Thursday, September 10, 2015

Protect Me from What I Want

If you do the cursory Google searching, you will find plenty of information about Dennis Hopper's troubled and mystifying 1990 film BACKTRACK. There will be the requisite negative and baffled reviews. You'll find a thorough comparison and breakdown of differences between the initially-released 98-minute cut retitled CATCHFIRE, for which Hopper demanded an Alan Smithee credit, and the 1992 compromised-but-approved Director's Cut sanctioned by Showtime and released on VHS, including a crucial revelation of a character's heel turn that is completely missing from the shorter cut. You'll find scintillating details of the shoot, involving a writer's strike, Hopper's white-knuckle sobriety, and spur-of-the-moment attempts to include his favorite artists and actor friends. You'll even find revealing testimony from credited screenwriter Ann Louise Bardach and uncredited punch-up writer Alex Cox. In short, you can find the How, the Who, the What, the When, and the Where. What you will be likely left without is the Why? And since Hopper is gone, and co-star Jodie Foster is probably about as anxious to revisit that experience as she is to share a stage with Seth MacFarlane, that's where my speculative prose comes in.

I was keenly following the trajectory of BACKTRACK during my college years, as a fan of Hopper and of then-upstart studio Vestron Pictures, but had never gotten around to actually watching it; I didn't have Showtime when they aired the Director's Cut, and always just had something else more pressing whenever the VHS was handy. When I saw it was released on DVD in 16x9 widescreen, with Hopper's preferred title and director credit on the cover, naturally I eagerly bought it, though again, it sat on my to-watch pile for a long time. Upon finally watching it, I was increasingly taken aback by the very abrupt cutting, where many scenes seemed to be trimmed to the most necessary seconds, very reminiscent of the Fox-sanctioned Kenneth Lonergan-contested theatrical cut of MARGARET. I kept thinking, Egad, imagine how much more horribly incoherent the CATCHFIRE edit must have been. By the time my DVD player stopped at 98 minutes, despite the 102 promised on the cover, Sebastian Cabot as Mr. Pip may as well have been right at the controls of my remote saying, "Look at the cover again - whatever gave you the idea this was a Director's Cut? This is the CATCHFIRE edit!" Bloody Artisan mastered a pre-Smithee print to DVD, and Lionsgate has never done a damned thing to correct it!

Regardless of bad editing and missing storyline, I still have a decent hunch about what Hopper had in mind. As he says himself during the film, "There's something going on here that I really don't understand, but I like it."

At the time production was initiated, Hopper was enjoying a career revitalization. He had received the best notices in years for his performances in HOOSIERS and BLUE VELVET, and positive reviews for directing Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in COLORS, his first major studio picture since THE LAST MOVIE in 1971. But as writer Ann Bardach reveals in her podcast interview, he was still not quite feeling calm about it all. And with a life which up to that point had so much drama, including being pronounced clinincally dead during the making of Philippe Mora's MAD DOG MORGAN, he probably had good reason to worry about lapsing into those dark behaviors. Moreover, while COLORS was a well-liked movie (except by members of the LAPD), and Hopper brought his counterculture experience to good use in exploring gang mentalities and race relations, the film seemed to be more of a probationary test, of Hopper proving he could be a disciplined studio director, than a truly personal project. Thus, one can imagine that Hopper, having proven that he could behave and not be troublesome to Hollywood, now longed to once again indulge in less-structured creativity as he had been allowed to in the early '70's.

Thus, where producers saw a MIDNIGHT RUN-style road movie in the original screenplay by Rachel Kronstadt Mann and Stephen & Lanny Cotler, and Barach, then a crime reporter for many newspapers, saw more of a gritty Patty Hearst-style story of kidnapping and bonding, Hopper likely looked at the plot of a hitman so fascinated with his target, an avant-garde artist, that he instead chooses to abandon the hit and take her on the lam with him, as fertile ground to create an extended metaphor about being valued for one thing yet desiring to try something else. Now that he'd delivered a hit to Orion with COLORS, and Vestron had made a splash with DIRTY DANCING, he was in a good position to make the kind of artistic demands unavailable to him for a long time. And from the unconventional casting of Vincent Price as a mob boss, to unscripted cameos by Bob Dylan and Toni Basil (and, in the apocryphal 180 minute cut first submitted to Vestron, Neil Young), to prominent featuring of art by Jenny Holzer, Charles Arnoldi, and Laddie Dill, he got them fulfilled. On paper, he was making a crime thriller. But if THE LAST MOVIE was his exploration of deconstructing cinema myth on Universal's dime, BACKTRACK was his exploration of leaving safe filmmaking behind on Vestron's nickel. Even the very title BACKTRACK suggests a return to old ways, since within the film itself, while everyone is tracing the movements of major characters, nobody actually goes back to a point of origin.

Foster's character Anne (modeled somewhat on contributing artist Jenny Holzer herself) begins the movie as a successful but ambivalent creator of electric messageboard art with confrontational messages that would appear to be a passive-aggressive call for attention ("Murder is Unavoidable", "Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise"). When she witnesses a mob murder, and determines police protection to be inadequate, she flees town and changes her identity, and when she is unable to take suitable living money with her, takes on different jobs that cater to her gifts, first writing advertising copy (which is how Hopper first discovers her subterfuge), and later serving as caretaker for another's collection, before she is finally found and abducted by Hopper's hitman Milo. This trajectory suggests the plight of a headstrong actress who becomes a threat to powerful interests (mob = money men, police = studio?), and in order to survive, must slum her talents in advertising (like many an actor reduced to selling cereal bars or a poet's words co-opted for said sale), and when that's no longer viable, being entrusted with someone else's art (teaching classes, archiving, unglamorous isolating stuff) with the extra pang of living in a former movie theatre. A situation that is ripe to be taken advantage of by someone who will offer life in exchange for service.

Similarly, when the mob wants Anne neutralized, they call in Hopper's Milo, and give him whatever he wants in order to do his job - a lush accommodation with Bosch paintings, Charlie Parker albums, three computers, a budget to buy art pieces and pay parking tickets (a director, entrusted to make a "hit" movie - being given all he wants by a studio). When the crooks grow impatient, they send a young inexperienced lunk to shadow Milo to his increasing annoyance (the line producer sent by the money men to supervise the production), leading to his death (ejection from the set, wrath of the producers). During his deep research into Anne's life (what makes an actress tick?), Milo dabbles on the saxophone, only to find he cannot play well at all to his frustration. Milo is the old restless artist who has been paid well for years to do one monotonous thing and do it the same way each time, but yearns to do something new, something that matters more to him. And Anne is the muse he believes can facilitate that.

Which finally provides us with a little more rationale for what has been the constant thorn to every reviewer of the film, Anne's seemingly overnight Stockholm Switch from reluctant hostage to willing conspirator. It's a glaring plot hole in the CATCHFIRE edit, and still plays a little weird in the Director's Cut, where more footage shows that their relationship is not quite as hostile as initially presented. When viewed through the prism of the seemingly endless cycle of director/actress infatuations, it plays a little more plausible - the man who initially seems intent to break the woman's will through knowledge of all her vulnerabilities, but gradually reveals his own instead, leading to a mutual push-pull and eventual trust. I'm not justifying its presence in this script, it still just feels like wish-fulfillment on Hopper's behalf, especially as recounted by Foster, and in light of seeing him engage in similar onscreen May/December tropes with Amy Locane and Marley Shelton and Asia Argento. But remember, we're putting this movie on the couch, not on the pedestal.

Avoca, the seemingly ubiquitous corporate front of Vincent Price's criminal organization, carries a loaded meaning or two as well. Stemming from the Latin term "vocare", "to call", it can be construed in its presented form - "a voca", "a voice", how people are allowed to express themselves - or as the root of the word "avocation" - a hobby, activity, your life's calling. And in the course of the film, they want Milo to stick to his original calling, and take away Anne's voice for change. Not to mention that it's an oblivious male driver for the corporation who screws up Anne's otherwise ingenious plan to mail a package out from another city, and once again lead Milo to her.

