The King Of The Cinema

November 6, 2017

images-5.jpegSteven Spielberg is the Stephen King of movies. He’s one of the best pure storytellers in his medium, but his immense success has earned him a raft of detractors. Constantly challenged by his inner need for achievement, he escapes a creative pigeonhole again and again and continues to produce unexpected work that comes from an unfamiliar place. His legion of fans connect to him on a visceral basis, which makes others in his field envious. His first name is Steve.

images.jpegI hope they never make a 2:30 documentary about the career of Stephen King, because a writer’s life ain’t too visual, and on most of the occasions King’s made it to the big screen, the results have been varying shades of regrettable. But HBO has done just that for Spielberg, and the entertaining career retrospective is not only fun but also eye-opening.

MV5BMTMwNzk2ODEyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzQ4MzczMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1495,1000_AL_.jpgSpielberg has been around since before the dawn of the summer blockbuster (as has King), which is generally thought to have commenced with the release of his picture JAWS in 1975. He was just a kid but he already had lots of experience shooting tv for Universal under the tutelage of executive Sidney Sheinberg. Legend has it that young master Spielberg sneaked onto the lot and commandeered an empty office for months. I don’t believe that, and neither does David Geffen, who refers us to the famous LIBERTY VALANCE line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I do believe Spielberg himself when he says he ducked off the studio-tour tram at a bathroom break and stuck around for the rest of the day, maybe even more than once. Spielberg had been shooting his own 8mm movies since adolescence, learning by doing. He saw the world during his awkward years through the lens of a movie camera. His short film AMBLIN’ was good enough to impress Sheinberg, and that’s how he really got on the lot. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school, so Universal became his film school. He soaked it all up like a sponge.

images-1.jpegSpielberg was part of that Seventies group of young turks who threatened to take over the movie business, then wound up doing exactly that. Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma – each of them is among the talking heads in the HBO doc. Think about the mind-blowing movies that came from that group alone, yet Spielberg towers over them all. He could always out-nerd every single movie nerd in the whole posse. In the fullness of time he’s become the world’s most famous working film director. His name on a picture alone makes you perk up and pay attention.

images-4.jpegHow do you follow a sensation like JAWS? For this whiz kid, with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. He didn’t really have to deal with abject failure until he made 1941, a low comedy which I find underrated but which was widely reviled — and, more important to Hollywood, lost money after blowing a huge budget. It was hubris that did Spielberg in: he says at that point he thought he could do anything.

images-2.jpegHe licked his wounds for a year or so until his old friend George Lucas “came to the rescue,” as Spielberg puts it. Every studio wanted the proposed Lucasfilm archaeologist character, but nobody wanted Spielberg to direct because he was already notorious for trashing schedules and budgets. Now he had something to prove — and a compadre to prove it to. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a delight from beginning to end, largely because its audience didn’t grow up with Republic serials — “every reel was a cliffhanger,” says Spielberg of the first Indiana Jones movie — so everything old was again a surprise.

images-3.jpegAfter achieving great success, Stephen King seemed to need to self-test his creative chops. He had demonstrated that he could do sprawling epics like THE STAND. How about telescoping down to two characters? MISERY. One? GERALD’S GAME. Similarly, Spielberg ventured out from his fantasy wheelhouse into significant forays like THE COLOR PURPLE and SCHINDLER’S LIST. By the time of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, he was able to employ both sides of his brain at once. The opening and closing scenes are probably the best cinematic depiction of WWII-era battle you can find on the screen, but in Spielbergian fashion they’re hyper-realistic, more real than reality. Then MUNICH, LINCOLN, BRIDGE OF SPIES: “serious” films by Steven Spielberg. Now people don’t bat an eye whenever he veers from the fantastic.

spielberg-lucas-cropped.jpgHe tells us in the doc that he only has a vague idea of what’s going to happen when he arrives on set every morning. He’s the anti-Hitchcock. He thinks that frisson of everyday terror keeps him sharp (although one of the best pieces of advice he ever got was, never let the crew think you’re not in control: they’ll lose all respect for you). This sounds true to me: nearly every writer I’ve ever had the privilege of editing suffers to one degree or another from impostor syndrome.

images.jpegI think Spielberg may have to wait for posterity to receive his proper due, like John Ford or Howard Hawks. But if you don’t already think you’re living through the career of one pure-dee historically significant filmmaker, watch this doc and think again.

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My NYFF 2017

October 27, 2017

NYFF55.jpgOrdinarily the New York Film Festival arrives along with the first crisp autumn weather, and this year it started out as usual. But too many hurricanes, etc., and NYC turned unseasonably warm, around 80F highs, for the rest of the fest. Nevertheless, we persisted. I should remind you that NYFF is the only major film festival which does not present awards. Its purpose is to celebrate cinema in general, so anybody on the “Main Slate” (still 25 films long after more than half a century) is automatically a “winner.” But there are many others, spread all over the fest’s Lincoln Center campus. Most of the flicks I see are Main Slaters, but one of my favorites this year was an outlier that reminded me of Stanley Kubrick. Literally.

This year a single movie studio attained each of the three most coveted slots on the NYFF schedule: Opening Night, Centerpiece, and Closing Night. It wasn’t Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, Universal or Sony. The trifecta was scored by…Amazon Studios.

Madame_Hyde_000052_c_Les_Films_Pelleas.jpgMADAME HYDE*** (North American Premiere) Isabelle Huppert is one of the most luminous actors in the world. It’s hard to take your eyes off her. She was the centerpiece of the provocative ELLE from last year, but here she gets to have a little more fun. This is a very loose adaptation of the Jekyll & Hyde story, with Huppert as a slightly less nutty professor. That is, mousy Mrs. Gequil (get it?) is a physics teacher in a tough Parisian high school, ragged on by everybody — students, staff — except her doting househusband. But one stormy night she is struck by lightning and transformed. There’s a new swagger and energy, and oh yeah, super powers. Serge Bozon combines screwball comedy with thriller elements, and the mashup doesn’t always fold together neatly. But Huppert is transfixing as usual, calling forth the subtlest facial gestures and deftly walking the line between funny and unsettling. Romain Duris is hysterical as her principal, managing to steal every scene he’s in — even those with Huppert.

western_2_h_2017.jpgWESTERN*** (U.S. Premiere) A tale of the frontier, meaning a lonely spot in Middle of Nowhere, Bulgaria, where a German construction team arrives to build a water facility. They’re construction-gang chummy except toward a tall quiet new guy (Gary Cooper — I mean Meinhard Neumann). They consider themselves superior to the Bulgarian rubes and don’t think much of Meinhard’s natural inclination to get to know the locals, in more than one sense of the word. A beautiful snow-white horse complicates the plot and completes the Western metaphor. Most of the actors are non-professionals, which gives the movie a verite sheen. German director Valeska Grisebach really makes you feel the grime of their physical labor and the low heat of their inevitable testosterone battles.

37352-zama__1_-h_2017.jpgZAMA*** (U.S. Premiere) 18th century South America — maybe Paraguay but we don’t know for sure — is a strange place. Not just the period costumes and customs, but in Lucrecia Martel’s visually striking production, landscapes and even sounds are strange too. Don Diego de Zama is an Americas-born functionary of the Spanish crown who wants to be transferred to a more prominent post, preferably in the old country. But in his way are the hurdles of an imperious lumbering bureaucracy and the shadow of a notorious outlaw as slippery as the Scarlet Pimpernel. His lurching, then crawling quest occasionally passes like a dream, aided by the striking metamusical sonic design by Guido Berenblum. The story comes from a classic 1956 Argentinean novel and it sometimes took effort for this non-reader to hang on, but the atmosphere is rich, musky, and exotic. Is that enough? Dunno.

