Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Oh how I wish tomorrow would never come..."

I spent the majority of this past February 29th thinking about the untimely passing of Davy Jones at the age of 66, and today, on what should have been his 67th birthday (as well as the 70th birthday of his still-vigorous bandmate Michael Nesmith), I started thinking about it again. Like many of you, this took me by terrible sad surprise, because of the abruptly fast nature of the event: he had appeared just two weeks before at a Hollywood autograph collector's show in reportedly excellent spirits, and as late as that previous Tuesday night, right on my Facebook feed was a blurb promoting an upcoming solo performance in Southern California. On a psychological level, I don't think I'm the only person to have thought in the back of their mind that, just maybe, we'd have the Monkees for many more years to come. Like many a stand-up comic's jokes about Keith Richards or Motley Crue, it was almost as if nothing could kill the Monkees: consider that from their inception to that date, we had lost Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Redding, Presley, Curtis, Nilsson, Cobain, Garcia, Strummer, Brown, Barrett, Cash, Chilton, Jackson, Houston, two Beatles, two Beach Boys, and three Skynyrds...yet all four of our beloved 8-button-shirt beaus were safe and healthy. The bubble finally broke that day, when, to put it in mordant video terms below, Davy drew the short straw:




I once opined that I found the Monkees to be more interesting than the Beatles.



Before you get your Union Jack knickers in a twist, I did not say "better," I said "more interesting." Sure, the Fab Four in their remarkably short tenure of 8 years together left behind an amazing legacy of music and personality, but at the core they had a sensible, straightforward story: four fellows started a band, got popular beyond their wildest dreams, used their worldwide appeal as an opportunity for some experimentation, and then agreed to part ways when a group dynamic was no longer suitable for them. By comparison, the Monkees trajectory is a little more colorful: young producers decide to capitalize/spoof on Beatlemania by creating a fake band for a TV series, hire two legit musicians and two actors to essay the roles, but instead of just going through the motions dictated by their creative directors, the foursome decide to really hunker down and learn both how to coalesce and create music as a real band and how to hone their stage presence and delivery as comic actors, consequently creating a body of work that has stayed just as relevant and entertaining as the Beatles' for 40+ years. No one could have expected, or would even have had reason to expect, any of this when Screen Gems greenlighted this TV series in 1966; all the upper brass wanted was some decent ratings and some merch sales. Instead, a multi-pronged dynasty emerged, not just involving the band members, but the body of tremendous songwriters who provided them material (Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, John Stewart, Harry Nilsson), the pool of writers and directors who contributed to the show (notably Paul Mazursky and James Frawley), and quite significantly, the producers behind the show Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, whom together and apart made wide changes in popular American film. As film historian Christian Divine bluntly put it, "Without The Monkees, we might not have had EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW or much of the 1970's New Cinema. Seriously."

And in 1966, when very few of the ways of seeing or hearing in our modern day could even be contemplated, nobody in that hypothetical smoke-filled boardroom would have anticipated the wide swath of loss, love, and gratitude that would emerge when all these years later, one of those boys left us. From a surprising spectrum of celebrities past and present, to a fan turned manager and exhaustive historian for the band, and a slew of bloggers that I personally either admire in awe or have downed multiple shots with, anyone who saw a television or listened to a radio had something to say. Even People magazine, normally focused on youthful celebrities and reality show scandals, and thus would have been expected to note his passing in a sidebar or in a round-up, devoted a full cover and center section to Jones, an honor normally only bestowed in cases of massive stardom or questionable circumstance. I can declare with full confidence you cannot find anyone beyond, say the trolls at a certain isolationist Baptist church, who didn't have a kind word to say. And weeks later, when most celebrity deaths quickly leave our minds and we go back to the business of the day, my friend and fellow critic Alonso Duralde summed up my feelings succinctly: "I'm finding myself more bummed about Davy Jones' death than I would have foreseen."

I wouldn't feel the need to shout it like number 7A, but there is a giant legacy this 5'3" showman left behind. It was readily apparent when the initial pilot for "THE MONKEES," which had tested poorly, scored enormously favorably when Davy's screen test was included. It was humorously apparent when, in the occasional rare episode where a girl was chasing Peter instead of him, it was put forward that "It can't be you every week, Davy." And as Michael Nesmith observed in a memorial interview for Rolling Stone, it was as if the show was built around him. I do feel that Papa Nez is selling his gifts a little short, but he is correct that in an already unlikely band environment where in one concert, you could be treated to Peter twanging folk on a banjo, Mike doing his prototypical country-rock, and Micky indulging his rhythm & blues wailing, Davy was the consummate pro that could tie all these disparate styles together, and looked right at home doing it. He was as interested in belting out Stephen Foster as he was in learning about "the key of soul" from THE WIZ composer Charlie Smalls, and if someone wanted to put grungy arena rock guitars behind him for cheap irony, he sold it cleanly and happily. I always wished he would try performing "Sheila Take a Bow" by his fellow Mancunian Morrissey, or my biggest dream cover, him and Micky trading verses and shout-outs on Outkast's "Hey Ya", since the song has the Neil Diamond-esque meter and Pentecostal flair of a classic Monkees song, the music video by director Bryan Barber has the cheeky humor of a typical Monkees episode, and, well, come on, you know how groovy it would have been to hear Davy tell the ladies, "Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbor." Alas, those two cuts will only be heard on the jukebox of my mind now, probably right after the Whitney Houston/Serge Gainsbourg remake of "I Love You...Me Neither."

But see, that's just singing. Add in his ability to deliver a punch line, keep a straight face, do Broadway shows nightly, the occasional horse race...if he wanted to do something that would entertain the crowd or his own artistic appetite, he got it done. I may put "Renaissance Man" on my business cards, but he lived that title.


So while I can't mark this birthday as an ongoing concern, I will most certainly pass the bottle for Mister Jones. When everybody loves you, oh son, you're just about as funky as you can be.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

When It's Time to Zero the One Two

2012 was, from January onward, just a really damn good movie year. Seriously. Within weeks of the beginning, when it should be just Oscar bait going wide and genre junk getting dumped, you got a crafty little Soderbergh action movie, a solid and tense tales of man versus wolf in the wild, and a challenging low-fi rebuke to superhero mythologies, and all of those before Valentine's Day! And the goodness kept on going. Sure not every weekend could bring a gift, some Fridays yielded nothing but Fresno. (I've got a violent squint like Our Man Flint permanently fixated on you, McG!) But when I catalogued everything I saw this year, I had way more 3.5 and 4 star movies than 2, and I had a damn good amount of 4.5 and 5 star movies as well. It would appear that the studios finally kept the lameitude in check...or just delayed it to 2013 for 3-D post-conversion.

And if you'll indulge me a moment to catalogue myself, I think my personal lameitude was significantly reduced as well. I accomplished a lot of good things. Not just here at the blog, which, granted, has become more of an infrequent salon, but in that great big real world as well. I met Dario Argento. I was interviewed for a film preservation documentary. I cut a homemade trailer for one of my favorite cult films that the director liked more than what a major studio put together originally. I did an intensive Q&A with Todd Solondz that offered real insights. Hell, I even created an internet meme! So yeah, maybe I don't post here enough, but if you're paying attention, you'll see my handiwork in other places, and that's gotta count fer sumthin'.

