Monday, August 29, 2011

The Kentucky Fried Movie

The "anthology" comedy enjoyed a nice run in the mid- to late 1970s. In the wake of the popularity of sketch comedy on stage (Second City) and television (Saturday Night Live) came several cinematic pastiches that smashed together a series of bits of varying subject matter (and quality). While hints of a thread may have existed through their short running times, most of these films were comprised of a parade of unrelated shorts. Our focus: 1977's THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, one of the few worth watching.

A few years earlier, THE GROOVE TUBE tickled audiences with its nutty (and sometimes smutty) send-ups of TV programs and commercials. A pre-SNL Chevy Chase appeared in a few segments. THE GROOVE TUBE was enough of a success to inspire imitators, most quite bad: TUNNELVISION, PRIME TIME, JOKES MY FOLKS NEVER TOLD ME, LOOSE SHOES....All had their moments, but wading through painfully unfunny blackouts was a real test for viewers who weren't either stoned and/or losing their virginity at a drive-in theater. THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is a noticeably better example of this quaint genre, perhaps because of its pedigree: writers David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams would go on to make AIRPLANE!, while director John Landis would oversee some of the most popular comedies of the late 70s/early 80s (ANIMAL HOUSE, et. al). The Zuckers had been producing a stage revue, The Kentucky Fried Theater; Landis had directed only one film prior, 1971's horror spoof SCHLOCK.

THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is similiar in structure to the other films, if a bit broader (in many senses) in scope. Its targets are not only related to TV but also public service announcements, drive-in films, disaster films, porno films, martial arts films, and so on. The 78 minute running time gives a disproprtionate 1/2 hour or so to A FISTFUL OF YEN, a parody of Bruce Lee movies, specifically ENTER THE DRAGON. The fight scenes are actually pretty good (extras were recruited from Los Angeles karate studios) and certain running ZAZ gags would be introduced, including a damnation of the city of Detroit. YEN is so lengthy you almost forget that there are/will be other gags.

Leading up to YEN are commercial parodies with Bill Bixby (a headache remedy called Sanhedrin), a news/entertainment program spoof during which a gorilla runs amok (a Landis trademark), periodic newscaster updates (example: "I'm not wearing any pants, film at 11") and the showstopper, a trailer for CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS IN TROUBLE, a riotous send-up of 70s porn that demonstrates the adage, "if you parody something, you gotta be it". Ever see Terry Southern's CANDY? In other words, CHSGIT is about as filthy as its target. No cliche is left untouched, plus the filmmakers manage to work in references to legitimite movies and commercials of the day as well. It may be reaching, but I think there may also be a leering wink to Russ Meyer.

Because of CHSGIT and the final segment, "Eyewitness News", where a rather amorous couple are nearly oblivious to the newscasters on their television who can see their lovemaking and get rather aroused themselves, KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE has this reputation of being quite a dirty and raunchy film. But most of the other bits are almost PG by comparison. Hare Krishas knocking back a few after a long day of handing out pamphlets, a disaster film spoof called THAT'S ARMAGEDDON!, a family playing a board game called "Scot Free". Though watch out for that prop in the B & W television courtroom spoof, "Courtroom" and "Big Jim Slade"! My personal favorites are "Danger Seekers", the, ahem, aforementioned Catholic girl thing, the "Feel-A-Round" segment, and another mock trailer for CLEOPATRA SCHWARTZ, an action exploitation film with a Pam Grier-like hot chick who brandishes justice with shotguns and has a meek Hassidic Jewish rabbi as her sidekick!

The recent DVD reissue by Anchor Bay features the Zuckers, Abrahams, and Landis offering candid recollections of THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, often quite critical of the skits they feel drag on too long. You'll likely agree if you bother to listen. Either way, KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is a guilty pleasure that evokes the joys of sneaking into the drive-in in your friend's trunk and/or catching a late night HBO thrill while your parents are asleep. You'll also see the genesis of the talent of some very funny guys....





Thursday, August 25, 2011

Adieu

I find it hard to fathom that 4 years have passed since I moved to this sweet hideaway on Washington Road. A small apartment hidden behind a large driveway fence and a forest of bamboo trees. It was the perfect bachelor spot. I knew from my first walk-through that it would be home.

