Monday, March 2, 2015

Jodorowsky's Dune

As much as I admire and enjoy listening to film directors, I sometimes recoil in embarrassment when I see them interviewed.  At times, it's as bad as suffering through Lance Armstrong's squirmy justifications during his interrogations.  Even if directors try to keep their often enormous egos at bay, some fugitive brio sneaks out and makes them appear like spoiled toddlers.  Humility is an unusual trait for these (would-be) auteurs and while I have many quibbles with, as an example, the films of Ron Howard, I appreciate his lack of grandeur.  He always seems modest and grateful for his success.

Though maybe the brash quality is a by product of innate talent.  Those with enviable vision.  Likely a generous dollop of madness.   The most legendary directors have reputations of explosive, manipulative, and mercurial personalities on the set and when they're asked to describe their body of work or latest opus, the short fuse gives way, perhaps quite naturally, to immodesty.  I appreciate their enthusiasm, marvel at their creativity. But damned if I don't want to force my hand over their mouths at times.

As in the 2014 documentary JODOROWSKY'S DUNE, French-Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky (cult favorite EL TOPO) proclaims "It's very, it's like Proust, I compare it to great literature."  He's referring to his adaptation of Frank's Herbert's celebrated science fiction novel Dune.  A huge undertaking, the script was reported to be the size of a telephone directory.  A possibly resulting fourteen hour epic. The proposed budget: 9.5 mil.  This was the mid 1970s. 

The studios balked.  Despite his assemblage of a creative dream team that included H.R. Giger, Pink Floyd, Dan O'Bannon, and even Salvador Dali, Jodorowsky's insanely ambitious project never happened.   The rights would fall to Dino De Laurentiis in the early '80s.  David Lynch would direct the abortive film in 1984.

Onscreen, the director excitedly retells the sad story.  There are many amusing bits. How he promised Orson Welles dinner in his favorite restaurant every night if he agreed to appear in his film.  How Dali consented to interviews in several countries, but with each meeting place as part of a curious game.  Special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull was interviewed but rejected for his corporate attitude, his lack of free spiritedness.

Jodorowsky storyboarded his vision with astounding detail.  Director Frank Pavich brings these illustrations to life in ways that almost feel like lost reels from this doomed project.  You may well become as frustrated as Jodorowsky himself after you are treated to the gigantic artbook he thumbs through.  JODOROWSKY'S DUNE really does in some ways resemble a tragedy, of a lost piece of potential art that might have been a real game changer.

But he's a never-say-die type: "I am 84, but I want to live to 300.  You may fail, but you have to try!".  Colleagues sing his praises, including one who states that Jodorowsky's failed movie was like a comet that missed Earth, but its seedlings are seen in many films.  After watching this documentary, you're apt to agree, especially films like STAR WARS and BLADE RUNNER.

And then the ego comes front and center.  How faithful was the director's script to the source material? "I was raping Herbert, but with love!" He was unwilling to make a film with a running length he felt was too short, "I'll make it twelve, twenty hours if I have to!"  When Jodorowsky got around to seeing Lynch's film, his depression turned to glee: "It was awful!"  I agree, but show a little class, Alejandro.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Little Caesar

The gangster film rose to prominence in pre-Hayes code 1930s Hollywood. You've likely heard of 1931's SCARFACE, which lead to an ultraviolent remake fifty years later, but what about 1932's LITTLE CAESAR, a tight, involving crime drama featuring Edward G. Robinson as the titular character in his screen debut?

Caesar Enrico Bandello, aka "Rico" dreams big as he and partner Joe (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) pull small time jobs like sticking up service stations. Rico, like many before and after him, wants to be "somebody". It isn't long before he's in Chicago, joined a gang, and risen through the ranks, proving himself to be a fierce competitor to rivals.  Rico will eventually take control of the entire North Side of the city.  There are failed attempts on his life, one of which should've been a sure fire hit, but he escapes with a mere shoulder graze.  Is it luck? Something supernatural?

