Thursday, November 29, 2007

"I'm gonna eat your brains and gain your knowledge"

After watching (and reviewing) Tarantino’s Grindhouse contribution, Death Proof, earlier this week, I couldn’t seem to keep myself from watching Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. So on the return trip to the video store to bring back Death Proof, I felt compelled to pick up the other half of Grindhouse.

Now that I’ve seen both, I guess I can level my “whose movie was better” opinion. I’d have to say that the reviews were more or less right, Tarantino’s Death Proof is the better movie. But making that kind of comparison, however unavoidable, is a little strange. While Death Proof played like a cross between Monte Hellman and early Wes Craven, Planet Terror comes across much more like old John Carpenter on a dangerous mix of bad acid and a lot of meth. Just wanted to make it clear, though these two movies are meant to be packaged together, they are two very different animals.

Similar to Death Proof, Planet Terror’s plot isn’t really all that important, but here goes anyways. In an unnamed backwater Texas scrub town, a biochemical weapon stored at an old army base begins mutating all the local residents into a horde of infected, cannibalistic, zombie-like “sickos”. A ragtag group of uninfected locals (including a tow truck driver with a mysterious past and an affinity for guns, a sassy ex-go-go dancer with a chip on her shoulder, a BBQ chef obsessed with getting on the Food Network, and the bumbling Sheriff’s department, among others) must battle their way through the ever growing horde of mutants and tangle with a roving band of murderous ex-military personnel. Throw in some stuff about addiction, exploitation of our military, and confusing back-story relationships between just about every character and there you have it. It may sound confusing, and it is a little at times, but plot is not really the point.

Pretty much from the get-go, the movie is a non-stop insane-o-fest. By minute 10 you’ve seen a man get his balls cut off (as well as the giant jar of balls in which an entire ball collection is kept). By minute 12 you’ve seen a man get his face melted off by a mysterious green gas. Pretty much all bets are off at that point. From there on, you’ll be treated to what was one of the goriest movies I have ever seen. It was staggering, just the sheer volume of gore. It blows my mind to think about the amount of fake blood, guts, and viscera that went into the filming. Bodies are constantly gushing blood, guts, being eaten, or just ripped apart.

Planet Terror also offers some truly cringe-worthy moments. It’s not all over-the-top, campy horror movie excess (though it is to a great extent). One character in particular gets stabbed repeatedly with syringes one moment, only to break her wrist in a car door handle the next. And the cringes don’t just come in the form of in-your-face gruesomeness, Rodriguez definitely knows how to remind the audience that all bets are off, no reminder more clear than when a child accidentally shoots his own face off (oddly enough, Rodriguez didn’t want to traumatize any child actors by filming that scene, so he just cast his own son).

Overall, the movie was a lot of fun. It’s highly stylized, overflowing with tough-guy talk, sneers, sassy retorts, huge explosions, and just about any ridiculous movie convention you can think of. It featured both Rodriguez’s typical guitar-based Southwestern score, as well as a very Carpenter-esque synth score (a la Escape from New York). Even all the faux-damage to the film reel is employed with a purpose (while Tarantino used film stock then intentionally damaged it for effect, Rodriguez shot in digital and added the damaged-film effects in post). As the tension mounts, the screen wobbles and bleeds, color distortion creeps across the screen as villains leer at our heroes. While decidedly less “authentic” than Tarantino’s strategy, Rodriguez maintains more control over the ‘70s exploitation motif, lending the movie a much slicker appearance (for better or worse).

There are more than a few things that don’t make much sense (e.g. how does Rose McGowan’s machine gun leg fire? why does the arrival of zombie-like mutants cause every car within eye-sight to spontaneously explode? since when has Freddy Rodriguez been a badass action star?), but the movie is way too damn fun for any of that to matter. From the moment that first testicle hits the pavement up to the last exploding head, Planet Terror is a whole lot of blood-soaked, ratcheted-up genre fun.

I should warn, this movie is most definitely not for everybody. You’ll need a strong stomach and a very strong appreciation for horror/action movies. The non-stop action, gore, and violence means that the movie can definitely wear on the audience. Especially if that audience isn’t that into ridiculously over-the-top violence in the first place. Be forewarned, if this doesn’t sound like something you’ll like, you’ll hate it.

Overall, very nice work boys. It’s a shame the Weinstein’s haven’t released a theatrical cut on DVD yet. It’s a shame I rented two double-disc movies, and didn’t get to see the special guest directors’ fake intermission trailers (I was especially looking forward to Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS). Maybe someday…

PS. Prior to the start of Planet Terror, you’re treated to a faux-preview for a film called Machete, starring badass Danny Trejo. Pretty awesome. Featuring, very prominently, plenty of downtown Austin landmarks. Plus Cheech Marin dressed as a priest, points a shotgun at someone, and says, “God may have mercy. But I don’t.” Sweet.

Ah, online validation

Despite the fact that their reviews are often irritating enough that I rarely get through them and their news section is generally filled with bands I've either never heard of or couldn't care less about, I still check Pitchfork at least once a day. Those indie rockers are just so judgmental, I need them to think I'm cool!

Anyways, one feature I actually enjoy reading is the column "Show No Mercy", Brandon Stosuy's coverage of the extreme metal world. Yesterday's column was his year in review for 2007, and here's what he had to say about High on Fire's Death is this Communion:

Matt Pike, Des Kensel and new bassist Jeff Matz do the unthinkable, topping the classic 2002 gem Surrounded By Thieves (and 2005's Preston-y Blessed Black Wings, etc.) The Jack Endino-produced slab rails through eleven counts of perfect no-bullshit Oakland-born hard rock. You can call it stoner or doom or post post-Sleep, but whatever the case, Lemmy must be proud (and maybe a wee bit scared). Full review soon.

I knew I was cool! You can read his full recap of 2007 here.

You can read my review of Death is this Communion here. Not that my review will be any easier to get through than Pitchfork's will be. Probably just less pretentious (and with worse grammar).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"You wanna get hot?"

There is something great about low-budget exploitation movies. It’s not a mysterious thing. They’re just kind of awesome. The lack of studio over-sight means they tend to be pretty uncensored. The lack of budget means the better ones tend to be pretty innovative. And, at the most basic level, they’re just badass.

I was pretty excited when I heard about Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s ode to the by-gone days of exploitation cinema. Unfortunately, a busy schedule and a 3+ hour runtime (due to the Alamo serving beer during movies, more runtime means more beer, which means bigger bill) kept me from seeing it in the theaters. Following its notoriously poor showing at the box office, and the Weinstein’s notorious run of bad financial luck, meant the double-feature was split for the DVD release in an attempt to recoup more money. So, when I finally got around to watching it, I had to watch one at a time. I started with Tarantino’s Death Proof, buying into the notion that it was the better of the two. I have yet to see Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, so my take will have to wait.

Given that plot isn’t really key here (nor is there really much of a plot to talk about), I’ll just get it out of the way now. Kurt Russell plays an ex-stuntman named, appropriately enough, Stuntman Mike. He drives his “death proof” muscle cars around, chasing, terrorizing, and vehicularly murdering beautiful young women. That’s about it.

There are a lot of things to like about Death Proof. As an Austin resident, the first half was fantastic. Shot on location in Austin, the first forty minutes elicited plenty of “been there” and “I know where that is” mental checks. Rodriguez and his Troublemaker Studios are famously located in Austin, and Tarantino’s close friendship with Rodriguez means he’s a surprisingly common guest. He definitely has a good feel for our fair city. It might not be a universal appeal, but it was a pleasant surprise to see the city represented so well.

The movie itself is filled with more or less typical Tarantino dialogue. Pop culture and profanity abound in the talk-heavy segments of the movie, leading into some of the greatest chase scenes and car stunts I have ever seen. No one is going to walk into this movie wanting to hear characters talk endlessly, and no one is going to leave talking about the dialogue. It’s all a means to get us to the meat of Death Proof’s appeal. The cars. The stunts. The crashes.

Tarantino, notoriously resistant to digital effects, opts for classic ‘70s style stunts. There are no enormous explosions. Cars hit cars. Metal twists and glass breaks. Tires squeal and smoke billows. No ridiculous CGI nonsense that is usually more distracting than cool. This is all to an amazing end. There are two chase scenes that will get your heart pumping, probably unlike any more has before.

First time actress, long time stuntwoman, Zoe Bell turns out a performance that is more impressive than any I’ve seen in a long time. As an actress she is almost immediately likeable. She’s naturally charming to the point where it requires no work on the part of the audience or the director to make us like her. We just do. As a stuntwoman, doing her own stunts obviously, she is jawdroppingly ballsy. The first of the aforementioned car chases has her doing some of the craziest stunts I have ever witnessed. Not since watching Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. (way back in 1928) have I been so convinced that not only are the things I’m watching look dangerous but in reality were dangerous to film. There are no “that looked crazy, must have been tough to do”, it is all “how did she not die while filming that?!” I won’t ruin what exactly some of these stunts are, but watching Zoe Bell alone is reason enough to rent Death Proof.