faces_places_h_2017.jpgVISAGES VILLAGES***** (FACES PLACES in America, but I think the rhyme is more clever in French.) Most of us have blind spots in our cinematic lexicon, and Agnes Varda was once one of mine. I vaguely knew her as the “grandmother of the French New Wave” (why grandmother?), she was married to Demy and knew all the others, but I’d never seen her work until a friend of mine rhapsodized about her in a book. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, but at 88 she’s still ahead of me: I’ve never seen a better Varda film than this one, my favorite flick of the whole festival. Her collaborative partner is the photographic artist JR, who specializes in black-and-white portraits blown up to gargantuan proportions which his crew then pastes onto large surfaces, usually but not always the sides of buildings. Varda and JR tool around rural France to meet villagers and leave them one of JR’s titanic souvenirs. In Varda style, the duo thus celebrate the culture and tradition of the undercelebrated: miners, a farmer, a postman, factory workers, a waitress in a cafe, the wives of dockworkers, a soon-to-be-abandoned village, and so forth. Some of the images are so spectacular that they take your breath away — the wives in particular form a miraculous high point at the unveiling of their installation. While all this is going on, Varga and JR constitute a winsome comedy team: he’s quick and glib, she’s pixielike and game. Toward the end, Varga herself is captured in a heart-tugging verite moment that nobody expected, but it only serves to make the project feel more truthful. It’s a love letter to cinema, the power of art, and the people who make up the backbone of society, all of them fascinating even before they’re turned into colossi. There’s a goofy smile on your face as the credits roll. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

The-Florida-Project-1.jpgTHE FLORIDA PROJECT**** (U.S. Premiere) Another strange place, this one much closer to home. It’s a rundown weekly-rate motel in the literal shadow of Disney World (“the Florida project” was what Walt called the park in the earliest stage), where three six-year-olds shriek and romp in glorious abandon while the adults in their lives doggedly scrounge to pay the rent. The notion that Americans next to the poverty line can possibly be living so close to affluent vacationers — near enough to lie back on the grass and watch the Disney fireworks every night — is maddening because there’s no easy solution. The kids, led by spitfire pheenom Brooklynn Prince, are heartbreaking and exhilarating in their ability to adapt, but this is definitely not for kids to watch: it’s gritty and profane. Newcomer Bria Vinaite plays Prince’s 20-year-old mom, who up-sells wholesale perfumes to the well-heeled worthies at nicer hotels just down the street. The wrenching balance between kids’-eye euphoria and adult desperation is what makes Sean Baker’s film special. Willem Dafoe, in a subtly effective turn as the motel manager, keeps us anchored, as much as his character can.

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Leon Vitali in BARRY LYNDON…

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…and today.

FILMWORKER**** Stanley Kubrick is my favorite film director, so any documentary with some insight into his process has automatically sold at least one ticket. Leon Vitali had a thriving acting career in England when Kubrick cast him as “Lord Bullingdon” in BARRY LYNDON. Leon still has an actor’s sonorous tone and cadence: compare his furious music-recital speech in BARRY LYNDON with the calmly menacing “Red Cloak” in EYES WIDE SHUT; that’s what he sounds like today. He had been profoundly moved by Kubrick’s 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and was walking on air when his hero hired him. So just after BARRY LYNDON wrapped, Leon began to school himself on film editing and other below-the-line tasks, expressly to offer his production services to Kubrick as he was prepping THE SHINING. They went on to work together for the rest of the director’s’s life. To call Leon an “assistant” was to diminish his vital role: no mere “assistant” could color-correct Kubrick’s final film or supervise digital transfers of the entire library. Leon became lieutenant, right-hand man, factotum on 24-hour call to a mercurial obsessive, all at great physical and psychological cost. This film documents that unique relationship using archival footage and new interviews. It strives to help us understand why a talented and successful actor would forsake a fine potential career to become an anonymous “filmworker” (that’s the term he used on application forms requiring his profession). Besides Leon himself, we hear from Kubrick performers including Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, the all-grown-up Danny Lloyd of THE SHINING, and FULL METAL JACKET’s drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey. These actors rhapsodize not about Stanley, but about Leon. Kubrick made him responsible for prepping a real-life Marine D.I. for the shoot, and Ermey tells us that he might have done only a third as well if not for Leon. Lloyd took to him instantly and Leon became the tyke’s best friend on set, crucially easing for Kubrick the burden of directing a child. On and on, Leon was utterly devoted to the maestro, who was so intensely focused that he could omit niceties and coldly command one’s life. We also hear from Leon’s siblings, friends, three somewhat rueful children, and a few talking heads from longtime studio partner Warner Bros., who were regularly tormented by Stanley and Leon’s fanatical insistence on perfection. I hope this overdue report — heartwarming in its own rugged way — will help set the record straight and rescue one filmworker from undeserved obscurity. Before the screening Mr. Vitali was greeting friends in the lobby, so I walked up and thanked him for what he’d done all those years. In shaking his hand I felt, however obliquely, connected to Kubrick. But as the film then rolled, I found out I’d only had a tiny inkling. After seeing this earnest, revelatory movie, I realized that the real honor had been meeting Leon Vitali.

c-q6gmgw0ae_wba-jpg-large.jpegLET THE SUNSHINE IN*** (North American Premiere) Like Huppert, Julliette Binoche has matured so gracefully that she still commands rapt attention. Her prodigious onscreen charisma is essential to this small story of a middle-aged woman’s search for romantic love. She careers almost randomly from man to man, and the audience becomes so bought in that we start auditioning prospects in our heads: get rid of the bum, this guy looks promising. Each relationship is fraught with its own limitations, but somehow the film retains a sly sense of humor. A famous actor shows up in the final moments as an inscrutable fortune-teller and gets laughs with an amusingly transparent monologue.

Screen-Shot-2017-09-20-at-6.37.51-AM-1024x389.pngWONDERSTRUCK***** (Festival Centerpiece) The second adaptation of a Brian Selznick illustrated book (after Martin Scorsese’s HUGO), this is a wonderfully imaginative story that alternates between two timelines to achieve a satisfying dramatic unity. In 1977 a lightning strike renders a preteen Minnesota boy deaf, and he makes his way to New York in search of the father he’s never known. Meanwhile — or, to be precise, fifty years earlier — a deaf little girl in Hoboken goes to the city to meet a celebrated actress. Director Todd Haynes’s meticulous replication of 1950s New York was a highlight of his previous CAROL, and here he vividly depicts not one but two other historical periods, allowing us to ponder how much of the city’s culture endured over that half century. The two story strands eventually merge, brought together by Julianne Moore’s lovely dual role. Much if not most of the movie is free of dialogue, reflecting the experience of the two young leads. Our screening included subtitles for the hearing-impaired, who were so well represented that an ASL signer was on stage for the pre-show introductions. I don’t know whether that was just for us or for general release, but not only didn’t the titles distract, they forced each of us to imagine living in a world without sound. This one is for all ages, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s smart, it’s pretty, it’s original, it doesn’t pander or condescend, and Haynes gets your approbation the old-fashioned way: he earns it.

screen-shot-2017-09-05-at-7-57-03-am.pngLADY BIRD*** The directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, who says her script was inspired by incidents in her own life. Saoirse Ronan plays a free-spirited, Gerwigian high-schooler who longs to escape the one-horse town (to her) that is Sacramento. She’s even invented a sullen bohemian persona for herself and insists that everybody call her not Christine, but “Lady Bird.” Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are the long-suffering parents who contribute to her long suffering. There are a few tropes too familiar to the coming-of-age genre, or maybe just to late adolescence in real life. But the screenplay bounces along from humor to pathos and back again, Ronan kills as the daffy/heartful heroine, and Gerwig displays quite the steady hand behind the camera. I’ll definitely be there for her next one. Nothing more than a trifle, but a charming one indeed.

maxresdefault.jpgBPM (Beats Per Minute)**** (U.S. Premiere) One reason I enjoy film festivals is the blank screen: I usually have no idea what to expect as the lights go down. To preserve my blissful ignorance I read as little as possible beforehand, only speed-skim what’s necessary to make choices. So when I sat down I presumed this to be a documentary about ACT UP Paris at the height of the AIDS crisis, and that’s exactly what it plays like. But gradually I caught on. There were impossibly too many cameras in the ACT UP war room, right into too many members’ snoots as they made comments. Moments that might be too intimate even for a doc were focused and framed just right. These are actors, an ensemble which stuns in its evocation of life with HIV — most ACT UP members were and are “pos” — as the rest of the world seems blasé if not downright oblivious. Director/writer Robin Campillo does a magnificent job of bringing us ever closer to the individual radical activists, especially the sad-eyed Nahuel Perez Biscayart as Sean, pulled through the disease’s grim stages as we watch helplessly. The film is not without scenes of joy, but its meat is the courage and inventiveness of a group that will not be silenced, for as their motto attests, that equals death. Some people talk a good game, especially many Americans these days, but this is what real resistance looks like. France’s submission for the foreign language Academy Award.