Joe wants out. He dreams of a career as a dancer, perhaps marrying his partner Olga (Glenda Farrell), herself none too fond of the life of crime.  Of course, Rico wants/needs his friend to help with the dirty business.  There will be resistance, divided emotions. Speeches about loyalty. A failure to pull the trigger at a key moment. Classic conflict.

LITTLE CAESAR is a mostly riveting, compact early gangster drama.  Lean, economical, and iconic. Despite that, not all that well known.  Director Mervyn Leroy stages the drama with just enough panache and Francis Edward Faragoh's screenplay (Darryl Zanuck is one of the uncredited contributors) invites viewers to compare its mafiosos to corporate America titans like Carnegie.  Robinson's diminutive stature and creepy voice only add to the imposing figure he cuts through each scene.  He may not have achieved the fame of Jimmy Cagney or Paul Muni, but he sears the screen. His final line should've joined the cinematic lexicon ala "Frankly Scarlett..." and so many others.

I happened upon LITTLE CAESAR one night on Turner Classic Movies, the second half of a double feature of the original SCARFACE, just like it might've been in theaters in the good old days.  As I've said many times, thank God for this network.  It's one of the few reasons not to pull the plug on cable television.   Al a carte, please!

Monday, February 23, 2015

33 Years

That's how long it's been since I'd seen my old pal from down the block.  My last memory was riding home with him in his mom's car after another grueling day of junior high school.  After several years of friendship, things had gone south with him.  Soon after I was dropped off, his mom called my mom to complain, that I was no longer welcome.  There had been a misunderstanding, perpetuated by neighborhood kids.  The same ones who later told me that if my friend saw me on the street, it'd be my ass.  I was sad about the lost friendship, but also concerned as he could've certainly beaten the shit out of me.

But I never again crossed paths with him, despite my living just a few houses away.  Strangest thing.  I moved twice more while I lived in the old 'hood, but within walking distance.  The 1980s wore on with high school and college, and not once did we cross an area at the same time.   He might as well have left the country.  There were new friends to make, a new life to live. It was as if those earlier years had never occurred.  Childhood really did end when we no longer hung out.  The severance was  a thundering close of another chapter of life.  I don't recall dwelling on the significance of it for too long. It came down to, "that's life".  But there was a nice surprise some years later when my friend's mother came into the drug store in which I was working part-time.   We made amends.  I passed on my best wishes to her son.  But there was still no meet up. 

For the next thirty odd years my life followed a somewhat circuitous path.  I attended and graduated college, locally.  Got engaged.  Moved to central Florida and then back after a summer during which time the relationship had unraveled. Worked for several years before returning to school: first on the pre-pharmacy track and eventually grad school for audiology.  I finally found my career.  Working ever since.  During those years I met lots of folks, many of whom are at best, vague memories.  Others would become key figures.  Once in a while I would think on my old friend when thoughts of the old neighborhood invaded my brain.  I had learned that he still lived in the area, a bit north these days.

In a previous entry I told of how I discovered that my old friend worked with another old friend (one from college).  It was a sign.  Had to be.  I had been nagged over the few previous years that I needed to get in touch.  Here was the opportunity.  I got his e-mail and two months later we met for a burger and a few beers to catch up on a lifetime. 

He saw me before I caught a glimpse of him, "You still have the same walk!"  I thought about the countless times I'd walked the straight line to his house.  Our agreed upon meeting place was closed for lunch so we hit another for what I considered an historic meeting.  We had both aged, but I think we've kept fairly well, thank you.  Especially when you look at some of our peers.  As we spoke, we learned that we had similarly destructive trajectories in our twenties. Partied at many of the same haunts on the very street on which we were reminiscing.  Though, he found his bride during those years.  He now has a teenage daughter who he describes as the light of his life.  There's no hiding that joy, the light in one's eyes.

