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 can’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 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 good take it can 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 he 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. Why? 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

BIDEMIC
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 the title of the film. But was it really a stroke of genius instead? We all saw it. We all added the poor missing R.

Then we 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,” because 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 simply 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, even after it’s been nailed 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

simonI 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.) 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.

hqdefaultI’m not sure whether THE BLOB is still part of our shared culture. It once was. Everybody knew the goo, even if they hadn’t seen the flick. But everything has 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 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.

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.


My Sundance 2017

February 2, 2017

sundance-2017-700x435We finally saw the results of a genuine Rocky Mountain winter storm this year in Park City. Good for skiing, I suppose, but bad for getting around to see movies. The plowed drifts were high and the walkways were icy, but we didn’t even get the worst of it. That happened the week before, while most of the Hollywood suits were still in town. I hear navigating the hilly Main Street was a special challenge. They even lost power during one screening for “Sundance Circle” VIPs.

Indoors, I noticed almost immediately that the latest shiny plaything for screenwriters and directors seems to be social media. Packing a cell phone, even texting, is no longer sufficient shorthand for “contemporary story,” but using something like Instagram or Tinder still is. (Swipe-and-like is also the easiest kind of digital interaction to depict in a movie, simple and visual.) In the first film I saw, social media actually drove the plot, then they kept peeking out again and again. Everybody was sizing up potential hotties, even at a police station in Cairo. A trend? Impossible to tell when you see only a fraction of the flicks on tap. This year I caught eighteen:

elizabetholsenaudryplazaingridgoeswest-1200x520INGRID GOES WEST*** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) A pathologically insecure young woman befriends an “influencer” online, becomes obsessed, and moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her idol. The idea of social-media stalking does feel relatively fresh, and Aubrey Plaza strikes just the right tone of desperate neediness to make us sympathize even as we squirm over her escalating dependency. She worms her way into Elizabeth Olsen’s glamorous life by kidnapping her dog and grandly returning it, but there’s my main problem. The audience is uncomfortably waiting for the other shoe to drop — we knew Plaza was bad news from the opening scene — while the film continues to play too much for fun and giggles. We can’t really settle back for Act II because we know this won’t end well, and it sort of doesn’t. But only sort of. Still, that is one subtle piece of work from the leading lady. Picked up by Neon.

Stars On The Set Of 'Sidney Hall' In NYCSIDNEY HALL**** (World Premiere) Propulsive study of a tortured artist, beginning when he’s eighteen years old and jumping to his 24- and 30-year-old future selves in a screenplay that never shows its cards until it must. The title character is a talented writer in high school whose English teacher shows a partial manuscript to a publishing pal. His first novel is finished and released and he becomes a pheenom, striding self-consciously through New York publishing circles in his twenties with a little of Jay McInerney or David Foster Wallace in his subtle swagger. Six years later he is a scraggly, hirsute hobo who has gone — or maybe fallen — off the grid. We learn only gradually how these changes were wrought in non-sequential scenes, with a tick-tock sense in the background as the senior iteration of the now-reclusive Sidney Hall is pursued by an anonymous badge-flashing investigator. Magnificent performance by Logan Lerman in what are essentially three distinct roles, adjusting his carriage and cadence so naturally between them, despite a fake-o final mop and beard that betrays the indie budget. Elle Fanning shows us a similar transformation as Sidney’s squeeze. Tremendously satisfying in nearly every respect, through filmmakers still have a tough time plausibly portraying a book publisher.

newness-sundanceNEWNESS** (World Premiere) Again with the social media. Two millennials, online-hookup-app addicts, connect and are so good together that they set up house. But that adventurous streak is still there, and for a while they try to combine domesticity with independent wild-oat-sowing. What could possibly go wrong? She (a luscious Laia Costa) is more into “newness” than he (a soulful Nicholas Hoult), and thereby hangs Ben York Jones’s fairly flimsy tale, earnestly realized by Drake Doremus. The images are beautiful but feel itchily voyeuristic. It’s as if some middle-aged guy has just discovered that those young’uns, strangers, are actually tapping their phones to tap each other, as libertine as the hepcats in those ludicrous Sixties “psychedelic” movies. It’s hard to work up much empathy since this truly is another world foreign to me, and, I submit, to most others, including, I’ll wager, the lead actors.

