Anything, and I mean anything, Quantic Soul Orchestra related is worth paying attention to. Playing her part in the modern soul revival, Kinny’s solo debut is due out March 23rd in the UK. It will also feature production from Tru Thoughts mainstays Hint, Nostalgia 77, and TM Juke, as well as rising Norwegian star Souldrop.
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Some filmmakers wear their influences like a clandestine coat of arms. While they’ll never really admit it, they are clearly borrowing from the wealth of directorial prowess that came before them. True originals are hard to come by. Instead, we usually wind up with post-modern moviemakers channeling their heroes and paying homage to elements both obvious and obscure. When he first hit the scene in late ‘60s, Dario Argento was seen as a part Hitchcock, part Italian cultural heritage. After all, his father Salvatore was a famed producer, and he himself had helped script several successful spaghetti westerns, including the classic Sergio Leone classic Once Upon a Time in the West.
But with his first film as a director, the brilliant Bird with the Crystal Plumage (new to Blu-ray DVD from Blue Underground), he was out to prove that he was more than just a Mediterranean copy of the Master of Suspense. Using innovative camera work and a novel twist on the standard thriller type, he invented the language of the “giallo” - the Italian crime film based on the famous ‘yellow’ novels that provide the genre’s moniker. Bird itself was actually an un-credited adaptation of Fredric Browne’s The Screaming Mimi, but as he would throughout the rest of his illustrious career, Argento takes the basics of the artform and transforms them into something original and wholly unique.
After a prosperous stay in Italy, American author Sam Dalmas is about to return to the US with his glamour gal model girlfriend in tow. On the way from picking up his final check, he sees a woman brutally attacked by a sinister dark figure. Helping the police, he learns that there have been several such incidents in the last few months - and he was lucky. All the other victims have ended up dead. While not a suspect, his passport is confiscated. Unable to leave, he decides to investigate the case. Turns out, there are several suspects, including the woman’s wary husband. As he gets deeper into things, Sam finds himself threatened both verbally and physically. Seems he is getting close to solving the crimes, and the killer will stop at nothing to make sure that doesn’t happen.
As a first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a startling achievement. It’s technically proficient, visually arresting, and quite suspenseful. It features remarkable work from Tony Musante (a truly underappreciated American actor) and Suzy Kendall and a script that does a decent job of keeping the last minute surprises in check. As he does with many of his films, Argento employs an unusual combination of found locations and studio set-ups to create his uncomfortable worlds. When Sam sees the assault, it takes place in an art gallery overloaded with baroque and downright surreal pieces. Toward the end, our hero visits a hermit who lives in what looks like a broken down barn. Always a stickler for detail, you can practically smell the rot surrounding the cat-eating recluse.
As with many giallo, Bird is basically a police procedural, except this time, an American writer with some time on his hands does most of the grunt work. This gives Argento the opportunity to indulge in some dopey scenes of serio-comic clue gathering. They include a stop over at an antique shop where Musante’s rugged good looks give a fey clerk the veiled vapors. Later, a conversation with the victim’s husband reveals more red herrings than a Swedish banquet. Argento always plays his reveals close to the vest, so it’s almost impossible to guess who the killer really is. Even when we revisit Musante’s “memory” of the attack, the obvious misdirection offered by the editing keeps identities in check. Of course, the sadism of the murders and the manner in which they are choreographed suggest their own suspects as well.
Indeed, anyone coming to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage hoping for a fascinating foreign whodunit clearly don’t understand Argento. Some call him a technician, someone more interested than cinematic style over narrative or emotional substance. True, we don’t really care about Sam or his girlfriend. When threatened, we don’t respond with compassion or caring. But as he showed in such other masterworks as Suspiria, Inferno, and Profundo Rosso, we don’t have to identify with the people onscreen to get caught up in Argento’s approach. Instead, the combination of skills - the brilliant camerawork matched with a stunning soundtrack (this one offered by none other than acclaimed countryman Ennio Morricone) and an unusual take on the material or type can literally lull us into an entertainment trance.
Because of the way Argento’s films look, fans have longed for the day when his movies would make the transition from standard home video formats to the latest high definition developments. Blue Underground’s treatment of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has always been stellar - but this new Blu-ray release is something else all together. It’s like stepping back in time and revisiting the film for the first time during its theatrical run. There is plenty of grain and a few flaws in the 2.35:1 anamorphic image, but that’s par for the course circa 1970s Italy. The Blu-ray really enhances both the evocativeness of Argento’s compositions and the hard boiled qualities of the technical limitations he had to work within. Similarly, the differing audio mixes (DTS, TrueHD) and variations (English Dub, Italian translation) reflect the film’s international success. Be wary of the subtitles, however. They do not match the Western version of the film very well.