As we described our lives, I was never unaware of what a huge day it was, one I had waited for for so long.  There was a bit of disbelief, too.  Was it one of those "...we picked up right where we left off" types of reunions?  Not exactly.  One changes quite bit from age 13 to 45, and we are both very different than those Adidas and tube sock wearing youths of yore. But shades of our old selves shone through. Here we were, still talking about the Miami Dolphins and the rock band Rush.  And interestingly, we seem more alike these days.  We're already planning the next meet-up.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Simon

Spoilers

1980's SIMON was the sort of curiosity that prompted 0.0025% of the population to seek it out. Maybe that number went up a decimal place when Warner Archives began listing it on their site. Those old enough to remember SIMON's theatrical and cable releases either don't care or have hazy memories that aren't strong enough to make the effort. The movie is an odd seeming bird, its poster featuring Alan Arkin in some kind of amphibious looking wetsuit, hovering his hand as if in the throes of osteoarthritis.

But being the connoisseur of offbeat cinema that I am, with an unusually good memory for movies (seen or otherwise) of a certain era, I snatched the DVD at my local library and finally gave it a watch. SIMON was quite different than what I was expecting, not the mean spirited black comedy for which it is reputed. It even has a happy ending. Well, for some of the characters.

Simon Mendelssohn (Arkin) is a restless, frustrated psychology professor whose attempts at sensory deprivation in a suspension tank prove fruitless (what was it with 1980 movies and those tanks?). Like most shrinks, he has some serious baggage (he was abandoned as a child). Mendelssohn therefore is the perfect subject/target/patsy for the Institute for Advanced Concepts, a group of government funded scientists whose experiments often edge over into the absurd. IAC leader Dr. Carl Becker (Austin Pendleton) recruits Simon for what he describes as innovative research. In reality, the group plans to brainwash him into believing he is an alien from outer space.

After preparatory time with Dr. Cynthia Malloy (Madeline Kahn, hilarious as always), Mendelsohn is placed in the tank for one week. When he emerges, he enacts the entire evolution of man, a sequence of superb comic artistry, it must be said.  What could have been an embarrassing bit of acting school posturing is rather near genius. Then Simon tries to re-enter the tank, a gag recalling Woody Allen's quip of trying to go back into the womb.  SIMON's writer/director is Marshall Brickman, co-scripter of Allen's ANNIE HALL.

SIMON is a generally witty satire on psychology, medicine, science. There are plenty of social barbs, though many are specific to its time. No doubt, viewers born after the early '70s will be baffled.  Still, the film is consistently on target, mostly as it skewers television and its sizable cult.  Following his escape from  the IAC, Simon hijacks a sound truck and begins broadcasting counter messages to the sleepy millions. One of my favorite bits is his feelings on doctors who write diet books, a gag that is even more relevant in 2015 than 1980. I also enjoyed the "low I.Q. gas" and the talking supercomputer which resembles a giant princess telephone (perfect for some 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ribbing).  Fred Gwyne has great moments as an Army general who commandeers a mission to retrieve Simon, perceived to be a threat to society.

Late in the film, Simon hides out with a cult of dreamy New Agey hippies who hold church services where the Campbell Soup song of the day is sung like a hymn and the pastor (and former exec for ABC Television) reads from their bible - TV Guide.  When asked what she appreciates on T.V., a cult member replies "Eisenestein movies...and disco." Point taken, Mr. Brickman.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Thieves Like Us

Robert Altman's THIEVES LIKE US from 1974 is a true work of art; a painterly motion picture that will only marginally remind you of BONNIE AND CLYDE or any other Depression era gangster story aside from its setting and props (such as ubiquitous Coca Cola logos, even on penitentiary signs).  While there is some violence, inevitable in story of bank robbers outrunning the law, Altman is hardly interested in any overt stylization of bloodletting. In other words, business as usual for this most iconoclastic of directors. And if you're not tuned into his unique sensibilities, this movie is unlikely to inspire or engage you. It may in fact bore or even anger you.

Bowie (Keith Carradine) is a fresh faced, aw-shucks young man who has just broken away from a chain gang with partners Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen).  They begin a successful run of bank heists despite respective naivete, hot headedness, alcoholism, and gait problems. Eventually, Bowie meets Keechie (Shelley Duvall), daughter of a gas station attendant the men hole up with for a time. She's shy and not at all worldly. Maybe a little impressed with Bowie's seat of his pants lifestyle and recklessness. I saw shades of Sissy Spacek's Holly in BADLANDS.