la-et-mn-sundance-la-times-feature-20170117L.A. TIMES*** A smart, amusing trifle, a comedy of manners among a loose orbit of thirtysomething Angelenos. Michelle Morgan wrote, directed and stars (“I have a cameo,” she coyly said in her introduction) as a blithe hypercritical non-romantic. Hilariously featuring awkward prostitution, awkward near-incest, an awkward VERTIGO riff, and so much more awkwardness that Woody Allen reverberates throughout, along with Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson. In fact, that’s the key: if you think much younger people kvetching like the Woodman sounds like fun, then you’ll be right.

the-hero-sam-elliottTHE HERO**** A welcome vehicle for Sam Elliott, who plays it close to the vest as an aging actor known for Westerns, particularly one iconic role in a movie with this same title. His personal life is a jumble, he lives on voiceover work, he indolently drinks whiskey and smokes pot all day, and as the film opens he receives a diagnosis of cancer. While scoring from his dealer and friend — he’d rather buy weed the old-fashioned way than go to a marijuana dispensary — he bumps into an alluring younger customer with a sly smile, and we’re off. Director Brett Haley and co-writer Marc Basch clearly love Elliott, whose signature persona infuses the movie (at a lifetime achievement award ceremony, a smitten woman says she loves his mustache. He nuzzles her with the billowing thing and replies, “And it loves you too.”). Laura Prepon is wonderful as his May-December love interest, and Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross, shines as his ex. The great thing about this movie is that it’s not bogged down with angst. No magic wand can fix everything, but you can come to terms with most anything. Bought by the Orchard.

mudbound-movie-4MUDBOUND*** (World Premiere) Life in the hardscrabble Mississippi Delta in the Forties, as Jim Crow reigns and World War II pulses in the background. A white farming family and the black clan which survives by working for them each send a son to war while they struggle to tend barren, flood-prone land. Upon returning, the GIs face the same repressive society they left — but in Europe, the black man has gotten used to entering and exiting by the front door and drinking from any fountain he chooses. Born of mutual respect and wartime scars, their interracial friendship offends the locals, led by the white family’s crass, mega-bigoted patriarch. It’s nice to see the Army’s forced camaraderie depicted on screen; it was the first chink in the Deep South’s culture of institutionalized racism and it directly led to the civil rights movement. Except for Pappy McAllan, played with malevolent relish by Jonathan Banks, the white family is portrayed in shades of grey, as much victims of the system as perpetrators. In contrast, the black family, led by the fabulous Rob Morgan as Hap Jackson, is depicted as unremittingly noble: the narrative dice are thus loaded, so this movie isn’t as profound as it thinks it is. But the Louisiana-for-Mississippi setting is beautiful, Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke do solid work as the McAllans, and there’s a great performance by none other than Mary J. Blige as the Jackson mom. If ever this music thing should fail her, she has a fine acting career ahead. Bought by Netflix.

crownheightsCROWN HEIGHTS**** (U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) The searing true story of Colin Warner, who was convicted of a 1980 murder he didn’t commit, and of his best friend Carl King, who devoted years of his life to proving Colin’s innocence. As if a wrongful conviction wasn’t bad enough, Colin also had the misfortune to be caught in the middle of the Reagan-era get-tough-on-crime wave, and he resolutely refused to take any plea-bargain or early parole deals which required him to confess to something he didn’t do. The amount of time he unjustly served in prison will horrify you. Lakeith Stanfield kills it as Colin and writer-director Matt Ruskin does a great job of keeping us behind bars with only a few glimpses of the outside world, mostly Carl’s increasingly quixotic campaign which his own family begins to doubt. After our screening, Ruskin brought out the real Colin, whose lilt and cadence made us even more appreciative of Stanfield’s interpretation. Ruskin first heard Colin’s story on THIS AMERICAN LIFE, and turned it into something amazing. Picked up by Amazon Studios.

