Thursday, June 22, 2017

On Location: Memphis Brings 15 Films to Clayborn Temple

Posted By on Thu, Jun 22, 2017 at 1:35 PM

In this month's Memphis Magazine, I wrote about the rebirth of the Clayborn Temple. As part of the program to breathe new life into the Downtown landmark, the On Location: Memphis Film Festival is sponsoring a 15 week film series.
Sebastian Banks of Black Rock Revival in Verge
  • Sebastian Banks of Black Rock Revival in Verge

The series kicked off last Thursday with the acclaimed Fruitvale Station, and most of the works screening in the storied sanctuary share some element of social awareness in their theme. This week's offering is Verge, a music documentary by Lakethon Mason that made its debut at last year's Indie Memphis Film Festival. Verge tells the story of several independent Memphis musicians struggling to get ahead in the modern music industry, including Black Rock Revival, Faith Evans Ruch, Nick Black, and Marco Pave.

VERGE:MEMPHIS trailer from oddly buoyant productions on Vimeo.

The screening is free to the public, and kicks off at 6:00 PM at Clayborn Temple, 294 Hernando Street.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tav Falco Premieres New Feature Film Urania Descending

Posted By on Tue, Jun 20, 2017 at 4:46 PM

Tav Falco, long known for his game-changing musical ventures with the Panther Burns, will forever be associated with Memphis, for it was here that he and Alex Chilton collaborated in the late 1970s to found the group. But ultimately he doesn't feel bound to any one place or time. “I'm an American living in Europe,” he says. “I'll always be that. I'm not trying to be what I'm not. But even in Memphis, I was always on the outside looking in. And that is the fate of artists in many cultures. In fact, it could be the job of the artist. To exploit this perspective.”

Indeed, he was very much an outsider when he first arrived here. “One day I just rode my Norton motorcycle up to William Eggleston's house on Central Avenue, after I'd moved here from the hills of Arkansas. And he comes out of the house, and greets me in the driveway, and we spoke a few words and he said, 'Well come into the lab, let's just start right now,' and that's what we did.” Falco also learned from Carl Orr, another photographer/filmmaker living in Memphis at the time. “Both of them had the idea that if you want to learn something about film and images, just get into the middle of it and start doing it. Like William Burroughs said, you ask enough questions, you'll find the answers. Don't worry about the answers, just ask the questions.”

While Falco has labored for decades asking the musical question, “got WHAT??”, he has of late returned to his original passion for the image, culminating in Wednesday's Memphis premiere of his new feature length film, Urania Descending, Pt. 1, the semi-mythic tale of an American woman caught up in a dark Viennese mystery. “It's predicated on the serial films of Louis Feuillade, Les Vampires, or the Fantômas series, based on the intrigue crime novels of the time. These were an inspiration in part for my film. In this particular triptych of stories, black and white is the only possibility. Color would have killed it.”
“I think of silent film as visual music,” he goes on. “If you add sound, it becomes something else. However, in my film, I have somehow captured the timeless, or outside-of-time, quality of silent cinema with sound effects. With no lip sync dialogue to speak of, but very little dialogue disembodied from the characters. Someone said, 'The footsteps in your movie are almost another character unto themselves.' It has an atmosphere and an ambiance that is really off the grid, outside the box. People somehow get drawn into this movie, even though the production values are nothing like you see today.”

But, lest we think of it as pure nostalgia, he adds: “It's not a period piece. It's set in the near future. In a place like Europe, Austria, Italy, Baroque architecture exists right alongside very state-of-the-art, contemporary architecture. So it's not a museum piece. It's a world in which the past has been cultivated, where that which was built to last for generations and generations is not destroyed and not discarded, but cultivated and lived in and maintained alongside truly modern architecture. So this is a movie where the past overtakes the present and the present overtakes the past. It is a continuum.”

Falco's partner in intrigue was Richard Pleuger, the director of photography. “He's a film correspondent from Munich, Germany. I met him after a Panther Burns gig in San Francisco in the 80s. He was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. And we became immediate friends. He came to Memphis in the 80s and made 'Shade Tree Mechanic,' a short film dealing with one of the songs I had recorded. He came to Austria to do the camera work on Urania Descending, and he had a lot of good ideas about lighting. He knew I wanted an expressionistic atmosphere. We both are totally into the films of Louis Morneau , G.W. Pabst, all the great expressionistic filmmakers.”
Summing up, Falco says: “This is not a profound movie, on the surface. This is not a grand exercise in theatrics, or classic acting, or realistic acting. Far from it. It's more expressionistic acting. It's acting that suggests something. I think it's convincing, but that's not the point. It's trying to make a gesture, working with gesture rather than psychological verisimilitude of some kind. It's not a psychological drama. It's symbolic. It's a little bit of an exercise in semiotics, signage. It's like what a poem can do.” And when it's over, don't expect any tidy sense of resolution. “People will come away from the theater,” Falco reflects, “with a certain residual experience.”

Urania Descending premieres Wednesday, June 21, 7:00 PM at Studio on the Square. Tickets are available from the Indie Memphis website.

