Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Make Me a Vessel of Your Peas

Contrary to what Marc Antony opined, it is not just the evil that men do that lives after them, it is also the inanity. And just as often as we discuss the great performances of our favorite entertainers, we are likely to discuss their blunders, especially if they were not meant to be made public. And in a bizarrely appropriate parallel, just as he made arguably the most influential movie ever made, Orson Welles also made the best-known tantrum ever recorded on tape. If you are not familiar with this Great Moment of Histeria, WFMU-TV creator Mark Rudolph directed and starred in this reenactment film back in the mid-'90's:

In an era before the internet and hyperactive tabloid activity, when incidents of bigwigs behaving badly could be kept quiet, somehow the word got out that if you could prove emphasizing a preposition at the front of a sentence was grammatically acceptable, you too could win a hummer from the man who panicked America. And many of those listeners happened to be entertainers, who proceeded to integrate snippets and aspects of this into their own work, and didn't care whether anyone else would get the reference.

By now, the most widely known homage to the tape is of course the beloved animated TV series "PINKY AND THE BRAIN." While the appearance and dynamic of two laboratory mice attempting to conquer the world was already conceived by the creators of its parent program "ANIMANIACS," it was voice artist Maurice LaMarche who conceived the notion of giving Brain what he described as "65% Orson Welles, 35% Vincent Price." I am convinced that once this concept was applied, co-star Rob Paulsen then made the decision to give Pinky his exaggerated cockney accent, as the voice of the beleaguered director of the ill-fated Findus commercials is clearly some sort of British origin. The series would carry on this inside joke to its logical extreme: in "Yes, Always," a segment originally intended as an exclusive to a VHS compilation but later broadcast on television, the entire incident (along with a shorter one with the same director) was restaged almost word for word, with the invitation to oral sex replaced by a more kid-friendly offer to manufacture cheese. Consequently, hundreds of children and hip parents who knew nothing of Welles or his perfectionism were now eagerly quoting his outbursts for quick laughs.

What is hardly ever discussed is the fact that in their own way, one of the greatest teams in comedy also paid their respects to this incident. On the absolutely-truthful MONTY PYTHON'S CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATION ALBUM, there is a sketch simply called "Bishop," which involves the already strange (but by Python standards, par for the course) situation of an Anglican bishop attempting to deliver voiceover narration for a beer commercial. To add to the randomness of the setting, the bishop feels a strange compulsion to repeatedly describe the beer as tasting of fish. After flubbing multiple takes, the engineers decide to just manually edit out the fish material rather than keep taking up the bishop's time. They tell him to take five and the sound men talk amongst themselves:

Idle: Who is he?

Chapman: The Bishop of Leicester, I think.

Idle: Well, why couldn't we get Bath and Wells?

Chapman: He's doing frozen peas for Nigel.

Idle: Lucky bastard. He's so good.

Again, there has never been any acknowledgement from the Python camp that there was any outside inspiration for the sketch. Besides, Bath and Wells is an actual diocese in England, and there's no second 'e' in the word there. But the three-strike combination of 1) a British commercial voiceover session gone wrong; 2) the preference for "Well(e)s" because he's supposedly a better narrator; and 3) the specific mention of "frozen peas," which is the title that Welles' recording had been circulating under back then (and still, according to Wikipedia) suggests to me that the troupe were fans of this tape. They may not have been prone to do many insular jokes, Reginald Maudling bashing notwithstanding, but this is surely one of them. And this theory of mine, which belongs to me, that is the theory that I have, and which is mine, and what it is too.

Welles himself was aware of how far and wide the tape had traveled, and that many of his peers were probably joking about it behind his back. Outside of one mention of it during the recording of his swansong role as Unicron in the original animated TRANSFORMERS movie (where he agreed it was not his finest hour but stood his ground that his director was a graduate of the Columbia School of Dipshit Broadcasting), there seems to be no documentation of his feelings about the tape's emergence. My personal guess is that while he was certainly not pleased about the leak, he'd been on the dais for enough Dean Martin Roasts to be able to chin up and get the piss taken out of him. And in some ways, especially had he lived to see "PINKY AND THE BRAIN," the ribald joker in him who regularly parodied his persona on "I LOVE LUCY" and "LAUGH-IN," and was not above donning corny disguises and accents to get a laugh, probably would have thought it was hilarious.