If a badass stuntwoman doing insanely dangerous things isn’t enough to get you into this movie, a badass Kurt Russell should help tip the scales. Stuntman Mike is a coolly bizarre psycho that is immediately fun to watch. I wouldn’t say Russell’s performance is necessarily good acting, as much as the fun he obviously had playing the character is immediately contagious. He sneers. He spouts ridiculous, cool, tough-guy talk. Just when you think watching him can’t get any more fun, the 180 the character takes after the first chase is absolutely incredible.

Death Proof definitely has its problems, though. Surprisingly, its biggest problems are the dialogue and acting. I’m not sure if it was purposefully written and acted this way (my guess is that it was, given the terrific dialogue Tarantino has previously written and fantastic performances he has previously elicited), but it all seems to be done to further emulate the old exploitation movies. Ultimately, a lot of the dialogue seems stilted and awkward and a lot of the delivery comes across as forced and uncomfortable. Even if it is an attempt to continue the throwback motif, it doesn’t make it any less annoying or distracting. The constant name-dropping of the old movies Death Proof is trying to ape gets old after the first time someone brings up Vanishing Point. I don’t need to hear for a fifth time how great Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is. Finally, a small but minor annoyance is how bizarrely anachronistic the movie can be. It looks like the ‘70s. It sounds like the ‘70s. But everyone has cell phones and iPods. Minor thing, but I found it distracting.

All in all, I’d have to say that Death Proof is a good, not great, movie. I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars. That being said, though, I would say that it’s a must see. If that makes sense. It won’t go down in history as a fantastic movie, just a couple of fantastic car chases. I’d bet you’ll walk away from this movie thinking it was good (not great), but you’ll definitely be glad you saw it.

Running through maple syrup while being punched in the face

Following the infamous (and kinda hilarious) demise of doom metal, slower-than-dirt icon Sleep, guitarist Matt Pike formed the noticeably faster-than-dirt band High on Fire. High on Fire recently released their fourth full-length, Death is this Communion (following the Art of Self-Defense, Surrounded by Thieves, and Blessed Black Wings). How this band managed to stomp around under my radar for so long is beyond me. To be honest, I’m a little embarrassed, but regardless I’ve found them. Or they found me, if you want to get a little creepy about it.

Death is this Communion, on the whole, is thick, heavy, dense, and down tuned to within an inch of its life. This bottom-heavy, wall of sound comes across at times a bit like trying to run wind sprints in a pool of molasses. The songs are written in an almost Motorheadish blues-metal style, with, at times, a more prog structure thrown in to keep things interesting. It can definitely leave you feeling, at first listen though, as if all their songs sound the same, separated by the occasional Middle Eastern influenced guitar work or drum solo. You hear it once, walk away thinking it all sounded like the same thundering fist in the gut, but in a little while, it begins.

Could be hours. Could be days. Hell, could be years. There are probably Typhoid Mary, asymptomatic High on Fire fanatics just waiting out there. Then it happens. You can’t get it out of your head. You find yourself replaying songs over and over again in your mind. You don’t know which songs they are. You don’t remember the words. You’re not even sure if it’s one song or some kind of muddled up medley your mind has glued together. But it plays and plays until you listen to the album again. Then it replays until you listen to it a third time. Next thing you know, you have 75% of the album memorized, all just so you can make sense of all that noise in your head.

The cause of the songs surprising catchiness can mostly be attributed Matt Pike’s vocals. His almost inhuman voice is all at once raspy, guttural, and melodic as he screams in throat shredding fashion surprisingly well-written lyrics. His barking howl doesn’t so much rise over the thick murkiness of the music, as it pushes itself through the din. The guitar, bass, drums, and vocals all lurk and sway in dangerous, thunderous unison. Guitars and bass become inseparable, bass and drums merge, and the vocals lead them all through the apocalyptic stomp. As if fifty hands were to all mold themselves into one giant sized fist, repeatedly punching you in the face, the music is melting pot of blues stomp low-end noise.

Check out their new video for the first single, “Rumors of War”, definitely one of my favorite songs on the album, along with “Waste of Tiamut” and “Turk”. Though, I have yet to find a single cut that I couldn’t listen to over and over again. Highly, highly recommended for people looking for some new metal, or just for people who don't have shitty taste in music.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Long Live the New Flesh!

With the release of his newest film, Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg has once again entered the minds of great men. He has also brought with him age-old feuds, pitting brother against brother, friend against friend. Specifically, pitting me against my brother Brad and my friend Conor. Let us draw the lines early and clearly; I think Cronenberg is amazing, and Brad and Conor are idiots. Shall we begin?

There are a few points that I’d like to address early and get them out of the way. First, though I think A History of Violence is a good movie, I have to agree with the anti-Cronenberg camp in that I’m surprised and confused at the amount of critical acclaim it has received. I didn’t find it particularly probing or thought provoking, simply entertaining. I think efforts to dissect and analyze it to find deep examinations into the nature of man and identity are misguided and giving the movie way more credit than it deserves. Second, I acknowledge that his films can be slow (Brad says “boring,” but I prefer to say they are “deliberately paced”). I don’t think this is necessarily a fault, but I do want to acknowledge that I’m well aware of their pace.

We’ll start at the beginning, Cronenberg’s early days as a low-budget horror auteur. In fact, we’ll start with his very first feature length film, Shivers (aka They came from Within). Cronenberg’s debut film already features his trademark themes of modernity, isolation, and technology. In an upscale condominium complex, people live in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. Located on an island off the Canadian coast, the complex features a grocery store, restaurant, and in-house doctor’s office. When one of the tenants, a biologist (with suspiciously similar fears to Cronenberg himself), tries to manufacture a parasite that will allow repressed modern society to remember and re-embrace its baser, natural urges. Naturally, the parasite goes wildly out of control, spreading throughout the building, sending tenant after tenant into a sex-crazed, violent, murderous frenzy. The building’s doctor fights an uphill battle as he tries to figure out what is happening, while also keeping an eye on the door. Too bad that door only leads to the Atlantic Ocean.

Though it’s not his most subtle or complex film, it does illustrate the style and themes of his early works pretty well. Shivers mixes graphic violence and sex, staples of low budget horror, with more meaningful intentions. Cronenberg doesn’t decry our baser impulses, but he does recognize their destructive power. Rather than criticize or linger on the horror that man is capable of, he warns us all of the dangers of simply whitewashing over them. Locking the human animal in an antiseptic cage of convenience and complacency doesn’t remove those more “undesirable” aspects of human nature. All it does it let them seethe under our skin, until the day comes that a giant slug parasite infects our bodies, and the whole damned world explodes in an orgy of violent sexual free-for-all.

This idea of repression and its inevitable consequences are as prevalent in Cronenberg’s early work as his fear of modernization. Now is a good time to introduce the term “body-horror.” A term, an entire genre, practically invented to describe Cronenberg’s work. The lynchpin of body-horror is the idea that the worst, most horrific thing imaginable is your own body turning against you. The vulnerability felt knowing that your own body is killing you. Thanks to Cronenberg’s crack team of special effects wizards, as viewers, we are treated to this betrayal in the most horrific of fashions. See his wonderful, better than the original, remake of the Fly for one of the most disgusting examples of body-horror.

The betrayal of the body due to modern repression and technological advances can be seen throughout his early career. The Brood (also “deliberately paced”) is a meditation on the destructive nature of repressed neurosis growing and festering into full-blown psychopathy (or in this case a hoard of evil psychotic midget fetuses). Scanners, similar to A History of Violence, lacks the social commentary, but retains many of the superficial aspects of body-horror. One must look no further than cinema’s greatest head exploding scene or the borderline grotesque climatic showdown that ends the film to see why a new term need to be coined and an entire subgenre created just for Cronenberg.

Which brings me to an interesting crossroads. Videodrome. Videodrome, a true masterpiece, leads in a multitude of directions. I could talk about how all of Cronenberg’s various pet themes (i.e. technology, modernity, isolation, repression/expression of primal nature, body-horror) all coalesce in a brilliant psycho-noir-thriller. I could speak of the turning point in theme and style. I will leave it at, simply, see this fucking movie.

Following Videodrome, with the notable exception of the Fly, Cronenberg’s work took on a less graphic, subtler approach. Moving on from his themes of technology and manifestations of social-turned-personal ills, Cronenberg began adopting explorations of reality (objective v. subjective) and identity’s dependence on that reality. Videodrome already began these explorations, as the viewer has the rug pulled out from under him right along with James Woods’ Max Renn, leaving all involved completely without solid ground to stand on come the closing credits. The concepts of what is real, what is in the mind, and which matters more are all explored in his mid-career films, such as Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and Spider.

