Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Tom Dowd & The Language of Music ..a new film uncovers an unsung music legend so talented that it will even make you reconsider "Sweet Home Alabama"

There was a time in the history of popular music, about a century ago, when a hit song was measured by the number of copies of sheet music that sold. Pop songs entered the national consciousness not through a particular performance or interpretation but by way of the middle- class parlor room, where a piano was nearly as common an object as a cd player is today.
Tom Edison changed all that with the invention of the phonograph, a discovery that, like many of Edison's most innovative ideas, came to him through studying an unrelated piece of technology when he discovered that he could feel vibrations coming through a telephone receiver. You don't have to be Walter Benjamin to realize that the ability to record and preserve a single performance changed the way music is heard, used and even created. As recordings - a specific, fixed document of a piece of music - replaced sheet music - a blueprint for a potential performance -, the nature of music changed forever. Music and technology were intertwined, evolving together into a new language that most of us have learned to take for granted.
If you've never heard of Tom Dowd - a reasonable assumption - you may find it hard to believe that one person could have had such a long- lasting role not just in the way musical recordings are made but in a wide-ranging field of genres from bebop and soul to "Southern rock". As an engineer and producer, Dowd's had a hand in more great recordings than you could even listen to in a day, but one of the most welcome things about Mark Moormann's film Tom Dowd and the Language of Music is that it keeps its subject off a pedestal, preferring to find him where he's happiest, working the knobs and sliders of a recording studio console.
The film, which opens theatrically in selected cities this week and will be released on video later this month, is a string of talking-head anecdotes, archival footage and musical performances but there's not a dull moment in it, even on a second viewing. (Moormann succumbs to the unfortunate trend of staging some period scenes, but does so sparsely, never pushing the film into the contrived fictional region that marred Standing in the Shadows of Motown.). Dowd, a shaggy man in his seventies (He died at 77 in 2002, the year the film premiered at Sundance) who not only was a living witness to pop culture and history (in addition to his recording career, he worked on the Manhattan Project but gave up a dream of becoming a nuclear physicist when government security prevented him from returning to college), but remained at the end of his life every bit as excited by the memory of a musical performance or a technical detail as he had been when he first faced them.
Dowd started engineering in the late 40s, when the limitations of a typical recording studio made capturing the dynamics of a band an almost insurmountable challenge. Hooking up with a new, fast-rising label, Atlantic, he recorded some of the most prominent jazz and rhythm and blues acts of the 50s, experimenting with multiple tracks before stereo had even been developed. (A few years later, Dowd's tapes allowed Atlantic to reissue their back catalog in authentic stereo, when most labels were stuck creating ineffective simulations of two-track sound.) Taking a cue from guitarist Les Paul's home studio, he began experiment with eight-track recording years before it became an industry standard, and when Atlantic became one of the major labels of the 1960s and moved to new offices, it was Dowd who called the shots and designed the recording studios.
And then there are the records, from classic jazz albums with Monk, Coleman and Mingus to the breakthrough pop hits like "Mack the Knife" and "Stand by Me", from Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin to the quasi-psychedelia of Cream's "Disraeli Gears" (where Dowd is credited for overcoming the suspicions of the musicians by coming up with the syncopated beat for "Sunshine of Your Love"). As he became in demand for sessions at the Stax studio in Memphis as well as in, Macon and Mussel Shoals, the New York born physicist-turned-engineer relocated to Miami, where he became closely associated with the early careers of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. What keeps the film from no more than a parade of guest stars and greatest hits, however, is the sense conveyed by Dowd's recollections and footage of studio sessions that we are watching artists at work, tending less to the illusion of celebrity than to the real labor of laying down tracks and making them work.
As one might expect, the film includes many interviews with Dowd's associates, from industry legends like Ahmet Ertegun and Phil Ramone to artists like Clapton and Charles. The finest moment, and the film's climax, is given to Dowd alone, as he sits at a mixing board listening to the original tracks for "Layla". He works the dials eagerly as he explores the raw materials, excitedly pulling an additional slide guitar part here, a second piano there. This, we finally see, is his instrument, and he moves his fingers over the board with the same skill and passion that others give to their guitars and keyboards. If you think recorded music is just a matter of aiming a microphone in the right direction, or if you're used to thinking of "Layla" as just another piece of "classic rock" background noise, this film is a real ear-opener.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Lina who? Robert Hunt reaches deep into his files and recalls a mid-Seventies folly...