I'll have to stop here. I think I just heard a gonk.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What Savings!

Erudite horror blogger and "Kill Face" kronicler Arbogast On Film struck a nerve among fellow mavens with a long-tail blog-a-thon he launched a couple years ago, The One You Might Have Saved: a meme dedicated to character deaths in films which, no matter how much one appreciates them in the narrative of the story, affect us so personally that we would cross Fountain darling and Syd Field to save their lives. A few days ago, he renewed the call for submissions, and since I am the baby in the blogosphere, I'm answering the request, although my choice is not quite from a horror film, though it's certainly in the neighborhood suggested by the topic.

Jack Hill's SWITCHBLADE SISTERS was one of my earliest and still most potent experiences in exploitation film viewing, and I have prescribed it time and again for all manner of first-time viewers. Three decades after its release it still takes people by the throat - in the course of hunting down images, I found blog accounts from three first timers who were writing about these bad girls with cold steel with the same thrill of discovery that I felt upon my first viewing. So I don't tread into this decision lightly. I know that to suggest any alteration to what is one of the near-perfect drive-in dramas is to dance with heresy. And since the film rather cleverly restages Shakespeare's OTHELLO in '70's denim, what I am about to say is both figurative and literal bowdlerism. But in my movie universe, Jezebels elder Lace would receive my Get Out of Death free card.

Make no mistake, I would not want to cross paths with Lace, at least not during most moments of her life as depicted on film. Like the trailer announcer Ron Gans says, she's as affectionate as a scorpion with all the loving tenderness of a buzzsaw. But the more time we spend with her, the more she becomes fully realized and human. When we first meet her, she's witnessing her mother getting shaken down by the rent-to-own man, choosing to spend the rent and food money to keep the TV; when minutes later Lace has her girls buttonhole (and buttonrip) the bagman to get the cash back, he may be the law-abiding citizen and them the dangerous thugs, but we don't exactly feel sorry for him. And over the course of the film, it only gets worse for Lace. Her loyalty to the Daggers gang heartthrob Dominic is rewarded by him date-raping her new best friend Maggie while she's in juvie, and lying to her face about it. When she discovers she's pregnant and considers going straight and settling down with her man, he throws some $20s at her and tells her to get an abortion. And all the while her Iagoesque lieutenant Patch is manipulating her into making one bad decision after another. And in the film's greatest stroke of tragedy, as the gang she nurtured from mere ornaments to full-on baaadassssses should be enjoying their dominance over the city, Lace is goaded again by Patch to challenge, and ultimately die at the hands and blade of, Maggie, the only person who truly loved her.

In short, Lace never stood a chance. The white man ain't left her nothing out here but the underworld, and that's where she dances...where do you dance? Jack Hill is not the first person to observe that women could rule the world if they would only stop hating each other, but he's one of the best at depicting how much is lost in such circumstance.

To indulge my fantasy and still respect the harsh universe that Hill created, Maggie's knife would have still done enormous damage to Lace, enough to leave her unconscious and good as dead as the cops bust in and haul away all but the treacherous Patch as the film depicts. And then days, maybe weeks later, as Maggie cools her heels in stir, she gets a visit from a solemn Lace. It's hardly a happy reunion - at first all they discuss is business. We learn Patch tipped off the cops to raid their rumble, planning for Lace to kill Maggie and get pinched, allowing her to take control of the gang. But instead, without the Jezebels to protect her, she herself has been killed by leftover members of the Daggers, who hold her responsible for the roller-rink deaths that in fact Lace inadvertently caused in her first attempt to kill Maggie. Nonetheless, Lace knows she's finished with thug life and confides in Maggie she's skipping out on her family and the city in the hopes of starting over. Maggie figures out that it also means she won't be present to testify in her attempted murder trial, giving her hope of beating the charge. The closest they come to making up is Maggie mutters that she is sorry she tried to kill her, and Lace replies she is sorry she made her have to.