If Videodrome is Cronenberg’s masterpiece of body-horror and the culmination of his earlier themes, then Dead Ringers stands as his masterpiece of his explorations into his later theme of identity. The sensationalistic plot revolving around twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons, in one of the greatest feats of acting I have ever witnessed) who both become obsessed with the same woman, who has a rare gynecological malformation, betrays the mastery of storytelling on display. The film takes the viewer not only through a descent into madness, culminating in one of the most disturbing off-screen climaxes in film history, but also a journey into a complete loss of personal identity. The twins, each with their own faults and identities, are dragged into a world of drug-fueled confusion. Just as the viewer gains the ability to differentiate between the two (thanks to Irons’ brilliant acting), the twins begin to lose their ability to differentiate between one another. Just as the viewer gains a foothold, we see the main characters losing theirs.

Cronenberg’s mid-to-later work also covers issues of subjective reality. Unfortunately, many people point to sub par work like eXistenZ to illustrate this movement in his career, probably because it’s easy and heavy-handed. Better examples of this theme can be found in films like Naked Lunch and Spider. I’ll leave eXistenZ dead on the table. It’s a serviceable sci-fi adventure movie, but by no means anything worth discussing (not unlike A History of Violence, but also not nearly as good).

In his attempt to adapt William S. Burroughs’ beat classic Naked Lunch, Cronenberg doesn’t so much as translate the book to screen as he tries to adapt Burroughs’ general story telling style, incorporating aspects of Burroughs’ personal life as well as other works, into film format. I have never read any Burroughs, so I cannot speak to Cronenberg’s success in this regard, but I will say that the film is amazing. Part-noir thriller, part 8 ½-style examination into the creative process, part-drug induced disconnect from “objective”-reality cautionary tale, Naked Lunch is a thrilling, confusing, entertaining film that has features amazing special effects, great performances, and a plot that is as gripping as it is intractable. The film progresses like a fever dream, you understand what is happening, but for the life of you, you can’t make sense of any of it.

Spider, on the other hand, is a less exciting, more deliberate exploration into the idea of subjective reality. I don’t think the word “schizophrenia” is ever mentioned, but it’s at least a solid adjective for this atmospheric film. As our protagonist, a middle-aged man recently moved from a mental institution to a half-way house, tries to piece together his past, we follow along as “Spider” attempts to sift through years of delusions, hallucinations, and half-forgotten memories. The brilliance of Spider lies in its ability to start the viewer in a place of total confusion, build trust along with Spider as his memories convalesce, lead us along to a place that seems to be real, only to drop the floor out from under us. We are left to piece together the incongruent aspects of a story told by a deranged mental patient. Granted, this movie is extremely slow (again, I prefer “deliberately paced”), but hopefully the style and atmosphere are enough keep your interest through to the end of this very rewarding story.

Given A History of Violence’s continuation of this identity/reality theme (albeit in a much less interesting and less enlightening fashion) and its incorporation of noir tropes is in interesting turn. Considering what I’ve seen of his newest film, Eastern Promises, this seems to be yet another shift in Cronenberg’s illustrious career. Who knows, maybe years from now, I’ll look back on something like A History of Violence and see it as a turning point towards new themes, new styles, and an open future for Mr. Cronenberg. For now I’ll maintain that A History of Violence is overrated and leave you with a list of must-sees from the Cronenberg archives:

Shivers (aka They Came from Within): If you are interested in seeing how Cronenberg has developed not only his ideas, but as a director in general, it’s a fantastic way to start. Not only because it’s his first, but also because it’s a fun-ass movie.

Videodrome: A true masterpiece. Regardless of what you think of Cronenberg, you should still definitely see this movie. An excellent example of body-horror, as well as the greatest of Cronenberg’s early work

Dead Ringers: Arguably a second masterpiece, coming only five years after Videodrome. An amazing movie and a wonderful starting point for delving into Cronenberg’s second era.

Other notables, though hardly required: the Brood, Naked Lunch, Spider.

I don’t expect to change many minds. If you’re dead set against Cronenberg, there isn’t a whole lot I can do to change that. But, at the very least, I’m hoping to give some perspective on why everyone who isn’t an idiot is in love with this man’s work.

DEATH TO VIDEODROME! LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

My evening with Dean and Gene


I recently was given an opportunity that I had been awaiting for years. The chance to see Ween live in concert! Not only that, but it was “an evening with Ween,” which means that there are no openers and they play for like 3 hours. Truly, an event not to be missed.

The show was at Stubb’s, a BBQ joint with a big outdoor amphitheater behind the restaurant. Yup, that’s right, it was at a blues venue that doubles as a popular BBQ restaurant. Welcome to Texas. It was a surprisingly early show, doors opened at 7pm, with the show set to start sometime around 8:30pm.

Stubb’s is about two and a half to three miles away from my apartment, and due to my hatred for all things exercise related, I’ve taken to walking any place within a few miles in an effort to get some kind of exercise. Since the show was so early, my three mile walk was done while the sun was up and the temperature was pushing 100 degrees, maybe not the best idea to walk there, but I did it anyways. Basically before the show even started, I was tired, sweaty, and hot as all hell. Oh well. I downed a bunch of water before switching to beer for the show.

Now, I don’t know what kind of people I’ve become friends with, but upon asking around to find someone to go to the show with, the conversation usually went something like:

Friend: “Who are you going to see?”

Me: “Ween”

Friend: “I’ve never heard of them…” then either “Who are they?” or “What do they sing?”

Me: “Well, uh… If you don’t know the name, I seriously doubt they’ve had anything like a radio hit. Maybe ‘Voodoo Lady’”

Friend: “Well, what kind of music do they play?”

Me: “Um… they basically play every kind of music, except for maybe rap…”

Friend: “Oh, how much is it?”

Me: “$25”

Friend: “Thanks, but I’ll pass”

So I ended up going alone, which is fine. Concerts aren’t really events that require a whole lot of small talk and chitchat. It allowed me time to do some people watching, and if you’ve never been to a Ween concert, there is no finer place to people watch. Just about every race, age, subculture, and combination thereof were in attendance. Hippies, punks, metalheads, hipsters, frat guys, sorority girls, office-jockeys, and just plain skeezy weirdoes were all around. Ages ranged anywhere from 8 years old to 50-somethings.

But I was pleasantly surprised to run into a fellow grad student named Tyler and his girlfriend. We basically talked about how kick-ass Ween is and how shitty Philadelphia is (I was a little out of the loop on that second topic, but I’ve been there once, and it was pretty dirty). We talked shop for a little bit, nerdy grad student yammering, then the concert started.

Ween came out in a haze of artificial smoke and started the show off with a rabble-rousing rendition of “the H.I.V. Song”. From then on out, it became a non-stop flood of Ween. I can’t remember the exact set list. I started out trying to remember all the songs in order, but that soon turned into just trying to remember all the songs, which then turned into just trying to remember some of the songs. I know they played such fan favorites as “Ocean Man”, “Voodoo Lady”, and “Baby Bitch”. They also played some personal favorites like “I Can’t Put My Finger On It”, “Transdermal Celebration”, and “I’ll be Your Johnny on the Spot”. It’d probably be easier just to say that the only songs I wanted to hear and didn’t were “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night” and “Hey There, Fancy Pants”. I must say, I have four of their albums, and I still didn’t recognize almost half the songs they played. Their catalogue is a lot deeper than I gave them credit for.

Their set tended toward their more rock’n’roll songs. Even the songs that are not exactly solid “rock” songs (e.g. “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)”, “Zoloft”) were twisted into rollicking garage rock anthems. Loud guitars with yelled lyrics. Hearing an amphitheater of people all scream the lyrics to a song like “the Zoloft Song” is a pretty incredible experience. Even their songs that started out as pretty rock or pop oriented (e.g. “Voodoo Lady”) were extended into ten minute long hard rock jam sessions. Now, I abhor jam bands, but goddamn, those Ween boys can jam on a song for as long as they damn well please, and I will stand in awe, loving every drawn out minute of it. It didn’t matter if they were rocking out a ballad or grooving on a metal slowjam, those boys know how to put on a show.

As I mentioned, it was pushing 100 degrees outside when I got to the venue. The sunset did little to lower the temperature, and by the time the show started the venue was packed practically shoulder-to-shoulder, chest-to-back. This only pushed the temperature up, I’d estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000,000 degrees, give or take. With this amazing show going, I couldn’t not dance the night away, sweating every drop of fluid out of my body. By the end, I found it to be a personal challenge to outlast the band. I refused to give up as long as they were playing. When the end of the show finally came I’m pretty sure I wasn’t so much dancing as I was swaying in some kind of heatstroke induced seizure. I made it, though. First thing I did to celebrate this amazing feat was to run to the bathroom. I’m not sure how I managed to sweat out half my body weight and still have a full bladder, but I did it. A small victory in its own right, I guess.

Ultimately, Ween put on a show so good, that it managed to surpass my already unreasonably high expectations. I would say that it may have been even better than being born. If you learn anything in life, ever, it’s that Ween kicks ass.