the_rider_01_h_2017.jpgTHE RIDER**** Here’s another one which feels utterly real, but for a different reason. It’s about a South Dakota horse trainer and bronc rider on the rural rodeo circuit who suffers a head injury that threatens the career in which he excels. He is played by Brady Jandreau and the film’s story is inspired by his own life (the actual incident is shown: there’s no way a stunt player could have pulled it off). Brady has never acted before, and neither have the other principals, but they’re playing characters very close to themselves, so we get to see what hand-to-mouth rodeoing is really like. You utterly trust everybody, because they’re the real thing. In one scene, Brady becomes the first human being ever to get on the back of one particularly unruly horse. We witness his patience and respect as he takes incremental steps to earn the wild horse’s trust before our very eyes. You can’t fake that. The director is Chloe Zhao, a Beijing native who went to Mount Holyoke and NYU; in other words, she ain’t exactly from big-sky country. But she displays the strength and heart to present this lifestyle as naturally as a movie can — never do we detect anyone in the amateur but authentic cast “reciting lines.” It’s an amazement, an emotional visit into a foreign land most of us have never seen before.

woody-allen-photo.jpgWONDER WHEEL*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) The timing of Woody Allen’s latest premiere probably wasn’t super-terrific, what with Harvey Weinstein and all. But this has nothing to do with sexual predation and everything to do with New York — specifically, bustling Coney Island in the Fifties, its heyday beautifully recreated by what must have been an army of CGI artists. There’s a love triangle (studly lifeguard and fourth-wall-busting narrator Justin Timberlake, frustrated middle-ager Kate Winslet, and her nubile stepdaughter Juno Temple) along with Winslet’s carousel-operator husband (Jim Belushi, in a role that James Gandolfini might have played in a parallel universe). The ingenue has come back to Coney and her estranged father after an unauthorized escape from her mobster husband, who has sent out two goombahs as a search party (both actors are SOPRANOS veterans, just so you’ll understand). Thus there are many narrative shoes which threaten to drop, and several do. Some folks don’t know what to make of the Woodman’s work these days. He’s back in New York after a multi-year sojourn in Europe, but he’s not making comedies any more — I mean, there’s definitely laughter here, but that’s no longer the point. He’s always flattered his female actors, and true to form, this movie absolutely belongs to Winslet. You can enjoy visiting a bygone era, as with WONDERSTRUCK (hey, what’s with all the “Wonder” this year? Maybe it’s that there Woman’s fault), and the other three leads really work hard, but in the end there’s not much that sticks to the ribs. By now the Woody Allen film has become a genre unto itself. So this is a pleasantly made picture which doesn’t rise above its genre.

WISH I’D SEEN: LAST FLAG FLYING, PANDORA’S BOX (on the big screen; check it out for the most knowingly seductive silent siren ever filmed), THE SQUARE, TROUBLE NO MORE, THELMA

ALREADY SAW: MUDBOUND***

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Room & Bird

September 18, 2017

Most of us have our lists of favorite movies, and I’d wager no two lists of, say, the top 25 are exactly alike. However, we’re less inclined to make lists of the worst movies we’ve ever seen, because it’s our natural tendency to try and forget ’em, despite the best efforts of the gang at MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Today I have two for you, so beautifully bad that they break through the looking glass: I expect you will thoroughly enjoy watching each of them. They’re both available to rent on Netflix, and they’ve both been heckled by my MST3K-veteran pals at RiffTrax, but you don’t need their help. Just hit PLAY, sit back, and ponder the depths of determination and delirium that got these two particular movies made.

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I first heard of THE ROOM in 2010, seven years after its release, by reading a Harper’s piece by Tom Bissell. Roughly halfway through, I had to start reading again very carefully from the beginning, just to make sure I wasn’t the victim of a practical joke (the issue date was August, not April!). For what Bissell describes as a “post-camp cult film” had actually attracted a devoted midnight-screening audience since its release, the same kind of groundswell which propelled THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW — which I must emphasize is a legitimate movie with professional levels of production and performance, in stark contrast to THE ROOM — only with slathers of irony, akin to putting a tablespoon of wasabi into your mouth. I’ll try to describe it for you, but I won’t get any closer than Bissell’s best line: “It is the movie that an alien who has never seen a movie might make after having had movies thoroughly explained to him.”

The auteur of THE ROOM is a man who calls himself “Tommy Wiseau.” He desperately wants to be a movie star like his idol James Dean, though he has a slightly vampiric look and speaks somewhat broken English with a distancing Eastern European accent. (To hear Tommy’s voice for yourself without seeing THE ROOM, call the film’s hotline at (323) 654-6192.) After frustrating failures in scene classes and fruitless attempts to get auditions, he writes a “play” intended for the stage — which begins with an “external shot.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tommy Wiseau.

THE ROOM is an effort to produce an intense personal drama about a love triangle, but it is written, directed and lead-acted with such monumental incompetence that it turns in upon itself and becomes a thing of fascination. The writer has no idea how to fashion a single scene that makes any sense, let alone a feature-length plot. The star actor can barely remember the simplest line, forcing the production to use the first acceptable take it can possibly manage. The director is completely clueless about any aspect of staging, camera movement, continuity, or guiding a performance. Tommy Wiseau is the diametrical opposite of a natural. He makes Ed Wood look like Orson Welles.

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If it all sounds like something you’d be better off avoiding, please read THE DISASTER ARTIST, a book by featured actor Greg Sestero and journalist Bissell, and you’ll be dying to see THE ROOM. As well you should. In fact, you might want to do it before December, when a feature film based on the book appears, directed by and starring James Franco as Tommy. (He reportedly stayed in character between takes, in a bit of warped good sense.)

The book — and, I presume, Franco’s movie — cuts back and forth between THE ROOM’s hilarious production phase and Tommy’s backstory, or at least as much as can be gleaned by Sestero, his somewhat reluctant best friend in America. Even to those who know him best, Tommy is a man of mystery. His very age is in dispute. As the author well understands, those few crumbs Tommy drops about his earlier life have been provided by an unreliable narrator. Yet these same crumbs are vital to our curiosity: as Sestero writes, THE ROOM is “so incomprehensible that you find yourself compelled to watch it over and over again. You become desperate to learn how (if) on earth it was conceived: Who made it, and for what purpose?”

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Tommy’s one-sheet (l.) and James Franco’s fake for the DISASTER ARTIST movie.

THE ROOM is a product of almost superhuman determination. It is also a vanity project. Tommy got rich enough somehow — the source of his money remains unclear — to bankroll the $6 million budget personally, and he goes to extremes and beyond. What tugs at you while the film runs is that the crew behind the scenes are evidently real movie people: the camera’s in focus and the sound is clear. It’s just that they, along with a handful of not-untalented actors who have been sucked into the project’s maw, have absolutely nothing to work with.

They were, however, working with Tommy’s own equipment, purchased — not rented, as anyone else would do — from Birns & Sawyer to the tune of a million bucks. Cameras, lenses, Arriflex lighting equipment. For reasons we still do not understand, Tommy decided to simultaneously shoot THE ROOM in 35mm and digital HD. He ordered a mount that could hold both cameras at the same time. That meant hiring two different crews and using two different lighting systems that did not agree with each other, constantly forcing the DPs (Tommy ran through two disgusted cinematographers and finished the film with a third) to split the difference. Tommy wanted to be the first filmmaker to shoot this way. He never pondered why nobody else had preceded him.

The ROOM shoot is studded with examples of such amazing idiocy, but as you work your way through the book and get to know Tommy a little better out of context, he gains a human dimension, much like the obsessed Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt of the documentary AMERICAN MOVIE. The difference is that Borchardt has no money — and his knowledge of what he needs to do on set may be crude, but it’s still light-years beyond Tommy’s.

THE DISASTER ARTIST ends with the world premiere of THE ROOM, which of course bombed in a house Tommy had papered, then went on to gross $1800 — yes, that is four figures — during its original two-week LA engagement. But two young film students noticed it, encouraged others to come — as I hope you discover, it is mesmerizing in its surreal way — and before long alternative comedians like David Cross and Patton Oswalt, and eventually the general public, became believers. At midnight screenings, they use ritualistic synched reactions like a ROCKY HORROR crowd. The flick has played and is playing all over the world: Tommy has even started referring to it as a comedy. Against all odds, he has managed to become famous.