Besides all the allusions to the filmmaking process embedded in BACKTRACK, there is a definite sense of allusion to the aforementioned THE LAST MOVIE. When Milo arrives in Taos, New Mexico to finally collect Anne, he comes across a group of Native American Pueblos in ceremony, with a large burning mascot holding people's attention. While more than one reviewer has compared this imagery to THE WICKER MAN, and I myself was reminded of the "Winter Witch" burning from Fellini's AMARCORD, it seems almost no other reviewers recognized a similar sequence from THE LAST MOVIE, when local Peruvians are cavorting with their own wooden-made cameras and other burning ephemera, as local priest Tomas Milian expresses his concerns to Hopper about the cultural confusion his film crew has brought to the region. (Unfortunately, I can't find any stills properly approximating the symmetry, so bear with me)

There's certainly other elements that lend themselves to my central idea as the story goes on, but I think I've given you enough here so that you can apply them on your own, if and when you get around to watching the film yourself. Which raises the question, should you? I would caution that only significant Hopper or Foster completists should attempt to do so, and even then, would be better served tracking down an original VHS of the Director's Cut and zooming it in to your widescreen TV, so it's asking a lot. But if you are indeed that complete and that determined, I think you'll find it, well, an intriguing objet d'art. And, if in time we do finally get a proper DVD release of THE LAST MOVIE, it would make a particularly interesting double feature with it, as you would get to witness Hopper's two most unconventional outings that had conventional origin.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Frankie Say Relax

For a little over a decade, from June of 1989 to about sometime in 2003 when I gave up the ghost, I did stand-up comedy. And I threw myself deep into that pursuit. When I graduated college in 1991, I was sharing a home with two other very funny aspiring comics, and most of my other close friends were also either full bore working in the business or trying to make their way like me. I managed to balance working a day job at an independent arthouse movie operation with doing as many open mics and road gigs as I could. I never made it past opening in respected clubs and occasionally doing feature work in dives on the road, but I was happy all the same. It was a great family to live among. When I took the plunge to move to L.A. in 1999, officially becoming a resident on this date in history 16 years ago, I had so much goodwill and help from the comedy community it made such a leap feel like a brisk walk.

Between hanging out at the local clubs and doing the various rooms that I would beg, plead, and cajole Sharon Rearick, Tom Sobel, and the Funny Bone to work me in (and the rooms that Donnie Lee Diamond would beg, plead, and cajole me to do against my better judgment), I got to know the really great road comics - those performers that may not have had TV visibility or wide familiarity otherwise, but if you haunted a comedy club on a regular basis you saw them pass through once or twice a year and you knew they were hilarious, and you eagerly anticipated their return visits: Mark Eubanks, Dak Rakow, Monique Marvez, Jay Scott Homan, Georgia Ragsdale, Rahn Ramey, Paul Kelly...In the days before the internet could bring you an instant following, comics passed along their favorite bits of these workers and others to amuse themselves and spread the reputation around.

And then there was Frankie Bastille. I never got to directly open for or work with Frankie on a gig, but we got to know each other and got along well; Columbus was one of his favorite stops when he was working, and he spoke highly of most of the comics located there. Frankie was the comic that almost every headliner or promoter had a story about, usually shared in the bar after the public went home and the performers and staff were enjoying the privilege of locked doors and free drinks. We knew of at least a couple of girlfriends he had stashed in certain cities, and his bad marriages were a staple of his act. He was a notorious user of just about every herbal, liquid, and chemical alterant there could be found, once vividly describing gobbling Percosets as if they were salad croutons. I've only done LSD twice in my life, and the final time was with Frankie. There were plenty of tall tales about Frankie circulating among us. How he reportedly did an entire half hour special for Showtime only to have the network shelve it due to his erratic behavior. How he supposedly fleeced Jay Leno out of hundreds of dollars by claiming he was dying of cancer. How he trolled a juggler he was working with (a "boat act" as he derogatorily called middling comics with gimmicks) by having him summoned to the men's room to witness him simultaneously shooting heroin and receiving oral sex from a friend and growling, "Now THIS is a juggling act!" (You can read of a verifiable Bastille incident if you scroll to Question #11 of this interview with Lord Carrett.)

Columbus was also apparently a good place to lay low when he needed to stay out of sight. I remember him calling me up on a Saturday morning, asking me to pick him up from the bus station and take him to a mutual friend's place. I may be fudging the details of this preceding incident, so correct me if I am, but as I recall, he had served some days in jail but ultimately beaten a prosecution further north in the state, and part of his defense was proving that he was indeed a comedian by doing a set before the judge; he proudly told us that this put him in company with Lenny Bruce as one of the only comedians to have their act recorded in a courtroom transcript. He didn't stay in town long, just enough to get breakfast, share some writing he'd done, make a couple phone calls to friends, and wire some money elsewhere, which he did under the alias "Louis Dega" before hopping on another bus to...wherever...and that's the last time I saw him.

Lest the legend get ahead of the man, it must be stressed that for all the rumors, when he was performing, if any of those wild stories were true, the sets he would deliver would be worth the hypothetical chaos. He took charge of an audience from minute one, and while his persona certainly teased the idea that things could go off the rails, I never saw his energy flag or his momentum flounder. Even if he was doing some sort of ubiquitous punchline, such as ridiculing the then-craze of albums with backward messages ("Play any record backwards, all you're gonna hear is, 'Ha, you just fucked up another album!'") or pulling the mic stand up and down to simulate keg tapping ("Fuck, this party's all outta beer!"), he sold it to you as if you were hearing it for the first time. Whatever destructive affectations he engaged in off stage, he never let them impact his job.  Keep in mind that if someone goes to one lame sporting event, they'll still support their favorite team, and if they go to one bad movie, they'll still probably go to another show, but if most people see one bad live stand-up show, often times they will never, EVER, go to a comedy club again as long as they live. That is what comedians, the good ones anyway, have to remember every time they stand in front of a Z-Brick wall to tell jokes. And a Frankie performance usually guaranteed that crowd was going to come back to that club. His antics could be a shock to the system, but his results were money in the bank.

When word started getting around in the late '90's that Frankie had died, while most of us probably never actually saw an obit or a sourced record of his passing, we all just sighed and figured it must be true. In researching this essay, I did find a documented source from Evansville, Indiana, confirming that fate gave him the light in January 1997. From an archived message board conversation initiated by his sister Jean, apparently Frankie had finally gotten clean for a significant amount of time, but had residual health issues from all those years of abuse, and upon leaving a booking in Tennessee to fly to Arizona for the funeral of his father, had a fatal heart attack prompted by high blood pressure compounded by stress and grief.

By the time I was firmly ensconced in L.A., I was also mostly ensconced in a much less flexible situation with the employer I became most associated with for 14 years, and even though my "BEAT THE GEEKS" notoriety revived some notions of people being willing to spend money on cover and two drinks to watch and listen to me crack wise, I had to call it a night on my stand-up. Thankfully, I still have almost all those funny friends from back in the day, and I am lucky to have the company and respect of some of the best names in comedy working today. I do still write material, if you follow me on social media I frequently offer lots of the kind of jokes I would have done on stage. I sometimes still even contemplate wrangling my way to a free mic and going for it again. But then I also ask myself would I be doing this because I feel like I have a legitimately interesting comedy voice to offer, something I would go back to driving and flying to clubs and colleges across the country, counting mileage and collecting receipts to account for my business, or would I be doing this just to get myself cast as the wacky neighbor on a sitcom or third chair on some satellite radio show, and taking stage time away from some younger, hungrier, and better individual who more deserves the boost? As the sagely and often downright saintly Paul Williams has observed, there are fewer things sadder and pathetic than standing before show business with your hands outstretched and saying, "Please, sir, may I have another cup of fame?"

I heard a lot of unusual things come out of Frankie's mouth offstage, but I never heard him bitch about his station. Never heard him complain about about someone being more successful than him, or not being on TV, or any of the whines you could be subjected to from lesser comics. Sure, he would take amusing jabs at those damned "boat acts," but he would also respect that they wouldn't be working if they weren't in demand. And he knew he was way funnier than them anyway, so as long as he got to do his time and trump them, it was all good. He didn't seem to care about getting famous, he just wanted to tell the jokes as often as possible. Which he did. Effectively, that's what I was lucky enough to do for a while as well.