Monday, June 11, 2007

I hate formatting, and it hates me

Sorry about the newest posts. I can't seem to figure out how to get it to insert line breaks. I'll keep trying, but in the meantime join me in cursing Blogger.com

Trash is letting me down

Recently I’ve been working insanely long days, and I found myself turning to a dear old friend for some relief. Bad movies. Given that my work involves a lot of thinking, I turned to the trusty world of simple-minded trashy movies for that sweet elixir called “escapism”. But I found myself being disappointed much more often than I should when watching movies that I already had rock bottom expectations for. Take for instance, the abysmal movies Hostel and Smokin’ Aces.

First, let’s tackle that snooze-fest Hostel. First and foremost, it was just fucking boring! The whole movie basically breaks down into 45 minutes of Eli Roth cramming in as many boobs as possible followed by 45 minutes of dirty, gross-out horror. Sounds good, right? I would have thought the same thing, but someone he turned that seemingly fool-proof formula into a painfully boring 90 minutes.

Basically, I hated all the characters so much from the very beginning that all I wanted was for all of them to die as painfully as possibly and as quickly as possible. The whole thing could have been 20 minutes long, and that would still be about 15 minutes too much. For a movie that seemed to generate so much controversy upon its release, it was a massive let down. Never has a torture movie been so dreadfully dull.

People have tried to explain it all away by saying that Roth is just resurrecting the maligned genre of ‘80s exploitation horror. Well, that may be true, but those movies sucked. Sure, some of them had some solid campy cult-ish fun, but really Hostel ends up being a shining example of why those movies went away. They are poorly made and boring as all hell.

And while I’m on the subject, I’m sick of hearing this nonsense about the new “Splat Pack” of young horror directors. I mean, really, what have any of them done that is worth noting? Saw? Cheap Se7en rip-off. Haute Tension? That movie could have been great if it weren’t for its one major, movie-ruining fuck-up. The only one worth keeping an eye on is Rob Zombie. (C’mon, House of 1000 Corpses is just the kind of trashy fun I wanted from Hostel, and even the critics liked the Devil’s Rejects)

All is not lost, though. The night I watched Hostel, my faith in the cinematically depraved was restored by watching Takashi Miike’s comedic splatter-crime masterpiece Ichi the Killer. Leave it to the Asians to take something American and make it 20 times more kick-ass. (see Japanese Night in the SXSW entry)

And now onto Smokin’ Aces. I expected even less from this movie than I did Hostel. I figured it’d turn into 90 minutes of big explosions, dizzying shoot-outs, and maybe a little bit of nudity to round it all out. Well, it had though things, but just not nearly enough or early enough.

The whole movie was about 1 hour and 40 minutes, and the action didn’t start until a good hour and 10 minutes into it. And even then it lasted all of 10 minutes before it was over and the movie finished itself off with 20 minutes of plot twists and exposition. A movie that should have been a highly stylized cornucopia of violence tried to make itself into a serious thriller by shoving in as many unnecessary plot twists as possible, and then added insult to injury by over-explaining every single one to the audience. We get it! That old FBI agent is the dying mob boss. You can stop bringing it up and telling us. The only thing worse than the first ¾ of the movie was the last 20 minutes. It was so bad it doesn’t even merit explanation.

Ultimately, that was Smokin’ Aces biggest problem. A movie that can’t even spell out the word “smoking” in its title tried to be serious. From the death of Ray Liotta to a ludicrous story about unrequited lesbian love, the whole mess was just handled way too seriously. The movie was bloated with quite a few name actors (Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds, Jeremy Piven, Jason Bateman, Andy Garcia, Ben Affleck) and even one R&B superstar (Alicia Keys), someone at some point should have known better than to play it all so straight. (Affleck came close with his bail bondsman character who couldn’t seem to remember what accent he talks with, but that might not have been intentional)

The only saving grace of the whole movie was the characters the Tremor Brothers. Three white trash hitmen who were all half-brothers (same mother, three different fathers). The scene in which they are introduced is brilliant. Unfortunately they are only in two more short scenes after that.

Much like the Hostel incident, this night was recovered by going to an old standby, Return of the Living Dead. Never have Quincy Punks, zombies, and nuclear war been so brilliantly blended. There is still hope for the world of trashy cinema. Maybe it just needs more zombies…

Summer Movie Review: Part I

I’ve only been able to see a couple of summer movies so far, so for now I’ll only be covering 28 Weeks Later and Spiderman 3. If you’re looking for another glowing review of Knocked Up, I’d suggest checking somewhere else.

First up is 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later. All of the infected have, at this point, starved to death following the outbreak of the RAGE virus. American-lead NATO forces have moved into London and are beginning to secure and repopulate the city with the survivors of the outbreak and shipping in Brits who have been out of the country. Naturally, the virus remerges and everything goes to shit.

I was pretty worried about this one. I definitely loved 28 Days Later, and had heard that Boyle was only involved in this one as an executive producer (which basically means nothing). Ultimately I ended up seeing it simply because the Spiderman 3 screening we were trying to make was sold-out. Ended up being OK, though, since 28 Weeks Later was much better than I expected, and I got to see Spiderman 3 later on anyways.



The film was surprisingly good. The return of the RAGE virus was handled very well. The film was well above average, with a few moments of total brilliance. We get to see the virus spread through crazed crowds, bringing to mind in the first film, when a character describes what it was like when the virus spread through a crowded train station. This time we get to see it, and it is terrifying. There is also an absolutely amazing scene that is watched entirely through the night-vision scope of rifle.

The movie was a pretty heavy handed at times in its critique of America military operations, but it doesn’t make it any less affecting. I won’t give away too much, but if you liked the first one, I would definitely say that the second is worth seeing. None of the characters from the first return for the second, but this time you get Robert Carlyle. And, really, who doesn’t love Begby?

On to Spiderman 3. Echoing most reviews, it’s not nearly as good as the first two, but if you’re a fan, it is worth seeing. The biggest problem is that Raimi seemed to try to shove too much into one movie. The story floating about is that Raimi refused to do a Venom storyline, but then was either forced by the studio or changed his mind depending on your source. The movie ends up continuing the Harry Osborne story, introduces the black suit, Venom, includes a Sandman story, and introduces the character of Gwen Stacy. A lot to chew on.

The end result is that Venom, the much more compelling character in the comics, is a very boring and one-dimensional character in movie, while Sandman, basically a thug without a backstory in the comics, becomes much more interesting and complex. The Gwen Stacy character is horribly represented and mishandled. Of course, that really only matters to those of us who are hardcore Spiderman fans.

It’s not all bad, though. The action is definitely rad and non-stop exciting. The Harry Osborne storyline is a little clumsy at times, but ultimately handled very well. Thomas Hayden Church’s performance as Sandman is fantastic. Really, if you want to get a good idea of the movie, imagine the first two with better action and special effects, but with a clumsier and shallower story.



My biggest problem with the film, ultimately, ended up being the Eddie Brock/Venom character. Topher Grace is completely wrong in his portrayal of Eddie Brock, but it seems to be less his fault and more the fault of the writing. The casting was bad from the beginning. (I mean, Eric Foreman as the intense, muscle-bound thug hell-bent on murderous revenge?) The character is written totally different from the comics. Instead of the usual intense and serious Eddie Brock, we get a wisecracking smart aleck. Ultimately, the Venom storyline is really inconsistent and handled pretty poorly.

The movie is worth checking out if you like Spiderman or either of the other Spiderman movies. Expect more flash and less substance.

Movie yet to be seen: Hot Fuzz, Knocked Up, Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End.

the Return of the Octopus Motor

After a painful absence from the World Wide Web, I am pleased to announce that the Octopus Motor will be back up and running smoothly in the very near future. Following an insanely busy month to finish off my first year in graduate school and a wonderful break in sunny Florida, I am ready to once again conquer my small corner of the Internet. I will be posting more updates in the very near future.

Keep your eyes peeled and ears open, the Octopus Motor returns…

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Yet another reason to order Showtime

Just in case the allure of nudie films after midnight wasn’t enough, Showtime is also home to one of the greatest series currently on TV. “Masters of Horror” has a simple premise bordering on genius. Essentially, series creator Mick Garris taps a different horror director to write and direct an hour long movie for each episode. For those of you in the know, this is painfully old news. The show has been on for over two years, and the second season’s movies are currently trickling out on DVD. For those of you not in the know, well, now you are.

Impressively, the first season managed to get some true genre luminaries, including Dario Argento (Suspiria), Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Stuart Gordon (Reanimator), among others. Also on the roster are some pretty big name directors who have dipped their toe in the horror waters without every really jumping all the way in. John Landis (American Werewolf in London), Joe Dante (Gremlins), and Takashi Miike (Audtition) have all contributed to the series. Given a stacked line-up like that (plus a few modern directors still making names for themselves, like Lucky McKee and William Malone), the series is pretty fucking exciting for all the horror aficionados out there.

I had not actually seen any of the shows until recently. Basically, I can’t afford Showtime and I’ve never really wanted to pony up the $2.50 rental fee to rent a 50 minute movie. I finally broke down and went to a local video store on 2-for-1 day to check out a couple. I picked up the first season installments by John Landis (who returns for another episode in season 2) and Don Coscarelli.