I was still in my final years of grad school, but doing an "externship" (full-time clinical duties, no academics). My mother had recently underwent surgery and began a long rehabilitation that is still in progress. I had lived at her place while in school. The last time I had had my own apartment was in 1998 at the now long gone Alpine apartments on Olive Ave. It was exciting to have my own space again.

The first month, I had almost no furniture. I purchased (and slept on) a sofa with a hide-a-bed from the previous tenant, who now lived in the unit upstairs. I learned from him that my small place was even smaller just a few years before. His girlfriend, who also lived upstairs, told me that the living room had been enclosed and "looked like a postage stamp". The landlord had removed one wall and opened it up to the kitchen area. The apartment was not spacious by any means, but just fine for one guy. Side note: the place had/has 2 bathrooms and 1 bedroom. This was because of an addition/remodel at some point. I learned from my landlord's foreman that my place was once a traditional 2-story house. Even in the earlier part of the 2000s, he had difficulty selling it.

My electric bill averaged about $35.00 per month. No joke. Even during the punishing summers it never went north of $55-$60. This was due to low ceilings and plentiful shade from said bamboo forest. Can't say that about too many units in the Palm Beaches.

After moving in I quickly indulged in the benefits of bachelor living: any kind of music as loudly as I wanted (or at least to a level that didn't tick off the neighbors), eating at places besides the dining room table, and a relaxed attitude toward housekeeping. However, the place was always fairly clean, unlike the apartments of my 20s, oh boy. I had my first real pine Christmas tree there, too.

In 2009, the couple upstairs purchased a house a little out west and moved on. They had been looking even before their baby was born. Their unit was the same size as mine; way too small for 3. A young woman and her boyfriend moved in a few months later. They fought a lot, loudly. She was a waitress in her father's Palm Beach bistro and had late hours. She and her friends would begin parties up there at 2 A.M. The couple was there for about 6 months. They were friendly kids, though we never actually hung out with them. The current tenant is a very nice (and quiet) middle-aged guy, an ideal neighbor who we've gotten to know a little. I'm continually ashamed of how bad I am with being neighborly. It's not getting any easier as I age.

I also got married in 2009 and now had a wife and kitty sharing my little space. It was obvious almost immediately that it was no longer sufficient. This was mainly because we had too much stuff, which cluttered the living room and prohibited any attempts at having guests. We stuck it out for over 2 years, but even earlier we began looking for houses and apartments. We originally considered purchasing something but we both realized that we are ready to bolt out of Florida in the not-so-distant future. It is only because of family and my great job that we've stayed this long.

It IS possible to make such a small spot (not sure of the square footage) liveable for 2 people. We talked of using IKEA models, like peeps do in NYC, where units tend to be small. I once read an article about a guy in Tokyo who was able to fit a surprising array of furniture into a 500 square foot apartment, then change the configuration every month. One thousand or so change-ups were photographed and featured in the article. Hard not to be inspired by that.

But, we've finally taken some steps and now we are moving to a much larger place that goes against some of my current criteria: gated community of homogenous units, not in an historic district, many retirees. I was adamant about living in an older style place with wood floors, my preference. So, I've compromised a bit in the name of more space, but it was necessary. Yes, there are several historic neighborhoods in Eastern West Palm Beach with amazing homes and apartments. Mostly homes, though. If I were still single, I'd be just fine with living in these funky old school walk-ups that you find behind those gorgeous old homes off Flagler Drive. Many would find that a case of arrested development, perhaps. People seem to have this idea that you're supposed to live in a "normal" place.

In a strange bit of paradox, I'm NOT fond of "old Florida" apartments/condos with their jalousy windowed doors and terazzo floors. They remind me of the prototypical Florida senior quarters. Depressing.

No, our next place is not that old, even if some of the neighbors will be. It is a quite attractive unit in a very well maintained complex to which I'm acclimating quickly. We sat during our screening and listened to all the rules and regs. Our interviewer was quite blunt about the plethora of "crotchety old folks" who tend to shoot off their mouths over the smallest things. We're used to that noise; my wife and I both grew up here.

