Reviews

Boy, are These Natives Restless: 'Black Moon'

I'm willing to bet no movie of its time so brazenly aligned voodoo with black revolutionary politics.


Black Moon

Director: Roy William Neill
Cast: Jack Holt, Fay Wray
Distributor: Warner Archives
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1934
Release date: 2011-01-08

There were a good number of zombie movies in the '30s--not the post-Romero shambling cannibals but the old-school Haiti voodoo variety. It seems to have been one of the perverse ways that popular culture aimed at white audiences could deal with the dynamism of African-American culture (e.g., the Harlem Renaissance) and its restless undercurrents of discontent. I'm willing to bet that no movie of its time so brazenly aligned voodoo with black revolutionary politics as the obscure but fascinating Black Moon.

On the face of it, it's tolerably offensive. The film opens with a nominally white woman, the former Juanita Perez (Dorothy Burgess), beating a drum in her little daughter's room and staring into space as the girl looks on. Juanita can't wait to visit her uncle on San Christopher, the island plantation where she grew up and where everybody speaks lousy French that's supposed to be Creole patois. Her husband is Stephen Lane (Jack Holt), a magnate in one of those spacious, high-ceilinged '30s offices invented by Hollywood.

His secretary (Fay Wray) obviously carries a torch for him but won't tell him. She resigns because, as she hints, she's in love with a married man and won't "live in sin" with him. "Partly because he hasn't asked me," says the pert beauty in this pre-Code movie, and partly because she's just not that type. To everyone who can read Hollywood, this sets us up for a new rearrangement of the eternal verities at the end of the picture, which can only mean something dire for the spooky current wife--especially since Wray is billed above Burgess.

In a plot that runs little over an hour and takes place mostly on the island, we learn that the orphaned Juanita was raised to native ways and "tasted blood" during human sacrifices. She's glad, very glad to be home, because she'll inherit the island and make up for her tyrant uncle who's oppressed the people. She's presented as a corrupted puppet of the natives, a traitor to her race, someone who can't be taken seriously spouting nonsense about social justice--in other words, someone truly frightening! Someone who must die!

The uncle and his forebears have periodically weathered native uprisings by shooting at native priests from the tower, and he remarks that in 200 years, his people have never run away. If only a comic-relief figure had been in the film to toss off a line like "Feeble-minded, were they?"

In other words, it's a handful of whites against thousands of blacks, as the dialogue bluntly spells out, and this movie is devoted to presenting the latter as a malignant and scary force, albeit one that must finally and unconvincingly crumple under a restoration of the status quo. That said, the uncle is also shown as a perpetually angry, shifty and unpleasant character.

The good Negro is Lunch McLaren (Clarence Muse), a visiting American from Georgia who sings gospels like "Roll, Jordan, Roll" and therefore plays for the right team, nationally and spiritually. He calls the natives "monkey-chasers" because they like coconuts, and thus he distinguishes them from himself. He witnesses his girlfriend being sacrificed in a secret ceremony; she's played in her brief appearance by Theresa Harris, a talented and beautiful supporting player in such films as Babyface, Jezebel and the film this one clearly foreshadows, I Walked with a Zombie.

With a foot in each world, Lunch acts as a Beatrice-like guide through the island's underworld, showing Lane the awful spectacle of what his wife has become: a cavorter among black folks. If she were in New York, she might be showing up at jazz clubs. And according to what we learn in other Hollywood films, those clubs often had jungle, cannibal and voodoo motifs--although such frippery often seems more like exploitation of the white folks who go there.

From different angles, Lunch and Juanita represent the possibility of ambiguous identities that are endemically rooted in culture, not race or nature. By extension, they imply the extent to which "race" is a cultural construct, not that anybody in this story would get all eggheaded about that. Juanita is a dangerous figure because, although caucasian, she is capable of fully identifying with a racial/cultural Other due to her upbringing. This subversively acknowledges that the "monkey-chasers" are culturally made, not born.

Juanita was raised by a leathery crone called Ruva, played by a commanding character actress called Madame Sul-Te-Wan, whose career stretches from D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to the Technicolor and Cinemascope of Carmen Jones. She often played witches and voodoo women, most notably as Tituba in Maid of Salem.

This is fascinating as all get-out, and I wish I could say the movie is an undiscovered masterpiece, but it's too aesthetically and thematically feeble, too plodding and blind to itself. The screenplay by Wells Root stops far short of anything beyond its canny exploitation of racist unease (though we shan't fail to credit that) and the shock of its blithely disturbing "happy ending". In its brief length, the plot spends too much time with the least interesting characters, who are unfortunately the ones we're supposed to root for.

Joseph August is a great photographer, and director Roy William Neill is known for a degree of shadowy expressiveness (especially in the Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone), but this film approaches its unusual atmosphere, just like its potboiling screenplay, in too perfunctory and unconscious a manner. Still, there are nice shots and moments, and the sheer curiosity value has cult potential. The fact that this movie was ever made is already interesting in itself.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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