It's funny what Altman chooses to focus upon. While central action elapses, others in the peripheries go about their business, like a little boy who goes to get a newspaper. The camera stays on and follows him longer than necessary, while a perhaps more-relevant-to-the-plot conversation continues in the kitchen.  Later, a prison warden shares an opulent lunch with his wife, discussing their next lavish meal and joking about needing more clothes. The director is far more interested in the margins, the life teeming away from the foreground. Even when his camera stays on the lead actors, sometimes we hear background dialogue (and noise) more prominently. This is a distraction, often a deal breaker for many viewers. Did Robert Altman have ADD, or was he just the Ultimate Observer?

I liked the near constant use of classic radio programs and advertisements on the soundtrack. Carefully selected of course to evoke any number of emotions and/or social winks. A repeated line from Romeo and Juliet is very effective during a scene Bowie and Keechie's intimacy.  The final moments of the film - a radio announcer describing the early stages of the Great Depression as folks slowly ascend a stairway in a train station - evoke a loneliness that to me was similar to the close of Altman's final picture, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION.  You can manage some easy symbolism in that scene in THIEVES but what makes it effective and perfect is the mood, the emotions behind the imagery.

In THIEVES LIKE US, the sharp observation, fascinating moment to moment gazing and listening, is positively hypnotic. It's not about big moments: who else but Altman would shoot a bank robbery hold up from such an odd, high angle? Purposely not keying in on the "action." This movie is no more about bank robbers than THE LONG GOODBYE was about private detectives. I think Altman probably felt a kinship with Francis Ford Coppola when he said that he really didn't care about the mafia when he filmed THE GODFATHER.  And by then, what else could be said about Mob politics that hadn't already? Altman knew damn well that most stories had been told, and no one else told one quite like him.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Black Marble


1980's THE BLACK MARBLE is a real darling, a most unsung comedy drama.  A gem awaiting rediscovery, if only viewers could have an opportunity to see it. It never plays on television and is out of print on DVD. Its fate was decided early, disappearing from theaters only a few days after its original release. The filmmakers were hoping lightning would strike twice - Director Harold Becker had the year before adapted former L.A. cop Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field into a critically acclaimed motion picture, one of which the author (who scripted and had creative input) could actually be proud after the 1977 fiasco THE CHOIRBOYS.

It's another police story, albeit very different than any other Wambaugh to hit the screen. A hard drinking cop named Valnikov (Robert Foxworth), recently reassigned from another district, can't seem to get past the suicide of his former partner. He's tormented by horrific dreams. His waking hour behavior can be politely be described as eccentric.  His pals on the force grant him a pass, but soon he's partnered with no-nonsense, unsentimental, but sexy as hell Sergeant Natalie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss), who finds him unrelievedly odd and near intolerable.

Zimmerman is also none too pleased with their new assignment: retrieving the beloved pooch of a socialite named Madeline (Barbara Babcock).  The dog has been kidnapped by Philo Skinner (Harry Dean Stanton, slimily excellent), an awesomely troubled, hot headed dog groomer in hock to loan sharks. While Valnikov harbors great sympathy for the circumstance (and Madeline), Zimmerman skulks about in disbelief.

THE BLACK MARBLE is about a dance, the inevitable pairing of the leads. A classic mismatch of personalities. But the cops don't bicker sharply written lines like yesteryear studio players, with cute misunderstandings and lovers' games. Valnikov is drawn as a burnt out casualty of the force, caught in a vortex of alcoholism and the cold realities of his job. He barely articulates his words, and cries a lot. Attempts to ambulate with a head filled with guilt and booze.  He is not a bitter man, just a sad one. Zimmerman is an updated Girl Friday, complete with impatience, fast dialogue, and great legs, but there is also a natural, unexpected tenderness that develops as she really gets to know her partner and his unique culture. I especially enjoyed the scene where she meets Valnikov's brother at his restaurant.

The film's key moment comes after a vodka fueled evening back at Valnikov's apartment. The stage is set for a predictable seduction scene (complete with sloppy guy hastily "cleaning"  his abode beforehand), but instead the personalities of Wambaugh's characters allow a refreshingly original, surprisingly and downright romantic sequence that involves as much Russian music and dancing as furtive glances and soul baring.

