Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lick My Decals Off, Baby (music)

Lick my decals off babyCaptain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) - Bass clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, chromatic harmonica, vocal; Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad) - Guitar and glass finger guitar; Rockette Morton (Mark Boston) - Bassius-o-pheilius; Drumbo (John French) - Percussion, broom; Ed Marimba (Art Tripp) - Marimba, percussion, broom
Wikipedia Entry

Captain Beefheart was unique, in the purest meaning of the word. No one wrote music like him before, and no one has since. He defined avant garde rock and people wonder at the surreal lyrics and complex musical rhythms and playing. And Lick My Decals Off, Baby may be his very best album.

Beefheart grew up in southern California in the same high school as Frank Zappa and began forming his Magic Band in the early 60s.  After a local hit song, A&M Records signed them to a deal, where they recorded their first album, the blues-tinged Safe as Milk.  A&M hated it, but it soon found a home at Buddah Records.*  After poor sales, a second album, Strictly Personal, was canceled.** The band seemed to be going nowhere.

That's when Beefheart ran across his old high school buddy Zappa, who signed him to his own Straight Records and let him run loose in the studio.  The result was Trout Mask Replica, usually considered Beefheart's masterpiece.

After that artistic, if not popular, triumph, Beefheart started work on his next album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby.

This was my first introduction to the Captain.  Trout Mask Replica was a double album, hence expensive, and you couldn't find it in record stores anyway.  But I did happen to stumble upon Decals and, having liked Beefheart's "The Blimp" from the Zapped album, I gave it a try.

I didn't like it much.  That's probably typical of people who hear the Captain for the first time.  His music is insanely complex, with bizarre rhythms and time changes, the Captain's growly voice (with a four-octave range***) and surreal lyrics, with no hooks to latch on to and barely a melody at all (I thought).  But the more I listened, the more I began to like it, realizing that this was just something that couldn't be compared with other music.  The melodies were as complex as the rhythm.

The songs are difficult to describe. The most notable sound (other than the vocals) is the use of the marimba, which seems to back up every note played.  The song titles are wonders of surrealism:" I Love You, You Big Dummy,"  "Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop," "I Wanna Find a Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go,"  "The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or the Big Dig)" (about the La Brea Tar Pits), "The Buggy Boogie Woogie, " "The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye), " and "Flash Gordon's Ape,"  among others.

Beefheart continued onward.  He put out the albums The Spotlight Kid, and Clear Spot (released originally in a clear vinyl sleeve instead of cardboard), as well as Bongo Fury with his old pal Zappa (he had previously guested on Zappa's solo album Hot Rats, singing on "Willie the Pimp"), but at that point, the band left him to form Mallard****. The new magic band was not up to snuff and Beefheart regrouped for a couple of years before releasing three more albums that returned to his avant-garde roots, but by the 1980s, had given up music all together to concentrate on his painting and poetry.

The strange things is that, although the album was a critical success, and there is a lot of interest in Beefheart these days, it had rarely been available on CD. It's a shame that such an important collection of music is nowhere to be found, even for those who are interested in Beefheart's strange brand of music.  Not everyone will like it.  But those who take the time to get it are on the road to a real musical adventure.

*Of all places -- Buddah was best known for bubblegum groups like the Ohio Express and the 1910 Fruitgum Company. 

**It was released later.  Beefheart claimed it was butchered.

*** I listened to one particular for years -- "Electricity" from Safe as Milk -- thinking that there were two vocalists.

****Matt Groening has written about a similar experience.  He thought that the band was really terrible  and unable to keep a beat.  But he was a fan of Frank Zappa and wanted to figure out why Frank produced the album.  Finally he realized that they were playing that way on purpose -- that the beat was so complex that it only seemed amateurish.

*****One thing about record companies in the 60s and 70s -- they didn't mind putting out albums that weren't going to make them a lot of money.  Some producers were willing to do things for the art and pay for their losses with the hits. That doesn't happen any more.

******The band was always in turmoil.  Beefheart was not an easy man to work with.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sliding Doors

Written and Directed by
Peter Howitt
Starrring  Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn
IMDB Entry

We've all played "What If . . . ?":  "What if I had taken that other job?"  "What if I had not dated that person?" It's a common trope in science fiction* and also historical fiction.**  It doesn't often appear in a mainstream film, especially in its purest form. Sliding Doors uses the conceit to tell a solid dramatic story.

