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Ornette Coleman Returns With His Unmistakable Sound

Jazz saxophonist Coleman, who is almost 85, rarely makes records any more. In New Vocabulary, he joins up trumpet and drums — and peppers his solos with his signature catchy and earthy pet phrases.

06:12

Other segments from the episode on February 20, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 20, 2015: Obituary for Philip Levine; Review of Ornette Coleman's new album "New Vocabulary"; Obituary for Lesley Gore; Review of the film "Wild Tales";

Transcript

February 20, 2015

Guests: Philip Levine - Lesley Gore

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Philip Levine, a former U.S. poet laureate whose work often reflected the hardships and dignity of manual labor, died last Saturday at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 87. Levine worked in Detroit factories as a young man. And a New York Times review once described him as a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland, loyal to his roots in Detroit, determined to remember the exhausted and enraged worker, the unlucky immigrant, the man who gasps for breath and asks, am I going to make it? Terry spoke to Philip Levine in 1991 when he'd published a collection of poems called "What Work Is." She asked him why work had become such an important theme in his poems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PHILIP LEVINE: I suppose because most of my poetry originates in memory. Coleridge said that really the only thing the imagination has to work on is remembered experience. And I find this is very true in my own case. Also, my working days went from age 14 - that kind of work, heavy manual labor - from age 14 to about 29. And it seems to me that I was more sensitive to the world around me. I was a learner. I was somebody with his eyes open, constantly looking for teachers. And I think as a youngster growing up in these circumstances, I was just more open to sensation, more open to a kind - it's an odd word, but almost an exotic world. It was the work of automobile assembly factories, and that - it's a very exotic place, or it was when I was very young. I mean, there was fire. There was noise. There was - it was like bedlam. Sometimes - I remember going into a foundry once to get a job, and I was about 17; they wouldn't hire me - I was too young - and thinking, really, I'm in hell.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Yeah.

LEVINE: This is like hell. You know, it was so hot, and it was this liquid metal, and I was terrified. I was glad they wouldn't hire me.

GROSS: I want you to read the title poem from your new collection "What Work Is." And is there a story you'd like us to hear about the poem before we hear the poem itself?

LEVINE: Yeah, there is. There's a curious story - I never worked at Ford Highland Park, which I mentioned in the poem. But I went there once for a job during a period in the early '50s in Detroit when there was a kind of slight recession. So a lot of people got laid off, although Detroit was a booming town back then. And I waited in line, and it was raining, and it was a long wait. You know, the newspaper would advertise, you know, assemblers. That's the lowest job you can get. And they would put hours down like 8:00 to 5:00, but you knew you had to be there early if you were going to get a job. And so you got there maybe 7:30. Well, they didn't open the employment office 'til, say, 9:00. So you stood there for an hour and a half before anything even opened, and there were 50 people ahead of you. But that was in a way to - you know, they wanted to test you. You know, how much crap could you take? I mean, were you willing to wait in line that long? If you weren't, they didn't want you. And so as I waited, I grew angrier and angrier at myself for being this humble character. And finally, maybe about 10:30 or so, I got up to the head of the line. And there was a guy sitting down. I was standing. We each went to a different desk. We stood. They sat. And he said, what kind of job would you like? And I don't know where this impulse came from, but I said, I want your job.

GROSS: Oh, gee.

LEVINE: And he said, OK, take off. And that was it. But I was sort of happy that there was this thing in me that was still there that, you know, said, you know, I don't want you and you don't want me. And so I suppose that - I never forgot that moment of standing there all that time and then being, you know, a smart mouth.

GROSS: Did you have the money to afford to mouth off like that and lose the pay for the day?

LEVINE: No, no, I didn't. I remember I went to Chevrolet Gear and Axle, which was an awful place. Later that day I got a job there, which was just as bad. You know, it was just as bad a place. I was married at the time. I had to make a living. I had responsibilities. So I mean, I really couldn't afford to be who I wanted to be, you know?

