Monday, December 29, 2008

"Guys are Not Proud" (Music)

image (1980)
by the Anemic Boyfriends
Last.fm Entry

People talk about one-hit wonders, and sometimes two-hit wonders.  How about no-hit wonders?

I was a fan of New Wave music; it was an interesting and often funny sojourn in the journey that is rock music.  Our local progressive rock station was big on the genre, playing Joe Jackson, XTC, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Blondie, The Waitresses, and many others.  But the real joy was some of the more obscure groups, like the Flying Lizards.  And, of course, the Anemic Boyfriends.*

I don't know much about the group.  No one outside of the group does. Some sources indicate they were from the Pacific Northwest, others that they were from Anchorage, Alaska (or, at least, they recorded there). It may be an all-women group, but there's no certainty of that. But they scored a . . . well not a hit, since it never charted, but a minor success with their song "Boys Are Not Proud."

The song is reminiscent of the Waitresses's "I Know What Boys Like," where the song is delivered almost as a chant that  sounds like a sarcastic put-down.  The lyrics really make you take notice, as feminism run amok:

"Guys are not proud
They’ll do it any time
Guys do not care,
They’ll stick it anywhere
Guys are disgusting
Their always lusting
Guys are obscene
Vile and unclean
Guys are such creeps
They’ll even do it with sheep"

The words are delivered over a reggae beat with a weird little electronic solo between the verses (all the same).  It's goofy and surprisingly catchy.

Obviously, this wasn't top-40 material.  And probably wasn't likely to be a hit anywhere.  But a few critics and DJs loved the song, and it got a reasonable amount of attention, including being part of some "best of the year lists."**

But the group vanished.  It doesn't appear in All Music or Wikipedia and only a few sources indicate they even existed. They evidently released one other singles, but that never even reached the mild level of success of the original.

It's too bad. The song is well worth remembering.

*I always heard it as Anemic Boyfriend, but information on the group is sparse and I don't know if I heard it wrong, or if people added the -s to make it seem more like a group name.  But with New Wave, leaving off the "s" seems perfectly reasonable.

**Hard to tell if this was because the critic really liked the song, or because they wanted to show of their knowledge of what had been released.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Homicide: Life on the Street (TV)

(1993-1999)
Created by
Paul Attanasio
Executive Producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana
Based on Homicide:  A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon
Starring (original cast): Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto, Kyle Secor, Richard Belzer, Clark Johnson, Melissa Leo,  Ned Beatty, Daniel Baldwin, and John Polito.
Also (joined show during its run):  Ċ½eljko Ivanek, Isabella Hoffman, Reed Diamond, Max Perlich, Michelle Forbes, John Seda, Peter Geherty, Toni Lewis, Callie Thorne, Giancarlo Esposito, and Michael Michelle.
IMDB Page

Andre Braugher & Kyle Secor You think a great TV show with a very long run might be better known.  But Homicide: Life on the Streets (usually just called Homicide) was sort of an unwanted child of NBC.  It was never a ratings smash, and garnered few Emmys and only a smattering of other awards (though the three Peabody Awards were nice).  It ran on Friday nights, not the best TV night,* but evidently had enough prestige for NBC to allow it to run for seven seasons and even had a final wrap-up movie that was one of the best of its kind.

It started with Barry Levinson.  He was riding his success in films as a director, several of which were set in his home town of Baltimore, MD.  He and co-executive producer Tom Fontana hired Paul Attanasio (who wrote screenplays for Donnie Brasco and Quiz Show) to create a show from a book by David Simon that followed the homicide squad of the Baltimore police over the course of the year.

The show started with the arrival of Detective Tim Bayless (Kyle Secor) in the unit, led by Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto).**  The detectives all have distinct personalities and are all fascinating to watch, but the breakout character is Det. Frank Pembleton (Andre Brugher) -- philosophical, intense, always well dressed, and the best interrogator on the force. 

The show really wasn't about homicide; in many ways, it was the least violent dramatic show on TV. The detectives would arrive long after the crime, and what you saw was less a crime show (though it won an Edgar Award as one) as it was a workplace drama -- just one where dead bodies were part of the routine. It was probably the most realistic cop on ever to be on TV, since not all the murders were solved (one "character" was the whiteboard, which listed the cases -- black for solved, and red for unsolved).  Other cases had no mystery at all -- the killer was obvious.

It was the writing that carried the show.  Attanasio had a hand in nearly all the scripts, and wrote compelling dialog and great characterizations.  There were story arcs, some short, some that hung over the entire series (the murder of Adina Watson, Bayless's first case, was unsolved and always affected him).

There were just so many memorable characters it's hard to pick out a few. Det. Steve Crosetti was a conspiracy theorist -- but about the Lincoln assassination -- who committed suicide, leading to one of Pembleton's most memorable moments.  Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond) had a secret, while Julianna Cox (Michele Forbes) was the medical examiner with a messed up social life.  Det. Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) had to deal with the pressure of being a woman cop, and the fact that she had nothing but black on the whiteboard.  Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin) was a wild card whose antics got him in trouble.  There were many plots and subplots over the course of the show, but the real joy was the characters and the dialog.

The show was shot with handheld cameras to add to the realism. They managed to use the trick without overdoing it.***

The show premiered after the Super Bowl, a sign of how highly the network thought of it.  But the show never caught on.  It was nearly canceled after the first season, but NBC was persuaded to order four episodes that ran in January of 1994. Levinson managed to convince Robin Williams to guest star, and the show evidently did well enough to be picked up for the fall, where it continued to run.  Occasionally, there would be stunts, like a Law and Order crossover.  Finally, in 1999, the show was over.

The cast reunionBut not quite.  In 2000, the network allowed for one final episode, a two-hour TV movie that united all of the cast members (including several who "died" over the course of the show) into a finale that tied up a few loose ends, some in an intensely dramatic fashion.

Since then, the show never really found a new audience on cable. It required the viewer pay attention (always a problem) and, though it seems to still be broadcast, has been overtaken by shows like Law and Order and CSI, which don't have Homicide's attention to character and well-written dialog.  If the show is remembered at all, it's the one that created Det. John Munch, who has shown up as a character in more different TV shows than any other.

Most of the principals moved on.  Attanasio writes far less these days, though is involved as producer of House.  Producer Tom Fontana went on to produce Oz for HBO.  The rest of the actors moved on.  Other than Belzer's Munch, they have been working, but generally in TV guest star roles; Andre Braugher has starred in a few shows, but hasn't made a big impact.  Clark Johnson probably has done best, with a role in The Wire and by directing TV shows like The Shield.

Homicide itself rarely reruns on cable, and often at bad hours. It's a shame.  As one of the best shows ever to appear on Network TV, it deserves better.

*It was interesting that Friday nights historically has been the place where science fiction shows go to die.

**One nice touch is that Giardello is half Italian and half black and played by the Jewish actor Yaphet Kotto

***NYPD Blue, for instance, used to jerk the camera around solely to show it could do so.  As a side note, when the actors appeared in Law and Order as a crossover, they found it strange to see cameras on camera stands.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"The Greatest Gift" (short story)

(1943) By Philip Van Doren Stern
On Christmas Eve, George Pratt, a clerk at a small town bank, feeling his life has no meaning, decides to commit suicide. But a mysterious stranger grants him a wish -- that he was never born -- and he sees how life would have gone on without him.
Sound familiar? 
The Greatest Gift Except you probably thought I got George's name wrong.  I didn't, because I wasn't talking about It's a Wonderful Life.  I meant "The Greatest Gift," by Philip Van Doren Stern, the story upon which the movie was based.
Stern was  best known for writing Civil War histories, but was also an editor of anthologies of supernatural stories.  In the late 1930s, he had a dream that inspired him to write "The Greatest Gift." Finally, in 1943, he published his own edition of 400 copies and sent it to people as a Christmas card. Somehow, it got the attention of a movie producer and eventually wended its way to Frank Capra, who took quite avidly to the project.  The story was eventually anthologized in 1944 for its first mass publication.
Nowadays, people might see the name in the credits of It's a Wonderful Life and think no more about it.
I came upon the story in 1969, when it was reprinted in Stern's anthology, The Other Side of the Clock*.   In the introduction, it mentioned it was the basis for It's a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart.
A movie I hadn't ever seen.
While people assume the movie has always been a Christmas tradition, it wasn't always.  It had not been a big success in the beginning, and was just another old movie, perhaps of interest because it was directed by Frank Capra, but had no more resonance with the general public than Capra's American Madness**.  But in 1974, the copyright on the film lapsed and in a few years, it became a Christmas staple.
But back in 1969, it was pretty obscure.  Later, in college, I had seen more of Capra and liked it, so when I heard it was going to be on the air in August of 1973, I stayed up late to see it (the only other film meriting this at the time was King Kong).  As a consequence, I never connected it with Christmas*** (and, technically, the film does not take place on Christmas).
I wondered how Capra would handle the translation to film.  I thought it might be hard for him to fill in George's background and stretch things out to feature length.  Capra handled this brilliantly, but what I did find disappointing was George's reaction toward the end.  He was ridiculously slooooooow on the uptake and I got annoyed, wanting to shout at him, "You've never been born!  Deal with it!"  In the story, George understands what's happening two pages after it happens.
There are other differences.  For instance, in the story, it's shown that alternate Mary is married to an alcoholic bully of a husband; in the movie, she is an old maid. This might be construed that it's worst possible thing for a woman to be unmarried, though I suspect there were censorship issues:  if Mary had another husband the censors might have considered it bigamy or some condemnation of marriage.
More interesting is the difference in George Pratt's life.  He's not the head of the Savings and Loan; he's just a low-level clerk there.  He thinks his job is a dead end, and he did nothing important or even useful.  When he sees what life was without him, he realizes that sometimes even an unimportant job can make a great deal of difference****.
While the movie is a Christmas classic (though I think it's a bit overrated, owing to my perspective on it), I think the story is worth seeking out, just to see how things get changed for the movies.
_______________________________________________________________
*A superb collection of stories dealing with time and the fourth dimension, including stories like ". . . And it Comes Out Here" by Lester Del Ray), "And He Built a Crooked House" by Robert Heinlein, and several others.
**A movie about a bank president who believes in investing in people and who, when he suddenly comes up short of cash, is saved when all the people in the community and his friends from all around raise the money to help him.  Sound familiar?
***I had forgotten that the original story took place around Christmas.
****That's another argument I have with the movie.  George Bailey has done so many important things in his life -- important to the community, if not to the world -- that it doesn't make sense for him to believe everyone would be better off if he were dead.  All the stuff pointed out to him by Clarence were things he should have noticed without Clarence's intervention.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Carny

