Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912 - 2007

..And just on the heels of yesterday's news comes another obituary. It's the end of an era for the giants who reshaped international cinema in the postwar years.
Details and appreciation here, plus a guide to scenes from his films on YouTube.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

One of the true giants of international cinema has passed away. There's much to read and remember from the New York Times and the Guardian.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

...having a cow

Ignore the usual sour-grapes that are bound to follow anything that has been around as long as it has. The Simpsons isn't just a long running tv series; it's mankind's greatest achievement! Says so right in The Onion's A.V. World, where they're commemorating the release of The Simpsons Movie with an entire week of Springfield-related content. For starters, try this list of "15 Simpsons Moments that Perfectly Captured their Eras" . I couldn't agree more with No. 6, which sums up the post-ironic age perfectly when Homer goes on the road with Lollapalooza (his act consists of being hit in the stomach by a cannonball), prompting this audience exchange:

"Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool."

"Are you being sarcastic, dude?"

(after a desparate pause...)
"I don't even know any more."

Below, one of the great Simpsons guest star appearances:

Monday, July 23, 2007

First things

"First things are always beautiful", as the critic and novelist Gilbert Adair accurately said of this film. More than eleven decades have passed since the Lumiere brothers first presented this work to the public, but it's lost none of its magic. Look! it says. Here is the real world of people and animals and bicycles and traffic. It's alive, it's real and above all, it moves!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

New Royalty: the Purple Edition

The Artist Still Known as Prince has been very busy lately, launching a new fragrance (scratch here for a sample), opening a club in Las Vegas,playing lengthy sold-out engagements in Los Angeles and London (What? He's only playing in cities that start with "L"?), preparing for a religious sabbatical sometime next year, and - this week - releasing a pretty darn good new album, "Planet Earth", which marks the return of former Revolution-mates Wendy and Lisa. In the New York Times, Jon Pareles explains that Prince could pretty much rule the world if he wanted to, while Time and the Guardian explain why he's giving the record industry fits. Though it seems to me that the clip below might be a pretty good reminder as well.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A lot of nerve

Besides his own excellent work as a solo artist and with Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry has always been one of the most gifted interpreters of other songwriters' work, his smooth and subdued lounge-lizard vocals bringing an air of world-weary melancholy to everything from The Velvet Underground to "You Are My Sunshine". From the blistering version of "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" that opened his first solo album, 1973's "These Foolish Things" to the pairing of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" and "Don't Think Twice It's All Right" on 2002's "Frantic", Ferry has revealed a surprising affinity for the work of Bob Dylan, culminating in what seems in retrospect like an inevitable event, his latest album "Dylanesque". Browsing through the Dylan catalog, Ferry explores everything from light-hearted pop to Hendrix-inspired noise to make even such familiar and inimitable songs as "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" into a personal cabaret. The highlight is this poignant, haunting resetting of one of Dylan's most bitingly angry songs, "Positively 4th Street".

Friday, July 20, 2007

...radio on

It's punk-nostalgia time for the Guardian's Film and Music Weekly. The highlights: Alex Cox offers a punk-movie manifesto and Laura Barton traces the route of one of the greatest pop songs ever. Also feature: the original rude boy, Derek Jarman's Jubilee and Christmas with the Sex Pistols.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Just like a woman...

Finally, some footage from one of the most anticipated films of the year, I'm Not There, in which director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) sets his sights on Bob Dylan, with The Man From Hibbing played by six different actors of varying race and gender, Heath Ledger and Richard Gere among them. The clip below features Cate Blanchett as the Don't Look Back-era Dylan, with David Cross as Allen Ginsberg.

(A big thanks to Hollywood Elsewhere and The L.A. Times' Gold Derby for the link, though I have to take exception to the latter's complaint that Blanchett isn't "believable". Whatever Haynes' is up to here, it should be pretty obvious that it's not realism.)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Have you seen me?

You may recognize the lovely lady to the right from the cover of Gore Vidal's classic "Myra Breckenridge", but before securing that modeling gig she was a fixture of the Sunset Strip, perched on a giant coin as part of a billboard advertising the Sahara Casino and located in front of the legendary/notorious Chateau Marmont.
Raquel Welch duplicated the cowgirl's costume in the excruciating 1970 film version of Vidal's novel (which also included footage of the original statue).
But an even odder appropriation of the cowgirl statue has been brought to my attention, courtesy of Domenic Priore's "Riot on Sunset Strip" (reviewed below).
In 1961, cartoonist Jay Ward unveiled a statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle in front of his Sunset Blvd. studio, directly across the street from the Chateau Marmont. (The studio is gone, as is Ward's neighboring gift shop, The Dudley Do-Right Emporium, which operated from 1971 to 2005, but the statue remains a Hollwood fixture to this day.) And as both Priore's book and this picture clearly show, Ward's statue was a mischievous (but subtle) parody/homage to his lovely, patriotic neighbor.

Speaking of Hollywood landmarks, a friend directed my attention to Hollywood Lost and Found, a modest but entertaining selection of Southern California history, movie lore and other miscellany, including this rather disturbing image (Warning!: Contains Clowns!)