golden-exitsGOLDEN EXITS** Talky, tiresome few months spent with self-absorbed Brooklynites whose routines are disrupted by the arrival of a stunning Aussie student (Emily Browning) whose cheekbones arrive in the room before she does. Everyone is trying their best, but the 94-minute running time feels twice as long.

fun-mom-dinner_0FUN MOM DINNER**** (World Premiere) A kinetic, furniture-smashing romp: BRIDESMAIDS, but with moms. (Judd Apatow is again responsible.) A mom’s night out for four women escalates into a picaresque odyssey. The energy is high, the humor is low — jokes and biological matter both fly — but there’s a sweetness throughout as the quartet, some of whom hate each other at the top, bonds in the most eccentric ways possible. Great ensemble work by the Apatowian posse (Paul Rudd’s wife wrote it), but the headliner is Bridget Everett, who steals every shot she’s in, much like Melissa McCarthy can. This is not a great film. It doesn’t even want to be a great film. It only wants to make you laugh, and in the realm of cheerful anarchy — a love letter to mothers with some naughty bits too — it’s a scream. FUN MOM DINNER probably has the greatest commercial potential of any movie I saw this year. Bought by Netflix.

walking-out-movie-sundance-film-festival-2017-800x360WALKING OUT*** A tale of survival in snowy Montana, as a teenager joins his estranged father for a hunting trip that turns into a life-and-death struggle in a split second. The majestic Big Sky winter is gorgeous but forbidding; expansive helicopter and drone shots both sell the isolation and make the film look bigger. I’d imagine the only way a shoot could have been more difficult would be to set it on the open sea, but the weather is tamed, and we really feel the cold, hunger and thirst. Matt Bomer and Josh Wiggins as father and son nearly carry the entire picture, but there are nice flashbacks to a grizzled Bill Pullman as Bomer’s dad, and it was wonderful to see Lily Gladstone in a cameo near the heart-tugging end. Superb, absolutely convincing animal effects.

jessica-williams-film-the-incredible-jessica-james-to-close-sundance-2017-715x405-1THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) Jim Strouse used Jessica Williams in 2015’s PEOPLE PLACES THINGS, and just knew he had to write a whole movie for her. A former correspondent for THE DAILY SHOW, Williams combines wide-eyed ebullience with cheerful snark to, sorry, light up the screen. She’s going to be a star. Here she’s a New York playwright who’s getting over a breakup when she meets shaggy but lovable Chris O’Dowd, in similar straits himself. At first they use each other for support, but the relationship might become serious if Jessica can fend off her mooning ex-boyfriend. There are no real villains here, and the story is rather predictable: it’s the details and the laugh lines that make it work, along with the force of the leading lady’s personality. Though it’s really nothing special, this movie will be remembered as Jessica Williams’s breakout. Picked up by Netflix.

the-big-sick-movieTHE BIG SICK***** (World Premiere) My favorite movie this year. It’s based on the real-life experiences of Pakistan-born comic Kumail Nanjiani (best known as the nerdy coder in the SILICON VALLEY house), who falls in love with a cute grad student, Emily (Zoe Kazan), at a Chicago gig. So far, so good — except that Kumail’s parents follow Pakistani tradition, meaning his will be an arranged marriage (his mom makes sure female prospects “happen to drop by” during family dinners). He even keeps his romance a secret because his folks would never accept a white girl, and it breaks her heart when she finds out. Then, still furious at Kumail, Emily contracts a serious illness, his family disowns him, and his life begins to unravel. This wonderful film deftly walks the line between comedy and pathos: it’s never insensitive or maudlin. The stand-up comics in Kumail’s world, especially the Greek chorus of Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham — supportive but itching to leave Chicago for New York — are really funny (unlike Laura Prepon’s bit in THE HERO), and so is Kurt Braunohler as Kumail’s roommate, a comic who’s not funny. Emily’s parents, expertly played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, rush to her side from North Carolina, hopping mad at Kumail for hurting her. Hunter’s clash with a heckler at Kumail’s show is an instant classic. You might be tempted to dismiss this multifaceted premise as too convoluted, but Kumail and the real Emily co-wrote the script: it’s based on their true story. A fine job by all concerned, well-made and satisfying. A big revelation is that Kumail Nanjiani can act, and this may even put him on the map alongside Jessica Williams. Picked up by Amazon.