I never forgot about how much I loved comedy, and I never forgot about Frankie. But it seems so much of the comedy world has. Nowadays, if you've heard of him, it's likely because Marc Maron immortalized him in an episode of Comedy Central's "THIS IS NOT HAPPENING" series in 2013 and in his book ATTEMPTING NORMAL. It's a poignant testimonial Maron offers up. But if you google Frankie's name, you'll get Maron's story, maybe a few messageboard posts, references from other comics like Brett Leake or Kevin Lambert, and that's it. No quotes, no video. That apocryphal Showtime special sits dusty on a shelf somewhere in Viacom's bunker. Maybe there's a truck stop in Dustyfuck, New Mexico still selling bootleg cassettes of standups for long haul drivers that may have a Frankie bit or two on 'em. It took multiple pages to find that obituary I posted above, and yes, I ganked that photo from Historic Images just like Josh Matusak did. After I turned 33, I joked that I outlived Christ, Hicks, Belushi, and Bangs. But until I found the actual obit, I never knew that Frankie, that old salty dog of the Comedy Caravan, was only 44 years old when he passed, and thus, last year, I outlived him too.

So, for that fella who treated me like an equal when I was really not even close to his level, I feel the most effective thing I can do to keep his name alive is transcribe one of his sets, so that all of us who remembered him (and the intrigued that may still hear the tall tales) can relive a little of that mind of his we enjoyed. I would normally never do this, preferring you seek out the real thing on tape or on video, but in light of the scarcity of finding anything from better sources, I think this is a justifiable exception. Hell, if he liked being immortalized in courtroom transcripts... It's a small sampling of his repertoire of course, and you're not going to get the full effect unless you can hear his voice that sounded like Dr. Teeth if he spent years of binging and got exiled from the Electric Mayhem delivering the jokes, but at least until something more substantial surfaces, the Bastille can stand again.

Well, don't just stare at me like I'm your Mystery Date! C'mon, loosen up! Don't be bummed out! You're not bummed out, are you sir? Nothin' bums me out, man! I've been married twice, been to Vietnam, and prison - who's left to fuck my life up? Oh they try, they try. Every year, there's always someone talkin' that the end of the world is coming - remember a couple years back, they said it would be, like, end of October? Yeah, I remember that date well, 'cuz I spent my rent money! {does a Pete Townsend arm swing} "And I won't be fooled again!!" Naw naw. 

So I'm here in Columbus, good place, like it here. But they got shit here that's screwed up. They got a bank in town called the Fifth/Third Bank! Who'd be dumb enough to put their money in there, man? They can't even convert fuckin' fractions! What's their gimmick - are they...two thirds better than Bank One? Shouldn't need an abacus to figure this out. I take math seriously, 'cause when I was in high school I had a teacher I couldn't take serious. First day, he gets up there and says, "Half of you are gonna pass! Half of you are gonna fail! And the other half..." and I'm thinkin, "What the fuck? Three halves equal a whole? What were you before you were a teacher, a teller at the Fifth/Third fuckin' Bank? You should be my drug dealer, how about a pound?" Yeah, I was a smart ass in school. You do that? Sure you have, we all have. "If A+B is equal to A-C, what do we know about A+B?" "I don't know, but X must be Phil Collins, cuz you just spelled ABACAB!" "Alright, Mr. Bastille, you're so smart: stand up and tell the class what Pi squared is." "Pi squared? Those are Pop-Tarts! What else wouldja like, the hypotenuse of a croissant? I brought a bundt cake, maybe we could do some radius problems?" "Last chance, Mr. Bastille, explain the Domino Principle." "That's when you get a free pizza in a half hour if they don't show up." And I know when that half hour is up - it's a joint and a six pack later, cuz you've gotta be loaded to eat a Domino's Pizza. That shit is like Cheez Whiz on a frisbee, man! That's how they get it to your house in 30 minutes or less, they're like {mimes spraying cheese onto a disc, flings it} "*spritz* WHAM-O!" I've seen dogs wearing bandanas in national parks that won't chase after that shit! "Ruff ruff - aw fuck no, man, that's Domino's Pizza! Let's go back to Burger King, wait for that Elvis dude to show up."

Yeah, I drink. I gotta quit drinkin' though. You know you gotta quit drinkin' when you wake up and see your stomach and bladder outside your body with picket signs. {marching around stage} "Aw screw this! Hell, no, this guy's unfair!" And meanwhile, my liver's looking at my kidneys and saying, "Awright! STONES!" {does Mick Jagger strut} I like all kinds of stuff. Like beer. 'Cept Heineken. Stay away from Heineken, man; that's Nazi beer. Serious. You finish off a six of Heineken, you're up in the attic lookin' for Anne Frank! {knocking noise/gesture} "I know you're in there! I read the book!" {knocks again} I can say that. I was born Jewish, went to Catholic school - what's your excuse? I like tequila, the really hardcore stuff, the Mezcal, with the ever eat the worm? I used to do that. And then I found out: Mexicans don't do that. They made that shit up as a joke! There I was, sittin' in a cantina in Tijuana, I'm gobblin' up worms like a robin in springtime! Should've just said fuck it and gone to a bait shop! And all the guys there are looking at me, sayin' to their friends, {spit take} "Juan, Raul, check out the dickweed gringo! Yeah, go on, drink the Spanish Fly, you'll get laid! Here, throw this hat on the ground, dance around it, it's a fuckin' custom!"

Cops, I got problems with cops. Highway patrol especially. It's 'cause of that fuckin' dumb ass hat they're always wearing. Man, if I've been gettin' high, drinkin', cop pulls me over, I see him comin' to the car with that hat on, I'm thinkin', "Aw it's cool, it's just Ranger Smith! Hey, Mister Ranger Sir, how's Boo-Boo 'n shit? What's up? Ya got a pic-a-nic basket for me?" "Let me see some I.D.!" "Lemme wear your fuckin' hat!"

I did Vietnam, did combat. Combat's real wild now, man - lasers, nukes, chemical warfare - but they still make all these soldiers work with bayonets and all this old shit. You mean to tell me with all the weapons the enemies got today, you're going to send me into combat with a *rifle*? Au contraire! Sending me into combat today with a rifle, that's like sending Captain Kirk to fight the Klingons in a Mercury fuckin' station wagon!

And that's what I can recall off my head. Of course, if you've been holding a Bastille stash of your own, please feel free to share...

Frankie Say...No More

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Ain't No One Four to Give Me No Pain





For that matter, neither is this blog. Yes, I left this piece of property to wither in the cold cold outskirts of unupdating, but I had work to do. Counting the bees in the hive. Chasing the clouds from the sky. And conducting deep immersion research for a certain action cool cable channel...

No, I don't get to hang out with Mr. Rodriguez. He's in another city, and very busy.
No, I will not send them your vampire ninja script. It sucks, go write something better.

And, there was that monthly screening series I was curating...

So this has been year full of hustling, rustling, documenting, and other active gerunds. But in the midst of all of that, I still saw a significant number of great movies. And I would be remiss as your opionated but not obtuse correspondent if I didn't make the time to offer up my thoughts as to what made the visits to the cinema extra special this year.

My Jury Prize, for unique film experience that doesn't quite allow for listicle quantification, goes to Thom Anderson's audacious, alluminating LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF, which technically has been kicking around in special screenings since its original conception in 2003, but only this year, thanks to generous applications of the Fair Use Doctrine, was able to go into wide availability and be seen by movie lovers all over the world. Anderson as scholar makes some bold statements and occasionally pompous pronouncements you might take issue with; I certainly beg to differ on his dismissal of the Joel Silver action era. However, this thorough and exhaustive film essay on how Los Angeles evolved from Anytown USA to one of the most colorful unclassifiable characters in modern cinema is a treat that will make you watch favorites in a new way, and maybe give you a bunch of unfamiliar films to seek out for your catch-up list.

As for the last loving lampoons department, I've gotta throw in a "Runaway Jury" Prize for the demented proselytizing of THE IDENTICAL, where director Dustin Marcellino and writer Howard Klausner would have you believe that at the dawn of rock'n'roll, not only was there someone who became world famous by biting Elvis Presley's act, that pretender to the throne had an unknown twin brother who was biting the biter's act for small change...and that someone invented the prototype of "AMERICAN IDOL" in the '60's and they inadvertently both appeared on it...and that Not Elvis #1 was already wearing pastels and paisleys before Prince (I guess because his cousin Marvin sent him photos of that performance)...and that they were all emissaries of Zionist Christianity. May God and Godard bless Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, and Joey Pants for taking the faith-based money and trying to sincerely sell dialogue that wouldn't pass muster at the Hallmark Channel. You won't turn your life around afterward, and none of the songs here will dethrone the mighty Sonseed as your Christian-rock earworm, but THE IDENTICAL is more fun than eleven long-haired friends of Jesus on a chartreuse microbus, and I think even the Nazarene himself would enjoy the chuckles.

