Monday, December 29, 2008

"Guys are Not Proud" (Music)

image (1980)
by the Anemic Boyfriends 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)

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.

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 (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.