Let me read the poem "What Work Is." (Reading) We stand in the rain, in a long line, waiting at Ford Highland Park for work. You know what work is. If you're old enough to read this, you know what work is, although you may not do it. Forget you. This is about waiting, shifting from one foot to another, feeling the light rain falling like mist into your hair, blurring your vision until you think you see your own brother ahead of you, maybe 10 places. You rub your glasses with your fingers. And of course it's someone else's brother - narrower across the shoulders than yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin that does not hide the stubbornness, the sad refusal to give in to rain, to the hours wasted waiting, to the knowledge that somewhere ahead, a man is waiting who will say, no, we're not hiring today, for any reason he wants. You love your brother. Now suddenly you can hardly stand the love flooding you for your brother, who's not beside you or behind or ahead because he's home trying to sleep off a miserable night shift at Cadillac so he can get up before noon to study his German - works eight hours a night so he can sing Wagner, the Opera you hate most. The worst music ever invented. How long has it been since you told him you loved him, held his wide shoulders, opened your eyes wide and said those words and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never done something so simple, so obvious - not because you're too young or too dumb, not because you're jealous or even mean or incapable of crying in the presence of another man. No, just because you don't know what work is.

GROSS: When did you start writing about your experiences in factories? Were you still in factories when you were writing poems?

LEVINE: I was unable to write any poetry about my working life while that was my working life. I tried a few times. And the poems were hysterical. I think they were just - you know, I couldn't control them. My anger was so overwhelming that I couldn't cope with it, just as I couldn't write about my boyhood very effectively until I was 40. It was still too powerful for me. But I'm patient, so I hung in there. And that's probably by chief virtue as a writer is my patience. So I waited, and I kept trying to work about factory work but I kept throwing the poems away. And the first poem I ever published about working in a factory, I was, I think, 31 or 2, but I don't like the poem anymore.

GROSS: Can you give me a sense of what was going wrong in the factory poems when you were still there? Is there anything...

LEVINE: Yes.

GROSS: OK.

LEVINE: Yes, I can. The language was overblown. You know, I wanted to use the word eternity and - you know. I wanted to use a kind of Latin diction to - almost a Miltonic diction and a great chorus - build up a great chorus of sound and - to dramatize the horror show of some of the places I had worked. And I didn't have any - there was no tenderness in it for the people that I worked with. There was no - and that was a, you know - that was part of the reward that I got for those years was the people I was meeting, even though you didn't talk to them that much because places were often so loud. But you'd meet them afterwards or you'd make friends with them and spend time with them. And they weren't getting in the poems at all. The poems were, you know, my poor soul being hammered out of shape by General Motors. And they were a bit self-indulged.

DAVIES: James Levine speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1991. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to Terri's interview with former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, who died last Saturday. Many of his poems were about manual labor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: What was your final goodbye to factory work?

LEVINE: My final goodbye - it was - it came when my wife - my first wife left me, which is why I've always loved the word goodbye. And I didn't have to do this. Also, I wasn't in debt. And it just suddenly occurred to me. She's gone. I don't owe anybody anything. I'm going to quit. I'm going to live on my wits or try. And so I started to try to live on my wits. And sure enough, I've done it.

GROSS: So what did the...

LEVINE: Not too well - not too well all the time, but, you know.

GROSS: When you decided to live on your wits, where did you go? What did you do for money?

LEVINE: Well, actually, I took a job with my brother. I don't want to describe it because he'd get mad at me - and for a long summer. And I could live like a little church mouse. And then I went off to the University of Iowa to study poetry writing with Robert Lowell. And I thought there was a fellowship there for me. And when I got there, I was a year late. And the fellowship had been given to somebody else, even though I'd written them and said, hold it for me. And so I never registered. I just took courses without paying for them and kept saying, oh, that information will get to you soon. And I studied with Robert Lowell and then John Berryman. And John Berryman was a great teacher - just a great teacher. And I never needed another teacher after that. So I had a year of studying with two terrific poets and not living particularly well.

Then I met my second wife. She wasn't my wife when I met her. She was just a lucky single woman. And we got married, and my wife worked for a while. And when our second child came, I started teaching then. And by this time, I'd published enough poetry to get a job teaching. And I'd finished a master's degree through the mail from Wayne University. So I lucked in there. I got this terrific woman - not just that she supported me. She's also a marvelous woman. I'm still married to her, thank God. She hasn't abandoned me.

GROSS: You've written a lot of poems that - where your brother figures into the poem.

LEVINE: Yeah.

GROSS: Is - do you see your brother as, like, the alternate version of your life or something? You know, like, somebody who you could've been, and you're not, or? And, like, what function do you see your brother serving almost as metaphor or something within your poems?

LEVINE: Yeah, you know, first thing - I'm an identical twin.

GROSS: Ah.