Is it really possible that both of these satirical classics are out of print?

Finally, here's an apocalyptic theme song for the day:

Saturday, July 14, 2007

"To smoke and have coffee...and if you do it together, it's fantastic!"

The almost indescribable Wings of Desire ("Der Himmel uber Berlin") is 20 years old this month. On his website, director Wim Wenders is justifiably proud of his much-loved creation. If you haven't seen it (or if you've had the misfortune of seeing the American remake), ..what are you waiting for?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Heard you missed him, now he's back...

I was fortunate enough to see Sly and the Family Stone perform live in 1973, right on the heels of their last great album Fresh and they were amazing. Sly's rapid decline and gradual withdrawal from the music world has made him the last of the legendary recluses in music but, as this interview in the current Vanity Fair reveals, the musician's long absence from the public eye may be coming to an end. Hot fun in any season.


Thanks to an item at Trio for introducing me to Literary Traveler (even though it's been around since 1998!), a website about books and authors and the places they lived and wrote about. Each month is devoted to a particular theme, currently "Western Literature" (as in cowboys and covered wagons). Recent subjects have included children's books and pirates, and the individual articles on the site run the gamut from the Victorian England of Beatrix Potter to the Puerto Rico of Hunter S. Thompson's "Rum Diary".

Thursday, July 12, 2007

There's a Riot Going On

The Riot on Sunset Strip (the historical event) was a spontaneous protest that erupted one night in November 1966 when Los Angeles police, prompted by local business interests, tried to enforce a curfew law in order to drive out the teenaged crowds who had dominated the area’s club scene for the previous few years.
Riot on Sunset Strip (the movie) was a quickly-produced exploitation film with production values slightly lower than an episode of “Dragnet” but with performances by some of the authentic Sunset Strip bands of the period (The Standells and The Chocolate Watchband among them). Cult starlet Mimsy Farmer falls in with a bad crowd, to the dismay of her estranged father, policeman Aldo Ray.
Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood” (Jawbone Press, 288 pp., $29.95) is probably the definitive look at the period that lead up to the above two items, but for author Domenic Priore the real riot of the period was a cultural breakthrough that produced an onslaught of significant music in those strange few years before AM top 40 gave way to unprogrammed FM.
Priore's premise is that after the immediate shock of the British invasion Los Angeles responded in kind by becoming the musical and cultural capital of all things young and new. Besides obvious heavyweight acts like The Byrds, Frank Zappa, Love and the Doors, it was an environment in which all kinds of music from surf to psychedelia, from the feel-good pop sounds of the Turtles and The Mamas and the Papas to proto-punk garage bands like The Seeds and The Knickerbockers flourished and encouraged each other.
Priore is a pop culture historian and enthusiast with an encyclopedic grasp of the period as well as, I'd guess, an extensive record collection and a complete run of "Hit Parader" back issues. He can tell you not only how many different bands recorded "Hey Joe" but how many recorded "She Sang Hymns Out of Tune". Hardly an aspect of pop culture of the era, from art to appearances on. Hanna Barbera cartoons escapes his attention. The result is an exhaustive, handsomely designed volume that not only recreates the spirit of that brief period in L.A. history but will have you scribbling lists of obscure tracks and forgotten bands worth tracking down. His grasp of the period is strong enough to defend even the most commercial projects of the time (Hey, Hey, they're the Monkees) and as well as to define the Sunset Strip period within history and distinguish it from the later excesses of the San Francisco sound and the rise of FM-radio Album-oriented rock. His is a lively, informative and always entertaining history of a microcosmic teenage culture that burned brightly and disappeared too fast.

a love letter straight from the heart..

Dennis Hopper is older and wiser and, reassuringly, still just a little bit crazy.

And speaking of obsessions, it's easy to get hooked on this guide to The Number One Hits of the last 115 years...

What was number one when I was born? Don't ask...

We all shine on...

It's pretty simple: Amnesty International - an organization which already deserves your support - wants to draw attention to the horrors currently taking place in Darfur, Sudan. They've released an album of a few dozen musical heavyweights (U2, Green Day, R.E.M., Aerosmith, Jackson Browne, Lenny Kravitz) performing cover versions of John Lennon songs. Like most such projects, it's all over the map musically , but most of it is pretty good. All you have to do is go here and sign their petition and/or buy the CD.

More than a Contender

For at least three decades, he was the standard by which other actors were judged. In the London Review of Books, Michael Wood looks at the legacy of Marlon Brando.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Excitable Boy