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I can only hope that in the movie version Franco treats Tommy with the empathy he deserves and plays him as something broader than a cartoonish object of ridicule. Meanwhile, I urge you to enter THE ROOM for yourself, making sure to pick up your jaw off the floor at regular intervals, and swirl, sniff, and savor. You are experiencing the awesome power of sheer will.

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“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” Tommy’s James Dean moment.

In January 2009, I was walking down Park City, Utah’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival when a…car…festooned with phony crows and feathers, with loudspeakers broadcasting bird calls, drove by, attracting gawkers wherever it went. On the side of the car was a banner reading

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SHOCK AND TERROR

I would learn to watch for this car, which made its lonely path down Main Street dozens of times during the fest. It was promoting an ultra-low-budget picture which we later found out was actually called BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR. That’s right, the signage on the promotional car, the only way this film’s producers could possibly position themselves before the Sundance crowd (or so they hoped), misspelled its own title. But was it really a stroke of genius instead? We all noticed it. We all silently added the poor missing R.

Then I saw the movie. It was not a stroke of genius.

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It was easy for director James Nguyen to overlook the typo, because like Tommy, English is not his native tongue. A Vietnam-born software salesman, Nguyen shot the self-financed BIRDEMIC on weekends over seven months, then spent several years looking for distribution. Also like Tommy, Nguyen fervently believed that he was producing a great work of art. Inspired by Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (and, he says, APOCALYPSE NOW), Nguyen contemplated a romantic thriller with an ecological message. What he achieved was instead a mess — but, again like Tommy, the sheer ineptitude becomes entertaining all by itself.

Let’s start with the “birdemic,” though Nguyen doesn’t. In fact, the first bird attack won’t appear until about halfway through. But it is a master class in preposterous visual effects. Before that comes a romance between a Silicon Valley software salesman (!) and a wannabe model, utterly barren of chemistry or even nuance. At first it’s curious, then it becomes fascinating. Meanwhile, ecological anomalies begin happening behind their backs. Finally, when the tension reaches fever pitch — shock and terror! Or so we’ve been promised.

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“Can they get in?”

Nguyen also shares with Tommy a gobsmacking inability to even comprehend, much less explore, the language of film. Scene-setting is done using a series of slow pans and crane shots, like you might see in a better movie, but they continue long after the scene is set, eons after it’s been nailed frickin down. When bids — excuse me, birds — mass outside the motel where they’ve just spent a snuggly night, the girl (who is actually movie-star-pretty but gets no help from the script, the director, or the rest of the cast) peeks out from the drawn curtains to see an eagle hovering outside. She goes back to the bed to sit by the boy. “Can they get in?” she asks. He stares at the shut curtains, moves his focus back and forth for a few seconds, and replies, “Not at the moment.” He hasn’t seen any birds. Rather, his motivation is, that’s what it says in the script.

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A “bird” “attack.”

The bird scenes are the pièce de résistance. Cheap video matte effects are re-used to the point of redundancy: a flight of birds travels from left to right, then the same effects shot is flopped and the bird group comes back in the reverse direction. Identical hovering birds are liberally scattered throughout. And these birds dive to the sound of turbines and spit fire or something, at which point the buildings below them emit what looks a little like computer-generated smoke and fire but couldn’t fool an attentive five-year-old.

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“Birds” setting “fire” to some “buildings.”

I’m aware that this all sounds terrible, but like THE ROOM, BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR passes through a creative portal that, say, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE — the worst movie I’d ever encountered until I saw THE ROOM — can’t penetrate. MANOS has nothing to offer but boredom and its makers are clearly passionless. But Tommy Wiseau and James Nguyen actually think they’re shooting terrific movies when they just might be in over their heads. Their stoic struggles actually do wind up legitimately entertaining the audience — two miracles which prove that thing called “movie magic” is hardly monopolized by the suits in Hollywood. They’re each sui generis, each tons of fun. Do yourself a favor. Two favors.

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Et Tu, Delta?

June 18, 2017

tn-500_juliuscaesar0037rr.jpgOutre settings for otherwise respectfully mounted Shakespeare productions are nothing new, and not just since the Royal Shakespeare Company started dressing Montagues and Capulets in biker leather. The very presence of female actors is a departure from any performance the Bard saw in his own lifetime — so much so that it took some getting used to when Shakespeare’s Globe brought its all-male TWELFTH NIGHT/RICHARD III company to Broadway four years ago. Nazis, cowboys, wartime grunts — they’ve all served as exotic backdrops to Shakespeare, the intention being to make the words shine at different angles as we twist the prism. Some inevitable day Romeo and Juliet will both be robots, if it hasn’t happened already.

The seeking and wielding of power hasn’t changed all that much in the four centuries since JULIUS CAESAR (1599) was written. It shows us authority stretched to the point of monomania, then an affronted, violent reaction to this perceived threat to the republic, and finally the utter disaster that befalls the polity after the ultimate defacing of democracy, the replacement of discourse with murder. There’s nothing particularly historical about these forces. They’re with us today and will be here long after we’re gone.

So JULIUS CAESAR’s examination of power and ill-advised redress is particularly suited to a contemporary setting. Hell, any setting. The latest effort finishes its outdoor run on schedule tonight at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare In The Park program. It’s a great production, but it leaves a wake of unwanted notoriety. For this Caesar, as played by Gregg Henry, looks and acts a lot like Donald Trump.

caesar.jpgThere’s nothing coy about the portrayal. Absurd blond wig, blue suit a tad too small, necktie a tad too long, relentlessly working the real audience as he enters. (Off mike, he bragged near us, “Biggest crowd in the history of the theater!”) There’s no question who this Caesar is supposed to suggest. Tina Benko’s slinky Calpurnia even speaks with a Slavic accent.

It’s remarkable how time can actually transmute Shakespeare’s lines. For example, when Caesar first appears amid an adoring throng and senses the presence of the Soothsayer, he asks, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” “The press” as written meant “the crowd,” but the Trumpworld audience hears, “the failing MSM.” When Brutus’s boy Lucius brings news of a “post,” he hands his master a smartphone and we understand instantly. These are all Shakespeare’s words (edited way down to an intermissionless 2:02 by Oskar Eustis, the play’s director and the Public’s artistic director) but three new ones come at a critical point. When Casca marvels at the blind loyalty of the Great Man’s fans, the line reads, “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less.” Eustis adds, just before the comma, “on Fifth Avenue.” Screams.

90.jpegOf course, anyone who has ever seen, read or heard JULIUS CAESAR, or knows the slightest thing about the historical personage, is well aware that his enemies in the Senate were so devoted to the Roman republic and its traditions that the threat of imperium drove them to assassination. Caesar was offered a crown and made to refuse it thrice, but we and they can tell it’d feel good on his head: it’s only a matter of time. On the Ides of March they strike, stabbing the triumphant warrior to death before our eyes.

Screen-Shot-2017-06-13-at-12.27.16-PM.pngHere is where America’s deep polarization rears its ugly head. Again, anyone familiar with the material is keenly aware that seeking change by doing violence becomes the downfall of each and every conspirator — in fact, that is the very point of the play. But pause for a second to consider Trump’s devoted base of supporters. They are greatly rural, greatly uneducated (“I love the uneducated!” Trump gushed on the campaign trail), and distrustful of “elites” in cities and college towns. Most of them have never seen, read, or heard JULIUS CAESAR. All they have to go on comes from professional shit disturbers who tell them that up in fancy-schmantzy New York, some guy dresses up like Trump, then a bunch of senators stab him to death onstage while the audience just sits there and watches. And that’s all true. The real shame should fall on the cynical pitchfork salesmen who deliberately withhold any context from the infomasses and not only ought to, but in fact do know better.

There’s a lot to love in Eustis’s dynamic, immersive staging. The cast are all around you — it’s far and away the most exciting CAESAR I’ve ever seen. Marc Antony is searingly played by Elizabeth Marvel and is referred to as “she” throughout. Her feverish funeral oration, delivered with a slight Southern-senator twang, so rouses the 1800-member audience that we want to pick up weapons ourselves. The energy and drive is contagious: it becomes a spectacle when the dark consequences of the assassination roll in. At times there is a literal crowd on stage, all the stagehands and extras Eustis could find. The theater erupts with passion. By now the Trump references are basically subsumed: for an hour, he’s only been a stiff under a sheet, or a ghost with no snark or irony at all.

