Tuesday, December 24, 2013

For your holiday (or anytime) viewing: the comedy special "AD/BC: a Rock Opera"

The guiding principal of the Funhouse for the past two decades has been: if I find something amazing, I've got to share it. Thus, as my Xmas present to readers of this blog (and for whatever reading you do here, I thank ye kindly), I want to spotlight a brilliant creation courtesy of some of the shining lights of British TV comedy.



The program is AD/BC: a Rock Opera (2004), and it's an absolutely spot-on parody of the rock operas of the early Seventies. It's the story of the Nativity, as told by rock composer “Tim Wynde,” played by the great Matt Berry. Berry and Richard Ayoade wrote the music and lyrics, and Ayoade directed. For their pedigree, I merely have to note that both were in the supporting cast of The Mighty Boosh and later were stars of The IT Crowd. Ayoade recently directed the critically lauded Submarine, and Berry is currently starring in the great sitcom Toast of London.

Berry has made a habit of playing hammy, pretentious characters, and that serves him well here as the Lloyd Webber-like composer who also plays the innkeeper. The show is not only a letter-perfect parody of the corny “hipness” of the rock operas, but Ayoade has also wonderfully captured the visual tropes that appeared in the film versions of these works (there are wonderful recreations of the camera language and edits from Jewison's JC Superstar and David Greene's Godspell catalog of would-be “cool” effects).



[Full disclosure: As a student at Catholic school I was forced to memorize songs from Godspell, so I felt tormented by that show; I actually do enjoy the wildly-dated-even-when-it-was-new excesses of JC Superstar, but take great delight in the precision with which the tenets of both shows are gutted here.]



The cast is simply sublime: Berry as the innkeeper, Julia Davis (Hunderby, Nighty Night, Jam) as his wife, Julian Barratt (of the Boosh) as the villainous “Tony Iscariot,” Ayoade as Joseph, Matt Lucas (Little Britain) as God, and, among the chorus, Noel Fielding and Rich Fulcher of the “Boosh” and Graham Linehan (creator of Father Ted and IT Crowd).



It is fun, it is super satire, and it is incredibly silly. What more can you ask for in comic entertainment?



Saturday, December 21, 2013

A trio of tough guys: end of 2013 Deceased Artistes

The end of the year, and its attendant scourge (the holiday season), is such an emotional burden that some of us decide to slip away rather than confront it again. Thus, the death toll of seniors does seem to rise as we head toward Xmas and the New Year. I'm going to try to cover a few of the recently departed performers whose work definitely falls into the “Funhouse favorite” category. Herewith three gents who played “tough guys” in the movies and on TV.

The first was a multifaceted character actor who had quite an interesting career. Mickey Knox was a New Yorker who had small or supporting roles in 16 films in a period of three years – he played thugs, hoods, and your garden variety gang guy in items like Knock on Any Door, City Across the River, and White Heat.

After he was blacklisted in the early Fifties, Knox began acting in Italy. His most prominent credits in that country were as the English dialogue scripter for the classic Sergio Leone Westerns The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. In an online interview he notes about the great filmmaker “he didn't have any ideas that he wanted to convey [in his work].”
He also noted that Leone wasn't a nice man – “he had very little concern for others.” Knox's finest Leone story involves the time he was present when one of the actors in a Leone film committed suicide by leaping from the window of his hotel room. Leone immediately yelled “Get the costume – we need the costume!” (The guy in question was wearing his outfit from the movie when he took his fatal dive.)

Knox's most mind-bogglingly odd performances occur in Norman Mailer's improvised crime pictures Wild 90 and Beyond the Law (both 1968). The second film is moderately competent, an ambitious cops-and-crooks saga that finds a rather decent-sized ensemble going through all kinds of play-acting as policemen and the mob and gang figures they're cracking down on.

Wild 90, on the other hand, is just an amazing mess. A good deal of it is inaudible (since the soundman reportedly had the boom mic facing the wrong way), but the sequences featuring Norman, Knox, and Buzz Farber in an apartment cooking up a crime is startlingly, wonderfully awful. Mailer apparently didn't know the proper way to use improvisation in film (you do it in rehearsal, not on camera), and so the film is loaded with weird bits of proto-street-talk.

One of the odder bits of trivia encountered when researching Knox is that he tried to get his ex-brother-in-law (Mailer and he were married to two sisters) a job as the screenwriter of Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. Mailer handed in a 200-page screenplay, but his work wasn't used.

No isolated clips of Knox's work are available online, but you'll find endless references to his name, since the lead character (played by Woody Harrelson) in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers was named after him.
****
Like Knox, Tony Musante was an actor from the “tri-state Metro area” (born in Connecticut) who found a “second life” in Italian films. He also was extremely adept at playing criminal characters, even though his best-remembered role on TV was his one-season stint as the star of Toma.

