(An Autographed Who's Who of the Screen, 1930)
"I was born in Richmond, Surrey, England, in 1891. When I was sixteen my father died and I got a job as office boy for the British Steamship Company in London at a salary of $2.50 a week. I became bookkeeper and junior accountant for the firm. At school I had played in amateur theatricals and now I continued with the Bancroft Amateur Dramatic Society. At the same time, for exercise and diversion, I enlisted in the London Scottish Regiment. I belonged to this regiment until 1913 and promptly rejoined it when war broke out the following year. I was a private soldier in Kitchener's "Contemptibles" the first hundred thousand of England's army to land in France. At Messines a shell struck, there was an explosion, I stumbled and fractured my ankle. I was discharged by the medical board, having failed to get back into action in the other branches of the army. In 1920 I came to New York to look for work, arriving there with exactly $37 in my pocket. I lived in a furnished room and was down to my last dollar when I got a part in support of Robert Warwick in "The Dauntless Three." After a few years of New York stage life, Henry King offered me the leading male role in "The White Sister," starring Lillian Gish. Then Samuel Goldwyn offered me a long term contract, and I definitely cast my fate with moving pictures."
And since when is being lightweight so terrible? Get used to it, latter-day hipsters. For nearly a decade now, Belle and Sebastian have demonstrated that there exists on this planet . . . yes, maybe even in your town, on your block . . . a vast, slowly gathering audience still hungry for clever catchy melodies, unabashedly twee lyrics and an overall atmosphere that their sensibilities might just be a little more delicate than yours or mine. It's the Bubblegum era all over again, friends, but without all the social baggage that stopped it dead in its tracks 35 years ago. Belle and Sebastian don't exactly exploit the inner-dweeb in their audience. I mean, theirs isn't a cynical exercise on the scale of so many of the so-called Alternative acts that preceded their debut on the scene or, God help us, the Boy Band cycle that followed. They've been able to outlast mass-market trends with music that, yes, goes against all grain and flies well under the commercial radar because their public (me included) basically found them. That's why their ascendence has been so slow in coming . . . and so welcome.
Few people who don't want to appear complete wusses to their peer group have ever admitted to liking music such as that which Belle and Sebastian spin out with what seems so little effort. When you think about it, it's a little bit like standing on a chair at the Filmore in 1970 with a bullhorn and testifying to one's love for The Archies. And here's where we find that a curious reversal of the phenomenon of rebellion takes place. I daresay that the really hardcore Belle and Sebastian fans have any embarassment at all proclaiming their affection for music as lightweight in virtually every respect as the most throwaway filler on a second-tier Paul Revere & The Raiders LP. To them it's unsurpassingly cool and it frees them to tell anyone who doesn't like it that they can either fuck themselves or go listen to Creed (whichever is less pleasurable).
And what isn't liberating about feeling empowered to hand out a choice like that?
No Way Out
(Joseph L. Mankiewicz; 1950)
At least one universe away from "All About Eve" and "A Letter to Three Wives", Joseph Mankiewicz's "No Way Out" is still, despite a marginal cop-out of an ending, one of the bravest films to come out of Hollywood. In an era (and from a studio; 20th Century-Fox) where above-the-line Social Consciousness films were of the "Pinky"/"Gentleman's Agreement" variety . . . movies about racism and anti-semitism designed not to offend either racists or anti-semites . . . "No Way Out" wasn't looking to "understand" what lay beneath white bigotry (as if that were mitigating or even relevant), it sought to take a flame-thrower to it.
The first American film to portray white bigots using the 'N' word with abandon, or African-Americans directly and violently retailating against racism, "No Way Out" must have seemed like something from another planet to audiences in 1950. Nobody, not even bigots, expected to see a Hollywood film that presented racism, almost matter-of-factly, as a form of mental disease or a moral failing comparable to the worst kind of degeneracy. I'm guessing this is why it didn't have anything like the impact it might have (it should have made Sidney Poitier, in his screen debut, an instant star); people who went to see it probably couldn't believe their eyes. Even . . . in some ways especially . . . today, such a film from Hollywood would still be hard to imagine. But it wouldn't be any less welcome
Ben Pollack & His Park Central Orchestra
Yep, that's Glenn Miller at the very left of frame, and Benny Goodman standing dead center. Goodman's efforts to make a royal pain in the ass out of himself in those days would soon reach fruition (as well as the status of instant legend in the Jazz community) the day he tried to book the Pollack Orchestra . . . without Ben Pollack.
