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2013/01/27

Art Ensemble of Chicago

by John Bloner, Jr.

"Play is the free spirit of exploration, doing and being for its own joy."
Stephen Nachmanovitch,from the book, "Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art"

Artwork by Gyula NĂ©meth
John Rockwell of the New York Times called them, "the premier avant-garde free improvisational ensemble of the day."  Kevin Whitehead of NPR said they "fostered a style of quiet and spacious improvising with a misterioso atmosphere." The Village Voice reported, "they played everything and they played nothing (the longest rests on records ever); they revealed technical aplomb while developing a methodology that put their skills in question." Dominique Leon, writing for Pitchfork Media, added, "step forward, have patience, and be ready for anything."



"Theirs is simply positive music-making that is loads of fun and possesses much to admire." Tyran Grillo, record review

I discovered the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) in the late 1970s, when they had released their album, "Nice Guys", on the ECM label. I'd grown up on the music of Lawrence Welk, Lenny Dee and Percy Faith and survived a teenage binge on hard, glam and prog rock. I knew some basics about jazz, but was wildly unprepared for the sounds (and sometimes silence) that rose from this LP.

This record required me to rethink everything that I thought I knew about music. Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors Maghostut, Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye of AEC played traditional jazz instruments: trumpet, saxophones, drums, and acoustic bass, but they also banged on gongs, rattled cans and cowbells, hummed into kazoos, sounded party noisemakers, squeezed bike horns and made bird calls to add a texture to their soundscapes. They have performed with more than five hundred instruments, including found objects.

Lester Bowie didn't just play trumpet; according to trombonist Craig Harris, he "used parts of the trumpet that most people don't deal with: the low tones, the pedal tones, the growls and smears. He used whispers in his playing and taught [Harris] how to play soft."


"The way we look at it, everything is a sound. A chord is just the name of a sound. They say C is a pitch; it's the name of a sound. So is a cat's meow a sound, so is a motorcycle, so is anything."  Lester Bowie in an interview with Lazaro Vega

Roscoe Mitchell
Just as composer John Cage taught people to "reconsider [their] expectations and assumptions" about music, the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago explored the possibilities of communicating with sound. Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell told jazz reporter Ted Panken, "Sometimes, I don't really hear like a scale, per se. I might hear one note, and then the next note with a whistle or a whistle with a kind of wind instrument, or a whistle and a bell."

The spirit in which AEC expresses its music may be contemplative or celebratory. Over decades of recording and playing live, its musicians have woven a kaleidoscopic quilt with African drums and chants to midway sounds, tent revival redemptive cries, evocations of both Mingus and Mancini, marching bands, New Orleans jazz funerals, and fragrant elements of funk, hip-hop, reggae, street corner serenades, sprawling improvised magic and silence. "Music is fifty percent sound and fifty percent silence," Mitchell said. "So, when you interrupt that silence with a sound, then they start to work together."



Great Black Music: Ancient To The Future

The Art Ensemble of Chicago embody the motto, Great Black Music: Ancient To The Future, of the nonprofit Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

AACM formed in 1965, as an organic progression of the Chicago avant-garde music scene that had spawned the Experimental Band years earlier. The Experimental Band contained a who's-who list of some of today's top jazz musicians, including not only Muhal Richard AbramsJack DeJohnette and Henry Threadgill, but also three young players: Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors. When Lester Bowie moved from his hometown of St. Louis to Chicago, he quickly fell in with them.

"I never met so many insane people in one room." Lester Bowie

The four men--Bowie, Favors, Jarman and Mitchell--formed the group, Roscoe Mitchell's Art Ensemble. According to author Gerald Brennan, Mitchell's music was already pointing "to a new path for jazz at a time when the prevailing free jazz was being increasingly seen as a dead end." 

In 1969, they moved to Paris in order to dedicate themselves to their art form.  Soon after, drummer/percussionist Famoudou Don Moye joined them, and they became the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Famoudou Don Moye
"When I joined the Art Ensemble, we would rehearse eight hours a day, every day, and afterwards sit down and have a home-cooked meal in a home environment with the kids and the dog running around; just normal shit."
Famoudou Don Moye (Village Voice article by Greg Tate)

Louis Armstrong
According to Alex McGregor in Zing Magazine, The Art Ensemble distinguished itself by "turning away from jazz's tendency of celebrating individual virtuosity in favor of group dynamics."