Musante was an Italian-American actor who “looked ethnic” and thus could play characters from many different backgrounds. His first notable part was as one of two thugs who take over a subway car in the still-disturbing drama The Incident. Musante had played the same role in the drama that was adapted for the film a TV production called “Ride with Terror” (on The DuPont Show of the Week in 1963).

I saw the film again a few months back at a repertory house in which the patrons *love* to laugh at what they consider dated or melodramatic films (no suspension of disbelief for these folk – they're hipper-than-thou). What was interesting is that, while the opening segments leading up to the characters boarding the same subway train were chuckled over, the moment in which a gay character is harassed by Musante and his cohort (played by Martin Sheen in his movie debut) struck a chord in the audience and everyone shut up for the rest of the picture.

The film is still unsettling for big-city dwellers, especially those who have ridden the subway late at night or on weekends when the cars are empty as hell. The film's message may be specifically linked to the time it was made (three years after the Kitty Genovese incident proved that NYCers will not come to each other's aid, even when one could safely do so). But it is so well-acted and its situation so primal that it still packs a punch today.



One of the many cult movies Musante starred in was The Mercenary (1968), a spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci (who has been put in the “Pantheon” of Western directors by a deluded, jumpy filmmaker who shall not be mentioned here). The film’s best moments all feature Jack Palance in a ridiculous curly wig, but Musante is equally memorable as a sleazy Mexican revolutionary who is dressed as a rodeo clown in the final shoot-out.



Another key role for Musante in Italian genre cinema was the lead in Argento’s debut as a director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). As with much of the best Argento, the film has stylish visuals and a memorable soundtrack (this time by the inimitable Ennio Morricone).




In the same, very active period, Musante was part of the gang who kidnap Kim Darby in Robert Aldrich’s wonderfully jarring The Grissom Gang (1971).




Although he worked steadily for over half a century (running the gamut in his TV work from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Oz, most of Musante’s obits centered on a cop show that he did for only one season (1973-’74), Toma. The show was based on real-life Newark, N.J., detective Dave Toma, who was well-known for having a high arrest rate during his years as a police – and for the fact that he was a “master of disguise.”



After the first season Musante quit the show and it was turned into Baretta with Robert Blake. Musante went on to work regularly in TV (soaps and crime shows), the movies, and onstage, playing good guys and bad, always with a maximum of intensity.

*****
The most notable tough guy to leave us was definitely Tom Laughlin, who became a cult sensation in the Seventies, and then branched off into several “quixotic” branches of endeavor that were far from filmmaking. After 1973, however, he was best known by another name: Billy Jack!

Laughlin was a very unusual figure in show business, since he started out as a kind of James Dean clone, but wound up (as some of his obits noted) mixing the indie-filmmaker methods of Cassavetes with the savvy exploitation showmanship of Roger Corman. His films were morality plays with violence, self-righteous tracts that were on the “good side” of history and supply us with a fascinating window into the mind and emotions of middle America in the Seventies.

Laughlin began his public life as a high school and college football star. He said his life was changed by seeing a stage production of Streetcar Named Desire, and there never was any doubt that he was totally influenced by both Brando and Dean. He appeared in a few small TV and movie roles in the Fifties, but two events were the most important: his marriage to Delores Taylor in 1954 (the pair remained married right up until Laughlin's death last week) and his being cast in the starring role of the low-budget potboiler The Delinquents.

The 1957 film is just another juvenile delinquent saga, but it has developed a small cult for two reasons: because Laughlin stars in it, doing his best Dean disaffected-teen shtick, and the film was the fiction-feature debut of a Kansas City native named Robert Altman. Altman went on the record as saying that Laughlin was “an unbelievable pain in the ass,” but the film is important because Altman delved into the Dean mythos with his documentary The James Dean Story (also made in '57) and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982).
You can see the full film below. It's definitely B-movie fun, but don't expect anything on the order of Rebel Without a Cause....




Laughlin continued on as an actor after The Delinquents, even making his bow as a writer-director with the campus drama The Proper Time in 1960. Here's a wonderfully lurid trailer for the film:


Laughlin's official bios and obits point out that he took a six-year hiatus from acting to run a Montessori school with his wife (1959-65). Apparently the school went bust in '65, which found him again making a low-budget potboiler, this time with him playing a high school athlete (at 34 years of age). His official bios also note that the film, The Young Sinner (aka “Like Father, Like Son”), was intended as the first part of a trilogy called “We Are All Christ.” (No comment.)

He reportedly wrote the screenplay for Billy Jack back in 1954, but couldn't find money to produce it until 1971. In the meantime, he made his debut as the character in the action flick The Born Losers (1967).

I haven't seen the film in years, but remember that, upon viewing it after Billy Jack, one is struck by how nasty and exploitative it is, compared to the later BJ films. There's a *lot* of rape in the film – all of which is present so that Billy Jack can dole out revenge to the rapist bikers.


