the Mediterranean love of all things gross and gory, Spanish transplant Jorge Grau was given a simple mandate by this eager backers - create a commercially viable color rip off of Romero’s 1968 black and white Night. With a long list of credits including recent genre efforts Penalty of Death and Bloody Ceremony (both from ‘73), the filmmaker was provided a hefty budget and the run of Cinecitta Studios. With some location work in England, and the growing emergence of Italian special effects, Grau gave his audience more than they bargained for.
Indeed, the main thing you notice about Manchester Morgue is the anti-counterculture screeds from American actor Arthur Kennedy. Attempting a passable Irish/Scottish brogue, and looking like your typical Establishment goon, the former Hollywood star repeatedly rails against, hippies, drugs, youth, long hair, non-conformity, and anything else that comes into his button down mind. He is backed up by some local bureaucrat that uses his preoccupation with the occult to accuse the newly arrived city slicker suspects of Satanism. It’s a weird juxtaposition. On the one hand, you have the typical zombie dramatics - dark night, groaning and heavy breathing, the sudden appearance of a reanimated corpse. But by placing the blame squarely on our hero and heroine, Grau gives his movie a touch of necessary realism.
There is also a staunch pro-environment message here as well. The radioactive bug zapper, its five mile range bringing the recently deceased back to life, is part of a multilayered look by Grau at that time tested standby, man vs. nature. At the beginning, when George is riding around London on his motorcycle, we see shots of nuclear power plants and dirty, decaying buildings. This is not the slick, high tech city circa 2008. Instead, Manchester Morgue suggests a metropolis dying under the influence of crass corporate and industrial practices. There’s even an overheard radio broadcast later on that supports such a view. Our lead also loves to chide the workers running the big red atom smashing pest controller. His shouting matches over the effect on the land - and later, the local corpses - provide the film with a solid bedrock of beliefs.
But for most horror fans, it’s gore that delivers the most perverse pleasure, and Manchester Morgue doesn’t disappoint. While you have to wade through 80 moody minutes to get to the sluice, Grau gives in to our basic bloodlusts. We get axes to the head, disemboweling, lopped off breasts, several bites to the neck, and enough walking ghouls to infect even the most cynical fan with a good case of the heebie jeebies. When you combine this material with the film’s already pea soup thick tone, it becomes a very unsettling experience. Like most great fear flicks, we get the distinct impression that anyone can die at any time. And since Kennedy is simply jonesing to deliver a little conservative comeuppance to the two ‘long hairs’ he feels are responsible, we get double the threat.
But The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is really centered on style and approach. Grau doesn’t give in to the temptation to merely imitate Romero. He avoids the documentary dynamic that made Night so memorable, and instead seems to channel a great deal of Hammer’s horror ideal. Similarly, the film is not fully Italian. Instead of completely painting the cinematic canvas red, this director explores character, hot button issues, and religious symbolism as a way to make his monster mythology more believable. There are oddball elements interspersed here and there - the opening London travelogue with the occasional mysterious figures in the background, the notion that the zombie can “create” members of their killer brood by the application of blood to the eyelids - but since Grau keeps everything else grounded, we buy their overall non-believability.
Thanks to Blue Undergroud’s exceptional new transfer (bright and basically flawless in the new Blu-ray format) and attention to added DVD content (we get interviews with Grau, star Ray Lovelock and F/X artist Gianmetto De Rossi), The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is poised to be rediscovered by a new generation of terror aficionados. And it definitely deserves the chance, if for no other reason than to show how the entire subgenre changed and mutated to fit the current social and political clime. Instead of feeling dated, as some ‘70s films find themselves, there’s a timeless quality to what this movie accomplishes. By looking to the past while focusing on the present, Grau gives us an experience to contemplate for decades to come. It’s a dark and very disturbing vision. It also proves that, when done right, zombies can still be the creepshow kings. It’s a lesson many post-millennial moviemakers could definitely learn.
The Bell House, Brooklyn
The White Stripes and Black Keys trend of a guitar plus drums duo extends to Common Loon. Using The Cure and Nirvana as sonic examples, the two members of Common Loon write simple “alt rock” tunes. No wailing guitar solos, no foot-stomping drums, no standout vocals, just distorted chords, muffled vocals and straight-ahead drum beats. Not that these guys aren’t talented or pleasurable to listen to, but they don’t bring anything particularly new or exciting to the table—and watching them bring it is kind of boring.
The Living Room, New York City
I’m an enthusiastic fan of Nickel Creek mandolin geek Chris Thile’s latest band, so being utterly transfixed by the shivering dynamics of the third movement from “The Blind Leaving The Blind” is a familiar feeling for me at this point. Equally impressive here were the new tunes: one billed as “both a celebration and an indictment of rye whiskey” and “Good Luck,” billed as “a Valentine’s Day/recession song (it’s a genre growing in popularity).” Bassist Paul Kowert’s occasional dashes into the foreground were a new twist—rumbling crescendo here, scalar run there, each time an unexpected highlight in the context of five sharply-dressed young shred hounds playing with such uncanny restraint. As one should expect with any venue in downtown Manhattan, the most enthusiastic cheers came with the Radiohead cover that gave them their big YouTube hit (“Packt Like Sardines In A Trendy L.E.S. Rock Club,” I think it’s called), but that’s just the familiarity factor, as it was no more or less fantastic than anything else they’d been doing all along. Which is to say, it was all fantastic. Thile’s roughshod percussive attempts to channel the glitchy side of the Brothers Greenwood—organically using his entirely unsuitable instrument—even prompted banjo player Noam Pikelny to comment: “Folks, you heard on that last song the sound of a warranty being voided on a mandolin.”