The Coscarelli episode, entitled Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, is adapted from a Joe Linsdale short story (Linsdale also penned the novella from which Coscarelli adapted his cult favorite Bubba Ho-Tep). As a movie, it was good, but nothing special. The plot revolved around a young woman who crashes her car into an abandoned car on a road leading through the Northwest wilderness. When she gets out to see if the other driver is around, a giant hulking maniac chases her off into the woods. A typical demented-killer-chasing-beautiful- woman story begins to develop with some fun twists. The woman, as revealed through a series of flashbacks, was once married to a paranoid survivalist who teaches her crazy backwoods self-defense strategies. All in all, a good and entertaining chase movie, with some fun and unexpected takes on a well-worn subgenre. It also has a surprisingly satisfying ending, given the simplicity of the plot. As an added bonus, Ethan Embry (the GWAR-loving stoner from Empire Records and the sweet Preston Meyers of Can’t Hardly Wait) pulls out an amazing performance as the survivalist husband, lending a surprising amount of depth to a character that could very easily slipped into the realm of absurd.

The other episode was John Landis’ Deer Woman. As you can imagine from the title, the story involves a supernatural creature that is half deer and half woman going on a murderous, yet sexy rampage. In typical Landis style, the story is less scary and more funny with lots of gore. Similar to his classic American Werewolf in London, the movie contains tense scenes with a darkly wry sense of humor. Working as a horror-comedy, the movie is incredible. Absurd humor bordering on slapstick elicit some truly laugh out loud moments (one of my favorite being when a detective is trying to imagine all the way that one of the murders could have happened). Not to mention that, in true Showtime fashion, this one contains a couple of boob-shots. I was happy to see that Landis is returning for another installment for the second season.

Overall, as movies, both of these are a little above average. But as episodes in an anthology TV series, they are incredible. Though their tones and styles couldn’t be more different, they both offer roughly the same thing. A quick and streamlined version of what you would ordinarily look for in a full-length horror film. I personally would say that they are worth checking out. The fact that so many brilliant horror directors are all contributing to this project means, more than anything else, the series serves as a great introduction to both classic and up-and-coming directors and their individual styles. I’m especially looking forward to watching Dario Argento’s two episodes (Jenifer and Pelts).

The series seems to have something for both hardcore horror fans who are always anxious to consume more and more by their favorite directors, as well as the casual fan looking for either an introduction to the world of really good horror (rather than say, the glut of J-horror remakes or Eli Roth’s empty gore-fests) or just a faster way to get their thrills. If you have a video store with 2-for-1 days or just cheap rental fees, definitely check out a couple.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Yee-Haw!!!

Texas is crazy. And Austin is part of Texas. Granted, a liberal part overflowing with hippies and hipsters, but in many ways, still very Texas.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago I attended my first rodeo. I’m not entirely sure what I expected from it, but it was not exactly what I had envisioned. At least not entirely. It was in Austin, so I figured it would be similar to the rest of Austin. Nope. It’s a rodeo, so I figured it was outdoors (that’s how they show them in the movies, right?). Nope. Rodeos are on CMT sometimes, so it’s going to be pretty country, right? Well, OK, that one’s true.

First, there was the carnival. The fairgrounds of the Travis County Expo Center were covered in typical carnie greatness. Games that were obviously fixed. Rides that did not inspire confidence in carnie engineering. Every type of food imaginable, including turkey legs, deep-fried pickles, and even pizza on a stick.

Now, there was nothing really noteworthy about the carnival, besides its size (it was pretty fucking big, but once again, this is Texas). It had a cell phone accessories booth, which seemed a little out of place, but not all that exciting. What it did have, though, that I have never seen in real life, was a sideshow. Even though I wasn’t expecting to be amazed, I still felt that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to actually go inside. So I spent my $2 on admission (well, actually, I spent my $2 on two tickets, and then spent my two tickets on admission), and ventured into that tent of wonder.

The sideshow consisted of three animals: a cow with six legs (he had a couple of extra legs dangling off his back), a cow with two noses (odd as it may sound, he looked exactly how you would expect him to look – like a cow with two noses), and the world’s smallest horse (really just a pony). The animals weren’t all that impressive, a little depressing actually, but the rest of the sideshow was pretty cool. Lots of weird fetuses of all kinds in yellowy glass jars, and some amazing feats of taxidermy. There was the ram’s head with four horns (totally looked like something off some ‘70s metal album), the unicorn lamb, but the real attraction was the Cyclops lamb. Now, this wasn’t just a stuffed lamb with one eye. No, no, no. This was a lamb with, ready for this?, ok: 1 eye, 3 ears, 2 bodies, 6 legs, 2 tails, and I can’t even remember what else! It just blew my mind that at some point, in the recent history of mankind, someone sat down at a table with at least two separate lamb bodies, and thought to himself, “Let’s do this…” Proceeding to create the white-trash fantasy piece before me. Truly inspiring.

But that’s enough about carnies and sideshows, time for the main event, the mother-fucking rodeo!

As I said earlier, this is not what I was expecting. Inside the arena, we were greeted with a spectacle falling somewhere between an NBA game and a pro-wrestling event. It started with a laser light show featuring alt-rock accompaniment, followed by some fireworks and a ridiculous monster-truck style announcement that the rodeo had begun. Abruptly the mood changed as the lights came on and an old man in a cowboy hat appeared on the big screen, talking endlessly in that old man way about how great the rodeo is and how great America is. At some point there was also an extended commercial for some new Toyota truck (the new Tundra, I think), that involved a monkey in a cowboy costume doing cowboy stuff (e.g. wranglin’ and lassoin’).

Finally we get to the actual rodeo. This part is more or less what I was expecting. There was the typical events, falling into one of two categories. Either some kind of riding event or some kind of wrangling event. There was the bareback bronco riding, which was admittedly really really awesome. Cowboys truly are real fucking men. They sit on top of a horse, with no saddle, get the horse all riled up, and then see how long they can stay on. There was also the saddle-back riding, which is essentially the same thing as bareback but with a saddle.

Now, I want you to take a moment to really let the balls-out absurdity of this sink in. For no real reason, a man is willing to sit on the back of a giant animal. Go out of his way to piss that animal off. And then for the hell of it, see how long he can hold onto this giant angry beast. Pretty amazing.

There was also the wrangling events. These I wasn’t as in to as the riding events. They all consisted of a man (or men) on horseback and a steer. The steer and the cowboys were released from their side-by-side gates, and the cowboys had to catch the steer according to the rules of that specific event. There was the one with two cowboys with lassos, one of whom lassoed the horns and the other lassoed the back legs. This was impressive from a skill sense, but not really what got me going in terms of excitement. There was the event in which a single cowboy would lasso the steer, jump down from his horse, and then wrestle the steer down to hog-tie it. Once again, impressive from a skill standpoint, but wreaked a little too much of animal cruelty for my taste. By far the best wrangling event, though, was the one in which the steer was released with a single cowboy. The cowboy almost immediately leapt off his horse onto the steer and wrestled it down by hand. Now this event was pretty awesome for much of the same reason the bareback riding was awesome. There was a certain brazen stupidity in it that really appealed to me. Somehow these men were earning my respect by putting themselves needlessly in harms way to mess with a potentially dangerous animal. God bless America.

Before moving on to the greatest event of the night, a quick word about some inter-events. While the crew was setting up for the next round of real cowboy action, they had some fun little things to keep the audience’s interest and get the kids involved. The first of which was called “Mutton Bustin”. The consisted of children, ranging in age from 5 to 7 years old, laying the child face down on the back of a sheep, and then releasing the sheep and seeing how long the child can stay on. Kind of a fun, safe version of the adult riding events. It was actually a fun little time. We all cheered on the children. We all laughed when they did something cute or when a sheep appeared to run over a child. Good clean fun. By far, though, the craziest of these little non-events was something called the “Calf Scramble”. This was for a slightly older crowd, the participants looked to be in their teens, 14 to 16 –ish, maybe. They also might have been all girls, I don’t really remember. This is crazy enough it warrants its own paragraph. The thoughts running through my head and out my mouth are provided in real time in parentheses.

The teens all line up in the middle of the arena watching a man in a hat. A gate opens and out come a large crowd of calves. (huh, that’s weird, I wonder what they’re going to–) Hat drops! Kids rush off the line. (wait! What are they doing?! They can’t honestly be…) Mad rush of teenagers meets with scattering herd of calves. (OH MY GOD. They are. No. That can’t be right. Can it?) The teenagers begin to corner the calves individually, wrestling them to the ground by hand, and then hitch them up so they can drag them off the arena floor, presumably for some kind of prize. (oh my god. They are. That’s really how this works. How fucking weird…) As the calves dwindle in numbers, some of the slower and smaller teens continue to struggle. (Conor: Hey Scott, look at that.) Small teen girl has a calf by the tail and is being dragged on her stomach across the length of the arena. (Scott: HAHAHAHA!!! Oh, that poor calf. heehee, stupid little girl.) Eventually the slow and the small team up to corner the last calf and over power it with sheer numbers. And so ends the fast and exciting ride that is “Calf Scramble”.