By 1969 Laughlin finally had the money to shoot his Billy Jack screenplay, and in the process created a very memorable cult picture that expresses its peacenik message in a very entertaining way (read: with violence!).


At the time the film was shot Laughlin was already 38 years old, so his martial arts displays were even more impressive, as was the fact that he produced the film independently with additional funding from three different distributors (American International, Fox, and Warner Bros). The film did decently for a low-budget production upon its first release in '71, but exploded in '73 when Laughlin bought it back from Warners and four-walled (read: rented) 1,200 theaters around the country to show it.

The film grossed 80 million dollars in that run and became an instantly recognizable part of the pop culture of the time. Some critics questioned the fact that Laughlin was proposing dealing with racism and close-minded right-wing ideology by “whopping” the villains in the face with his feet (BJ did also use guns in his countercultural campaign). The notion that a peace-oriented half-Native character could kick the shit out of rednecks clearly appealed to the youth demographic, as seen in these “testmonial” ads Laughlin shot for TV:



There are several super-memorable scenes in the picture, most of them involving BJ “whopping” the villains (I'm fascinated by the fact that Laughlin chose the word “whop” to indicate kicking). The two “greatest hits” from the pic are definitely BJ's face-off with the racist sheriff (Bert Freed):


And the scene in the ice cream parlor in which BJ comes to find that the racist fuckers have been mocking the Native American kids in the local “freedom school”:




As I noted in my blog entry on the band Coven, I hadn't realized that Laughlin truly did take over aspect of the film's promotion, to the extent that he became the “manager” of that great band, having them perform outside the movie theaters where the film was playing.

He also produced their second album, which has some great vocals by Jinx Dawson, but is very weak compared to their other two LPs. Something also occurred between the time of the recording and the album release, in that the band member's names are nowhere on the record cover, and their faces were taken out with White Out from the cover photo!

So Laughlin didn't do much for the band's progress in the business, but Jinx Dawson did do a helluva lot for his movie, with her superb vocal on the “One Tin Soldier” theme (that had been written and performed first by the Canadian band The Original Caste). The “Coven” recording (Jinx credited the song to her band, even though she was the only band member to appear on the soundtrack version of the song) charted in 1971 (in the Top 40) and then again in '73 and '74 (since the film was still in circulation, and the song was so damned catchy).



The first real sequel (since Born Losers is almost too unpleasant to be classified as a true Billy Jack picture), The Trial of Billy Jack was release in 1974). The film is quite strange, including trippy Native American content that predated the stuff found in Oliver Stone's The Doors by 17 years. It's an odd film, running an epic 170 minutes and containing much too much plot.

The storyline involves the titular trial, Billy Jack's prison stay, the efforts of the “freedom school” to run their own news service, and the eventual confrontation between the bad guys and Billy.




Laughlin's master stroke with this film was two-fold: he had a nationwide release of the picture on its opening day (unheard of for a smaller production at that time), and he bought out ad time during national news programs (which, of course, were nightly viewing rituals for folks back in the Seventies).

At some point I have to rewatch Trial, but I remember vividly thinking it was half of a great action/message film, made unwieldy by its running time. The “vision quest” sequences are very odd – remember that the scenes that don't fully come off in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ are those depicting Christ's 40 days in the desert. So if a master filmmaker like Scorsese couldn't carry it off there, in Trial we wind up having moments like this:



Laughlin directed one non-Billy Jack film in the Seventies, The Master Gunfighter (1975) with Ron “Superfly” O'Neal (No clips of that online at all!). In the Bicentennial year, he decided that the next vehicle for BJ would be a remake of Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The result was a film that never got a regular release in theaters and was first seen by the public in a VHS release many years later. I remember Laughlin discussing it on various TV interviews (including a few stints on Merv Griffin). I confess I haven't yet caught up to Billy Jack Goes to Washington, but it has a good supporting cast of sympathetic figures and villains (E.G. Marshall, Peter Donat, Lucie Arnaz). There are fights in the film, but obviously Laughlin wanted the film to deliver a contemporary message (including an anti-nuclear-power plot thread) using the model of the Capra film:



After the Washington debacle, Laughlin continued to be active but was effectively almost finished in the film industry. His filmography lists two British productions he had uncredited roles in (or was that another Tom Laughlin?), and includes two small roles he had in mainstream American productions: the Mitchum version of The Big Sleep (1978) and The Legend of Long Ranger (1981).

For the next three decades Laughlin would show up in the press and on interview shows every so often, either speaking out on political issues or pitching the notion of another Billy Jack film. The non-cinematic aspect of his life is covered heavily online. You can find videos on YT of him discussing a book he wrote on cancer; there are also several interviews about his runs for president in 1992 (as a Democrat), in 2004 (as a Republican), and in 2008 (as a Democrat again).