The ‘90s will be remembered for a lot of things - grunge, Bill Clinton, the arrival of DVD and the birth of file sharing. But perhaps the biggest impact, culturally, socially, financially, and philosophically, was the rise of the Internet and the empowerment of the Dot.Com Kids. Feisty young entrepreneurs who hoped to revolutionize the new media, these free thinking uber-nerds, blessed with both brains and the chutzpah to re-imagine the burgeoning technological wilderness, took the industry (and NASDAC) by storm. Of the many fiery flash in the pans, none were as noted (and notorious) as Joshua Harris. Earning his first million with the then prescient notion of collecting online statistical data for advertisers and merchants, he soon turned his attention to an equally profound kind of web ‘performance art’. With it, Harris invented “reality television”, pushed the boundaries of acceptable social experimentation, and destroyed most of his collected commercial clout in the process.
As the subject of Ondi Timoner’s fascinating documentary, We Live in Public, viewers learn about his early success, how he built his ragtag information machine into an attempt at reinventing television. The web-based Pseudo offered streaming content as early as 1993, setting the ground rules for most of the online content (both personal and professional) seen today. With the money he made, Harris’ next decided to turn the lens on the very audience he was courting. Setting up a bunker like hotel in the basement of a New York building, he installed hundreds of cameras, created a complicated authoritarian social structure that involved interrogation rooms, personality profiles, and self-contained law enforcement. Dubbed “Quiet” many consider it to be the dawn of fact-based POV entertainment.
Others saw Harris himself as a post-modern Andy Warhol, with his Factory consisting of a pod-filled Big Brother controlled kingdom. Perhaps the most telling line of his entire spiel was an actual riff on the famed pop artist’s best known mantra. For Harris, people didn’t want a mere 15 minutes of fame. They wanted it every single day. And as Timoner - who actually participated in the Quiet experiment - points out, even that wasn’t good enough for the multi-millionaire. When he fell in love with Tanya Corrin, he brought his new gal pal into his next online brainstorm. Calling it “We Live in Public”, Harris had his New York loft fitted with hundreds of recording devices, cameras located everywhere (including the inside of the toilet bowl). The couple then simply went about their daily existence. There were tensions - his desire to have sex for the viewers being one of them - but at the beginning at least, both were up for the challenge.
Where We Live in Public gets most of its dramatic heft is not in the interpersonal clash between people (though there is plenty of that to go around). No, as the Dot.Com bubble bursts, as hundreds of businesses lose value and tank, Harris’ own financial meltdown is recorded daily for everyone to see. One particularly profound moment comes as our hero, sitting on the John, learns that he has no money in the bank. From this point on, We Live in Public turns dark and foreboding. Harris and Tanya fight. Their battles become more intense. She decides she can no longer live like a hamster in a 24 hour a day monitored cage. He abandons his project and simply disappears. Where Harris winds up - in one of three fabulous false endings - is the stuff of legend. As Timoner herself points out, even she can’t believe where the story takes us.
There is so much about We Live in Public that is mesmerizing, so much that is both shocking in its statement and knowing in its insight, that it’s hard to take in at one sitting. As she did with the music industry masterpiece DiG! , Timoner takes a relatively simple subject and deconstructs the outer layers to show the surreal substance within. Many could look at Harris as nothing more than a high tech con man, a slick huckster working in the human condition vs. ornate Bibles or Florida swampland time shares. His “art projects” today seem like nothing more than wasted YouTube temper tantrums and even with their importance to the progress of the Web, we don’t really see how anyone thought they could really be the “future” of entertainment - especially commercially. Granted, Harris was right about the Internet and people’s desire for fame. But the “promise” of Pseudo or Quiet is still far from being realized today.
Because Timoner is such an amazing filmmaker, because she understands pacing and documentary plotting better than any other director working today, We Live in Public simply sizzles. We get caught up in Harris’ vision, watch as it plays out in all its debauched, deranged ideals. With the access she had - both first hand and in follow-up - we get a better than insider’s glance at the entire nu-tech approach. There is a giddiness that’s hard to comprehend, mid ‘90s New Yorkers viewing Harris as some kind of media Messiah. If anything, he comes across as an accidental Marshall McLuhan, a suddenly rich eccentric who could see the self-produced webcam writing on the wall. That it couldn’t successfully translate into the mainstream was not Harris’ biggest flaw. That he couldn’t remove himself from being the center of attention was.
As with any classic example of the genre, We Live in Public raises as many troubling questions as it answers. Why did Harris revert to the weird clown persona “Luvvy” under stress? Why the equally unhinged fascination with Gilligan’s Island? Did he really think that something like Quiet or We Live in Public would really generate significant revenue opportunities, or was this merely a case of a crazy man with too much money and too many people saying “Yes”. While the saga seems to have a somewhat happy ending, Harris remains an enigma - albeit one we seem to recognize a whole lot easier. Ondi Timoner seems draw to individuals who confuse arrogance with ambition, who are addicted to the process as much as they are their own ego. There is no denying that Joshua Harris had vision. What he saw, and in turn, what he wanted us to see, makes We Live in Public a great cinematic experience.