But let's focus on the reason why you're stealing away from your family on Christmas Day and reading this blog: My assessment on the year in movies.

First off, in the grand tradition of Naval Firsties putting $1 in a kitty to be awarded to the graduate with the absolute lowest GPA, my special Jury Prize, or for this occasion, the "There There Honey" prize, goes to THE OOGIELOVES IN THE BIG BALLOON ADVENTURE. There must be something about the pretense of creating movies "exclusively for children" that makes the creative team throw rationality out the window like a box of melted Otter Pops - which, coincidentally, is the approximate visual aesthetic of this film! When your toddler screams "Dada!" during this show, you may not know whether to reach for a pacifier or a Salvador Dali volume. The fact that the advertising focused solely on it being from a "marketing wizard" that sold you other prefab merchandise-driven kiddie fare should make one want to enjoy said astroturf artists eating their cold mush. But dammit, when I'm presented with disturbing innuendo between an intelligent vacuum cleaner and a sassy talking window, I'm giving in to the insanity. They may not have earned enough box revenue to even pay off the giant Sunset Blvd. billboard featured here, but they'll happily get my money again if the ever-threatened midnight hipster revival shows rev up.

Speaking of revving, the keys are in the ignition, let's prime the engine...

10 worthwhile films nobody saw but me: 
Alps
Compliance
Dark Horse
Goon
The Hole
Kill List
Middle of Nowhere
Natural Selection
Nobody Else But You
Polisse
And lets put this thing in gear and take one last drive past The Top 13 of 2012:

13. CLOUD ATLAS
 

 12. MAGIC MIKE
 

11. THE RAID
 

10. DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
 

9. LOOPER
 

8. DJANGO UNCHAINED
 

7. ZERO DARK THIRTY
 

 6. MOONRISE KINGDOM
 

 5. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
 

4. THE MASTER
 

3. AMOUR
 

2. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
 

1. HOLY MOTORS

Thanks to all my original readers, the new ones who've been steered here by names you trust (and industry giants I still can't believe I get to call peers), and anyone who found this place from googling for cheesecake photos of '70's drive-in actresses. I'm grateful you take the time to visit. I warn you this is going to be more of a pop-up restaurant than a full-time diner in 2013, but I'll serve you my specific style of movie dishing as best and as often as I can, so please check in if you don't hear from me.


Monday, November 5, 2012

"What are all these fates, driven on pell-mell?"

The following entry was going to be my contribution to Jeremy Richey's outstanding Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon at the Moon in the Gutter site...two years ago. Unfortunately, personal obligations, ridiculous computer problems, and a last-minute change of my essay's focus all conspired to make me miss my window to join in. However, in light of the excitement and extraordinary reviews generated by his first film in five years, two retrospectives of his previous films in Los Angeles within the last seven weeks, his ranking as the #1 working director in movies today by both The Guardian and my best friend Chris Price, and the simple fact that I'm hard pressed to resist an opportunity to discuss one of my favorite directors, I'm pulling this out of mothballs. Because if directors are our rock stars now, a concept originating from the '60's French publication Cahiers du Cinema and their staff of critics (soon-to-themselves-turn-directors) notions of auteur theory, then as sure as shootin' Anderson has a permanent position on my cinematic jukebox. An appropriate metaphor especially, since both the cult '60's era music videos machine pioneered by the French, and the special interstitials designed for his DVD release of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, both share the name "Scopitones." He has not yet received his own "Cinemetal" t-shirt that the other rawk directors like Scorsese, Herzog, and Jodorowsky have, but that's easily rectifiable:



Ersatz Cinemetal logo created by Kate Willaert, used with permission.

However, in the parade of names, mentors, and influences that fans and scholars tend to cite when discussing Anderson's work, there is one that has never been mentioned, not even by Anderson himself in the few interviews he has granted. As such, one would argue that said person doesn't hold sway in the manner that, say, Robert Altman provided a template for juggling multiple storylines, or that Chayefsky provided a template for punchy dialogue for his films. But as I revisited MAGNOLIA recently, to analyze a crucial plot thread for the essay I was going to write but abandoned, I began to seriously see evidence of a definite, if unconscious, other force of inspiration. And ironically, as in my previous paragraph, it's courtesy of the French.

Claude Lelouch is not a name mentioned much at all in cinematic circles nowadays, let alone offered as comparison to anyone with the hot-button interest that Anderson commands. The few people that even recognize the name would likely write him off as a quaint relic of another era - that guy who made that '60's romance movie with the theme song that could now be used for black ops torture sessions. Indeed, a fair number of his films have not been a priority for me to seek out, both due to the expense involved and what I have perceived as their likely lightweight status. However, Lelouch can lay credit to three very strong, bonafide classic films that may not possess the household familiarity of work by Altman or Scorsese or even Downey Sr. (A Prince), but I insist can be considered, if not directly, then certainly by cultural osmosis, influential to the style of storytelling that Anderson is justly lauded for.


The first of these films is 1974's TOUTE UNE VIE, released in shortened form in the States by Avco Embassy as AND NOW MY LOVE, which, next to his worldwide smash A MAN AND A WOMAN, is easily his most popular film among American moviegoers. It won Best Foreign Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association,  and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1975, against SHAMPOO and AMARCORD, all of them ultimately losing out to DOG DAY AFTERNOON. In much the same way as other not-yet-over-fetishized cult films, mentioning your fandom can admit to you an intriguing and friendly secret club; admirers of AND NOW MY LOVE include prolific screenwriter Scott Alexander, the late critic Gene Siskel, and comedian Fred Armisen, who hosted a rare screening of the film at Los Angeles' CineFamily in 2009.

AND NOW MY LOVE ostensibly promises "a love story that is absolutely timeless" (at least according to one of Embassy's ad campaigns), but that is a bit of a misnomer, in that this movie is obsessed with the passage of time, and said love story consumes mere minutes at the very end of the movie. It opens with B&W, music-scored but otherwise silent footage depicting the turn of the century, with characters who will quickly be gone from the story, and even as it opens up to color and synchronized dialogue, it will be quite a while before we meet the actual protagonists, or fully understand their relationship to the characters we saw at the start. Also, rather than a proper credit listing at the beginning, we will see the names of all the people involved in the production, but in a completely random order that does not designate their role or job description, thus star Marthe Keller is essentially on as equal a footing as the key grip in this sequence. What we are treated to is the history and times, not just of these characters' ancestors, but of the world as well, and how those elements will shape our man and woman, and color them until the fateful moment when they will actually meet.

The original French title, TOUTE UNE VIE, means "a whole lifetime", and as such rather than get details in backstory as we would in a standard romantic film, we're going to watch the legacy and lives of these lovers and derive our drama there. And by the credits' refusal to specify what name did what job, it's essentially saying that much like all the "what's beyond" details that made these people who they are, every person on the crew made this movie what it is, with no one having a higher standing than another. It's a risky maneouvre, to make us sit and wait for what we know is essentially a fait accompli, but it works, as it makes that final payoff all the more exciting. And Lelouch, who put many autobiographical elements into this story, prepared it diligently. The production script was rumored to be over 400 pages, and actors were not allowed to see it in full, receiving only their character's dialogue sides, and often even getting those lines fed while shooting. Again, in light of the film's initial positive reviews, awards recognition, and devoted fandom, Lelouch's gamble paid well. "[The film] is a study on how art of any kind shapes us into who we are, how we use it to create out own reality, and how it helps us understand our place in time," writes recent convert Daniel DiCenso in his review at mubi.com.


