Friday, 13 March 2009

Yacht Prog

I can't get enough of the Alan Parsons Project at the moment, yet I feel the band's profile these days is best summed up through this joke from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me...

It's a terribly flat joke, not least because Scott's explanation seems to be more to a majority of the audience rather than Dr. Evil. Most people now just wouldn't know what the Alan Parsons Project is.

The Alan Parsons Project was formed in 1975 by Alan Parsons, an audio engineer who had worked on Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon, and vocalist Eric Woolfson. Their best albums tend to follow a similar formula: concept albums (Poe, robots, Pyramids) usually beginning with an instrumental, followed by a mixture of slick, often smooth pop-rock songs and slick, sometimes smooth symphonic-rock songs, featuring a plethora of guest vocalists. The concepts often don't work: Tales of Mystery and Imagination lacks a sonic sense of the macabre to satisfactorily match Poe, with the reading of A Dream Within A Dream by Orson Welles on the re-release failing to better German synthpop band Propaganda's take on the same poem (nicely played here over footage from Powell & Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death- June! June!)

These days the Project is probably best known for the opening instrumental from Eye In The Sky, Sirius. Much like Michael Nyman's Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds is the quintessential Country House music, Sirius sits alongside Eye of the
Tiger in being quintessential sports build-up music, thanks largely to its use by the unstoppable Chicago Bulls team of the 1990s, but also a number of other teams, including, of late, Manchester City.

So, why is the Project less appreciated these days? That they dropped their first album in 1976, arguably after the heyday of popular Prog Rock, doesn't help: many a history of the genre would not posit them as being overly significant in its development.

The band may be better viewed through a post-ironic filter by labelling them Yacht Prog, alongside Duke-era Genesis and perhaps Nude-era Camel. Noting that they are insufficiently avant-garde and often too over-produced (unsurprising given Parsons' producer as band member role) to be praised on artistic merit alone, they did produce enjoyable vaguely proggy pop numbers. Using this Yacht Prog tag we can then accept the music, much like Italo-Disco, through its uncool/cool and crap/good dualities.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Man On Ledge

Two of my favourite films of last year were Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg and James Marsh's Man On Wire.

Guy Maddin is a fairly unique voice in cinema. He has long been going to painstaking lengths to ensure his films echo the style of early cinema - taking clear influence from film noir, Eisenstein's agit-prop and German Expressionism. He was hauntological before the term existed. Others may have recently borrowed this retrofied style, see for example Esteban Sapir's enjoyably pulpy La Antena, but Maddin takes his films into the bizarre and psychosexual - one only need look at Careful, his incestuous take on the German mountain movie.

Recently Maddin has delivered a series of semi-autobiographical works, the latest of which is My Winnipeg, a docu-fantasia looking at his hometown. The film sees Maddin (appearing through voiceover) trying to escape Winnipeg. He decides to film his way out of the city- subletting his old home and hiring actors to play his siblings in order to recreate childhood events with his 'real' mother (played by the late Ann Savage, best-known for her femme fatale role in Edgar G. Ulmer's low-budget noir Detour). All the while, using stock and created footage, Maddin discusses events and landmarks in the history of the city. Some details are clearly true - when the city's NHL side the Jets moves to the more wintry climes of Phoenix (becoming the Coyotes), the team's former home, the historic Winnipeg Arena, is made redundant by the erection of a new ice arena, the MTS Centre, on the site of the beloved Eaton's department store, but this new arena apparently has too small a capacity to entice back an NHL franchise. Other events seem more flights of fancy - the winter when horses froze in the lake, with only their heads protruding; or the public baths consisting of three stacked, segregated swimming pools. However, with Maddin's seamless blending of footage, and further of fact and fiction, it is often hard to tell which parts are actually true. While this might come across as a problem in less capable hands, Maddin is so witty and inventive that, real or not, his Winnipeg is the one you want to believe in.

Man On Wire is a documentary about the high wire walk performed between the Twin Towers in 1974 by Philippe Petit. Carried out without consent, Petit enlisted a group of friends to help him achieve the feat he had dreamed up before the Towers had been constructed. Combining both real and recreated footage, the plot is played out in the film like a heist, gripping you in spite of its well-known conclusion. However, no footage of the wire walk itself exists. This compares interestingly with My Winnipeg: one 'recreates' footage of imagined events, while the other cannot do this for its central, real event. And yet, this is no flaw: understandably it is impossible to recreate the event for real, and no amount of trickery would do it justice. Instead, by simply using still photographs, the vertiginous moment is given a strange air that borders on the surreal, recreating the wonder of the onlookers (or, rather, 'uplookers'), trying to believe the unbelievable.

The one issue I have with the film is in its use of the music of Michael Nyman, culled mainly from the films of Peter Greenaway. Having seen these films, I so strongly associate the music with them, that they evoke strong senses of Englishness (particularly Chasing Is Best Left To Shepherds, as mentioned in a previous post) that seem at odds with the tale of a Frenchman in New York.

Much of the enjoyment of the film though comes directly from the extraordinary personality of its protagonist, which was perfectly illustrated when Man On Wire picked up the award for best documentary at this year's Oscars.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Today, I didn't die.

One of the films I'm most looking forward to at the moment is Crank: High Voltage, the sequel to the Jason Statham film, Crank. For those that haven't seen it, here is the trailer for the first film.

So, the Stath plays Chev Chelios, a hitman. At the beginning he wakes up groggy with a DVD nearby, on which a gangster informs him he has been injected with the 'Beijing Cocktail'. This will kill Chelios if he cannot keep his adrenaline above a certain level. This is essentially Speed with Statham being the bus. But whereas that film simply required the bus to stay at a high speed, Crank uses many methods for Chev to keep himself alive, played out in real-time. Herein lies the stupendous brilliance of the film, you struggle to keep your jaw off the floor as Chev headbutts a succession of hoodlums, shouts "Al-Qaeda!" at Arab cab drivers and practically rapes his girlfriend in a bustling Chinatown street. However, the conclusion of the film sees (SPOILER ALERT!) Chev fighting his enemy in a helicopter at a great height and then in freefall. Chev has sufficient time on his way to the ground to snap the gangster's neck, and then phone his girlfriend and apologise to her. The impact upon hitting the ground would be more than enough to kill anyone, but not our Chev, as two heartbeats are heard before the end credits roll. So now we have a sequel:

Thankfully they have managed to come up with an even more absurd premise for Chev to put himself through hyper-strenuous ordeals: Chev must shock himself with jolts of electricity to keep ticking the mechanical heart which the gangsters replaced his natural one with. Fairly recently there have been two bizarre/intriguing additions to the credits. Firstly, slick-haired, wacky-vocals man Mike Patton is to score the film. This is probably a good thing, one only need look at Fantomas' The Director's Cut album to see he is a man of good cinematic taste, and an aficionado of fine soundtracks (Mancini, Herrmann, Rota, Morricone, Badalamenti, Komeda). More importantly though, Geri Halliwell has apparently been cast as a "chavvy mother" (her words). One only need look at her previous acting credits (Spice World, Sex and the City, the acclaimed film-adaptation of the Viz comic strip Fat Slags) to see that her performance will be a surefire shoe-in come next year's awards season.