Sunday, September 24, 2006

...and apropos of nothing

... except that I thought it was funny, I was looking at a list of torrent files and found one that included a selection of old r and b recordings, including, it said, "Mr. H. Melville, acc. by the Blue Notes."
If you don't know me by now, call me Ishmael.

Learning to SMiLE

There are already many books (and movies and magazine articles) about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, all of them strangely incomplete – not just in the way that any biography of a still-living figure tends to be unfinished, but in a larger sense, as if the subject escaping from the writer. Wilson’s ghost-written but highly readable autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” suggested a newly revived hero – the subject is healthier than he’s ever been and, more importantly, is even recording again – but it’s now largely discredited due to the influence of the Svengali-like therapist Eugene Landy, who controlled Wilson’s every waking moment and even forcing himself as co-writer on his songs. Most other accounts seem to love sight of Wilson and the other band members somewhere around the 1976 “Brian is Back” campaign, summarizing the subsequent years through well known public events (lawsuits, etc. ) and chart all corporation selling nostalgia and the California dream to an increasingly complacent audience of Baby Boomers. With fewer traces of the original group remaining (Brian is the last surviving Wilson brother, Al Jardine left the group and tours with a Beach Boys cover-band called Family and Friends; the act currently performing as The Beach Boys has only one original member, Mike Love, along with frequent collaborator Bruce Johnston), Carlin has a better grasp of the business decisions and economic issues that have shaped most of their output in the last 30 years.
It’s not always a very pretty story, but Carlin is lucky to have come in when he did. With the release of “Smile”, the great mystery in the Brian Wilson story, the gap in every previous account, has been solved – and turns out to have been worth the wait. Though the composer is still obviously a very troubled man – see the excellent documentary “Beautiful Dreamer” for evidence – he has surprised many by becoming a successful live performer with a touring band which he regularly – and accurately – describes as far superior to his former co-players. After having been swallowed up by fame, fortune and his own musical legacy, Wilson has miraculously come out on top, giving Carlin’s book something that previous biographers would never have imagined: a happy ending.

Jean-Luc Culture Godard

One of the major cultural events of the year, at least as far as folks in Europe are concerned, is Jean-Luc Godard's massive retrospective/installation "Travels in Utopia" at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. These articles in Senses of Cinema and Rouge jump right into it, while this fairly exhaustive photo gallery helps set the tone. Rouge also provides the introduction to the exhibition catalogue.
Needless to say, the whole thing sounds exhaustive and stimulating and frustrating and brilliant - just like most of Uncle Jean's output for the last few decades!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Murder a la Mod: Brian DePalma still splits screens and opinions; Lemony Snicket faces The End

With the release of The Black Dahlia unlikely to change any sides, Slant Magazine takes a long retrospective look at the career of Brian DePalma, as does The New York Times.

And with less than a month before the final installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events (The 13th volume, The End, will be published on October 13th - a Friday, of course), author Lemony Snicket has been keeping busy with a few related projects, the recently-published The Beatrice Letters and a forthcoming album of grim songs by The Gothic Archies. The Guardian offers this conversation between Snicket and his collaborator Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Stripes.

Same player, new game

When we last saw Griffin Mill, he was sitting on top of the world with a beautiful wife, a great job and a flawless reputation. Sure, he’d murdered a guy, but nobody knew about that and the people in his line of work were too concerned with their own day-to-day survival to let a simple thing like that stir up too much of a fuss. Michael Tolkin's The Return of the Player again takes the reader into the mind of the amoral Mill, whose dealings at the top levels of Hollywood were the subject of both the 1988 predecessor and Robert Altman's ingenious 1992 adaptation. But nearly two decades later, Mill's path has changed. The dramas of marriage, divorce, parenthood and the economic and cultural changes of the period have changed Griffin.

Well, not really; he's as ruthless and self-centered as ever, but his targets have shifted. While his children seethe with anger, his wife breaks down over their crumbling marriage and his ex-wife June (whom he seduced after killing her boyfriend in the earlier novel), inspired by a visit to a Mormon church, develops a private religion in which she and Griffin are still married for eternity, Mill loses his place in Hollywood and goes after bigger targets by aligning himself with one of the richest and most powerful men in the world... who, as it turns out, is equally obsessed with someone even richer and more powerful than himself.