That last sentence can also be appropriately applied to Lelouch's even bigger and ballsier 1981 epic LES UNS ET LES AUTRES. Originally shown as a 250 minute 5-episode TV miniseries, it played in most countries in a 184 minute theatrical version, and was briefly released in the U.S. in a slightly shorter 173 minute form under the title BOLERO. Much like it's predecessor AND NOW MY LOVE, it tells a sprawling tale involving the horrors of 20th century warfare and the healing power of art, but instead of building to a meeting of two lovers, it is instead to a convergence of artists from all over the world, progeny of other artists of another time, some successful, some failed, some withstanding more struggles (Its original French title essentially means "these ones and these others"). It also presents its opening credits in an unconventional manner - aside from an opening production credit, title card, and possessory credit for Lelouch, the only text we see is a quote from Willa Cather's O PIONEERS:

"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."

That is followed by an opening sequence which ultimately previews what will be the grand finale of the film, an exquisitely choreographed ballet scored to Ravel's immortal composition, while a narrator (Lelouch himself) makes a sort of mission statement, bisected by a roll call of the large multinational cast:

"The people you are about to meet in this film [are here], because their stories are either extraordinary, or very ordinary...All the characters are, or were, real people. This film is dedicated to them." 

The ostensible start of the story is then announced, a dance audition in 1936 Russia, conducted in a long tracking shot almost entirely without expository dialogue, as a performer loses the role she wanted, but gains an admirer whom she will soon marry. When this transitions to an elaborate French music hall show, we are nine minutes into the movie, but the narrator returns to announce the music and choreography credits, and leaves for good to allow another important event to unfold, again without dialogue. It will not be until a good 18 minutes into the movie when we are finally given plot-driving dialogue, oddly enough in English, by James Caan. And from here on, the story goes forward in its ambitious way, often driven more by visual sequences and music rather than with characters speaking expositions, with some actors gaining age over time while others ultimately play multiple roles as parents and their children, until we arrive to the grand climax teased at the beginning.

It is at this point I would like to think that for most fans, some of the parallels are becoming self-evident, but I suppose I should flat out state what the hell the connections are between these movies and PTA's work. For starters, both of the preceding films present stories of children marked for life by the expectations and limitations of their parents, a longtime commonality in the works of Anderson as well, not just in the obvious parallel structure of his equally unconventional epic MAGNOLIA, where his characters are all wounded by bad parenting, but also in the peculiar fatherly bond uniting Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in HARD EIGHT, the ersatz family dynamic of Burt Reynolds and his stable of actors in BOOGIE NIGHTS, the eternally-hazed Adam Sandler breaking free of his dominating sisters and resisting a band of vengeful brothers in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, the eroding shred of conscience that ties Daniel Day Lewis to his son and partner in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and the somewhat dog-and-trainer relationship of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in THE MASTER. A quote comes into play in the three Lelouch films to be covered here - "Buffalo Bill's son couldn't shoot as well as he did" - and its concise understanding of history and family weight is such that it could have just as easily come out of the mouth of an Anderson character.

On a stylistic level, BOLERO's almost wordless first 20 minutes has a kinship with the almost wordless first 20 minutes of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, where we see the turn of fortune that will mold the manners of Daniel Plainview and H.W. Both of the offbeat openings of the Lelouch films strike a prototype for the wonderful prologue to MAGNOLIA, where he spends almost an entire first reel with a dry narrator (magician Ricky Jay) explaining seemingly unrelated strange events from history, the first even in B&W, to prepare us to understand that "these things happen." Much as Lelouch will figure out how to assemble the surviving characters of BOLERO to either directly participate in, or pay passive witness to, the great dance at its climax, while presenting musical interludes in an unconventional manner, Anderson will bring some of his diverse MAGNOLIA characters together, and unite them all through unnatural musical and meteorological means. And Willa Cather's invocation about the circular nature of history in the former has a perfect mirror in the narrator's closing invocation in the latter:

"There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, 'Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.' Someone’s so-and-so met someone else’s so-and-so and so on. And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time. And so it goes, and so it goes. And the book says, 'We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.'"

Most intriguingly, MAGNOLIA offers two very potent bits of, if not proof that Anderson is likely a fan of Lelouch's BOLERO, then at least outstanding happenstance that he's waxing his car in Lelouch's garage, both contained within the portentious episode of "WHAT DO KIDS KNOW" in the middle of the film:

The first question asked of the adult contestants is to identify the author of O PIONEERS.

Later, when the New World Harmonica trio plays their variations of three classical composers' arrangements of "Whispering," the second composer, whom Stanley Spector fails to identify, is Ravel.

It is in the humble opinion of this film historian that this is not just "something that happened." This cannot be "one of those things." This, please, cannot be that.


Another most crucial bit of spiritual brotherhood between these two directors is their mutual spirit of daring to create wildly free and untethered film adaptations of classic literature. Over a decade before Anderson took Upton Sinclair's novel of muckraking outrage against the petroleum industry, OIL!, and extracted only a few characters and scenes to create his more intimate but no less epic character study THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Lelouch took one of the most beloved novels of all time, and did something even more audacious - created an entire new set of characters living in another century, and integrated the book itself as a virtual character that alternately inspires and prophesies their actions through two generations. LES MISERABLES DU VINGTIEME SIECLE (translated subtitle: "of the Twentieth Century") presents Jean-Paul Belmondo as a Jean Valjean stand-in named Henri Fortin (and in prologue, his ill-fated father, continuing his motif of actors playing multiple generations), an illiterate boxer turned truck driver and petty thief who, in the dawn of WWII, agrees to smuggle a Jewish family out of occupied France, and over the drive, listens to them read aloud from Hugo's book, imagining scenes they describe with himself as the hero. When Fortin and the family members find themselves separated and scattered, they each become enmeshed in adventures and crisies that mirror those of the book.

Lelouch's 1995 production of LES MISERABLES is extremely special because it is not just an adaptation or even a modernization of a well-known book, but an speculative demonstration of the impact of this book on people, and perhaps even a nation, long after it's publication. If the two previous Lelouch films mentioned here were about how art can have a positive effect on a life, this film is about how someone affected by that art takes the lesson to the next level. (At the climax, Willa Cather's quote reappears, reinforcing the connection to the preceding films.)  Hugo's book is shown to kindle romance, as when the family patriarch meets his dancer wife when she performs in a ballet adaptation, inspire heroism, as when Fortin's gang decide to become partisans during a crucial attack, and reinforce justice, when it appears that this story's Javert stand-in will have the upper hand. Thus, as THERE WILL BE BLOOD, while drastically different from Sinclair's book, still ultimately shares its moral about the acidly destructive power of greed, so does Lelouch stay true to Hugo's themes of individual acts of mercy and nobility being the force to keep humanity progressing towards a larger good. In a serendipitous fillip to this portion of my essay, Upton Sinclair in fact wrote the preface for initial American editions of LES MISERABLES, proclaiming it "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world," demonstrating the kind of spiritual link between like-minded artists that I have set out to dramatize here.

