Thursday, May 25, 2017

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

The eventual failure of worldwide music chain Tower Records owes as much to classic overreaching as it does to changing technology. What began as a family business in Sacramento, CA in the early 1960s later became an international corporation with stores in Japan and Latin America.  More and more money was borrowed to open in markets that were not well researched.  And even though Tower was one of the first retailers to have an online presence, Internet downloads would be another blow to the company (as they would be to any brick and morter selling CDs and other media). In 2006, Tower Records filed for bankruptcy.

2015's documentary ALL THINGS MUST PASS traces the company's history through the eyes of its key people - those who remember when the original stores in California were staffed with knowledgeable, fun loving free spirits who cared about music.  Their mantra was sound - do what you love, the money will follow.  Russell Solomon, a highly charismatic guru-type, opened the first store in 1960.  He expanded to San Francisco and L.A., then NYC and beyond.  The stores were extremely well stocked and had an impressively diverse inventory.  They were crammed with imports and rarities, enough records to attract musicians like Elton John, who states that he probably spent more money there than anyone else.

Solomon and others who worked in the early days reminisce of the wild atmosphere in the original locations.  A place where you could show up drunk or stoned and it was OK as long as you could get through your shift (and ring a register). One longtime employee named Heidi Cotler laughs as she recalls all the drugs and sexual encounters that occurred there. You wonder how the company didn't party away its profits.  There to balance Solomon's more eccentric behavior were guys who thought more carefully about bottom lines. But even the straight ones would loosen up after a few drinks at lunch and nail a secretary or two back at the office.

Director Colin Hanks interviews many long timers who began as clerks and would eventually fill important roles in the corporation. One guy begins to cry as he describes the final days.  They're a mixed bunch - a few still seem as if they're wandering Haight/Ashbury.  Russell's son Michael would become a corporate honcho, but was not as easy going and eccentric as his dad (who snipped visitor's neckties and framed them on a wall) and not well liked by the others.  He seems to be blamed for some of the mismanagement that plagued the company in its later years.

In addition to Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl wax nostalgic for Tower Records, expressing the sorts of things that anyone who has spent time getting lost in a sea of vinyl can relate to.  My times visiting Tower in NYC in the '90s and later revealed a more sterile, corporate atmosphere, not at all like what is described in this movie.  It happens.  I wonder if Russell popped in those stores to see if the employees were keeping the vibe.  Maybe it didn't matter by then, when bank notes began to overwhelm the enterprise.

I had mixed feelings as I watched ALL THINGS MUST PASS.  Sort of like I had when Barnes and Noble and Border's shut their doors in my town.  They were the bad guys once upon a time, running the mom and pops away.  Now it was their turn.

Postscript: The sort of record store that Tower apparently once was can still be found in places like Soundgarden in Baltimore and Confusion Records in Lake Park, FL.

PPS: Watching this movie also reminded me of the old beloved chain Peaches.  Holler all my South Florida peeps, if you remember.
 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Paterson

In the midst of my film viewing, it was quite a relief to see 2016's PATERSON.  Truly a "balm" as one critic described.  A palate cleanser, if you will, for the hosts of other movies that are self consciously concerned with portent, foreshadowing, significant dialogue, and all those silly rules we've been taught are integral to storytelling.  Sometimes if you introduce a gun in the first act, you don't have to shoot somebody in the third.

Example: Paterson (Adam Driver) is walking his dog, an English bulldog named Marvin, just like every other night.  A carload of what appear to be gang members stop and make ominous statements about how a guy needs to be careful walking such a coveted pooch around the 'hood.  Someone might snatch him, etc. Next scene: Paterson ties Marvin's leash to a post outside the same bar he visits every weeknight.  We've been set up to think that Marvin will be kidnapped.  Nope.  Paterson has his usual beer, chats with the owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and goes home.  Life doesn't always have melodrama.  Sometimes people talk shit and nothing happens.

At home is Paterson's wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), forever creating things with black and white patterns, including cupcakes, with which she someday hopes to open her own business.  Laura also wants to be a country music star and orders a guitar advertised by Esteban.  That guitar is expensive, but Paterson, who makes a modest living as a bus driver, only has a fleeting concern because he loves and supports his wife.  She in turn encourages him to submit those poems he scribbles every day before work and at lunch for publication.  Even though Paterson, who shares a name with the New Jersey town in which they live, finds reward in the writing itself, not any promise of recognition.