In 1986 he started a film called The Return of Billy Jack that found the character cracking down on child pornographers in New York City. It's not clear what scuttled the production – the film was unfinished – but it was reported that he injured himself on the set of the film, and also that the financial backing just wasn't there. Over the last few years he had been discussing online another BJ feature (one possible title, when he was very pissed off at G.W. Bush: Billy Jack's Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose).

He finally hit on the title “Billy Jack and Jean” and pitched the film in a few videos on YT:





Some of his recent videos had found him praising people in contemporary Hollywood (as with a video-rant about how great both Spielberg and Ben Affleck are as directors). The notion of the “last film” is a perennial concern for older filmmakers. I remember when I interviewed Budd Boetticher and he discussed how his dying friend John Ford was certain he was going to get well enough to make “one more film”:



One watches the YouTube videos that Laughlin put up and gets this same impression. (There was one online that I can no longer find where he namechecked a whole bunch of contemporary actors, from Sean Penn to George Clooney, in what seemed like a plea for them to become involved in his Billy Jack sequel.) He had a number of medical travails in his final decade, from tongue cancer to several strokes, and so his efforts to continue his work as a writer and filmmaker are quite touching, no matter ill-starred they seemed.

Thus, I would recommend checking out the blog run by his children, called “Billy Jack Rights.” The name is a bit formal (and way too legal) perhaps, but the content is quite nice, with the entries including rare photos from Laughlin and Taylor's lives and much rare info and documentation about the Billy Jack features. The blog can be found here.

In a 2005 New York Times piece, producer Gavin Polone (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Gilmore Girls) was asked about his possible work with Laughlin: “[Polone] approached Mr. Laughlin years ago about making a sequel to his trademark film. But, he said, Mr. Laughlin was unwilling to work within the Hollywood system, and his new project would probably suffer as a result.”

It did become clear during interviews with Laughlin (several of which can be found on YouTube) that he didn't want to work with the mainstream of Hollywood in any way, shape, or form (except for those actors he'd mention in his video-chats). While this clearly can be seen as self-destructive, it also is of a piece with his self-reliant philosophy of the Seventies, the kind of thinking that made him a cult figure and also compelled him to continue his quixotic quest for self-sufficiency in a world pretty much run by corporations.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

First lessons: a tribute to my HS film teacher

I’d never had a cool teacher before I met John Loose. I was 15 and attending an all-boys Catholic high school in Manhattan, and the introductory film course for sophomores was a pretty procedural affair, where the great screen “classics” were shown. There was discussion before and after, with papers on the films determining academic credit.

The mission was to show the earlier part of the “canon” and not bring up subversive ideas in the process. The teacher, however, was a laidback, seemingly laconic but actually quite acerbic gentleman who, when the topic came up, would quickly and emphatically stress that “all films are political.” (This notion irritating teenagers, who believe they see things in their totality — how can a film that doesn’t mention politics be political anyway???)

My parents had already introduced me to the finer points of film — my mother focused on the Hollywood legends, and my father showed me foreign features like Beauty and the Beast at a very young age. So John’s sophomore film class, with its week-by-week presentation of “classics,” was fine on its own, but it was the conversations I had with him after class and in later years that really opened my mind and made him the third most important person in my ongoing film “education.” (One great, sadly quickly-gone, teacher in college followed.)

John, who died the other week at 75, taught me about the auteur theory in those classes and conversations. He was the “doorway” for me to Andrew Sarris (whom he had studied with) and the Cahiers posse. He encouraged my teenage obsession with cinema and was quite vocal about which directors to check out and which to avoid — even when I vehemently disagreed with him in later years (I really liked Jarmusch’s work, dammit!), I respected his opinions.

A bunch of my fellow students saw his class as a “cake course” that one could either sleep through or snap rubber bands during (a number of teenage boys are, how shall I put this kindly… jerkoffs). Knowing this all too well, John still took the course seriously and did his best to communicate his ideas about film to a mostly disinterested audience. He never “taught down,” even to students who were clearly just trying to sail through the class.

I remember that the first of many lessons I received from him was about my use of the word “camp” — I had told him I loved “camp” movies and TV shows, and he noted that the examples I gave him were all “intentional camp” (of the Batman TV show and James Bond-ish stripe). I knew no other at the time, so he suggested I read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” and check out the work of filmmakers who were truly camp without being conscious and/or funny about it. (And yes, John's discussion with me did run the gamut from Ed Wood to Von Sternberg.)

After the sophomore class was over, I continued to talk with John at school. A few classmates and I successfully created a senior film “elective” that would allow us to study film with John once again and go deeper than the initial course had gone. Instead of us just sitting around and shooting the shit while watching our favorite movies, John assigned us to go see contemporary hits (serious dramas, “Oscar fare,” not multiplex action pics). We then discussed the films from a stylistic and political viewpoint.