Unfortunately, much like Anderson's directly acknowledged influence Robert Downey Sr., Lelouch is an auteur whose reputation has dimmed in recent years, and is well overdue for reappraisal.  And more unfortunately, unlike Downey, who recently saw many of his earlier works receiving fresh DVD releases from Criterion's Eclipse division, Lelouch does not have an American concern to make that push on his behalf; in the early aughts, Image Entertainment commendably released some of his films to home video, but those editions are now out of print. While continuing to make new films, his last to see a U.S. release was 2008's ROMAN A GARE, which he initially pretended was directed by a younger, handsomer friend to prank the entertainment press that was declaring him a has-been. Even LES MISERABLES, which would seem to be a no-brainer for DVD re-release to ride the coattails of Tom Hooper's upcoming film of the musical adaptation, is nowhere in sight - while it had been available earlier this year for streaming in their branded studio store at Amazon, Warner Bros. recently declared their rights have expired. But in an interview conducted during the release of ROMAN, he insisted, "After 34 films, I am dedicated to filming hope," and by the act of continuing to make new films, he is living that hope firsthand.

And in this final statement, one can make connection to Anderson again. He may not be experiencing any kind of career twilight, and won't for a long time, but his acclaim has always been tempered by perceptions of his bankability, and despite multiple critics' awards and Oscar nominations for his films, the marketplace success of his films have been more modest than massive, and it has been the intercession of mavericks like Michael De Luca and Megan Ellison that have enabled him to get financing to continue making his films. The struggle for an iconoclast is the same regardless of their age or stage of career.  And every one of Anderson's features have ended on a note of hope. Even dark fables like THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER offer slivers of positivity for selected characters that allow escape and transcendance from bleak circumstances. The romantic Frenchman and the ballsy Valley boy are just going to keep doing their thing on their own terms, because they got the touch, they got the power...

Again, I have no idea if Paul Thomas Anderson has had any sort of experience with the work of Claude Lelouch beyond, say, his velvety-voiced dad Ernie introducing an ABC Sunday Night Movie premiere of A MAN AND A WOMAN ("Parental Discretion Advised"), so all of my proselytizing may have as much basis in fact as one of Lancaster Dodd's religious tracts. But I stand firm that it is the groundwork and the example set by visionary souls like Lelouch that created the climate that allowed another visionary like Anderson to get his movies made and accepted by the devoted fan base he commands. And to me, that rawks!



Ersatz Cinemetal logo created by yours truly.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

99 Lead Balloons

Academy Award nominated screenwriter Josh Olson, when he is not toiling away for the studios, can often be found gregariously supporting offbeat film screenings in the Los Angeles area. And on some special occasions, he even gets to mount screenings of his own choosing, which is doing on November 1st at the New Beverly Cinema, pairing up two of the most infamous examples of song-laden cinema gone sour: Menahem Golan's THE APPLE and Michael Schultz's SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. (He is also, full disclosure, a reader and supporter of this blog, which I guess he makes time to read when he is busy not reading your fucking script.) As such, this entry is respectfully written from his inspiration.

Now, with the exception of Katja von Garnier's BANDITS in 1999 (which you can hear me rave about on my last appearance on The Popcorn Mafia podcast), I have long held a maxim for film posterity: Never let the Germans finance a musical! My primary evidence: N.F. Geria II Filmgesellschaft mbH, a German tax shelter consortium you've never heard of, is singlehandedly responsible for precisely these aforementioned two twin titans of misbegotten musicals. Most people allow me to stop there and say point taken. But if you need more evidence that Germany has at best a very slippery grip on what makes a viable song-and-dance diversion, I have exhibit two: a pair of chick-driven trifles that feel not only from another country, but in many moments appear to have come from another planet.

As with all other road maps to Hades, our story begins with good intentions. Filmmaker Wolfgang Buld had earned a solid reputation for his no-frills documentation of what were fringe music movements in the late '70's. His unofficial trilogy of PUNK IN LONDON, REGGAE IN BABYLON, and PUNK IN ENGLAND are still admired today for capturing many influential artists on their own turf and in their own words. Naturally, he wanted to parlay that talent into feature filmmaking, and in turn, producers hoped that someone so well steeped in music and youth culture could bring freshness into formulaic templates for the 14-28 demographic. But in the same manner as one-time Jean-Michel Basquiat contemporary Tamra Davis found herself trying to make Britney Spears have plausible grit in CROSSROADS, Buld attempted the task of making movie stars out of two of the leading figures of the purported "German New Wave," heartthrob Markus Mohr, and Gabrielle "Nena" Kerner.

Initially, Buld and his producing partners were thinking of a much more radically punk concept, a Ramones-ish romp called HURRAY, THE SCHOOL IS BURNING which would have done for German youth musicals what ROCK'N'ROLL HIGH SCHOOL did for the American style, and would have featured another worldly-popular German act, Trio (of that iconic "drivin' around with your pal aimlessly" song "Da Da Da") as both teachers and insane asylum inmates who get mixed up. But Trio bowed out due to touring fatigue and the company reconfigured the story into a more traditional road movie, an ersatz IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT where a mismatched couple go off in pursuit of one's intended true love but naturally discover it's really each other's arms they should share, with musical interludes, what was known as a "singspiele", the kind of movie that, say, Bridget von Hammersmarck would have churned out during the backstory of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. In circumstances that certainly forsee the comically chaotic shoots of the rival breakdancing and Lambada dramas of the '80's, Buld and company had only started principal photography in October 1982 when distributor Constantin Film announced the film would be released in February 1983, so the production commenced without a finished script and composed scenes on the fly. Moreover, while Markus had initially been thought the audience draw (The opening half of the movie is given to his songs), Nena's popularity was growing, and she frantically commuted from recording sessions for her debut album to the shoot, while the directors tried to integrate as many of her new songs into the movie and design numbers around them; ultimately, she was given top billing on the finished release.

The resulting film, GIB GAS - ICH WILL SPAß! (STEP ON THE GAS - I WANNA HAVE FUN!), is, much like the aforementioned CROSSROADS, entertaining, but not for the intended reasons of its inception. From the moment Markus makes his first appearance in an otherwise snazzy jacket paired with shorts, white socks, and sandals (implying that his contribution to the German New Wave was preemptively dressing like your elderly future self at Leisure World), to the inexplicable use of actor Karl Dall in five different roles as some sort of Chris Elliot-style agent of chaos, to the multiple and rather incongruously dark moments of sexual threat against both protagonists, to extremely random homages to DIVA and DON'T LOOK NOW, one is left to wonder whether the preposterousness amidst the pop songs is an intentional act of bird-flipping by Buld and company (in a recent interview, the irascible Buld proclaimed, "German humour. There isn’t any; if Germans want to laugh, they start a war!"), or if this is honestly just one of those Deutsche things, what Norm Macdonald would try to encapsulate just by saying, "Germans love David Hasselhoff."