After some events that I’ve probably forgotten about (I didn’t forget about barrel racing, I just chose not to watch it in favor of peeing out a couple of $6 beers), so I’ll jump ahead the main event – BULL RIDING!!!

In terms of rules, there really isn’t much more to bull riding than to bareback or saddle riding. Except, instead of riding a big angry horse, these guys ride huge fucking pissed off BULLS. Just to give you an idea of how big a bull is, they generally weigh just under 2000 lbs. That’s one ton. One ton of pissed off animal. I noticed at this point, that the cowboys, while waiting for their gate to open, will give the bull a healthy smack now and again. The bulls are pissed off already, you stupid son-of-a-bitch! You don’t need to hit it more! The gate would open, the cowboy would try his damnedest to stay on for longer than 8 seconds, and then would be graded on form. (How weird is that? They get graded on their form while riding a wild and angry one-ton animal. Once again, please take a moment to appreciate the absurdity of this.) I thought bulls were scary before, but after having seen this event, by far my favorite of the night, I know now that bulls are FUCKING TERRIFYING. These things are big and mean. And unlike the horses from the riding events, who would just run around in a big circle until a rider could catch up and bring him in, the bulls would stand in the middle of the arena looking to fuck someone up. Staring down anything, and charging everything.

Which brings me to the clowns. Now, I mentioned before that these cowboys were “real men”, but rodeo clowns are real men with real big balls. While the rider runs off to safety, the clowns run around, distracting the bull, getting it to chase and charge at them. How big do your balls have to be to take a job that basically comes down to getting a bull to charge at you? Pretty fucking big. I’d imagine, I mean, I didn’t see any clown balls that night. Though, they do wear those baggy low-crotched pants. After the last bull rider, the clowns put on a fun show, where a bull chased them around, trying to hurt them. At one point the bull did the bull-preparing-to-charge move, with the lowered head, staring out the tops of its eyes, as it flung dirt back with strokes of its front hooves. Then it would make its mad dash to mess up some clowns. It was good fun.

Unfortunately after the clowns they brought out some crappy soft-rock country band named Lonestar. Really bad. That’s all I’ll say about them.

All in all, though, my first rodeo experience was a good one. I’d be willing to make another go of it next year. Personally, I think that there needs to be more sports that center on the concept of man v. animal. Maybe when I visit Laura this summer I can talk her into taking me out to an alligator wrestling farm or something.

I’ll leave you with a recent example of what I mean when I say “Texas is crazy” or that something is “very Texas”.

All week last week I was getting weird questions from my students and strange emails from the President of UT. The President sent out an email early on in the week explaining that classes would not be cancelled on Friday. That the governor would not be closing government offices, and thus class was still on. “Huh, that’s weird,” I thought, “Why would the President need to specifically say that class is not cancelled?” Well, starting Wednesday, I started getting emails from my students asking if there was still lecture on Friday. Once again, I thought, “Why wouldn’t there be class on Friday? What the hell is going on?” Then Thursday some students drop by my office hours asking if class will be in session on Friday. I finally had to breakdown and ask, “Uh, yeah. Why wouldn’t there be class? I mean, is something going on that I don’t know about?” “Oh, no, not really. It’s just that tomorrow is Good Friday.” As some of you may or may not know, this past Friday was Good Friday (that is, the Friday before Easter Sunday for you heathens). Well, apparently, Texas’ governor has cancelled public school classes and all government offices on Good Friday in the past. Does this strike anyone else as strange? That all the government offices and all public schools in the state would close for Good Friday? While discussing this bizarre phenomenon with a recent acquaintance, he explained, “Yeah, he usually does it, but it’s not an election year this year.” WHAT?! That makes even less sense! Why would the governor go out of his way to combine church and state by closing everything for Good Friday, especially during an election year? Why would he want to draw attention to this sort of controversial behavior and want it impacting his election? Well, because this is Texas. And Texas is crazy.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A couple of firsts...

Here it is. The inaugural edition of the Octopus Motor, and what better way to start this whole thing out than with a recap of my first South by Southwest (from here on out, abbreviated with the super cool “SXSW”) experience. Given that this recap is long as all hell, I hope you can get through it (there’s a nice story about the men’s room towards the end of Friday night, FYI). So here we go!

A few explanatory things about SXSW:

First, my entire experience at the festival was in the company of my lovely girlfriend Laura, who was in town for Spring Break. So you’ll see lots of first person, plural pronouns, as well as her name mentioned quite a bit. Just a heads up.

Second, for SXSW there are three ways for you to get into a show. You can get a badge, which is what press people and photographers have (or rich people who can afford to pay the $500 or whatever to buy one). Badge people get top priority when it comes to getting into venues. They get to go to the front of the line, always. You can get a wristband (which is what Laura and I had), which means you don’t pay a cover and you get priority over people just paying cash, but are behind the badges. Or you can just show up early to a venue and pay a cash cover, but you get stuck behind all the badges and wristbands.

Third, though the shows at night are the official SXSW shows, there are an abundance of free “day parties,” which are basically concerts during the day put on by either record labels and/or music publications. Besides offering you the chance to see twice the amount of live music, the day parties also tend to entail free beer and possibly food. So those were definitely attended.

Fifth and finally, I will list locations, venues, and general Austin landmarks as if you know them. So if it bothers you that I offer no explanations, well, up yours. Same with bands and people.

And off we go…


Wednesday
:
Daytime: We begin our adventure by heading out to the day party at Trophy’s (a little dive bar on the south side of town) to check out some local bands: She Sang (or She Said?), Fire v. Extinguisher, the Onlys, and the Ghost of the Russian Empire.

She Sang/Said were boring in the worst way. Once you heard the tempo (which rarely changed from mid-tempo) and the first chord, you knew exactly how the song would go. Really, it was just a painful lesson in patience, since after five seconds you just wanted the whole three minute long song to end. Thankfully Fire v. Extinguisher took the stage next. This band was awesome. They played their entire set while seemingly completely oblivious to the audience. Mostly they just stood up there, staring at their instruments, the floor, or each other as they blasted out some loud, heavy post-rock weirdness. The Onlys, whom Laura really liked, were nice mix of pop and rock with some keyboard flourishes (reminiscent of the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev as Laura pointed out), trading off vocals between two really good singers. Nice change of pace. Especially after the dreadfully boring pop of She Sang/Said, and a nice reprieve after the sonic assault of Fire v. Extinguisher. Finally the Ghost of the Russian Empire came on to dazzle us with their old man take on embarrassingly bad Trans Siberian Orchestra-style rock. We lasted less than two songs before the middle aged violinist’s playing forced us to give up and go home for dinner.

The entire experience was strange for a couple of reasons. Not the least of which was the fact this was a place that really needs to be patronized after sunset. It’s also the type of place that requires more than a few cheap beers in the bloodstream to really enjoy (reminds me a bit of the 8Ball in Ann Arbor, but not nearly as cool). There was something very odd about staring into a dark corner of the bar watching the band, and then glancing back over my shoulder to see sunshine coming in through the front door. Not exactly sure why, but that was a perpetually unsettling experience. By the time we left, spending a good four hours in a tiny (albeit kind of cool) bar in the middle of the day kind of got to us. We were more than happy when it turned out that the Ghost of the Russian Empire was unbearably bad, and we got to skip out early.

Nighttime: Our first official SXSW show was at Emo’s to see Blonde Redhead. We stood in line for 2 hours and 15 minutes, waiting in the wristband line, watching countless badge people get in ahead of us. We were really hoping to get in in time to see Calla, but we had to settle for hearing them through the walls of the club. We did get to see Kyle and his friend as they went back and forth to go to a bunch of shows. I never could decide if it was nice or frustrating to watch them have fun while we stood on a sidewalk for hours. Finally we got in.

Blonde Redhead were awesome. Though they’re one of those bands that I like every time I hear them, but never seem to get around to buying one of their albums, their live show was much more impressive than I expected. They really balance catchy pop song structure with left-of-center weirdness without falling into predictability (on the pop side) or needless experimentations and noodling (on the weird side). One song in particular had such a rumbling and bass heavy stomp, 30 seconds into it all I could think was “I bet the Apocalypse will sound something like this.” Not at all what I expected to come out of that trio. Plus, on top of all that, I got to meet an overly enthusiastic Canadian from Nova Scotia. In the midst of the show, a guy stumbled up next to me, wearing a frilly-ruffle-fronted tuxedo shirt, and proceeded to tell me over and over again about how much he loved Austin. “I had eight of your American beers and four whiskey-cokes!” he yells at me over the din of the show, while precariously holding three more of his whiskey-cokes. He did give me the inside scoop on where to hang out in the event I ever decide to vacation in Canada. Calgary is apparently the place to be (he claimed is was the most Austin of all Canadian cities because “they have lots of oil there too”). Or Montreal, but they speak French there.

