Monday, November 23, 2009

Stray Dog

Before Kurasawa made Yojimbo, before Seven Samurai, even before Roshoman, he made a nail biter of a detective story called Stray dog. It's the story of a young rookie detective who gets his gun stolen on a crowded bus. To his horror the gun ends up in the wrong hands and becomes the instrument of a string of crimes.

Detective Murakami, our protaginist, played by Kurosawa's golden child Toshiro Mifune goes on a rabid search for his lost pistol through post WWII Japan, combing the desperate and depraved ally ways in a city full of strays to get a lead on his sidearm. His ham fisted detective skills are presided over by veteran Detective Sato , Roshoman's Takashi Shimura who teaches Murakami the subtle ways of a successful gumshoe.

The dynamic between these 2 is very reminiescent of David Fincher's film Seven. In fact its impossible to watch Stray Dog without quite a few modern refereces coming to mind. And, we have the story of the cop who loses is gun in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia.

At the films center though is a story much like Scorsese's film The Departed. Murikami finds out hes on the hunt for a stray not unlike himself. Both hero and villian are just off the fronts of a lost war, and in a highly moral turn both of them have had thier knapsacks stolen along with all their money and belongings. On one side of the coin we have Murakami who joins the force, on the other Yusa who joins the underworld.

But, unlike Seven the film never goes for nihilism. Though they may be two sides of the same coin, Kurasawa makes it clear that the difference is not merely the chance of the toss. And, like The Departed Kurosawa uses every chance to compare the two, a comparison that isn't lost on the protagonist and his own nagging questions of accountability and the dark forces of desperation.

In contrast to many of Kurosawa's more popular later films, Stray Dog keeps the suspense wound tight making this 1940s film a breeze to watch even by todays standards. And like anything he's done, there's plenty of tough questions to chew on once the lights come back up.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deftones - White Pony

It was a good year to be into hard-rock and heavy metal. A young man mad at the world was hardly want of charismatic facial haired crooners capable of articulating his all too common frustrations and desires.  I rang in the decade with a lot of aggressive music. Bands like Tool, System of a Down, and Rage Against the Machine were at the top of my playlist, not to mention a few other less flattering choices that force me to cringe in hindsight. 

But, as the years have passed many of these albums have lost their edge. Or to put it better, I've lost whatever energy I was putting back into them. I can listen to them today and enjoy a rush of nostalgia, but there's no mystery left to tease out of them. The same music that once described my existance and punctuated my dreams, heard now seems strange and awkward. The music has stayed the same. It's me thats changed.

And it keeps happening. This isnt to say I'm an entirely different dude. I still enjoy much of the same music I did 10 years ago. What's even more suprising is that some of those same bands are still releasing music I like to this day, not many but if say Cake, Fiona Apple, or Ben Folds put out an album tomorrow, I would waste no time getting online and stealing it first chance I got.

The Deftones 2000 album White Pony was a big deal for me. I was a huge fan of their previous release Around the Fur with its irresistibly beautiful teenage anthem "Be Quiet and Drive". The ablum is pure emotion. It's all smoke and dreams and estrogen and shameless desire. It sighed and throbbed and screamed and captured my imagination big time. I wanted to play music just like that.

I jumped into White Pony head first as fans are known to do with follow up albums, with every faith it would be the next big thing in my life.   And, as is not so often the case, it was. The first month or so of the albums release saw a different album than what you will find on the shelves now. In a marketing move by the bands label the radio/music video hit "Back To School" was grafted onto the beginning of the album. Sure its just one song, but in such important real-estate and in such discordance with the rest of the album. Imagine renting Princess Mononoke only to find that Disney's replaced the first 10 minutes with a Pixar short. If you have to listen to this version just skip past track one and hear the album as the band intended.

White Pony marks a few key contrasts to thier previous work. Most importantly it feels more focused. The production value for one is ratcheted up. The drums are crisp and clear, an improvement drummer Abe Cunningham makes obvious advantage of, creating beats which are more nuanced and inventive than previous efforts. On several tracks including "Rx Queen" and "Digital Bath" the verses are reduced to little more than drums and vocals creating a Portishead like sound and arriving at trip-hop from a completely different starting point.

Like portishead Chino Moreno carries his voice, not like a growling cookie cutter cookie monster, but with the smoky diva surliness of a Bjork or Billie Holiday. Where as in previous efforts recording Chino seems more like documenting a strange natural phenomenon, here his throaty androgenous voice is fully at his command. Mix that with the lyrical content which has shifted from that of an emotional impressionist toward tighter more narrative driven structures. In the process the deftones lost very little emotional immediacy and gained a great deal in control and craft.

Rythmicly guitarist Stephen Carpenter and bassist Chi Cheng become less riff driven. Instead the guitars create an ocean of sound which baths the album in warm tones. The result is a rich and dreamy bed of sound which makes the drums and vocals really pop.

Most Importantly though, as always, the deftones have created a work of real emotion which defies easy interpretation. After 10 years I am very much still in love with the album. Because a couple songs enjoyed favorible radio play and the very dated "back to school" was such a hit, the Deftones are inneveitably associated with the nu-metal and rap-rock ilk of their time, descriptors that most have been conditioned to avoid like the plague.  Aside from living this awkward outsider existance among rock fans, the album is an odd duck among their own oeuvre, the band electing after White Pony, to revert in many ways back to its earlier sound. After having followed them to such heights I couldn't go back.