While the film was a regional hit, GIB GAS would not break out nearly as largely as its ascending star did. Nena's single "99 Luftballoons," recorded after the completion of the film, would become a surprise worldwide smash from late '83 to mid '84, more so in that almost all airplay and sales were for its original German-language version despite its availability in English, though that latter recording was a translation so badly phrased that I would not be surprised it was a deliberate act of sabotage on her behalf. Still today, "99 Luftballoons" has been a staple of '80's nostalgia on themed radio weekends and movies like BOOGIE NIGHTS and GROSSE POINT BLANK. Despite that humongous windfall, her movie did not benefit from her stardom: an English-dubbed export version was prepared under the title HANGIN' OUT, but never got picked up for distribution in Anglo territories, probably because of the fact that it did not contain the one song that made her reputation, and just how would you shoehorn an apocalyptic canticle of nuclear war into that finished film in the first place? (As Rahn Ramey taught me years ago, you can't cook something if it's done.) Thus, any English-language scholarship on the film is very hard to come by - I could only find one missive written in my tongue, written by the very brave Kurtodrome, and even the IMDb listing for GIB GAS features not one user review as of this writing, nor any message board action. I can only hope to effect change.

Nena's "other" American hit single, which proves she knew how to rhyme in the Kings'.

A sequel was definitely wanted by the creative team and the public, however Nena and Markus declined to participate. But as we all know, the lack of involvement from people that made a first movie a hit has never stopped anyone from going forward, and Buld and company crafted another movie that managed to be even less-plot driven and yet more bizarre than its predecessor, and also more absolutely naked in its primary goal of selling records. The West German equivalent to "AMERICAN BANDSTAND" was known as "FORMEL EINS", or "FORMULA ONE," and plenty of Top 40 bands would travel overseas to perform on that show as they would for Dick Clark's Saturday morning powerhouse. In keeping with their spirit of quick adaptation, the team fashioned another old-fashioned type of story - the aspiring singer/songwriter working up from the bottom - and tied it into the popular TV series, providing the convenient clothesline with which to hang one slumming second-tier pop act after another, and created DER FORMEL EINS FILM, which has been an endless source of der fun und frolic for me.

Retaining the same character name from GIB GAS but with a new leading actress, FORMAL EINS tells the story of a reluctant mechanic who dreams of being a pop star, and thanks to the usual convoluted turns involving her car and people skills, gets herself a job on the titular hit music program, while navigating a clumsy suitor who also works at the show. Replacement actress Sissy Kelling is about as pleasant a performer as Nena, but damn if she isn't just a little bit hotter. (Of course, introducing her with a nude shower doesn't hurt!) With the pout of her mouth, she often resembles Isabelle Adjani or a darker-haired Molly Ringwald. And she gets an awful lot of opportunity to use that pout and rolling of the eyes, as she deals with all the stumbling blocks in her career path, be they her crush's maladept wooing or the bizarre needs of the celebrity guests appearing on the program.

And let us run down the celebrity guests, which are the legitimately funniest part of the movie. Meat Loaf, in the midst of his European exile, pre-reconciliation with Jim Steinman, gets his diva fit pacified by styling Sissy Kelling's hair, a surprising field of expertise that would easily prove problematic to his current new pal Mitt Romney. Limahl, former lead singer of Kajagoogoo, besieged and nearly trampled by dozens of ravenous female fans (a likely Europe-only situation) after doing a big song in an industrial kitchen then being mistakenly thought to be having his way with Sissy. But hands down, the single-greatest sequence in the film belongs to the late Falco, who plays an ultra-vain version of himself obsessed with his vintage Cadillac convertible, suffering so much humiliation at the hands of the car, the rain, and Kelling herself, that he could have had a second career in physical comedy; in his best moments he reminded me of the great Bruce Campbell with a smaller chin. (And yes, you do get to see him perform "Rock Me Amadeus".)


I also really enjoyed the running gag of legendary German punk band (and sworn enemies of legendary German crooner HeinoDie Toten Hosen, portrayed as such music industry pariahs that their unscrupulous manager keeps trying to disguise and repackage them within other genres (beach rock, greasers, mariachis) to sneak them onto the TV show. (A gimmick that I always thought the equally craven Mr. Wiggs should try with his discredited Wiggies if by some miracle a sequel to STANDING OVATION were ever to be made.)

You also get treated to:
  • Re-Flex, NOT singing "The Politics of Dancing," but "How Much Longer"
  • The Flirts, NOT singing "Jukebox (Don't Put Another Dime in)" but "Dancin' Madly Backwards"
  • Katrina and the Waves, NOT singing "Walking on Sunshine," but "Red Wine and Whiskey"
  • Pia Zadora, and if you know any of her songs, you are a better man than I
Throw in another batch of incongruous elements like a shout out to Istvan Szabo's MEPHISTO and a third-act escape-from-the-draft sequence, and again, you are left to wonder if Buld is legitimately trying to create comedy or engaged in some deeper Andy Kaufman/Tim & Eric-style shenanigans. Considering that Buld has stated for the record, "I did my best films in the UK, in Germany I only worked for the money," I have to give serious consideration that perhaps in the grand tradition of Malcolm McLaren, he was indeed willing to deliberately offer crap for cash.

Off the strength of its artist-driven, if not hit-driven, soundtrack, DER FORMEL EINS FILM did fare better than GIB GAS, its English-dubbed version titled FEEL THE MOTION receiving a big-clamshell-box VHS & Beta release from Vidmark Entertainment in 1985, luring unsuspecting renters with a large blurb promoting Falco's cameo appearance. Used copies of said tape can be found relatively easily by hungry analog scavengers everywhere. You can also locate its soundtrack on vinyl and cassette, or just try assembling it yourself.

Much like its predecessor, though, it's hard to find anyone who'll document that they've actually seen it: I could only locate two other reviews in English on the web. Moreover, it's even harder to find any details in English or German about it's smouldering star Sissy Kelling - no Wikipedia page, no old Angelfire/Geocities fansite, nothing! All I can glean from her IMDb profile is that she has done a little bit of everything in entertainment: besides starring again as a musician in the "MONKEES"-influenced German band sitcom "BLAM!" in 1985, she has also been a casting director, written a TV movie, and more recently, served as assistant director on two recent English-language horror films directed by Wolfgang Buld: THE CHAMBERMAID and TWISTED SISTERS, both of which have received positive, completely non-ironic reviews from the horror press, suggesting that Buld has found his true cinema niche. An interesting note about their friendship is that about the same time as FORMEL EINS FILM's production, together they also wrote and directed the 1985 documentary BERLIN NOW featuring industrial noise pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten, indicating that this pretty lady has some decent punk bonafides of her own. If I have any readers in Germany or fluent in the language, I'm dying for some details on this broad.

In conclusion, I've done my best to tell you about the fun and freakiness of two movies financed and filmed by Germans. Does this mean that I have undercut my maxim about never letting Germans finance a musical? Well, if your concept of a musical is a film that has a solid plot, well-written songs, strong performances, and will move audiences to high emotion, then no, you need to let someone of another nationality put up the money for that venture. But in the case of THE APPLE, SGT. PEPPER, and these two entries, when someone can't intercept that attache case of cash, and that musical gets made, cherish that misfit movie like it was your third nipple: it's wrong, but it's beautiful all the same.