All in all, Blonde Redhead ended up being totally worth the long wait in line. On the downside, Laura really wanted to get a taste of some Texas BBQ, and unfortunately, being a poor grad student and having only lived here since August, I don’t eat out a whole lot and didn’t know of any really good BBQ places (besides the Salt Lick, which I had never been to and only really knew three things about: 1. it has awesome food, 2. it’s roughly 20-30 minutes outside of town, and 3. I have no idea where it is). So, since we were the first wristband people in line for well over an hour (most of the wristband people in front of us in line had given up and left), we got to know the bouncer pretty well. He recommended a BBQ place on the East Side, and well, that’s a story for another day…

Thursday:

Daytime: We headed out to the Yard Dog Folk Art Gallery for another day party. This venue was much more suited to day time activities. A little folk art shop on South Congress had set up a big tent in the alley behind the store, tapped a couple of kegs, began dispensing free (unfortunately Miller Lite) beer, and let the good times role. The weather was sunny and hot, and the bands were all good from what we saw. Trophy’s was pretty cool and all, but this is more what I had in mind when I first heard about Day Parties. We caught the Cold War Kids (pretty good upbeat pop), Midlake (really good lush melancholy pop), and Bishop Allen (still a little undecided – between just OK and pretty good folksy pop/rock). Plus we actually had something to do during set changes, with South Congress’s densely packed little shops and stores all within a few steps. All in all, a good day in the sun, with a lovely lady, and good music. Good work Yard Dog Folk Gallery.

Dinner: We decide to checkout the BBQ place that the bouncer at Emo’s recommended the night before. He said to take MLK east, and that it will be on the south side of the street just before Airport. Easy enough. Well, first of all, I totally underestimated how for east you have to go on MLK before you hit Airport. We drove and drove, as the city sort of fell away and it just became a series of relatively poor neighborhoods. Finally, with Airport in sight, the only thing we could see that even resembles a restaurant is a tiny, white paint-chipped, stand with a faded sign that read “Lewis’ BBQ”. That was it. The “restaurant” we were pointed to by the bouncer turned out to be a broken down, little, neighborhood BBQ shack. And I don’t mean “shack” in a descriptive sense. I mean it in a literal sense. Basically, we drove by it, looked at each other, and on we went to a new place. (Weirdly enough, after over an hour of driving, we ended up at Ruby’s BBQ, which is about 3 blocks from my apartment, where we ran into an Ann Arbor pop band called Tally Hally, composed of guys Laura and I went to college with).

Nighttime: Tonight involved a lot more bar hopping and a lot less line-standing. Though, the night didn’t necessarily start that way. We headed to Buffalo Billiards to try and catch Bob Mould, but underestimated the line. After about 30 minutes in line, listening to a homeless man sing out in a booming (quite impressive, actually) baritone, what seemed to be an endless medley of ‘60s and early ‘70s pop-hits, we decided it would be best to just move on. That and the fact that the Bob Mould show had actually started about 3 minutes prior.

We headed over to Antone’s to get in line for the Astralwerks Showcase (really just to watch Norwegian heartthrob Sondre Lerche, as Laura put it, play “the guitar and girls’ heartstrings”). We watched some crappy band (the Small Sins, maybe?) and met a pleasant young man we affectionately nicknamed “Seattle Sam” (who was in fact from Seattle, but we never got his name, and we are ever so fond of alliteration). But then Sondre came on with his bright-eyed-big-grinned enthusiasm. Even though his new “rock” album did reek a bit of the straight-laced honor student trying to play the rockstar, it was good clean fun nonetheless.

Following Sondre, we headed back to the other end of downtown to check out the line at Stubbs, hoping for a chance to see the Dears. That didn’t work, so we walked to Emo’s Annex, which was basically a big tent across the street from Emo’s. Even though the line was too long for us to get into the show, the plus side to a giant tent as a venue is that all you have to do is stand next to it in order to hear all the music. So we hung around in the street for a while listening to JESU. But standing in the middle of the street, staring at a tent, listening to blaring/sweeping drone metal did get old after a while, so it was time to move on again.

With nothing on our massive, nerdy, ├╝ber-organized SXSW personalized schedule/spreadsheet for the rest of the night, we decided to just head down Sixth St. and look for the shortest line, which happened to be Bourbon Rocks. We stepped inside only to be assaulted with some extremely intense, prog/electro metal courtesy of a Portland band named Danava. Even though we only heard about 5 minutes of them, they seemed pretty rad. The rest of the night was fairly uneventful. Bourbon Rocks was a pretty cool venue, so we hung out on the porch and had a couple of beers, listening to the music coming from inside. The only other thing of note was the next band on, that, as Laura astutely observed, “looks like Kurt Cobain got together with Charles Manson and Jack Kerouac to form a band with an Amish guy.” Their name was Cheeseburger-something-or-other, and their music wasn’t noteworthy at all (I couldn’t even tell you what style of music it was), but they were a sight to behold.

Friday:

Daytime: Friday marked the darkest part of the week for me, and thanks to my relentless pouting and complaining, probably for Laura too. The Stooges were set to headline a pretty huge night at Stubbs on Saturday, and I desperately wanted to see them. After one look at the line up for the night, though, which included Spoon and Kings of Leon among others, we knew that we’d have to get there at noon for us to have a chance to get in (damn badge people!). Luckily, earlier in the week we went to Waterloo Records to do some shopping and found out that the Stooges were doing an in-store performance Friday afternoon!!!

Knowing that it was going to be huge, we get to Waterloo at 1pm. The workers inform us that we can stick around if we want, but that the line for the actual performance won’t be allowed to form until 4:30pm. We go out to eat a delicious sushi lunch, after being turned away by an Indian restaurant. We get back to the store around 3pm and begin to mill about the parking lot for an hour and a half. 4:30pm rolls around and Waterloo, treating their customers with the same amount of respect and courtesy usually reserved for packs of elementary school children or convicts, decides to send an employee to the sidewalk behind the mob of people and announce, “The Line Starts Here!” Of course the mad rush of the crowd pushes everyone onto the sidewalk and into the street. Now, granted we were not the first people there, but probably in the first twenty or so to be at the store. Thanks to Waterloo’s ass-backward system and complete disrespect for their own customers, we end up in the back third of the line.

After a long while and lots of yelling on the part of the Waterloo staff, the line becomes more or less single-file, allowing them to do a “count” of sorts. Basically, a couple of employees wander to the back of the line and say, “Well, probably right around that telephone pole [which we were definitely in front of] is going to be the cut-off. The people behind it might not get in. The people in front of it might get in. But we don’t really know.” Awesome. We may or may not get in. Way to “count” boys. It’s really a wonder why you’re 40 years old and work in a record store. Long story short, after another hour and a half of standing around, they start to let people into the store. We get progressively closer and closer to the door. The capacity for the store was 300 people. Laura and I end up being, roughly, numbers 314 and 315. We came downtown 5 hours early, skipped a showcase at Red 7 hosted by David Cross, waited in the parking lot for an hour and a half, waited in line for 2 hours, and were denied entrance. Thank you Waterloo for running your establishment with the obvious knowledge that you can do whatever the fuck you want to your customers and treat them however the fuck you want, knowing that they’ll stick around. The only consolation was that while we were waiting in line on the sidewalk, Iggy Pop’s Towncar got stopped at a red light right next to us. We didn’t get to see them perform, but we got to see Iggy in a car. Thanks to Laura’s quick hand, she snapped a really good picture of him.

Well, after that massive cock-tease of an afternoon, neither of us were in anything resembling a pleasant mood. After driving in an emotional state that doesn’t really lend itself to that particular activity, we parked in the convention center parking structure and sat in the car for a while. Eventually working up the energy to find some coffee and head down to the river to watch the bats come out from under the S. Congress bridge. For those not in the know, the S. Congress bridge is home to the nation’s (possibly the world’s, I don’t remember) largest urban bat colony. Every evening at sunset 1.5 million brown bats fly out from under the bridge and off into the deep orange sky. The tranquil setting of the riverside at sunset, followed by watching bats fly off into the evening sky, really did the trick to calm some nerves, gearing us up for some of the greatest rock this side of the Pacific has seen since, well, I guess last year’s SXSW. Get ready for JAPANESE ROCK NIGHT!!!


Nighttime
: Laura and I walk from the bridge up to Elysium around 8pm. Elysium is a cool, kickass venue that usually serves as Austin’s primary goth club. It’s where I saw My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult last November. Their men’s room is also where I met the Thrill Kill Kult (not in a weird way, we just happened to be sharing the same urinal/trough after the show). Try and remember that, it’s important for the story later.