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Music Video Monday: Me & Leah

Posted By on Tue, Jun 20, 2017 at 4:46 AM

Slow down for Music Video Monday.
Jeff Hulett, familiar to Memphis music audiences from Snowglobe and his solo appearances, and Leah Keys, organizer of the ultimate audience participation storytelling show, Spillit, have been strumming partners for a minute. With Hulett on the guitar and Keys on the banjo, the duo frequently pop up for shows in Midtown. Now they have completed their first album and are ready to unveil it this Friday with a party at Amurica.  
Hulett produced their first video, "Moving So Fast", by cutting together 8 mm film of his family's home movies. The place is upstate New York, the year is 1948, and the kid is Hulett's father, age 4.

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Friday, June 16, 2017

Never Seen It: Watching Citizen Kane with Inside Memphis Business Editor Jon Sparks

Posted By on Fri, Jun 16, 2017 at 7:00 AM

For this installment of Never Seen It, we welcome Jon W. Sparks, editor of Inside Memphis Business. Sparks is a longtime journalist who came from a community newspaper in New York City in 1981 to work at The Commercial Appeal. Since taking a buyout 10 years ago, he’s written for several local and national publications before taking the helm of Inside Memphis Business. He is also an actor familiar to Memphis film and theater fans for his appearances in both locally produced films and on the stage. We were joined by Sparks’ wife, Memphis College of Art professor Maritza Dávila, and my wife, filmmaker Laura Jean Hocking.

Our film is Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane.

Chris McCoy: Tell me what you know about Citizen Kane.

Jon Sparks: I know it makes most of the top ten, if not five, lists of the greatest movies ever. But I’ll be the judge of that.

CM: It was just dethroned in the last Sight & Sound poll after fifty years at number one.

JS: I know it’s heralded for the brilliance of its writing, the concepts, the ending, the black and white cinematography. Orson Welles, of course, leaves a mark on everything he does. Maybe not always good, but he leaves a mark. And I have seen a little bit here and there.

CM: Anything specific?

JS: I’m remembering shouting crowds and Joseph Cotton. I think there were some spinning newspapers.

119 minutes later…

JS: I’m not accustomed to being on this side of the recorder. This is uncomfortable.

CM: I know! OK. Citizen Kane. What did you think?

JS: When you see films that are biographies, essentially, this film set the standard cinematically, and in so many ways. Movies made today that are biographies don’t have the surprises and the approach this one does. This one is fresh today, because of the story angles it takes and the conclusions it reaches with each scene, the time line going back and forth, with Joseph Cotton reminiscing about the old days. But even then, it’s stitched together differently from anything today.

CM: It’s not a three act play, for one thing. It’s six or seven. It lays out the whole story in the opening newsreel. There are no plot surprises after the first ten minutes.

JS: It’s interesting that the newsreel looked so rough. It was really cheesy, the effects were pretty low grade, which is what you would expect out of a newsreel. Then it begins to tell the story, and it’s very theatrical. They even stage a lot of things in a theater.
Title card from the newsreel sequence.
  • Title card from the newsreel sequence.

CM: Does the acting feel theatrical?

JS: The acting is all uniformly good, but you can recognize the skills of the theater people doing it.

Laura Jean Hocking: When they’re talking over each other, that seems very theatrical to me. I don’t think you saw that very much before this movie. I associate it with like, Rosalind Russell and the sort of sassy dame stuff. There’s so many things that happened for the first time in this movie.

JS: You pointed out when they started the shot with a close up of a face and then pulling back into the establishing shot. But the acting was so incredibly skillful. I was knocked out by Everett Sloane’s Bernstein. I love how, in the beginning, an editor is barking out orders to reporters: ‘Go find that guy! What’s his name? Its Bernstein! The manager!’ Then the next time he’s mentioned, it’s again ‘What’s his name? Bernstein!’ It’s like he’s so inconsequential, but he’s the thread that goes through Kane’s life. He never divorced him or ran away from him. Bernstein was there and he understood Kane probably better than anyone.

CM: Bernstein’s take is the most objective of all of them. He never really took Kane seriously, but he didn’t hate him, either.

Agnes Moorehead as Mary Kane.
  • Agnes Moorehead as Mary Kane.

JS: But he understood him well enough to function with him. The same actor did him from old to young, but in a way he always looked old….And that’s just one great performance. Anges Moorehead, forget about it! She’s got that face that is so hard, and here she is a mother giving up her child.

CM: Her voice breaks when she says ‘Charlie’, and that’s the only bit of emotion that she lets slip through. It tears your heart out! One of my favorite things that has trickled through films ever since is the ‘Citizen Kane shot’, where there are two people in the foreground framing one person in the background. The two people in the foreground are talking about the person in the background, but the person in the background doesn’t know they’re being talked about. That happens at least twice in this movie. The first time it’s mom and dad and the banker, with Charlie framed in the window in the background. The second time he does it, there’s a freakin’ musical scene going on! He shows you how the composition is going to work in the first angle, then he goes to the reverse angle and boom, it’s exactly the same shot from before, with two people discussing Kane’s fate while Kane is dancing around trying to get their attention. Welles rubs your face in it.
The first instance of the "Citizen Kane shot".
  • The first instance of the "Citizen Kane shot".
Ten minutes later, the second instance.
  • Ten minutes later, the second instance.