In the 1920s, Louis Armstrong, by his out-sized personality and virtuosity on his horn, dramatically changed jazz music by placing the focus on the soloist rather than the ensemble. Other jazz giants would take center stage in the years to come: Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.

AEC turned around this dynamic. "If early jazz had helped set European standards of technique on their head through the use of new tonal colors," McGregor wrote, "the Art Ensemble had raided the attics, toy chests and junk shops to collapse jazz's 'gunslinger' competitiveness onto itself."

Famoudou Don Moye
The Art Ensemble also brought a visual element to their concerts in years well before MTV. They were multimedia before the term was coined.

"We were doing performance art as far back as 1965, just not calling it that," Jarman said.

Along with Moye and Favors, he painted his face in tribal paint and dressed in colorful garb. Lester Bowie wore a lab coat and sometimes a chef's hat, while Mitchell stood as the straight-man, the dun-colored fowl in a hothouse of peacocks and birds of paradise; at least until his sax sounded.

The face-paint served another function. "Face-painting in non-Western cultures is a sign of collectivism, is a sign of representing the community," Jarman commented.

The music of the Art Ensemble was never an esoteric exercise, slim as its audience may have been at times; they had the chops to get people on their feet, shake their groove thing, and let joy overflow.


"I miss the sound of his voice as a human being. The voice of his trumpet is as unique as it is an extension of his personality".  Don Moye on the late Lester Bowie


AEC in 2006 with artists (from left) Roscoe Mitchell,
Don Moye, Jaribu Shahid, Corey Wilkes and Joseph Jarman
In the span of five years, the Art Ensemble lost Lester Bowie (1999) and Malachi Favors (2004).  The band has continued with guest musicians on bass and trumpet, but tours and records are few.  AEC released a live recording in 2006, featuring Corey Wilkes on trumpet and Jaribu Shahid on bass.  In 2010, AEC performed in Philadelphia with Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Harrison Bankhead on double-bass.

Roscoe Mitchell
Roscoe Mitchell had performed the composition, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City, with the Art Ensemble and later, in a classical music setting, which featured the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra. He also took part in a premiere performance of his classical composition at Mills College in Oakland, CA in 2012.
Joseph Jarman

The Mills College Website offers information about that program and offers a terrific video of the Art Ensemble of Chicago that I have not seen anywhere else. It's a priceless piece of performance, particularly in its final moments with Malachi Favors.

Joseph Jarman was ordained as a Shinshu Buddhist Priest in 1990 and began the Jikishinkan Dojo in Brooklyn. He had left AEC in 1993 to concentrate on his Buddhist studies and the practice of Aikido, but returned in 2003. With musician, artist and author Chris Chalfant, he launched the Lifetime Visions Orchestra and performed as a duo with her.

Famoudou Don Moye
Famoudou Don Moye has performed live in recent years with Harmut Geerken and on the recording, "The Gray Goose", dedicated to Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht, which offers the tune, "The Poplar Tree on Karlsplatz".

Karslplatz in Munich, Germany is a long way from Daley Plaza in Chicago, but Moye's subtle sounds on percussion show that great music knows no boundaries.



"There are a lot of sounds. We try to incorporate any sounds into the music. Sounds of life. Sounds of everyday. The deeper you get into it, the deeper it gets into you."
 Lester Bowie


Explore the many recordings of the Art Ensemble of Chicago by visiting their page on AllMusic.com, as well as the individual pages of the group's artists. The four recordings made on the ECM label--Nice Guys, Full Force, Urban Bushmen and Third Decade--are a fine introduction, but you can go deeper into their sound by also lending an ear to their earlier and later records, as well as the music they have created in solo careers.

I believe we are born twice into this life; first through our parents and their influences and then through our own discoveries of people, places, philosophies, faith, cultures and the arts that we weave into our lives.

I thank the Art of Ensemble of Chicago for opening my ears, eyes, mind and my heart.

For further explorations, visit the Art Ensemble of Chicago page on Facebook and the Great Black Music website here.

