Cynthia Fuchs

Examines our consumer culture in a way that is less venal and less macho than the usual heist movie.


Airtime: 26 June 2002
Cast: Kerry Washington, Lonette McKee, Eugene Byrd, Barbara Montgomery, Sticky Fingaz, Todd Williams
Subtitle: Premiere
Network: Showtime

Lift opens like a rowdy action movie. A handheld camera follows a small group of thieves as they run through an upscale department store, the focus chaotic. Within seconds, the heist falls apart: 5-0 is on the scene, and everyone runs every which-way, fleeing to the dark streets as fast as possible. Cut to daylight -- the camera moves in, from the Boston skyline to neighborhoods, where people live, headed to work, wheeling their kids in strollers, hanging on street corners. On the ground, real life is complicated and crowded, full of unmet needs and frustrations.

These clashing introductory scenes establish the two worlds inhabited by Niecy (Kerry Washington): in one, she works a legit job at that upscale department store, Kennedy's, designing floor and window displays; in the other, she's a thief. But she's not like those guys in Lift's first scene. She doesn't break in to stores at night; instead, she does her stealing in broad daylight. Niecy's a shoplifter, a booster. And she knows her shit, from Marc Jacobs and Versace to David Yurman and Christina Perrin. She knows what's in and what's not, what's going to be hot each season, and what looks good on whom.

Niecy's gig at Kennedy's is a good way to keep track of trends and surveillance systems, as well as a way to keep her illicit activities in check, since it gives her a schedule and a certain "other-life" perspective. When she does lift, Niecy is usually filling orders for clients, taking just enough and just the items she knows will sell to her friends, family, and women who frequent a particular beauty salon. She doesn't take chances, but she thrills to the risk: scenes where Niecy steals -- by cutting tags or paying with false credit cards -- are shot in slow motion and blasted through with edge-blurring light, the images appear under waltzes or classical music. Or in one instance, as she sets up the perfect distraction -- she drops a security tag in a white shopper's purse, and while the unknowing decoy is stopped on the sidewalk outside, Niecy floats on by, her girdle barely bulging with stolen designer scarves, her own heart-pounding pleasure emphasized by a local kid's beating on his plastic-pail drums.

It's easy to see how this thrill might become addictive. Even more alarming is the way this thrill is so easy to come by. Niecy's fellow thief, Christian (Todd Williams), the one who organized the group robbery at the beginning of the film, is philosophical about it, noting that the retail industry expects -- and the security industry depends on -- some loss, planning that 10% of department store merchandise will be stolen each year. He flashes his platinum jewelry, pressing Niecy to come work for his expanding operation, whose numbers include the extra-smooth and easily violent Quik (Sticky Fingaz). Niecy, however, wants to work on her own, in large part because she understands her self-image and individuality in relation to the work she puts in. She's afraid to accept help, and more afraid to stop working.

Lift, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at New York's 2001 Urban World Film Festival, examines our consumer culture in a way that is less venal and less macho than the usual heist movie. Yet its insights into that culture are keen. The film takes as its ground a complex of entangled and codependent industries, from fashion to garment to advertising, from magazines to runways to department store exhibits, that encourage endless and endlessly changing desires, unfulfillable by definition. Not unlike the drug industry (which, as William Burroughs observed, generates the perfect product, since the user, once hooked, never needs convincing to buy and buy again), the fashion industry creates consumer need, again and again, year in and year out.

Niecy is aware of this process, at some level, but has her own need, that is, to please her distant mother, legal secretary Elaine (Lonette McKee). Very particular about what she wants and when she wants it -- the DKNY jacket, not the coat that Niecy has been able to steal -- she makes clear that she disdains Niecy's efforts to make her happy, no matter how gorgeous the necklace or expensive the blouse. The film goes to some lengths to outline Niecy's dysfunctional family, as she's feeling torn between Elaine, whom she desperately wants to please, and Elaine's own wise and generous mother, France (Barbara Montgomery). Where France supports and encourages Niecy, Elaine repeatedly makes her feel inadequate.

As if these emotional imbroglios aren't enough to make her head spin, Niecy is also struggling to make sense of her inconsistent relationship with Angelo (Eugene Byrd), father of the child she's just discovered she's carrying (and is unsure she wants to keep, given her fear that she's also destined to be a bad mother). A former thief himself, Lo is elated to learn he's a father to be, and instantly promises to get straight (in this case, that means he'll stop smoking weed) and go back to school. He also starts making what she sees as demands, namely, that she stop stealing, as it's too dangerous "for the baby."

Lo goes on to suggest -- again -- that she break free of her mother's demands, which Niecy rejects absolutely: "I'm the only one who can make her happy," she cries. Lo is dumbfounded: "So that means it's your job to do that?" Unfortunately, Niecy does think it's her job, and she takes it very seriously. While she's a great talent when it comes to stealing, she's completely unable to see past her own fears and self-doubts when it comes to Elaine. Boosting and family infighting are inextricably connected for Niecy, related means to a sense of identity and agency.

Certainly, these are familiar ideas: you're defined by where you come from as much as by what you do, and both involve lifetimes of work, whether you're living up to expectations or resisting them. Lift's take on these ideas is part metaphorical and part cumbersome, sustained throughout by the grace of the performers, particularly Washington.

Whether Niecy is standing off against Christian or stumbling over her own words when trying to convince her mother not to abandon her yet again, Washington makes this girl's troubles at once nuanced, complex, and sympathetic. "I can talk it and I can walk with it," she tells Christian, underscoring the film's interest in performance as work, the ways that consumption is a function of appearance, the effort to look a part. This important point isn't quite undone by the movie's moralistic and too-neat finale, which comes too quickly and too predictably. Washington's memorable performance helps to make it stick.

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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