To know all this about the production, however, you have to have actually seen it.

julius_caesar_production_still.jpgI don’t get my news from cable tv channels, but from what Trump calls “failing” and “fake” media instead. The only time I normally see these shows is in clips on Colbert or THE DAILY SHOW. I’d never witnessed the full-time 24/7 cacophony until the James Comey testimony, but it’s almost too much to take in, whether you’re watching MSNBC, CNN or Fox. Rachel Maddow in particular goes so fast that I can’t parse everything she says and still receive the sliding, ticking Chyron information crammed onto the rest of the screen. On the right there’s remarkable teamwork and cooperation: interchangeable Fox News hosts tag out once an hour, but the story of the day (in this instance, “Comey is a liar and a traitor”) is so similar that through repetition it looks like Americans of all colors and genders agree! The barrage goes on afterburners once a partisan meme begins (“the War on Christmas”), and this is what happened to the Public.

The “murder” of “Trump” drove some people batshit. Not only do cable hosts matter but now individuals do too, because social media give them their own megaphones. Somebody recorded the assassination scene with a smartphone (you’re supposed to turn them off, lady!) and posted it. The usual suspects began howling, and before long censure of the Public and this production gained traction. Delta Air Lines and Bank of America both actually pulled their funding for the Free Shakespeare in The Park program (I can’t tell whether they removed all Public Theater donation). Oh, by the way: the word “public” usually means “funded by taxpayer dollars,” but not in this case. Humiliatingly, the National Endowment for the Arts felt obliged to disclaim that none of its money was used to subsidize JULIUS CAESAR.

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Outside the theater on Friday, before the show, Trumpies…

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…and the opposition.

The icing on the cake came last Friday, the night I saw the show. There were dueling groups of protesters outside the theater beforehand; that appeared to be a ho-hum everyday event. But during the show, just after the murder, a woman ran on stage and began ranting about normalizing attacks on the right while an accomplice stood in the audience to record her on video and shouted, “you’re all Goebbels!” (Huh? I still don’t get it.) The production paused for less than two minutes, actors still on stage, while the trolls were peaceably removed through a loud ovation. Then came a spot of serendipity. The stage manager announced “Actors, please pick it up at [Cinna’s line] ‘Liberty! Freedom!’” This was too much: the audience leapt to its feet with a roar as the players regrouped to carry on. The woman continued to shriek way off in the distance for ten minutes or so, but she was wasting her breath. (P.S.: Joyce Carol Oates knows. She was there too.) The pair turned out to be a pal of James O’Keefe, the little dweeb who tried and failed to sting Planned Parenthood, and a guy who enjoys spreading nutty conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate. So much for spontaneity.

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Onstage, pre-show, audience members pour out their hearts onto a “Roman bill.” A matching one is at stage right, reading I HOPE FOR.

Please don’t feign patriotic offense at this production. I know this has nothing to do with respect for the office of the president. The reason I know is simple: this same play was staged back in 2012 by the Acting Company, using an Obama-like Caesar. He was stabbed to death on stage too, and nobody said doodly. What we have here is pure Act I, scene ii Caesar worship.

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Oskar Eustis.

Backstage just before the show, Oskar Eustis addressed a group of Public Theater donors and told them the challenge was theirs and his: to find ways to reach out to another America that not only has divergent views, but often finds no reason to even acknowledge the necessity of art to a healthy public life. I agree that if the choices are mutually exclusive, feeding children is more important than funding playhouses, but they don’t have to negate each other. The answers aren’t simple, but the Public is taking some concrete steps. It has already funded a bare-bones mobile production of Lynn Nottage’s empathetic Pulitzer Prize-winning SWEAT which it will take into coal and factory country, where the play is set. Maybe someone who sees it will receive the warmth of recognition that great art can provide: You are not alone. You are not forgotten. Now let’s make things better together. I believe that’s what many are really craving when they desperately cling to someone like Donald Trump.

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Two sheets tipped into the program after the shitstorm erupted.

Though the controversy may have affected the Public, rest assured it’s only a flesh wound. America’s greatest nonprofit theater will replace the lost private-sector donations and steam forward at full speed, but they’ll have to put forth some extra effort to do it. Meanwhile, off go my letters of censure to Delta (reminding them that, as they always say, they realize I have a choice when I travel) and BOA, just so they’ll know not all protesters think they did the right thing. And let’s at least thank goodness for an unusual and welcome side effect: for a few moments in the late spring of 2017, Shakespeare and the theater itself were as relevant as anything can possibly be.

7/3/17: In response to my letter of complaint to Delta Air Lines, I received the following email today: “Thank you for writing to let us know how you feel. No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We are sorry if our decision disappoints you. Thank you for your feedback. Regards, Ms. Rolfe.” I think Delta brass might be trying to officially pin this on the “gore” factor, not the actual one. But Shakespeare is way ahead of them. For example, Titus Andronicus serves up his own children in a fucking pie, and no corporate sponsors have ever said boo about that. The airline doth protest too much, methinks.


I Been Paul Simoned And Art Garfunkeled

May 7, 2017

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I like to listen to music while I cook, but as with my diet I want variety. So I have this long playlist of music I love, and I just ask Alexa to shuffle it as I pull out the cutting board. I never know what’s coming next. The other night, what popped up was “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” the opening track of Simon and Garfunkel’s album PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME. Wow, that sounds pretty good, I thought. Wonder how the rest of the album holds up? So later that night I revisited the whole thing, in order, after half a century.

Yes, PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME turned fifty last October. When it was new I was just starting my senior year in high school. Lots of water has flowed under the bridge since then and nearly everything has changed, most definitely including the music business. Its mid-Sixties conventions are almost unrecognizable today.

In 1966, in the artistic sense, we were all still trying to figure out what a “record album” was. The term originated to describe hardbound packages of single-track 78rpm disks, bound in sleeves with big holes in the middle so you could read the labels, which you flipped through just like a photo album. Those clunky beauties are long gone but the name has stuck. A single-artist collection is still an “album,” whether you buy it on a shiny silver disk or stream it down those Internets.

For pop acts, the arrival of the long-playing 33 1/3rpm single-disk “album” was largely a non-event. Throughout the Fifties, Lps — assuming you had the gear to play them — were mostly for Broadway cast recordings, which regularly topped the Billboard charts, or longer jazz or classical pieces. Pop songs, including the emerging rock & roll sound, were distributed on smaller 45rpm “singles.” That’s what filled up juke boxes, that’s what the Top 40 DJs spun on the air, that’s what teenagers stormed the record stores to buy.

The altruistic saints of the record companies, always looking for ways to devote their own modest profits toward the greater good, made some calculations as the Lp took hold. A single retailed for the better part of a buck for two songs, the chart hit and an unknown “B-side.” (Sometimes they both became hits, as with Ritchie Valens’s “Donna/La Bamba.” Too bad, thought the benevolent angels: that leaves some potential philanthropic donations on the table. Should have been two releases.) Slap a bunch of singles on an Lp, though, and you could charge the kids three, four times as much and repurpose the studio time you’ve already written off — for charity! Add yet another buck for stereo! (“360 Sound” at Columbia.)

So, while more customers got used to Lps, almost all the big pop album releases were by and large collections of previously issued singles, except for the white-collar folk revival (“The Great Folk Scare,” as Dave Van Ronk called it) and sui generis artists such as Bob Dylan. Even Dylan and other oddballs still observed conventional graphic design, listing every song title on the front cover to make the package look like more of a bargain. Dylan’s first four album covers featured song lists, though he’d probably never been heard on a Top 40 radio station and most customers had no clue until they spun the platter.

By the mid-Sixties, however, forward-thinking artists, even popular ones, were starting to kick in their stalls and strive to turn their albums into unique events. PARSLEY, SAGE is a relic from the midpoint of that transition. It’s a collection of newish songs (funny, they don’t look newish!), but three of them had already been released: “Homeward Bound” and “The Dangling Conversation” were legit chart hits, and “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” was the B-side of the huge “I Am A Rock” single (I bought that one, in fact, just to get a new S&G song). There’s a song-title list on the cover, the two hits in big bold face, but the rest of the record besides “Flowers” was a cipher until you played it for the first time.