an-inconvenient-sequel-truth-to-powerAN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER**** (World Premiere, Festival Day One) Why do a follow-up to Al Gore’s Oscar-winning AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH? Because global climate change hasn’t rested in the ensuing ten years. There’s plenty of news — not all of it is even bad. That famous slide show, which is now presented all over the world by Gore and an army of volunteers, has gotten ever more sophisticated and persuasive: some inconvenient truths will make you fearful, others will make you cheer. This film follows Gore as he travels the world to try and keep public attention focused on the existential crisis of our age. It doesn’t shy away from the bouts of despair that all climate activists occasionally feel; sometimes it seems that shortsighted deniers hold all the money and levers of power. But Gore, who calls himself a “recovered politician,” has made urging action on climate change his life’s work. People who took potshots against the original TRUTH, accusing Gore of exaggeration and fantasy, are refuted with video tape of “impossible” flooding, a rapidly melting ice shelf, and “hundred-year” meteorological events which now occur with frightening regularity. Some people believe we live in a post-truth age. But to his immense credit, Al Gore isn’t having any of it. Opens wide on July 28.

discoveryTHE DISCOVERY** (World Premiere) There’s a great premise here: a scientist (Robert Redford) has discovered empirical proof of an afterlife, or an “alternate plane of existence,” as he calls it. In the two years since then, the world has been awash in suicides as people discard their bodies to “get there.” Nice idea, but it’s exhausted in the first five minutes. What we’re left with is lots of desultory talk as estranged son Jason Segel travels to Redford’s compound to try and convince him to tell the world he’s wrong and stop the carnage. (One character muses that murder can’t be far behind, since you’d only be sending your victim to a better place.) The exteriors are dull and gray. The interiors have that yellow-green tint that says “filthy hospital.” Now Redford is claiming to be able to record the passage visually, so everybody undergoes an impenetrable experiment, including Segal and Redford. Rooney Mara is around looking blond and creepy. A surprise reveal at the end comes out of the blue and might explain some of the technique, but it’s too little too late. This film combines the pace of SOLARIS with the yakety jargon of PRIMER. Before it’s over, you may understand why “getting there” became so popular.

The Nile Hilton Incident - Still 1THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT*** (Grand Jury Prize: World Dramatic) As a Cairo police detective investigates the 2011 hotel murder of a popular singer, he begins to realize that the case winds upward through the highest strata of wealth and power. This isn’t exactly a whodunit, since the audience knows perfectly well who. It’s more of a police procedural, but the Egyptian system is rife with bribes and other corruption, and our central character (Fares Fares) is certainly part of it. What he learns is that you can be so rich that you’re essentially immune, like a diplomat. This movie takes us through Cairo’s underbelly; here we’d call it a noir. Everybody smokes, all the time.

dina_still_sundance_-_publicity_-__h_2017DINA*** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary) An intimate look inside the unusual romance of two people who are both on the autism spectrum. Dina Buno and Scott Levin met at a Philadelphia social group for neurologically diverse adults, founded by the late father of one of the filmmakers; Dina has been a family friend for 48 years. We see them plan for their wedding, attend night-before parties, interact with their parents, spend a day at the beach, and approach the issue of sex, which Dina expects and which seems to unnerve Scott. Dina has endured travails which would break most people: she lost her first husband to cancer and survived a brutal knife attack from a deranged later boyfriend, yet she’s still gregarious and optimistic about her new relationship. The access is remarkable, probably because Dina feels comfortable around co-director Dan Sickles. Some people may be offended by what they view as exploitation; are Dina and Scott even capable of giving informed consent? What struck me again and again, though, was how easy it was to look past their obvious disabilities and recognize issues common to many other earnest relationships. The bottom line is that Dina and Scott are good people, and it was nice being able to spend time with them.