Deep gratitude to German filmmaker Christian Genzel, who, thanks to a lot of Google and Bing translator use, provided much needed background information for this article.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Music of Invention

One of the greatest Sunday "Peanuts" strips Charles Schultz ever drew, based on a personal experience, involves Charlie Brown wistfully telling a story about his father's short romance with another girl, a movie they shared together that brought out deep emotions that stayed with him for years, the actress who starred in it as a constant reminder of that time, and finding out decades after the fact he'd fixed his memories on the wrong actress.  Those first bites of culture we experience at pivotal points in our lives stay tethered to our hearts, but often times they are not tethered to accuracy and facts.  I was reminded of this classic strip when earlier this evening, I was chatting with my father and the topic of classic movie serials came up.  He told me a story of how, while traveling as a youth, he had seen a couple chapters of an exciting tale he remembered as "Sanazaro," and that he would go off and on for years trying to track it down with no luck, sometimes forgetting that odd title and then when it came back to him, trying to intensely memorize it harder to locate it later.  It was only after over five decades that, on a chance channel flip to Antonio Banderas on TV promoting a certain action film featuring him and Anthony Hopkins, that the serial he had been searching for so many years was in fact called SON OF ZORRO.

If you think movie titles are easily mangled, they do not hold a carbon arc to that menace of all karaoke nights, the misheard musical earworm.  Plenty of hay and lazy comedy has been made out of the disconnect between song lyrics and what people think they hear. ("Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy," "A Nine, A Ten, I'll Lay Her Again...") Some of it can be attributed to bad hearing, mental projection based in personal issues, or, yes, that the artist themselves has failure to communicate.  But what about that truly bizarre period of childhood, as my father experienced, when you hear a song that you can't quite make out, and since you're too young to know that certain things do not exist, you create an interpretation out of whole misbegotten cloth?

For example, in Beverly Cleary's book RAMONA THE PEST, first-time kindergartener Ramona Quimby spends 3/4 of her school year convinced that class starts with a song about a special lamp called a "dawnzer" that gives off a "lee light." Only months later do her parents explain there is no such thing, and clarify the actual lyrics to "The Star Spangled Banner."

Yep, my nascent brain took a hit off that same lollipop.

When I was about seven, I discovered a stash of my dad's old '50's '45's at our family's summer cottage, and went apenuts playing them over and over again.


One of them was "You Bug Me, Baby" by Larry Williiams, a labelmate of Little Richard at Specialty Records. (He also sang "Bony Moronie" and "Dizzy, Miss Lizzy") It's an R&B reworking of a standard Irish jig called "The Irish Washerwoman" - to be exact, THE Irish jig that always gets used when someone wants quick stereotypical color in something - with lyrics written by Sonny Bono. There is a couplet in the song that goes

When we go riding in the pale moonlight
All I wanna do is hold-a you tight

However, factor that most rock'n'roll is more concerned with cool delivery and less concerned with enunciation and phonics, and add that to my limited childhood abilities with language and dialects, and maybe you will understand how, for at least a year or so, I would swear that he was singing

When we go riding in a Peramo Line

"Pee-kaa?"

"A Peramo Line, you say? Pray tell, Mr. Heuck, what the fuck is a Peramo Line?"

Cut me a break, I was seven!!! I was just beginning to learn about the '50's, I'd only seen a few episodes of "HAPPY DAYS," what did I know of what was real and what was a fiction in my head? I dunno: I figured something teenagers did for fun back then was get together with their dates, drive their convertibles on a long stretch of road, and call it a Peramo Line.

It gets worse. While I was grasping the concept of a Peramo Line, I initially also thought that the second line of the disputed couplet was

All I wanna do is put a hole in your tie

"Marc, how many girls do you know that wear ties on a regular basis, and why would her boyfriend want to put a hole in one of them?"

Hey, the song was called, "You Bug Me, Baby." For all I knew, putting a hole in her tie was how he got revenge on her for all the times she annoyed him. At least it took less time to get this part corrected; I was almost ten before I finally figured out that back in high school my dad wasn't double-dating with Rudy Muckinfuss to go on a Peramo Line.

But here's the kicker, here's the filip, the freeze-frame before we iris out and roll credits.

In high school Latin, I found out that "per amo" literally means "for love."

So even though this ritual never existed, and "Peramo" is an invented word that came out of that confused megalopolis I call a brain...I had been grammatically correct the entire time! If teenagers were going for a group drive with the specific goal of making out sometime during the trip, it would be acceptable English to call it a Peramo Line. BWAAAANNNG!!!

Meanwhile I googled "Sanazaro" and all I could muster, aside from a lot of people with that as a last name, was that it derived from 15th Century poet Jacopo Sanazzaro who wrote ARCADIA, and his name derived from Saint Nazarius, who was martyred with his protege Celsus for reasons at best apocryphal. Now, in fairness to Dear old Dad, my longtime grade school principal and church pastor was named Father Celsus, and like Zorro the Fox, he wore black and took no bullshit. But that is generous stretching at best, whereas my dubious disambigulation has a direct, if  retroactive, relation to reality.  So I think I trumped him. 

Meanwhile, I'm not doing anything Friday night. Who wants to go riding on a Peramo Line with me?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Weekend With Myra

Here I am, crashing the party otherwise known as the Camp & Cult Blogathon, presented by Stacia at She Blogged by Night. While I may often believe that those two adjectives should be relegated to the other forbidden C-words in modern conversation, I certainly do love a little celebration of the histrionic and the dementedly devotional, so there's no reason to be a sourpuss just because a few people don't understand that not every movie with overacting is automatically funny, and not every ultra-low-budget poverty production deserves to be ranked in the same company as those that earned their legions. Dare I say it, you don't have a good camp experience without a good counselor, so here I am with my whistle, though I'm more apt to blow on it to chant along with a Donna Summer song than to call stop. And in this situation, I think I have a rather amusing little story for the bonfire.

While I was never a particularly devoted reader of his books, I had a fine respect for the late Gore Vidal. I had grown up hearing him name-checked by people of many stripes whom I knew were smart, and coming across a money quote of his - "As I looked upon my life, I realized I loved nothing - not art, not sex - more than going to the movies." - I sensed that this was someone who had my number. But as an individual who also grew up being told "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him," and "If your mother says she loves you, check it out," I often found myself in disagreement with some of his pronouncements. So, with the help of some distance past his passing from the corporeal realm, I choose to commemorate his life by ruminating on my personal relationship to something he thoroughly detested: the film adaptation of his 1968 novel MYRA BRECKINRIDGE...because, to paraphrase what was once said about Led Zeppelin, I can only honor the great contrarian by destroying him.


For the uninitiated, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE was an amusing book by Gore Vidal that was turned into a harshly comic, proto-FIGHT CLUB rant on Hollywood by director Michael Sarne. The mysterious Myra (Racquel Welch), an inveterate lover of old-time movie glamour, comes to town to subvert and destroy all the trappings of new Hollywood -- overt macho, method acting, etc. She will run riot on her ersatz uncle-in-law, fallen cowboy star Buck Loner (John Huston), and seduce both man's man Rusty (Roger Herren) and his sugar-sweet girlfriend Mary Ann (Farrah Fawcett). The movie had instantly piqued my curiosity when my seventh-grade teacher, already savvy to my film obsession, lent me her copy of the Medved brothers' now-rather-harsh-and-easily-debunked book "THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME," and it had a very detailed chapter about its notoriety. At the dawn of videotape rentals, I insisted my dad bring it home to watch, and it quickly became one of my favorite bizarre movies (and, if you wanna get technical, my first X-rated movie). As a child, I had embraced this as gonzo camp, under that unbearably hoary cliché of "so bad it's good" (which is so overused, it's done!), but over the years I've turned a corner (and I know I'm quite alone in this assessment) and openly declared this a misunderstood classic. Part of my reasoning came from reading the source novel it was based on a few years later as a full-fledged hormonal teenager: somehow, I just wasn't as entertained by Vidal's prose as I had been by the movie's repurposing of it. And I found the constant references to then-obscure-to-me-names like Pandro S. Berman and Francis X. Bushman to grow tedious. I could sense that this was subject matter that Vidal, through his protagonist, was not joking about, that he really was waging some sort of culture war against those damned hippie actors and their "Stanislavski" and their "naturalism" and wanted them all to get off of his Hollywood lawn. I found new cement for my reappraisal upon seeing David Fincher's groundbreaking FIGHT CLUB in 1999, because in its approach to adapting Chuck Palahniuk's best-seller, it was really following the exact same template: not only do both films satirize their target subjects, but they satirize their very own selves, reminding the audience that they are watching a movie and to not take anything seriously. Rather than treat the author's work like sacred canon, they openly challenge and exploit the flaws in the source material, an approach which a post-modern writer like Palahniuk seemed to enjoy, but which clearly rankled the comparably self-serious Vidal.