Blue Underground also treats us to the wonderful bonus features they offered when the title first hit Special Edition DVD in 2005. They include interviews with Argento, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, actress Eva Renzi, and composer Ennio Morricone. All are insightful and quite fun. Then there is a commentary track from journalists Alan Jones and Kim Newman. Informal and rather superficial, the two discuss the influence of Argento and his provocative style as scenes demanding conversation gracefully flow by. This is not a bad alternate discussion, just one that seems to miss the point of most DVD tracks.
For those reviewing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage with a full knowledge of everything Dario Argento can and cannot do, the lack of outlandishness and the conventional nature of the film overall will probably be rather surprising. After all, there’s none of the beautiful violence of later films, or the cold and calculated anti-social sentiment of giallos like Tenebre, Opera, or The Stendhal Syndrome. As with any audition, Argento almost failed (a producer wanted to fire him after his secretary saw some dailies and was truly terrified), but in the end, he used its overriding success to become one of the true Masters of the macabre. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not be his most daring or controversial effort, but it certainly certifies the Hitchcock tag. Just like the British moviemaking maverick, there has been no one like Dario Argento - not before or since.
It’s been four years since Depeche Mode’s last album Playing the Angel and in April they’ll follow it up with Sounds of the Universe (featuring cover art that looks like it’s from 1981). The band debuted the album’s first single “Wrong” over the weekend at the Echo Awards in Germany. Unfortunately it appears to be playback and not actually live but that’s how they do things on TV in Germany. The song is full of chanting, fat synths, and general darkness. DM fans rejoice.
The “Wrong” single is out on April 6th in Europe and April 7th in the US. Sounds of the Universe is out on April 20th in Europe and April 21st in the US.
Jason Kottke linked to this New York Times article by Stuart Elliott about PepsiCo deciding to reverse course on its rebranding of its Tropicana orange juice line. (AdPulp and Rob Walker noted it also.) I have no investment in the designs at stake here and don’t prefer either one. I don’t even buy Tropicana juice unless it’s the cheapest on offer. (A related but tangential question: Whatever happened to frozen orange juice? It’s rarely available and tends to be more expensive than the stuff in the carton everywhere but Aldi. Is this because shipping has become cheaper, rendering concentrated juice unnecessary? I want to feel like a thrifty “new consumer” by reconstituting frozen orange juice, but I am being thwarted!)
But what’s interesting about this is the way the internet is being used as a huge marketing focus group by brand managers. This seems cost-efficient (the company says the reversion costs will not be “significant”), as long as companies are willing to be regarded as having made mistakes like this in public. But rather than seem foolish or indecisive, PepsiCo. seems likely to come out ahead from this in a publicity standpoint. The Tropicana brand makes it into the edit pages of publications for free; the company is portrayed as being extremely open and responsive to its customers and somewhat technologically savvy to boot. The article cites a PepsiCo rep, sounding quite pleased with the whole contretemps:
Neil Campbell, president at Tropicana North America in Chicago, part of PepsiCo Americas Beverages, acknowledged that consumers can communicate with marketers “more readily and more quickly” than ever. “For companies that put consumers at the center of what they do,” he said, “it’s a good thing.”
Being open to public comment on packaging changes may in fact be a way of building “brand communities” online, as it gives an inchoate group of unaffiliated consumers something to rally around:
“You used to wait to go to the water cooler or a cocktail party to talk over something,” said Richard Laermer, chief executive at RLM Public Relations in New York.
“Now, every minute is a cocktail party,” he added. “You write an e-mail and in an hour, you’ve got a fan base agreeing with you.”
That ability to share brickbats or bouquets with other consumers is important because it facilitates the formation of ad hoc groups, more likely to be listened to than individuals.
“There will always be people complaining, and always be people complaining about the complainers,” said Peter Shankman, a public relations executive who specializes in social media. “But this makes it easier to put us together.”
Campbell admitted that there earlier market research had revealed that it wasn’t the case that Tropicana buyers “necessarily had a huge connection” to its old packaging. Well, they seem to now.
Rob Walker figures that “Probably this story will largely be positioned as an example of the enhanced power of consumers to complain — the NYT story is full of the usual email-and-Facebook examples, etc. And maybe that’s partly true.” I agree but think that the power ultimately rests with the companies, not consumers, who after all are still investing their energy in someone else’s product. “Activist consumers” who agitate about product design are still consumers, in fact their are even more invested in their roles as consumers. Maybe that is not the worst thing in the world, but my philosophical presupposition is that the “consumer” role is ultimately confining, blinding us to the existential possibilities outside of shopping.
My conspiratorial mind, of course, assumes that these sorts of brand fauxs pas, since they may ultimately serve to be useful for a company, will come to be increasingly staged as a means for facilitating more consumer engagement with brands—an elaboration of the recent tactic of encouraging consumers to make their own ads. Campbell told the NYT that the logo was changed because criticism came from the company’s “most loyal consumers.” That they bother to complain is precisely what makes them loyal. Others would probably just buy something else without a second thought. Myself, I would prefer to be one of those others.