Monday, March 23, 2015

The Pixies’ Frank Black Blabs About BRAZIL For Film Acoustic

As I wrote in the Raleigh N & O, the third installment of the new series Film Acoustic was a real doozy: Frank Black of the iconic punk rock band the Pixies presenting Terry Gilliam's 1985 classic BRAZIL. The event went down last Thursday evening, March 19th, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham with a screening of the film, which I believe is the best film of the '80s, followed by a chat conducted by Modern School of Film founder and Duke graduate Robert Milazzo, a bit of audience Q & A, and solo acoustic performances of four songs (“Wave of Mutilation,” “Monkey Gone To Heaven,” “Los Angeles,” and “All Around the World”).

Here are some highlights from the fine evening:

Milazzo's introduction: “Terry Gilliam was asked ‘what was your favorite review of BRAZIL?’ from the critics because the critics loved this film. And he said ‘it was from Salmon Rushdie. Salmon said ‘we are all Brazilians. We are all strangers in a strange land.’” I offer you that bit of cultural anthropology because tonight’s guest studied for a moment or two cultural anthropology on his way to making music history. He told me last night though that the classes that he had the most fun were the cinema classes.

We’ll ask him if he feels that way in about an hour. Please welcome to the Modern School of Film, Professor Charles Thompson, everybody, Frank Black.”

(audience applause)

Frank Black: “I should probably mention, I uh, made a bit of a popcorn mess by my seat.”

Milazzo: “Really?”

Black: “I tried to get, I got, I threw half of it before it even started, but thank you for the popcorn. And uh, I didn’t know what to wear tonight – ‘cause my film professor Don Levine, who taught Avant Grade Film 302-B, used to always wear a black turtleneck, and a black jacket, black pants. And he had a black carrying bag also. And I didn’t have any turtlenecks. But uh, so I wore sweatpants because I wanted to be comfortable tonight, so uh, technically, these are pajamas actually. I wore my pajamas, and figured it was black, you know?”

Miliazzo: “The movie, as Jonathan Pryce says the movie is half real, half dreams, so its apropos that you would wear half real, half dreams…and clocks which I love, they tie the outfit together. Thank you man, thank you for being here.

Black: “It’s hard to believe that the suits at Universal would’ve seen any cut of that film and said ‘you know, we’ve got a couple of ideas we’d like to, uh…” (laughs) You know what I mean? It sort of seems like ‘really?’ How could you look at a single scene, you know, ‘we like what you’re trying to do here but…’ It’s sort of shocking but it’s not shocking, I don’t know. The artist is always right the tour manager told me and if, you know, you hire some guy to make a movie, the artist is all obviously making art. Just leave them alone, ‘cause you don’t know and they do because they’re right.

Milazzo: “When we invited you to screen whatever film you wanted to share, why did you pick BRAZIL?”

Black: “Well, it really is like a knee jerk kind of a choice – I liked it! You know, when I first saw the movie, and I’ve seen it many times, and even though you could talk about this film and analyze it, intellectualize it, talk about it on a few different levels I suppose, basically I thought, I really liked it. I was really entertained by it, and I loved the film, all analysis aside. Every time I see it, I’m reminded of that. Now we can talk about it on other levels, but I liked it.”

Milazzo: “When did you first see it? Did you see it in ’85?”

Black: “I saw it when it first came out, I didn’t know what cut it was. I don’t recall it having a completely hacked ending. I believe when it was shown on television, or something, they tried to end it on a happy note. Right? They escaped to the countryside, and lived happily ever after. There was some version of that I heard about, but I think when I saw it in theaters it had the more poignant ending.”

Milazzo: “What were you doing in ’85?”

Black: “I was living in Boston, I had just dropped out of college, and I was starting a band with Kim Deal and Joey Santiago.”

Milazzo: “That worked out.”

