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Sunday, Dec 2, 2007

Sorry for the self-promo but I only do this six times a year… In the latest issue of Perfect Sound Forever online music magazine, you’ll find (among other things):


ARAB ON RADAR
(Not so) Sweet Providence Noise


NANCY ELIZABETH
UK folk tales- interview


IPECAC
Mike Patton’s wooly label


KALAHARI SURFERS
South African avant-protest


JIMMY MILLER
Classic rock producer supreme


PARADISE LOST
English Doom Metal masters


SUZI QUATRO
Proto-punk and grrl


QUEENSRYCHE
Progressive, political metal


SAD AMERICANA
Not quite Achy-Breaky


SHARPIES
Aussie fashion, music and violence


SOLO PERCUSSION
Not just boring drum solos


RALPH TOWNER
Part III of ‘Sergovia’s Mutant Brother’


TRUNK RECORDS
Reanimator of obscure soundtrack music


VINYL ANACHRONIST
2007: Year of Grumpiness


PORTER WAGONER
RIP- a tribute


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Sunday, Dec 2, 2007


In retrospect, it does feel like the beginning of the end. For most of the decade, the fresh perspective offered by a growing set of filmmaking mavericks was reshaping the stogy cinematic ideals. Risks were the creative norm, and this one played like the biggest daredevil stunt ever. In an era still smarting over the ambiguities of the Vietnam War, the leading motion picture provocateur - multiple Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola - was headed to the Philippines to re-envision the conflict via an analogy to Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness. A long dormant project of his independent production company Zoetrope, Apocalypse Now would be the director’s ultimate artistic statement. In the end, it became much, much more. 


Perhaps the greatest behind the scenes documentary ever offered on the making of a movie, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse provides acute aesthetic insight and personal perspective into what, for most of the cast and crew, would be a descent into motion picture madness. Long missing from the DVD format (for reasons that become clear on this new digital presentation from Paramount), it stands as a Holy Grail gratuity for fans and scholars of the Godfather auteur’s troubled career. Indeed, those looking to rationalize Coppola’s eventual fall from grace - it’s a bumpy road from The Conversation to the Robin Williams waste Jack - saw all they need in the maelstrom of megalomania that seemed to surround this troubled shoot. From the replacement of one leading man to the near death of another, Now remains the director’s answerable albatross.


Beginning with the late ‘60s formation of Coppola’s self-started Zoetrope Studios, one of the most amazing things about the original concept for Now remains how ambitious it was. With friend John Milius scripting, and pal George Lucas directing, the production envisioned a bizarre kind of ‘guerilla’ guerilla shooting style. They wanted to insert themselves along with the actual troops, creating the film within the actual war playing out around them. And they actually got Warner Brothers’ interest. Though they eventually balked at the proposed technique, the studio sent a strong message to the brash young guns - this idea had potential. It was a predestination that would drive everyone involved over the near decade it took to realize said vision.

From another perspective, Hearts of Darkness also stands as the ultimate violation of trust. When Now was finally greenlit (back-to-back Academy Awards can change a lot of soured suits), Coppola hired his wife, Eleanor to head up a small documentary team. UA wanted some footage to use in their pre-release promotional campaigns, and being a photographer herself, her husband gave her the job. Who knew that the 12 week shoot would blossom into months, that private conversations between the couple (taped for inclusion in Eleanor’s diary) would become public knowledge, and that during the making of Apocalypse Now, Coppola would turn catastrophe and ego into a modern masterpiece. It set the foundation for all the mythologizing and criticism to come.


In these days of multi-disc DVD presentations, packages that strive to illustrate every minor moving making element with microscopic detail, one forgets how shocking Hearts of Darkness was. Backstage drama was, in 1991, an aspect of the medium usually left to magazine features, tell-all books, and the occasional film festival anecdote. Most productions weren’t proud of the rifts and ridiculousness that went on during a shoot, and it was rare when anything that did happen warranted further reflection. Even with laserdisc illustrating the appetite for this kind of insight, a mechanism for capturing and creating this material wasn’t firmly established. In many ways, Eleanor was ahead of her time. She could see what Now was doing to her man, and wanted to have a record of it…just in case he didn’t come back from the edge. How outsiders George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr came into possession of this material is a story for another day. How their award winning documentary was hijacked by a legacy sensitive auteur is very much at the center of this recent release.


Over the last few years, as Paramount has prepared various digital incarnations of Apocalypse Now, fans have wondered if Hearts of Darkness would be offered as a supplement. It is, after all, the yin to that bravado spectacle’s yang. Yet even when the supposed ‘final word’ on the film was presented - under the less than truthful title The Complete Dossier - this film was nowhere to be found. Rumors swirled that Coppola, angry about the secret wiretapping by his spouse and the eventual release of all of the material to the media, was purposefully holding off on the rights to Now footage. Without it, Hearts was sunk. To make matters worse, both Hickenlooper and Bahr have claimed strong arm tactics from the filmmaker, pointing to parts of this new, stand-alone disc as evidence of Coppola’s disdain for what they did.