As I stated earlier, I couldn't always make it to the movies like I normally would, so I'm especially glad I caught these special ones in a theatrical setting when I had to miss many others.

Ten worthwhile films nobody saw but me:

Adult World
Beyond the Lights
Cheap Thrills
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Grand Piano
Space Station '76
Why Don't You Play in Hell

And, finally, the collection of darkened viewings that made my life and imagination feel so much brighter, The Top 13 of 2014:














I don't know if I can promise to return here more frequently, or if this blog will become the equivalent of a pop-up restaurant or underground rave, as I go on about my adventures in the screen trade, but I'm glad you've stuck around for it all this time. We'll see each other when it happens, either here, or at the movies.

evocative photo courtesy of Phil Blankenship

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fair Weather, Friends, and Two Garys

In 1955, the highly touted musical IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER left a discouraging set of damages behind after its disappointing theatrical engagement. Its studio, MGM, lost faith in the film, burying it in a double feature pairing with the drama BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, and declared a loss of over a quarter of its $4 million budget. Its president, Dore Schary, who had previously nixed original plans to reunite all three leads from the hit ON THE TOWN to star in this project, would be replaced as studio head a year later, partly due to this film and other underperforming releases. Its producer, Arthur Freed, saw his reputation diminished at MGM, with only one last hit project, GIGI, to emerge from a body of well-respected but poorly-performing musicals until his last producing credit in 1962. And its directors, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, saw their already tense friendship destroyed after over a decade of successful collaboration. As such, if you told any of these individuals in the immediate wake of their bad feelings that their film would see its reputation redeemed half a century later, it would be taken as cold comfort. If you were to go on to tell them that it would directly inspire one of the best movies of the early 21st century, and perhaps indirectly inspire another, they would probably think you were insane, or having a laugh at their expense. Yet at least 2 out of these 3 foundations are fact, and the remaining third is open to interpretation - which of course, is what I'm here to provide.

Strikingly dark in its subject matter for the cheery '50's climate it was released into, IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER spends a fateful day and night with three WWII buddies (Gene Kelly, Michael Kidd, Dan Dailey) on their promised 10 year reunion agreed upon after their raucous night returning home in peacetime. They will discover shortly upon meeting again that they don't care for each other's company, and as they go through the remainder of the evening, realize they don't care much for the people they've become either. Their existential self-discovery is molded through the intervention of big business advertising, television, and organized crime, forces that in the years to follow, will only intervene even harder in all of our lives. Many critics have noted its outright bitter tone that only sporadically gets broken up with moments of pure joy, such as its opening musical number and Kelly's later solo tap-dance-in-roller-skates number. Nathan Rabin's terrific revisitation for The Dissolve boils it down nicely: "[It] purposefully, brilliantly denies audiences much of what they’d come to expect from musicals, such as likeable protagonists and an upbeat sensibility." The two films I wish to bring into the discussion easily suggest the same kind of foiled expectations in their ostensible fields of comedy.

Allow me a brief diversion to introduce two small but key elements to the wild threading I will be engaging in later on.

Sidebar #1: The diminished world of Los Angeles repertory filmgoing made a dramatic turn upwards in 2007. In the wake of the untimely loss of New Beverly Cinema proprietor and programmer Sherman Torgan that summer, this tragedy was quickly countered with a heartfelt convergence of community and industry alike to preserve his legacy, with Quentin Tarantino stepping in as landlord to the building to seal its protection from unimaginative retail development. Later that fall, Hadrian Belove and his trusted friends established CineFamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, and introduced an unparalleled slate of eclectic programming that has become the envy of many film lovers across the world. These events in turn brought an exciting contingent of high-profile talent who came to watch and support these screenings, and sometimes present films themselves, bringing long-unprecedented visibility to these venues and others like them. Going to watch old movies became a cool activity again!

Among the luminaries at the forefront of screening and being seen at screenings in the salad days of this "movie revival" revival were a foursome enjoying banner popularity in 2007: Edgar Wright, coming off great reviews for his action comedy HOT FUZZ; Jason Reitman, preparing to release his second film, the teen pregnancy comedy JUNO; Diablo Cody, the screenwriter of JUNO, whose colorful personal history made her the alternately beloved/maligned "It" girl of the season; and horror maverick Eli Roth, who shares a birthday with Wright, and joined with him in contributing segments to the exploitation homage GRINDHOUSE. From roughly the fall of 2007 to the summer of 2008, before all disembarking for their own projects, these four were the base of an unofficial Rat Pack of Repertory: all of them were allowed to program their favorite movies at the New Beverly for two-week stretches, and were often spotted in the audience during other shows and personal appearances at the Bev and Cinefamily, graciously engaging with fans, including myself, and sometimes getting into animated discussions about the films that had just played that night.

Sidebar #2: There was a little-seen 1997 comedy by TV veteran Gary Rosen called HACKS (released to DVD as SINK OR SWIM), in which a group of struggling TV writers (including Stephen Rea, John Ritter, and Dave Foley) witness a mysterious encounter during their poker game, and once separated, spend the remainder of the night inventing stories inspired by what they saw while getting caught up in their own odd encounters.  To paraprhase Bryan Callen in WARRIOR, I remember it being very unmemorable; Keith Phipps' A.V. Club review kindly chalked it up as a "nice try" at best. But the central idea of how motivated writers can take the same source material and spin it in completely different directions was something I did successfully take away from the film, so on that level, it is not a complete failure. So I'm giving it due as building material.

As such, I put forth that this essay should not be viewed as some sort of SAT-level syllogism stating that Film A = Film B = 2/3 Film C, nor one of those "President Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy" rundowns, but more of a deep musing on that notion of how Great Minds Think Alike. Indeed, reading the transcript of some Twitter banter inspired by a joke about Disney's OLD DOGS, these are minds destined to be Awesome People Hanging Out Together.  IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER did not screen during this period of social fellowship among these filmmakers, at least not to my knowledge. But considering the film literacy among all four of these people, and that 3/4 of them are involved the films to be discussed here, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that it was discussed among them during one of their outings, or perhaps they all gathered to watch it at home during some VHS-Night-of-the-Stars. It's Tiger Beat-level speculation of the lowest relevance, but hey, it's fun!

"I’ve always been the sort of person to dwell a little too much on the past but so much time has gone by since I left the town I grew up in that any ghosts left back there when I moved away have reverted to being little more than tiny pieces of memory rummaging around the back of my head. I’ve long since moved onto other hopes, other women, other regrets, other dreams that never quite worked out. You get older but those things still chase after you in the dead of night, the girls in question still pop their heads up when you run into them at the exact wrong time." - from Peter Avellino's THE WORLD'S END review

Edgar Wright's THE WORLD'S END is not only one of the best films of 2013, but it has the added benefit of being extremely rewarding to those with a small-c catholic film and cultural education. If you devour the special features in the Blu-Ray edition, such as the commentary tracks or the "trivia subtitles" option, you will get some teasing hints about the previous works that are integrated within. Last August, to promote the impending theatrical release, Wright again mounted a two-week festival of films at the New Beverly which he considered influential upon the finished storyline (and which, full disclosure, I provided some assistance with in print location and trailer programming). Some choices covered certain elemental strains within his film, such as the all-in-a-night adventure (AMERICAN GRAFFITI, AFTER HOURS) or the paranoia of the loss of individuality (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) or of self-destructive behavior (WITHNAIL & I), and even the end of civilization (LAST NIGHT). Two desired choices, Bryan Forbes' original THE STEPFORD WIVES and Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, were unfortunately unavailable to play. However, he stated that the combo that best embodied the whole of THE WORLD'S END was a pairing of THE BIG CHILL, hinting that his film would take a step above Kasdan's Baby Boomer drama and allow the corpse that brings the reunion together to be actually present to witness his friends' ambivalent feelings about his memory and their lives, and IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER. Having now watched both films over three times, I dare say that while Wright's clever comedy of angst amidst an apocalypse is indeed a perfect beast made up of parts from these varied bodies of work, it is built upon the sturdy skeleton of Kelly & Donen's earlier film.