And as she exits the prison into a landscape that is just as grimy as before, the girl who literally grit her teeth to keep on surviving in a dog-eat-bitch world, gets to survive a little longer.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Push the button, Marc

From the moment I joined the intarwebs commewnitty, I've been an easy mark (pun fully intended) for a good survey/questionnaire meme. And Dennis Cozzalio, proprietor of the excellent Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog, has apparently joined forces with other correspondents in the service of legendary scoundrel Professor Fate for a heavy duty spring movie quizz. As that Professor demands satisfaction, I offer rejoinder in the paraphrased words of that other great mad Professor, Julius Sumner Miller: This, flicks, is my business!

1) William Demarest or Broderick Crawford?

Amist all the over-the-top insanity of IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, WORLD, one small moment of palpable hearbreak and audience sympathy occurs, and it's when William Demarest reluctantly proclaims, "Attention all units: arrest Captain Culpepper."

2) What movies improve when seen in a state of altered consciousness? (Patrick Robbins)

Well, I will admit that I was baked like Alaska when I watched last year's LAND OF THE LOST, and consequently gave it a three-star assessment.

3) Favorite studio or production company logo?

United Artists, post-Transamerica, 1981:

Many a night of falling asleep with the TV on was interrupted by this sneaky intro.

4) Celeste Holm or Joan Blondell?

"The cynicism you refer to, I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys!"

5) What is the most overrated "classic" film? (Tony Dayoub)

THE MATRIX. A movie that purports to take place in an environment where any and all things are possible, and the climactic battles are still fought with guns?

6) What movie do you know for sure you saw, but have no memory of seeing? (Patricia Yokoe Cozzalio)

Back in the glory days of pre-Fox network WXIX-19 in Cincinnati, there most have been dozens of afternoon movies that I watched with the faintest of attention. If I could summon up one, probably John Berry's CLAUDINE with Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones; all I remember is the announcer's i.d. breaks during the broadcast.

7) Favorite Hammer Film?


8) Gregory Itzin or Joe Pantoliano?

Gotta have pants. Joey Pants!

9) Create a double feature with two different movies with the same title. No remakes. (Peter Nellhaus)

How about a triple feature of Paul Morrissey's HEAT (1972) with Joe Dallesandro, Dick Richards' HEAT (1986) with Burt Reynolds, and Michael Mann's HEAT (1985) with DeNiro and Pacino.

10) Akiko Wakabayashi or Mie Hama? (Ray Young)

Umm...Abraham Lincoln?

11) Can you think of a (non-porn) movie that informed you of the existence of a sexual act you had not known of prior? (Bob Westal)

I think I recognized Troy McClure's paraphilia in such movies as STROKER BASS and EVERYBODY'S FIN.

12) Can you think of a black & white movie that might actually improve if it was in color? (Patrick Robbins)

I recall seeing some bizarre colorized footage from Bunuel's UN CHIEN ANDALOU that was in keeping with the already dadaesque visuals; I would enjoy seeing the whole thing done up in similarly off-the-sprockets fashion.

13) Favorite Pedro Almodovar Film?

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER. The apex of his gift for comedy, tragedy, colorful women, troubled men, and a world that can be painful, but ultimately works for the better.

14) Kurt Raab or Udo Kier?

Who da man? Udo man!

15) Worst main title song (Peter Nellhaus)

While Eric Serra's instrumental theme for LA FEMME NIKITA is awesome, whoever suggested that he and Luc Besson should add English lyrics to it for the closing credits ("The Dark Side of Time") should be buried in Row 34, Plot 12.

16) Last movie you saw in a theater? On DVD, Blu-ray or other interesting location/format?

Theatre: Robert Flaxman and Daniel Goldman's 1976 documentary A LABOR OF LOVE;
DVD: Michael Winner's PARTING SHOTS
VHS: Harvey Hart's THE PYX.

17) Favorite movie reference within a Woody Allen movie? (Larry Aydlette)

The constant allusions to THE SORROW AND THE PITY in ANNIE HALL. Reminds me of how my longtime roommate and I were almost forcing everyone we knew to watch HOOP DREAMS.

18) Mary Astor or Claudette Colbert?

Ask Roy Orbison.

19) Favorite trailer (provide YouTube link if possible)?

Jean-Luc Godard's CONTEMPT (LE MEPRIS):

Possibly the greatest trailer ever made.