It's the story of Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) who has just been fired from her PR job. As she rushes for the London Underground,*** she just barely catches her train, and returns to find her boyfriend Gerry (John Hannah) in bed with his ex-girlfriend Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn).

But there's another time line, one where Helen is delayed and misses the train.  By the time she arrives home, Lydia is long gone, and Helen continues with Gerry, and we see how her life diverges, especially as she keeps running into James (John Hannah).

Writer/director Howitt comes up with some nice little twists and dramatic complications using the theme. I especially liked the way he was able to keep the two versions of Helen separate, first by having her wear a bandage**** and later with hair styles. The plot is a bit surprising as it twists to an ending that you never see coming.

I've liked Gwyneth Paltrow as an actress, and this is just another solid role for her.  She's good at playing conflicted women and this is just another chance for her to show herself. The rest of the cast is also very good, showing the differences in their characters in each timeline.

The movie did all right at the box office, boosted by its success in the U UK.  But for some reason, Peter Howitt didn't film a script of his for nine years, and that didn't make much of a splash.  He also helmed the notable disaster Johnny English, which may have taken its toll on his career.

The film stands out, though, as an interesting musing on what might have been in one person's life.


* The basis for many Golden Age stories:  "What if the people only saw the stars every thousand years?"  "What if we could teleport?"  "What if a human child was raised by Martians?"

**Harry Turtledove has made a career with the question.

***Not a political movement, Otto.

****This was done for a similar reason with the most speculated-upon bandage in modern film:  the one on the back of Marcellus Wallace's neck in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino has said it was because Ving Rhames had a cut on the back of his neck, but I think that's a bit disingenuous. If you note in the film, we never see Wallace's face until Butch spots him crossing the street after he has refused to take a dive. And that's a very important moment:  the audience needs to understand immediately that the man crossing the street -- whose face we haven't seen yet -- is Marcellus Wallace.  The bandage on the back of the neck solves this problem with brilliant elegance.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Letter to Three Wives

A Letter to Three Wives(1949)
Directed by
Joseph L. Mankiewitz
Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewitz, based upon Vera Caspary's adaptation of a novel by John Klempner
Starring Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, Celeste Holm
IMDB Entry

Joseph L. Mankiewitz is probably thought of by the casual moviegoer as a one-movie director:  his All About Eve is a film classic.  But Mankiewitz is much more than that.  He was an early writer-director, and a major name in films in the 1950s until his career took a hit with the megaflop Cleopatra.*

One of his earlier successes was A Letter to Three Wives.**

The premise is that, just as they go off on cruise with their children, three wives -- Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), and Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) -- receive a letter from a mutual friend Addie Ross (voice of Celeste Holm).  Addie brags that, while they're on the trip, she will be running off with one of their husbands.  But who?

Deborah is a country girl, who feels that her background puts her out of place with her husband Brad's (Jeffrey Lynn) friends.  She wonders if he'd be more interested in the glamorous Addy.

Rita is a career woman, a successful radio writer, whose husband George (Kirk Douglas) resents that he makes less money than she does.***

Lora Mae is married to Porter (Paul Douglas), a wealthy owner of some department stores. He didn't want the marriage and sees it more of a financial transaction -- he supplies her with money and she keeps house.  He keeps hinting it will break up, partly because they weren't in love, and also because of their age difference.  I especially liked the way this was portrayed.

The film shows the three marriages, especially the flaws in them:  the type of things that makes all the woman think there is are reasons for their husbands to leave them for Addy.  The end slowly reveals the answer, with some twists you don't see coming.****

The cast does a good job of carrying it off.  Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell are not well known by film buffs, but they were important actresses in their time.  Anne Sothern is best know today for as the title character in My Mother the Car, but was a top supporting actress for many years.  Paul Douglas was an esteemed stage actor who had just gone into films (this was his first real film role), while Kirk has done pretty well for himself.

It's all tied together by Celeste Holm's voice. Holm wasn't even credited; the idea was that Addy was so glamorous that it was better to not show her and let the audience imagine what she looked like.  But she gave the character life, and made it understandable that she was definitely a serious threat to all the marriages.