Carny (1980)
Directed by
Robert Kaylor
Story by Phoebe Kaylor, Robert Kaylor, and Robbie Robertson; screenplay by Thomas Baum
Starring Jodie Foster, Gary Busey, Robbie Robertson, Meg Foster, Kenneth McMillan, Elisha Cook, Jr., Bert Remson
IMDB Entry

There are many reasons why a film may be memorable, from story, to acting, to photograph, to anything else.  Carny is memorable to me because of one thing:  Meg Foster's eyes.

The movie was something of a vanity project.  Robbie Robertson, guitarist and chief songwriter for the Band, decided to try his hand at movie producing.  And acting.  And writing the story.  And it didn't turn out bad.

Carny is the story of Donna (Jodie Foster), who leaves her waitressing job to join a traveling carnival, after meeting Frankie (Gary Busey) and Patch (Robertson), who have a typical carny act where one person taunts spectators to throw balls at him, dunking him into a tub of water.  And then there's Gerta (Meg Foster), who's job is to seduce men into trying their luck by picking a rope out of a bundle that might be attached to a prize.

The movie is a bit episodic, with Donna being put face to face with the realities of carny life.  It does a nice job of showing the culture of the carnival and how Donna learns the ropes.

But Meg Foster is the real standout, in a bit part.  She has eyes of an arresting shade of blue -- pale as ice -- and as she demonstrates her technique to Donna, you just can't keep your eyes off her. 

Not quite a child any more The rest of the film was well cast.  Foster was good (somewhat of a redundancy) as she transitions from child star to adult actress, and Busey and Robertson (who is quite good, especially for someone who hadn't acted before*) fill the bill as partners and rivals for her.  It also fills out the cast with two immortal names in film Elisha Cook, Jr.** and Bert Remsen.***

The film was released, then lost.  It's grittiness, along with its portrayal of all non-carnies as stupid and vicious, clearly kept it from being popular.  Director Robert Kaylor had no track records (he still doesn't only making one more film), and Robertson pretty much gave up acting.  Meg Foster never made the breakthrough she deserved.**** Still, with a good cast, and subject matter that may be more attuned to the 21st century, the movie needs to be rediscovered.

*But not as good as his former Bandmate, Levon Helm.

**Wilmer the  gunsel in The Maltese Falcon

***The old man in every TV show of the 50s and 60s, from Leave it to Beaver on.

****Her closest thing to a breakout role was as Chris Cagney in the TV show Cagney and Lacey.  Don't remember her?  That's because she was fired after six episodes and replaced by Sharon Gless.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Delaney and Bonnie and Friends On Tour with Eric Clapton (music)

On Tour.  Note the boots.(1970)
Bonnie Bramlett, Vocals; Delaney Bramlett, Guitars, vocals; Eric Clapton, Guitars, vocals; Leon Russell, Guitars, keyboards; Dave Mason, Guitars; George Harrison, Guitars; Carl Radle, Bass guitar; Bobby Whitlock, Organ, Keyboards, Vocals; Rita Coolidge, Backing vocals; Jim Gordon, Drums, percussion; Tex Johnson, percussion; Bobby Keys, Saxophones; Jim Price, Trombone, Trumpet, Horns
Wikipedia Entry

All-star bands of musicians are often disappointments.  The performers often play Alphonse and Gaston, deferring to others and waiting for them to jump in.  The result is subdued, with none of the excitement you get when the musicians perform alone.

The Friends, however, worked perfectly, making one exciting album.

Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett were husband and wife, and long-time musical veterans when they formed the Friends -- a loose conglomeration of people who would sit in on their albums and would perform with them onstage. They were picked as the opening act for the Blind Faith tour, and Eric Clapton quickly fell in love with their music.

Their career had been a series of false starts and record company screwups.  Clapton gave them a hand, getting them a contract with Atco Records and touring with them.  And Clapton brought some of his own friends along -- George Harrison, Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle, etc.  The Bramletts already knew Leon Russell, and since they were a very impressive live act, their first album for their new company was a live album.

The songs are all blues and hard rocking, written not only by Delaney, but by Russell, Clapton and Traffic's Dave Mason. The excitement is palpable.

One of my favorite moments is introduction of the final song by someone who probably was involved in running the venue.  He introduces the band and the crowd goes wild for each name.  At Dave Mason, you can't believe the roar.  Then he introduces Eric Clapton and it just gets louder.

The album was a big success for the group and should have jump started their career.  Alas, without Clapton's name on the cover, people lost interest and their subsequent albums, while well-received, never made a big splash.

Of course, sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that the core of the Friends were the musicians who became massively popular as Derek and the Dominoes.  In addition, just about everyone in the band had successful careers.

But one of the most successful names associated with the group never played with them.  Take a look at the cover.  You'll see two boots poking out the window of the car. When they were looking for a cover for the album, they just happened to like one image that the photographer had taken for a previous album.  So the picture was used.  The feet belong to Bob Dylan.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Augie Rios (music)

(1958)
Having a Christmas hit song is not necessarily a way to being a long and successful music career.  Take the case of Augio Rios.  He had two Christmas hits (although they were two sides of the same record), but the songs are rarely heard today, and Augie seems to have vanished.
Augie was a child actor, appearing on a couple of Broadway stage productions and in one or two TV shows.  He appears to have been born in Spain, and also recorded some other songs after his big hits.
Correction:  Rios has contacted me to make a few corrections.  It turns out he was born in New York City; his parents were from Puerto Rico.  I thank him for the corrections; I was going by guesswork and what little I could find on the web.  See below for his biography.
But, on Christmas, even the obscure can become a star.  Rios hit the big time with the single "Donde Esta Santa Claus." It was a pleasant tune about a child wondering about Santa, and most notable because part of it was in Spanish.
But the flip side of the single had another song that I remember much more, which shows just how warped my sense of humor was when I was six.  The song was the delightful "Old Fatso," a Christmas song with a different twist. 
The tune was much more uptempo and bouncy.  The chorus was especially catchy.
Don’t care who you are Ol’ Fatso
Get those reindeer off the roof
Don’t care who you are Ol’ Fatso
Get those reindeer off the roof
No you can’t fool me because
There ain’t no Santa Claus
There ain’t no Santa Claus And I got proof.
(Full lyrics here.)
"Donde Esta Santa Claus" crept up into the top ten, I believe (at least, did well enough to be played all over the place that year), and I also remember hearing "Old Fatso" even more often.
Of course, one-hit wonders, even with Christmas songs, tend to vanish once the hit is gone, and Augie Rios never made a splash afterwards. And since he didn't write the songs, he probably didn't get royalties, but that's a moot point since neither is played all that much (though some groups with Spanish-American heritage have recorded "Donde Esta Santa Claus").  It was probably a big rush for a young boy who is now in middle age and looking back at his time in the limelight.
Augie Rios Autobiography

"I was born in NYC on October 24, 1946.  I am the eldest son of hard working Puerto Rican parents.  I was managed by George Scheck, and my vocal coach was Lola Bennett."
Theater appearaces, Broadway, NYC:
Jamaica October 1957-April 1959 Imperial Theater (with Lena Horn, Ricardo Montalban and Ossie Davis)
Saratoga, December 1959- February 1960 Winter Garden Theater (with Carol Lawrence and Howard Keel)
Christine, 1961       46th Street Theater (with Maureen O'Hara)
13 Daughters 1964 (with Don Ameche)
Television Appearances:
American Bandstand; Dick Clark's  Beechnut Theater; Naked City; and The Richard Hayes Show.
Recording History:
Hip, Skip, Jump (MGM Records)
Augie Stay Home (Shelley Records)
Trip to the Island (MGM Records)
When You Dance (Shelley Records)
Run Rattler Run (Shelley Records)
Gypsy Boy (MGM Records)
No One (Shelley)
Teach Me Tonight (Shelley Records)
Ol Fatso (MGM Records)
Lullaby (Shelley Records)
Donde Esta Santa Claus (MGM)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Battle Beyond the Stars

(1980)
Directed by
  Jimmy T. Murakami
Story by Anne Dyer and John Sayles; Screenplay by Sayles
Starring Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, George Peppard, John Saxon, Sybil Danning

When a movie is a smash hit, other filmmakers rush to copy it. Usually the result is dire, since the people ripping off the film don't really understand (or care) what made it a hit in the first place.  Occasionally, though, there is something that stands out on its own.