i-dont-feel-at-home-in-this-world-anymoreI DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE*** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic) Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is the kind of person who hates it when you leave dropped groceries in the aisle or bring too many items to the express register. If these little things tick her off, imagine her rage on finding her home burgled and her laptop stolen. She determines to track down the thieves along with her weirdo, martial-arts-obsessed neighbor (Elijah Wood), but the trail leads to a group of hardened criminals and the amateur A-team is suddenly way out of their league. This movie takes a right turn once they fall deeper into the rabbit hole, and leads to some brutal violence. Writer-director Macon Blair owes a lot to Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, who can stage sudden setpieces that are gruesome yet provoke surprised laughter, such as the shooting of Steve Buscemi in FARGO. A home invasion sequence here leaves blood everywhere but it doesn’t take long to do it. What’s left is Ruth’s preternatural focus, which after a while becomes amusing in itself. A nice first feature, but obviously not for everyone. If you aren’t into the filmmakers named above, you should probably stay away. But if you are, this is one wild ride. Streaming on Netflix.

roxanne_roxanne_-_still_1_-_h_2017ROXANNE ROXANNE*** (Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance: Chanté Adams) The fictionalized story of “Roxanne Shante,” the real 14-year-old rapper from Queensbridge who in the mid-Eighties was the best battle emcee in New York, just as mike-dropping duels were about to take off. I had the same feeling I did when I watched 8 MILE years ago: Eminem seemed like a credible actor, but I couldn’t understand a damn word he rapped. This is Chanté Adams’s movie: she spends most of it in braces, sporting that closed-lip smile that embarrassed teenagers use. Then she matures on camera, and when she returns to the hood with teeth gleaming, you can hardly believe it’s the same actress. This movie was not made for me, but I enjoyed Adams’s performance, which I guess was the whole idea behind its special jury award. Picked up by Neon.

WISH I’D SEEN: BRIGSBY BEAR, A GHOST STORY, MARJORIE PRIME, THE POLKA KING, RESERVOIR DOGS (a 25th anniversary screening with QT present), WIND RIVER, XX, THE YELLOW BIRDS

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An I For An Eye

December 21, 2016

ultra-high-definition-4k-wallpapersI’m having the video equivalent of what serious audiophiles must have gone through when digital recording appeared in the Eighties. I can barely believe I used the term “video,” but that’s the age we live in. Sometimes it’s all too digital.

We bought each other a holiday gift this year, a new tv to replace the ten-plus-year-old one. Back in vinyl days, all you had to worry about on your stereo was whether the left channel was connected to the left speaker: you uncrated and assembled in half an hour and thought you were MacGyver. But today’s gear is so complicated that rather than bang our heads in frustration, we just call in “Agents” from the Geek Squad — Best Buy is literally across the street from us, maybe 100 paces away. First we got a consultation visit. All our stuff still worked, but we were wondering if we weren’t missing out on some tech developments over the last decade, and on a few components we were. (Not everything new is necessarily good. We were actually warned against buying a set that could play 3-D; evidently that’s the Google Glass of home video just now.)

When we installed our old tv a decade ago, the big new thing was high definition in broadcast, Blu-Ray in physical media. Most major network shows had only recently gone hi-def for a quantum leap in picture clarity: video-taped chat shows appeared to be coming through a window and DPed film series like LOST were crisp and sharp, stone cold gorgeous. People my age can remember when they first had access to a color tv set: you’d uncritically watch anything just because it was in color. Same deal here. Hi-def was the bee’s knees.

Now they’ve ramped it up to “Ultra” HD, “4K” encoding. By coincidence we’ve caught this wave earlier in the cycle. The networks aren’t there yet, but Netflix is already streaming in 4K, and no big home video release arrives without an “Ultra HD” version (continuing to represent the leading edge, all Criterion releases are 4K transfers now). So, let’s give the new tube a spin!