I stumbled into opportunity by meeting the movie's embattled director Michael Sarne in 2003 at my then-workplace. Sarne, whose career never truly recovered from the debacle that was MYRA, came into town from England, where he was working steadily as a character actor, to record a commentary for the then-upcoming DVD release. I gushed to Sarne like the excited movie geek I was, telling him how much I enjoyed MYRA and how underrated I thought it was. He in turn told me about his good fortune and that he was recording his commentary that Friday afternoon. He said he had never done one before, and was unsure how to go about it. I mentioned my experience with Tamara Hernandez and recording the commentary for MEN CRY BULLETSGUESS WHO GOT TO SIT IN ON THE COMMENTARY RECORDING THAT FRIDAY AFTERNOON? (Yes, that moment still delights me that much that I needed the color emphasis on that rhetorical question.) Besides myself, Michael invited Stanley Sheff, an old friend, apprentice to Orson Welles, and director of LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS, to give him pointers as well. This setup was nice -- my first time in a soundproofed room, with timecode, synchronized recording with the master tapes -- way more pro than the D.I.Y. manner in which I had done Tamara's recording. Only Michael would be miked however -- we could prompt and comment during dead spots, but it would not be included -- the final audio is a complete stream of talk from him, though on occasion, you can tell he is answering a question one of us asked. And it was great, with good dishy details on the fighting and studio politics that went down during production. I was happy to be a part of it, however small. Afterward, the three of us went to brunch at Du-Par's, and I got to hear great tales of how long ago, when Sheff was working at the Whisky-a-Go-Go, he would raid movie lab dumpsters for stuff to run as loops behind bands and dancers, and how it became a mini-phenom there. And how he got to work under Welles on some of his later projects. I then gave Sarne a lift back to where he was staying, and he invited me in for a quick drink. We talked, I told him some of my film ideas and how at that point of my residency, despite four years and the big ups and downs I had taken, I loved this place and never regretted coming. He made me feel really significant. And he gave me an invite to watch the reediting later that week.

Oh, I should elaborate. In an extremely interesting turn of events we shall not likely see from a major studio again, 20th Century Fox not only commissioned a de riguer commentary track, but they allowed him to make minor reedits to the film. MYRA punctuates it's story points with classic film clips (a la DREAM ON if you remember that HBO series), and initially certain clips were denied him despite being in a workprint that tested well in San Francisco. Most notoriously, a MYRA character's fantasy sequence would have been followed by a clip from REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, where Shirley Temple attempts to milk a goat and gets sprayed with the white stuff. She was not amused at the juxtaposition, and used near-Presidential influence to have it removed. While Sarne was still not allowed to use that clip, he was allowed to use a similar substitute (if one could be found), to smooth out and fix transitions between the film and the clips, and to make a key alteration to the film's ending in the manner of the DVD-only, "easter egg" B&W opening sequence on THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. So now, I had not only sat in on the recording of an aural history of one of my favorite films, I was going to watch it get reedited, an enormous privilege!

So early one afternoon, before going to work, I politely blustered my way into the telecine/color correction session for MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. When I arrived, the work was already underway, just Sarne and a computer colorist named Sheri. The primary task at hand was to sort through the miscellaneous B&W clips interspersed within the film, and provide appropriate tinting to help them match the color scenes they bisected. This was NOT "colorization," like Ted Turner was trying to foist in the '80's, but just tinting the image so that if the color scene happens in a beige, muted room, that the B&W scene doesn't jar the viewer -- instead, it would have a similar color injected, warm the image from cold grayness. Sarne had always suggested that since the story could only exist as fantasy, that the clips should suggest that Old Hollywood was present in the "New" environment as these events were happening, and making commentary upon it. Watching the process, and having seen MYRA a few times, the tints made dramatic sense, and made the snippets more organic, less distancing. Actors and photos looked to have more fleshtone, were not so harsh. And it was amazing what the computer could do. For example, for some inexplicable reason, in the original theatrical print, a clip featuring Tyrone Power as Zorro had a weird, deep red tint applied, even though the scene it was interrupting was not dominated by red. While it could not be completely eradicated, the operator was able to mute it down, take it to a more palatable tan. I am unable to make vidcaps from my DVD to show you the specifics, and this detail seemed to elude DVD reviewers who watched both versions and failed to notice these subtle changes, but you can play this Zorro excerpt in each version on your home unit and see the difference for yourself.

But then, there was the big task. As I said before, there was the matter of that payoff to the dream sequence and the Temple clip was still off limits. But Sarne had permission to replace the mundane "cannon fire" clip that had been ultimately inserted in the original version. We had discussed during a break in the previous commentary recording why that scene was so funny in it's original conception. It wasn't just the juxtaposition of a face full of milk to an physical body reaction, it was that it was Shirley Temple, America's sweetheart and paragon of purity and virtue, getting the mess. So the best way to try to get the same effect would be to find a clip of a similarly beloved movie star looked to for her "virtue". At the session, only two movies had been provided by the Fox archivists for us to search for clips -- AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, and MOVE OVER DARLING. (Interestingly, MOVE OVER DARLING had originally been intended as a Marilyn Monroe film -- the unfinished SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE -- and footage from that abandoned shoot does appear in MYRA, in a scene where Marilyn appears to meet the characters in another scene shot at the same poolside). When I arrived, they were trying some scene from AFFAIR, involving Deborah Kerr reacting with mock revulsion at Cary Grant over some affront while swimming, as the replacement clip. I could see the logic, but we all agreed quickly it wasn't doing the job. So we put MOVE OVER DARLING in the deck and fast-forwarded looking for stuff. Doris Day certainly fit the bill as the kind of "good girl" archetype that could provide our punchline, provided we find the right clip. First, there was a scene of her peeking behind bushes at a romantic encounter between James Garner and another girlfriend, and her facial expressions of shock and huff played well, as if reacting to the event it would be preceding. But we wanted to keep looking. And then, comedy gold fell into our laps. A chase scene led to Doris driving a tricked-out Chrysler Imperial convertible into a car wash. And by nervous fumbling with the auto controls, down went the windows and water began to rain into the car. Then came the soap and wax dispenser (0:46-0:49)...

