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Sounding out technology.
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tag: film

Early Mann

Listening to The Jericho Mile

I thought I’d seen every Michael Mann movie but I’d never seen The Jericho Mile (1979), which he directed even before Thief (1981), his first film for theatrical release. The Jericho Mile is an ABC TV movie about a prisoner at Folsom with a gift for running. Peter Strauss stars, and the cast includes Richard Lawson, Brian Dennehy, and Geoffrey Lewis, as well as, apparently, numerous actual Folsom residents at the time of the movie’s filming.

This week I finally got around to watching it. The Jericho Mile has, already, a lot of the classic Mann themes (later on view in such films as Heat and Collateral), including the unwritten rules of the criminal underclass, and a view of the subculture from the perspective of a charismatic outlier. It’s not packed with music the way later Mann productions would be. There is, though, great use of a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”; a looser version with no vocals hits the sweet spot between pop and score. The opening montage is a virtual trial run for Miami Vice, everything in sync with the music, even inmates doing jumping jacks.

There were a few other sonic moments worth mentioning:

(1) Midway through, following a riot, there’s a fade-to-white that aligns perfectly with the slowing of the prison’s manual siren.

(2) There’s a minor but unmistakable character in the form of an inmate with a boombox. The role is a bit underdeveloped, but it does allow for diegetic blurring, Mann leaving it unclear at times if what we hear is the score or an emanation from the speakers.

(3) And then there’s the final race, which alternates segments of huffing and puffing with serene silence, the latter presenting the runner’s psychological escape from the prison system, and arguably from the whole of society. This utilization of silence at the end of The Jericho Mile is powerful. It gets at the false dichotomy between diegetic (in-narrative) and non-diegetic (off-screen, such as score or voice-over) sound. What the director has prioritized is representing the point of view, the experience, of the character.

I wrote a short study of Thief, Mann’s subsequent film, last year for Hilobrow.com, and in the interest of time, I avoided the temptation to revisit other past Mann works. I think I’m going to revisit some more soon, including Straight Time and perhaps the Mann film I appreciated the least when I first saw it: The Last of the Mohicans.

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Action as Atmosphere in Thief

An essay I wrote for Hilobrow

Jessie turns to Frank, the titular thief played by James Caan, and asks, “What does this mean?”

Frank replies, “It means heat.” What Frank means by “heat” is “attention from formidable adversaries on both sides of the law who were my dowry when you and I became a couple,” but he might as well have said, “It means Heat and Manhunter and The Insider and Collateral.”

That is from a short essay I just had published at the excellent hilobrow.com website. The subject is Michael Mann’s first theatrical-release film, Thief, which came out in 1981. (And, yes, there is a brief mention of Tangerine Dream’s score.)

The essay is part of the Convoy Your Enthusiasm series “analyzing and celebrating some of our favorite action movies from the Seventies (1974-1983).” There are 25 entries in the series. Other contributors include Madeline Ashby on Blade Runner, Jonathan Lethem on Straight Time, Erik Davis on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Luc Sante on Black Sunday.

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Hilobrow Action Films

A piece to come on Michael Mann's Thief

I’ll have a second hilobrow.com piece out later this year. My earlier piece was on a prized object, as part of the site’s Fetish series (“Dummy Jack”). My new one will be about Michael Mann’s first feature film, Thief (he’d previously directed a TV movie, The Jericho Mile), for a series of essays on “action movies of the Seventies (1974-1983).”

Yes, I took a parenthetical moment to note the Tangerine Dream score, but I focus more on the tension between action and inaction. Which is to say, the aesthetics of ambient music are core, even if the subject is broader (and visual, and story-based). Meanwhile, check out the amazing lineup of Hilobrow authors and topics in this series:

Madeline Ashby on BLADE RUNNER | Erik Davis on BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA | Mimi Lipson on CONVOY | Luc Sante on BLACK SUNDAY | Josh Glenn on THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR | Lisa Jane Persky on SORCERER | Devin McKinney on THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE | Adam McGovern on QUINTET | Mandy Keifetz on DEATH RACE 2000 | Peter Doyle on SOUTHERN COMFORT | Jonathan Lethem on STRAIGHT TIME | Heather Kapplow on THE KILLER ELITE | Tom Nealon on EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE | Mark Kingwell on THE EIGER SANCTION | Sherri Wasserman on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK | Gordon Dahlquist on MARATHON MAN | David Levine on PARALLAX VIEW | Matthew Sharpe on ROLLERBALL | Ramona Lyons on ALIEN | Dan Piepenbring on WHITE LINE FEVER | Marc Weidenbaum on THIEF | Carolyn Kellogg on MAD MAX | Carlo Rotella on KUNG FU | Peggy Nelson on SMOKEY & THE BANDIT | Brian Berger on FRIDAY FOSTER.

The first few are already up, and you can read editor Joshua Glenn’s introduction now.

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The Non-Balladic Sounds of Buster Scruggs

There's a singing cowboy, sure, but don't forget to listen between the songs.

(Spoilers don’t bother me, but they bother other people, so I’ll say at the outset: Spoilers throughout.) I caught the recent Coen brothers film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, during its its initial theatrical release. The movie — an anthology collecting six short stories — is available right now at home for free, or at least for the cost of a monthly Netflix subscription, but seeing it in a theater had its attractions, including the presence of a pretty good ramen shop around the corner. There were also demerits inherent in a public viewing — for example, the fellow matinee attendee, likely a Watchmen fanboy, who recognized the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley emanating from one character’s mouth and felt the need to not just speak them aloud, but to do so in advance of the character himself.