By all accounts, Pollack's was one of the few White Dance Orchestras who could lay down seriously Hot Jazz when the occasion called for it, along with the Sweet stuff which was their bread and butter. Unfortunately, as was the case with a lot of such outfits (most notoriously Jean Goldkette's Orchestra when Bix Beiderbecke was ascendant), their recordings almost entirely reflected the commercial side of the coin. Nat Shilkret, now that I think of it, probably had the only White Dance Orchestra in America which made a good income from Hot dance sides; but he never had the players Pollack and Goldkette had. Sure, Paul Whiteman had . . . everybody, but he was less interested in straight Jazz than any other leader back then.
What, you were expecting more Velvet Underground crap?
For people preternaturally obsessed with Bob Dylan and his music (as I've been virtually my entire life), an extraordinary website has just come to my attention.
Jim Linwood, who I vaguely know from my days in Usenet, has compiled an amazing amount of evidence to support the conclusion that Bob Dylan, like me, like Stephen, like so many of us . . . has simply seen too many movies!! As I say, Jim has gathered data from a variety of sources and offers it to us in one website; proof of lyrical echoes in Dylan's work from the dialogue in 48 films as diverse in intent and quality as "A High Wind in Jamaica", "The Lineup", "Show Boat", and "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" (a large number of them films featuring Humphrey Bogart).
For Dylan fanatics, born and bred, Jim's site is worth at least a couple of visits.
(Buster Keaton, Edward Cline; 1921)
For our 100th entry in the 'Seminal Image' series . . . the only series on this blog to have lasted throughout its duration, unless I'm wrong (you think I would know this, huh) . . . I chose an image from Keaton/Cline's "The Boat", for a specific reason:
Buster Keaton is the only filmmaker and screen actor I know of who is at the center of both mine and Stephen's cinephilia, and this is one of his masterpieces; an extraordinarily moody, dreamlike piece (for a two-reel comedy, I mean) that would not have been out of place in the filmography of, say, Luis Bunuel. Is that why it's a phenomenal work? Hardly. "The Boat" is every bit as funny as it is haunting, and this is something you can say about no other comedy in the Silent era.
[Note: I'm taking a liberty here . . . there's no other word for it . . . because the thought just occurred to me after watching the night's festivities (zzzzzzz) that the least we could do is give our respective views on the Academy Awards out front, so to speak. So hopefully Stephen won't mind if I lift his Oscar comments from another entry and place them here, then place mine own. tom]
Well, the schlamazzle is over for another year. I got a big 50 per cent on my overall Oscar choices, but I did better in the main categories, getting four out of six (or five out of eight, if you count the screenplays). I mean, how was I to know that Born In Brothels would beat out Story of the Weeping Camel? At least Canada won the animated short this year...who says patriotism is a bad thing?
Didn't figure on Eastwood for direction, even though in my heart I felt he did a lot more with a lot less, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Aviator and thought giving Million Buck Baby best picture and Scorsese best director would be the way to go. So much for that theory. Other upsets...went for John Williams in the score category, just because, when in doubt...I guessed that crappy Counting Crows song would win because it was a hit, but I'm not sorry they lost at all...and I didn't pick Cate Blanchett because...well, I don't know why, really, but I thought Sophie Okonedo had a shot as a fully formed character, over Blanchett's interesting, but far-from-perfect performance.
I got Sideways for adapted, but Eternal Sunshine? It was the most original of the original screenplays, no doubt, and the screenplays often go to underdogs. I just picked Aviator...because it seemed like a safe bet. For once I think voting with my brain instead of my heart was actually a liability.
And for the tribute to Russ Meyer they picked Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and.....Fanny Hill? WTF? Maybe they thought someone would be offended by titles like Faster Pussycat Kill Kill and Vixen. Although Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens would have been fun to see up there on the screen. Oh well.