Though he wrote sensitive and intelligent songs that earned the admiration of such heavyweights as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon’s reputation as a hard-drinking wild man couldn’t help but leak through into his work. To most listeners, he was the monster howling at the moon in his only real hit record “Werewolves of London”, the psychotic necrophile of “Excitable Boy”, the sexual adventurer of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”. Even songs that created fictional characters that are less likely to be autobiographical – like “The Envoy” (inspired by diplomat Philip Habib) or “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, a collaboration with an ex-mercenary turned bartender in Spain - hinge on sudden violence and a sense of paranoia.
In the last year of his life, when his incurable cancer became public knowledge and his many friends and admirers in the music industry stepped in to help him produce his final album “The Wind”, the public saw a much softer Zevon, humbled but courageous as he tried to remain focused on his music in the face of deathI’m OK with it” he told a reporter. . “But it’ll be a drag if I don’t make it until the next James Bond movie comes out.” (Unfortunately, that turned out to be Die Another Day…)
The real story behind Zevon - the public troublemaker of the 70s, the mellowed realist of the end and everything in between – is far more complicated, as Crystal Zevon, his wife from 1974 through 1981, reveals in her vivid, messy and compulsively readable biography “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon”(Ecco Press, $26.95).
A child prodigy who studied scores with Stravinsky, Zevon escaped a broken home (He claimed that he and Sam Peckinpah were the only people who ever really made it out of Fresno) and entered the music business in a fairly conventional way, cutting a few records in the 60s, working as an in-house songwriter for White Whale Records (he wrote the B-side of the Turtles’ hit “Happy Together”) and gradually finding his own musical voice while working as bandleader for the Everly Brothers. As his own songs started to get noticed, he launched a solo career that won critical acclaim (he was named “Songwriter of the Year” by Rolling Stone in 1978) but never quite received the commercial success he deserved.
But at the same time that Zevon’s career was peaking, he was also giving in to alcoholism in the worst way. He was a mean drunk, eventually becoming violent and suffering from blackouts that prevented him from knowing just how far he had gone. His wife left him (and later faced her own drinking problem, as she reveals in the book), his record company lost interest and he more or less gave up on music and life, moving to Philadelphia (where he had an occasional girlfriend) and refusing to communicate with former friends and family.
Somewhere in the middle of the ‘80s, a new agent managed to revive Zevon’s interest in music, get him into rehab (it took more than one go, needless to say) and revive his career, although his audience would remain relatively small and loyal from that point on. But “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” isn’t the standard how-he-fought-his-demons-and-won story. Far from it. While sobriety probably kept Zevon from an early grave, he was hardly the typical AA success story. (Though he remained sober for 18 years, he became disillusioned with the traditional 12-step organizations, once telling someone that “I felt like my reward for getting sober was I didn’t have to see those people again”.) The drinking had stopped, but Zevon managed to replace it with other flaws and addictions, a running stream of female conquests and an emerging case of obsessive-compulsive disorder that had him wearing only grey clothing, making sure that the only money he carried was “lucky” and sending assistants out to buy cigarettes but making sure that the Surgeon General notice on the package didn’t mention “the C-word.”
But in spite of his compulsions, Zevon continued to write excellent songs and make records that some would call his finest. When he was finally diagnosed with untreatable cancer in 2002, it was almost painfully ironic, given the laughing-at-death persona that had shaped so many of his earlier songs. His response was typically complex, on one hand focusing on producing an exceptional album “The Wind”, which would serve as his final artistic testament, on the other, lapsing back into drinking after nearly two decades of sobriety. He lived long enough to see his first grandchildren born, died before “The Wind” received two Grammys (he had told Crystal that his death would earn a Grammy nomination). And so it goes.
Crystal Zevon’s book, drawn from interviews with friends and excerpts from Zevon’s own journals, is brutally honest, admirably nonjudgmental and, in the long run, remarkably evocative of just how difficult and brilliant Zevon was. Though ultimately limited by the boundaries of its Rashomon-like approach and plagued by a few minor editorial flaws (It’s Al Kooper, not Cooper!), it makes Zevon’s crazy genius come alive and sends you right back to his best work, the great songs that reflect and reveal his sad, troubled and ultimately excitable life.

"We search for the pure in film...

... as we search for the first real tear of love." So wrote Norman Mailer 37 years ago in explaining why he had made a brief and courageous entry into the world of cinema, In one of the most unexpected retrospectives of the year, New York's Walter Reade Theater and the Film Society of Lincoln Center are hosting a long overdue revival of the great writer's journey behind the camera, with screenings of all four of his films as well as frequent collaborator Lawrence Schiller's adaptation of "The Executioner's Song". (What? No King Lear? The current Film Comment offers an interview with Mailer and, from their archives, a report on Tough Guys Don't Dance, the most underrated of the late-80s cycle of pseudo-noir.

Sicko: getting a second opinion

While not quite hitting the level of controversy of Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's Sicko is predictably being attacked for ...the usual reasons. Moore is putting up a defense on his website, with a rebuttal to a CNN report on the film, documentation of some of the film's statistics and, of even greater interest, a leaked memo from a BlueCross executive acknowledging the film's persuasiveness. Best quote: "You would have to be dead to be unaffected by Moore's movie."

And for a (slightly) dissenting view on Moore, Stuart Klawans offers a review in Film Comment.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Some movies are more equal than others...

The Halas and Batchelor version of George Orwell's "Animal Farm" has never been regarded as anything more than mundane adaptation, the sort of thing that English teachers would show to help students get through their required reading. But it may have been produced with entirely different intentions, as J. Hoberman explains in the current London Review of Books.

You can see for yourself here:
This is the first of 8 segments, You can find 2 - 7 here.