Film

'King of the Hill' Is a Touching, Sweet Story and Quite Unlike Later Soderbergh Films

This is a fascinating glimpse into an exploratory, identity-forming period before even Soderbergh himself seemed to have a handle on his erratic muse.


King of the Hill

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, Lisa Eichhorn, Karen Allen, Spalding Gray, Adrien Brody, Lauryn Hill
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: Gramercy
Year: 1993
Release date: 2014-02-15

Steven Soderbergh spent his 23-year film career building a reputation as a sort of anti-auteur, known for his willingness to jump between star-powered major studio fare and eccentric, cerebral experimentation with ease and eagerness. The words "directed by Steven Soderbergh" at the beginning of a film put the viewer in store for just about anything -- a meta-cinematic experiment like The Good German, a middlebrow feelgood star vehicle like Erin Brockovich, or maybe a 4.5-hour Spanish-language historical epic like Che.

Indeed, his approach to his career and choice of material always made him something of a throwback. He often remarked that he never saw himself as an auteur with a personal vision like Terrence Malick or Robert Altman, but always aspired to a career more like the journeyman directors of classic Hollywood like William Wyler or Howard Hawks.

Although this versatility eventually became his directorial calling card, earlier in his career it was seen in a much a different and less sympathetic light. After changing the landscape of independent cinema with his debut feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape and being crowned "the future of cinema" at Cannes, Soderbergh's subsequent run of quirky and divergent features failed to recapture that initial success. Rather than the sign of a creative mind eager to explore unfamiliar terrain, his stylistic restlessness was seen as the aimless foundering of a burned out has-been. Ironically, his biggest strength as a filmmaker was initially seen as a liability that almost sank his career.

While every other director who emerged in the independent film boom of the early '90s was working to stake out their own unique auteurist voice, Soderbergh's first four films were so wildly divergent in style and tone that they were difficult to get a handle on as the work of the same director. After Sex, Lies, and Videotape and his dark, expressionistic sophomore film Kafka, Soderbergh's next effort, King of the Hill, could not have seemed like a more unlikely follow-up. Where Kafka was a dark and paranoid European nightmare in the vein of Brazil or Naked Lunch, King of the Hill was the touching, sweetly-observed story of a young boy's coming of age in Depression-era St. Louis, suffused with golden sunlight and the warm hues of nostalgia. With such a wildly different trio of films to his name, critics could not have been more confused about what kind of a director Soderbergh wanted to be or what he was up to.

Soderbergh's recent retirement from filmmaking seems to have sparked something of a critical re-evaluation of his career, as if the film world is working to take the measure of what it's losing. Criterion's release of King of the Hill, with its little-seen follow-up The Underneath packaged as an extra, is a welcome addition to that discussion, providing a fascinating glimpse into this exploratory, identity-forming early period before critics, audiences, or even Soderbergh himself seemed to have a handle on his erratic muse. While critics and fans may not have previously considered it "essential Soderbergh", King of the Hill is ripe for reexamination and reevaluation, and reveals the seeds of many of the ideas and obsessions that would later become Soderbergh's hallmarks.

King of the Hill is perhaps the perfect film to counter those who argue that Soderbergh's work is too antiseptic, cerebral, and unemotional. The warmth and humanity on display make it possibly his warmest and most tender work. A touching and involving period piece set in the dusty streets and hallways of '30s-era St. Louis, it's an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner nostalgic bildungsroman memoir. Shot in a gorgeous Edward Hopper-inspired color palette of mustard yellows, olive greens, and warm burgundies, it presents the slow disintegration of a struggling family through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, played by Jesse Bradford. With his consumption-afflicted mother constantly going in and out of sanitariums and his father scrounging up work as a travelling salesman, Aaron finds himself alone in a world of adults, forced to fend for himself and make it through each day by relying on his own stubborn resourcefulness and a talent for dissembling and spinning tall tales.