The film was a big success, winning Mankiewitz two Oscars for writing and directing, but missing out on Best Picture (he won the same two awards for All About Eve).  But the film has been forgotten.  One is that none of the stars (other than Kirk Douglas)  had staying power; even though they had successful careers, they weren't the marquee names that later generations of casual film buffs would bother to seek out.

Some of the concerns in the film are a bit dated, but that's more than made up for by the performances and Mankiewitz's sparkling script. The result is a dazzling entertainment.


*His brother, Herman J. Mankiewitz also has a film classic script to his name -- Citizen Kane.  It's hard to determine how much the script was Mankiewitz's and how much was Welles's, but he did contribute to its weak box office (contrary to legend, it did make money, but not a lot) by telling William Randolph Hearst about it beforehand, allowing Hearst to start to attack it even before it was finished.

**As I write this, I've just seen an episode of The Simpsons that parodies it. I doubt many of the audience knew what was being parodied. 

***This was 1949.  Go with it.

****Other than the fact that the Hayes office was not going to allow the breakup of a marriage.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Heart and Souls

heart and souls(1993)
Directed by
Ron Underwood
Screenplay by Gregory Hansen & Erik Hansen and Brent Maddock & S. S. Wilson
Starring Robert Downey, Jr, Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Kyra Sedgwick, Tom Sizemore, David Paymer, Elisabeth Shue
IMDB Entry

Robert Downey, Jr. is now a major movie star, but his rise has been anything but easy.  He grew up in a movie making family* and made his first appearance at the age of five. As an adult, he quickly established himself as one of the most respected actors in Hollywood.  In 1992, he got an Oscar nomination playing the lead in Chaplin and it looked like he might establish himself as a major star.  His first movie after the nomination was the delightful fantasy Heart and Souls.

It open in 1959.  A couple is rushing to the hospital late at night to have their first child when it collides with a bus.  Four strangers are killed in the accident:  Harrison Winslow (Charles Grodin), Penny Washington (Alfre Woodard), Julia (Kyra Sedgwich), and Milo Peck (Tom Sizemore).  But their ghosts cannot move on, and are attached to the newborn child, Thomas Riley.  So they act as his guardians, giving him advice and helping him along -- until the day when they realize that others think Thomas is carrying his "imaginary playmate" thing longer than is deemed healthy.**  So the group vanishes.  Thomas is devastated.

Thirty years later, Thomas (Downey) is a sharklike businessman who doesn't like commitment, frustrating his girlfriend Anne (Elizabeth Shue). Meanwhile the ghosts (who are still on Earth) are told by the bus driver (David Paymer) that the they need to complete the unfinished business of their lives to go to heaven. And the only way they do this is through Thomas.

Downey and the ghosts The movie is a bit old fashioned, but I don't think that's a weak point.  It would have been more at home if it had come out in the 1940s, but it still works nicely.

Downey is first rate. One of the conceits of the film is that the ghosts can possess him, and Downey makes you believe that there is a very different character taking him over. His slow change from cold businessman to a man conscious of his failings and willing to share that.

The cast is superb. At the time, they had three Oscar nominees among them (Downey, Woodard, and Paymer), and they and others have been nominated for Oscars, Emmys***, and Golden Globes since.  They bring the characters to life.

But the movie's old fashioned virtues may have been its downfall. It was released in August, a sure sign the studio didn't care for it, and got little critical notice. It did get nominated for a bunch of Saturn Awards, but no one pays much attention to them, and the box office was pretty dismal. 

Director Ron Underwood -- who had scored with the hits Tremors and City Slickers -- started a personal decline that led to the megaflop The Adventures of Pluto Nash.  He now works regularly in TV**** but hasn't had the chance to make more films. 

In a way, theme of the film -- redemption -- has a parallel to the life of Robert Downey, Jr.  Downey soon got into trouble with drugs and was arrested several times and spent time in prison. But, like his character, and all the characters in the film, he was able to turn his life around and is now a top star.  Maybe if he paid attention to what the movie was saying, he would have been successful much sooner.


*His father directed the cult classic Putney Swope.

**Of course, in fiction, imaginary playmates never turn out to be  imaginary. 

***Grodin and Woodard were winners, Grodin for writing.

****As I write this, he had directed the episode of Castle that showed earlier this week.