The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

With remote in hand, monitor glare on his face, Sam is suitably horrified when the TV reflects his own sense of disarray.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Director: Niels Mueller
Cast: Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts, Jack Thompson, Mykelti Williamson, Michael Wincott
MPAA rating: R
Studio: ThinkFilms
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 1969-12-31 (Limited release)
This is a good country maestro, filled with good people. But what good is good in times like these?
-- Sam Bicke (Sean Penn), The Assassination of Richard Nixon

"Just tell them that. Tell them my reasons, tell them why." During the first moments of The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) speaks into his tape recorder. Addressing the man he admires most, "maestro" Leonard Bernstein, he asks for compassion and connection, to be remembered and explained. Because he feels like a "grain of sand," constrained and even "punished" by a cruel hierarchy that oppresses and seprates individuals, Sam asks Bernstein to tell his story for him, knowing that he will not return from the mission he is undertaking, namely, to kill the president.

Sam's plan, undertaken in 1974 (and based on a true story, featuring one Samuel Byck), is at once elaborate and myopic. It's also rather alarmingly prescient. He means to hijack a plane from BWI airport in Baltimore and crash it into the White House. His target seems obvious to Sam, as Nixon is, during this moment of Watergate investigation, ubiquitous on television. In this way, the president reminds Sam daily of his own failures, especially as a family man (Nixon appears on tv, waving at crowds with his wife, proclaiming that he's not a crook, dancing at his daughter Tricia's wedding) and as a salesman. Even as Sam is unable to grasp basic elements of salesmanship at the office furniture store where he works, Nixon appears on multiple screens, a wholly effective salesman who has, as Sam's employer notes, sold precisely the same story to voters two years in a row, that he would end the war in Vietnam.

In the face of such deception and gullibility, Sam ponders his own situation: he can't sell Naugahyde chairs, and can't get a Small Business Loan to start his dream company (a mobile tire supply, using a repainted school bus for deliveries). His older brother Julius (Michael Wincott), a tire salesman rejects him ("You're a very strange man Samuel, I've always known that"), and his estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) leaves him, taking their three children to live with another man (who drives a Cadillac, sign of all things excessive and unattainable). Sam's boss, Jack (Jack Thompson), initially tells him he "smells" like success, hands him how-to books by Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale ("You gotta believe," he oozes, his meaty son and fellow salesman Marty [Brad Hencke] grinning in agreement), but Sam can't abide the mendacity he sees as the basis of "success." Peering into his own future, he sees only perpetual disappointment and more loss.

Progressively more incapable of mediating his own behavior or comprehending the many ways that "sales" permeate daily life, Sam seeks connections on tv. Here he lands on an interview with Black Panther David Hilliard, asserting the right of the "masses" to self-determination. Moved to near-action, Sam heads to the local BPP office, where he meets with Harold (Mykelti Williamson). "I know what it's like to be lied to, and to not be respected and to be treated like a great big nothing," he insists, his face tense with eagerness to please. Though he suggests that "we're in the same boat," Harold sees otherwise: "You own the boat." Relentless, and sure of his emotional, if not precisely political, affiliation, Sam offers money ($107) and, not a little ironically, marketing advice in the form of a new name for the group, not intimidating, but inclusive, the "zebras," that is, black and white. Harold nods, takes his money, and thanks him.

Sam is similarly clueless when it comes to his wife. Though he hopes impossibly that he can win Marie back, she's alarmed by his clinginess, his dropping by the house unannounced (in violation of their separation agreement). And so she stops taking his calls, sending Sam into his own odd deep end. The only way he can frame this turn of events is that he's been summarily ejected from the ideal scenario, that he's again the victim, powerless, pathetic, and increasingly enraged.

The man caught in between Sam's efforts is his best friend Bonny (Don Cheadle). While he's agreed to help with Sam's tire delivery company, but in the meantime, Bonny's got his own mechanics business to run. Business is not personal, he insists when Sam complains about Jack: "This guy's your boss, if he wants to be an asshole, that's something you just might have to let him do." When Sam comes by Bonny's garage one day and finds a handgun in his desk drawer, he trains it on an irate customer, abusing Bonny outside the window. The guy leaves, Bonny approaches Sam, and now the gun's on him, the camera gazing on him as if down Travis Bickle's barrel. It's clear at this point -- if it wasn't when Sam came for dinner and awkwardly asked Bonny's son Joey (Derek Greene) how he'd feel if his father "went away" -- that Bonny's practical mind is no longer holding sway in the friendship.

And so Sam turns to his other outlet, his tapes to Bernstein (who also famously contributed to the BPP), as he formulates a plan for revenge and history-making. This effort is at once aggressive and mournful, a combination underscored throughout the film by the "maestro"'s compositions on the soundtrack. "I consider myself a grain of sand," Sam says, looking scraggly and sad. "On this beach called America, there are 211 million grains of sand, three billion on the beach we call earth. If I am lucky, the action that I am about to take will show the powerful that even the least grain of sand has in him the power to destroy them."

He finds this power in destruction, modeled on tv. Spending more and more time in his apartment, Sam appears repeatedly with remote in hand, monitor glare on his face. He's suitably horrified when the tv reflects his own sense of disarray. In addition to car ads and Nixon spots, he sees news items concerning the standoff at Wounded Knee and eventually, the landing of a helicopter on the White House lawn by a disgruntled Army helicopter mechanic, PFC Robert Preston. And Sam is struck by an idea, a seemingly simple and legible way to make his discontent known.

Even as Sam unravels, the film doesn't judge him, but rather adopts his perspective, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's remarkably agile camera always watching him, steadily and too closely. This proximity not only reveals Sam's turmoil (no one shows psychic gears grinding as effectively as Penn), but also asks viewers to reconsider their own parts in such pervasive, ongoing loss. If The Assassination of Richard Nixon doesn't precisely ask you to "sympathize" with its subject, it does show how despair and hopelessness drive him to his decisions, and in this way, alludes to grounds of terrorism as well. Feeling overlooked and abused, Sam has no stake in cultural or political community. And it makes no difference: one of the most striking images comes at film's end, when Bonny, at work, passes by a television news spot reporting Sam's death. Bonny doesn't even see it. He's got bills to pay.

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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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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