I will document the new chapters of condo life semi-regularly. But right now I have to once more reflect on this closing chapter. A lot happened over these four years here. Graduation, marriage, an as-yet-to-be-disclosed-on-this-blog huge discovery about my identity. This apartment will live in my memory like the previous ones, all distinguished in some way. But this last one was just so liveable, a real haven of calm. I will often reflect on the peace of the swaying bamboo outside of my bedroom window, watching my cat bat the neighborhood felines through the glass of our French doors, hearing the specific sound of the front gate as the door swung open. Little things. What was so special about this one? Maybe it was the clandestine landscape; one felt as if he was nestled in a secret retreat. I will miss it....

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gentlemen Broncos

Some years ago I began reading about this quirky film called NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. Professional reviewer and imdb poster alike were raving of the droll exploits of a nerdy teen making his way through high school in rural Idaho. It did not sound enticing. The film finally opened relatively close to me and by that time, it seemed that it already achieved cult status. I went to see it and within 10 minutes I knew what all the shouting was about. The filmmakers recognized how to milk a dreary landscape with dour characters into comedic gold. The timing of dialogue and facial reactions of characters were priceless. The actors seemed to have an understanding of the importance of "beats" and eye contact to maintain the tone. The audience at the theater was knowing and appreciative. I would later buy the DVD and my wife and I have watched it countless times, still finding some nuance not noticed before.

The director was a 25 year old Mormon named Jared Hess. He and his wife Jerusha collaborated on the screenplay for NAPOLEON. They followed it up with the mild but enjoyable NACHO LIBRE, starring Jack Black. Some of the same smug goofiness was there, but things were a bit broader, cruder. One of the remarkable things about the PG-rated NAPOLEON was how clean it was in an era of AMERICAN PIE and ROAD TRIP type crassness. It managed to be hilarious without any real profanity ("friggin" was about the worst it got) or sex gags. NACHO was still family friendly, but the material was second rate and while the satiric tone held most of the way, it just wasn't that memorable, even with the allegedly Wes Andersonian touches. Was it the dreaded sophomore slump? If so, I'm hard pressed to find an excuse for the Hesses' latest, GENTLEMEN BRONCOS.

In a sentence, this is one of the worst studio films I have ever seen. No kidding. I've seen some real refuse in my 34 years of filmgoing, too. I can include or exclude the real bottom of the barrel direct to video schlockers that don't even deserve a mention by title, "video nasties" that exist only to appeal to bloodlust or the viewer's genitals. No, the worst films are often the ones that have talent behind the camera, people we know are capable of much better. When they write and direct something as witless and painfully unfunny as GENTLEMEN BRONCOS, it just seems worse than even legendarily bad films of all stripes like ISHTAR, STREET TRASH, and THE BELIEVERS.

As with many bad films, the intial ideas of BRONCOS are promising: severely introverted, home-schooled teen Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) attends a sci-fi writer's conference to enter his beloved masterwork "Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years" in a competition judged by a luminary in the field, one Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jermaine Clement of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords", here sporting an amusing gutteral accent). Chevalier wote his first galactic trilogy as a young teen and is very happy to remind you of that with each encounter. His sessions typically end in humiliation for his fans, budding Bradburys and Asimovs all, as Chevalier dismisses the young charges' ideas and even their names for characters. "Nebbacanezzer?" he scoffs at a disciple, "how predictable!" That sequence had the germ of funny, but it drags on far too long, like an interminable one joke Saturday Night Live skit.

Chevalier is also currently creatively blocked. When he does produce a new tome of late, it is dismissed by his editors. As he reads through one turgid manuscript after another during the competition, he discovers "Yeast Lords" and sees his deliverance. He changes the names and a few details and again reclaims his celebrity.

Meanwhile, Benjamin returns to his sad life in Utah in one of those 1970s "dome" houses with his mother (Jennifer Coolidge, often funny nonetheless), the owner of a dress shop. The garments are as sad as the proprieters. To make things worse, Benjamin works there as well. His lot does not improve when Tabitha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jiminez), two utter flakes he meets at the conference, show interest in his story and offer to film it. Lonnie is a self-proclaimed artist who boasts that his company has produced 85 films (they're actually merely trailers). Benjamin suffers what many writers do when filmmakers get their hands on their works - the adaptation: the omissions, the unfortunate additions, etc. The resulting film plays at local theater to many deserved jeers. The filmmakers have no talent.