Cut loose from the security of his job, desparate to secure a place in the world of new media (and with another murder - sort of - under his belt), Griffin relies on the only skill that held him together in the studio boardroom, an ability to interpret film pitches through the design of the Hero's Journey a la Joseph Campbell. While the first novel stayed mainly in one environment, the insular world of Hollywood power, the sequel sends Mill into a less definable and more dream-like world ruled by manipulative and nearly invisible barons. His family life disintegrating and his grip on reality never quite certain, Mill's quest for power - which climaxes with an encounter with a real-life public figure I won't name - is not entirely as convincing but in some ways darker and more surreal than in the first novel. Some reviews are already citing Highsmith's Ripley novels as an inspiration (Tolkin even throws in a reference to Purple Noon, incase you miss the connection, but I'm not sure that Tolkin is planning a third volume. The Return of the Player, though not as neat as the first novel, takes a wild flight into the future, where Griffin may well have passed us all.

Tolkin discusses the novel in the current Bookforum.


Monday, September 11, 2006

More Warhol, Susan Sontag's diary:

More on Andy Warhol from The Guardian, as David Cronenberg comments on an exhibition he's curated.

Susan Sontag kept a journal....sort of. Sex. Gossip. Lists. It won't be published for another year or two, but The New York Times takes an early peek at her diary. The strangest part? How about that list of West Coast rock bands?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Good Evening...

They were two of the most oddly charismatic figures I’ve ever seen on a stage, this comically mismatched pair. One was tall, thin, and absolutely reeked of upper-class British self-contentment, even when it was just an act. The other was short, congenial, the very model of a comic foil. With nothing but the barest necessities in the way of props and lighting, they took one of the most meager forms of theatre – two-man sketch comedy – and came up with vivid bits of absurd theatre conjuring up a world in which the most unlikely premises, from the visitation of the Magi to a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan – were greeted with deadpan familiarity.
According to William Cook (no relation), who has compiled two books of their material, audiences in England - depending on their age - best remember Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as either “Pete and Dud”, a pair of affable dunces they played on their tv series “Not Only…But Also” in the 1960s, or “Derek and Clive”, the foul-mouthed and filthy-minded stars of a semi-underground recording made in the 70s. Their gift, he argues, was with sketch comedy, and unfortunately the majority of their work was unceremoniously erased by the BBC in order to conserve videotape. Curiously, Cook (the editor of the books) argues that prior to Dudley Moore’s brief standing as a film star in the US, movies were not a good medium for them, but I disagree. If they had never done anything other than Bedazzled, - high on my list of movies shamefully unavailable on DVD – they’d still be remembered as one of the funniest film partnerships in history.
I was fortunate enough to see Cook and Moore in 1975 when they toured the U.S. with “Good Evening” (The original title in other countries was “Behind the Fridge”, a waiter’s mangling of their first triumph “Beyond the Fringe”), the show that contained, in my opinion, many of their best sketches: “The Frog and Peach”, in which Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling explains in his best stiff-upper-lip fashion why his venture in the restaurant business – the name also describes the menu- was a failure; “One Leg Too Few”, in which the above-mentioned would-be Tarzan – Moore bouncing merrily on one leg- would frequently crack his partner up with his giddy optimism ; and my favorite, the opening scene in which two men exchange pleasantries on the street while gradually coming to the realization that they’ve never met before.

PC: Hello.
DM: Hello.
PC: How are you?
DM: I’m terribly well! How are you?
PC: I’m terribly well as well!
DM: I must say you’re looking very fit.
PC: I’m feeling pretty fit actually. Isn’t it amazing – us just bumping into each other like this?
DM: Yes. I mean here of all places.
PC: Here of all places! I mean, I haven’t seen you since…er
DM: Now, er..hold on a, when was it? Er, we..we haven’t seen each other..
PC: Well actually we haven’t seen each other..
DM: We haven’t seen each other…er… before.
PC: That’s right. We’ve never seen each other before, have we?
PC: You’ve never seen me.
DM: And I’ve never seen you. What a small world!

And so it goes as they continue to compare notes on family and acquaintances, in every case, finally agreeing that they must get together again soon.
One of the most unique things about Cook and Moore, as Cook (the editor, again) points out, was that their sketches are vitalized by the sheer pleasure they seem to have in working together. While Moore frequently plays the straight man, the energy behind much of their work (like the “Pete and Dud” sketches) comes from the collaboration of the two, stepping on each others lines, reworking and twisting the dialogue simultaneously. At their best, they played off of each other brilliantly, the comic effects materializing from their joint wordplay. Enjoying each others company (the exception of “One Leg Too Few”, it was usually Moore who would lose it on stage), they fix upon an idea, subject it to their fits of fantasy and then quickly make a joint getaway.
Sadly, the pair broke up not long after “Good Evening”. Moore had a brief fling as a film star, made some poor choices and briefly returned to his real love, music, before succumbing to a debilitating variant of Parkinson’s Disease. Cook became increasingly uninterested in performing for the public: In his final days, his best material was delivered in the form of late-night phone calls to a radio host. Both died too young, never really recognized for their talents. Reading their sketches in the two books below, it might be hard to see exactly what made them work. It helps if you can hear their voices or see their mismatched physical presence. (Even an almost purely verbal sketch like “The Frog and Peach” was given touches of physical comedy on stage with an elaborate series of leg-crossings that emphasized the difference in physique between the pair.) But if you’re fortunate enough to have seen them on some old videotape, or in any of their scenes together in Bedazzled – can I mention again what a shame it is that 20th Century Fox will not release this film? – and can fill in the blanks, these are invaluable mementos of two great comic minds, half scripted, half improvised, playing together.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Still Blazing Away...