Another scene that threatens to turn into cheap drama - Paterson is leaving work and notices a young girl sitting alone in front of the bus station.  He's concerned about her, and offers to sit on the wall with her until her mother and sister pick her up.  Paterson and his new friend discover their mutual love for writing poems, and the scene ends without incident. Mom and sis pick her up.  No intimations of inappropriate behavior by Paterson, no contrived misunderstandings by the mother.  See how that works?

You might argue that in real life the scene might raise concerns.  Sad state we're in.  PATERSON is in fact a fantasy, a film that makes what is quite a dangerous city look fairly benign and leafy.  You might also say that an unfailingly loyal, stay at home wife is quite a rarity these days.  As is a main character who refuses to own a cell phone.  Or a bar owner who won't mount a T.V. at the bar for sports fans.  Laura in fact remarks that she feels like they're living in the twentieth century when they go to a theater to see an old B & W thriller. 

Writer/director Jim Jarmsuch fashions his movie that way, allowing his characters to enjoy a simple life, and to be content with it.  They do have dreams, aspirations, but they're not the sort of restless urban- and suburbanites we're used to seeing in films with people in their twenties.  The movie is a celebration of the beauty found in the routines.  The comfort of knowing someone is by your side, always ready to encourage you.  Seeing art on a matchbook or in the snatches of conversations heard on the bus. Not observing the daily grind with dread and ennui, but with anticipation that something fascinating, now matter how seemingly minor, will occur. Jarmusch has made many films that seem to barely move, that are fascinated with repetition and pattern.  That see beyond that and find the pulse, perhaps a blooming flower.

The director allows another moment set up to be something potentially devastating when Paterson's bus suffers an electrical failing and stalls, requiring his riders to get off and wait for the next one.  When Paterson later relays this story, at least two people express relief that the bus didn't explode into a fireball.  You know, like in the movies not directed by Jim Jarmusch.

P.S. What do you make of the "twin" motif, invisible audience?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces

Sunday, May 21st, 2017 is a day Twin Peaks fans have been anticipating with the restlessness of a child on Christmas Eve.  "See you in twenty-five years" Laura Palmer said to Special Agent Dale Cooper in the Black Lodge during the season finale of the show back in 1991. It turned out to be the series finale.  It also turned out to be a promise that would be kept, in a show biz miracle you don't see very often; cable network Showtime will present - over two and a half decades later - Season Three, in eighteen parts over the summer, all episodes directed by David Lynch and co-written by co-creator Mark Frost.  But back when ABC cancelled the show, many of the devoted felt Laura's words would forever hang in a void, left for fans to write their own sequel.

In 1992, Lynch returned to the Pacific Northwest to cover the final week of Laura's life in the not-well- received prequel TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME.  Many fans felt the show's homespun whimsy was largely eschewed for total darkness.  They weren't wrong.  The movie is relentlessly, decidedly grim, with only the occasional flicker of humor.  I liked it at the time, and have grown to really appreciate it as I've gotten older.  It is a startlingly assured, heartbreaking mosiac of familial dysfunction and its overlap with the supernatural. The T.V. show worked for the same reasons, but lightheartedness and more traditional melodrama helped leaven the terrifying elements, of which there were plenty.  The movie alienated many fans, and baffled everyone else.

So that's one of the reasons why the collection of FIRE WALK WITH ME's deleted scenes, dubbed THE MISSING PIECES, is such a treasure.  It had a Hollywood premiere in 2014 and was then included on the DVD/Blu-ray collection that included the original series and the movie.  I purchased it a few months ago and brushed up on my lore.  Lynch has stated that FIRE WALK WITH ME will point the way to some of developments of this new trip to a small town riddled with secrets.  The missing pieces in fact do include a never before seen plot development that more than suggests how the mysterious ring that Laura unwisely accepted will play into new plotlines.

That comes toward the end of the anthology.  Prior, it is revealed that what hit the cutting room floor could have in fact pleased fans of the old show.  The gentle, eccentric behavior of folks like Pete Martell and Deputy Andy.  The sweet, forbidden romance of Big Ed Hurley and Norma (their late night scene in a car, listening to music is one of the warmest, most romantic things Lynch has ever filmed).  Several Twin Peaks characters who were not in the film make a very welcome return via these clips, and would've made FIRE WALK WITH ME a film that might've made the darkness much easier to digest.  I do wish Lynch had left in a scene with the Palmer family, actually laughing around the dinner table (as they try to speak Norwegian).   The inclusion of this scene would make the other, later, far more serious moments in that domicile even more effective in their contrast, rather than merely didactic.