2013/01/20

Let Me Go

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


In 1941, Helga Schneider’s mother said goodbye to her and walked away, leaving both the little girl and her younger brother in a relative‘s care, apparently never looking back.  Helga’s first reunion with her mother wouldn’t happen until nearly thirty years later.  Her mother’s reason for leaving her children and her former life behind? To serve as a high-ranking member of Hitler’s SS, working in some of the most notorious concentration camps in Europe: Auschwitz, Birkenau and Ravensbruck.

Let Me Go is a riveting memoir by Schneider, detailing her second, and last, visit with her mother.  By this time, her mother was in her late eighties and in declining health, suffering from dementia or other memory impairments.  However, she has stunning, chilling clarity when recalling her days as an SS guard.  Written in a style that combines the story of that visit with childhood memories and stream of consciousness questions towards her mother, readers get pulled into Schneider’s struggle.  How can she find some sort of peace with the past: both her own and her mother’s, tied together with a tenuous thread of shared DNA and a sense of obligation?

Author Helga Schneider  in 1941, and her brother, Peter
Having studied WWII-era history in college, I knew some of the vile details of the Nazi regime and had seen some of the wrenching footage of the skeletal bodies piled up as the Allies came in to liberate the death camps.  But in the book, as Schneider delves deeper into her conversation with her mother, more terrible information is revealed.  It leaves her---and the reader---with yet more questions.  How could people commit such atrocities against other people, day after day? And how could her mother seemingly “forget” her children, living with luxuries like champagne and silk stockings, while they nearly starved, and hundreds of people were being put to death just yards away from where her mother was sleeping at night? It’s a maze that Schneider can’t seem to get free of; as she asks more and more questions of her mother, hoping to finally get some answers that will help her to make some sense of the past, she finds that some things don‘t change, despite the passage of so much time.

While reading Let Me Go, my heart couldn’t help but ache for Schneider, who’s so completely torn.  On one hand, she doesn’t feel a real sense of love for her mother, and during this last visit chronicled in the book, as her mother tries to grab her hands, hug and kiss her, and asks her to call her “Mutti” (an affectionate diminutive of the German word for mother), Schneider is physically repelled by the gestures.  In fact, the physical reactions experienced by Schneider are vivid and prevalent throughout the book.  She’s on the verge of panic and feels ill as she prepares to go to the Seniorenheim (senior nursing home) where her mother resides. And while she’s there talking to her, many of the same negative gut reactions keep happening.  Still, she’s pressed on by wanting answers, by wanting to know the truth of what happened and what her mother was possibly thinking and feeling during all of that time.  Alternating between an urge to just flee and get back to the safety of her own life and an urge to keep pushing for her mother to make the revelations, as a reader, I could feel the tenseness in my own body at times.  I, too, wanted Schneider to fight the unease she was feeling and keep going.  Like her, question upon question was bubbling up, and a desire to try to grasp some sort of understanding of how a person could do the things she’d done, and how one could so completely rationalize and justify them.  Like her daughter, I wanted even just a hint of reassurance that with the threat of her own death (had she been suspected of disloyalty to the Fuhrer) far behind her, that she feels deep regret and remorse.

In one of the more powerful flashbacks of the book, Schneider recalls how, during her first visit with her mother almost thirty years prior, her mother told her to hold out her hands, and then heaped gold jewelry into them.  “For a moment, I look uncomprehendingly at all that gold.  Then I understood, and it was if my hands were on fire.”  Her mother is offended when she refuses to accept the gold jewelry; jewelry that belonged to the former concentration camp prisoners, and Schneider is horrified as a particular piece stands out: a small,  delicate necklace that she’s sure must have belonged to a very young child who had been led to the gas chambers.

Helga's mother, with Helga's son, Renzo, during their first visit in 1971
She also recounts a time from her childhood when she came face to face with Hitler himself, as a "guest" in his bunker.  She explains that, as part of a propaganda campaign in 1944, she and her brother went to the underground compound with hundreds of other children to receive food and medicine.  Not only that, but as he passed by the group, he shook hands with them.  Schneider's description of Hitler is one of the most unique that I've read, given through the perspective of a child's eyes.

Without revealing too much, I’ll just say that at the end of the book, we’re left, like Schneider, to take the revelations and try to comprehend them simply for what they are, and as ugly as some of them might be.  No easy answers are given, and no loose ends are really tied up neatly.

While this is definitely not an easy book to read, purely based on its subject matter and some of the details that it contains, it’s powerful, and I would argue, historically important.  More than that, it verges on a psychological study that grips the reader and stays with them, even after the last sentence is read and the book has been closed.