The key benefit, though: the theater’s speaker system. The Coen brothers craft everything in their films except probably the craft service, and that goes as much for the sound design as it does for the costumes, dialog, and camera angles. My living room’s TV doesn’t hold a foot-candle to a proper theater, and that’s as true of the sound as it is of the picture. Taking the film in in a theater made its sonic aspects all the more audible.

In classic Coens manner, Scruggs is a heavily mannered film, as much an anthology about westerns as it is a collection of westerns. There is no narrative connection between the six Scruggs stories aside from the framing structure of a storybook, which the film returns to between each “chapter.” The plots range from wagon train to stage coach, desperado to prospector, and singing cowboy to a tragic traveling entertainment troupe, if the word “troupe” can be applied to just (barely) two men.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs takes its title from the opening story, a humorous tale of a gunslinger as keen on singing as he is blasé regarding the trail of blood he leaves behind. Later, we’re treated to additional songs, including Tom Waits, at the end of “All Gold Canyon,” singing in his trademark barroom growl (albeit amid nature so beautiful it feels like a Disney film come to life), and in “Meal Ticket,” to Liam Neeson’s minor-league theatrical impresario doing drunken injustice to “The Sash” around a campfire. In addition to which there is, as always, a rich score from the Coens’ regular composer, Carter Burwell.

But there’s as much sonic ingenuity between — and in one key moment, within — the songs of Buster Scruggs as there is charm and narrative heft to the songs themselves. The film’s sonic imagination is exemplified but not restricted to these four key moments:

1. Hollow Sentiment: In the tile story, which opens the film, the singing cowboy, played by Tim Blake Nelson (often resembling Gary Busey from the 1978 The Buddy Holly Story) is treated to increasingly absurd arrangements of his ditties, right up to the posthumous duet that closes the piece. For one instance, early on, we hear and see him from inside his acoustic guitar. The echo is simultaneously deeply artificial — witness the marvel of the sound-hole eye view — and natural, in that it has the muffled echo of a small wooden box. That balance between utter artificiality and naturalness is a hallmark of the Coens’ lengthy filmography, and this is probably its single greatest occurrence in this movie …

2. Audio Book: … but it’s not the only one, not close. Another example: When the camera pulls back at one point from the filmed drama to the interstitial moment of the book that contains each of the film’s stories, we not only see the page turn, but we hear the creaking of the chair in which the reader is seated. Like the acoustic guitar mentioned above, the instance is both artificial and natural: meticulously choreographed, and deeply folksy.

3. Bucket List: When a cowboy played by James Franco comes upon a lonesome bank in the middle of nowhere, in “Near Algodones,” we see and hear a bucket hitting the inside of a stone well. The presence of that thud marks the sheer emptiness of the location — and, as it turns out, sets us up for another stretch of rope later in the film.

4. Fowl Play: In “Meal Ticket,” perhaps the darkest of six often quite dark stories, Liam Neeson plays a traveling theater owner, whose sole actor, played by Harry Melling, is a haunting, indelible image: a man with no arms or legs, and yet the magnetic presence of a romantic poet. Neeson is the man behind the scenes, doing every other thing involved in his mobile theater except performing. He drives the coach that doubles as their stage, he collects tickets, and he feeds his star attraction. He also makes noises to accompany the performances (what came to be known as foley sound in the age of broadcasts and, later, filmed entertainment). We witness him at one point using a sheet of metal to summon up biblical thunder. Later on in the film, Neeson finds that his audience has been tempted away by, of all things, a novelty attraction featuring a “calculating chicken.” One thing we see the chicken do is peck at small bits of metal. In the O. Henry twist of the story, Neeson brutally ditches his young actor in favor of the chicken. In a deft moral touch, the movie forges this connection between Neeson and the chicken both being seen banging on metal to entertain crowds. The association — the way it makes Neeson so small, through the comparison — is almost as brutal to Neeson’s character as he is to his young, limbless actor.

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Stasis Report: Less Bells ✚ Distant Fires Burning ✚ More

Five tracks newly added to the ambient playlist on Spotify and Google Play Music as of September 16, 2018

The latest update to my Stasis Report ambient-music playlist. It started out just on Spotify. As of three weeks ago, it’s also on Google Play Music. The following five tracks were added on Sunday, September 16. All the tracks are fairly new, with the exception of one from a recent reissue.

✚ “Seashore Story” from Ambient Hamlet by Eashwar Subramanian, of Bangalore, India: bandcamp.com.

✚ “Golden Storm” from Solifuge by Less Bells (aka Julie Carpenter) of Joshua Tree, California, on the Kranky label: bandcamp.com.

✚ “Rosalie” from the score to Green Days by the River, composed by Laura Karpman, who is based in Los Angeles: cdbaby.com

✚ “Any” For the Love of… by Distant Fires Burning (aka Gert De Meester of Mechelen, Belgium), on the Audiobulb label: bandcamp.com.

✚ “Second Lens” from A Turn of Breath – Extended by Ian William Craig of Vancouver, British Columbia, on the Recital Program label: recitalprogram.com. It’s an recently expanded reissue of an earlier record.

Some previous Stasis Report tracks were removed to make room for these, keeping the playlist length to roughly two hours (up from what was originally an hour and a half, when the playlist first launched). Those retired tracks (Goldmund, Pariah, C. Diab, and Meg Bowles) are now in the Stasis Archives playlist (currently only on Spotify).

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