Anyways, we get to Elysium and there is a long cash cover line, and our wristbands payoff and we walk past them like a couple of arrogant badge-people and into the bar. The first band we see, Oreskaband, is a high school-teenage-all-girl-ska-punk band. I really doubt that I could ever explain or describe the energy, craziness, and just downright fun of Japanese night. Watching six or seven teenage girls giggle and trade stage banter in broken English before launching into a raucous, bouncy ska tune, filled with coordinated hand gestures and call and responses with the audience was one of the coolest things I had seen in a long time. That is until the next band came on.

But first, Laura and I stepped out on Elysium’s patio to finish our drinks and get some air during set change. We notice a pack of very snazzily dressed Japanese men sitting at the table next to us. We then hear a girl in the cash line yell “Emeralds! I love you!” At which point we realize that the young men are a surf-punk trio playing later in the evening, called the Emeralds. They were polite enough to pose for a picture with Laura. The picture is completely rad, possibly better than the Iggy picture. Then we felt we had accomplished all we could on the patio and stepped back inside for the next band. Soon to experience what was possibly the highlight of the festival for me (occurring only a few short hours after the low point).

We walk into the venue and see three men in matching old-timey tuxedos standing on the stage. The50Kaitenz had arrived. These three gentle souls performed garage/surf rock with such furious enthusiasm and unbridled energy that I really thought they might pass out at any given moment. Filled with anguished facial expressions, constant shouting, and synchronized head nodding and stage running, their show was one of the greatest things I have ever seen. Mixing furious garage-punk nose with sharp, crisp surf rock riffs, the band played like they were going to either save the world or destroy it with their retro rock’n’roll.

I had been hearing a lot about how great Japanese night is from many people. Pretty much anyone who had witnessed it said that it was an annual must-see for SXSW goers. It was everything they promised and so much more. If I go to any shows next year, Japanese night will definitely be at the top of the list. Given that SXSW is a chance to see as much music as possible in as short a time as possible, we decided it was time to move on after witnessing the genius of the50Kaitenz.

We headed down Sixth St. to Eternal to make sure we had plenty of time to get in line for the Faint. We underestimated the size of the line (I think the Bob Mould experience kind of threw us for a loop and we didn’t really know what to expect from the line situation). We got into the bar a good 3 hours ahead of time. Laura and I settled in, got a beer, and talked our way through some openers. I have no idea if they were good or bad, but apparently they were forgettable since the only thing I can remember about them is that one of them at some point played some Pixies cover. Eventually 12:30am rolled around and the stage was set for the Faint.

In typical fashion, the Faint put on an intense live show. One forcing you to jump, dance, swing, and generally move in that goofy way white people dance when listening to loud, beat heavy, electro-tinged, techno-goth. The Faint did their usual shtick of mixing blatant (at times downright silly) sexual lyrics with in your face glitch rhythms and pretentious visual accompaniment for a great live show. Of course, the venue was packed to the rafters with drunk hipsters and assholes. With all that rhythm and dancing, arms were flying, people were pushing, temperature was nauseatingly high, and a girl accidentally put her cigarette out on my hand. Now, I enjoy a tightly packed concert as much as the next guy, but this was above and beyond uncomfortable, straight into the realm of the unpleasant. In short, the show was good, the crowd was bad, and the experience ultimately yielded mixed results. On the plus side, realizing that the show was coming to an end soon, I rushed off to the bathroom, knowing that it would take me a while to push myself through the crowd. As I stand at the urinal, taking care of business, some guys walk in, stand around, and I hear, “Hey, pass that over here.” I glance over and see the lead singer of the Faint take a giant joint from the keyboard player. I look around (after I’m done with my business, mind you), and the only people in the bathroom are me, the lead singer, the keyboard player, and the drummer from the band. (Remember the Thrill Kill Kult, huh? Apparently all you need to do to meet a band is head to the men’s room during the final song.) I asked, “I know this is weird, considering this is the bathroom and all, but could I get a picture?” To which the keyboard player responded, “Bathroom?! This is our backstage.” And lead singer responded, “Oh, I got these earplugs, and I think we need to do an encore or something.” In short, keyboard player, pretty cool and funny. Lead singer, kind of a dick, and he totally looked pretty rough up close. So take that lead singer of the Faint! You’re not as pretty as you look on stage. And your hear-line is receding. The Faint – 0, Scott –1.

Saturday:

Daytime: At this point, Laura and I have been waking up around 10am, going out around noon, taking an hour or so break for dinner, and then going out until 2am for the past three days. We decided a less stressful day was in order. So we stuck around my apartment until 4pm-ish and drove downtown to checkout a free concert poster art show at the Convention Center. While we were walking up to the Convention Center we hear a strange sound. A sound that was strangely familiar. We were intrigued. As we turned the corner, we discover that the strangely familiar strange sound was the Buzzcocks. The Buzzcocks playing a free show in a tent on the side of the road. So, what the hell, we walk in and catch the last two songs of their set (“What do I get” and “Ever Fallen in Love”). Fun little accident. We then head into the Convention Center to check out the art show. It was awesome. Tons of artists displaying some very rad concert posters for just about any band you can think of. Totally worth seeing.

Nighttime: Following in the tradition of the daytime activities, we decide that it’s best to lay low and wait until the 11:30pm Detroit Cobras show at the Red Eyed Fly. We leave somewhere around 9:30pm to head downtown. Low and behold, traffic is about ten times worse than it has been any other night. Pedestrians are everywhere. What is going on you ask? Could is be that it is Saturday night? Maybe that it is the last night for SXSW? It may be both those things. But what else was Saturday? Hmm… Oh right. It was fucking St. Patrick’s Day! Drunks in stupid over-sized green hats seemed to have taken over downtown.

As we waited in stop and go traffic to get to the Convention Center parking structure, where we had been parking all week, the unthinkable happened. A free street spot opened up right in front of us! Some drunk sorority girls apparently decided that they had had enough St. Patty’s fun for the night and were taking off early. So I snag the spot in an amazing, one-move parallel parking job, not even requiring any adjustments, in bumber-to-bumber traffic. Good thing too, since as we walked by the parking structure on the way to the show, we see a guy place a barrier in the driveway saying that it’s full. Everything’s comin’ up Milhouse.

Laura and I saunter down to the Detroit Cobras show, really with absolutely no idea how popular they are outside the greater Detroit area. Apparently they are quite popular, seeing as the badge-only line was at least 30 or 40 people deep. We didn’t even see the wristband line anywhere, and decided it wasn’t worth sticking around. Instead we just head right over to our final destination for the night, and for SXSW. Junior Senior is playing a 1am show at Exodus.

We stand around drinking some insanely strong mixed drinks from the bar. My Jack and Coke is basically whiskey. Laura’s vodka sour looks clear. We nurse those for a while as we watch Lesbians on Ecstasy play mind numbingly repetitive songs with so much bass it almost made me have to poop. Finally they finish and an OK French band called the Prototypes play. About this time Molly and Dave show up, having been turned away from the huge night at Stubbs (they were more interested in Spoon than the Stooges, though). We chat for a bit while we wait for the Danish duo to take the stage. Then it happens.

Junior Senior come on like the anti-Faint, playing irresistible dance music of the cheerfully fun variety. The music is upbeat, party music. The audience obliged by dancing our little hearts out. Singing along, even when we didn’t know the words. Even the audience was the opposite of the Faint show. It was crowded, but not uncomfortable. It wasn’t pushing and shoving (no cigarettes were put out on my person), it was jumping and waving. It was cheering. Truly an amazing, nay, perfect, ending to the week. Their set ended with the one-two punch of “Move your Feet” and “Shake your Coconuts” (and one other song that I didn’t recognize came last). Ultimately Junior Senior provided the greatest possible outro for an amazing week of nonstop music.

Now, back to St. Patrick’s Day. We left Exodus around 2:15am, stepped out of the bar and on to Sixth St. We were then greeted with the entire street still packed, almost shoulder-to-shoulder with SXSWers, St. Patty celebrants, and just general Saturday night crowds. Keep in mind that throughout the week, Sixth has been closed to traffic, so when I say “Sixth St.” I literally mean the entire street, not just the sidewalks. It was hands down the craziest crowd I have ever seen downtown, only made that much crazier by the fact that they were still around and showed no signs of going anywhere despite the fact that the bars had stopped serving any sort of alcohol a half an hour before. Austin sure is crazy.

Epilogue:

Well, my SXSW experience was a crazy one. I learned a lot. Don’t underestimate how popular bands are (if I want to see them, probably means other people do too). Japanese Night is totally fucking rad. In-stores at Waterloo aren’t as good as they sound. Spending roughly 14 hours a day going to bars and listening to music can be quite exhausting after a few days. Will I do it all again next year? Still undecided on how much I want to commit to it. Wristbands are a maybe, but Japanese Night and day parties are a definite. All in all, a good but exhausting time.

For those of you who made it to the end of this very long and rambling story (sorry about that), future updates will more than likely be reviews of whatever movies I happen to watch, or possibly new music I hear. Thus they will be shorter, probably more informative, and just plain more interesting. Except the second edition will probably be about my first trip to the rodeo, taking place tomorrow night!