Battle Beyond the Stars is a prime example.

The movie was produced by the legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman. In his long career, Corman produced almost 400 films, nearly all of them cheap knockoffs of the latest trend.  So when Star Wars started making hatfuls of money, he jumped on the bandwagon.  And why not?  Corman had made quite a few other science fiction films (like the original Little Shop of Horrors). 

Corman was also famous for using (and underpaying) young talent. His films were always a way to break into films and a surprising number of his actors, directors, and writers went on to successful careers.

In this case, he chose John Sayles. Sayles has written a couple of moderately successful novels, but was more interested in movies.  He first got Corman's attention with the script for Piranha, and Corman hired him again to turn his attention to a Star Wars clone. 

At the time, Sayles was working on his first directing effort, the superb Return of the Secaucus Seven, and probably some of his check from Coreman was used to pay for the film.  Perhaps because he was busy, Sayles took the easy way out. 

He stole his plot from The Magnificent Seven (and its Japanese inspiration, The Seven Samurai)The farming world of Akir* is threatened by the space tyrant Sador** (John Saxon) so Shad (Richard "John Boy" Thomas) sets out to find people willing to help with the defense.  He recruits Gelt (Robert Vaughn) and Cowboy (George Peppard) and five others in order to defeat Sador and save the world.

The film doesn't hide its origins.  Robert Vaughn was in The Magnificent Seven and Gelt has many of the same lines of dialog.  But what really makes the film work is Sayles's script, which is witty, and satirical, but also shows a love of the genre.  I saw it as the second feature at a drive-in, and I must say that was really the right element for it.

The film was one of Corman's most expensive. It was unusual for him to cast so many established actors, and the special effects budget was first class (unusual for Corman).  It seems to have been something of a success, but the budget was probably too rich for Corman's taste, so he returned to low-budget quickies.

Like many Corman films, this started a few major careers.  John Sayles, of course, went on to be a major name in independent films.***  Jimmy T. Murakami has directed occasionally, but this was his one major film.  James Horner, whom composed the score, has been very successful as a film composer, even winning an Oscar for his score for Titanic.  And why was he chosen to write that one?  Possibly on the recommendation of the film's art director (and creator of the spaceship models), a young man named James Cameron.

*A reference to Akira Kurosawa, director of The Seven Samauri.

** There was no need for subtlety, was there?

***And in Schenectady, his home town (or, at lease, my adopted one), where they named their arts magnet high school after him.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

In His Own Write/A Spaniard in the Works (book)

(1964,1965)
Written by
John Lennon
Art by John Lennon

Omnibus edition from the early 70s. The Beatles are the popular culture giants of the 60s, and possibly of the entire 20th century.  Their influence is everywhere -- music, movies, TV (The Monkees, most obviously), art and design (their record covers were groundbreaking), style, and just about everywhere else.  Even literature.  What is odd is that their -- or rather, John Lennon's -- influence in the area of books is often forgotten.

Back in 1964, when Beatlemania was in full bloom, Macmillan Publishers in the UK published a slim volume of short poems and vignettes and art by Lennon called In His Own Write.  I have no doubt that this, like many things associated with the Beatles, was just an attempt to cash in before the group was forgotten.*

But a funny thing happened:  the critics loved it.

The book is just a collection of what would today be called "flash fiction," usually describing a particular character -- "Partly Dave, "Good Dog Nigel," "Treasure Ivan" -- and filled with wordplay and somewhat surreal dark humor.  A favorite of mine is "A Suprise for Little Bobby**":

It was little Bobby's birthmark today and he got a surprise. His very fist was jopped off, (The War) and he got a birthday hook!
All his life Bobby had wanted his very own hook; and now on his 39th birthday his pwayers had been answered. The only trouble was they had send him a left hook and ebry dobby knows that it was Bobby's right fist that was missing as it were.
Whatto do was not thee only problem: Anyway he jopped off his lest hand and it fitted like a glove. Maybe next year he will get a right hook, who knows?

As you can see, it's funny and somewhat sick.***  And there's a lot of suppressed (and unsuppressed) violence in the stories, beneath the humor.****

The wordplay and puns were dazzling, and the stories were all very funny to read.  My favorite comment about the book was the review from Newsweek, which calls it "Frothing with original spontaneity. . . suggests that when John Lennon sings I Want to Hold Your Hand, he is wishing he could bite it."

My favorites here include "Partly Dave," "No Flies on Frank," "The Wrestling Dog," "Good Dog Nigel," "Deaf Ted, Danoota, and Me," and "I Remember Arnold."

The book was a hit, big enough for a sequel.  The next year saw Lennon's A Spaniard in the Works (a pun on the British phrase "A spanner [wrench] in the works.").  It wasn't as surprising as the first (no one had expected the Beatles to actually be literary), but still has plenty of the same sort of foolishness.  I think Lennon was working a bit too hard to attempt the sequel, so it does go overboard a bit, but there are still gems like "The National Health Cow."

Both books are enlivened by Lennon's illustrations -- insane little line drawings that either illustrate a story or just stand alone.

At one point, the books were turned into a play, but by the mid-70s, interest waned.  Ironically, these were one of the few things done by the Beatles that have faded away with time.  It seems to now be out of print

The books deserve to be rediscovered.

*Few believed at the time that the group would be anything other than a flash in the pan.

*The Table of Contents has it as "Surprise," but the actual story uses "Suprise."

***Or as they'd say today, "not PC."  But I was a big fan of sick humor simply because there were no taboos.

**** Michael O'Donoghue must have loved it.  O'Donoghue was a former National Lampoon writer and one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players (no one remembers that), who had a strong belief that all humor was violence, and the violence was funny.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Stunt Man

(1980)
The Stunt ManDirected by
Richard Rush
Screenplay by Lawrence B. Marcus, from an adaptation by Richard Rush of a novel by Paul Brodeur
Starring Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Alan Goorwitz (Garfield), Charles Bail, Sharon Farrell
IMDB Page

The Stunt Man was one man's labor of love, and is one of the best films about moviemaking ever made.

Director Richard Rush fell in love with Paul Brodeur's novel and knew he had to make it. He wasn't exactly a Hollywood name:  his most famous film at the time was the minor hit Freebie and the Bean, but Rush went out to turn the book into a film.  After years of work, Rush managed to get together the cast he wanted and started filming.

The Stunt Man is the story of Cameron (Steve Railsback), a drifter who is wanted by the police.  As he tries to escape them, he is nearly run down by a car, which swerves and ends up plunging into a river, killing the driver, Burt.

Which was the entire plan. The driver was a stunt man working on the World War I drama Devil's Squadron, directed by the somewhat mad director Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole). Cross takes Cameron on as a stunt man for the production, where he meets and falls for it's star, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey).  He wants Cameron to take Burt's place when the redo the stunt.

Only the question becomes, is it a stunt, or will Cross try to kill him for the film?

It's a movie that keeps you off balance and which blurs the line between reality and moviemaking.  One or my favorite moments in all of film is when professional stunt man Chuck Barton (Chuck Bail), is going over the river plunge, explaining to Cameron what will happen.  Cameron is sitting in the car, and Barton is telling him how the car will fill with water.  "At this point," he says, "you'll be needing some air, so you reach down beside the seat for the air tank."  Cameron reaches down, but there is no air tank.  "Don't worry," said Barton.  "It will be there."

And the question is:  will it?

Eli Cross gives a lesson in filmmaking This is one of Peter O'Toole's greatest roles.  His Eli Cross is mad, impulsive, profane, and a genius and meglomaniac. As Cross says, "If God could do the tricks that we can do he'd be a happy man!"  He keeps everyone guessing as to what he will do up to the final moment. It is a bravura performance; you can't take your eyes off him for a moment.