THE BLACK MARBLE is also distinguished by an odd rhythm, a flow that continually confounded me. The narrative takes all sorts of interesting turns (such as a painful chase in a dog kennel), and Maury Winetrobe's editing and Becker's unexpected directorial touches keep everything off kilter from start to finish. Likely why audiences could not connect with it? Quentin Tarantino certainly did; Becker recalls in an interview that the young man invited him over to view a pristine 35mm print at his house!  It's a fairly dark movie, particularly when Stanton's character is onscreen (animal lovers will have to navigate some difficult moments), but what might be called a tough sweetness is at the core. By the time James Woods serenades the couple with his violin, you'll be convinced there really is no other movie like it.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Wiseacre Duos: 10cc, Part V

In 1976, 10cc split in half, with Kevin Godley and Lol Crème seeking greener pastures away from their remaining bandmates, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart.  As you read in previous entries, the former duo had more experimental leanings while the latter favored more melodic, commercially minded songwriting.


Did this mean that Gouldman and Stewart were now 5cc? Many industry wags thought so, wondering if the guys could press on and continue a legacy of inventive pop music.  In 1977, they returned with Deceptive Bends, effectively silencing the naysayers, if not some of the old fans, who found the new tunes a bit more formulaic and less adventurous.  The catchy, enduring "The Things We Do For Love" would prove to be a big hit in both the U.K. and the States.  While most certainly radio friendly, the lyrics still displayed a little of the old wit, though far from the caustic verses of old when G and C were involved.  Which, for me, was what made 10cc 10cc. Deceptive Bends does at times reflect G and S's sensibilities, with tunes like "Honeymoon with B Troop" and "Good Morning, Judge", but it was clear where the band was headed.  The heavy handed medley "Feel the Benefit Parts 1, 2, and 3", a stab at the sort of epics the band once mastered ("One Night in Paris" et al.) falls flat, despite some heavenly strings and a great middle section.

Meanwhile, Godley and Crème were now free to indulge their craziest notions, including liberal utilization of their "gizmo" device on 1977's Consequences, a three LP extravaganza complete with the participation of Sarah Vaughan and Peter Cook, who provides a multitude of voices in skits that sometimes resemble The Firesign Theater; the album was as opposite of Deceptive Bends as anything could be. Very hard to describe. For invisible audience members who think they've heard it all, I recommend you check it out.  Unsurprisingly, the album was not a success.

No less odd but easier to digest were G and C's next albums L and Freeze Frame, the latter featuring participation by Paul McCartney and Stewart Copeland on some tracks.  The scathing lyrics and truly bizarre time signatures will reveal for some listeners why 10cc was so good - there were checks and balances between the boppable and the extreme.  But in the right frame of mind, I can really dig Godley and Creme's abstract leanings and have many a day gotten lost in pieces like "I Pity Inanimate Objects".  On the other hand, "An Englishman in New York", not to be confused with a song by Sting some years later, sounds as if written for a Broadway musical, reminiscent of some previous 10cc.

Gouldman and Stewart released Bloody Tourists in 1978, which leads off with one of my favorite 10cc's tracks, "Dreadlock Holiday".  It's intriguing storytelling and potential pub sing-along in equal measure, a real dandy.  Pity the album goes downhill by Track 2 and never recovers.  This is a strangely downbeat, dour batch of songs.  Very dated sounding, too.  1974's Sheet Music sounds fresher than this dud.  Very little clicks: stale melodies, misguided spirits, smutty lyrics.  Other times, the album alternates between cloying sentiment and sappy romance.  The only other song that works for me is the peppy "From Rochdale to Ocho Rios" but even it suffers from a weirdly muted, melancholy arrangement.   Mercury's remastered CD is really poor, by the way.  Whoever monitored source tape speeds needs to go back to school.

Next time we'll follow all four of the men who were 10cc into the 1980s, where some would continue a downward creative spiral and others would find new artistic challenges in which to excel.