I'm amazed there even was a tribute to Russ Meyer . . . though, I agree, they picked all the wrong movies. "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is extraordinary but, c'mon, why not a few shots from the amazing "Lorna" or "Mudhoney" or "Cherry, Herry and Raquel" (the only movie ever made where Tom Wolfe gets a screenwriting credit), as well as the aforementioned . . . but I suppose it's like the man said, life can be strangely merciful once you're dead.
It was obviously Eastwood's night, and I was glad to see that. I too didn't figure him for Best Director this year because, slave to Conventional Wisdom as I am, I figured they'd cave in and hand it to Scorsese even if it was for a sub-standard work. Oddly enough, while I think "Million Dollar Baby" is an outstanding work, truly, the prize Eastwood most deserved for it was Best Actor. I think it's the finest performance of a career that, like John Wayne's, has seen a number of great performances before anyone woke up and took notice of what was going on. You'll have to forgive me here, because I'm something of an Eastwood fanatic (I thought "Blood Work" was close to being a masterpiece), so as childish as my secret committment to my predictions is, I was glad to see them thwarted on this occasion.
I zoned out during much of it; the Songs in particular (zzzzzzzzzzzz), and only really paid attention to the Big Ones. Cate Blanchett's win this evening only jelled more firmly the idea that bad acting can often get you that statuette for your mantle. Jamie Foxx, who I first remember seeing on "In Living Color" all them years ago, and who I've known was potentially a masterful actor since Stone's "Any Given Sunday" (I may be the only boy in Christendom who admires that film), to me deserved the award more for his performance in "Collateral" (whoever made up Tom Cruise to look like William Peterson in that picture also deserved an Oscar). But it was one of those years with a backlog of great, good and Oscar worthy (which does not mean good necessarily) performances, and giving the Award to him for "Ray", which was more mimicry than performance in places was, I suppose, a fair trade-off.
I probably have more to say; and if so, I'll add to the above. Right now all the tired horses are in the sun, and I gots to get some writin' done.
Today's Adventure: Stanley Donen Makes a Jackass Out of Himself Upon Winning An Academy Award for Still Breathing After All These Years (1998)
Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975)
Winner, Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, 1941, for All That Money Can Buy (a.k.a. The Devil and Daniel Webster).
Who were you expecting? Marvin Hamlisch?
Hattie McDaniel Receives an Academy Award from Fay Bainter . . . Who Wasn't One Tenth the Actress McDaniel Was (1940)
for the series: An Illustrated History of Race Relations in America
Wings (From the Paramount release book 1927)
Black Panther Party Headquarters; Shot At By Oakland Police Following the Murder Conviction of Huey P. Newton. (1968)
for the series: An Illustrated History of Race Relations in America
Okay, he might have been critical in helping the Whitest-sounding Jazz combo in history to sound that much more White (not to mention that his playing was so dominant on those recordings that Jazz naifs who didn't know any better thought he was Dave Brubeck), but throughout his career Paul Desmond had a beautifully lyrical tone that in the era of vaulting, aggressive Be-Bop gymnastics could sometimes seem like a much-needed breath of fresh air. The notes he didn't play were often just as important as the ones he did. Nobody ever broke a sweat listening to Desmond play his Alto; and while in most instances that's a sure sign of mediocrity, Desmond's skill raised it to the condition of virtue.
Come gather 'round, chilluns, wherever you roam; cause Tom's about to dispense some of his vast store of wisdom to you all.
That's right, take a seat everyone. You! The hottie in the back there. Come sit in the front row. Okay . . . are we all settled in? Good. Because someday, years and years from now, I guarantee you'll want to thank me for this.
You see, I'm now about to tell you how to listen to The Velvet Underground.