LEVINE: And I didn't realize how significant this was in my poetry. I have a great many poems in which men have these encounters with each other and a couple of poems which they embrace very deeply. They hold each other. And I think that a lot of that - I remember a guy writing - wonderful man named David Kalstone, who's dead now - writing a review of on one of my books and talking about these encounters and how powerful they were or how powerful he felt they were.

And it was that review that opened my eyes to the fact that, of course, the roots of that are are that the terrible wrenching away from my twin brother. This - you know, I grew up half believing I was half a person. It's very curious to grow up as an identical twin. Not sure that I was the whole person, and maybe I was me and him both, or - you know, it's very difficult to describe. But I don't think since I was 5, I've ever felt, you know, that - anything as close as I'd felt up to that time, maybe 6 or 7, when we began to drift apart.

And I remember when I first started writing poetry, it was enormously - I was about - oh, I don't know. Well, actually, I didn't show my brother the first poems I wrote. I didn't show him poems until I was about 17 or so. And he loved them. He just loved them. And he would take - he's a bigger guy than I, and he's more aggressive, physically and in every other way - and he would take these poems and show them to people and say, what you think? Isn't this great? That's what he would say. Isn't this great?

And, of course, they'd say, yeah because he was kind of an intimidating guy. My brother's a great poet (laughter). And in some ways, it was the high point of my writing career. I mean, I had one reader, and he was absolutely mad for what I was doing. Now I have many more readers, but I don't know if any of them, you know, are so totally, totally taken with what I write. I was really writing totally for two people - myself and my brother. Since then, I've discovered others, and - but it was quite amazing.

GROSS: You said that you were wrenched away from your twin brother. When were you wrenched away?

LEVINE: I was afraid you'd ask that (laughter). I just felt, at a certain point in my life, that - when I was quite young - that I had to be myself. I began to make discoveries about him - that he wasn't me. There were ways in which he reacted to experiences. I could see that, you know, they just weren't my reactions. And so a time came when I said, you know, I can't go on with this. I have to find out my own identity and live it. And so I suppose the wrenching was something I imposed upon myself. My guess is he probably felt something similar. I do think there were times when our inmost thoughts were communicated to each other without our speaking. We were that close.

GROSS: I want to get back to something you said early in the interview.

LEVINE: Sure.

GROSS: You said that - and this is when you were, you know, waiting on line for factory jobs and knowing you might get turned down. You said you couldn't afford to be who you wanted to be. And I think within that sentence is a pretty interesting class analysis about identity. You know what I mean? - that it takes a certain amount of money, in a way, to live - not only to live the life you want, but to be who you want to be.

LEVINE: That's right. That's right. I mean, for example, I was politically very conscious. I was aware of exploitation. I remember my brother and I at about age 10 swearing we would never exploit other people. We would never live off the labor of other people in a way in which they were abused, and we were given an advantage on their hard work. And I remember when I worked at - for a General Motors factory once, you had to take these IQ tests before you started working. And they said, you know, you ought to - we'd like to put you into our management program. You've done very well in this IQ test.

I lied and said I'd never gone to college, or they'd never hire me. And they said, gee, these scores are wonderful. I said, no. And they said, we would send you to Flint, Mich. You can go to a school there. You know, we have a slavery school there. You know, you'll be taught, really, how torture people effectively and subtly. And we'll pay you pay twice as much. And when you're done, we'll give you a suit and a tie. Would you like to do that? And I said, no. I'd just like to be a slave myself (laughter).

I mean, I didn't like being a slave, but I had taken an oath that I wasn't going to exploit people. And my brother was watching me. I couldn't break it. He's a very stubborn guy. And so it was a determination we made. It would be nice to be able to afford it. Of course, then what do you have to do? You have to change the world so that lots of people can take that oath and live it, right? And how did I choose to change the world so that was more possible? I wrote poetry. And I actually thought - this will strike you, Terry, as idiotic.

GROSS: Try me, yeah.

LEVINE: I actually thought that writing poetry would be a means of changing the world because what I was reading was changing me so radically. Nothing in my life had as much power over me as what I read - both poetry and fiction. And when I began, too, I wanted to be a novelist as well as a poet. Then, of course, when I published my first book and an additional 220, I said to myself, gee-whiz, this is a big country for 220 books.

GROSS: Did you feel that, in some ways, poetry is obsolete for a lot of people because they have movies and TV and songs to tell their stories?

LEVINE: Well, I tell you the truth. By this time, I didn't care because by this time, I had fallen in love with the poem. And I loved writing it, and I didn't care. I mean, it was what I had to do, and whether it changes people or whether a doesn't, it's what I have to do.