#2 in context:

Maritza Dávila:
I thought the acting was so natural. The first wife was such a lady, and you could tell she always had to act like that, so proper. And Orson Welles. Wow.

LJ: How old was he?

CM: I think he was 24. It’s ridiculous. I’ve wasted my life.

MD: His acting…even when he is so restrained, you can just feel it in him, the feeling that, ‘I have to win!’ All that childhood trauma that he was never able to get rid of. The same behavior that he has with his guardian, he continues that behavior over and over again. With everything.

CM: He would redirect that energy towards somebody else, but it was always the same energy.

JS: I love some of the choices Welles makes. When he gets married for the first time, they tell the whole story with a series of scenes at the breakfast table. They just get farther and farther apart….Now the other relationship, a bit more traditional.

CM: He uses the other relationship to sneak in the jigsaw puzzle, which is really the overarching metaphor for the whole thing. He just sneaks it in there. That’s one of the things that’s great about the screenplay. Everything pays off. Everything you think is just a throwaway detail turns out to be a setup.

MD: The comedic relief throughout the whole movie is so well placed.

CM: One thing that struck me this time through—and maybe this is a result of reviewing movies all the time—is that this is so much denser than anything you see today.

JS: Part of that is at the beginning. They hit all these high points and then never visit them again. I thought, well OK, they tell the story fast, then they’re going to tell it slow. But they didn’t do that. They filled in the spaces. The death of his first wife and son is never dealt with at all. The stock market crash and the Great Depression is the same thing. They kind of go, ‘Oh, well, we don’t have as much money as we used to.’ But expanding on those obvious points is something that would be done today. They would show it with all the tears and everything.

CM: And hearing you say that makes me think, if I was giving advice on a screenplay, I would give that note. ‘Why don’t we get to see him losing all his money? Why don’t we get to see his wife and son dying?’ I would have given bad notes to Orson Welles.

LJH: Once his wife and kid leave you never see them again. You don’t have to.

JS: And that’s good writing, to only say something one time, and say it right. You see that in beginning writers. They’ll tell you the same thing a bunch of different ways, because they’re just so in love with the idea. Just express it one good way.

CM: Have faith that your audience is smart enough to put the pieces together.

CM: So, Mr. Editor of Inside Memphis Business, this is a movie about business and wealth and capitalism.

JS: He was a very rich man who was on the side of the poor man. He was going to devote his life to making the plight of the underdog much better. He was clearly going to make the country great again, in some fashion.

CM: It’s very relevant today, because he feels like Trump. He even does the ‘Lock her up!’ stuff.

JS: That was prescient.

CM: Obviously, the character is based on William Randolph Hearst, but he becomes Teddy Roosevelt for a minute there.

MS: One thing that occurred to me, with all of the things that happened to him, he never matured.

LJH: When Susan leaves, he throws a tantrum and tears her room up.

MD: That was the most out of control he found himself. And then he died. Before that, he was like, ‘I want to make you a singer. Not because you want to be a singer, but because I want you to be a singer.’ He was just putting all of that need into every single person he meets..

CM: And when she says she doesn’t want to be up there in front of an audience that doesn’t want her, he says, ‘That’s when you have to fight them!’ This time, I was like, wow, that’s exactly the wrong thing to do.

JS: He has the resources that, if people don’t want him, he can change. He can buy a newspaper. But she is stuck in that one role, playing that one thing. She doesn’t have the versatility that he has, but he doesn’t see that. If there is anything that’s repeated, it’s that insecure side of him that people kept reminding him of. You just want to be loved. You just want to love yourself. That’s what she tells him when she finally stomps out. He says ‘I need you to do this!’ She says, ‘Oh yeah. It’s about what you need. Adios! Tear up the room! I’m outta here!’

CM: What is this film’s view of business, of capitalism?

JS: It was not very positive, as Hollywood films often are. It had a very low opinion of business. In the very beginning, before we see him as the shabby character he really is, we see him as a heroic trustbuster. This comical character, his stepfather, is the goof. But he’s a typical trust guy. He’s a slumlord who embodies all the evils of capitalism. So Kane goes after him, but not because he believes it.

CM: Kane is not a Marxist.

JS: Kane is a Kane-ist. He’s just sticking it to the old man because he’s the old man…They don’t really make a whole lot about how Kane acquired these newspapers and built an empire. They throw a little bit at you about how he says, ‘We need to raid that newspaper and get their best people.’ Then he just does it. There’s no particular shrewdness that you see in any of that. There’s no great lessons to be learned about how to run your business. You do have the conscience, Jed, who is something of a besotted conscience, who tries to keep him a little bit honest. For god sake, don’t start a war!