Again, the notion of politics in film — John was a Left-wing man of principle whose most valuable lesson to me was that I really had to do the research and be ready to have information and context shoring up my opinions and beliefs. The right were in resurgence when I studied with John (Bonzo’s friend was president), and more than once he noted to me that it was “simpler” to be Right-wing, since you merely needed to stick to a position without researching it; the “burden” of being on the Left was actually having to have facts at hand.

He always peppered our conversations with wonderful insights and sarcastic jibes at filmmakers (and politicians) that he had no respect for. He was a traditional auteurist who revered Ford and Hitchcock, but he also introduced me to the “second level” of Sarris's Pantheon, the one that is filled with directors who are more volatile, vibrant, and in some cases far more interesting than the gents on top.

Thus, as I raved about Rebel Without a Cause, he told me about another Nick Ray film I just had to see, the mind-blowing meller Bigger Than Life (1956). Unfortunately, the only clip of the film available online is the trailer, but the seminal moment in the film was described to me by John while he was urging me to see the picture as soon as it played the repertory circuit once more. (Those being the days when films were not letterboxed on TV – and Ray's picture must be seen in widescreen.)

James Mason, the average American schoolteacher dad, is taking a “miracle drug” (cortisone in the film; Ray wanted it to be a fictional made-up medication) that is giving him delusions of being a Nietzschean ubermensch. Toward the end of the film he comes home from church, furious that the preacher missed the point of the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice story.

With a scissor in his hands he reads the story from the Old Testament, and then his wife (Barbara Rush) reminds him, “but Ed, you didn't read it all... God stopped Abraham!” Mason's response is a thunderous “GOD WAS WRONG!”

One of the single best lines in all of cinema. (not contained in this trailer, sadly)




John also encouraged my burgeoning fascination with the works of Godard, whom he deemed “too brilliant for his own good” (he was a big fan despite that pronouncement). On occasion his opinions concerning filmmakers grew out of his own past history as an actor (he had toured in summer stock productions, working with major H'wood stars who were trying to hang onto their fame by appearing in smaller communities).

I remember him noting that Warhol's films amounted to heinous exploitation of their performers because Warhol literally had his casts create the film for him. “They're giving him their audition pieces and then some – every actor has a tight audition piece, and it always looks as if Warhol is having them give him their best five minutes, and then keep going....”

When I look back on my conversations with him, which continued past my time in college through my 20s, I think the thing I remember most fondly is his bullshit detector. My friends and I were massively in love with Raging Bull (I still am), but John was more skeptical – he admitted the visual brilliance and the great acting, but called into question the message (including that bizarre “scales fell from my eyes” final citation, which both Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin distance themselves from on the Bull DVD audio commentaries).

He similarly contested our teenage LOVE of Clockwork Orange, wanting to discuss the film's message about redemption (essentially an oddly Christian one, until the “twist” at the end). We were still free to love our favorite films, but John required that we reflect on what they really were saying – or what the scripter or filmmaker had garbled in the message.

Similarly, I remember my final long conversation with him at an Upper West Side coffee/bagel place at some point in the Nineties. He had taken to teaching Once Upon a Time in America to his students (most likely the seniors, not the sophomores) and gave me an enthused “lesson” about the socio-political messages Leone and his scripters had inserted in the film.

In this case, I remained the skeptical one (I still think that film combines moments of genius with a structure that is an absolute mess), but as always with “Mr. Loose,” I took his lesson to heart and realized he was probably seeing in the mess of the film the picture that Leone *wanted* to make. (I always, by the way, thought of the gent as “Mr. Loose,” even though he required that I call him John when we were meeting socially or talking on the phone – he joked about the “Mr.” signaling someone from the government calling to discuss some things with him....)



As indicated above, the most important way in which he influenced my thoughts about cinema was in his insistence that we think about the “message” that different filmmakers were imparting, whether literally, through their plots, thematically or stylistically.

When I argued with him (being a new convert to Bergman) that Ingmar B. seemed about the most un-political filmmaker I'd encountered (I had yet to see his late Sixties pics like Shame), John of course noted that an artist's aversion to including politics in their storylines about society was in itself a political decision. What I initially found hard to swallow, I later realized was a quite fascinating method of looking at art and popular culture.

In my 20s when I would meet John for coffee or some kind of lunch we went deeper into politics, with me asking him how to put things into perspective and him volunteering xeroxes of articles he heartily recommended – again, urging “do the research,” which this time involved reading pieces on America's colonial impulse from some guy named Chomsky.

Similarly, the last tape he gave me – yes, I'm talking VHS – was a dub of the British release of Chris Marker's wonderful The Last Bolshevik, which was very hard to see in America some time ago (it's now out on DVD from Icarus). The last tape I gave him was a collection of the episodes I made from my interview with the late, great Western innovator Budd Boetticher. John was a big fan of his work, and I wanted him to see my chat with Budd.