GROSS: Philip Levine, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

LEVINE: Well, thank you, Terry. It's nice. It was a pleasure.

DAVIES: Former U.S. Poet Laureate James Levine speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Levine died last Saturday. He was 87. After a break, we'll remember singer Lesley Gore, who died Monday. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Ornette Coleman's new album "New Vocabulary," which Kevin says has a lightning-in-a-bottle quality. And David Edelstein reviews the Argentinian film "Wild Tales." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNSHINE, LOLLIPOPS AND RAINBOWS")

LESLEY GORE: (Singing) Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows - everything that's wonderful is what I feel when we're together. Brighter than a lucky penny. When you're near the rain clouds disappears, dear, and I feel so fine just to know that you are mine. My life is sunshine, lollipops and rainbows...

DAVIES: We're going to remember singer Lesley Gore, who died Monday at the age of 68. Born Lesley Sue Goldstein in Brooklyn, she started singing as a teenager and had several hits before she was 18. She stayed in school, though, and got her degree in American literature from Sarah Lawrence College. After her teen hit years, Lesley Gore began writing songs and performed in musical theater, television and eventually in concerts on the nostalgia circuit. And she kept recording music.

Her last album "Ever Since" was released in 2005, the year she came out as a lesbian. Before she died of lung cancer, she was working on a memoir and a Broadway show based on her life. Everyone who listened to Top 40 radio in the '60s knew Lesley Gore's hits - "Judy's Turn To Cry," "She's A Fool," "You Don't Own Me," "That's The Way Boys Are" and, of course, her first hit, "It's My Party," which was produced by Quincy Jones. It was one of the big pop records he produced long before the Michael Jackson days. We'll hear Terry's interview with Lesley Gore in a couple of minutes, but first let's hear the story of how her first hit came about. This is from Terry's 2001 interview with producer Quincy Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

QUINCY JONES: During that time, I was recording all the divas and, you know, Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan and Shirley Horn and Dinah Washington. And we were doing things with Robert Farnon, big string, expensive dates and so forth. And they were beautiful music - musical albums, but Irving said to me one time, he says, you know, all of the pop guys are saying that you and Al Mooney, who are the arrangers, are budget busters because you do all this big music. But we need some more help with the bottom line, with hit records. And I was a little presumptuous and said, well, I don't think it's such a big deal to make a pop hit. And he says (laughter) well, why don't you start making some then? And we were at a meeting at the Oxford House where we had our A&R meetings regularly in Chicago. And he said here's a tape that Joe Glaser sent me and his friend - a fight manager or somebody - has a niece that sang something. Just say you'll listen to it and we'll send it back, you know?

I grabbed it and I thought - I said I'd like to try this because she had a great sound for a rock singer in those days. She could sing really in tune. She was 16 years old. And we went back to New York and talked to Joe Glaser. And he said make her a star and, you know, all of that Hollywood stuff. And we went in on a Saturday and recorded two songs - "It's My Party" and with the B side written by Paul Anka - a young Paul Anka - called "Danny." And on the way to Carnegie Hall I saw Phil Spector. Phil Spector said I just cut a smash, man, with The Crystals called "It's My Party." I said what (laughter)? I had never experienced that kind of competition before. I went back to the studio with the engineer and we mastered 100 acetates to send out to the radio. And the rest, you know - I had to go to Japan right after that and I told Lesley we've got the great record and everything. All we need to do is fix that name because I don't think this name is going to work with a pop record and all so...

TERRY GROSS, HOST: You didn't like the name Gore.

JONES: No, I didn't like it.

GROSS: I won't tell Al Gore about that.

JONES: (Laughter) And so I went to Japan to do a television show and doing a little acting and scoring it. And so I got a call from Irving Green later and he said did anybody call you yet? I said no. I said did she get that name together yet? Did she come up with any suggestions? And she said the record's number one. Do you really care (laughter)? I said no.

GROSS: Whatever happened to The Crystals's recording of "It's My Party" that Phil Spector was producing?

JONES: I don't think it came out. I don't think it came out. Lesley's thing must have such impact - I don't know. I may be wrong, but I don't think it came out.

DAVIES: That's Quincy Jones speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. Before we hear Terry's 1991 interview with Lesley Gore, here's that number one hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S MY PARTY")

GORE: (Singing) It's my party and I'll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you. Nobody knows where my Johnny has gone, but Judy left the same time. Why was he holding her hand when he's supposed to be mine? It's my party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: In Ms. Magazine there was recently a piece with you and k.d. lang having a conversation with each other.