CM: The point of view that the Spanish American War was a media phenomenon was not a widespread thing in 1940. People did not think that yet. And they were literally in the middle of a media push to start another war. I feel like it has a much more sophisticated take on politics than on business.

JS: Yes. And again, just an interesting, savvy, storytelling. He runs for office and fails.

CM: Do you think we’re seeing what would have happened if Charles Foster Kane would have won?

LJH: You have the fraud at the polls headline and everything!

JS: I think it’s futile to try to draw too many parallels between the movie and today. What’s happening today has destroyed satire as an art form. Veep is one of the funniest shows on television. You can laugh at the jokes, but the absurdity of the situations aren’t quite as effective compared to our daily headlines.

CM: You’ve been a journalist for a long time. This is about journalism more than it is about business or politics. Kane today would be, who, Murdoch? Roger Ailes?

JS: He’s more of a Murdoch. Ailes was more ideological about it. Murdoch is all about acquiring the properties and getting the reach.

CM: …and this is all collateral damage from Murdoch’s drive to be number one in the ratings. Which is also kind of Trump’s thing. He really doesn’t care about anything about ratings.

JS: His stated need was to go get the people. He wanted to be the voice of the people, and for the people to come to him. He wanted people to love him, and that was through numbers, how it worked for him. Of course today it is so different. Back then one story in one place could make a huge difference. Now a story has to appear in a lot of different places to make any big deal about it.

LJH: But now you see a story that pops up in multiple places and then Fox News will go ‘No! No!’ and it will disappear. Who is even listening to them?

CM: In Kane, you see the end of that phenomenon. You see the Kane network slowly lose relevance because people stopped believing it. I feel like that’s the process you’re seeing right now, a disenthrallment. They’ve finally gone too far. There’s too much evidence. Trump not only is Kane, but Trump is Susan. He gets in the opera house and has to sing, only to discover he’s not a good singer.

JS: But Susan goes on tour. You see Inquirer papers all over America proclaiming her a great singer, and saying ‘sold out audiences!’ But then people go see her and she’s not a great singer. The truth really does matter.

CM: So, is Citizen Kane the best movie ever made?

JS: No. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but you shouldn’t wait until you’re 67 to see it. It’s a movie that needs to be seen. It’s important on a number of levels. It’s an incredible story about America…In a way it’s like Death of a Salesman. It shows how business and money can take over someone’s life and crush you.

CM: What’s better?

JS: I don’t know…

CM: Vertigo is the one that overtook it in the Sight & Sound poll. Is that better?

JS: I don’t know. I do love Hitchcock.

CM: Personally, I don’t agree. I think this is better than Vertigo. I don’t even think Vertigo is Hitchcock’s best movie. I like Rear Window better. So what do you think is better than Citizen Kane?

JS: I think probably the two Godfathers, just in terms of sheer scope and artistry. There’s brilliance from top to bottom. Another one of my favorite films is Seven Beauties. And I have a real soft spot for 8 1/2.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Music Video Monday: Fredd Velvet

Posted By on Mon, Jun 12, 2017 at 11:19 AM

Today's MVM wants to stare deeply into your peepers.
Fredd Velvet's "Green Eyes" is a shambling rocker about relationship dysfunction that's pretty relatable. Erica Qualy teamed up with Ben Siler to translate the song's frustration into images. Appropriately, there are a lot of ocular close ups. So if you spent your weekend drinking alone in your kitchen wondering what the hell your boyfriend/girlfriend was thinking, this one's for you.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

It Comes At Night

Posted By on Fri, Jun 9, 2017 at 1:49 PM

It Comes At Night is a monster movie about an invisible monster.


The invisible monster here is not like the invisible monster in the similarly named It Follows. The unseen antagonist in David Robert Mitchell's 2014 creeper is a definite, distinct entity with an agenda. If you are pursued by it, there are concrete steps you can take to save yourself. The threat in It Comes At Night is amorphous, seemingly coming at our protagonists from everywhere and nowhere. It is impossible to know whether the actions they take are helping or harming their cause. It is, in this way, a strong metaphor for our age.

The deadliest threat in human history (so far) was not war or famine, but a disease. The 1918 flu pandemic killed a million people a week for eight months. Then it got worse. As much as 6% of the population of the world succumbed to the virus before it burned itself out in 1920. When It Comes At Night opens, a family is facing the same agonizing situation that plague survivors have faced since the beginning of time. One of their own is infected, in this case grandpa Bud (David Pendleton). No words are exchanged wondering about the nature of the unknown disease, but with pustules spreading over Bud's body and his delirious fever, it looks like good, old fashioned bubonic plague. Bud's son-in-law Paul (Joel Edgerton), grandson Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and daughter Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) are as yet uninfected, but they have to figure out at what point the needs of the entire family outweigh the needs of the sick patriarch.