Still in a documentary-watching mood this week, I stumbled across a copy of Marianne Faithfull: Dreaming My Dreams, a short but thorough biography of one of the most unique voices in popular music. Filmed in 1999, it’s a well-told story of Faithfull’s long and often troubled life, illustrated with an abundance of rare film clips and brief well-chosen interviews from friends and associates, but centered by the gutsy and incisive self-analysis of the subject herself. From her original appearance in the public eye as a slightly exotic pop-princess, little more than the pretty thing attached to Mick Jagger’s arm (being a Rolling Stone’s girlfriend evidently being a more interesting role than her career as a pop singer and actress) to a long and significant slide into heroin addiction, Faithfull once seemed unlikely to survive the 1970s, yet somehow emerged at the end of the decade, her voice having dropped into its current marvelous, growling range, to make a long string of excellent recordings, writing and performing strikingly personal songs of pain and confusion, in an inimitable style that walks a tightrope between punk and cabaret. Dreaming My Dreams – the title comes from a 1977 song that briefly re-ignited Faithfull’s career by becoming a no.1 hit in Ireland – is a warm tribute to a powerful and fascinating woman, revealing without becoming gossipy, its insightful interviews balanced by a generous selection of musical performances. The story of Faithfull’s transformation from school-girl-popstar to a punk Lotte Lenya (not surprisingly, Faithfull has become a gifted interpreter of Kurt Weill and other early 20th century German songs) is more than just the dream implied by the title; Faithfull emerges from the film, as on her records, as less a dream-like waif than a proud and powerful heroine who fought her own battles and triumphed.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Andy Warhol, Silver Screen

It would be easy to complain that Ric Burns’ new Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film has nothing new to say about the pop artist and his life. Warhol’s story has been well documented in dozens of books and films like Steven Watson’s Factory Made and Chuck Workman’s Superstar, both relatively recent and comprehensive accounts. Add to this a handful of additional biographies, a mountain of coffee-table books and even a healthy number of specialized monographs on everything from his Warhol’s interest in the fashion industry to his playful adoption of a drag persona for a series of portraits. But Burns, best known for sober PBS historical documentaries in the style of his brother Ken (he made The West and New York) has a luxury that other Warhol documentarians have lacked: time. With four hours to fill (the film will be shown on PBS over two nights this month as part of the dependable “American Masters” series) and the additional advantage of having the full support of the Andy Warhol Foundation, it’s as close to an authoritative view of the artist as we’ll ever get.
The story is, again, already a familiar one: frail, sick Andy Warhola grows up in Pittsburgh with an inclination toward daydreaming and a possessive mother who never lost her Old World mannerisms. Gifted with a strong imagination, a skillful drawing style and an obsession with celebrity, he attends art school, moves to New York, becomes one of the most successful commercial artists of the fifties, struggles with homosexuality and develops a strong urge to break into the “serious” art world. Emotionally aloof and receptive, even eager, to have other people do his creative thinking for him, Warhol’s breakthrough came after the first pop artists began to rebel against the dominant force of abstract expressionism by bringing familiar pictorial content into painting. Warhol’s brilliant decision to mask any sign of his participation, to make paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans which looked exactly like the real thing, pushed pop art into a new area; stripped of Duchampian irony, Warhol’s paintings were a new kind of object, banal and simple and yet an amazingly powerful call to arms in term of how art could put a claim on the increasingly dominant images of advertising and packaging. The rest, - the factory, Edie, the films, the ’68 shooting, - as they say, was history.
One of the most notable things that distinguishes Burns’ film from other versions of Warhol’s life is that the talking heads are, for the most part, art historians and biographers; of the people who actually worked wih Warhol, only Billy Nimich (better known as Billy Name, the man who gave the Factory its silver coating) and writer Ronald Tavel have a significant presence. (Stephen Koch, whose “Stargazer” was one of the earliest and best books on Warhol, knew him but appears here solely in his role as critic/historian). Where are Viva, Gerard Malanga, Holly Woodlawn, Lou Reed, John Cale or rival artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns – to name just a few? Burns’ intention, as he states in the interview cited below, and as one might expect for a film sponsored by the Warhol foundation, is to establish Warhol’s reputation as an artist. But thanks to the Foundation’s official collaboration, Burns’ film passes other Warhol documentaries by providing more examples of Warhol’s work – especially his early commercial efforts-, excerpts from the films and rare footage showing how he actually prepared his paintings. The Factory scene may have lost some of its wildness, but makes up for it in its intimate glimpse of Warhol in the act of creation.
Oddly, and despite the extended length (which some will certainly feel is more than enough time), the film more or less climaxes with Warhol's near death in '68. The rest - nearly two decades - is collapsed into less than 20 minutes. It's an odd narrative choice to make, yet also a significant sign of how strongly Burns wishes to make the case for Warhol's 60s paintings. If Warhol is truly an "American Master", this film argues that the creation of the Pop Art movement and the shock of those initial silkscreen canvases - the soup cans, the movie stars - were his masterpieces
Even if we already know Warhol’s story, Burns’ film scrapes away the gossip and the myth-making and the name-dropping and adds a sense of history. It’s the story of a pale, awkward man with a vision – tempered by a perverse sense of humor and increasingly obvious homoerotic obsessions – who drew on his middle-class background and the pop-culture dynamics of the mid-20th century to change the way anyone has thought about art and design and the simple act of seeing our groceries-and-newsprint-cluttered world ever since.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Random notes and loose ends