I was moving files out of a drawer and just reached the last handful: Wajda, Warhol,Welles, Wenders,Wertmuller. The last one took me by surprise. I imagine that many people interested in movies would be surprised to know that there was a time when Lina Wertmuller was a media cause celebre, subject of NYT profiles and cover stories: in fact, it might not be unreasonable to assume that most under the age of thirty will not even recognise the name at all (despite the recent blink-and-you'll-miss-it remake of Swept away...)
But things were quite different for a brief moment in 1976, when Wertmuller's blend of cruel comedy and politics found a home in American art-houses. Art-house taste at that time was set largely by a kind of snobbism (It's not that different now) and while a few of the giants of the Sixties (Truffaut and Bergman, most consistently) still made annual appearances and the occasional light comedy could break through (Anyone remember Cousin, Cousine ?), the audience had splintered. Individual directors had cult followings, but Eric Rohmer's fans generally weren't likely to have much in common with Ken Russell's. The American cinema was generally ignored. The occasional taboo-shattering scandal (Last Tango, The Night Porter, In the Realm of Senses) made for good conversation, but no one wanted to commit too seriously to them.
In this climate, Lina Wertmuller was the perfect director for the movie snob with Marxist and feminist intentions. Her films were political,feminist, serious. Or at least she said they were. And she talked a good game.
Wertmuller first entered the US arthouses with a modest hit called The Seduction of Mimi. Swept Away, with the same stars,Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangelo Melato, did even better. By the time Seven Beauties opened, New York Magazine had placed her on the cover calling her "the important European director since Bergman". Earlier Wertmuller films were given a belated U. S release. Hollywood stars plugged her movies on talk shows.
Talking to Wertmuller's fans could be exhausting, yet somehow you got the feeling that it was like talking to one of the fairy-tale emperor's supporters just after their hero had paraded nude past their block. She was praised as a political satirist, until you pointed out that both the political and comic points came from having her prole Everyman heroes (usually played by Gianini) abused by someone powerful (frequently a woman) and taking revenge by abusing them in turn, hardly a clear feminist statement. If you pointed out that the politics were simplistic and the humor crude at best, usually saved - barely- by Gianini's droopy-eyed appeal, they'd insist that the films you had seen were flawed, but whatever Wertmuller item you had missed was the masterpiece that saved her reputation.
But it must have appeared obvious to even the most devoted that Wertmuller's films didn't quite live up to her lofty claims of political insight, and that her penchant for lengthy titles like was at best pretentious, and worst, nonsensical. And wasn't it odd for an alleged Marxist/feminist that her biggest supporter in the US was the conservative critic John Simon (author of the "most important since Bergman" quote)? .
By the time her 1965 Let's Talk About Men was revived in 1976 (it was, coincidentally, the first film I ever reviewed in print), the game was up. In her interview with Simon, she had described the film as "extremely feminist", evidently confident that her US fan club would never see it: it turned out to be a standard, but minor, Italian farce, the kind of thing that arthouse audiences had given up on by 1965.
Like many European directors who find American success, Wertmuller was able to move up to international co-productions with American stars, but the audience lost interest by the time A Night Full of Rain (or if you prefer, The End of the World in our Usual beds on a Night Full of Rain) appeared, pairing Giannini with Candice Bergen. (European critics, by the way, were puzzled by the whole Wertmuller fad, much as you might be if you heard that a foreign magazine had just described Daniel Petrie or Joel Schumacher "the most important American director since Scorsese" or some such nonsense). By 1980, she was almost forgotten in the US, though a few of the Hollywood deals eventually resulted in The Seduction of Mimi remade as a Richard Pryor vehicle, and Swept Away was reworked, even prior to the recent Madonna interpretation as Overboard.
I didn't open the Wertmuller file. I know what's in it: old production notes and a glossy reproduction of the "New York" cover story, reprinted by one of her US distributors. To re-read them now, nearly 30 years later would simply raise the obvious question: What on earth were they thinking?

Friday, August 06, 2004

Was it all a dream?

When Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers opened earlier this year, most of the criticism I read reflected disinterested confusion, some of it accusing the director of a simple-minded nostalgia, most of it unable to get past the film's NC-17 rating. Having finally caught up with the film on the recently released DVD, I'm even more disappointed with the lack of insightful criticism than I was earlier.
Is it a success? It's hard to say, though one of the unusual things about Bertolucci's work is that his failures (1900 and Luna, for example) are sometimes more rewarding for the risks they take. There are so many strands running through The Dreamers that it may take a few viewings to sort them all out: cinephilia, sex, May .68, the other cultural detritus of the 60s, and Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles".
I haven't read Gilbert Adair's novel "The Holy Innocents", though the author notes - approvingly - that the film makes many additions to his story (it has even been reported that he rewriting the book to incorporate Bertolucci's changes) but gather from descriptions that it's a revision of Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles" (one English translation of which was titled "The Holy Terrors") in the form of an autobiographical account of the author's experiences as a British student in France.
Cocteau's novel (which was filmed by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1948) is about a pair of semi-incestuous siblings playing psychological games in a Paris apartment. Though they adopt friends, they also manipulate them in an almost sadistic manner. It's a magical story, but with a cruel streak.
The Dreamers has a similarly incestuous couple living an intensely aestheticized life in an apartment sanctuary, but in this case their self-absorbed idyll is invaded by history and viewed from the perspective of a third party, a young American student who is pulled into the world as much from his own loneliness as by their magnetism.
One of the most curious scenes comes the absent parents return to the apartment, survey the damage, find the naked trio and, leaving a check behind to keep the kids in groceries, run off as if fearing for their lives.The abandonment of parental authority or its' defeat? And why does it this scene drive Isabelle to attempt suicide? Is she associating her death with Mouchette, or is Bertolucci making the connection?
The film offers little in the way of resolution. Do the events of May bring an end to innocence, a commitment to political change, a break between the romantic Matthew and the newly-committed Theo? Perhaps Bertolucci is trying to do too much and can't really answer his own questions. Much of the charm of The Dreamers is in the asking.
Fortunately, this perceptive review in "Bright Lights Film Journal" by A. Zubatov and Yaniv Eyny puts much of the film in perspective.