Black: “Yeah, I was basically going to the movies. When I was in between jobs, I went to a lot of films. We rehearsed, we had our day jobs, but basically I went to the movies a lot. Sometimes we’d all go to the movies together as a band, ‘cause it would be very important to me: ‘you have to see this film that I’m really into!” You know, and I would drag them with me. They’d go along, and we had kind of a cinematic origin I suppose, you know, in at least that was what I was looking at more than music. Obviously, I loved Husker Du, and Peter, Paul and Mary, but, and I’d go see Husker Du when they came to town, but the art of film, also especially like this, you know, the way it’s supposed to be. We didn’t have computers or laptops or tablets or anything, and if you were a young broke musician you didn’t have TV or anything, so I’d go to the cinema a lot. And I always did then. As soon as I had enough money to go to the movies, I guess from my late teens or whatever, I went to the movies a lot.”

Milazzo: “On a script level, Tom Stoppard wrote, and Gilliam credits him as giving the guts to the movie – the Buttle/Tuttle, the bug falling into the thing – and Charles McKeown, and just a bit of trivia, this is my back-up trivia question, he’s in LIFE OF BRIAN, he’s in the Biggus Dickus scene. The script of this is pretty sophisticated in a sense of how it balances politics, the politics of every day – do you watch it on that level? Do you watch it on the sort of middle management, working in offices, I mean, it’s not been your life per say.”

Black: “I mean, it echoes the past, it echoes the present, it amplifies the future. I mean, it’s so incredibly apropos to any conversation, whether it’s today or whether it was 1985 when they made it. Or, I imagine, in the future, where it will all make a lot of sense.”

Milazzo: “Your son is right.”

Black: “Without getting into any kind of specifics, you know, bombs, control, misidentification, homogenization, pasteurization, whatever, the machinery – where does one begin? It’s all there.”

Milazzo: “One of the cool things, and you said it so well, and it’s even a more intelligent perspective, this film does better watching it more times, maybe in a way, watching it again here – the samurai is made out of computer parts. You can only watch it if you scrutinize the movie. This whole retro-fitting thing – he admits he sort of got it from Ridley Scott and Blade Runner, but this retro-fitting was in.”

Black: “The Samurai I find particularly beautiful. When he’s defeated the first time by Sam, and the flames from the escaping gas coming out of him, something about it is really beautiful and evil and industrial…

Milazzo: “And analog! You know, it’s like the movie is homemade in a sense. When you see Ian Holm with his face and those arms…”

On the cast:

Black: “I love Ian Holm, his tension, his pretending his hand’s broken…the casting is so incredible in this film…Jim Broadbent as the plastic surgeon ‘cut cut, snip snip,’ with his hair and everything, just beautiful.”

Milazzo: “We talked about the performances a lot yesterday – Kim Griest who takes a bad rap in a way is perfect, I mean, the way the casting of that is perfect.”

Black: “One of the things I really liked about it, it involves her character of course, is just the idea of love. There’s this old school romantic thing where he’s just obsessed with this person. And he’s searching for this person, because he loves them…and that’s it. It’s so romantic, and he’s this dorky nervous nellie guy with all this existential ennui and he doesn’t know what he wants – ‘I want her, I think!’ And it reminds me of when I first had a romantic crush when I was young. 

You know, that’s what you would fantasize about, like the backdrop of this film it’s like it’s all gone wrong, the world’s gone wrong, and I wonder what would it be like if there was an apocalyptic war and the world as we know it is falling apart, ‘I’ll go to her house, to her parent’s house and I’ll go get her!’ And we’ll get on a train, or a horse (laughs). We’ll escape, we’ll get out to the countryside just like at the end there. I guess, again there, the influence of BLADE RUNNER, I don’t know. Finally escape the grimy dark urban kind of tubular life that they lived, and they finally make it out to the countryside of the green, there’s the English countryside, much like the end of BLADE RUNNER. Finally we get out of Los Angeles where we can breathe! (Takes a big breath)

On the ending:

Black: “That’s the noir ending, you know it’s like ‘nope!’ It isn’t alright! Nope! Death! No, it’s over. The bad guys win. Of course, that’s the ending you want. That’s the ending that’s gonna ‘cause people to talk about it. We don’t talk about happy endings because, we forget them.”