On Nerve, filmmaker Ric Burns talks about his new documentary on the life of Andy Warhol (about which I will be adding my two cents soon).

Writing in The American Interest, Ron Radosh places Bruce Springsteen's amazing "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" squarely within American history. "But is it activism?" he asks. My answer is: absolutely. Springsteen was deeply involved in the MoveOn concerts in 2004 and has a long history as a fund-raiser for a variety of causes and issues. Reviving songs like "The Erie Canal" and "Froggy Went A-Courting" may not seem like a political statement, but what Springsteen's really doing is reclaiming our country's heritage. By placing it within a tribute to Pete Seeger, he establishes a connection with the activism of the 40s, 50s and 60s, and by recasting these songs with a New Orleans jazz band, he raises the issue of Hurricane Katrina. It's a great album and the powerful live performances of the songs (they were broadcast on AOL earlier this year but unfortunately seem to have been taken offline) are even better.

And finally, I don't know how long this has been around, but if you're looking for a way to make your soothsaying sessions gosh darn cute, here's a Hello Kitty Tarot deck.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Ultimate-Final-Restored-Uncut-This-Time-I-Really-Mean-It-Director's-Cut

I find it ironic that film studios and producers make such a big deal about releasing “Director’s cuts” and “Unrated editions” on DVD, when they obviously didn’t show as much concern for the films when they released them theatrically. At best – and rarest -, these editions restore films to the way the filmmakers intended them to be seen, but I suspect that more often these uncut versions are merely a) a way of restoring filler from the cutting-room floor, b) an excuse for indecisive directors to keep tinkering with their work, or c) a shameless excuse to sell the same title over and over again.
A new case in point is Warner Brothers’ forthcoming release of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a film with a long and difficult history, and with a strong cult following. First released in 1982 with an awkward ending tacked on at the last minute (made from outtakes from the opening sequence of Kubrick’s The Shining) and a heavy-handed voiceover narration, both imposed on the film against Scott’s wishes, the film was reissued in 1992 in a “Director’s Cut” based on the director’s work print. The latter version was not without problems of its own, but it’s been the only version available on DVD. This week, after a brief period out of print, Warners is again releasing the “Director’s Cut”, in a “Remastered Limited Edition” which will be taken off the shelves in a few weeks.
Why? Because once you’ve already put your money down for the latest release, Warners is hoping you’ll pull out you wallet again next year when they release a 4-disc collection containing:
The original 1982 release;
The European version of the above, which is slightly more violent;
The 1992 Director’s Cut; and
A new “Final Director’s Cut” prepared by Scott.

Wow, why’d they leave out the pan-and-scan version, or the “edited for television” cut, or every outtake and rough cut they could find?

Before you make that commitment to devote 8 or 9 hours of your life, ask yourself “how many versions of Blade Runner do we need?”
If the new version is truly Scott’s final word, why preserve the interim 1992 cut?
And while I can see the historical value of keeping the original 1982 version (I’ve used the ending in classrooms a few times), why not stick with the European cut, assuming that the US release was just a censored version?
Whatever your opinion of this ambitious but flawed work, turning it into a multiple-choice question isn’t likely to change it.
From an old PBS special, by way of YouTube, by way of GreenCine, a charming encounter between Woody Allen and Billy Graham in two parts:
Part One
Part Two