Part of the joke of GENTLEMEN BRONCOS, I think, is that neither do Benjamin or Chevalier. We are periodically treated to breaks in the main story, episodes bringing the "Yeast Lords" book to life, complete with Sam Rockwell as Bronco, the protagonist. The episodes are intentionally awful on the Hesses' part, recounting a story that has something to do with testes in jars and ammo that fires out of women's breasts and reindeers' anuses. I could try to tell you the real plot of "Yeast Lords", but trust me, it ain't worth anyone's bother. These sequences are quite oblique, but strangely uninteresting. The 50s B-movie parody sequences in AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON were more entertaining than anything here. Maybe I am just not in tune with the humor. Maybe I don't get what are certain to be specific targets. All during this movie, I imagined a small contingent of certain viewers laughing hysterically. Good for them, baaaadd for everyone else.

Benjamin eventually learns that Chevalier plagiarized his work and we are treated to a climax and denouement that is far more satisfying than the nonsense that preceded it. I sat in disbelief as a non-stop parade of testicle, excrement, and breast jokes played out. This film is truly fixated on them. The Hesses have made a gross out comedy that nonethless is still relatively clean, but is just awesomely bad. It just tries too hard, often desparately. The reason NAPOLEON worked so well was because it just allowed its characters to be themselves. The humor blossomed out of that. In BRONCOS we are served distorted faces, ridiculous accents, clumsy, esoteric satire, and the aforementioned preoccupation with gags related to the human (and even snake!) anatomy. Did Jared and Jerusha channel their inner 6-year olds when they wrote this?!

It's tempting to call the movie stupid, but it's clear that a certain subculture is getting a knowing ribbing. Jabs at sci-fi fandom and those who perhaps can't quite reconcile reality are not spared, and there is an occasional laugh or at least smile as a result. Sci-fi books and films also get a good skewer, especially when one attempts to defend its merit as a genre. Unfortunately, GENTLEMEN BRONCOS seems more content with going over-the-top with goofiness and obscure humor. Not that I mind either (I love BUCKAROO BANZAI, for example), but it really does not come off here.

I read a posting that stated one needs to be familiar with life in Utah to really get this movie. That is more effort than I am willing to spend to reconsider this, um, turd of a movie.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Day For Night

Director Francois Truffaut was one of the most inveterate film obsessors in the history of the medium. You can read about how he, like many other future filmmakers (Kubrick among them), was a poor student. Poor not because he wasn't capable, but just disinterested. Truffaut realized early on where his heart sang. His earliest goals? To "see 3 movies a day and read 2 books a week." He spent some years as a film critic before stepping behind the camera himself.

By the time he created 1973's love poem to moviemaking, DAY FOR NIGHT, he was one of the world's most acclaimed auteurs, with SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER and THE 400 BLOWS gracing his resume. As I watched DAY FOR NIGHT, seeing Truffaut play Ferrand, an amicable but determined director of a soapy romance called JE VOUS PRESENTE PAMELA, or MEET PAMELA, I wondered how close this performance was to his day to day. We hear him at times in voiceover, explaining that a director's job is to answer an endless stream of inquiries from the crew. You wonder if that hearing aid he wears is to discourage even more questions about which weapon to use for a key scene or what to do about a starlet who tried to keep her pregancy a secret and is about to do a pool scene in a two-piece.

Ferrand also mirrors his real life counterpart by, in one scene, marveling over the books he has delivered to the set: biographies and assorted tomes about Hitchcock, Lubitsch, Dreyer, Godard, Bresson, and others. Is it little wonder Ferrand also has recurring dreams of being a young boy stealing posters of CITIZEN KANE from a theater?

DAY FOR NIGHT tracks several weeks of the production of MEET PAMELA, introducing us to the actors: Jacqueline Bisset is Julie Baker, whose character falls in love with her fiance's father; Valentine Cortese is Severine, the fiance's mother; Jean-Pierre Aumont is Alexandre, the father; Jean-Piere Leaud is Alphonse, the fiance. The onscreen drama is echoed by (or echoes) the on-set intrigue.