"We all make our lives into our own personal mythologies. The songs we know by heart, the films we’ve seen countless times, the fond memories we have of a fun night with a friend that years later you discover the other person barely even remembers at all...I guess that’s the way it always is if you feel like you’re stuck back in a certain place, wishing that you could stay there to get one more shot at a party with a certain girl before the millennium hits and everything gets ruined." - from Peter Avellino's YOUNG ADULT review

Meanwhile, back in 2011, where most of the attention in the film community was taken up either by the complacent nostalgia of THE ARTIST and THE HELP or the existential questions of THE TREE OF LIFE and MELANCHOLIA, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, reteaming after their successful collaboration on JUNO, took the truly ballsy step of asking audiences to find kinship and empathy with a destructive monster who seemingly could not or would not repent for their damage. YOUNG ADULT was my admittedly contrarian pick for the year's best movie, and it too has been the object of multiple viewings on my end. Interviews given by Cody stated there was not so much a direct filmic inspiration for her screenplay, that it was moreso drawn from personal thoughts about vicarious living, fiction writing, and social media. But, applying the GMTA principle from earlier, however unconscious it may have been, kinship can be found to the earlier and later films. YOUNG ADULT does not have the fractured group dynamic of WEATHER or END, but all three works feature a self-destructive protagonist mired in self-loathing over the failed promises of the past, returning to a place that was better left behind, and bringing chaos in their wake. The filip of the two latter films' lead characters being named Gary King and Mavis Gary is an especially tingling convergence.

So getting back to that skeleton from earlier, to show you just how close the movies hew...

  • The similarities between IAFS and TWE start at the very opening, as they both present happy flashbacks to the past -- of Kelly, Dailey, and Kidd bonding in wartime and enjoying their armistice pub crawl, and of Pegg, Frost, and Considine bonding in high school and enjoying their post-graduation pub crawl. [While yes, there are five main fellows in TWE, the most important dynamic is between these three, especially's the spoiler...Freeman and Marsan don't wholly survive their adventure.]  After this flashback, and some present-day background scenes, the events of IAFW and TWE will transpire over a single fateful evening.
  • This is followed in all three films to a look at their mundane present, the roots of their alienation from each other, and the spark of their reunion.  -- a written reminder for the IAFS gang, an effective coercion for the TWE gang, an unexpected baby-shower invite for YA. We also get our first hints about just how bad things have gotten for our protagonists -- Kelly with his money troubles, Pegg in what appears to be a 12-step circle, Theron a model of inertia in a well-appointed apartment.
  • As the characters reunite, old wounds and buried personal resentments quickly come to the surface, since nobody has really become what they aspired to before. Notably, in the male-driven films, both gangs feature an uptight brown-shoe personality (in IAFS, Dailey; in TWE, Frost) who has so buried themselves in work they have become estranged from their spouse, and worse, initially refuse to join the boys in drinking. Theron in YA may not have a crew per se to reunite with, but her initial conversations with Wilson show her desperate to pull him back into her orbit and make him remember highlights of their past that really aren't highlights to him, and her chance reunion with schoolmate Oswalt finds them quickly trading barbs about each other and how everyone else in their world has contributed to their misanthropy, in a sense reigniting what could have been in their youth.
  • "You know what? Let's drink to old Bootsie."
    "Who? Who's old Bootsie?"
    "You know. Don't you remember? Bootsie. That kid in our outfit who was always tripping over everything. From the south. We always used to toast old Bootsie. Don't you remember? It was good luck, and then we always used to laugh."
    "I don't know."
    "Sure. Come on, Doug. Old Bootsie."
     -- dialogue from IAFW

    "Drink up. Let's Boo-Boo."
    "Boo-Boo'? What is that?"
    "You remember 'Let's Boo-Boo'. You know, from Mr. Shephard's classroom, it said on the wall 'Exit, Pursued by a Bear', you know, from that Shakespeare play?"
    "'A Winter's Tale.'"
    "Yeah. What was it called?"
    "'A Winter's Tale.'"
    "That's it. And if we needed to make a quick getaway, we'd say: 'Exit, Pursued by a Bear'. And then, it was: 'Exit, Pursued by Yogi Bear'. And then, it was just, 'Let's Yogi and Boo-Boo'. And then, 'Let's Boo-Boo'."
    -- dialogue from TWE

    "You know, there's a lot of things you shouldn't bet on. Like that Shakespeare quote, for instance. It ain't 'The Tempest,' Act 2, Scene 7, it's 'As You Like It,' Act 2, Scene 7. 'Hey-ho, sing hey-ho unto the green holly / most friendship is feigning, most loving, mere folly.'"
    -- dialogue from IAFW
  • As the IAFS gang are in an actual musical, they occasionally take a moment to sing about their past and its contrast to the present ("I Shouldn't Have Come" and "Once Upon a Time (Up In Smoke)"). The two Garys (Pegg and Theron) may not sing directly about their past, but are very much attached to mixtapes they made long ago in their youth, and still own cars that allow them to be played while the world has abandoned physical media as a source of driving music. They also wreck their initial cars and require the use of a second. Oh yes, and of course they're never without a drink.

  • To varying degrees in each film, the characters are all confronted by a creeping force of corporatism and conformity that seek to control their circumstances. It's a three-pronged assault in IAFW, as Kelly is pressured by the mob to have his boxer throw a fight, a chance encounter with a TV producer inspires a craven talk show host to force a second reunion among the disillusioned trio for a ratings grab, and Dailey's despised advertising client Klenzrite just happens to be that program's sponsor. In TWE, even before the vast scope of influence of "The Network" is revealed, there is the observation by the group about the increasing "Starbucking" in their lives, from pub layout to beer flavoring to car designs. Starbucking has also been very much at work in Theron's hometown of Mercury in YA, as her old flame blithely rejoices in the arrival of Chipotle and KenTacoHut while they drink in a very market-researched and franchised sports bar.
  • While earlier the two gangs of male friends have only found common ground in their mutual dislike of their ostensible leader, they come around to turning the microscope on themselves. In IAFW, this reckoning comes in the impressively synchronized song-and-dance number "Once Upon a Time (Up In Smoke)", as each sings about the personal disappointments that have weighed upon them. In TWE, there's no production number (unless you count the first fight with the Blanks in the bathroom), but a few bars and beers into their pub crawl, the disappointments of the gang in themselves versus each other begins to dominate the conversation. Theron does not openly share her disappointments until the closing climax, but every so often she drops hints about it, such as when she admonishes her parents to remove the photos of her in her first failed marriage from their wall.
  • As the events of their day get increasingly heavy and their anger intensifies, the previously teetotaling Dailey and Frost fall off the wagon in a speedy and spectacular fashion.
  • "I fucking hate this town!"
    -- dialogue from TWE

    "I hate this town! It's a hick, lake town that smells of fish shit!"
    -- dialogue from YA
  • Each protagonist engages in a romantic pursuit of a partner that initially is clearly not interested in reciprocating (Kelly to Charisse, Pegg to Pike, Theron to Wilson), and the latter movies have the added detail of that partner being an individual from their past, while Kelly, arguably, yearns to recreate his own through playing up the charm that he possessed in the past. The paths obviously diverge therein, becausewhile Charisse finally warms up to Kelly, the two Garys will not succeed in reobtaining their past mates, though the friends on the side get an unexpected benefit as Pike warms up to long-crushing Considine, and, for one night, long-crushing Oswalt will enjoy intimacy with Theron.
  • Those Blanks in TWE are able to take a lot of punishment and keep coming back for more. For that matter, so do those handsome dancers in IAFW Dolores Gray keeps violently rebuffing.
"Blanks a lot, but no Blanks"?