GORE: Yeah.

GROSS: And you said that when you were a kid you'd sing in front of the mirror and you'd slick back your hair like Elvis. But when you finally walked out on stage in the spring of 1963, you went dressed like a nice little girl and performed as you were expected to. Can you compare what you wanted to look like when you started to perform with how you ended up looking?

GORE: Well, you know, I still basically have a very - I'm very - sound oriented image, which has become a major part of our business, is not what I would call my primary interest. So what it was really was sort of this - and you can probably relate - let's say you had a party to go to and I might compare it to having "The Ed Sullivan Show" to do. I would say to my mother or my cousin what do you think I should wear? And we would, you know, then go shopping for something we thought was appropriate because the only influence on my life at that time was my mother. I very often walked out looking sort of like my mini mother.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GORE: You know, you understand what I'm saying.

GROSS: Yeah.

GORE: I didn't have anyone saying to me just put on a pair of jeans and a white shirt, which probably would have felt comfortable to me at the time. But I probably would have had a problem with it because I did believe you get up on stage and you dress up because there are lots of people there and it's importance. And you want to show yourself off to your best advantage. I'm a little bit more savvy now in terms of image, but at 16 you don't necessarily have a clear-cut image of yourself.

GROSS: Well, if you're going shopping with your mother for performances you're not going to end up looking like The Ronettes (laughter).

GORE: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: So what do you remember of that first recording session when you made "It's My Party"?

GORE: Well, the first thing I remember, which is so different from today, is we recorded four-track. This meant that we had two microphones basically hanging in the studio strategically placed over the band. We had a third microphone in the center of all of the background singers, and they were about eight of them. And then I was in a little booth and that was the fourth mic. So that was pretty much the setup. When we counted off, you heard everything that was going to be there. Today we layer a lot and we track a lot. Then you just went in and did it. When you walked out of the studio you were pretty well mixed and knew exactly what everything sounded like.

DAVIES: We're listening back to an interview with singer Lesley Gore who died on Monday. She was on FRESH AIR in 1991 during a run at the Rainbow and Stars nightclub. Her cabaret act included Gershwin, Porter and also some of the top 40 songs that made her famous, including this one, a song that made Gore, as The New Yorker put it, pop music's original teen feminist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

GORE: (Singing) You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys. You don't own me, don't say I can't go with other boys. And don't tell me what to do, don't tell me what to say. And please, when I go out with you, don't put me on display 'cause you don't own me...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GORE: At the time, I know I chose it because I liked the strength in the lyric. But for me it was not a song about being a woman. It was a song about being a person and what was involved with that. Of course, it got picked up as an anthem for women, which makes me very proud. And today when I sing that song - I don't know, maybe it's after the Anita Hill hearings and a number of other things that have - seem to be happening in our world - "You Don't Own Me" takes on a whole other set of meanings for me now.

GROSS: Yeah, I know a lot of people have come to see it as a protofeminist anthem (laughter). So you didn't think of it that way when you were recording it.

GORE: I didn't. What I was impressed with was the strength. I've always hated wimpy women. I've never understood it. So when I first heard this piece of material I knew it was what I wanted to do.

GROSS: Let me play something that's from the '60s from an album called "My Town, My Guy & Me." And this is a standard. This is a Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn song called "The Things We Did Last Summer." Was it your idea to do a standard on this? I want to show a different side of your singing.

GORE: Probably. You know, the very first album that Quincy and I did together, we had to base it on "It's My Party," but we had to throw it together quite quickly and it was called "I'll Cry If I Want To." And it was all cry songs. It was "Cry Me A River." It was the Johnnie Ray's "Cry." So we had established a premise early on whereby I would do standards maybe with just a slight rock 'n' roll edge. But by and large I don't think of "The Things We Did Last Summer" as a rock piece. We did it, I think, just 'cause I love the song. I believe Don Costa did the arrangement and a superlative one.

GROSS: OK, well, let's hear it. I think we'll hear a different side of your singing.

GORE: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE THINGS WE DID LAST SUMMER")

GORE: (Singing) The boat rides we would take, the moonlight on the lake, the way we danced and hummed our favorite song, the things we did last summer I'll remember all winter long. The midway and the fun, the kewpie dolls we won, the bell you rang to prove that you were strong, the things we did last summer I'll remember all winter long. The early morning hike and the rented tandem bike, the lunches that we used to pack. We never could explain...