They're not the only ones having to make these hard choices. There's a full pandemic raging, and society has broken down. The family made their way from the city to Bud's cabin in the woods, where they have holed up to wait for things to blow over. But the relative safety of their isolation is shattered when Will (Christopher Abbot) breaks into their cabin. His family of survivors mirrors theirs. He and wife Kim (Riely Keough) have a toddler son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). After a brutally tense confrontation, the two families decide to work together for survival. But that's where things get complicated. There's another menace out in the woods, unseen and more quickly deadly than the dreaded plague. The combined threats and confined space ratchets up the tensions between the two families until it becomes unbearable.

Like many of the current crop of art horror films, director Trey Edward Shults's film has a strong social subtext. Like most zombie movies, it's about what happens when society fails and it's every man and woman for themselves. But by removing the zombies from the equation, its solutions to the question become much more stark. What happens in a hypercapitalist society where everyone is heavily armed, resources are scarce, and cooperation is taboo? It looks something like Travis' nightmares, which provide the spooky counterpoint to the brutal, bloody realism of the rest of the film. What is the frightening "it" that comes at night? It's us.

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My Cousin Rachel

Posted By on Fri, Jun 9, 2017 at 6:11 AM

Femmes fatales in film are regarded as misogynist for their kneejerk evil but feminist for lacking the doormat and sounding board qualities which define the majority of cinematic female characters. We don't know whether the title character in the period suspense drama My Cousin Rachel is one, or just a woman subject to the whims of an obsessive suitor. Philip (Sam Claflin), our main character, treats her alternately as angel of light and an exotic figure of suspicion. First we hear about her in letters which imply she poisoned his cousin/adoptive father in Italy, after marrying him. When she arrives, she is gentle and charming, although with a penchant for serving people vats of specially made tea. An offscreen doctor says her husband died of a brain tumor which made him paranoid.

Rachel Weis and Sam Clafin in My Cousin Rachel.
  • Rachel Weis and Sam Clafin in My Cousin Rachel.

Philip, who heretofore spent his scenes detailing the harm he will cause Rachel (Rachel Weisz), is immediately smitten. An orphan entering his mid-twenties, he notes he has "never seen a woman cry," and his need for love overrides his caution. Weisz must play Rachel both as a widow getting over her loved one's death by hanging out with someone who looks like him, and also as a figure of mysterious Italian letters, unexplained horse rides and inquiries about the will. The film's only problem is Philip's inexperience and gullibility which, while provoking suspense, are a little repetitive. The family attorney (Simon Russell Beale) and his godfather (Iain Glen, a.k.a. Jorah Mormont, in best unheeded counselor mode) warn him again and again, yet he seeks to woo Rachel with the wealth he will soon inherit. It’s hard to root for someone who only makes bad decisions to further the plot, which weights our sympathies with the possible murderer.

Notably for a period film, Philip's servants are visible. Outnumbering him, they live lives unconcerned with his affairs, eating, cussing and getting paid all while knowing to steer clear of his drama. (They also find time to ominously sing the British folksong "The Three Ravens", about birds discussing a knight's corpse abandoned in a field. I would have preferred The Twa Corbies.)

Director Roger Michell (Changing Lanes, Notting Hill) and cinematographer Mike Eley start with what looks like most British period dramas, but as Philip loses focus, so do they, using objects blocking the frame, rack focuses and a handheld camera to mirror Philip's mental state. The editing speeds up as things get more intense, and overall the film holds you in suspense. Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, it nevertheless is a bit old-fashioned. Du Maurier provided the basis for two Hitchcock films, but not for the one this film most resembles, Suspicion. Because the character of Rachel remains too elusive, the psychology is old hat. We never leave Philip's viewpoint, and Rachel's ambiguity is never big enough to let Weisz make a complete portrayal. She suggests a grieving woman constrained by her time and relationships, via half-sentences and shyness. The film is best as a haiku-like sketch of a widow in need of different social norms.

For a more vibrant period drama suspense thriller, I would recommend Chan-Wook Park's The Handmaiden, which replaces that director's appetite for violence with sex. Here Weisz's “limitless appetite" is alluded to a few times as warning to Philip, but during the only sex in the film she stares at the sky and thinks of England. For a more adventurous movie with Weisz, I'd recommend Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster, which segues from a meditation on socialized monogamy into a critique of how everything is socialized. My Cousin Rachel is enjoyable but not ambitious. Its sex is restrained, its deaths hidden. The tactfulness that just happens to beits style is also that of the endless wave of British period dramas that have washed on our shores every year since before I was born.

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Music Video Monday: The Give-Outs

Posted By on Mon, Jun 5, 2017 at 12:26 PM

Today's Music Video Monday is not feeling respected.
Jay Hines says the Give-Outs are what happens when "two bass players walk into a bar." Hines has played bass for Memphis rock bands, most notably The Subteens, since the 1990s. Richard Branyan is also a bassist who started out with the revered Memphis power poppers and proto-punkers The Scruffs. The pair enlisted River City Tanlines drummer John Bonds and flipped a coin to decide who had to play guitar. Their self-titled record, which was done at Memphis' Five and Dime Recording, is ready for your earholes.