Baker had nervous breakdowns on previous pictures and an ill-advised liaison on the current film leads to another. Severine's aging screen matron hits the bottle and can't quite get her blocking right, having to repeat a scene where she opens the correct door over and over and over. She also had worked before with Alexandre, the elder hearthrob, and a recurrence of earlier real-life drama between them seems to be a whisper away. Most dramatic of all is Alphonse, an alarmingly insecure young man who falls in love at the drop of a hat. His jealousy toward script girl Liliane (Dani) becomes set legend, both enriching and endangering his performance. The art imitates life/life imitates art adage gets much mileage here.

Truffaut hits many filmic bases with DAY FOR NIGHT. The nervous insurance guys/bond holders. The uncooperative animal actors (here, a kitten who won't drink a saucer of milk on cue). He'll show us the secrets behind the use of fake snow and stunt doubles. Also, sets that aren't what they seem (such as a window on a hill that appears to be part of a house). Film has been called "the great lie" and "heightened realism". Truffaut does nothing to dispel these labels. He portrays many of the crew as those who postively live for the cinema, who do not find fulfillment in anything else. Another script girl (Nathalie Baye) explains before a fade out how she could understand giving up a man for a film, but certainly not the reverse. Ferrand will counsel his actors during their lowest points by explaining that they are people who will only find meaning in their work, on the set. Life will always be a pale imitation.

DAY FOR NIGHT, which took the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, should appeal to more than just buffs, though. Its whimsy and relational politics are in the great Truffaut tradition, maybe a bit fluffier in this movie than his others.

Friday, August 12, 2011

PBA, Book IV

As I jump through my PBA timeline I would certainly be remiss in forgetting to tell you about the time I fell in the Lake. Yup. Embarrassing as anything. I was wandering around First Baptist Church's Chapel by the Lake, an ampitheater built in the 1960s, across from the College. I was killing time before I took the mandatory CLAST exam, a standardized test undergrads had to take before they could continue on to their junior year. It was early on a Saturday morning in March of 1989, and a bit chilly for Florida.

I stared down at the Intracoastal Waterway and over at Palm Beach as I had many times before. I started to hear the scrapes of skateboards on concrete. Kids yelling. The sloping cement aisles of the Chapel were always popular with boarders. I listened for a bit, eventually hearing something that caused me to do a slight turn, and enough to send me backward into the water. I was fortunate to just miss some jagged rocks. The water was shallow but pretty cold. I stood in waist deep water, dumbfounded. Those kids never knew I fell in, but a guy walking his dog along Flagler Drive did. I looked up at him and his pooch with what I imagined was relief and embarrassment. While I could have climbed my way out unassisted, he offered his arm and soon I was on the grass, dog tongue in my face. I was mortified for a few seconds, but it quickly turned to anxiety. I was due to take a test in 1/2hour!

Luckily, I was wearing all black and you could not tell I was wet. I figured no one would know. I slinked into the bathroom in Borbe Hall and exhausted the paper towel supply. It wasn't enough to prevent a drip trail from my corduroys. I stood in line to the classroom, chatting with some classmmates as if nothing unusual had happened. Only one teacher who saw a puddle I left down the hall threatened my secret. I sat down in a cold room (inexplicably, the air conditioning was turned way down on a cool day) to take the exam, hoping I would not catch pneumonia. Everything turned out OK.

That same semester, I wrote about this experience for my Creative Writing course. I wrote the entire thing in 30 minutes flat. I received an A+ for a piece that required very little of my soul, unlike the other assignments for which I really put in some effort. It was so well received by the prof and my classmmates that it ended up in the yearly Lit mag! I couldn't believe it. I mentioned this in my review for the film TALK RADIO here last year.

Later that year I began dating a girl with whom I also worked at Eckerd Drug. It would be my first lesson in "don't mix business with pleasure" or the cliche of your choice. She was a pistol, that girl. She did most of the driving, as I was still a few months away from getting my own ride. It was a stormy relationship that spilled over into our work. Initially, we flirted in the aisles as Little River Band and America droned overhead. We would also sneak away into the storage room...Later, when the inevitable fights began, we would fire sarcasm at each other across the store, sometimes right in front of customers. It got bad enough to necessitate the manager scheduling us on different days.