Railsback plays Cameron* as a man with a past, a Vietnam vet who comes home a bit dazed by the experience. He's not a traditional conflicted vet, and his brush with the law is more comedy that drama (something the movie mixes brilliantly).

There also should be mention of Chuck Bail.  Bail was actually a stunt man, and his Barton was probably based on his real-life personality. The way he takes Cameron under his wing is also a joy to watch.

Also fine is the always good Alan Goorwitz** from Cry Uncle plays Sam, the scriptwriter who is frustrated by Cross, but who recognizes his genius. Barbara Hershey plays Nina beautifully, and Sharon Farrell is good as the production's hairdresser.

There should also be a special mention of Dominic Frontiere's film score. It is by far one of the best -- so good that, for years, filmmakers would use bits of it for movie trailers when their music for the film wasn't ready. 

Rush finished the film in 1978, happy with the results, and delivered it to the studio.  Which refused to release it.

Evidently, they felt they had a flop on their hands. They figured the costs of releasing it would be greater than any profit, so it made more sense to take the loss instead of incurring a bigger loss due to advertising and distribution expenses.

After two years, Rush managed to get the studio to open the film for a week in Seattle. The box office was enthusiastic enough for the film to finally be released.

Alas, the studio seemed to be right.  Despite making a few best of the year lists, the film performed poorly.

However, if my experience has anything to do with it, the reason may have been due to a major screw-up on the part of the studio.  I went to see it early in a local theater and noticed as I watched that Cameron said something he couldn't possibly know.  Later, Peter O'Toole gave him that information.  And, as I thought about it, I realized that the reels were being shown out of order.  Once I figured out where (one scene abruptly cut out, then a later one continued that point), I was able to put the film together in my mind to see what was there.

Was this just the one theater?  I don't know.  I do know, however, when I saw it again in a second theater, the film stopped for a moment at the point where the reels were reversed, as though someone found the problem and fixed it.

In any case, the film. though well-liked in some circles, faded away.  This was before videotapes, so it did not show up on TV due to the language. It was fourteen years before Rush directed again, with the flop The Color of Night and I can't help but wonder if some of that was due to his nagging his studio to lose more money.

But the film is a great one in all respects. If you love movies, you'll love the film.

___________________________________

*His name, by the way, is an important plot element.

** He started out as Alan Garfield, changed back to his real name of Goorwitz, then returned to Garfield a few years later.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Mr. Pudgins (book)

(1951)
by Ruth Christoffer Carlsen

imageOne of the great joys of going to school in the 60s was the Scholastic Book Club.  Every month or so, you'd get a list of books, all available for dirt cheap prices, even for the time -- sometimes as little as a quarter (when paperbacks were 50-75 cents).  And in among the various books I picked up was the wonderful, Mr. Pudgins, by Ruth Christoffer Carlsen.

When I read it, the book was marketed as being similar to Mary Poppins. The idea was simple.  Mr. Pudgins would come by to babysit for John, Pete, and Jane. At some point, he would sit back and smoke his pipe* and then magical things would happen.

For instance, John, Pete, and Jane would meet their mirror images who came out of the mirror to play -- and didn't want to go back.  The water faucets would have running soda, bathtubs would fly, and cars would turn into motorboats.

The stories were written in a very matter-of-fact style as the kids first were delighted by the new changes, but then discovered they weren't unmitigated successes.  It's not a book with a lot of action, but plenty of wonder.

This was the first novel for Carlsen (age 90 and living in Iowa City, IA). It took her 14 years before she published another, Henrietta Goes West, and wrote several more before disappearing (though she is still writing).

The book is hard to find, and I'm afraid the pipe smoking means it may never be reprinted.  That's a shame, since a book this wonderful deserves to be remembered.

 

*This was before the Surgeon General's Report.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Phase IV

(1974)
Phase IV Directed by
Saul Bass
Written by Mayo Simon
Starring Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynn Frederick
IMDB Entry

Every film fan is familiar with the work of Saul Bass, even if they may not know it.  He made his reputation by designing some very striking movie posters.  But Bass moved on from there to be a title designers and is considered the genius in creating title sequences.  Before he came along, titles were static affairs, a card showing the name of the movie and its stars.  Bass turned things around with a more dynamic style that was the beginning of the modern title sequence.  Bass's titles included moving text, stylized graphics, and many innovative techniques still in use today.  Some of his credits include The Man with the Golden Arm, Around the World in 80 Days, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Goodfellas, Casino, and many others.

But like everyone in Hollywood, Bass wanted to direct (especially something that lasted more than five minutes).  So, in 1974, he directed the film Phase IV.

The film is ostensibly a horror film, but there's much more to it. Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) discovers a new breed of ant in the desert, one that seems to be developing sentience.  Worse, they have figured out a way to destroy their enemies and may be moving to destroy their biggest enemy of all -- man.

He takes James Lesko (Michael Murphy) and Kendra Eldridge (Lynn Frederick) to and experimental station to study them to find a way to defeat them.  But they don't want to be defeated and soon they are trapped by a hive mind that may be smarter than they are.

The movie stays away from the cliches and camp of the genre.  The ants make a very credible enemy, and the ending is a real surprise.

AntThe film is brilliantly designed; the images are as memorable as those in Koyaanisqatsi  or Days of Heaven. The ants are photographed in extreme close-ups, making them memorable foes.  They are the real stars of the film.

The film flopped.  A mystical, cautionary tale about ants attacking humans is not going to do well in the box office.  Bass never directed another feature.

But it's a thinking person's horror film that has something to say, and deserves to be better know.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

William Johnston (author)

(????--????) (1924 - )

Added 6/21/2010:  Edited now that I have new information (in green).  The main article remains the same for historical purposes, but see the note at the end.

Bet you can't even read his name. William Johnston is a mystery.  I've never seen any biography (even on the books he wrote).  I have a strong suspicion that the name is a pseudonym.  It's even possible that multiple writers used the name. His books are long out of print -- all paperback originals tied in with gimmicky TV shows.

He also wrote some of the funniest stuff I've ever seen.

Johnston's best known work was a series of novelizations of the Get Smart TV series.  Starting with Get Smart in 1965, he followed it with Get Smart Once Again! (1966), Missed By That Much! (1966), Max Smart and the Perilous Pellets (1966), Sorry, Chief... (1966), And Loving It! (1967), The Spy Who Went Out to the Cold (1968), Max Smart Loses Control (1969), and Max Smart and the Ghastly Ghost Affair (1969).

I loved the TV show, and bought the first book back when it was out.  I liked it so much that I read all the titles through Sorry, Chief . . . , buying a couple (I still have my copy of Sorry, Chief . . . ) and borrowing the rest from friends.  I also picked up his novelization for Captain Nice in a remainder bin.

Johnston was funny.  His strength was long, strange conversations, filled with catchphrases (some from the show, others for the book alone).  I can still get a smile from the phrases "six invisible guinea pigs," or "Vot you doink in mine staderoom?", things that came up time and time again, with wildly funny variations in Sorry, Chief. . .

Johnson also wrote a series of Happy Days books, one or two Flying Nun books, and a novelization of Klute*. There also appears to be a standalone novel, Sam Weskit on the Planet Framingham, which I'm sure didn't do all that well**.

In any case, Johnston disappeared in the mid-70s.  My feeling is that he was a pseudonym*** and he just moved on.  I would love to find out who he was, and also to see that his work returns to print.  With all the trademark issues, that might be impossible, but one can always dream.

On June 18, 2010, the mystery of William Johnston was solved. I had guessed wrong:  the name wasn't a pseudonym at all.  In any case, see Lee Goldberg's blog for the facts.

______________________________________________
*Talk about one thing that doesn't match the others.

** The problem of writing novelizations is that no one remembers the author's name (other than Isaac Asimov for Forbidden Planet, but most people think the movie was made from the book, not vice versa).

*** If anyone knows, I'd love to find out. I have a suspicion it might be Ron Goulart, but I could be way off.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Arnie (TV)

(1970-72)
Created
by David Swift
Starring Herschel Bernardi, Sue Ann Langdon, Roger Bowen, Tom Pedi, Del Russel, Stephanie Steele
IMDB Entry

America thinks of itself of a classless society, but that's not entirely true.  Certainly there is more mobility from one class to another, but there are enough differences to be the fodder for this show.

Arnie was the story of Arnie Nuvo (Herschel Bernardi).  He had been perfectly happy to work at the loading dock at Continental Flange, until one day, his path crossed with the company's owner, Hamilton Majors (Roger Bowen).  He helped Majors out with his clear-thinking basic advice and, as a reward, Arnie was promoted to Vice President of Product Improvement.

But Arnie didn't like it.  The change in situation didn't sit well with him, especially since it lost him some of his friends.  And he was always being asked to solve problems that were based on Major's blithe assumption that Arnie was used to the world he had been thrust into. Arnie depended on help and advice from his wife Lillian (Sue Ann Langdon) and his old buddy from the loading docks, Julius (Tom Pedi).