  • Each protagonist soon realizes the full power of their outside threats, yet refuse to capitulate to them, endangering their friend circle. Kelly, though ostensibly doing the right thing by refusing to fix the fight, has effectively performed a selfish act in the service of his ego, and puts a target on his back by snubbing the Mob, who follow him all the way to the scheduled TV broadcast, putting his buddies in harm's way. Pegg, though ostensibly doing the right thing by continuing the appearance of the pub crawl to keep the Blanks at bay, has effectively performed a selfish act in the service of his alcoholic quest, and puts targets on everyone's back as that mob in turn keeps following them through town, causing two friends and a former ally to be subsumed by the Blanks. Theron may not be in mortal danger like Kelly and Pegg, but she's is so determined to follow through on her selfish desire to win back Wilson that when she reveals all at the baby shower, she is definitely harming the peace of his marriage and the community's opinion of her parents, who are present to witness her meltdown.
  • Confessions:

  • Each film offers a large final confrontation between the protagonist and the forces against them. In IAFW, Kelly and company openly acknowledge to a potential world audience (at least the world of NYC) their life's failings, and refuse to participate or be co-opted by all three of the networks they've previously been in service to - television, advertising, and organized crime. A huge fight breaks out, uniting the men in the manner they previously experienced in the armed forces, and while the criminals and the advertisers yield, Gray, representing the most obvious "network" in the battle, goes ahead and co-opts the fracas to reinforce their worth to the rest of society. In TWE, Pegg, Frost, and Considine openly acknowledge to a potential universal audience their life's failings, and refuse to participate or be co-opted by The Network. Seeing as they have waged many fights before this final face-off, The Network yields completely, giving up on offering any worth to the whole of society. In YA, Theron openly acknowledges to her former world of high school acquaintances and elders her life's failing, which, in some contrast to the men, was her desire to become part of the ordinary "network" of mommy goods and suburban living that her longterm relationship and pregnancy promised. She tries her best to provoke a fight, but no one will engage her. Thus, while she yields the situation by leaving the shower, she de facto refuses (though it is more of an acceptance) to participate in that life, a decision inadvertently reinforced after spending the night in intimacy with Oswalt and having a disastrously enabling conversation with Oswalt's sister.
  • I think I will let Peter Avellino have the last words on the ending convergences:

    "The joint revelation the three men make at the end feels quietly satisfying...[they] have all realized once again that they really will be 'friends until they die' but they’ll still have to move towards the future without going back. As they seem to have discovered, there’s no returning to what once was." - from Peter Avellino's IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER review

    "Gary King’s business in Newton Haven is finished, sort of like everything Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were trying to say about their own pasts with these three films is finished. My business in Scarsdale has long since been finished there too. No one’s waiting for me back there. But we each need to face up to our past in our own way. The future, meantime, is a sort of oblivion where if we’re lucky we can figure out what our own happy ending is."

    "I only wish Mavis well and even though she’s probably just going to go right back to her apartment I hope she realizes all the possibilities she now has in front of her, now that maybe she’s finally able to move on from the nineties and her past. And even more than the booze, I hope she gives up all that fast food and reality TV. It would really be for the best in the long run."

"Hey, I remember old Bootsie. The kid from the south that was always tripping all over himself?"
"Sure. His name was George something-or-other."
"Bootsie. Brown?"
"No, no. George Barry." 
"Barry! That's it!"
"We were always toasting him. It was good luck or something."
"I don't know."
"I remember. When we landed at Anzio on the beachhead, he fell over his big feet and fell flat on his face. We followed him down. We thought it was orders. The machine guns opened up to let us have it, but we were down flat."
"That's right. That idiot saved our lives."
"Gee. Old Bootsie."

Three movies, similar but all distinct, with common threads but sometime conflicting patterns, done by great artists in their prime. All of them now among my favorite films of recent memory. As I hope they may be to you as well, especially if you've invested the time in reading this long wonky bit of folderol.

These stories may not have saved my life, but they all made it an awful lot better. So if there's a reason to be putting them together in this awkward reminiscence, I suppose it's to make sure their wonderful similarities are never forgotten like ol' Bootsie almost was. 

And that, friends, is worth raising a glass.

Monday, March 17, 2014

"Some folks die for songs, that's how they know they belong"

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014, at the New Beverly Cinema, minor history took place. It was the night I launched something that I'd long dreamed of doing, probably since the first time I took an obscure VHS tape to a friend's house: a branded, personally curated screening series, complete with a celebrity guest. While in my past, I had made plenty of booking suggestions to theatres, emceed plenty of screenings, and even done Q&A's with big names, this was the first time that, in effect, I was not just selling the films, but myself as part of the draw as well; attempting, in my middle age, to establish a relationship with the moviegoing public as a trustworthy tastemaker. And much like, say, the first public performance of a struggling new band, it was a very good show, just a shame more people weren't there to see it. This essay, and the essays that are intended to follow after future screenings in my series, will not so much recap the evening itself for someone who could or couldn't attend, but present a deeper explanation on the films presented and how they tie together, so that said reader may, in effect, be inspired to seek out the films and recreate the combo on their own, and [crossed fingers] be inspired to attend a future one.

Sig Shore's THAT'S THE WAY OF THE WORLD has always held an enormous place of fascination in my heart, from the very first time I spotted it in its original "big box" videocassette release in a rental store's clearance rack: Harvey Keitel, AND Earth Wind & Fire, in a movie TOGETHER! - why have I never seen this, and why don't I own this? Expecting kitsch value upon my first viewing, I was pleasantly surprised to find a compelling (if occasionally melodramatic) indictment of the budding homogenization of music through corporate and criminal influence in the '70's, and more importantly, one of the best nuts-and-bolts depictions of how a talented producer can take a terrible-sounding song and, with all the possibilities of the studio, turn it into something that, while still annoying, can hold its own amongst all the other infectious friendly pop that made AM radio every artist's goal for decades. I still own that big box release, and tracked down more copies of that VHS to give to friends with similar sensibilities to mine. When it finally got a DVD release in the late noughties, I would tell people to Netflix it, back when that service, you know, actually carried rare DVDs.

THAT'S THE WAY OF THE WORLD tells the story of Coleman Buckmaster (Harvey Keitel), a successful and respected producer for a A-Kord Records, whose efforts to launch EWF (renamed "The Group" in this film) are thwarted by the label's executives and the organized crime figures they're beholden to, who force him to produce a wholesome family trio, The Pages. His resentment builds as he learns that all the company resources will be going to The Pages, and both he and The Group, bound by exclusive contracts, will be unable to go elsewhere in the meantime. However, he begins to take a shine to the trio's legitimately captivating lead singer Velour, who reveals to him unsavory secrets about the real Page family dynamic, inspiring him to make a startling series of personal decisions that will affect everyone's futures.

"Music is my life. It's important to me. It's important to people. I mean, if it's good, it can give people some hope and some relief from all the shit in this world. And it can make them feel good, even if it is only for a couple of minutes. And that's what I wanna do. And I'm gonna do it."

Craig Zobel's GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, meanwhile, snuck up and surprised me for different reasons. I was familiar with Zobel as one of the creators of my then-favorite (and still beloved) Flash-animation website, Homestar Runner, along with brothers Mike and Matt Chapman, but I had not been aware previously that they were all classmates and collaborators with an exciting group of filmmakers emerging from University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a collective which included David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and Jeff Nichols. Knowing little about the plot besides the obvious subject of music, and intrigued by the casting of Pat Healy, who I'd seen in bit parts, with Kene Holliday, who I'd grown up watching on "CARTER COUNTRY" and "MATLOCK," I went in blind, and discovered one of my favorite films of an already jam-packed 2007, one of the best movie years in recent memory. I had not yet made the connection that star Healy and I had already met, when he appeared as a contestant on "BEAT THE GEEKS" (an episode that, until now, few knew had been taped on September 12, 2001), but this connection and my love of his film begat a great friendship, which came in quite handy when I asked him to be my inaugural guest for the debut of Cinema Tremens.

GREAT WORLD OF SOUND concerns itself with the practice of "song sharking," where aspiring musicians pay upfront money to a record company that promises professional studio recording and promotion to radio stations, but rarely deliver anything more than a few cheap CDs. Healy is Martin, a guileless new recruit not fully aware he is working for con artists, while Holliday plays Clarence, an experienced smooth talker who may be cognizant of the scam, but is solely concerned about earning his commission after years of hard living. As they work their way through small Southern towns, the team quickly become the company's top salesmen. But when the younger idealist gets sincerely excited about one unusual artist, a teenage girl with a "New National Anthem," he begins to see the depths of the company's corruption firsthand, which challenges his self-image and threatens the already fragile stability of himself and his partner.

"I like this job. I like...I like the idea of this job, but the idea of it is not the same as doing it."

Opening with two lesser-known music dramas may not have been the strongest way to open a new programming series, but with Pat on the bill, I knew it would be the most distinctive and personal way, and his agreeing to appear meant an awful lot. Also, since my social orbit involves a large number of very excellent working musicians, in a way, I thought it would be a clever way of luring them to come to my premiere screening. Ya gotta know your audience, right? Well, it sorta worked...

THAT'S THE WAY received a much more positive reception than I had thought was likely from reading all manner of underwhelming reviews of the DVD and Blu-Ray releases. It was even more impressive considering that this, the only print available from the distributor (who themselves were rather amazed they possessed one!), was an edited-for-TV version under its rare alternate title SHINING STAR. (The differences I will detail later on) Thankfully, even in this compromised edit, people in the house were reacting to the same elements that I enjoyed my first time - Keitel's charm and confidence, the revealing performance by Cynthia Bostick (a lot of people asked me after the show whatever happened to the actress, which I sadly had no answer for), the elegance of the music (even the Pages' deliberately insipid song was composed by EWF titan Maurice White), and the look at a long-departed mid-'70's NYC (and brief L.A.) environment, long before, well, an all-new band of money men changed everything.