Hines cut together a little bit of classic can can to create the music video for "Butthurt Blues", a song about getting your feelings hurt on the internet. We've all been there, but it isn't usually this fun. Take a look:

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Friday, June 2, 2017

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory Kicks Off Orpheum Summer Movie Series

Posted By on Fri, Jun 2, 2017 at 7:01 AM

That beloved Memphis institution, the Orpheum Summer Movie Series, kicks off its 2017 season this Friday with the classic musical from 1971, Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

Following the death last August of Willie Wonka star Gene Wilder, this screening promises to be extra emotional. The movie did not do well on its initial release, but became a favorite during the VHS era, The wild production design and upbeat songs hold up, but it's Wilder's mercurial performance, which ranges from jolly to downright frightening, that elevates the film to classic status.

In the twenty first century, Wilder's Wonka got the ultimate tribute—it inspired a meme.

Doors open at 7 PM for the show. There will be a Wonka trivia contest, drink specials, and a performance on the Orpheum's Mighty Wurlitzer organ. You can see the full schedule for the Orpheum Summer Movie series on their website.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Music Video Monday on Tuesday: China Gate

Posted By on Tue, May 30, 2017 at 1:18 PM

It's Tuesday, but yesterday was Memorial Day, so we have a music video anyway, and it's super!
You can read up on China Gate's new album Good Grief in Josh Cannon's recent Memphis Flyer music blog entry. The Memphis rockers, led by songwriter Tiger Adams, celebrated the release of their record with a party last week. Now, here's the music video for the first single, "Covered In Flames".

Directed by Noah Miller, "Covered In Flames" lays on the nostalgia element with a Super 8 look. The film grain and light leaks give the footage of Adams and the band the feeling of being rescued from a long-lost reel of vacation footage from the 1970s. Even better, the video features a cute dog.
That's right. It's puppy time. Check it out:

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Friday, May 26, 2017

The Lovers

Posted By on Fri, May 26, 2017 at 5:58 AM

Have you ever seen a movie and wondered what the filmmakers thought they were doing? I’m not talking about a candidate for the “How Did This Get Made?” podcast—I”m talking about a film that doesn’t have a discernible reason for being. That was my reaction to The Lovers.

Is it a comedy? Then it needs to be funnier. Is it a relationship drama? Then I need to actually care about the characters. Is it that elusive animal, the successful dramedy? Then it needs to be both funnier and more poignant. The Lovers fails all of those tests.

Deborah Winger and Tracy Letts demonstrate an activity more enjoyable than watching The Lovers.
  • Deborah Winger and Tracy Letts demonstrate an activity more enjoyable than watching The Lovers.

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and The Lovers blows it from the very start. Sure, this happens, but rarely does it happen in two different ways at the same time. Within minutes of the opening credits rolling, I was already annoyed by the busy, tone-deaf score. Then, we meet our first character, Michael (Tracy Letts). He’s in bed with Lucy (Melora Waters), who is crying. Turns out, Lucy is not Michael’s wife—that would be Mary, played by the great Deborah Winger. The very first note for The Lovers in my film notebook is this: “Old guy flops on bed. Overwrought performance. Soundtrack is overbearing and awful.” And it doesn’t get better.

It’s generally a bad sign when I make a lot of notes during a movie. The Lovers takes up six pages in my notebook. To give you the full experience of sitting through The Lovers, here is a annotated selection of some of my in-the-moment reactions.

“Spinning its wheels from the beginning”

“Beaten over the head with the score.”

“This fucking soundtrack!”
(The score is done by a full classical ensemble with strings and horns. Where the pacing of the story is slow to the point of stasis, perhaps to make room for anticipated but non-existent laughs, the soundtrack is bubbly and busy. It gives the impression that composer Mandy Hoffman is desperately trying to fill voids.)

“Sexually bored people being boring and unsexy”

“Is this the least sexy film about sex ever made? Maybe Caligula”
(Mary has her own boyfriend, Robert, played by Aiden Gillen, aka Littlefinger from Game Of Thrones. Like Michael and Lucy, they have very boring sex. It's not just that the sex scenes are unimaginatively filmed, which they are, but that the characters and actors alike seem to not be enjoying themselves, even though they're risking their entire boring suburban existences to have this boring sex. Perhaps this is supposed to be funny. It's not.)

“Sound mix is also bad.”

“Yep, just sitting in the waiting room reading magazines. That’s good cinema!”
(This is a literal description of what was happening on the screen for what seemed like a very long time.)

“These people are idiots, assholes, and not funny!”
(I don't usually use this many exclamation points in my notes.)

(The movie was less than half over.)


“Oh god I hate these people.”

On page four of my notes, I began aggressively doodling. I’m not much of a draughtsman, so my doodles tend to be grids, spirals, and easy geometric shapes, all of which were more interesting than The Lovers.

“Every scene goes on 50% too long.”

“Dialog is awful.”

“Cavalcade of bad directorial decisions”
(Winger is one of the greatest actresses of her generation. Letts is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright with more than a dozen screen acting appearances. The fact that neither one of them turn in a decent performance lands the blame for this fiasco squarely on the shoulders of director Azazel Jacobs.)

