Sunday, March 26, 2006

Coles Corner by Richard Hawley: Beautiful and Perfect



Perfect records do not grow on trees, friends.

Contrary to the carping of a lot of wags, you can still find the sugar rush of a perfect three-minute pop song with some frequency (if you know where to look), but a 100% perfect full-length album stands as a true rarity in this age of instant and empty musical calories.

I'm not just talking about a disc that's chock-a-block with great songs. There are other significant X factors involved: it takes a clarity of purpose, a vibe of consistency to convert that collection of songs into a cohesive work of art.

A lot of new music crossed these ears last year--good, bad, and indifferent--but I only heard one completely and utterly perfect release in all of 2005. That record was Coles Corner (out on Mute Records), the most recent release by Englishman Richard Hawley.

Like a lot of perfect records, Coles Corner seems an unlikely candidate for such lofty praise, if only because it's so traditional on the surface. Sinatra-style balladry and smoky country blues--Hawley's two principal musical starting points--have left lesser whippersnappers sounding, at best, like pale imitations of the real McCoy (a la Chris Isaak), and at worst like bigger old fogeys than the real so-called old fogeys (I don't care how much photographic evidence you provide me--Harry Connick Jr. remains a bigger geezer than Tony Bennett'll ever be).

Besides, what we've got at heart here is an album full of love songs. Like that hasn't been done before.

But Coles Corner is touched by magic, pure and simple. It's not so much what Richard Hawley does, but how magnificently he does it that makes this record so incandescent.

The disc is a concept album of sorts about a popular Lovers' Lane in Sheffield, England, and it wins half of the perfect-album battle with a flawless, smart, and incredibly catchy set of songs, all memorable little worlds in themselves that capture myriad permutations of that old black magic called love. There's not a single false or wasted note here; not the slightest hint of post-modern irony, camp, or condescension; not a second that feels overly fussy or pretentious; not one moment that doesn't ring resolutely true.

Then there's the other half of the equation--that X factor. With its openly romantic subject matter and its lush (but never overdone) production, Coles Corner hits an incredibly immersive late-night vibe. "Tonight" finds Hawley's unaffectedly dusky croon and a ghostly Duane Eddy-esque guitar melody slow-dancing like two lonely strangers ruminating over broken hearts at closing time. And the nigh-gothic track "The Ocean" builds to a gorgeous wall-of-sound crescendo that recalls Phil Spector without sounding like a slavish carbon copy.

Fortunately Coles Corner doesn't evaporate in the sunlight like so many other late-night records. That's because the backbone of the record--the songwriting--holds so strongly. It's a bit ironic that two of the most affecting country songs I've heard in the last year--the chugging Glen Campbell shuffle of "Just Like the Rain" and the too-great-to-be-an-original-but-it-is "Darling Wait for Me"--are on Coles Corner.

If you've ever sat awake at 2am contemplating an unrequited love, you need this record. If you're in love now, you need this record. If you're fed up with rock and roll, you need this record. If you love rock and roll, you need this record. If you think that no one's writing original songs with the elemental power of Johnny Cash or Cole Porter nowadays, you need this record.

I really do try to avert hyperbole here in the Petri Dish, but Hell, I'll just say it: I can't think of a human being alive to whom I wouldn't recommend Richard Hawley's Coles Corner. It is that beautiful, and that perfect.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Anthropophagus: No relation to Mr. Snuffalupagus

Mother Mary in bib overalls, it's been a long time since I've weighed in. I've been far from idle, but the most writeable thing to occur in the last four (yikes!) weeks will take me more time to relate than I have right now.

So, what to blather about...

The Final Chapter on the Hollywood Trip? Soon, I promise, but not tonight.

How 'bout the Oscar results? Well, the missus smoked me in a five-person mini-Oscar pool--She came in first, and I came in third (I was, however, the only bloke in the mini-pool to accurately predict the 7-10 split on Director and Actor trophies). No, I still haven't seen any of the Best Picture nominees.

Hey! Why don't we kibbitz about a crappy Italian horror movie?

BINGO!

To extend the 'selling the sizzle not the steak' metaphor, Media Blasters/Shock Show's two disc DVD of Joe D'Amato's infamous 1980 shocker Anthropophagus immerses a pretty unremarkable piece of gristle-laden meat in an incredibly nifty, flavorful, extras-filled marinade.

US audiences first saw this Italian chiller, in edited form, under the less-obtuse title The Grim Reaper, and here in America it came and went without much fanfare in the crowded drive-in wasteland of the early eighties. If yours truly missed it on its first run, then it musta really flew under the radar back then.

In Europe, however, Anthropophagus became an honest-to-God political firestorm. During the Thatcher era, British censors branded the movie a 'video nasty,' outright banning it in the eighties due to its reputedly extreme violence. Such an overreaction, naturally, helped instill the alluringly fetid aroma of forbidden fruit around the film.

The reputation of the movie's auteur only stoked the flames of notoriety. D'Amato (nee Aristide Massacesi) made his name (pseudonym?) directing some of the most unsavory exploitation product committed to celluloid in the seventies and eighties. His resume's spattered with titles like Porno Holocaust and Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals, and with that kind of street cred, you'd be right to expect Anthropophagus to be the ultimate cinematic endurance test--something that'd make Faces of Death look like The Care Bears Movie.