The resolution is indeed immaculate: you can see pores on the anchorman’s face, a tiny drop of hot-light sweat from a talk-show guest that would have been undetectable before. For live or taped material it’s as if you were sitting in the control room with the director. Amazing. Then I put in a Blu-Ray of a film and the strangest thing happened: all of a sudden, I didn’t like the effect any more.

To my surprise, even images captured on celluloid and realized using an emulsion looked like studio-bound video tape. On old black-and-white pictures the effect can be refreshing, making them appear to be immaculately preserved. But everything else was somehow cheapened, as if we were screening videocam dailies rather than the full cinematic monty. Expensive visual effects looked awful, traveling mattes shimmering, CGI performers out of match with their real-world counterparts. Everything was this way. THE GODFATHER. THE WIZARD OF OZ. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S frickin DREAMS! Films I knew by heart looked as if their production budgets had been cut in half. Yes, resolution was indeed off the scale, but the bald, flat end result was plug ugly to me.

I had a week with the system before my Geek Squad agent returned to install a small piece of audio gear, and by then I was ready for some help. At first I had a little trouble explaining what was wrong, but then he said, “You mean everything looks like a soap opera.” Exactly! “That really annoys some people.” Count me in! “Easy fix.” Evidently it has something to do with how movement is depicted on the screen, a feature you can toggle. He did, and now the ultra-sharp image wasn’t quite as ultra-sharp as before, but a movie looked like a movie again. (I’ve noticed that an object which isn’t moving at all, like a framed photograph on a desk, can look a tad sharper than the rest of the scene.)

My reaction was interesting because it goes against the grain. My eyeballs have become desensitized enough that I actually prefer digital images. I first noticed it at the New York Film Festival two years ago, when P. T. Anderson made a big deal out of the fact that we were going to screen his new movie INHERENT VICE by actually running film through a projector. Goosebumps! Then the thing rolled and my heart sank, because the very imprecision that makes film film now read as murkiness, deterioration of focus, mere proximity to the image I really wanted. The same sequence repeated this year with James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z. Note that I’m not commenting here on the artistic quality of the work, only the physicality of the visual image as seen through my eyes. Celluloid projected at 24 frames per second can only approach perfection. Digital projection ensures focus, balance, and no deterioration whatsoever. (Also no reel-change dots: some people think that’s weird.)

I’m not saying digital is necessarily better. But it is what I’ve become accustomed to, what I expect. Hard-core stereo freaks had to clap their ears closed at compact discs when they first appeared, and even I could imagine a clipped, mechanical aspect to early full-digital recordings like TRICYCLE by Flim & the BB’s or Dire Straits’ BROTHERS IN ARMS. And why not? It’s the difference between the physical back-and-forth vibration of a record needle and the ja-or-nein precision of a stored byte, the way a string player creates vibrato versus the way a bunch of electronic cables are routed. But thirty-plus years later, digital audio sounds normal to me. It’s what I’ve become accustomed to. What I expect.

Filmmakers who still shoot on film are a dying breed. Anderson, Gray, Spielberg, Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow — you can almost call the roll in your head. Even the Coens have thrown in the towel. Digital is just faster and cheaper (the current trendiness of handheld doesn’t hurt), making it the medium of choice for young DPs, and in a generation or two it’ll be hard to put together a “slow” celluloid crew at all. TV and indie crews tear through many times the script pages of a lumbering big-time feature, but do you have any tech complaints about, say, GAME OF THRONES?

Digital still looks great when projected, not at all like the “soap opera” on my badass monitor. I cannot recognize a digital shoot just by looking at it. Again and again I’ve been surprised by end credits or festival Q&As when it’s revealed. (Some productions even brag: it’s no longer uncommon to see “Captured in…” rather than “Filmed in…”) Vinyl-record devotees still maintain their purity, and someday film snobs will rage, rage against the dying of the light. But face it: we’ll still call them “films,” just as we still call them “albums,” which they haven’t been since the days of the 78rpm single. Things change — which I believe is also a comprehensively stated history of the universe.


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