“It’s like the same scene over and over again”

“All is folly and vanity”
(I was beginning to lose hope at this point.)

“Get these people therapy”

“Editing is horrible”

“What the hell kind of accent is Littlefinger peddling?”
(Gillen is from Ireland, but his character Robert is supposed to be a nebbishy, ineffectual American writer. For most of the film, he drifts in the void between accents. Then, in his big scene where he reveals his affair with Mary to Michael, he slips into his menacing Littlefinger voice. That was the only actual laugh this alleged comedy drew out of me.)


“Can’t settle on a tone. Can’t blend comedy and drama”
(I know Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul make it look easy, but dramedy is hard.)

“Sometimes I really hate movies”

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Twin Peaks and American Gods Bring Surrealism To TV

Posted By on Tue, May 23, 2017 at 2:23 PM

Last Sunday night may have been the weirdest night in the history of American television.
Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper lost in the Black Lodge in the revival of Twin Peaks.
  • Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper lost in the Black Lodge in the revival of Twin Peaks.

Surrealism and Dada emerged as art movements in the wake of the horrors of World War I. Two centuries after the Enlightenment promised to solve the world's problems with science and reason, Dada artists took a look at a world tearing itself apart with industrialized slaughter, threw up their hands, and said "screw it." Their abandonment of rational thought for carefully considered nonsense was an act of nihilism: "The world is ending. Let's party!" Surrealism, which was initially elucidated by critic Andre Breton in 1924's Surrealist Manifesto, shared Dada's skepticism of skepticism itself, but put a more hopeful spin on it. Maybe the problems with human consciousness that led to World War I was because we had divorced our subconscious. Images and ideas that reached beyond the conscious mind could reunite the warring halves of ourselves and lead to a more enlightened and psychologically healthy future.

Since the beginning of film and television, artists have sought to use the medium of moving pictures to explore the fantastical edges of the human mind. At the turn of the last century, filmmaker Georges Meliés made major breakthroughs in special effects while bringing to life fantasies like "A Trip To The Moon" One of television's first big hits was The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling's anthology series which brought strange morality tales to American audiences weekly for five years in the early 1960s. A true surrealist would claim Meliés as one of their own before The Twilight Zone. Serling dabbled in all aspects of the fantastic, but at his heart he was a science fiction writer. His abiding point of view was that reason cut with compassion can save us. In scripts like the classic "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street", the real threat the community is not the titular monsters, but ignorance, bigotry, and fear—all of which can be cured by rationalism. Meliés, on the other hand, was concerned only with the creation of incredible images far outside what he or any other viewer had ever experienced in real life. Even when he was adapting Jules Verne, the dean of modern science fiction writers, Meliés didn't care about science.

Perhaps ironically, our current age of big-budget, prestige television has opened opportunities for Surrealists to spread their wings. There's plenty of magic in Game Of Thrones, but that's full-on high fantasy. Magical realism, the South American literary movement that combines social realism with fantastic visions from the subconscious, has had a big influence on shows as diverse as Deadwood, Six Feet Under and even Breaking Bad, and the supernatural elements of horror have brought us visually stunning moments on shows like American Horror Story. But the Starz adaptation of Neil Gaimen's novel American Gods is twenty first century TV's first dive into full bore, capital-S Surrealism.

Gaiman's story of Shadow Moon, a psychologically dislocated ex-con who finds himself caught up in a war between old gods like Odin and Anubis and new gods like Media and Technology, has been challenging literary taxonomy since its 2001 release. (It was, for a time, held up as an example of a subgenre dubbed "mundane fantasy", until people realized no one wanted to read mundane fantasies.) In the hands of director and showrunner Brian Fuller, it has blossomed into the weirdest trip on the flat screen. Surrealism tries to tap into dream logic. The characters may not follow real world rules, but there's a sense they are doing things that make sense to them, because they're motivated by forces you can't see. When Bilquis, the African fertility goddess stranded in America, ends her sexual encounters by absorbing men and women into her vagina, you have trouble believing what you're seeing, but there's no question she has a damn good reason for doing it. There is an underlying order to this seeming chaos, you just don't know what it is yet.

Yetide Badaki as the fertility goddess Bilquis in American Gods.
  • Yetide Badaki as the fertility goddess Bilquis in American Gods.

Fuller and Gaimen's search for images and ideas to illustrate the psychic undertow of everyday life, they are practicing pure surrealism. The show has found an unexpectedly large audience during the Sunday evening prestige TV time. Starz has announced a second season for the expensive show after only four episodes. But last Sunday night, they were upstaged by America's greatest living surrealist. 25 years after it was ignominiously canceled, Twin Peaks returned to Showtime with David Lynch at the helm.