The Nuvo Family The show was helped by the casting.  Bernardi grew up in the Yiddish theater and had replaced Zero Mostel in the lead of Fiddler on the Roof. Arnie was a warm character, a man who tried his best, and Bernardi made him a sympathetic hero.

But the real comic delight was Roger Bowen.  Bowen is know -- if at all -- for playing Henry Blake on M*A*S*H. No, not the TV show, the movie*. In Arnie, he was clueless, making assumption about Arnie and seeing the world through his private school background.  Unable to understand that Arnie didn't share his assumption, he caused problems for his new vice president -- and was always funny on screen.

Joyce Van Patten was an early entrant in the hot-wife-of-dumpy-sitcom-hero sweepstakes and was very loving and supportive of all that Arnie would do.

Arnie did well enough the first season, when it was shown on Saturday night.**  When it was renewed, though, CBS blundered.  It moved to Monday.  At 10:30.  This was a horrible time for a half-hour show; at that point, the last show with a 10:30 start was six years previously.  But it got worse.  It was up against Monday Night Football and an NBC movie.  Not surprisingly ratings dropped and it was canceled.

Bernardi continued on Broadway and as a guest star and voice actor for commercials (best known role:  Charlie Tuna and the Jolly Green Giant).  Bowen never seemed to catch on anywhere other than as a guest star, and Van Patten kept busy in minor roles.

It was a small gem of the show and begs for rediscovery.

*In a strange coincidence, Bowen died one day after Maclean Stevenson.

**Yes, in the 70s networks still did original programming on Saturday.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Legend of the U.S.S. Titanic (music)

image( 1969)
Jaime Brockett
Brockett's Web Page
Music and Lyrics

There are one-hit wonders.  And there are even no-hit wonders.  One of my favorite of the latter is Jaime Brockett's delightfully goofy "Legend of the U.S.S. Titanic."

Brockett was a folksinger from the Boston area who in 1969 recorded an album on the small Oracle label.  It probably would have been lost among all the other albums released at that time if it weren't for his take on the Titanic.

Brockett took an old Ledbelly song and expanded it to a 13-minutes talking blues masterpiece.  Well, not really talking -- Brockett speaks frenetically as he recites a unique take on the disaster.  He manages to work in heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and 497 1/2 feet of rope.  Hemp rope.

Yes, it's marijuana, and the song tells how Captain Smith gets stoned on the 497 1/2 feet of rope and ends up hitting the iceberg.

The song was immense fun and became a hit on college and progressive rock radio stations.  It's impossible to listen to it and not smile a little bit.

The album did well enough for Brockett to get a contract with Capitol records.  Alas, it did poorly, and his career, like the ship in the song, sank down to small venues and coffeehouses.

But anyone of the right age most certainly remembers Jack Johnson, the Titanic, and 497 1/2 feet of rope.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Underdog

There's no need to fear. Underdog is here.(2007)
Directed by
Frederick du Chau
Written by Adam Rifkin and Joe Piscatella  & Craig A. Williams
Starring Jason Lee, Peter Dinklage, James Belushi, Patrick Warburton, Alex Neuberger

When I heard about this movie, I had the same reaction as a vampire does to garlic -- it made me want to stay far, far away.  What was the point of a live-action version of a crappy Saturday morning TV show?  I watched the original cartoon as a kid, but mostly for three reasons:  It was on; it was something to watch on Saturday mornings; and we only got two channels.  I hadn't much desire to revisit the show, and I figured the nostalgia value was worth nothing at the box office.  Plus I have a low tolerance for the dog-do jokes I expect to be the movie's stock in trade.

But a few months ago, the movie came up on a discussion board I frequent, and was spoken highly of people I respected.  So I rented it. And while it's certainly not a great film, it's fun and better than it has any right to be.*

The story is standard.  A dog (voice of Jason Lee) gets caught up in the schemes of mad scientist ("I prefer visionary") Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage) and gets super powers.  He escapes to the home of an ex-cop turned security guard Dan Unger (Jim Belushi) and his son Jack (Alex Neuberger).  The dog -- named "Shoeshine" because of his habit of likcing Dan's shoes -- slowly discovers super powers and the ability to talk.  Barsinister and his assistant Cad (Patrick Warburton) search for Shoeshine (who takes on the superhero identity of Underdog) to try to use him to take over the world.

Nothing new here, but it's all in the execution. The choice of Jason Lee as the voice was inspired.  He shows the same goofy charm that makes him so good in My Name is Earl. Indeed, it sometimes sounds like the movie could be named My Name is Dog. 

Peter Dinklage is -- as is usually the case -- excellent at Barsinister.  He manages to take the part and hit the right level of hamminess without overdoing it.  And Patrick Warburton brought his usual Tick-inspired goofiness as a big, dumb lunk. 

If you know the show, it's nice to see how they kept true to the spirit of the original.  In the cartoon, Underdog's identity was "Shoeshine Boy," his main enemy was Simon Bar Sinister, and he spoke in rhyming couplets.  All this was written into the script in such a way as to be a nod to the original even when things were changed (Shoeshine Boy to Shoeshine, for instance).  There was also an appearance of the second string nemesis in the cartoon, Riff Raff.

It's not that the script is great all around.  The backstory between Dan and Jack is cliched and perfunctory.  But Underdog works despite this, by creating the world and playing it straight, and by being willing to take its source material seriously.

It's primarily a kid's film, of course, but there's no reason not to sneak a look at it when the kids aren't around.

_________________________________________

*I discussed this phenomenon with The Doberman Gang. (Another film about dogs -- maybe there's a pattern).

Monday, October 20, 2008

Son of Dracula

Son of Dracula (1974)
Directed by
Freddie Francis
Written by Jennifer Jayne
Starring Harry Nilsson, Ringo Star, Suzanna Leigh, Dennis Price, Freddie Jones, Peter Frampton, Keith Moon, John Bonham
IMDB Entry

This is certainly an oddity, originally conceived as a rock version of the Dracula story. It fared poorly with the critics and audiences, but really wasn't all that bad, and in some ways was years ahead of its time.

The story tells about Count Down (Harry Nilsson), the title character, who is about to be crowned King of the Underworld by Merlin (Ringo Starr). But he falls in love with the human woman Amber (Suzanna Leigh), and decides to become mortal himself, leaving the honor to Dr. Frankenstein (Freddie Jones). 

The story is used for a bunch of Nilsson's songs; the single "Daybreak," was written for the film and is the only original.

But what makes the film interesting is Nilsson's performance.  He plays the vampire as a moody longer longing for love. Now, that's a pretty common trope these days, but back in 1974, it was unusual.  The film is less a horror film than a romance and Nilsson's moody performance is quite good.

Ringo Starr is also good as Merlin.  Starr's strength as an actor is the absolute sincerity he brings to every line; when he says anything, it's with a seriousness that makes even the silly believable, and he is especially good here. 

The film flopped badly.  People looking for a horror film were disappointed and people looking for a romance never got the word.  The marketing also made it look like a comedy, which is really wasn't.

I have especially fond memories of it, since I saw it at the State Theater in Schenectady, one of two old movie palaces still standing. But whereas the other, Proctor's Theater, is a lively arts venue, the State hasn't held an event for thirty years.  It was a beautiful vast performance space (well, probably still it, though no doubt everything is falling apart by now) and the environment was impressive enough to make the film even more enjoyable.

But I'm one of the few.  Audiences stayed away, and even those involved have harsh words for the project.  Director Freddie Francis returned to his main trade, cinematography, and won a couple of Oscars in the process. Freddie Jones had has a long career in UK films, as has Dennis Price (best known as the lead in Kind Hearts and Coronets). 

Ringo (who produced) has basically disowned the film, so there is no DVD or video, and it's had very few TV showings over the years.  But I think it would be worth seeing again.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Long Goodbye

(1973)
Directed by
Robert Altman
Written by Leigh Brackett from the novel by Raymond Chandler
Starring Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, and Jim Bouton.

I've been a fan of Robert Altman since M*A*S*H first came out.  His films were always a unique take on whatever subject he was filming. The Long Goodbye was his venture into film noir, a movie that didn't make money,* but which has plenty of small rewards.

The film is based on a Raymond Chandler novel. Chandler is one of the great names of mystery fiction, but is hard to translate to movies, since his work was more dependent on language** and mood than plot. Altman came onto the project after a couple of other directors turned it down, and made it into his own vision. 

He insisted on the quirky casting.  Elliott Gould was considered too unreliable in Hollywood, and Jim Bouton was known only as a baseball player (and for his book Ball Four).  Nina van Pallandt was even less likely a choice, since all she was known for at the time was being involved in the Clifford Irving's Howard Hughes autobiography hoax.

He also threw Chandler out the window.  This bothered some of his fans, but the only better film made from his work -- The Big Sleep -- also tended to remake things in order to clean up the sloppy plotting.  And he also turned it into more than just a detective story. It was partly a comment on the old fashioned 40s detective caught in a 1970s situation.