I would occasionally ask him how the high school classes were going, and he'd note that he had some cinephile students, but that the level of Right-wing insanity among some of the other teens was growing. I guess it was indeed difficult for a man who prided himself on doing research into political issues being quoted facts by conservative teens, telling him that they heard said “fact” (which was, natch, a complete fiction) from Bill O'Reilly, whom they trusted for their political information.

I hadn't talked with John for the last several years – there was no “break,” just the usual amount of distractions that happen in different people's lives. The last time I saw him was a few years back, a stray encounter on the street. The guy looked like a million bucks, now wearing glasses and (yes, I did kid him about this – it HAD to be mentioned) a nice-looking jacket with patches on the elbows, professorial-style (he never smoked a pipe – that bit he never got into).

At that time he was delighted that he was a grandfather (he was going to visit his daughter and her kid), and of course we both said we'd have to hang out again soon and trade movie notes. We never did, but throughout the years I have generally thought of something John said to me once every few months.

The last thing he said that kinda haunted me – not said to disparage, just to “contextualize” – was that, when I got older, “you'll slow down your moviegoing.” He said this to me when I was in the full flower of my manic movie attendance as a teen, when there still were a few more rep houses in NYC and I was daunted by the number of things left to discover.

John's comment was not intended to slow me down, he was just presenting the realistic reflection that, as one gets older, one has indeed decided what one loves. There will always be new discoveries (hopefully!), but the personal “canon” has been formed, and you then have the choice of experiencing new material or re-experiencing old material you loved years ago and have forgotten in the interim.


For an instance in which he was “present” in my writing for this blog, I'd just note that the tattered, dog-eared paperback copy of Sarris's The American Cinema I consulted to write my Andrew Sarris posts was given to me by John (he had a double, and this was the one he had written on and underlined when he was studying with le grand auteriste).


So, regardless of the actual demands of nature and our ever-failing bodies, I do believe that your best teachers don't ever really die, as long as you are around. I have carried a little piece of John around with me over the years and will continue to do so until I kick the bucket. His voice – plain-speaking, laidback, and wonderfully, subtly sarcastic as hell – is still in my ear.

But I don't want to end sentimentally, since my favorite talks with John never went in that direction (especially when politics was the subject at hand – the man was an idealist but also a realist). I think my favorite question-and-answer with the guy was when I asked him (when I had gotten to be friendly enough to broach this) how in the *hell* did a man of his clearly Marxist-Leftist persuasion get hired as a teacher by an old-fashioned, Right-wing institution like my high school. His response? “Clearly an error in personnel.”

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Red States + Blue States = this video clip

Each year at this time I discuss what America means to me and point to this clip as pretty much summing up the country in the shortest time imaginable. Our president came to great notice telling us that there are no “red states” and “blue states,” there is “only the United States” (that has never been true, as has been illustrated by a thousand different events, actions, behaviors, and policies).

I would like to posit that the spirit that makes a bored volunteer at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade begin to mock a man (a celebrity, whom everyone once knew) reading the country’s constitution IS the American spirit. Not all of us might do this, but we live in a country where it is possible, and really, really, probable.

Please join me in saluting the spirit of America once again:

Friday, November 22, 2013

“Life’s good… but not fair at all”: Deceased Artiste Lou Reed (part 4 of four)

When I talk about Jerry Lewis on the Funhouse TV show, I’ve often noted that his comedy films (particularly the imaginative, charming ones he made with director Frank Tashlin) will be able to be more fully appreciated when Jerry has passed on. Even though he has been mellowing in recent years — and many members of the public who never liked him were saddened by him being booted from the telethon — Jerry’s abrasive attitude in public has served as the biggest obstacle to his comedy work being appreciated.

The same is true of Lou Reed. Now that he has left this mortal coil, he is no longer around to be rude to interviewers, so what is left is his truest legacy: his music (and yes, those pieces by Bangs I explored in the second part of this piece will live on forever, but those are also about Lester’s worship of Lou’s best music).

We can now explore the 22 studio albums he put out — plus the legally released live albums, which range from the best (Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal) to later experimental items with the “Metal Machine Trio” (not counting the literally hundreds of live bootlegs on the Net) to absolute crap (Take No Prisoners) — without having to think of Lou's abrasive interludes. 

Now onto the Reed solo-career discography, without “lettered” grades, since we know how much Lou hated Christgau’s rating system (wonder what he thought of Entertainment Weekly's appropriation thereof). 

First, I should suggest if you’re intrigued by any of this stuff, or just want to hear any one of *dozens* of Reed bootlegs, check out the YT accounts of a RABID Lou fan, who says he’s posting items given to him by a super-fan named “Lyoko.” His two accounts are here and here; his postings are comprised of 21 of the legally released albums and literally countless full concerts from the Seventies through the 2000s. 