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Artie and Paul, about the time they recorded PARSLEY, SAGE.

PARSLEY, SAGE was also halfway conventional creatively. Its twelve songs clock in at a total of just under half an hour; the longest track, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” is only 3:10. But this material was more densely packed than anything I’d ever heard. It was partly a reaction to their rushed-out previous album SOUNDS OF SILENCE. They had already split up when, after the fact, producer Tom Wilson overdubbed electric instrumentation onto the acoustic recording of “The Sound of Silence” from their non-selling folkie Lp WEDNESDAY MORNING 3 AM. That second-hand backbeat irked Paul Simon when he heard it, and furthermore the tempo had wavered enough on the original that the dubbed electric cats have to audibly slow down once to let the vocals catch up. But the new mix made Simon and Art Garfunkel huge stars when it became a smash, causing them to reunite for that quickie follow-up. Now they were big shots, and now they were going to take their time. They spent a then-unheard-of three months recording PARSLEY, SAGE, establishing a lasting reputation as studio perfectionists, sort of the Steely Dan of the Sixties. I could hear a quantum leap in ambition the first time I played the record in fall 1966. I thought it was one of the best things ever. No lie. It was the same feeling I got when I first saw CITIZEN KANE and 2001.

If most albums at the time were hit-record compilations, they still worked because the artists had a signature sound that sustained itself throughout. While it was true that Simon & Garfunkel harmonized so beautifully that you often couldn’t tell which one was up high — they sang intervals like their idols the Everly Brothers, but without a hint of country twang; they may have sounded like altar boys but were really two Jewish kids from Queens — each track on PARSLEY, SAGE inhabited its own individual sonic environment. It felt less like a greatest-hits record and more like a collection of great short stories. Even the magnificent BLONDE ON BLONDE, which beat PARSLEY, SAGE to market by six months or so, didn’t exhibit such variety and exactitude. I was blown away.

How did I react five decades later? Spoiler Alert: ambivalently. The newness has worn off. Some PARSLEY, SAGE tracks are still hands-down classics, others have lost a bit of luster. But that short half hour is still crammed with so much creative thought that it cannot be denied.

“Scarborough Fair/Canticle” meets one’s expectations with a soft opening guitar figure. I’ve always admired Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar playing and you can tell it a mile away. He’ll pluck way down on the lower strings and almost slap them for emphasis to get a violent percussive attack: it’s the first sound on the next song. (The axe work on the Everlys’ “Wake Up Little Susie” clearly impressed Simon.) This jagged rhythmic effect is a cousin to the wonderful pick-heavy style that James Taylor brought along later. The boys begin their new album with an innocent medieval air, seasoned with some harpsichord fillips that favor Paul’s puffy shirt on the cover photo. But then something intrudes, “signaled by the electric bass,” as Ralph J. Gleason writes in his liner notes. It’s a countermelody, a darker countersong that fills the gaps on the road to Scarborough with the same sweet voicing, but starts to drip menace. Something about polishing a gun, war bellows blazing, scarlet battalions, generals ordering death, it becomes a real nightmare. You can concentrate on either thread — sort of choose to sip wine or chew some food — or just let the total sound wash over you as when a balance of wine and food produces a third taste. I don’t know which member found the harmony (I hope it was Artie) but this is our first iteration of a signature S&G effect, the high note from way off in the rural areas of the chord. You can hear it clearly on the final “THYYYYME…” Even in mono — I didn’t have the money or gear for stereo at the time — there’s an expanse to the track, as if it’s being performed in a large room or from a fair distance. Surprise upon surprise. As I said, this was the one that recently made me interested in hearing the entire album again. I think it still works, though by now we who have followed all these years are already expecting the “Canticle” descant (most amateur performers omit this part).

It sounds more like a normal recording studio on “Patterns,” a minor-key rumination that puzzled me even in high school, from whence much overreaching poetry springeth forth. Also, somebody brought some bongos to the session. Unless meaning is actually being obscured, I’m not a grammar nazi (screw that missing Oxford comma in the album title!) but I couldn’t hear the song back in the day without getting stuck on these lines: “Impaled on my wall / My eyes can dimly see / The pattern of my life / And the puzzle that is me.” In other words, somebody ripped out Paul’s eyeballs and nailed them to a wall, yet in the early evening gloom they can still perceive images. Seriously, I get that he’s trying to refer to the pattern, but why impale it on his wall? For that matter, not to second-guess the bard or anything, but what’s so awful about patterns in the first place? I’ll bet even Simon considers these lyrics to be juvenilia. The solution is to chillax, put down your microscope, and listen to, as Donald Fagen once put it, “the sound of the phonemes.” Just enjoy the groove as I learned to. But still: impaled eyes?!

Simon & Garfunkel had been the avatars of alienation, full of angst and woe, so it was a bit of a novelty to hear the jaunty “Cloudy.” Here again, the chorus is pure existential sighing: the clouds are gray, they’re lonely, they hang down on the singer, they don’t know where they’re going. But the verses brighten into pure joy — though the boys are about to go to 11 with the endorphins in a few minutes — maybe because they were co-written by (but not credited to) the Seekers’ Bruce Woodley, with whom Simon also wrote the hit “Red Rubber Ball” for the Cyrkle. They became pals after Paul fled to England to escape the resounding thud of WEDNESDAY MORNING 3 AM, then un-became pals, thus the non-credit. My guess is it had something to do with publishing money. But from Tolstoy to Tinker Bell, from Berkeley to Carmel, this is just finger-poppin, toe-tappin fun, a bold new direction for our morose heroes. Artie’s harmonies come from outer space.

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Carol Kaye played bass on both “Scarborough Fair” and “Homeward Bound.”

“Homeward Bound” is one of my favorite songs by anyone, and it sounds every bit as good today as it did when it was fresh. It’s one of the most poignant depictions of life on the road for a touring musician: he and the stand-up comic are the only kinds of performing artists who, when not recording, are traveling all the time. The sheer sameness can throw you off very quickly. I once tagged along with Lynyrd Skynyrd for not quite a week, and one day I woke up in my hotel room, flung open the drapes, and had a mild but real panic attack because I couldn’t suss out where I was until I found a newspaper in the lobby. (This is why rock stars tear up hotel rooms.) But I had no idea when I first heard this song how real it is. Simon probably wrote it in England, since he’s “sittin’ in the railway station” rather than a car or bus. The song is terrific, but the record yells out “hit!” because of Hal Blaine’s muscular beat and Carol Kaye’s bass line. (Yes, among their many other credits, the “Wrecking Crew” of LA session cats blew anonymously for S&G too. Carol also plays on “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.”) I know it’s the arrangement that counts because when the boys do it with Paul as their “one-man band,” it just ain’t the same. Judge for yourself, early in their Central Park concert.

Advertising is crass and manipulative! So avers “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine,” which sounds like a certain songwriter might have been watching way too much tv. Still, the banal pitches for the title panacea display wit and economy. “Does your group have more cavities than theirs?” “Do you sleep alone when others sleep in pairs?” There’s even what passes for controversy in 1966: “Are you worried ‘cause your girlfriend’s just a little late?” Not your wife, your girlfriend. You’ve been having extramarital sex, haven’t you? This piece was minor the day it was written and doesn’t age well, but the performance is full-on Everlys.

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Joe Morello brushed the tubs on “The 59th Street Bridge Song.”

And now, turning on a dime, the happiest 1:43 on record. Without a trace of irony, Simon & Garfunkel go skipping down the street on “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” which celebrates that euphoric feeling you get when everything’s perfect or the drugs have just kicked in. “Groovy” as a word has outlived its usefulness (basically replaced by “cool,” which comes from the beatnik era, and “awesome,” which comes from — I dunno, IMAX superhero movies?) but the song’s exalted state is still crystal clear today. Here again, the recording completely sells the exuberance, for the boys have borrowed none other than half of (labelmates) The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Eugene Wright is on upright bass and Joe Morello is swattin’ the super-hip brushes that set the tone immediately; yes, the same guys who recorded the immortal “Take Five.” Veteran S&G fans were nervously waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it did in “Richard Cory,” but no: “Life, I love you / All is groovy.” Angelic la-la syllables dart, weave, spill over each other in a growing chorus of contentment that luxuriously plays us out of side 1. I was happily amazed at first spin, and the song fulfills its simple mission so effectively that it has become timeless despite that antiquated adverb.