Why did we fight? I can say it was mainly because I was a bit jealous of her friendliness with other guys. I was 20 but very immature. I had this idea that she and I would last. I didn't like her liberal affection with everyone. Maybe there was a bit of Jake LaMotta in my Italian blood. Got me. The corker came when one of my other co-workers tipped me off that my so-called gf and some other dude (a bagboy from the Winn-Dixie next door, no less) were getting cozy in the parking lot. I came over and while I did not catch them engaging in any illicit activity, it was clear that my beloved liked to play the field. A few weeks later, I broke it off. She (coincidentally?) quit a week or so after that.

What does this have to do with PBA? Stay tuned........

TO BE CONTINUED

Monday, August 8, 2011

Who Killed the Electric Car?

The 2006 documentary WHO KILLED THE ELECRTIC CAR? opens with a funeral procession. A line of sedans files into a Southern California cemetery, the hoods covered with wreaths. A eulogy is read. The departed? The General Motors EV1, the first mass produced electric car. As GM only allowed the cars to be leased, every last one of them had to be turned in after the California Air Resources Board reversed their own decision to combat air pollution (the Zero- emissions vehicle mandate of 1990).

Why? Director Chris Paine formulates a few theories. Big Oil. The auto manufacturers themselves (Chrysler and Toyota, among others, also produced electric vehicles). The GW Bush Administration. There were multiple lawsuits and muscle from each of them. An electric car does not need oil. You know the rest. You may well just end the discussion right there. But, there are other variables. What about the push for hydrogen powered cars? No other than W himself took the pulpit and offered his approval. Did all of the enthusiasm and R & D $$$s also kill the electric car? There isn't enough space here for me to postulate the problems with hydrogen (not clean burning, not easily extracted, etc.) and how its adoption would be a retrograde step for consumers and the environment.

WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? is comprised of a listing of culprits (the above, as well as battery manufacturers) and an ongoing serial of several EV1 owners who become activists, even willing to be arrested as they try to block a semi that will haul the last of the EV1s to their destruction. The latter follows very devoted folks, celebrities (Alexandra Paul, Ed Begley, Jr., Mel Gibson, et. al) and regular joes as their bewilderment turns to anger and action. Paine structures this thread almost like a straight drama. We become concerned for those hunks of metal, what they symbolize, what could've been.

Of course, those right of center will be quick to brand WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? liberal pap. Even as someone who is definitely not in that group, I at times felt the film was a bit content with pointing fingers, and not considering other points of view. I'm all about sticking it to the Man, but equal time should be given to all the talking heads. Not just in terms of screen time, but also in how the principals are presented. This films bathes the EV1 owners and "green" proponents almost in an angelic glow, fighting an uphill battle as if they were fighting a degenerative disease. I'm not saying the environment is not an essential cause, but this movie, at times, portrays its heroes as positively oppressed. Paine paces his doc with a heavy hand.

The coporate guys are of course shown as abrupt, bottom line minions who cite chapter and verse as to why production of electric vehicles were halted. The lines of horseshit they deliver are as unconvincing as some of their hairlines, but I wish maybe we could listen to them a bit longer? Are they really this greedy and one dimensional? Is anyone? Possibly. This movie suggests a conspiracy among Big Business and politicos; don't stop the presses on that one. But, the slant in ELECTRIC CAR was bit more lefty than necessary.

Therein lies the unavoidable problem with so many docs: subjectivity. Some filmmakers are blatant, like Michael Moore. I've championed unabashedly partisan documentaries like HEARTS & MINDS and DR. DEATH, but in those I felt freer to interpret and arrive at my own conclusions. Paine uses graphics and bullet points to make his case, like we're watching someone's Power Point presentation. Plus, all the electric car peeps wear white hats and the fossil fuel diehards wear black. I like to see the waters muddied a bit more; that's reality, but it could trip up your thesis.

Still, WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? makes salient points about the machinery of government and industry, of how everything is about money. I think most people of a certain age have gathered that much, but seeing it documented is a good reminder and possible catalyst. Thinking back, if anyone should be praising this film, it should be the car battery manufacturers, the only of Paine's suspect list that gets acquitted of the title crime. I'd like to see a facedown between them and the oil companies, the latter of whom blamed the former for the electric car's death. Let's see a battery life chart diagnostic and Shell's balance sheet side by side. That would be a good starting point.