To read a brief biography of Helga Schneider's life and find out more about her other books, visit her website at: www.helgaschneider.com.

2013/01/13

Chinatown

by Dave Gourdoux

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in "Chinatown"
I’m always surprised, when talking to younger film buffs, by the number of them who have never seen Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”, or  how unaware they are of 1970s cinema.   They find it hard to believe that the same decade that produced leisure suits and disco was also the golden age of American film history. 

But it’s true; the 70s represented a true renaissance in movie making.  Young directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman and Terrence Malik were coming of age and establishing themselves as giants, while established European directors John Boorman and Polanski were making insightful examinations of American culture.  Woody Allen was making the transformation from brilliant stand-up comedian to serious artist.   Older masters, like John Huston and Stanley Kubrick, were still making great films, while other major American directors of the 1960s, like Arthur Penn and Sydney Lumet and Mike Nichols, contributed some of their best work.

This all came at a time when America was otherwise exhausted, burned out from the turmoil of the civil rights riots and political assassinations and the divisiveness of Vietnam that was the 1960s.  The 1970s began with the war becoming even more unpopular and futile and with a political scandal that would lead to the president resigning in disgrace in 1974.  With the rest of the world having effectively rebuilt from the destruction of World War II, a new global economy began to form and started challenging the United States as the sole economic superpower, planting seeds of rampant inflation and economic uncertainty.   As a result, the idealism and hope that spurred so much of the tumult of the sixties and it’s cultural revolution faded into a cynicism and self absorption that caused the seventies to be labeled “the me decade”.
Film, particularly in the first half of the decade, somehow not only avoided this malaise but managed to flourish.   There were so many great movies made about America, from Coppola’s “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part 2”, and Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” to Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Nashville”.   These movies were all intensely personal and defied typical Hollywood storytelling convention.  To me, the greatest movie made in and about America in the 1970s is Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece, “Chinatown.”

“Chinatown” is Polanski’s tribute to the great detective movies of the 1930s and 40s.  It is even set in the same timeframe, as all the action takes place in 1937.  Not only does “Chinatown” effectively pay homage to the genre, it takes its place right along “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” as the best it has to offer.

“Chinatown” has all the elements of a great detective movie, starting with its characters and the actors who play them.  Jack Nicholson is the detective, and a direct line can be drawn from his Jake Gittes to the Humphrey Bogart characterizations of Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” and Phillip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.”  Both actors are tough, world weary and cynical, and both are living embodiments of “cool.”  They are both screen icons, and as such, are very underrated as screen actors.  Both had incredible range and depth to draw on.  Bogart and Spencer Tracy literally invented screen acting, navigating the differences between acting on a stage for a live audience and on a set for a camera, and as such are the finest screen actors of the first half of the century.   Nicholson and Robert De Niro drew upon the influence of Marlon Brando to carve their own unique niches in screen history. 

As great of actors as Bogart and Nicholson are, both became famous for the tough guy, wisecracking persona they developed, and both became representative screen icons of their generations.    Bogart could play the paranoid Fred C. Dobbs of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or the riverboat captain in “The African Queen” or the disturbed naval commander Captain Queeg of  “The Cain Mutiny,” but he’ll always be remembered first and foremost as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, the quintessential screen private eyes, or as Rick Blane in “Casablanca.”   Likewise, Nicholson is capable of playing the sad and pathetic retiree of “About Schmidt” or the vulnerable and conflicted young man of “Five Easy Pieces,” but he’ll always be remembered for the explosive rage and rebellion he brought to movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “A Few Good Men.” 
In “Chinatown,” Nicholson gives perhaps his greatest performance because he is essentially playing Bogart.   Countless detective films and actors have tried to approximate Bogart and failed.  “Chinatown” succeeds because Polanski and the screenwriter, Robert Towne, recognized the similarities between Bogart and Nicholson and tailor made the role of private eye Jake Gittes for Nicholson.  As such, you aren’t consciously reminded that you are watching Jack Nicholson in a Humphrey Bogart movie, but that’s essentially what’s going on.