The story follows Philip Marlowe (Gould). His friend, Terry Lennox (Bouton), asks him for a ride to Mexicon.  When Marlowe returns, he discovers that Lennox is wanted for killing his wife. And when Lennox is reported as being killed, Marlowe thinks there's more to it than that.

The movie plays to Altman's strength in creating characters.  Gould's Marlowe is a beaten down man, who tries to keep up with the code of the 40s that you had to work on a mystery until you solved it.  He's perfect in the role, as his understated presence makes Marlowe all that more memorable.

Sterling Hayden, Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt and Henry Gibson Sterling Hayden is also fine as an alcoholic writer who Marlowe is hired to find, and whose story seems to have something to do with Lennox.

But the most memorable role for me is Mark Rydell as Marty Augustine.  Rydell is primarily a director who occasionally acts and his portrayal of Augustine -- a crime boss -- is among the greatest villains in the history of film. What makes him so dangerous is the fact that he both violent and unpredictable.  Augustine makes it clear that he is even willing to wreck the things he loves most for absolutely no reason at all other than the prove a point. His line to Marlowe after he demonstrates -- "You, I don't even like" -- is chilling, and he's much more interesting than any villain because you don't know what he'll decide to do.

Bouton does a good job as Lennox, but van Pallandt is just OK in her role.  It's also somewhat surprising to see Laugh-In's Henry Gibson as a sinister doctor.

I should also give kudos to screenwriter Leigh Brackett.  Brackett was writing pulp science fiction before going into films, and she worked on the script to The Long Goodbye. Maybe it's not just a coincidence that the two best Chandler films had her as a writer.

The film did poorly in the box office.  Most Altman films did.*** The bleak and funny look at Hollywood confused people; the changes in the film bothers Chandler's fans; and the lack of star power didn't help.  The studio first tried to market it as a detective thriller, then as a comedy.  Neither worked.

The movie did revitalize Gould's career, showing the Hollywood suits that he was capable of making a movie.  Most of the other actors didn't do to well.  It was clear that Bouton and Van Pallandt's careers were self-limiting -- despite everything, they were just stunt casting -- and Sterling Hayden (best remembered as General Ripper in Doctor Strangelove and for his role in The Asphalt Jungle) was at the end of his career.  Altman continued to make fascinating movies that failed at the box office.

One actor, however, did pretty well afterwards.  In several scenes you could see Marlowe's next door neighbor, a bodybuilder back when that sort of thing was exotic. The nonspeaking part was played by an Austrian bodybuilder by the name of Arnold Schwartzeneggar.  Of course with a name like that, he never had a chance to be a star and eventually he left acting to go into politics.  I hear he's been somewhat successful.

*Of  course.  Few Altman films did.

**He pretty much invented the hard-boiled detective lingo, but was so good with words that, despite the fact there are thousands of imitators, his still remains fresh and exciting.

*** Altman once said that the only reason he kept getting directing assignments was because of M*A*S*H.  Producers would see his track record and would be reluctant to hire him, until they thought, "well, M*A*S*H was a hit.  Maybe he can do it again."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dave Mason "Alone Together" (music)

(1970)
Alone together Dave Mason (guitar, vocals), backed by an all-star cast of musicians.

Back when I was in college in the early 70s, Dave Mason's album Alone Together was a favorite of a friend of mine. One day, he took it out to play it and someone who had never seen it before took one look at the LP and blurted, "That record is moldy."

That was one of the album's claims to fame.  Mason recorded this album after leaving Traffic, and someone got the idea to put it out on colored vinyl.  Not one color, but multiple colors, a weird mixture of gray and brown and beige*. I know the first few times I listened I was so fascinated by watching it spin that  didn't really hear the music.

Eventually, though I did, and discovered one of rock's classics.

Mason was a fine songwriter even with Traffic, but he was happier finally getting out on his own and not having to compete with Steve Winwood. He got together a group of well-known musicians, probably people he met while touring with Delaney and Bonnie. This included them, but people like Eric Clapton, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, Chris Ethridge, Leon Russell, Jim Capaldi, Jim Keltner, John Simon, Rita Coolidge, and many more.  If the names don't all mean anything to you, they did back then -- remnants of Derek and the Dominoes, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and many others.  It was something of a British collective of musicians who moved around and helped each other out.

But it Mason's show.  The best known cut was his "Only You Know and I Know," a song he recorded about the same time when touring with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends.  "Shouldn't Have Took More than You Gave" is an explanation of a breakup, and other standouts include "Waitin' On You," "World in Changes," "Sad and Deep as You," and "Look at You, Look at Me."**

There isn't a weak cut on the album.  Mason's singing is fine, and the songs are catchy and emotionally strong.

The album was a minor hit, getting up to 22 on the Billboard charts. But Mason's next project hurt his street cred:  a collaboration of Mama Cass Elliott.  The Mamas and the Papas weren't as cool as Eric Clapton and Leon Russell, and, though the album was a good one, it didn't sell -- too much Mason for Elliott's fans, and too much Mama Cass for everyone else. 

Mason continued (and still seems to be working).  He had a minor hit single with "We Just Disagree," in 1977.  But Alone Together remains not only his most notable album, but a classic that bears rediscovery.

Of course, the CD will be silver, not moldy***. 

*There's no particular reason for vinyl records to be black; some used other colors from time to time.  But the main reason for sticking to black was technical:  if you changed colors, you had to clean the equipment so that it wouldn't pick up colors from the previous album. 

** Mason had a thing for long song titles.

*** In the late 70s, I was in a record store and they pulled out a copy of the album to play for the customers.  I pointed.  "It's black!" I said. The clerk said only the first pressing was multicolor, but I knew different -- I picked out mine in a cutout bin.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

1963 (Comic book)

(1993)
Written by
Alan Moore
Art by Rick Veitch, Dave Gibbons, Steve Bissette, Don Simpson, Chester Brown, John Totleben, Jimmy Valentino
Wikipedia Page

Alan Moore is quite rightly considered one of the top writers of comic books written today.  His work has been astounding, with things like V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Swamp Thing*, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.**  But lost within these classics is one of his best, a comic that is not only good on its own, but is a satire on the business of comics in general.

1963 was a limited series of six comic books, all with different titles, that were pastiches of the Marvel comics of the 60s.  Moore takes on the personal of "Affable Al" Moore, whose chatty footnotes and replies to letters are quite reminiscent of a very well known Marvel comic editor of the time. Indeed, the letters mention the "sixty-three sweatshop" and gives out "anti-awards" for letters, as readers comment on previous (nonexistent) episodes of the stories. 

The characters are clearly based on Marvel superheroes of the time and you can see Moore is trying to make a statement about how superheroes were portrayed.  The six books are:

  • Mystery Incorporated ("America's Most Exciting Comic Book") about four fantastic heroes:  the scientist Crystal Man, Neon Queen, Kid Dynamo (who turns into a form of energy) and, of course, the Planet, a man turned ugly and with great super strength.
  • No one escapes the Fury.  This means you! No One Escapes . . . The Fury.  The Fury is a wisecracking superhero who bounces around the city to fight crime and supervillains like a blind arachind. 
  • Tales of the Uncanny.  Two stories here, one featuring U.S.A. -- Ultimate Secret Agent, a red white and blue clad hero, the other with the Hypernaut, with elements like body armor, science fiction, and other issues.
  • Tales from Beyond.  Another two-fer, with N-man, who turned bright red and ugly due to a nuclear explosion, and Johnny Beyond, master of the occult.
  • Horus, Lord of Light. A hero who turns into an ancient god.
  • Tomorrow Syndicate.  An all-star lineup of heroes.

If you know comics at all,you know who Moore is referring to.***

The stories are very much in the mood of 60s Marvel stories, and matching the style of the comics perfectly. It's the same sort of flat art that we all grew up on and there are often the typical ongoing plots that Marvel was so well known for.

One of the more interesting pieces are the "Affable Al" Moore comments. Moore portrays his alter ego as a pure ego, slave driver who grabs all he can get, and who even threatens a fan (named Neal Gaiman) with a lawsuit over copyright violation. 

The series was incomplete.  There was supposed to be an additional comic -- an 80-Page Giant Annual -- where the heroes in the Tomorrow Syndicate would meet with heroes from Image Comics (who published the series). It was clear that Moore wanted to make some statement about the relationship between comics in the 60s with that of the 90s. The final panels have the Tomorrow Syndicate in a world where the flat comic book art had turned to the more three-dimensional art that was the standard of the time.

But the book never came out. The artist -- Jim Lee -- quit comics for a year and never got back to the book.  There were creative differences and eventually too much time lapsed for it to be a viable project.

The comics are hard to find; I don't think they've been collected. But it's a enjoyable look at the past, with a character -- "Affable Al" -- who ranks as one of the great comic book creations.

 

*Though I prefer the original Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson verson.