GROSS: Lesley Gore, do you know what's become of Susan Michaels, who was the president of the Lesley Gore fan club?

GORE: Yes, I do. Susan Michaels was an amalgam of my middle name, which is Sue, and my brother's first name, which is Michael. And it was actually my grandma, my nana - who is no longer with us - who became Susan Michaels and would try to answer all the fan mail personally and hand written. And that's who Susan Michaels was.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's great. Well, Lesley Gore, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

GORE: Thank you, Terry. I enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE THINGS WE DID LAST SUMMER")

GORE: (Singing) The things we did last summer, I'll remember all winter long.

DAVIES: Lesley Gore spoke with Terry Gross in 1991. She died Monday at the age of 68. Coming up David Edelstein reviews the Argentinian film "Wild Tales." This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: One of this year's Academy Awards nominees for best foreign language film is "Wild Tales," an Argentinian film containing six short stories. It was co-produced by filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I'm guessing that the oldest subject in literature isn't love or war or the struggle for survival, but revenge. Someone takes something from you, makes you feel small, and you take it back in righteousness and blood. Now comes a frequently marvelous six-part movie from Argentina called "Wild Tales" that stares hard at the subject from different angles, among them ghoulish comedy, social tragedy, gory macho force and feminist melodrama. In Spanish, the title is "Relatos Salvajes" - savage tales. But under either name, the takeaway is clear - ultra-civilized humans can turn in an instant into blindingly destructive forces of nature.

The writer-director, Damian Szifron, doesn't so much tell these stories as spring them on you, like jack-in-the-boxes, as in the brief pre-credit story, in which a young female model, an older, flirtatious male classical music critic make small talk on a plane. It's hard to believe that anything savage can come from this sedate, humdrum setting, that in a few minutes the audience will be screaming in disbelief.

Another tale of a yuppie in his fancy Audi who gets into a road-rage duel with a man in a pickup that's familiar in its thrust and its boys-will-be-boys silliness. But the way the one-upmanship escalates, juxtaposed with soothing music from the Audi stereo, has a logic that makes you both appalled and fascinated. People - well, men for the most part - kill each other every day over slights this stupid.

I wasn't as surprised by a middle story, in which a demolitions engineer begins, on a note of mastery, artfully bringing down an enormous building and is, therefore, relentlessly emasculated, chiefly by an indefatigable towing company. But this is the purest tale, the one that distills the mad-as-hell vigilante genre that's fueled American cinema since at least the days of Charles Bronson in "Death Wish." This man's reclaiming a power with dynamite is a satisfying but simpleminded end.

Two other savage tales especially linger in the mind. The most sobering begins with a rich, drunk teenager who stumbles sniveling into his parents' bedroom to say he's run over a woman. With discovery inevitable, the father and his high-priced attorney/fixer enter into a series of negotiations to pay his longtime gardener to take the blame, the money going to the gardener's impoverished family. The revenge thread comes late and the story has a sting in its tail. The effect is to rupture our sense of complacency after the previous story where dynamite solves everything.

The final tale, Til Death Do Us Part, is the big crowd-pleaser, the one that's launched a new international star in Erica Rivas as the movie's only female protagonist. She's Romina, the bride at a glitzy, disco-ball Jewish wedding, who discovers, by deduction, that her husband has had an affair with a gorgeous co-worker, who's also a guest. Given Romina's total loss of control, I wouldn't call the subsequent frenzy a female empowerment saga. But she uses tools in her feminine arsenal - her sexuality, her ability to reduce her mama's boy husband to a sobbing, puking wreck and her Carrie-at-the-prom-like fury.

The movie is jam-packed with the lights, one catharsis after the next, enacted by a cast that is - given the general outlandishness - incredibly credible. I wouldn't call any of "Wild Tales'" tales profound. Apart from the one about the rich people and the gardener, they go down too easily. They're fast food. But maybe that easiness is what's profound. It's written in the Bible, vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. But with cleverness and style, director Damian Szifron sums up humans' response since time immemorial. Sorry, Lord, only chumps wait for that.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine, and he'll be live-blogging the Academy Awards this Sunday at vulture.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: On Monday's show, I'll be speaking with Native American writer David Treuer. His new novel, "Prudence," is set in the 1940s on a Native American reservation in Minnesota where the government's built a camp for German prisoners of war. He'll talk about the book, his family and his own life on the reservation. Hope you can join us.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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