20) Oddest double bill you either saw or saw listed in a theater

There was that Harlan Ellison-curated New Beverly double feature of Kurosawa's STRAY DOG with Cimino's THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT.

21) Favoite Phil Karlson film?

HORNETS' NEST. People are upset about one little girl wreaking mayhem in KICK-ASS? How about Rock Hudson teaching a whole village of orphans to kill?

22) Favorite “social problem” picture?

I suppose HOOP DREAMS, because it suggests without preaching that such problems, with steely determination, can be overcome.

23) Your favourite Harryhausen film/monster? (Ali Arikan)

My first striking Harryhausen memory is the snake woman from THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, but I think I'd have to go with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, because as Ray Bradbury put it, he was really just a poor brute who fell in love with a foghorn.

24) What was the first movie you saw with your significant other? (Patrick Robbins)

I've been unattached for far too long; thanks for reminding me, Prof. ;(

25) John Payne or Ronald Reagan?


26) Movie you feel a certain pressure or obligation to see that you have not yet actually seen

There are so many gaps in my classics it's shameful. But I think the two that keep haunting me the most are SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE.

27) Favorite “psychedelic” movie (Hey, man, like, define it however you want, man…)

It's not a good movie in any way, but I'm fond of Robert Freeman's THE TOUCHABLES as psychedelia, because it does feel like the crew mixed up the wrong chemicals during a Harold sketch and put the whole thing on film. And really, being in a big bubble house as the captive of hot '60's chicks is awful groovy, man.

28) Thelma Ritter or Eve Arden?

"Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence."

29) Favorite iconic shot or image from a film?

Whether you believe like me that it is a grim reminder that when you leave a place of magic you can never return, or believe like others that it is a glimmer of hope, that solitary ringing in that lonely phone box at the end of LOCAL HERO gets me every time.

30) What is the movie that inspired the most memorable argument you ever had about a movie?

My longest relationship was marred when she insisted on turning off LOCAL HERO an hour in because she was bored. I did not take that appraisal very well. Not the primary reason that the relationship didn't work out, but it was a contributing factor.

31) Raquel Torres or Lupe Velez?

You know what? Lina Romay makes me happy.

32) Favorite adaptation of Shakespeare to a film?

Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET, the GONE WITH THE WIND of Shakespeare adaptations. It seems almost every previous film of HAMLET felt locked into the dialogue scenes, but Branagh understood that a movie can show anything it wants. So in a brilliant stroke, he presents every line of the play while depicting details barely hinted at - Hamlet and Ophelia in passionate privacy, Fortinbras plotting his return to the throne, the size of the armies, etc - and does it in gleaming bright 70mm. The staging of the "My thoughts be bloody" monologue manages to even upstage "To be or not to be" as the best speech in the play, and is as perfect an emotional harbinger and intermission marker as Scarlett O'Hara's "I shall never go hungry again!" What is arguably the greatest English-language play was long overdue for this epic film treatment.

33) Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (in 3D)-- yes or no?

YES! It still galls me that I missed it in childhood and had to wait until my 30's to see it in all it's organ-hovering glory.

34) Favorite movie rating?

I stand with Strong Bad in my love of the ultra-rare triple-R rating.

Which reminds me, I know Don May at Synapse Films reads this blog, so hey man, why haven't you licensed WOMEN'S PENITENTIARY BAKESALE NIGHTMARE yet???

35) Olivia Barash or Joyce Hyser?

Any woman who can make herself so mannish as to inspire babydyke fantasies for two generations, and both bag and dump Warren Beatty, has got a gift. Joyce Hyser for the win.

36) What was the movie that convinced you your favorite movie genre was your favorite movie genre?

Probably that first time I saw IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD on CBS, New Year's Eve, with my parents. My childhood head recalls them saying how they'd seen it in New York City during their short sojourn living there before I was born. Watching them still laughing at it, and how many times I was laughing at it, convinced me that comedy was the greatest thing ever.

37) Favorite Blake Edwards movie?