Towne’s screenplay is perfection.   He not only understands Nicholson and Bogart, he understands the genre, and he understands the time he is living in.  The only way a story taking place in the past can be great is if it says something about the present.  Towne understands the complicated twist and plot turns and characters that the genre requires; he also makes them relevant to the everyday experience of the viewer.

Gittes, like Spade and Marlowe, is tough and cynical, and even when he is in over his head, he remains a step ahead of the rest, clearly tougher and smarter than everyone else.  Towne gives Gittes a tragic past that not only informs him of the corruption that surrounds him, but also makes him a victim of it.  There is vulnerability in Gittes that is at the core of the movie, and no matter how familiar he becomes with the corruption, he never gets used to it, and ultimately falls to it.   The movie makes a lot of unspecified allusions to his past working the beat in Chinatown – we get enough to know it was corrupt, it was where Gittes learned the ways of the world, and it is also where he had his heart broken by getting too caught up in everything - and we see it all happening to him again, as he gets involved with the beautiful and mysterious Mrs. Mulwray and her husband and father’s world of political scandal and cover up.   We sense what Gittes senses – that this is not going to end well; there is inevitability, almost a resignation, and it’s no surprise when evil and corruption triumphs in the end.

Like most great detective films, the plot depends on a strong and seductive and dangerous female that is formidable enough to potentially bring the protagonist down.  In “Chinatown,” we are given perhaps the most complex and beautiful female lead in any detective film ever - Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of the beautiful and mysterious and ultimately tragic Evelyn Mulwray, who may or may not have hired Gittes to investigate her husband's extramarital affairs.  Mulwray is one of the greatest characters ever created for film, and Dunaway’s performance is the crowning achievement in an illustrious career.  In the movie, nothing is what it appears to be; especially Evelyn Mulwray.

Dunaway’sperformance and Towne’s script conjure up comparisons to other great femme fatales in screen history, particularly Mary Astor in “The Maltese Falcon".  With her hair tied up to accentuate her exquisite cheekbones, there is even a physical likeness to the short-haired Astor.  Just like Bogart, you can understand why Nicholson starts falling for her, why he’d be willing to risk everything for her. What Townes adds in “Chinatown” is a secret that Dunaway is carrying, and without exposing what it is, suffice to say it is a doozy, as the entire film centers on it, and it brings a clarity and a complexity to the Evelyn Mulwray character. Only a gifted actress like Dunaway could explore her depths. Dunaway is simply amazing, and as great as Nicholson is in the film, it wouldn’t--it couldn’t--work without Dunaway’s tour de force.

John Huston as the evil and deranged Noah Cross
The film also features, as the personification of evil, none other than John Huston as the deranged and wealthy and powerful Noah Cross.  The casting of Huston, who, thirty three years earlier wrote and directed “The Maltese Falcon,” is no coincidence and one of many examples of how Polanski invites comparisons between the two films.  Huston also gives a brilliant performance.  Knowing he was one of the creators of the archetypes the film is paying homage to gives him instant credibility.  He is the Godfather of the genre, and he brings that level of authority to the role.  That he so effectively portrays evil and madness makes Noah Cross intimidating and frightening.  His triumph at the film’s end is truly horrifying.

Polanski makes a key choice and sticks to it: even though the film was made in 1974, after the abolition of the production code, and even though it was shot in color, Polanski chooses to not only place the movie in the era of the classic detective movie (the 1930s), he also chooses to mostly play by the same rules.  The result is a modern movie that conforms to the standards of the era it is paying tribute to; there is only a brief frame of nudity, the violence is not graphically depicted as per the norms of the day (or Polanski’s own usual standards), and even the profanity is tame by today’s standards.  Yet while watching the movie, you are aware of none of this.  It is testimony to how lost the viewer can get in a great script and great acting and great direction, regardless of when it was made, which of course remains true of the great movies Polanski is paying homage to.
The other key choice Polanski makes is to shoot the film not only in color, but that most of it takes place in the bright and warm Los Angeles daylight.  This is in direct contradiction to the classic film noir genre that so many of the great detective movies of the 30s and 40s fell into.  Film noir was almost exclusively shot in shadowy black and white, and took place in the eerie and threatening dark of night.   One of the main plot devices of “Chinatown” is based upon the real manipulation of Los Angeles’ water supplies in the 20s and 30s, one of the great political scandals of its time.   As such, the city of Los Angeles, still a “small town” (to quote Gittes) at the time, becomes a central character in the film, and nothing says Los Angeles like sunshine and light.  Yet a mood of sinister dread pervades throughout “Chinatown” that is worthy of the most atmospheric film noir.  It is a tribute to Polanski’s skill that he is able to imbue the bright California sunlight with the same menace usually saved for the dark shadows of night.
Roman Polanski, about to show Jack Nicholson what happens to nosy kitty cats
There are references to other famous detective and gangster movies. Polanski himself shows up as one of Huston’s henchmen.  He has a particularly memorable scene where he shows Nicholson what happens to people who get a little too “nosy.”   The resulting scar conjures up memories of Paul Muni in the 1931 Howard Hawks version of “Scarface”, which can be seen as both a tribute and a clue to the central plot device that is revealed later in Chinatown (check out the implied relationship between Muni’s character and his sister.)