But...many of the deleted moments are that for a good reason. Not simply because they would've made a long film even longer.  Some scenes feel like rehearsals, actors trying to find the rhythm.  While it was a relief to see Agent Cooper being playful, standing in a doorway, flirting with the infamously unseen Diane, the scene is too long and a bit too goofy.   You might say likewise of a lengthy fistfight between Agent Desmond and Sheriff Cable, though it is a great scene.   Other moments are sufficiently creepy, as when Laura is briefly possessed by BOB, her face bathed in harsh lighting, or the bravura sequence of The Man from Another Place, BOB, and some other dudes, um, communicating in a room over the convenience store.  The latter is an extension of a scene that was included in the finished film, but goes on to reveal more, and is just friggin' scary as hell.

The same can be said of the entrance of Agent Jeffiries, in a sequence that I originally thought was laughably, near blindingly awful - here, the expanded scene explains quite a bit and makes the babbling a little clearer.

So, if you're reading this before Sunday night the 21st (or later), and you're part of that special cult, and you haven't watched TWIN PEAKS: THE MISSING PIECES?  You know, stop what you're doing and watch.  I can't wait to see how it all fits.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Hijack

I sought out the 1971 novel Hijack on premise alone, described in its tagline: "The Mafia takes to space!"  To me, this was irresistible, a promise of high camp, true pulp fiction.  Edward Wellen's novel did not fall short, and was actually far wittier than expected.  His writing style is quite sardonic, and his story of a Mafia plot to hijack forty rockets at Cape Canaveral to escape Earth, believed to be soon engulfed by an exploding sun ("gone nova"), is completely implausible.  What other writing style would suit such a story?

Wellen sounds like some omniscient wiseacre, clever enough to be sitting at the Algonquin Round Table or just plain cranky enough to hang with those old men in the balcony on The Muppet Show who made smart remarks from their box seats. You can almost hear a gruff voice sitting across the room, telling this darkly comic tale between drags on a cigarette.  His book is fairly rich with detail, maybe even some accurate science here and there, but everything is presented to serve the satirical.  What is Wellen satirizing?  Politics? Of course.  Organized crime?  Yes.  The goombahs who carry it out? Sure.  Highly revered scientists? Definitely.  Science itself? Maybe.

Wellen was better known for short stories, mostly sci-fi, several mysteries. Hijack was his only novel, and a concise one at one hundred and forty pages.  The story has many characters, focusing primarily on Nick, a college educated would-be made man who learns, via an enterprising scientist named Buglewicz, of the coming Apocalypse and organizes an elaborate plan to get the "family" outta dodge and into a new world on a space station.  The story has the familiar elements of gangster melodrama: family infighting, sworn vengeance on dead relatives, a dirty cop, a kingpin who orders business from jail, botched hits, sudden death played for humor, and so on.  There's also attempted matchmaking by Nick's mother, and a mysterious, worldly Mafiosa whose past may have caught up with her.

Wellen gives us some amusing details of each character, down to their smallest tics. Everyone gets a colorful sketch, including a parakeet that never talked before but squawks some fatal information at just the right/wrong time.  A real stool pigeon, haha.  Wellen's writing is sometimes confusing - mainly as he attempts to track so many minor characters - but is wildly visual.  You'll have fun imaging your own little movie with this story.  Somewhat surprising that someone hasn't tried to adapt this.

Hijack has a fair amount of gruesome violence, an expectedly high body count, plenty of un-PC dialogue, and the wryest of outlooks. One of my favorite bits -  Nick and Buglewicz discuss the guest list for the big adventure.  The scientist inquires -

"Have you considered taking a few blacks along?"   
Nick smiled.
"What for?"
"I suppose with mores the way they are, the blacks would have to be females.  What for? To deepen the genetic pool.  If you stick to one stock, the Mediterranean, inbreeding will bring out the worst of your recessive traits."


The author allows his mind to run wild with tangents that become integral to the story in the later chapters - including some treacherous dealings with the black Mafia.  It was at that point that I suspected Hijack was more interested in a patently social commentary than in science fiction, although the genre lends itself to such.  When you reach the punchline, you can't help but smile.   