NOTE: Electric cars will be featured on showroom floors yet again. 2011 looks to be a year of re-birth. Nissan's Leaf is electric, while the Chevy Volt will be a "plug-in hybrid". They look to be expensive, but tax credits and state rebates may help. We'll see how the saga unfolds this time.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Wiseacre Duos: 10cc, Part II

1974's Sheet Music was 10cc's sophomore effort and for my pound note, their best. A flowering of eccentric creativity and a myriad of styles, this album goes far beyond the debut, encompassing several genres: pop, rock, C&W, R&B, experimental, ballad, mock ballad, etc etc. It is an endlessly eclectic listening experience. What continues to strike me is how timeless it sounds, how the lads' creative use of the recording studio as an instrument itself has lent to music that never feels out of date.

Out of the 10 tracks, 8 are stellar, one is decent, and one is ambitious but an overblown failure:

1. "The Wall Street Shuffle": Written by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, this track sends up the capitalist market system and the vipers who exploited it to rise to the top. Howard Hughes gets a mention. A hit single in the U.K., it boasts some good digs but the last verse runs out of steam.

2. "The Worst Band in the World": Lol Creme and Gouldman in one of the several cross-polinations of songwriting (recall that Stewart and Gouldman had the more commercial instincts while Creme and Kevin Godley were more daring, experimental). This is a self-acknowledging song in the "biting the hand that feeds" genre. A great, caustic tune that proclaims, "Up yours! Up mine! But up everybody's? That takes time!...but we're working on it!"

3. "Hotel": This one is pure Godley and Creme, a very curious tune and my fave one on this album. Elements of calypso, Motown, doo-wop. Unavoidably boppable with lyrics that may be considered as from the point of view of Yanks or their mockers. Great tune.

4. "Old Wild Men": This is the "decent" song, a mellow lamentation on aging rock stars. It sounds reverent but knowing G & C, it's likely rather a savage parody. It's not bad, with quaint sounding keyboard effects and fuzzy guitar, but mild and undistinguished.

5. "Clockwork Creep": You could accurately call this one a novelty song, with its twisted story of a conversation/pleading between a jumbo jet and the bomb in its cargohold set to detonate. The tempo is rapid with its plinkity piano, and absolutely right to tell this breathless tale. Another prototypical G & C..."but we're gonna crash, that's for certain, the pilot is too busy flirtin'..."

6. "Silly Love": Apparently, this was a tribute/parody of Paul McCartney tunes (the guys were big fans), and Creme and Stewart's lyrical dance is hilarious. Great heavy guitar by the songwriters. Stewart gets to use his funny falsetto, too.

7. "Somewhere in Hollywood": G and C wrote a few epics during their time in 10cc. This is the singular dud: a joyless, overlong, obscure, not especially interesting piece about Tinseltown that has moments of inspiration but just doesn't work. Several 10cc songs are smug, but here the composition is just annoying and dull.

8. "Baron Samedi": Even though it was recorded in the early 70s, this track (by S & G) could sit alongside the Eno sessions of Talking Heads albums from the early 80s. Amazing percussion and ingenious transitions throughout. The song conjures visions of the voodoo subplot of the James Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE, which came out just before this album. Coincidence?

9. "The Sacro-Iliac": Droll number by G and G that addresses the old inevitability of aging, though more specifically the aging one's attempt to be hip, a depressing notion attested to by anyone who's watched middle-agers trying to be cool.

10. "Oh Effendi": Solid guitar work on this biting political track by S & G. As you listen to this stinging attack on relations between the West and the Middle East, you'll realize how little has changed. This song has almost a country feel, with vocal stylings to match, creating a bizarre incongruity that will either impress or leave you cold. Either way, this track, like most of Sheet Music, is bloody genius.

What a deliriously imaginative album! My favorite of theirs. Next time, we'll speak of the next album, the one with their most famous track. A track that finally cracked the American Top 40. We'll also get a little deeper into the process of the songwriting.

To Be Continued.........

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How Soon is Now?

The Smiths Inspire Comic Book Series :: Blogs :: Awesome of the Day :: Paste

I can just see it: panels of Morrissey at a club, looking around, going home alone....

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Tree of Life

"No one who loves the way of grace comes to a bad end."