Frustratingly, there is little detailed information available about the making of this film. Director Sig Shore, now deceased, almost never discussed the experience, and most interviewers were more interested in his historical role of producing the two SUPER FLY films with Ron O'Neal. Screenwriter Robert Lipsyte, when you read his website biography, talks at length about his childhood, his background in sports journalism, and his multiple Young Adult novels, but doesn't even list this credit on his resume. The commentary track on the first DVD release with EWF members Verdine White and Ralph Johnson offers little insight from the band's perspective, since, as they mention, they go missing for almost an hour of the story; its omission from the current Blu-Ray is no great loss. And most other surviving alumni of the film have either not been located, or chosen not to comment. Which is a shame, because this film is chock full of incredibly interesting music-related contributors that add to its authenticity and its critique. Most have noted the cameos by legendary NYC radio personalities Murray the K and Frankie Crocker, but a little research reveals rich histories for other cast members. For example, playing a sardonic TV show host is big band musician, songwriter, and early San Francisco TV dance show host Dick Stewart, whose television program "KPIX DANCE PARTY" was one of the first to integrate its teen dancers, and gave early exposure to comedian Mr. Paul Mooney and actress Barbara Bouchet. In the somewhat overlong roller disco scene, there's Vy "Wonder Woman" Higginsen, the first black female prime time NYC radio personality, and first black female writer/producer/director of the longest-running Off-Broadway musical in American stage history, MAMA, I WANT TO SING - the autobiographical story of her sister Doris Troy Payne, writer/singer of the soul classic "Just One Look" and featured soloist on Pink Floyd's DARK SIDE OF THE MOON album, who also appears in the film, as a wedding pianist! In what is surely metatextual intent, the personalities who are portrayed as attempting to elevate "The Group" are exclusively African-American and use their actual names, while those portrayed as complicit to the Pages' success are exclusively white and given fake character names, as if Murray the K and Dick Stewart wanted it made clear they would never endorse such pap in their real lives. Hiding under the credit of "Mike Richards" is director Sig Shore himself, playing a retired former record company president, who describes his decision to sell his label to the mob as a means to "avoid tsuris" and declares, "I don't have to worry anymore about breaking backs and selling wax." Since Shore began his career in advertising and releasing other people's films before making his own, it's quite possible he was transposing personal experience into his dialogue. Fun sidebar: Shore's son Steve appears briefly as a vagabond musician whom Buckmaster rebuffs, and playing an ambitious female "yes man" at the record company is Valerie Shepherd, who did double duty on the film as continuity director, and would go on to success as a producer in an even bigger hive of entertainment villainy, reality television!

The primary cast have a surprising amount of musical background as well. Co-star Bostick was Miss Kentucky of 1970, and her contribution to the talent portion of the Miss America pageant was singing "Life is a Two-Way Street" from the Broadway musical JIMMY. Bostick's real-life pageant experience lends extra sass to the running theme of the company swells referring to Velour Page and her wholesome image as "Miss America." Page family patriarch Bert Parks, of course, spent years hosting the Miss America pageant and singing "There She Is" to the lucky tiara winner, which means years before playing as "family" together, Bostick would be first-hand witness to Parks' warbling. And playing hedonistic brother Gary Page is grown-up child star Jimmy Boyd, who recorded "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" at age 13, along with other novelty songs. And while Harvey Keitel may not have had any signficant association with music, his training in piano would pay off not just in this film, where he sits playing alongside EWF producer/songwriter Charles Stepney (who tragically died soon after in 1976), but also in his highly acclaimed performance as conflicted music lover/concert pianist/mob collector in James Toback's FINGERS three years later.

Screenwriter Robert Lipsyte clearly knew the musical environment of the mid-'70's, and as such his script is full of punchy allusions to what he perceived as wrong with the climate. Keitel's character name of Coleman Buckmaster, combining a first name suggesting jazz greatness with a last name suggesting easy money, may be a little too on-the-nose, but makes its point. The squeaky-clean Pages may have been thought to be a slam on The Carpenters or The Osmonds, but the most-likely inspiration was probably The Cowsills, as their happy demeanor and upbeat songs masked real-life abuse at the hands of domineering patriarch Bob Cowsill, a virtual blueprint for the dysfunction revealed within the Pages. Their mobbed-up liason, played by perpetual TV heavy Michael Dante, is named Mike Lemongello, which just has to be a direct mocking of easy-listening singer Peter Lemongello, whose LOVE '76 album made history by amassing high sales exclusively through direct TV marketing; if it ain't, that's some psychic-level nomenclature! And when the unlikely-named Velour confesses to conflicted producer Buckmaster her impoverished childhood, and her scheming willingness to stay aligned with an older man she despises, Lipsyte may very well want us to think of another unlikely-named girl urged by her mother to ankle for dollars first: Bobbie Gentry's immortal "Fancy."

Meanwhile, Sig Shore's direction is not the most dynamic or well-paced, but there are just enough touches to demonstrate his comfort with this discomforting environment. In an early scene where Buckmaster delivers cocaine to his addicted father (played by Scorsese regular Murray Moston, who would work with Keitel in six other movies), they converse in the piano repair shop where the parent, described as a former jazz artist himself, is now reduced to working; two generations of gifted musicians forced to facilitate lesser talents. (I wonder if this setting had any influence upon the creation of Keitel's character in the aforementioned FINGERS?) When Buckmaster describes his producing plight to his girlfriend (played by Francesca DeSapio, young Mama Corleone from THE GODFATHER PART II) at a Japanese restaurant, his dialogue about the current music business model is lain over footage of the chef rapidly cutting steak; a nice juxtaposition of artists being viewed by the industry as just so much meat to prepare and devour. And in one short scene in L.A., Velour and Buckmaster read a less-than-favorable review in an outdoor restaurant, and just over their shoulder, across the street, you can see the original Schwab's Drugstore on Sunset Blvd., where apocryphal legend would dictate future stars could be found, but rarely were. These moments help set the mood of harsh reality that the film's title wants to reinforce.

Getting back to those weird edits mentioned earlier: The recent Scorpion Releasing Blu-Ray of THAT'S THE WAY contains an HD transfer of the edited-for-television version of the film, and a SD transfer of the original PG-rated theatrical version; due to numerous rights changes and element misplacement, the release print previously used for the older DVD had gone missing, and an interpositive, not initially identified as the TV cut, was the only material available for upgraded scanning. It runs three minutes shorter than the theatrical version, the most significant cut being a love scene between Keitel and Bostick that would probably be acceptable for prime time today (some sideboob, none of the infamous "Harvey Hashpipe"), along with some relooping or removal of swear words, and, inexplicably, moments such as Buckmaster asking whether a flunky will take an icepick to him (too violent a suggestion?) or his reply of "Well, let's eat," when his girlfriend angrily leaves a takeout lunch behind upon finding Velour home with him (too post-coital?). The 35mm print provided for the screening was not quite the same as the TV cut; you could almost call it a blueprint. Most swears were muted, but not relooped - in fact, a couple scenes had black slug in the middle of them for a few frames, suggesting these were going to be edited with new lines. Also, while "shit" was always muted out, instances of "bitch" were left in! In any case, people got a few chuckles out of the sanitization efforts, but otherwise were very appreciative of this ultra-rare opportunity to see this projected on film in a theatre, even in a bizarre hybrid edit. And in turn, despite the drawbacks of both presentations, I highly recommend purchasing the Blu-Ray, which, if you click on the left image at the top of this paragraph, you could do right now.

"You know, Buckmaster, you are what's wrong with America today. You're supposed to be an artist. You're supposed to have soul. But you're just a schemer, like them. When the artists of a nation act like politicians, and businessmen, we can expect the decline of greatness."