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Cincinnati Kid

I'm not really into card games, but am nonetheless fascinated when I watch poker matches.  To witness the faces, the pauses, the hesitations.  Of the ones I've seen in person, even a good natured game among friends can reek of sweat and despair, sometimes growing more tense with each hand.  Numerous films have used this culture as a backdrop to examine the psychological profiles of the players.  Often a desperate lot.  All strata of society.  Some wear fancier threads than others, but the anxiousness within and without may be similar.  Many cardsharps find no satisfaction in winning though are driven by that goal.  If reached, they may well sink into a deep depression.  Witness that great final moment of Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT.  Elliott Gould's expression says everything you need to know.

1965's THE CINCINNATI KID, to my eyes a bit too similar to the earlier THE HUSTLER, spends a few days with "The Kid" aka Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen).  He's an upstart poker hotshot who seems to possess innate talent for the game, with a quiet confidence to match.  We first see him walking the streets of New Orleans, past a parade of jazz musicians and stopping to pitch pennies with a shoe shine boy; even in that innocent game, "The Kid" always wins.

Lancy Howard (Edward G. Robinson), "The Man", is in town and The Kid wants to take him down.   A dealer named Shooter (Karl Malden, quite good) warns Stoner not to try, speaking from experience. Shooter is a decent soul, a put upon sad sack with an alluring, lecherous wife named Melba (Ann-Margaret) and has spent the last quarter century trying to go legit. When a rich local named William Jefferson Slade (Rip Torn) threatens Shooter into crookedly dealing for The Kid during the big match, the poor lug finds himself unable to refuse, what with big debts owed to Slade, who also has some potential blackmail involving Melba.

Much of THE CINCINNATI KID takes place behind tables in smoky, sunlight deprived rooms. You can almost taste the stench of moldy wall to wall carpeting.   Lots of soft dialogue announcing the latest hand.  It never ceased to hold my interest.  Much credit must go to Hal Ashby's editing. It's tense and almost exciting at times.  The average shot lengths are always just right.  No silly inserts of eyes peering over cards.  Let's not forget Norman Jewison's thoughtful direction.  There is a natural drama unfolding as each card is placed on the table.

Who wins? Important, but the movie isn't all about the match.  Ultimately, someone will get some hard lessons in Life. Cliched? Of course, right down to Joan Blondell's amusing turn as Lady Fingers, a grand dame of the parlor.  But there may be a ray of hope to assuage the sad resignation.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Arturo's

Dinner at Arturo's Ristorante in Boca Raton was one of the more amusing nights out I've had in some time.  I joined my wife, her best friend and her husband, the husband's sister and her spouse, and another of my wife's childhood friends, for a truly memorable dining experience back in April.  The occasion was the best friend's birthday, but my own was the next day, Easter Sunday, so to a lesser extent it was for me as well.

It's an Italian restaurant, long in existence. Arturo Gismondi began serving his homemade dishes in 1983, and his children and grandchildren continue the tradition today.  We had dinner on the main floor,  the one with the piano.  We'll get to that.  Our waiter and his assistants brought out the food on those multi-level carts, real old school.  If you order a slice of pie, the server will grab the entire thing from the cart and carve it right there.

The food was good.  Very good.  I had the Caloppina di Vitello alla Francese, battered veal in a white wine sauce.  The others all voiced similar approval for their selections.  The Coda d'Aragosta alla Fiorentina - very large shrimp accompanied by clams and mussels - looked scrumptious.   Honestly, I like the cuisine at Trattoria Romana in east Boca a bit more, but Arturo's menu is still prime.  The atmosphere is very elegant; the restaurant was built to resemble a Tuscan villa.  You can have a small party downstairs, in the wine cellar.

Back on the main floor, the night really got entertaining once the piano man was rolling.  Renditions of Sinatra and Dino made up most of the set list.  Wait, no Rosemary Clooney? No Pat Cooper?  One of the hosts began belting out all the expected sentimental chestnuts.  Many diners that night were of age.  They couldn't help but get up and dance in the small area in front of the baby grand.  A bit awkward, as servers have to pass through there to get to the tables, but it's all part of the family feeling.  The singing ranged from agreeable to downright cheesy.  The same could be said of the dancing.

Much of that was courtesy of a gentleman named Giovanni.  He got out there and tripped the light, well, you know.  No matter that he was Greek.  He even threw down a few (plastic) plates. He motioned to a few younger ladies, including my wife, to join him! Then, pop hits old and new drew a few more wallflowers.  Good times.