Whispers, heard throughout. Not so random thoughts, observations, quotations of those who came before. Thoughts of several family members, perhaps seen only as memory fragments. If you ever stop and think on what led you to where you are, you may also begin audibly expressing your feelings, your frustrations. More often, you internalize. When you're a child, some of those thoughts may be directed at a stern but nuturing parent. In a moment you may curse him to banishment, away from your happy home. You may later defend him right back to him, explaining that you understand why he does what he does.

The life of a family in 1950s Texas is the foundation of writer/director Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE, a film like none other I've seen. Oh, I was reminded at times of seminal works like Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and also-rans like Darren Aronofsky's THE FOUNTAIN. I also likened those whispers to some of the narration in Malick's own BADLANDS. Otherwise, THE TREE OF LIFE stands alone in singular beauty and wonder, presented not as a linear work but a fragmented poem, much they way we might sit and remember our own past lives.

A middle-aged architect named Jack (Sean Penn) finds himself lost in the pages of his own history, reminscing of simpler but urgent adolescent days. As he wanders through his workday, barely listening to colleagues and riding in elevators, he revisits that neighborhood block in his small town, the scene of the usual boyhood things: paternal reprimand and guidance, emerging lust, mischief, chores, frustration. These scenes are rendered in shots that rarely last more than five seconds. Many will recognize their own childhoods in these flashes.

Jack remembers his father (Brad Pitt), whose first name we never learn (and children would certainly never dare to utter their parents' first names) as a tough but loving man who would not tolerate being called "dad" and tried to pass along the sort of advice that could bring success to a man in America: don't be too good, don't let anyone take advantage of you. Mr. O'Brien sacrificed a music career to become an inventor, repeatedly seeing his attempts at securing patents unfulfilled. Perhaps he desires that his son not follow in those footsteps.

We do not learn very much about the grown up Jack. We see him briefly in his house, an unidentified woman awakening with him. We see no children. What has become of his life? His memories are haunted by the death of his brother, years after the central events of THE TREE OF LIFE. His mother would receive a telegram, the kind parents got when their children did not return from war. His father would break down after learning the news over the phone, then vainly trying to shrug it off and go back to work. He just couldn't. Neither can Jack, all these years later.

I haven't yet mentioned the breadth of THE TREE OF LIFE's ambitions. No less than an examination of the creation and perpetuation of life itself. Footage of the Big Bang, mysterious auras, and dinosaurs are also part of this film. The first image is of a verse from the Old Testament book of Job:

"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"


A mysterious flame will appear. Clips of rolling fire and water. The Big Bang? Creation? I sat and wondered if Malick was espousing a particular viewpoint, of how it all began. Christianity teaches that God created the earth, with countless Sunday School teachers and pastors trying to explain that the earth is several thousand years old rather than several million. But what about those dinosaurs? Malick actually dares to show them in a scene that questions instinct versus mercy. Or is it back to grace versus nature? Viewers will doubtless have many different things to say about why that predatory Troodon spares the wounded Parasaurolophus. A belief system, whether one espouses "faith" will certainly color one's take.

When I read those first verses of Genesis, I always wondered about time itself. How much time really elapsed after God breathed the world into being over the face of the deep. A formless world. You may have heard of the "gap theory" and its variants. The Bible states that God created the earth in seven days. Twenty-four days? Much debate cotinues to rage over that question. Malick shows scenes of protozoa and increasingly complex lifeforms before we find ourselves back in Waco, Texas with the O'Brien family. Many viewers find it impossible to connect the evolutionary sequences with the 1950s ones. They find it pretentious.

Many also scratched their heads over the ethereal beauty of Malick's WWII pic THE THIN RED LINE. It confused folks; they preferred Speielberg's straight-ahead war drama SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Malick has spent 40 years composing cinematic essays, philosophical plays that are far deeper than the coffee table book surfaces would suggest. The staggering visual beauty of DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE NEW WORLD are exteriors leading to a gateway to contemplation for more patient viewers. As I've covered, most viewers need constant stimulation. I found THE TREE OF LIFE quite stimulating, relaxing, and disturbing. To prompt large questions as this film does is noble enough, but for such an elegiac and personal film to come of it is quite miraculous. I won't try to say too much more about it. See it, and decide if it is worth many more journeys. I will certainly be taking them.