Although it takes place in the 1930s, “Chinatown” is ultimately about America in the 1970s.   The government’s manipulation of the city’s water supply and its attempt to cover it up resembles the Watergate scandal that was occurring at the time.  More than anything else, it is an intensely personal meditation on evil and corruption.   Polanski himself wrote the movie's final scene, changing the happy ending Towne had originally written and replacing it with a bold and chillingly memorable statement on the timeless perpetuity and power of pure evil.  

This is no accident, because few people are as familiar with evil as Polanski.  As a child in Poland, he was a holocaust survivor and orphan who witnessed an extraordinary number of atrocities (and grew to love many of the American movies he pays homage to in “Chinatown.”).   In the 1960s, just as he hit big time success with the release of “Rosemay’s Baby,” his wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Charles Manson clan.  The atmosphere that is heavy with cynicism and corruption in “Chinatown” can be seen as a metaphor for the triumph of corrupt evil over the idealistic and optimistic dreams of the 60s, just as Polanski witnessed evil destroy the innocence of his childhood and the love of his life.  In fact, on a personal and ugly level, evil seems to have continued its hold on Polanski, as in 1977 he was convicted of raping a minor and has lived in exile from the United States ever since.

"Forget it, Jake.  It's Chinatown"
Put aside that ugliness, if one can, for a moment, and celebrate "Chinatown" for the best of the best period in American film history, when talented artists made complex and uncompromising and intensley personal films, and when the focus was on artistry more than special effects and box office receipts.  

For more on "Chinatown", check out the IMDB page here: www.imdb.com/title/tt0071315

2013/01/06

Payback

By Jav Rivera

Have you ever felt like no one really listens, like your words fall on deaf ears?  And if by chance they actually hear you, that they don't take you seriously?  Welcome to Porter's predicament.  Based on "The Hunter" series by author Richard Stark, Payback stars Mel Gibson, Maria Bello, and Gregg Henry.  Like the film's theme, the film too was a bit overlooked.  Gibson, whose production company, Icon Productions, funded the project, underplayed the Porter character, making him unforgettable and believable.  Sure, he's essentially a bad guy, but in his world he's actually better than the others.


The film begins with thief Porter waking up after getting shot down, betrayed by his partner in crime Val Resnick - played perfectly slimy by Gregg "Hubba-Hubba" Henry.  Porter decides to get back on his feet and claim his share of their recent heist: $70,000.  No more, no less.  Got that?  Pay attention, because he just wants his 70 Gs.  But as it turns out, Resnick now works for "The Outfit", a high end crime organization.  Getting his money back may be trickier than expected.

Mel Gibson and Gregg Henry
And though Porter gets in over his head, it's not really an underdog story.  The director, Brian Helgeland, on the other hand, could better fit that label.  After writing such screenplays as Assassins, L.A. Confidential, and Conspiracy Theory, Helgeland had been given the opportunity of his life - to direct his first feature length film.  Because of his history with Richard Donner (Director of Superman, The Lethal Weapon Series, and The Goonies) as well as working with Mel Gibson, Helgeland was taken under their wings and given his chance to move into the director's seat.  Gibson, who had heard about Helgeland's script for Payback while on set of Conspiracy Theory, told Helgeland that if he liked the screenplay, he'd produce it.  Months later, just as Helgeland felt the project would never come to fruition, Gibson called and asked if he could be ready in twelve weeks to begin shooting.