The film largely takes place in two central locations. At school, Aaron finds himself navigating a daily minefield of class-conscious economic anxieties, and he copes by hiding his hardscrabble existence by inventing stories about a friendship with Charles Lindbergh, imaginary summer homes, and his father's top secret job in the highest levels of government. Aside from school, Aaron's world consists mainly of the crumbling hotel the family resides in, which is populated by a vivid array of drained, and desperate economic casualties. Every resident seems to be in the same dire economic straits, and all are constantly on the lookout for the sinister bellboy whose duty it is to padlock financially delinquent residents out of their rooms and turn them out on the street.

The hotel is a character in itself, and could be a cousin of Barton Fink's Hotel Earle with its sweating wallpaper and stagnant, musty air. Like its residents, it was clearly once great but has now fallen on hard times. With its rich woodwork and elegant fixtures growing dull and collecting dust, it seems to be fading away onscreen right before our eyes, right along with its tenants.

As the story progresses, the adults who make up Aaron's support system disappear one by one, until he finds himself harrowingly alone. In one of the film's most memorable sequences, a starving Aaron sets the table and lays out a "dinner" consisting of pictures of food cut out from magazines, which he proceeds to eat with a knife and fork while remarking on their deliciousness to invisible dinner companions.

Essentially required to carry the whole film, young Jesse Bradford manages a wonderfully sympathetic and mature performance, and is ably assisted by a colorful cast of character actors that includes Karen Black, Adrien Brody, a young Lauryn Hill, as well as a clever and memorable turn from Spalding Gray, who would go on to collaborate with Soderbergh on a film version of his monologue Gray's Anatomy.

Although in an interview included in the special features Soderbergh complains of the film looking too slick and wishes that he had decided to make it grittier, Elliott Davis' beautiful cinematography perfectly captures the wistful sensibility needed to keep the story from appearing too bleak and brutal. Every frame is awash in golden hues and rich tones, and Soderbergh and Davis perfectly convey the crisp, hyper-vivid imagery of the world as seen through the eyes of an adolescent gradually becoming aware of its tragedies and wonders for the first time.

Packaged with the usual Criterion bounty of illuminating special features that include deleted scenes and an excerpt from Hotchner's memoir, King of the Hill stands out as one of Soderbergh's most mature and poignant works, and will hopefully now go on to a more prominent place in the critical evaluation of his filmography.

Soderbergh's fourth film, The Underneath, is included in the set as a bonus, and comes packaged with one of the oddest special features in memory: an interview with Soderbergh where he candidly outlines what he believes are the film's many faults, to the point of essentially advising potential viewers not to waste their time watching it. He reminisces with visible regret about aimlessly shooting scenes while feeling totally uninspired and checked-out mentally, and self-deprecatingly describes The Underneath as the work of a director whose increasing obsessions with formalism and stylization had led him to an utterly dead end. (He can't help but laugh when referring to one infamously odd scene -- a dinner table conversation shot entirely in absurdly deep focus with a "split diopter" lens, then a favorite Soderbergh toy -- as "a bad idea whose time had come.")

It's a disarmingly honest and funny interview and, unfortunately, also totally accurate. It might be interesting to dedicated Soderbergh completists in the context of understanding his overall career, but as a film The Underneath is about as lifeless and DOA as a piece of cinema can be. The pace is glacial, the acting is stiff, the script is vapid, and -- adding insult to injury -- it even features several bizarrely out-of-place live performances by some truly awful '90s ska bands.

In the Criterion interview Soderbergh insightfully mentions that quite possibly the only redeeming thing about The Underneath is the fact that, during the torturous process of shooting it, he managed to secretly begin conceiving his radical and experimental fifth feature Schizopolis, the left turn that reset his artistic compass and revitalized his passion for filmmaking. As a result, rather than being the final flicker of a flash-in-the-pan career, The Underneath ended up indirectly lighting Soderbergh's way out of the dark tunnel he found himself in, sending him on a creative journey with more twists and turns than anyone could have imagined.

7

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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