So the lingering mystique surrounding Anthropophagus hooked the twelve-year-old little boy in me to a damn near embarassing degree. Add in the magnificently shameless and hideous cover art on the new Media Blasters DVD--a faithful reproduction of the original Italian one-sheet--and I gleefully kissed my hard-earned moolah arrivederci, sight unseen.

Re-exploring the works of another much-maligned Italian exploitation icon, Lucio Fulci, revealed an uneven but frequently inspired artist. I'd hoped that this glance at one of Joe D'Amato's most renowned efforts would be similarly revelatory, or at least worthy of some shocks, gross-out shudders, or even derisive chuckles.

No dice here.

The synopsis of the movie is as follows: A gaggle of cipher-like characters travel by yacht to a remote Greek island, only to get gruesomely (but not too gruesomely) picked off by a crazed cannibal (George Eastman) who looks a lot like an eczema-wracked version of Randy "Macho Man" Savage. The End. So, yes, kids, beneath the admittedly eye-catching packaging and the ickier-than-icky backstory lives just another dumb slasher movie. Only creakier. It's a fascinating (and sometimes unintentionally hilarious) lesson, at every turn, on how not to make a horror film.

Even by the woeful standards of crappy horror flicks, the movie looks dumpy--D'Amato and his crew render Greek island vistas as flat and uninteresting as the interior of a Renton 7-Eleven--and sounds worse (the musical score consists almost entirely of ludicrous prehistoric Casio wheedling). It's poorly acted, too--the walking dead Euro-preppies who comprise the cannibal's stable of victims couldn't be more woodenly, soddenly bad (big props in this context to Eastman, who at least throws himself into the role of the pizza-faced gut muncher with brio).

And D'Amato wouldn't know sustained tension if a rubber band snapped him repeatedly in the ass. The director engenders no atmosphere of dread, no suspense, nothing remotely resembling pacing; just vapid characters filling air with dull dialogue in between the measly money shots. The numbing sense of eighty-five minutes of abject tedium existing only to justify a few scant moments of action feels a lot like a porn film (a genre in which, unsurprisingly, D'Amato also had considerable experience as a director).

Lest you grow squeamish at a little onscreen violence, fear not: the rubber-novelty-head-and-model-paint gore aesthetic on display would induce titters in a nine-year old, with two genuinely gonzo exceptions (this is called a spoiler alert, assuming you're as much of a masochist as me and that you might actually sit through this thing). Be warned, before you read any further, that some icky stuff is described in the next two paragraphs.

In Kodak Moment number 1, Eastman's cannibal antagonist rips a fetus out of a pregnant woman and eats it (you were warned...). This little vignette sounds a LOT more horrible in print than it actually plays, because D'Amato's all-thumbs touch insures that it looks exactly like what it is: an acne-scarred Randy "Macho Man" Savage lookalike pulling a Karo-syrup-covered skinned rabbit out from under a decidedly unimperiled starlet's skirt.

The cannibal's swan song provides Anthropophagus's other memorable interlude. In a moment of spontaneous absurdity sorely missing from the rest of the movie, Eastman's character takes a pickaxe to the gut... then yanks out his own intestines and eats hearty. It's not terribly convincing, either, but at least it ain't dull--which is more than I can say about most of the rest of Anthropophagus.

So why don't I feel like a world-class sucker for buying this admittedly slow and unexceptional thriller on disc? Again, it's the sizzle not the steak, baby.

In addition to providing a very high-quality print of Anthropophagus (probably way higher-quality than it deserves) for the reissue, Shriek Show has stacked the second disc with trailers (including an easily-accessed Easter Egg of sensationalistic Coming Attractions spots from other Joe D'Amato epics), promotional art (so now you can see how Randy "Macho Man" Savage eating his own intestines looks on the Japanese poster), alternate title sequences, and a brief-but entertaining 2005 interview with Eastman and his Anthropophagus co-star Zora Kerova (both of whom have resisted the ravages of time much more adroitly than the movie).

The crown jewel amongst the Anthropophagus extras is "Totally Uncut, Part 2," a lengthy interview/documentary with the late director. Slender, scruffy-bearded, blase-yet-offhandedly charming, and never without a cigarette in hand, Massacesi/D'Amato talks about his horror and action films with a bracing absence of pretense. He openly acknowledges the perception of most of his cinematic output (including Anthropophagus) as utter trash, and says that the only thing motivating recent re-appraisal of his work is simple nostalgia from fans who grew up watching his movies.

With a wry con-man 's chuckle, D'Amato laments the disappearance of censorship in Italy because of the enormous free publicity it once provided for his exploitation epics, and he talks with candid humor about coping with budgets that would make your average Roger Corman opus look like Lawrence of Arabia. Massacesi also relates some very funny stories about Anthropophagus's production, including the fact that his prop people augmented an actual bone-littered underground tomb with fake skeletons for dramatic effect, only to inadvertantly whisk all of the real bones (along with the fakes) back to the director's house once shooting finished.

The documentary offers an invaluable glimpse into the no-holds-barred, seat-of-your-pants style that fueled a bygone era of Italian exploitation cinema, and it accomplished something I thought impossible: It made me watch Anthropophagus a second time, if only to get additional context for Joe D'Amato's treasure trove of interesting stories.