Director Brian Helgeland
Richard Donner, who remains uncredited in the film, was on set as a consultant to Helgeland.  In the behind-the-scenes interviews, Helgeland is clearly humbled by his experience with the legendary director.  Donner, too, speaks of Helgeland in high regard.  The two seemed to have bonded like a father-son relationship.

With such strong guidance, it's sad then that there was conflict towards the end of production.  Helgeland's original ending was deemed too dark by the studio and he was asked to revise it.  He remained insistent on his version, despite advice from Donner and Gibson, and was eventually fired. Gibson and the remaining team then shot additional footage that now had several changes including a new ending, Gibson's voice over, and actor Kris Kristofferson as Bronson, the head of "The Outfit".

Year's later Helgeland was given the opportunity to put together a director's cut, which goes by the title Payback: Straight Up.  In most cases, I lean towards a director's original vision, but Payback's theatrical release is by far my preferred incarnation.  If you can hunt it down, there is a Blu-ray disc available that includes both theatrical and director's cut versions along with several behind-the-scenes featurettes (note: this Blu-ray will more than likely only be found online - check Amazon).  It's ironic that Helgeland didn't heed the advice of two amazing directors (Donner and Gibson).  After all, the film is basically about people who don't listen.  Still, I commend Helgeland to sticking to his guns. 

Gregg Henry, William Devane, and Kris Kristofferson
Gibson wasn't the only one delivering a pitch perfect performance.  Along with Gregg Henry as Resnick, William Devane and Kris Kristofferson as Carter and Bronson, respectively, add richness to what could have easily been one-sided characters.  They're bad guys with what they perceive as good intentions.  Kristofferson is especially memorable as a very frightening head honcho.  Unfortunately for him and his "Outfit", however, they don't take Porter seriously.  It's a mistake they may soon regret.

Throughout the film, Porter has to climb his way through so many obstacles that by the time he reaches Bronson's number two man Fairfax (played charmingly by James Coburn), it's almost tragic. But Coburn adds a much needed comedic relief that helps take the audience through Porter's struggle to the top.  And with a character as devious as Porter, it's fortunate that Helgeland and co-writer Terry Hayes give their characters enough...well...character to make the line between good and bad a bit more gray, and thus more interesting.

L-R: Bill Duke, Gibson, and Jack Conley
Helgeland and Hayes slow Porter down even more by throwing a couple of crooked cops his way in the form of Detectives Hicks (Bill Duke) and Leary (Jack Conley).  And of course there's the always great David Paymer as Stegman, a lowlife trying to work alongside Hicks and Leary while secretly maintaining his drug connection with Resnick.  And if Porter didn't have enough to contend with, there's also a Chinese Triad with Pearl (played by Lucy Liu) as one of its members trying to kill Porter over a crime he committed a few months back.

Lucy Liu and Gibson
Then there's Porter's drug addict wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and his previous lover Rosie (Maria Bello).  Rosie (a high end call girl) and Porter (her former driver) have a long, troubled history.  The relationship is forced back together when Porter is left on his own and seeks the help of the only person he trusts.  Rosie, of course, blames him for their original separation, and Porter likewise.  That tension brings back the film's theme of negligence.

Gibson and Maria Bello
Though the film's strength comes from Helgeland's script, he also enlisted the help of some excellent collaborators. Composer Chris Boardman's brass-heavy music adds a cityscape overtone with an almost grandeur feel.  And thanks to Director of Photography Ericson Core, the film's grit is achieved by creating a cold, blue hue to the streets - which is basically Porter's territory.  In contrast, the interiors are rich and warm - like a foreign country where Porter doesn't belong.  Sadly, these two incredible features were taken out for the Director's Cut - a decision that seems odd given that they were two of its best qualities.  

Porter getting hit by a car
Payback may have two versions with fans and critics arguing which is superior, but what should be appreciated is the film's story and quality of characters.  Bad guys don't have to be bad for no reason.  They don't just have to be there to antagonize the good guys.  If Helgeland (and Richard Stark) proved anything, it's that bad guys can have history and significant motives too. Bad guys, in certain situations, can actually be good. 

For more information visit the film's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0120784

TRIVIA: In Richard Stark's novel "The Hunter", the main character's name is Parker (not Porter).  Additionally, Stark has claimed that he wished he had named him differently, in part because he has always struggled writing sentences describing Parker parking his car.