Twin Peaks originated as a half-parody, half homage to the excesses of American soap operas. But Lynch, who is an avid practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, is much more in touch with his subconscious than most directors. The strange images and ideas that seeped into the seemingly mundane murder mystery that was the original Twin Peaks were interpreted as mysteries that needed to be solved by the minds of American audiences raised on police procedurals. When they figured out the mysteries weren't meant to be solved by their conscious minds, audiences drifted away in 1991. The final episode of the original series, one of the greatest and most surreal hours of television ever produced, was originally viewed only by the Lynchian cultists who had held on once Laura Palmer's murderer was prematurely revealed.

The two hours of the third season of Twin Peaks that premiered last Sunday gave the audience a taste of what they had been missing. This is not the story of a sleepy Northwestern town full of quirky characters. This is the unfiltered product of Lynch's TM practice, a direct line into the subconscious mind of one of America's great film directors. Of the multiple storylines that emerged out of the incredibly dense episode called "Return", the strangest and most compelling is the glass box. Located somewhere in New York, the nondescript building hides a secret room with a glass box inside. A dopy young man is hired to watch the box, in which nothing special is happening, and record every second of that nothing with high speed cameras. It's a little like video artist Nam Jun Paik's sculpture Buddha Watching TV, only much more sinister.

Nam Jun Paik's 1974 sculpture TV Buddha.
  • Nam Jun Paik's 1974 sculpture TV Buddha.

When our young man is distracted from his normally fruitless observations, something horrible manifests in the box, and then breaks free to kill him. Later, the appearance of Dale Cooper in the box suggests it is a portal into the spirit world, or the subconscious, that Twin Peaks calls The Black Lodge.

The mysterious glass box in New York from Twin Peaks "Return".
  • The mysterious glass box in New York from Twin Peaks "Return".

Dada and Surrealism grew out of a time of uncertainty and discontent with the status quo. In the wake of World War I, it felt like the world had stopped making sense, and the art movement reflected that. That a new American surrealism would find traction in the mass media of 2017 suggests a similar mood has gripped us, and Americans are staring into the glass box, seeking answers where none are forthcoming.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Music Video Monday: Snowglobe

Posted By on Mon, May 22, 2017 at 11:14 AM

Today's Music Video Monday has a story to tell.
Snowglobe's orchestral pop rock has long been one of Memphis' best exports. For the single from their self-titled 2016 album "We Were In Love", they found the perfect video collaborator in experimental filmmaker Ben Siler. The Memphis auteur has crafted a complex, heartfelt story of lost love and mental illness using subtle gesture and rapid fire editing.

The video stars Natalie Higdon, Savannah Bearden, Danny Bader, Kittie Walsh, Snowglobe's Jeff Hulett, Erica Qualy, and Inside Memphis Business Editor Jon Sparks, with editing by Laura Jean Hocking.

If you would like to see your music video on Music Video Monday, email

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Music Video Monday: John Nemeth

Posted By on Mon, May 15, 2017 at 11:27 AM

Music Video Monday double shot got you feelin' freaky!
John Nemeth has been grinding at the blues for more than 15 years. His last album Memphis Grease won the Best Soul Blues award at the 2015 Blues Music Awards. His follow up Feelin' Freaky is set for release this Friday, May 19. Nemeth and his band Blue Dreamers—drummer Danny Banks, bassist Matthew Wilson and guitarist Johnny Rhodes—were joined by Charles Hodges on the Hammond B3, Mark Franklin on Trumpet, and Art Edumondson on sax. Producer Luther Dickinson recorded the album at Royal Studios and Zebra Ranch.

Nameth teamed up with Memphis filmmaker Edward Valibus for a series of videos leading up to this week's album release. The first, filmed at Tad Perison's famous indoor trailer park, is a performance video for the album's title track, "Feelin' Freaky".

The second is an appropriately moody clip for "Rainy Day".

Nameth and the guys will celebrate their album release this Friday at Loflin Yard before hitting the road for a long U.S. tour. You can find out more about the record on his website.

If you would like to see your video on Music Video Monday, email

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Monday, May 8, 2017

Music Video Monday: Booker T. and the MGs

Posted By on Mon, May 8, 2017 at 12:03 PM

Today's Music Video Monday salutes a group of Memphis legends.
Booker T. Jones closed out the Beale Street Music Festival Blues Tent last night with nearly 90 minutes of perfection. Battling that bane of all outdoor music festivals, bass bleeding from the next stage, the Lifetime Achievement Grammy winner led his band through a tour of songs from his five decade career—"Hip Hug-Her", "Born Under A Bad Sign", "I've Been Loving You Too Long"—with some of the artist's personal favorites like "Summertime", "Purple Rain" and "Hey Ya" thrown in for good measure. Here's a short clip I filmed from the back of the packed Blues Tent of Jones and company playing the song he wrote in 1962 that he claims his still his favorite to this day, "Green Onions".

You can read my interview with the genius of Memphis soul in this week's Memphis Flyer Music Issue cover story. Booker T. closed his set with the stirring live arrangement of the classic "Time Is Tight" that he used to wow audiences with in the 1960s. Here he is in 1970 with Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Alan Jackson Jr. bringing the house down as the guys from Creedence Clearwater Revival look on in awe.

If you would like to see your music video on Music Video Monday, email

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