But before this giddiness, Giovanni attempted to fire up some bananas foster.  It took two efforts, as he was perhaps foolishly multi-tasking - delivering orders to other tables and every so often watching his project,  trying not to burn the place down.  He did indeed scorch the first plate.  When he attempted to use the same one again, our party balked.  His reaction was best described as disbelief.  His WTF stare was icy.   It was awkward there for a minute or two.  Oddly hilarious, too.  But really, so was the entire night.

During Giovanni's dark cloud moment I was reminded of an unfavorable review I saw online:  "The owner has no customer service skills and neither does the waiter."  I disagree, but I do appreciate the family style, even if you get the occasional dirty look.

Arturo's Ristorante
6750 North Federal Highway
Boca Raton, FL  33487
(561) 997-7373 
arturosrestaurant.com

Monday, May 8, 2017

Glengarry Glen Ross

1992's GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS is not a great movie per se, but showcases a gallery of knockout performances that, while it plays out in all its obscene glory, sure seems that way.  It's easy to get lost in the ferocious performances of Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and in one amusing, classic scene, Alec Baldwin.  For this project, it's all about the acting and the writing.  David Mamet adapted his own play, and has again written dialogue that sounds like music.  It's a joy to listen to.  Someone even coined the term "Mametspeak" to describe the rhythmic torrents that when flying out of the right actors' mouth are as sublime as anything written in its era.

But as a film, GLENGARRY is competent but unremarkable.  James Foley directs minimally, aside from a few stylish touches (rain, colored neon, unusual camera angles) here and there.  This is also not merely a filmed play; several scenes do take place outside the office.    I suppose any director would've been wise to stand back and let the cast go, offering guidance only when requested.  I picture Lemmon maybe having a frustrated moment or two, closing his eyes and asking Foley for a line or a motivation.  It's hard to quantify what makes a film great inherently when you've analyzed all the usual things: editing, cinematography, composition.  I found myself wondering what the movie would've been like if Scorsese had directed - quick edits and zooms, well chosen music. Or Mike Nichols - similar use of lighting, some close-ups? Another "actor's director" approach? Maybe something like Hal Ashby used to do?

No matter.  The cast put this trenchant examination of the American Dream (dubbed by the actors as "Death of a Fuckin' Salesman") over so effectively you're just exhausted and stunned by the time the ending comes.  And I really like how Foley ends this movie, somewhat abruptly as one of the hapless real estate agents once again picks up the phone, trying to convince someone to buy land.  Then we cut to that near constantly present elevated train roaring past the office.  Life goes on.  No matter what harrowing shit goes down in the boiler room, be it robberies, interrogations, or hurt feelings, there will always be a monthly quota to meet.

At the opening of the film, a company guy named Blake (Baldwin) arrives to verbally abuse/motivate the  sales guys, offering a Cadillac for the top seller.  The other options are a set of steak knives or walking papers.  Blake's speech has become legend, constantly quoted.  "A. B. C.  Always. Be. Closing."  His audience isn't motivated, they're defeated and pissed.  Such condescension.  Who does this guy think he is?  They're out there busting hump, given dead end leads by their weasly office manager Williamson (Spacey), trying to make a living.  Moss (Harris) takes it especially hard, in many subsequent scenes describing how Medieval it's all become, this method of intimidation, this corporate bullshit.  George Aaronow (Arkin) can do little but agree with him.  Shelley Levine (Lemmon) is the saddest of all, a former hotshot who finds that his smooth patter doesn't cut it anymore.  His desperation fueled by having a sick wife.

Richard Roma (Pacino) is the #1 slickster du jour, seen in the early moments of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS in a Chinese restaurant convincing an easily convincible man (Jonathan Pryce) to drop several grand.  Roma's pitch will be familiar to anyone who's had the misfortune of sitting down with one of these vipers.  Guys like him are America's "winners", the ones who flash the expensive accoutrements. But even Ricky will have to back pedal, employ crafty dishonesty to try to save a sale.  A scene with Pacino, Pryce, and Lemmon late in the film is probably as real as it gets when it comes to sales hucksterism.  Mamet really nails it.

The insight the writer has into the desperate middle-ager trying to not just get his slice of the pie, but just eke out a living, extends also to some of their clients.  Blake yells in his tirade that if a guy is on the lot, he wants to buy.  But we also learn some customers don't intend to buy anything, they're just lonely and want someone to chat with.