 

As John Ritter said in SKIN DEEP, "THERE IS A GOD! AND HE'S A GAG WRITER!" Instantly, all three of us were nearly out of our chairs; we didn't even need to try inserting it to know we had our, sorry but I gotta say it, money shot. We did a bit of fine-tuning to figure out when to start and stop the clip (ideally, it was supposed to use the exact same number of seconds as the clip it would replace), but for all purposes, we were very happy. A test screening a week later for friends and video department brass had everyone laughing at the new edit.

However, much as with Ms. Temple Black, the former Doris Van Kappelhoff  was not amused either by this editorial choice, and would not sign off on its use. The fact that the bulk of her career consisted of many innuendo-laced comedies opposite the biggest closet case in Hollywood history would have implied to me she oughta have a more developed sense of humor about such things. In the final cut that made it to DVD, Sarne used a good-but-not-as-good Laurel & Hardy moment for his punch line. But o! what a fine moment that was. The thrill of discovery, the belly laughs, the ability to say "I was there, I saw it happen." I got a preview of what it would likely be like to edit my own movie, and find a moment on that bench that really works, that you know is solid. And though it could not survive in reality, it survives in my head, and now in this account.

So, Mr. Vidal, I hope you can respect the notion of agreeing to disagree on this movie. Not like you're in any position to castigate me now, you motherfucker...as the children say nowadays.  



Friday, August 24, 2012

Felt Feelings

It's dangerously maudlin, I tell you, this increasingly predictable pattern, to which I've succumbed, of publishing only when Death Carries a Cane and smacks me upside the head with it while screaming "You wanted an angle on this subject to get web hits, now you've got it!"  I'm aware that a growing number of my dwindling readership must think I'm grooming myself to be a professional funereal orator, a Designated Mourner. But in fairness, this has been a harsher-than-normal summer in terms of losing people who have made an impact on me, be they on a directly personal or artistically emotional level. And, sadly, the hits just keep on coming.

First discovered on Facebook, and then confirmed by a touching commentary at the Tough Pigs fansite, I have learned the sad news that longtime Muppeteer Jerry Nelson died this past Thursday evening.  Nelson was not one of the highest-profile members of the collective like Frank Oz or Kevin Clash, and aside from the immortal Count von Count, not responsible for many high-profile characters. But he was definitely versatile, doing one-shot sketch voices, appropriately deadpan narrations, and multiple musical styles and compositions.  He was logging time on practically every Henson and Sesame Workshop project until he took retirement, and even then stepping back in on occasion when he felt able. I would obviously respect him for all of that, any Muppet fan would.  But I especially must offer my doffed cap and the unruly mane underneath for giving life to my favorite character in the entire body of Henson's creations.

When a discarded green coat got cut up to create a puppet of ambiguous genus many decades ago, there could not have been any inkling that it would be the prototype of what is now an worldwide institution of sharp but gentle family entertainment. And somehow Jim Henson and everyone he gathered to work for him understood that important balance of taking a creature with an unnerving exterior appearance or behavior, and taming them just enough to make them relatable and lovable. I always found it astute that he chose to populate the Sesame Street neighborhood with monsters, seeing as how this groundbreaking educational program was coming to television just as a generation of children were getting a large (for its time) dosage of monster imagery...Disney witches, AIP horror films, and Japanese rubber-suited kaiju epics in theatres...TV airings of the classic Universal rogues gallery of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man...controversial E.C. comic books and the legendary "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine at the newsstand...even the radio offered tales of psychiatric breaks and big bad wolves, and what of the inherent spookiness of the pale skin, dark glasses, and quavering voice of Roy Orbison, or Johnny Cash dressed in black as he told of murder for the sake of observation?  Henson understood the intersection of fear and fascination all these elements were inspiring in children, and embraced them by upending the scarier aspects in place of calming whimsy without completing defanging what made them so compelling.  That formula didn't always work - a number-teaching segment involving creatures on a city-wrecking rampage was scrapped when kids identified with the civilians being menaced, and the alluring animator (and sometime Poubelle Twin) Vera Duffy deftly points out Beaker seems to exist solely to be punished, like some sort of synthetic sin-eater, the Muppet Show equivalent of Chaney's He Who Gets Slapped. But anyone who has imitated the Count's three..THREE WONDERFUL SYLLABLES of laughter ("Ah ah ah!"), or felt compassion at that moment when poor Sweetums is left behind at the used car lot in THE MUPPET MOVIE will vouch that more often than not, nobody doesn't love a Muppet Monster.  And on "SESAME STREET," you had Grover, who had a high voice and a round head, whom kids could relate to because he was like a locquacious baby (remember, SuperGrover's secret weapon was, "And I am cute, too!")...and you had Cookie Monster, who had poor grammar but a healthy appetite, whom kids could relate to because they were new to words but fast friends with sweets...

...and then, you had Herry Monster.  He was blocky-built, almost like Frankenstein's monster, covered with heavy fur, bushy eyebrows, big nose, low gruff voice, and very strong. In short, aside from an occasional fang-toothed extra in a musical number, Herry was easily the most monstrous monster on the block, and probably close to what children at home would perceive that mythical beast under the bed or creature in the closet looked like.  So Herry had the toughest role of any of the monster characters, because unlike Grover and Cookie, he had all the exterior trappings that kids could find frightful - in his first appearances on the show, he does scare others, albeit unintentionally - thus he had the most preconceived notions to overcome. Of course, after being seen bantering with John-John and other kids, performing in Prairie Dawn's little pageants, and showing off his teddy bear Hercules with pride, it didn't take very long for everyone to see his inherent gentleness.


Jerry Nelson will be getting most of his posthumous accolades for the charming, witty Count, but I really feel he should be lauded for his development of Herry as well, because through his vocal delivery and gestures, he was able to make such an outwardly fearsome-looking creature warm and trustworthy. In short, while children gravitated to most of the Sesame Street characters because they looked pleasing and proved it through their personality, Herry won hearts because his sweet personality trumped his intimidating appearance.  His voice suggested an old, grizzled soul, but his curiosity and interplay with humans and Muppets alike showed that he was still very much an excited child in the world, wanting experience.  And I think kids who felt like they weren't as attractive or as confident as the other kids they saw at school or on the playground could understand that and relate to that. Heck, as a big kid today, I know that with my long hair and dark clothes and often glowering demeanor, I can steer away the fools I don't wish to suffer, but I probably scare a lot of other people away that I don't intend to, and that it's by exposing my vulnerabilities that draws folks back in and makes them accept me.  As such, Herry has been my hero for years.  And I always wished I could meet him and tell him how much I learned from him.  Maybe even sing that "M" song with him: since he was a Monster and my name is Marc, and we both love Magnificent Meals, it would have been an appropriate duet:


I haven't had a delicious letter M for far too long.

The new generations who have grown up on Elmo and his friends are likely not as familiar with Herry, since because of his longstanding health issues Nelson essentially retired the character in 2004; he's shown up in older clips and appeared in a nonspeaking capacity in recent years, but not much else. With Nelson's passing today, we are left to wonder if he will return.  The Count already has a new hand and voice keeping him alive, Nelson recognized that he was too strong of a character to leave dormant, but I wonder whether anyone else will have the right touch to reinvigorate my favorite Third Monster Through the Door.

For now, sleep well, Herry. Give little Hercules a big hug for me.