Since the Net contains too many fucking Top 10 lists already, I will include one and only one in this piece. My top tier of Lou albums would be these 10 (ordered chronologically):


1-4.) The Velvet Underground albums (available together as the CD box set Peel Slowly and See)

5.) Transformer

6.) Berlin

7.) The Blue Mask (the harder, angst-ridden songs)

8.) New York

9.) Songs for Drella

10.) Magic and Loss 

And, to a lesser degree, his eponymous first solo LP from ’72, Sally Can't Dance and the tongue-in-cheek LP that is Coney Island Baby. Metal Machine Music is up near the top tier simply because it is aggressive and insane, thus worthy of a mind-fuck or two.

I’ll close out this obit with a discussion of the last three items on that list, but first I want to explore the “middle-period” Reed, which contains a handful of great songs and some LPs that are just heinously lame:

The “Arista Years”:

Rock and Roll Heart ('76): the title tune is all that you need to hear from this directionless “interim” album.

Street Hassle ('78): the title tune and “We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time” (which Patti Smith covered wonderfully in concert) are the sole standouts.

The Bells: not one good tune on the fucking disk. “Disco Mystic” is particularly abominable, time you won’t be getting back.

Growing Up in Public ('80): Lou confronts his alcoholism for the first time on this album, with a startlingly unflattering photo on the cover (he looked much worse for the wear at only 38 years of age). He complains about his parents, preaches that we should “Teach the Gifted Children,” and in one song rhymes “Escher” with “Measure for Measure.” The sole virtue is his tongue-in-cheek ode to booze, “Power of Positive Drinking.”

In 1982, Lou returned to RCA and put out his first truly powerful album since Berlin, The Blue Mask. In relistening to it to write this piece, I realized that the record is half-masterpiece/half-Arista-level material. The worst item is definitely “Heavenly Arms” (the aforementioned Lou-bellowing-about-Sylvia song I referred to in the first paragraph of the first part of this entry). It's goddamned dreadful.
On the other hand, the album contains four songs that are back in the traumatic groove that Lou pioneered with the Velvet Underground. “Underneath the Bottle” and “The Gun” are disturbing numbers that sketch a man on the edge; “The Blue Mask” and “Waves of Fear” are on a level with the finest VU work.

The strength of these songs comes no doubt from the fact that Lou was in the midst of cleaning up after years of booze and drugs when he wrote them; they also benefit from a stripped-down approach – just Lou performing with Fernando Saunders (bass), Doane Perry (drums), and the amazing Robert Quine on guitar. One thing is certain: they are closest that rock has come to approximating the work of the brilliant novelist Hubert Selby.

Waves of Fear” is delirium tremens in musical form: “Crazy with sweat, spittle on my jaw/what's that funny noise, what's that on the floor/Waves of fear, pulsing with death/I curse my tremors, I jump at my own step/I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell/I know where I must be, I must be in hell.”



Blue Mask” is a masochistic anthem, a lyric that reeks of self-loathing and pain worship: “Make the sacrifice/mutilate my face/If you need someone to kill/I'm a man without a will/Wash the razor in the rain/let me luxuriate in pain/Please don't set me free/death means a lot to me.” (I'll take bets a young Mr. Reznor was listening.)




That was basically it for Lou's Selby-like trip. On his next LP he went full-throttle into the biker/tough-guy pose he kept up for most of the Eighties. Legendary Hearts ('83) is a mostly forgettable album, that includes one more fatalistic addiction ode (“The Last Shot”), and Lou putting us on notice that he's happy and doing well financially (“Rooftop Garden”).

New Sensations ('84) spawned the song “I Love You, Suzanne” that broke Lou on MTV (see part 3 of this blog entry). At this point he's still in transition (Lou's transition lasted more than a decade and a half), still trying to find the right vocal style for his lyrics.

The most-indulgent, yet enjoyably nostalgic, song on the record is “Doin' the Things That We Want to,” a “where-did-this-come-from?” tribute to the works of Sam Shepherd and Martin Scorsese, in which he considers both men colleagues (the song is lively and sounds like a plea from Lou for collaboration with either or both of them).

In 1987, Lou tried to inject a “danceable” note to his music in the album Mistrial. “Video Violence” and “The Original Wrapper” show Reed trying to be audience-friendly and retain his new MTV following. He also executed a sort of dry run for the New York album with the topical lyrics of “Video Violence.” The slower songs were still a drag, however.

****


It's impossible to call the 1989 New York album by Reed a “comeback,” since he had never gone away, but it most certainly was a return to form, and the first completely excellent album from start to finish since Berlin. Working at the height of his powers here, Lou turned out a “newspaper” album, the kind of thing that Phil Ochs did in '64 (All the News That's Fit to Sing) and Lennon took a stab at in '72 with Some in New York City.

What Lou wound up delivering was the rock equivalent of Bonfire of the Vanities, a time capsule that is filled with beautifully sketched portraits of big city life and political issues in the late Eighties, with the references unrepentantly dated and localized to New York City.