Thursday, April 8, 2010

"I know you can change the weather"

I have just learned from fellow blogger BookSteve that performer, entrepreneur, and all-around provocateur Malcolm McLaren has died. McLaren's passing is especially ironic to me right now as I had literally been contemplating writing my next piece about what is probably his finest work and for me, my "desert island" album. Coming less than a month after the untimely passing of Alex Chilton, it is an enormous blow to me as a fan of both men, as they had enormous impact on my musical taste.

The obituaries you will read on McLaren will be colorful and varied. Some will discuss his early collaborations with fashionista Vivienne Westwood. Most will focus on his infamous (and some would say deliberate) mishandling of punk rock pioneers the Sex Pistols, and let us not indulge in hagiography: between the lying and posturing and enabling, which contributed not only to the band's untimely demise but also to the ugly deaths of bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon, he'll be smoking a turd in Purgatory for quite some time. But in all likelihood, not that many will address his groundbreaking and exciting album, DUCK ROCK, though thankfully, PopMatters seems to share my enthusiasm. As such, what was going to be just a musical puff piece on my part will effectively turn into a memoriam.

DUCK ROCK was initiated by McLaren shortly after the breakup of the Sex Pistols, as he began to be more interested in being in front of the cameras and the microphone instead of managing from the sidelines. With producer Trevor Horn in tow, they went on a worldwide journey visiting and recording all manner of diverse musicians, from South Africa and the Caribbean to Appalachia and New York City, and after they were done, mixing and mashing up the sounds to create surprising combinations. McLaren was not much of a singer, more of a spoken-word carny barker, but his sense of fun as he traveled through the genres was hard to resist. I first learned about DUCK ROCK from rock journalist Lisa Robinson, during a series of promotional interviews she conducted with Malcolm McLaren for the USA Network series "RADIO 1990". Interspersed with the interviews, which covered topics like the breakup of the Sex Pistols and the countries he visited, there were music videos shown. Most specifically, the video for "Buffalo Gals," a still-exciting traffic jam of sampling, d.j. scratches, and old fashioned square-dance calling. For a suburban Cincinnati boy like me who was eager to break from the bland, it was a clarion call. And for decades since, artists like Neneh Cherry and Eminem have replayed it in their own fashion:

Once I got the album (or in my case, Island's unusual "1+1" cassette tape which presented the entire record on both sides), it was a constant presence in my boom box. I loved getting exposed to world music without the stuffy high-toned culturespeak of public radio snobs, and it didn't matter if friends didn't quite understand what I meant when I occasionally shouted "Skip-day-doo, the double dutch," "Zulus on a time bomb," or "Duck for the oyster!" To this day, I still love going on the global tour. For as much as we talk about living in a society that is supposed to resemble a Benneton advertisement, so much about the places we don't know is presented to us in a dry and somewhat "eat your vegetables" fashion, which is why so many of us resent it and don't investigate it. As much as people love Peter Gabriel or David Byrne, they get annoyed at their earnest effort to expose music from elsewhere and don't give a damn about their next WOMAD concert. And don't get me started on how much I hate the "granola rock" of poseurs like Rusted Root. Somehow, McLaren never gave that vibe in DUCK ROCK - the album always said to me, "Hey, it's a big, exciting, beautiful world out there: let's go play!"

In the liner notes, McLaren writes that during his time with a band of South African musicians, as he sat among them at a campfire, they told grand adventure tales, and he was asked to share one of his own, and all he could think of was his version of managing the Sex Pistols. His hosts loved the story, and out of that came one of my favorite tracks, "Punk it Up," where tribal people who have never experienced slam dancing or Margaret Thatcher gleefully sing, "I'm a Sex Pistol, I'm a Sex Pistol, that's what I am!" Maybe they understood the notion of being in a group that wanted to fight the man, or maybe they just fell for a good yarn. But everyone has a happy sing-a-long all the same.

And ultimately, we look to a great artist to take us to another place, even if they are spicing it up with details that are of their own invention and may clash with our own view of things. Malcolm McLaren did that for me. Even John Lydon, a/k/a Johnny Rotten, the man who would have every reason to sneer and spit and dance a pogo on his grave, understands that notion in his gracious send-off:
"For me Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you remember that. Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you."

Thanks for the grand adventure, Malc. May your coffin be circled by Buffalo Gals going 'round the outside, 'round the outside, 'round the outside.