** Don't blame Moore for the movie, or any others of his books -- he hates what Hollywood does to his work.

*** Oh, all right.  If you don't get it:

Mystery Incorporated Fantastic Four
The Fury Spider-Man with hints of Daredevil
U.S.A. Captain America
Hypernaut Note entirely clear, with elements from Iron Man/Silver Surfer, Green Lantern & others
N-Man The Incredible Hulk
Johnny Beyond Doctor Strange
Horus The MightyThor
Tomorrow Syndicate The Avengers, and also Moore's own Watchmen series.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Quick Change

Quick Change (1990)
Directed by
Howard Franklin and Bill Murray
Written by Howard Franklin from a novel by Jay Cronley
Starring Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Randy Quaid, Jason Robards, Phil Hartman, Tony Shaloub
IMDB Entry
View the trailer

There's a comment in My Dinner with Andre to the effect that New Yorkers don't leave the city because it's their own prison, and they can't.  Quick Change demonstrates this in a literal -- and very funny -- way.

I've mentioned before that a bad name can kill a film. In addition, if your film is best appreciated by a small segment of the movie audience, you're going to have even more problems, even with a popular star in the cast.  And if the film is hard to describe in a nutshell, you might as well give up.

These were the hurdles facing Quick Change. It is a particularly nondescript title that really didn't do a good job of describing what was going on.  It was a comedy, but the jokes were best appreciated by native New Yorkers, and any plot description makes it seem like a heist film instead of a comedy.

Bill Murray was riding high after the success of Ghostbusters and Scrooged, and evidently loved Howard Franklin's script. But he didn't want to mess it up, so Murray decided to codirect with Franklin.

The movie starts out as a bank robbery/caper flick. Grimm (Murray), a man dressed as a clown -- in full makeup -- starts by robbing a New York City bank and taking hostages.  Through an ingenious ruse, Grimm and his friends Phyllis (Geena Davis) and Loomis (Randy Quaid) get away with the money and elude the police. All they have to do it get to the airport and fly off to a life of luxury.

And that's when their troubles begin.

It becomes impossible to get there. Roads are blocked, traffic is jammed, buses go nowhere.  They are robbed, have their car fall into a ditch, and generally get caught up in various weird comic catastrophes. Meanwhile, Chief Rotzinger (Jason Robards) catches on to Grimm's ruse and starts to look for him.

Lauging on the inside type of clown Murray's usual ironic detachment serves him well, though it patience is sorely tried by what fate throws at him.  Some consider this one of his best roles (at least until Lost in Translation).

Geena Davis is good as always, and Randy Quaid plays the type of role that he specializes in:  the somewhat bewildered sidekick.  And Robards is also fine as the world-weary cop who always gets his man.

The film is probably best appreciated by New Yorkers, but anyone can understand the feelings when you keep getting thwarted in what you want to do.  It did only so-so at the box office, helped that, despite the names in the cast, it was shot for a low budget.

Murray hasn't directed again (yet), and Franklin hasn't been much in evidence -- two other films, including The Public Eye. But when I think of Bill Murray, I'll always remember him as the "crying on the inside type of clown."

Friday, August 29, 2008

Davy (book)

Davy (1964)
by Edgar Pangborn

"I'm Davy, who was king for a time.  King of the Fools, and that takes wisdom."

So starts one of the great openings in science fiction, and one of its greatest novels.

Davy is about life in a post-apocalypse America, where an nuclear war and global warming* has devastated the landscape. The ocean has risen, and the United States has broke up into many small states, all dominated by the Holy Merican Church, a fundamentalist variation on Christianity.

Davy** is the son of a legal prostitute (allowed by the Church as a way to repopulate) who grows up in a church orphanage and is sent out as an indentured worker in a tavern.  He runs away and makes his way from his home in Skoar to adventures throughout the country of Moha and beyond.

There isn't a strong plot, but the book doesn't need it.  Davy goes from place to place, meets friends and lovers, and eventually marries Nickie, a woman who is everything -- smart, attractive, and very sexy.

And sexy is a major concept of the novel. Davy's adventures are often quite bawdy, in a world where sex seems to come with very few hangups. I suppose you could describe him as horny teenager, but Davy always includes affection as part of the mix and the women he beds (and who bed him) do so with delight and with a great deal of romance.  I can't imagine how this was taken in the staid world of science fiction of the early 60s, when the genre avoided mentions of sex altogether.

The novel is written as Davy's journal of his life, with some notes and footnotes by friends and by the lovely Nickie. And the scene where the two meet is one of the most wonderful in all of science fiction.

The structure of the book seems disconnected -- just a series of adventures -- until you get to the end. I remember my first reaction to it was that, "Pangborn didn't cover what happened next."  Then I realized he had -- through asides and notes we learned all we needed to know of Davy's life from the end of the narrative until the present.

Another thing that I especially loved was the place names.  Pangborn lived in upstate New York and used a garbled version of actual place names. I live in the area, too, so it was fun to figure out what they were.  Some were easy:  Nuber (Newberg), Rensler (Rensselaer), Nuin (New England), Vairmont, Katskill.  I did need help to figure out Kanhar (Canajoharie) and some I haven't figured out yet.

The book has always been well regarded by those who read it. The fact that it's out of print is partly a condemnation of the changes in publishing over the years. The cover I used was for the edition I first read from 1982, and back then and before you could expect good science fiction books to go out of print but then reappear seven or so years later. Now they don't come back, and are forgotten.

Pangbourn wrote other well-regarded books. A Mirror for Observers won the International Fantasy Award*** in 1955, and some of his other books, including The Judgement of Eve, were set in the same world as Davy.  He also wrote some mysteries and other books, with an output of about eight novels and a couple of short story collections.

Every once in awhile, Davy comes back into print. If you ever see it, snatch it up.  You won't be disappointed.

*This is before the nuclear winter model was developed.

**He has no last name.

*** A short-lived attempt at a science fiction book award that was soon overshadowed by the Hugos.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Tall Guy

(1989)
Directed by
Mel Smith
Written by Richard Curtis
Starring Jeff Goldblum, Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson, Kim Thompson
IMDB Page

Richard Curtis one of the UKs top screenwriters.  He broke out with films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and The tall guyLove Actually* though he made his name in the UK with things like the Blackadder TV shows.

The Tall Guy was one of the first features written by him, a very funny sex/romantic comedy.  Maybe it's not as superb as Love, Actually, but his talent is in full gear.

Dexter King (Jeff Goldblum) is an American actor living in London and working as the straight man in a comedy act starring the insufferably obnoxious Ron Anderson (Rowan Atkinson).  Dexter's role requires he take abuse -- both on stage and off -- from Anderson, who has ever bad quality a person could have, and isn't even particularly funny.

Dexter meets nurse Kate Lemmon (Emma Thompson) when visiting his doctor.  Soon they embark on a funny and passionate affair. Dexter loses his job with Anderson but it cast in the lead of a musical adaptation of The Elephant Man entitled Elephant! and jeopardizes everything when he starts an affair with his costar.

Goldblum goes through the part with his usually ironic understatement, with knowing asides that are always amusing.

And most people think of Thompson as a Serious Actress, but she really got her start in comedy.  This was her first feature role, and she has superb timing and also gets the most out of the script. And, perhaps surprisingly, the two make an excellent romantic couple. There's one particular scene, where they make love over (and in) lunch, that's one of the sexiest and most passionate scenes in film.

The production of Elephant! is a hoot. Curtis uses the opportunity to satirize Andrew Lloyd Weber with a bizarre and overwrought set of songs with such absurdities as tap dancing elephants.

 

The film was a modest success.  Curtis, of course went on to more success, as did most of the people involved.  Director Mel Smith (his first film, too) did a little directing, but is more noteworthy as an actor, his most noticeable role was the Albino in The Princess Bride.

It's a minor gem in Curtis's career. And remember -- Somewhere up in heaven there's an angel with big ears.


* Let's just pretend the Mr. Bean films don't exist.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's Garry Shandling's Show (TV)

(1986-1990)
Created by
Garry Shandling and Alan Zweibel
Starring Garry Shandling, Molly Cheek, Michael Tucci, Scott Nemes
IMDB Page

I'm a big fan of metafiction -- stories and movies about stories -- and certainly the most metafictional TV show of all time was It's Garry Shandling's Show.

Shandling had started out in Hollywood as a writer, contributing scripts to Sanford and Son; Welcome Back, Kotter; and Three's Company. After an automobile accident, he decided to go into standup and became so successful that he became a regular guest host on The Tonight Show.

Why a duck? So, like many comedians, he decided to do a sitcom. Joining with Saturday Night Live veteran writer Alan Zweibel, they created It's Gary Shandling's Show.

The show was a sitcom about Garry Shandling's sitcom.  Garry and the rest of the cast knew they were in a sitcom, and could do various sitcom tricks with the conventions of the genre.  Take, for instance, the well-remembered theme song:

This is the theme to Garry's Show,
The theme to Garry's show.
Garry called me up and asked
if I would write his theme song.
I'm almost halfway finished,
How do you like it so far?
How do you like the theme to Garry's Show?