On “Debaser,” which was inspired by Luis Buñuel’s 1929 surreal silent film collaboration with Salvador Dali, UN CHIEN ANDALOU:

Milazzo: “What was the line between watching the film, 
UN CHIEN ANDALOU, and writing ‘Debaser,’ putting it out into the world, what was the creative chronology?”

Black: “I don’t really know, but I think the way I used to write songs at that time was that I’d use language in a kind of jabberwocky kind of way. I would find syllables and combinations of consonants and vowels that I liked the sound of them. So maybe they’d form a word I was familiar with and maybe they didn’t, but it would begin to take form that way. And then maybe I could, it would ascend into an actual intelligible word, and then maybe that intelligible word might inform the rest of the text, or the lyric, you know? So, it wasn’t like I had the need to write a song that was basically the Cliff’s Notes, sort of a pop song Cliff’s Notes version of UN CHIEN ANDALOU. 

A song is such a shrunk down thing, there’s a universe of ideas but you’ve only got (sings out a bit of melody made up of nonsense sounds) – that’s it! That’s all you’ve got, and so how are you gonna get all this information in? I just took some of the language from my interpretation of the film, and I just, I don’t want to say it’s a hack job! 

But I kind of used something that I liked, you know, it wasn’t like I was saying anything. Other than, to quote Serge Gainsbourg: ‘I am a surrealist!’ So it was my way of saying ‘I am a surrealist too!’ and ‘I’m borrowing your movies for my song!’ That’s a French accent, right?”

“In Heaven,” a cover of a song from the ERASERHEAD soundtrack:

Milazzo: “Another song, ‘The Lady in The Radiator’ song, ‘In Heaven,’ which is an ERASERHEAD draw. Talk about that, watching ERASERHEAD conjuring that song. Do you recall that process?”

Black: “You brought it up, that is was the theme song to David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD, it was written, the lyric is by David Lynch actually, but the music is by a guy named Peter Ivers, and, of course, when I was a teenager I saw the film and I liked it, and we were a band playing nightclubs, we were an artsy fartsy band, so we did our loud version of that kinda simple song, and I thought we were so cool, but I found out that every metropolis on the planet has a band that has that song in their repertoire so we weren’t the only ones.”

On the use of the Pixies' 
“Where Is My Mind?” in David Fincher's 1999 cult classic FIGHT CLUB:

Black: “It was nice that our song was in it, but I was kind of more caught up in my cinema experience so I think I was able to compartmentalize it. I didn’t jump up and go ‘that’s me!’ But I mean, you know, I got a grand out of it, but I was engaged in the film. When it happened it washed over me like everybody else. It’s a great moment in the film, because it’s a great moment in the film not because of the song. The song works, but I think a lot of songs could’ve worked in that same spot. But he picked the right kind of song, I suppose, for his montage.”

On being up for a role in Fincher's ZODIAC

Black: “You know, uh, David Fincher was making the ZODIAC movie, and he wanted me to play the Zodiac killer, because I bore a certain physical resemblance.”

Milazzo: “Wow! That’s cool, man.”

Black: “And so he sent me part of the script and some other materials, you know so I could get all Robert De Niro and really get into my role – it was a little freaky, but, you know, I bought some combat boots that the guy was fond of, and tried to, you know, I went to an acting coach, we talked for a few minutes. And they know I’m not an actor and they weren’t trying to put a lot of pressure on me, but I sat there with him and his producer, and I was literally like, you know, Don Knotts, I was just like (makes unintelligible speech) – I was just reading off a page and I couldn’t even like, it was just so hard. It was so hard to act, to even just read, to put, to get any kind of connection to the drama, even in the most casual setting… ‘It’s okay, it’s alright , Charles’ I said, I literally couldn’t even talk. And they were ‘Thank you very much,’ and I never heard from them again.”

The next installment of Film Acoustic, on Monday, April 13th, looks pretty damn interesting too: Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers screens Sidney Lumet's 1976 classic NETWORK. Tickets are on sale now.

More later...

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