Some of the self-righteous anger (especially in “Good Morning Mr. Waldheim”) doesn't make for the best rock “poetry” – in fact, it's clunky as hell – but New York is the first album where Reed perfectly matched his limited vocal range to the melodies.

He also crafted a “character” that suited him, a cranky chronicler of a city (and civilization) in decline that is touted as being on the “upswing” (Guiliani is one of the many real-life figures who are namechecked and/or mocked on the album). The clear, pure sound of one of Reed's idols, Dion, counterpointed with Lou's own sardonic, nasal narration, make “Dirty Boulevard” unforgettable on both a musical and “storytelling” level.




Reed followed the New York album with Songs for Drella ('90), a suite of songs he cowrote and performed with John Cale in tribute to Andy Warhol. This is the album that would've most likely made the best Lou Reed off-Broadway show, since (aside from Lou's fervent “I Believe,” about his wishes that they had killed Valerie Solanas for shooting his hero Andy) the songs are primarily written from the perspective of a single character (Andy) and the stripped-down sound created by Lou on guitar and Cale on piano and violin is both economical and powerful as hell.

In the album, Reed and Cale alternate vocals, with Cale assuming the quiet, public side of Warhol and Lou incarnating his professional and conceptual side (plus the anger that he never seemed to have expressed). The fact that the two were back together again, making music for the first time since 1967, was amazing, and the resulting show/album was nothing short of brilliant – Lou had to up his game when Cale was around (the Welsh one being a schooled musician who dwelt in the real avant-garde before the VU; Lou basically had to create his own little “wing” of the underground).
The back-and-forth between their instruments (as on the VU live reunion album) makes the music crackle, and the best songs – the sarcastic “Small Town” or the elegaic “Forever Changed” – are what the VU might've sounded like if either of these gents could've stood each other's company for a longer period of time.

And, although Cale was very generous to Lou in the program notes for the show (saying it was mostly Lou's show and he was only a singer/performer), it was essential that there be another voice in the project – Lou could not have carried off the song “The Trouble with Classicists” the way that Cale did.




I saw the live performance of the songs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was struck by the use of slides on a big screen behind Reed and Cale. The effect of augmenting the music with Warhol's paintings from the era and photographs of the people and locations was overwhelming. I remember being very disappointed upon purchasing the 1990 VHS version of the show (directed by the great Ed Lachman) to see that the images of Warhol's paintings weren't in the shots.

The VHS version can be seen in piecemeal fashion on YT, but still what you see are the two men playing and singing, not the stuff that was going on above them on the screen, as here in the song that best used the Warhol images, called (fittingly enough), “Images”:




Lou’s last great achievement was Magic and Loss, his '92 album about dealing with the death of a friend (Reed said in interviews that it was inspired by the deaths of two friends of his, one of whom was famed songwriter Doc Pomus). The album continues on from Songs for Drella, with Lou exploring the topic from several angles, from visiting the friend in the hospital to disposing of their ashes and, most touching, dreaming about the person after their death.

Too often Lou surrendered to his pet emotions — anger and angst — in his songwriting, but here he adopts an adult attitude throughout, balancing the sadness of loss with the joy of having loved a friend (and knowing how much they’d scoff at the somber nature of their memorial service). 

Magic and Loss is not as eminently re-listenable a record as his best rock albums because it so sad at points, but it does place Lou in the category of the great singer/songwriters, who crafted a musical identity for themselves while delivering sober truths in song. It’s also, needless to say, an incredibly “middle-aged” album, as it deals with one of the most common situations we encounter after age 40. And one of middle age’s most common emotions: regret. 

There are things we say we wish we knew and in fact we never do
but I'd wish I'd known that you were going to die
Then I wouldn't feel so stupid, such a fool that I didn't call
and I didn't get a chance to say goodbye
I didn't get a chance to say goodbye


No there's no logic to this - who's picked to stay or go
if you think too hard it only makes you mad


But your optimism made me think you really had it beat
so I didn't get a chance to say goodbye
I didn't get a chance to say goodbye
No - I didn't get a chance to say goodbye
I didn't get a chance to say goodbye
 


And if the beautifully elegiac tunes don’t do it for you, there’s also an extremely Selby-esque “short story” called “Harry’s Crucifixion” that finds Lou back in “Blue Mask” mode, although in a quiet, calmer fashion and with a Freudian “back story” this time….




******
The single best way to end this long-assed tribute to Lou Reed is to highlight the one song I’ve played more than ANY other Reed-related item (in fact I used it as the theme to the Funhouse for a very short while many years ago). It appears on the Velvet Underground rarities album Another View (’86), and I’ve found it’s one of those indisputably upbeat, hard-driving numbers that will jumpstart me in even the lowest of moods.

The VU with Cale in Dec. ’67 doing the instrumental version of “Guess I’m Falling in Love.”



Goodbye, Lou, you hard-rockin’ pain in the ass!