“The Dangling Conversation” is about pretension, but it’s pretentious itself, probably why it hasn’t held up as well as S&G’s other big hits. It felt much more profound in 1966 than it does today. In winkily sniffing at detached privilege it becomes guilty of the same offense. There’s certainly much to like, including once again the economy of a gifted songwriter. Simon only needs a few seconds to lay out the shallow vapidity of proper cocktail chitchat: “Can analysis be worthwhile? / Is the theater really dead?” And the lush orchestration, all harps and strings, is sublime — in a sense, just going to the trouble of writing charts and hiring players helps validate Simon & Garfunkel. But it’s hard to listen past the lyrics and enjoy “The Dangling Conversation” on an aural level, because this particular song is all about the lyrics. It only comes to life once, when despair breaks the singer’s chilly composure: “I only kiss your shadow / I cannot feel your hand…” There’s no doubt that it’s a more intellectual way to Stick It To The Man, which is why it fit right in with the times. But fifty years later, I don’t really mind when it’s over.

True fans had already heard “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” on that B-side. The straight-ahead fast picking sounded great, and since I was listening in mono, what I had here was basically that same radio mix from the single. This is one of those songs where it’s easy to mistake the mood. The melody (the same resigned note for a long while on the verses, with Artie handling the changes upstairs) and vibrant tempo could be for a ditty about waiting for a lover to arrive. Instead, leave it to our boys to muse about the inevitability of death, complete with confusion, illusion, dark shadows, tortured sleep, directionless wandering — some fairly grim stuff. If the vocal were in French, you’d never come close to pinning it down lyrically. There is an interesting thought in the chorus: “So I’ll continue to continue to pretend / My life will never end.” We all do that at a young age. But take it from us, kid: you’re gonna die.

On “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” we discover that Paul Simon does have a sense of humor! It’s the musical equivalent of that time he wore a ludicrous turkey suit on SNL and said they had told him, lighten up, you take yourself s-o-o-o-o seriously. Here he flings out cultural references just because they rhyme, from Ayn Rand to Gen. Maxwell Taylor. He’s been Mick Jaggered and “Silver Daggered,” which if you’re not our age you probably don’t recognize as Joan Baez’s signature song early in her career — in other words, I lived through all that folk-singer stuff too. But the centerpiece is the moment when Paul stops everything to do a fairly snarky impression of Bob Dylan, complete with panting in-out harmonica. He has now addressed the elephant in the room. After all, S&G and Dylan shared a label (Columbia) and a producer (Bob Johnston, formerly Tom Wilson). They had included a hokey, halfhearted cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on their first album (the one that tanked), but if Paul or Artie had ever in their lives said A-Anythin’ outside that session, we don’t know about it. For want of a better pigeonhole, both acts were categorized as “folk-rock,” whatever that means, and they didn’t click personally. We know in retrospect that they were worlds apart and evolved even farther away from each other, but we didn’t have any retrospect back then. We have to assume Dylan didn’t mind the ribbing too much because he recorded a self-harmonized “The Boxer” on his possibly heartfelt but definitely delusional SELF PORTRAIT, and many years later he and Paul toured together, even managing to co-perform a tune or two. I saw them at Madison Square Garden: two long sets that were both enjoyable for completely different reasons. Simon, Garfunkel and Laughter. Who’d have imagined that trio? Sue me, but the Dylan thing is still funny.

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The producers of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS aped this Mark Spoelstra cover for the phony album release by “Al Cody” (Adam Driver).

I’ve loved the sound of the 12-string guitar ever since I heard Mark Spoelstra’s FIVE & TWENTY QUESTIONS during the Great Folk Scare. (Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker didn’t hurt either.) When you pluck an individual string it sounds double-tracked, like a John Lennon vocal. When you strum them all you have a little guitar orchestra. I finally got next to a Vox Folk Twelve and though it was twice as hard to tune and maintain, I never quit playing it. Paul Simon hits the 12 only rarely, but he does a terrific job on “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her,” a dreamy solo for Artie that was probably traded off for “Philippic.” Paul’s guitar is mixed in the background and loaded with reverb, and when the lyric says “cathedral bells,” you go, that’s what it sounds like: a cathedral! Talk about puffy shirts: this is Jane Austen set to music, aimed directly at the chicks. Organdy, crinoline, juniper, burgundy, frosted fields, tripping bells, honey hair, flushed cheeks, grateful tears! Is there anything we forgot? Paul steps forward for a regal guitar break and seals the deal: he makes you want your own 12-string.

But as John and Yoko once said, the dream is over. Now a racing heartbeat pulse introduces “A Poem On The Underground Wall,” a little slice of city life that makes us voyeurs while a profane graffitist defaces a subway poster with “a single-worded poem comprised of four letters.” The tempo doesn’t change but it seems to. As the perv nervously waits for his chance, scrawls his “poem” and books it up the stairs to street level, Paul and Artie help the illusion by becoming ever louder and more intense. He gets closer to what seems like an almost sexual release, maybe not even almost, and we feel like we’re watching something we shouldn’t see. Nothing has prepared us for the chugging inevitability of the rhythm. But most disturbing of all, we find ourselves thinking about what it might feel like to wield the “crayon rosary” ourselves. Finally nothing is left but the pulse we started with, and we’re finished, if not shamed.

Well, not quite. The boys wind up with another “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”-style mashup for a closing bookend. “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” begins with a reverent version of the venerable holiday carol as only these choirboys can warble. It’s beautiful. Then something seems to interfere with your sound system. You’re getting a rogue radio signal from somewhere. Dammit: some newscaster is ruining the song! How is this even possible? You keep listening and the announcer grows louder while your music gets softer. Now you can’t help but pay attention. Martin Luther King may face the National Guard in Cicero, Illinois. Mass murderer Richard Speck is indicted. HUAC investigates war protest. Nixon says opposition to the war works against the country. The news is nothing but bad, and it has finally overpowered “Silent Night.” Of course, all this was deliberate. The effect is quite powerful — in fact, too much so for posterity. “7 O’Clock News” is like a magic trick: the first time you experience it can be mind-blowing, but there’s a reason most magicians don’t repeat illusions for the same audience. Without the element of surprise, you’re only interested in the method, how you were fooled. Well, S&G hired radio DJ Charlie O’Donnell to read actual news items from August 3, 1966 and engineer Roy Halee worked the faders just right. It’s wrenching the first time, but the returns begin to diminish almost immediately. All these years later it’s not only the now-familiar juxtaposition that weakens the piece: the news items themselves are so stale they’re ancient history. I wish this track had been a B-side, or maybe a single for the holiday, so they could have ended PARSLEY, SAGE with something a bit more permanent. But who knew we’d still be listening to it fifty years later?

Sure, it doesn’t all work, and there are other dated moments. But PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME has spun off so much enjoyment over the decades that it’s instructive to consider how long that span of time really is. Fifty years before PARSLEY, SAGE, the biggest hit records, including “O Sole Mio” by Enrico Caruso, “I Love A Piano” by Billy Murray, and ”Ireland Must Be Heaven, For My Mother Came From There” by Charles Harrison, were made with frickin recording horns. Well, that much time and more has now passed for us since S&G’s first groundbreaker. Yet it still has the power to reach out over an eventful half century, to delight, provoke and entertain. Even after buying all that studio time, I’d say Columbia got its money’s worth and then some.

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The stunning Richard Avedon portrait for their next album, BOOKENDS.


Jack H. Harris, 1918-2017

March 27, 2017

jack_harris.jpgJack H. Harris passed away a couple weeks ago at 98 after a long and happy life. That name probably means nothing to you, but it means a lot to me. Mr. Harris was partially responsible for my Master’s degree.

Jack Harris was a movie producer with a real eye for developing talent: he produced the first features by John Carpenter and John Landis. But it was his own first feature that cements his place in Hollywood history. In 1958, Jack H. Harris produced THE BLOB.

5546b5c45040e_358452b-986x750.jpgIt was the age of exploitation in the movie business as the industry frantically swatted away against the incursion of television on its customers’ leisure time: movies needed to be — or at least seem to be — bigger, bolder, better. Plus, by the late Fifties the recently christened “teenager” had developed into its own lucrative category for marketers. As another contemporary showman put it, these kids loved cars, girls and ghouls. So movie after movie gave it to them. And towering over them all was a big ball of malevolent jelly, the frickin Blob.

