Fuzz: The Sound that Revolutionized the World
The first time I ever heard the word "guitarded" used to describe gear whores and effects geeks, I about choked on my ham sandwich. Culturally insensitive as it is, no word better encapsulates the nerd-ism that plagues those dudes (and the rare chick) who would rather play with a soldering gun in their mother's basement than cultivate useful social skills. It's certainly a matter of degree, but all guitar players of merit are afflicted.
In director Clif Taylor's new documentary, Fuzz, he goes straight to the rock 'n' roll nerve center of guitardidness: the distortion box. Also known as foot pedals or stompboxes, these little metal contraptions (in most cases, about the size of the paperback version of Atlas Shrugged) house circuit boards designed to disrupt or compress the signal on its way to the amplifier, thus producing the "god of thunder" effect that made Hendrix sound like Zeus himself. Simple to build, mimic and modify ("mod" in the vernacular), the distortion pedal is easily the most fetishized object of the rock-accessories world. And the nerds that make good ones are cult heroes to both peers and players.
Though it gives little background and only vague historical context, Fuzz does a fine job of introducing us to the big dogs of the boutique effects market, along with graphic audio demonstrations of the capabilities of their products. Distortion dorks like J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Jon Spencer (Blues Explosion) and the awesome Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) weigh in from time to time here, expounding on the virtues of their favorite fuzz boxes. But the bulk of this doc is devoted to fringe manufacturers like the swaggering Jim Dunlop and his Way Huge boxes, NYC upstarts Death by Audio (who drill out and silkscreen their units in what amounts to a closet) and, the nerd's nerd, Zachary Vex of Z.Vex Effects, whose hand-painted "Wooly Mammoth," "Super Hard-On" and "Box of Metal" pedals look like craft-fair kitsch — and kill like Sabbath on steroids.
Though Fuzz pays fitting tribute to Electro-Harmonix (the big daddy of distortion) and its Big Muff and Big Muff Pi pedals, it provides very little background on the later commercial pedals (Ibanez's "Tube Screamer" and BOSS's DS-1), which served as the carrion from which the vast majority of boutique builders today have scavenged. And there is absolutely no mention of '60s DIY kits like the "square wave," which paved the way for the distortion era, or any of the lore surrounding early purveyors of fuzz like Link Wray, the Ventures and Dave Davies.
Bottom line: More than being a history of "the Sound that Revolutionized the World," as the tagline purports, Fuzz is for those who already suffer from severe guitardation. If you have memorized the circuit of the first distortion box you ever disemboweled, Fuzz will enthrall you. If not, you'll be making your own distortion by sawin' serious logs. Nonfans beware; this one's for the nerds. —Wendy Case
Simon of the Desert
Criterion's long-awaited release of Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel is getting all the media attention — including a full-page of coverage in a recent Newsweek — but Bunuel's 1965 treat Simon of the Desert, completed a few years later, is more surprising to finally have on DVD. Clocking in at a weird 45 minutes, Simon is 33 percent of an aborted omnibus film, and is thus an incomplete vision almost destined to slip through film history's cracks. Thankfully, Criterion is ensuring that it doesn't. Simon of the Desert is a short and savage attack on the futility of religious asceticism that perfectly complements his other Mexican films from the period. It tells the story of a heavily bearded, "miracle-working" Stylite who fasts and prays for years on end atop a 30-foot column erected in the middle of a desert. Temptation comes in the form of the beautiful Silvia Pinal, who steals the film as a shape-shifting Satan who is, at various points, a breast-exposing nymph, a lamb-coddling cross-dresser and a scantily clad wench in a coffin that moves across the desert on its own. Without spoiling anything, suffice it to say that the film's jolting conclusion is a hilarious punch line that only a devout atheist such as Buñuel could present. Valuable bonus features include an hour-long 1997 doc about Buñuel in Mexico, a great essay by Robin Wood and a short interview with Pinal. —John Thomason