On the surface, this seems to be a lot of meaningless chest-thumping. The wonderfully restored film still has the no budget production standards that Eleanor was forced to deal with, but the rest of the image is cleaned up and appealing. The actual makers of the movie are nowhere to be found however (they were ‘not invited’ to participate), but both Coppolas are present and accounted for. On the commentary track provided, Eleanor decides to wax nostalgic, discussing the time, the skyrocketing celebrity achieved by her spouse, and the numerous behind the scenes anecdotes that make these contextual additions so special. But it’s her husband’s conversation that’s the most telling. For Francis Coppola, it’s time to set the record straight.


You’d think that a man with as many awards as he has, who has significantly challenged film classicism with his demanding, endearing early films, would have a little thicker skin than the defensive dermis he exposes here. While begging for both perspective and circumstance, he makes it very clear that Hearts turns frequent fits of anger, frustration, and black humor into signs of inflated selfishness. Even worse, he feels used by individuals who’ve coattailed his creative genius for a sensationalized story. Still, even when he’s defending the film, you can tell that something about Hearts continues to rattle the director. It’s almost as if he’s attacking the exposure of any movie “magic” - whether it be how certain effects were achieved…or the creative element’s emotional turmoil.


It’s a contradiction that the Coppolas try to re-explore with Eleanor’s “new” documentary (though again she did not direct Hearts - she only provided the material) focusing on her husband’s latest film, the supposed return to form Youth Without Youth. Following her older, mellower spouse around Romania as he kvetches, jokes, swoons, and contemplates, it’s the love letter his wounded spirit supposedly needs. At 68, Coppola remains a larger than life presence on set, carrying most of his undeniable mythos in every action, each remark. Unlike Hearts, there are few flame-ups. Instead, we see the same spark that drove Now to its eventual status as an undeniable masterwork being muted by age, approach, and ambition. In fact, while it’s clearly meant to be a pliant portrait of an aging idol, the oddly named Coda is actually a con. The real Coppola is the manic, idealized dough boy, giggling almost insanely as he describes his movie as not being “about Vietnam. It IS Vietnam.”


Statements like these, some thirty years later, don’t really need the forced reinterpretation that the new Hearts of Darkness DVD demands. When the film was released in 1991, it was an epiphany. It was an “I told you so” moment. Just because fans and film buffs believed Coppola was an out of control madman doesn’t diminish what he accomplished. If anything, such a warts and all approach humanizes someone who, for most of his life, loved to view himself as above the fray. If the one time post-modern giant would simply embrace his flaws and fall in love with his art all over again, returning to the big picture romanticized ranting about the Philippines government, his leading man’s heart condition, or his own fragile sanity, perhaps we’d be celebrating the newest canvas from this cinematic master. Unfortunately, it still feels like the ‘70s celebration of film found its last legitimate entry with Apocalypse Now. Hearts of Darkness explains the reasons for this all too well. 


 


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Sunday, Dec 2, 2007

“Few film classics have traveled a stranger path to critical acclaim than I Am Cuba. Produced by the Soviet Union in 1964 as a celebration of the Castro-led Cuban revolution, the completed movie was criticized by its financiers for being all style and no substance. Thirty years later, the film was forgotten in the USSR and virtually unknown in the west when it became a film festival sensation, and new fans Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola eventually led the charge for its restoration.


Its politics are hopefully naïve and outdated, but the film is still a visual tour de force featuring a number of complicated tracking shots (including one famous shot that glides through a penthouse party before following a young woman underwater in a swimming pool) that are even more astonishing when you realize that they were done before the invention of the Steadicam or even smaller, lightweight cameras. The Ultimate Edition of I Am Cuba includes not only the restored film, but also an award winning documentary and a biography on director Mikhail Kalatozov which are both feature-length, all in a unique packaging designed to look like a Cuban cigar box.”



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Sunday, Dec 2, 2007

Time Life’s fantastic three-disc set, The Definitive Collection (1947-1966), is aptly named, for it’s the very first Stanley Brothers compilation to include tracks from every label they recorded for, including Rich-R-Tone, Columbia, Mercury, King, and Starday. Therefore, it’s an incredible collection for novices and fans alike, compiling the Stanleys’ greatest secular and gospel sides, songs from the band’s famed radio shows, and a handful of previously unreleased live recordings, along with a generous booklet of photos and highly informative liner notes. Some say that the Stanleys’ Mercury recordings from 1953 are their best, and it’s true that songs like Carter’s “(Say) Won’t You Be Mine” and Ralph’s “I’m Lonesome Without You” are early perfections of the style they’d disseminate well into the mid-‘60s.


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Sunday, Dec 2, 2007

In a time when many companies are content to slap a new coat of paint or throw in a couple new maps or unimpressive features on games, call them sequels and ask consumers to pay full sticker price for them, Valve’s The Orange Box is a bargain of incredible proportions.  For a mere $60, The Orange Box includes first-person shooter classic Half Life 2, its quasi-sequels Episode 1 and Episode 2 (the second of which hadn’t been previously released), the wildly inventive puzzle game Portal, and last but not least, Team Fortress 2, the best team-based multiplayer shooter on the Xbox 360 not named Halo 3Half Life 2‘s reputation is well-known, and Team Fortress 2 is a sequel to a cult favorite a long time coming, but the biggest surprise is Portal. Combining first-person shooter mechanics with simple-to-learn, difficult-to-master puzzles, Portal is arguably the best of the entire batch.  But even if puzzles aren’t your bag, just about everyone will find something to love in The Orange Box. Other video game companies be warned, Valve may have just raised the bar on giving gamers their money’s worth.


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