The real hit of the evening, however, was GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, and all the better since Pat was present to get all that love first hand. In his introduction and post-show Q&A, he spoke about the film's origins from director/co-writer Zobel's own father's time working for a questionable music operation (he subsequently served as a consultant), as well as the most striking element of the film: scenes of actual unsigned musicians, unaware of the fictional circumstances, auditioning for Healy and Holliday improvising in character, being flattered and cajoled into purchasing their production package. (All artists were immediately debriefed and given the choice to opt in or out of the film, and their music was properly licensed.) Healy pointed out that there was an even mix of ordinary people, professionals hired by the producers to act out certain scenarios with the stars, and a few fully scripted scenes, but all of these encounters taught him important lessons for his own acting career. He also praised Holliday's inspiring ease at smooth talking all the "marks" in the film, as well as creating scenes on the spot that the filmmakers quickly scrambled to catch on camera.

After dozens of scene-stealing appearances in other projects, Healy's headliner turn as Martin in GREAT WORLD still remains a great revelation, depicting a man who feels compelled to do something of substance with his life, but never sure what it should be. At the film's beginning, he blankly talks of his transitory experience in radio to a very indifferent interviewer (prolific indie player Robert Longstreet), who clucks, "Constant motion is the new laziness," and ropes him into working for the record company with a variation of the same spiel Martin will soon ladle upon musicians. In his first lunch with Clarence, he describes how all his previous activities were based on the activities of his girlfriends. His current girlfriend Pam ("ONCE UPON A TIME" star Rebecca Mader) seems to be the primary breadwinner, making various cutesy handmade craft novelties, and they are barely scraping by, as they are depicted in one scene merging their CD collection so that duplicates can be sold back, and in another she refers to cutting up their credit cards. Martin grows initially infatuated with the concept of "discovering" talent because, as he compares to his girlfriend's crafts, he can "help people get their stuff out there," but that becomes problematic when he makes the naive decision to invest his own money in the aforementioned "New National Anthem." And when he discovers this project has been effectively sabotaged by the third-party studio crew, who waste the family's payment on excessive recording time allowing "no budget" for pressing CDs, trying to regain his moral compass only leaves him and Clarence stranded in Indianapolis with no money to return home. He is a man who can make himself be anything, but ultimately, he cannot figure out who the hell he is.

The screenplay by Zobel and George Smith is, much like Lipsyte's for THAT'S THE WAY, very well-researched in its otherwise obscure subject. It's established early that the activity of this record company, while unscrupulous, is not illegal, as the clients do receive something for their money, no matter how shoddy; contemplating a potential artist getting a stack of demo CDs reminded me of the Coen Brothers' INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, when the titular character has only a large box of unsold LPs to show for his foray into the market. Besides his father's input, Zobel borrowed heavily from the writings and history of DJ/record producer Shad O'Shea, a minor hero from my hometown of Cincinnati: at one time he owned the Fraternity Records label (the main rival to King Records, where James Brown was signed), ran the studio where Midnight Star recorded hits like "No Parking on the Dance Floor", and has the distinction of being included in Rhino Records' first WORLD'S WORST RECORDS compilation, for the epic anti-counterculture polemic "Goodbye Sam". Reportedly, O'Shea was courted for the role of manipulative Great World of Sound president Gary W. Shank, but may have objected to playing a heelish character that would cast aspersions on his own legacy in music. (Clips from one of his training videos are intercut with new footage of actor John Baker as his surrogate). Besides music, it also understands inane business culture, with scenes of tedious "role-playing" exercises and how someone raising valid complaints can be marginalized by being mocked for his negativity. Co-producers the Chapman Brothers, who put "fhqwhgads" into the cultural dictionary, even created a very funny website (still active!) made to look exactly like it was put together by a fogey with no computer experience and a cheap online template. Sewiouswy, click all around it! Sign the guestbook! And just try to use the "Turn Music Off" function!

Considering that the GWS model of promising musicians are those with the best bankbook, the music featured in the film is actually rather good. Many of the amateur artists went on to modest regional careers after being featured in the film, even playing concerts in tandem with screenings. In these audition vignettes, to parlay the pageant metaphor from Ms. Bostick, I was reminded of the talent segments from Michael Richie's SMILE, where the girls in competition grow more endearing even as its made all too apparent some really lack skills. Meanwhile, frequent David Gordon Green soundtrack composer David Wingo, taking a break from his primary band Ola Podrida, creates both atmospheric score for the lonesome climates our antiheroes traverse, and is responsible for the actual composition of "New National Anthem," his haunting rendition playing over the closing credits. While some may wonder whether Martin is delusional thinking lyrics like "Don't mess with me, don't mess with me / Don't nobody mess with me" could be in a hit single, I'll certainly spend more time singing them than I will "Joy joy joy every day," no matter how better looking Velour Page may be.

"Fuck fair! There ain't no fair, there ain't no deserve! There is earn, and there is TAKE, motherfucker! These people we see, they wanna change they life because of they talent. You think this motherfuckin' country runs on talent?...I'm gonna do down to that airport, and I will convince that bitch sittin' behind the counter that she sound like Dionne motherfuckin' Warwick if it's gonna get me a ticket home! That's what I'm gonna do!"

While I had long imagined playing these two films together, after watching them in succession the same night, it really struck me how well they meshed, since they both involve elements such as family acts, patriotic songs, talent vs. money, etc. Over a post-show dinner with actress Shay Astar and musician/producer Chris Price, Price suggested that the first film depicts how money men blew up the original music industry, while the second shows the aftermath, with smaller men foraging for scraps in the ruins left behind. And he's absolutely spot on. The first film features executives crowing about how they will tell the public what is a hit, the second opens with someone spray-painting a record gold, driving the point home. In the '70's milieu of THAT'S THE WAY, record companies only sign and compensate artists they think will sell; by the '00's of GREAT WORLD, they sign everyone who has cash to pay them, with a dubious comparison to colleges who take in more students than they expect will successfully complete their studies, openly admitting that the business fuels a few good artists by fleecing poor ones. A-Kord Records promises millions in revenue to their business partners; potential GWS employees are supposed to be impressed by a supervisor's bank balance of $13,876.33 - "Think those numbers will get you through lunch?"

What both movies also grasp too well is racial distrust and division. Buckmaster increasingly loses the patience and faith of The Group as the lily-white Pages take up his time, as his supervisors find all manner of politically correct ways to all but say they don't want to be in the black music business. Meanwhile, Martin and Clarence initially try to be loose and jocular about race in their partnership, but Martin's first world problems are in stark contrast to Clarence's obligations and bouts with homelessness, Clarence privately tells black clients derogatory fiction about Martin in his absence to gain their trust, and after losing a black teenager's investment (and his) in the "New National Anthem," Martin tries to atone for it by putting the brakes on hard-selling a white female applicant. Relationships have not improved in the 30 years between these stories, the participants just find new ways to take advantage of the disparity.

Finally, both movies feature ostensibly "happy" endings that only a scorpion could appreciate, leaving their respective protagonists free from a bad environment, but at the cost of their moral codes, though the specifics will be left for you the viewer to discover.

And if you've made it this far, you can go ahead and tell all your friends that you were present that evening in spirit. This screening and this post-mortem have been a wonderful experience in discovery and insight, and I thank you for joining me. Let's do this again soon, like at the end of the month.

Might as well go out on a song:

In the wars when the wars were still going, going strong
Weren’t nobody in the wars who was living very long
Asked my teacher why folks die
She said some folks die for songs
It’s how they know they belong

Songs for the veterans in their veteran caravans
Who know turtles are not terrapins
Still they have hope and it shows
Or at least hope that it snows
We all like it when it snows

Don’t mess with me, don’t mess with me
Don’t nobody mess with me
You think I'm kidding
I'm not kidding
Got my finger on the trigger
So get your ass behind the singer
I'm like Texas, I'm like Texas
I'm like Texas, only bigger

In the parks when the parks were still places we always loved
Still weren't nobody on the lawns who were staying there past dark
Asked my momma where folks was, she said she guessed they all gone home
That they'd all be back 'fore long

Songs for the catamarans and y'all with super bad Trans-Ams
For what you've done in your churches
And for what you've done in bars
It helps us stand up when its hard
Cause that's all that anthems are

Don't mess with me, don't mess with me
Don't nobody mess with me
There's no hittin'
There's no spittin'
I'm not kiddin'
There's no spittin'
Got my finger on the banner
On the starry spangled banner
Just like Texas you cant miss us
God and Texas, here forever


See you again March 26th at the New Beverly for the next Cinema Tremens double feature: Douglas Sirk's MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and Jean-Jacques Beineix's BETTY BLUE, with a special introduction to the latter film by my guest, writer/director Sacha Gervasi. Tickets on sale now!