The Blob’s from outer space. It falls to earth in a meteor or something. An old man pokes around the crash site with a stick into some goo that suddenly rushes up the stick and onto his arm! (The old roll-the-film-backward gag, but it looked good to us.) We never see this schnook again. Every time the Blob eats something it gets bigger and hungrier, and how are you going to stop it?

Now here’s the thing. The first people who realize we Earthlings are in trouble are…teenagers! Well, sort of. “Steven” McQueen, in his first leading role, was already 28, and his squeeze Aneta Corseaut — who went on to play Andy Griffith’s Mayberry love interest, Helen Crump — was 25, but you get the idea. The cops don’t want to hear from hepcat Lover’s Lane jalopy jockeys. No adult does. It gets worse and worse until the Blob finally makes its public debut at a crowded movie theater, and by now it’s the size of a movie theater. If the squares had only listened!

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The Blob is ready for its closeup at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, PA.

About fifteen years later, THE BLOB figured into a notion I was mulling for my Master’s thesis at the University of Georgia. I wanted to write something on popular culture — just entering the halls of academia at the time — but there had to be a serious subtext. I decided to look at fantasy and science fiction movies in the period from Hiroshima to JFK’s assassination (when our national innocence evaporated), through a Commiephobe’s point of view. Monsters were then wildly popular, I thesed, because Americans were frightened of Russian saboteurs and uneasy about the still unknown consequences of opening the nuclear Pandora’s box. Invading aliens represented…invading aliens. “Atomic testing” induced wild mutations, most frequently gigantism. And outer space was a fearful place: anything could drop from the sky. Even…a blob!

By now this all may seem obvious, but at the time — I remember listening to the Senate Watergate hearings over my shoulder while working — it was fairly unmowed ground. I touched on dozens of examples in the paper but went into greater detail on four movies, and one of them was THE BLOB. So I have a soft spot for that mound of mush.

Guys like Jack Harris weren’t trying to send a message. They were trying to make money. Most critics savaged THE BLOB, but it became a smash hit, and that means something. If a movie is popular, by definition a great many people have been persuaded to see it. So it is scratching some itch — maybe not even articulated but real just the same. At least that’s how Thesis Boy saw it.

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I’m not sure whether THE BLOB is still part of our shared culture. Once it definitely was: everybody knew the goo, even if they hadn’t seen the flick. But the times they have a-changed. One of the reasons I know Jack Harris’s name is that I created an appendix at the end of my paper with the critical info on about 150 movies, all laboriously gleaned from staring into a tv screen — for you kids, I was “live streaming” — and jotting as fast as I could. At the time I considered that appendix a more important piece of scholarship than the paper itself. But it’s utterly worthless today. Every little cross-referenced mote, down to uncredited cameos, is available with a couple of clicks on IMDb.

But they still remember THE BLOB in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, the real-life location of that famous movie theater attack. Every year they hold a Blobfest. The next one’s in July. I’ll bet it’s a little sadder now that Mr. Harris is gone, but they’ll honor his memory: after all, NOTHING CAN STOP IT!

Director JACK H. HARRIS poses for photographers as he recieves the 2;517th star on

In 2014, at 95, Jack H. Harris became the oldest honoree in the history of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


Readi, Steadi, Go!

February 28, 2017

exovest_girl.jpgLast year was the 40th anniversary of the Steadicam, which revolutionized filmmaking as much as CGI did a tech generation later. The very first Steadicam shot was realized for Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie pic BOUND FOR GLORY (Steadicam shots in MARATHON MAN and ROCKY were filmed later but released earlier), and within a year or so the amazing contraption became available to everybody. Even to us in Mississippi, where I was the first producer in the state to rent a Steadicam, for use in a tv commercial. The leading edge is sometimes the bleeding edge: I wound up wasting money, but I learned a lot in the process.

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Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (l.) with Stanley Kubrick and Danny Lloyd on the set of THE SHINING. The Steadicam absolutely made that movie.

A cinematographer named Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam and operated it for each of those movies. The “cam” part of the trademark is a tad misleading. There’s nothing special about the camera itself, which is the very one you already owned. It’s the rig that rocks. The camera operator wears a vest attached to a series of gimbals and counterweights so ingenious that when you adjust everything just right — it’s different for each operator — the camera sort of floats. You can guide it on the gimbal with one finger. Yet the weight of the counterbalance and camera maintains a stubborn inertia, as a bowling ball does when you try to shake it quickly. So minor movements of the operator don’t affect the camera’s orientation. You can take it down to ground level and operate from above. You can walk with it and get an unusually smooth shot. You can run with it. Dash up a flight of stairs (ROCKY). Follow your subject down a hotel hallway or inside a hedge maze (THE SHINING). Walk through a set, twisting and turning as smooth as silk, for a complicated “impossible” shot (BOOGIE NIGHTS, GOODFELLAS). You can even simulate high velocity, as in RETURN OF THE JEDI, for which Brown shot the speeder-bike chase by walking through a redwood forest cranking at only one frame per second instead of the normal 24.

Or you can take a Steadicam up in a helicopter, which is what I did.

That first shot in BOUND FOR GLORY had DPs all over Hollywood abuzz as soon as they heard about it. It began with Garrett Brown shooting from high up in an elevated crane, which slowly boomed down until he could step off and walk forward through the set, all in the same smooth motion. It didn’t look “hand-held” — even the best operators can’t prevent the camera from shaking a little — but what kind of quantum-physics crane was this? Veteran camera operators tended to be rather beefy guys — sort of natural-built Steadicams — but this changed everything and flung the craft open to anybody who could walk a straight line. Panavision marketed its own “Panaglide” stabilization system, and Dean Cundey used it to perfection in HALLOWEEN, especially in the bravura swooping, twisting killer’s-eye-view opening shot.

garretbrown-2aFor our advertising client, a junior college, we wanted to show prospective students that there was a world of possibility at this one institution — both solid vocational training and excellent prep toward finishing a degree at a four-year school. To seize tv viewers’ attention, I imagined doing a reverse BOUND FOR GLORY shot. We’d bring representative gear and people from as many departments as possible outside into a large open space on campus — bigger than a “quad,” but still surrounded on three sides by buildings — to illustrate the school’s vast array. After cutting and dissolving in closeups without revealing where we were, we’d fix on one setup and then pull back, up, up, up, higher than any crane, until we could see the whole tableau from the air. We’d achieve that last shot using a Steadicam.

I did everything I could think of as a producer: organizing the complicated process, setting up weather options just in case, renting the harness a couple days ahead so our operator could get used to it. Shooting day dawned bright and clear, and we’d already begun setting up before sunrise. Our chopper arrived on time and we strapped the operator in so he could lean out the open passenger door. We experimented with a couple of passes and ran into two problems nobody had anticipated.

First, it turns out a Steadicam works better when the operator himself is actually in motion rather than sitting still in a moving vehicle. The shot looked smoother than we could have otherwise gotten, but it wasn’t as mind-blowing as we’d hoped. A little practice, and we learned that slight impromptu camera motion on the way up helped sell the “impossibility.” But by then we’d already stumbled upon the second problem.

There was a little breeze on that bright sunlit day. Not enough to make flying dangerous, but just enough to create a modest crosswind once we passed the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, which were protecting the people on the ground. Try as he might, our pilot couldn’t avoid a slight horizontal motion as he adjusted for the wind change. We hated it, but there was nothing to do except keep trying until we got lucky, so we did, and on one take we did. We’d hoped to do the final move three or four times starting with various departments to make alternate versions of the spot, but we had to settle for the good one in the can. It was nice, but we would have gotten pretty much the same result by bolting the camera down and packing it with sandbags and stuff to muffle shimmy. Then again, as a friend of mine likes to say, it’s all part of life’s rich pageantry.

These days that shoot would have been a piece of cake. We’d have used a drone and beaten the breeze by pulling the shot fifty times instead of fifteen. But in the late Seventies such niceties didn’t yet exist. What did was the baddest piece of gear around, we had it, and we absolutely loved going steadi with our new friend.

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The Steadicam map for the opening shot of BOOGIE NIGHTS, which lasts 2 minutes and 45 seconds.


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