Gary would do his "time thing" to cut to a later time of the day without showing it. He would talk to the audience, of course*. The studio audience was an integral part of the show (I recall one show where he talked about big band music, and the cameras showed the studio audience, all with little toy trumpets, moving back and forth in unison in time to the music. Gary commented, "That's a really big band.").

The show was an early success on Showtime (one of their first original series), but gained many more fans when the new Fox Network picked up the reruns and ran them on Sunday night starting in 1989**.

As a sad footnote, the show was the last TV appearance of Gilda Radner before her death. In a funny but poignant exchange, Shandling asked why he hadn't seen her in awhile.  Gilda replied, "Oh, I had cancer. What did you have?"

Eventually, the show ended and Garry moved on. He scored a big success with The Larry Sanders Show, but times since then have been difficult.  After the notorious flop What Planet are Your From?, he seems to have had few credits, returning to standup.

The show has been overshadowed by Larry Sanders, but it was a funny take on sitcoms with an audacious premise that always delivered.

*Not exactly new to TV -- George Burns was doing it in the 50s.

**The Fox Sunday night schedule in this time frame was one of the better lineups comedy line-ups of all time, with Married With Children, Shandling, Tracey Ullman, and Duet.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Traffic (music)

1967-69, 1970-75
Steve Winwood (organ, piano, guitar), Jim Capaldi (drums, percussion), Chris Wood (flute, saxophone), Dave Mason (Guitar), others.
Wikipedia page

One of the problems with the classic rock radio format is that it concentrates on singles. While there are many fine groups who made both successful singles and albums, there are others that were primarily album groups. In the 70s, that was fine, but as time went on, they stopped getting airplay on classic rock stations and faded away.

Traffic was one of the best of these.  They're remembered, at best, for one song (that wasn't a hit single, oddly enough), and for being one of the early groups that starred Steve Winwood before he became a successful solo artist. But back in the 70s, it was in the top tier of groups out of the UK.

Winwood started performing professionally at age 15, and writting and singing the hit singles "I'm a Man" and "Gimme Some Loving" for the Spencer Davis Group when he was 19.   After leaving the group, he wanted to start out with his own group.  Picking several musician friends -- Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood, and Dave Mason -- he formed Traffic (the name comes from their desire to "keep music moving" and they included a logo of arrows curved into a roundabout) and recorded their first album, Mr. Fantasy, in a studio in Berkshire, UK, that Winwood built with the money he made from the Spencer Davis hits.

But there was already trouble.  Winwood and Capaldi (who wrote together) had disagreements with Mason about where they wanted the group to go. Mason evidently wanted to stick with pop tunes, while Winwood/Capaldi leaned toward jazz and blues.  Mason walked out while the album was being finished.

The group had two UK hit singles with Mason's "Paper Sun" and "Hole in My Shoe," but when the album was released in the US, Mason's other contributions were left off* and he wasn't listed as a musician (though he did get credit for his songs that remained).  In addition to the two British singles, the album featured gems like "Colored Rain," "No Face, No Name, No Number," "Heaven is in Your Mind," and, of course "Dear Mr. Fantasy," a musing on life as a rock star.  Winwood and Capaldi has voices that meshed brilliantly; even when they were singing the same note.  It was an artistic success, and did well enough to allow for a second album.

Traffic -- Winwood (front), Capaldi, Wood, and Mason And between albums, Mason returned. Whatever differences everyone had, they decided to put them aside and continue.  The result -- called simply Traffic -- was considered even better. Winwood and Capaldi contributed songs like "Pearly Queen," "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring," "40,000 Headmen, and "Vagabond Virgin," while Mason's more pop contribution included "You Can All Join In," "Crying to the Heard," and the classic "Feelin' Alright?", by far their most successful song.**

But the tension in the band returned and Traffic broke up. Several leftover tracks (Traffic was originally planned as a double album) and a live performance were put together in their "final" album Last Exit.

Winwood joined up with a couple of musicians from an obscure group named "Cream," to form Blind Faith.***  The others added a musician billing himself as Wynder J. Frog to form Mason, Capaldi, Wood, and Frog, which did some live gigs but never got an album contract.

Once Blind Faith fell apart, and after a short stint touring with Ginger Baker, Winwood returned to his Berkshire studio to record a solo album, to be titled Mad Shadows.**** During the recording, he asked Capaldi to help him with the songwriting.  Then they decided that Chris Wood would be just the person to add flute and sax. And with them all there, it was a simple step to decide to reform Traffic.

The result, John Barleycorn Must Die, was a triumph.  All six songs on the record were gems, starting with the aptly named instrumental, "Glad," then with "Freedom Rider," "Empty Pages," the superb "Stranger to Himself," "John Barleycorn" (an old folk song done as straight folk) and finally, "Every Mother's Son." It was their biggest success, reaching #5 on the US charts.

But there were problems. The instrumental lineup -- organ, woodwinds, and drums -- was awkward live.  In addition, Jim Capaldi, while a fine drummer in the studio, tended to get excited and off the beat when in front of an audience. His songwriting and vocals were essential to the group, but his drumming had to be improved.

So the group brought in help. Ric Gretch, who was the most obscure musician in Blind Faith, joined on bass, while Jim Gordon became the drummer.  Gordon was one of the top session drummers in the business, and played with such people as Delaney and Bonnie, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, and, most famously, Derek and the Dominoes§. Finally, they added Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah and started recording.

The result was The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. This was another triumph -- six songs that were nearly of the level in the previous album. The title song is what is most commonly Traffic song played on the radio, a condemnation of the record industry. The album also includes standouts like Capaldi's "Light Up and Leave Me Alone," Gretch's "Rock and Roll Stew," and Winwood's "Many a Mile to Freedom" and "Hidden Treasure."

About this time, the group went on the road in the UK.  And, for some of these performances, Dave Mason rejoined.

So when Winwood's old record company insisted he owed them an album, the live album was released. Though not technically by Traffic. Each of the musicians were listed on the cover, so the album -- Welcome to the Canteen -- is listed as by Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, Chris Wood, Ric Gretch, Rebop Kwaku Baah, and Jim Gordon, certainly one of the longest band names for an album (it did, however, have the Traffic logo, which appeared on all their albums).

Welcome to the Canteen While not a great album, Welcome to the Canteen is quite good as contractual obligation albums§§ go. It includes a mix of Traffic songs, a couple of Dave Mason solo songs, plus "Gimme Some Lovin"" from the Spencer Davis days.

But nothing lasts, especially with Traffic.  Gretch left, as did Gordon§§§.  They were replaced with David Hood and Roger Hawkins, respectively, both members of the Muscle Shoals house band where Capaldi had done some solo recording.

The new lineup put out Shootout at the Fantasy Factory. While not reaching the heights of the previous two studio albums, the title song is another great one.

Traffic went on the road for another live album with this new lineup. On the Road was a nice album, but the songs were not up to the studio versions.

After the tour, Hood and Hawkins returned to Muscle Shoals, and Rebop moved on. Adding bassist Roscoe Gee, the group put out When the Eagle Flies, a decent effort (which sold well), but without any real standout cuts. Of note to me is that former Bonzo Dog Band member Vivian Stanshall co-wrote one song on the album, a role he later played with out Winwood compositions.

After a tour, Traffic broke up. Winwood had a very successful career as a solo artist, most notably with "Back in the High Life" and "Arc of a Diver." He put out a new album this year. Capaldi had some success as a solo artist and songwriter, dying of stomach cancer in 2005. Chris Wood's story was even sadder, as he died of pneumonia in 1983.  All is not sadness, though: Dave Mason's solo career also goes on (with some weird detours like an album he recorded with Mama Cass Eliott) and he's best known for his hit "We Just Disagree."

But the group faded from memory. Though they had several top ten albums, they never had any big US hits. "Low Spark" gets airplay, but little else, and the group gets short shrift as just a station along the road of Steve Winwood's career.

But they should take their place among the top half dozen UK groups of their era.


*It didn't hurt the album any.  They weren't very good.

** In terms of cover versions.  At one point, a new version of the song was being released every three weeks, most famously by Joe Cocker.

*** The king of the supergroups.  When it came out, though I didn't know about Winwood and wondered why he was writing the songs instead of Eric Clapton.

****Not to be confused with the Mott the Hoople album of the same name.

§ (Got tired of asterisks.) He shared songwriter credits on "Layla," which would have made him a rich man today, if he were allowed to spend the money.

§§ These are albums that the record company insists the artist record to fulfill a contract, usually after the artist left the record company on bad terms. The need to produce an album for people who you are pissed off at leads to interesting artistic tension, though generally the musicians will record a half-assed album and hope it doesn't disappoint their fans.

§§§ Gordon, alas, developed schizophrenia and ended up murdering his mother, evidently believing she was the voice in his head that was tormenting him.  He was convicted of murder (his attorney was unable to use the insanity defense) and is still in prison.