Now I can hear some of you saying, "What is he on this afternoon? Cheez, all you do is put one of their CDs in the player, press 'Play', and your ears do the rest. What's so friggin' complex about that, Tom?" Well, on the surface you'd have a point if you spoke so impertinently, but you wouldn't get anything out of it listening to them that way, you little know-it-alls. It's all about the right kind of conditions, the proper environment and atmosphere. A friend of mine once wrote about how he used to listen to their first album lying out in the sun in his backyard. I practically threw up when I read that. Jesus, he might as well have listened to the thing with the sound turned all the way down for all the good it did him. No, more than any other group of musical artists I can think of (anyone says 'Kraftwerk' and I'll boot you the hell out of here; exile you over to Green CineDaily . . . or, God help us, 'a_film_by'; which would be beyond cruel), The Velvet Underground has to be experienced under specific conditions, one or two of them environmental in nature, for the prospective listener to truly become as one with their music.
1) Start at the Beginning.
I mean that. Don't go mucking about by starting your exploration with "Sister Ray" or "O Sweet Nuthin" on your first go-round or you're gonna miss something crucial right off the bat. Begin with track one, "Sunday Morning" . . . as exquisite an expression of coming down from the rigors of a truly wild and hellacious night with a blasted psyche as has ever been rendered . . . on "The Velvet Underground & Nico" (yes, yes, yes; that's the one with the Warhol cover and everything) and listen all the way through in one sitting. That won't be too hard because if ever there was an album I found difficult to pull myself away from, no matter how many times I'd already listened to it, it was that. I won't go so far as to say there's something wrong with you if you don't feel the same gravity holding you down . . . well, maybe I would, but I wouldn't say it out loud. I do believe that only a waterhead could listen to "All Tomorrow's Parties" or "I'll Be Your Mirror" (a song that makes me damn near weep whenever I hear it . . . just try and call me a pussy, I dare you!!) and go looking for that bag of Doritos you know you had around here somewhere. After you've done that, move onto the next album . . . and the next . . . and the next. Though it's one of the great tragedies of Western Art that there weren't more 'next's for the Velvet Underground.
2) Do It in the Wee Small Hours.
That's right. None of this one in the afternoon bull or unwinding with it during the cocktail hour. If you wanna listen to something during those hours there's always Josh Groban, and you're welcome to him. The best, most optimal time to listen to Velvet Underground recordings is between 3 and 6 AM. Why, you ask? Because, geniuses, it's when virtually everyone on earth is somehow farther away from you than any other time of day. This is intended to facilitate the essential one-on-one nature of the relationship between their music and the individual listener. Lou Reed, long after the Velvet Underground had touched comparatively few lives so very very profoundly, said "You think, yeah, why would anyone buy despondency? But in those days, I thought there was a certain kind of aloneness going on and I felt I wasn't the only one feeling that". It's virtually a Scientific principle: The impact of The Velvet Underground lessens in direct proportion to the number of people listening to a single recording at any one time. When I became a Velvet Underground fanatic in my late teens I would play their LPs (that's right children, this was back when recordings were issued on 12 inch vinyl discs. We used to call them LPs in those days) for friends, and even on those occasions when one of them reacted favorably, I could detect there was something missing from their appreciation. I know what it is now: The music wasn't connecting with them the way it should have, the way it could have if it had been able to reach into their souls as single cell individuals. All the best art speaks to us directly and, by that very principle, it underscores our fundamental isolation. So if you're one of those people who's kidded themselves successfully into believing they're not alone in this life when it comes down to cases, then the only way you're going to have an outside shot at blasting through the layers of your own self-deception which will prevent you from truly appreciating what The Velvet Underground had to offer is to listen to their music during that time of night when one's personal illusions are at their most hollow.
3) Make Sure You're Drunk or Stoned or Both.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not recommending you be inebriated to the point of losing consciousness; not at all. That's counter-productive as hell. In fact, it's best if you were at the height of your disorientation some hours before listening. You should be just drunk enough to feel your dislocation and yet also feel everything that was pleasant about it slipping away from you slowly. But don't get the idea that I'm making this suggestion out of the same mindset that caused people in the 60s to listen to dogshit like The Grateful Dead after having dropped acid. No siree. The Velvet Underground was never that kind of band; catering to the escapist impulses of an audience subconsciously buying into mass-market, corporeal counter-culture. When Lou Reed wrote about drugs he wasn't mining it for its potential to shock a so-called establishment that has never been worth shocking; not once did he depersonalize the matter like that. No, he wrote about their joys and their horrors both. Songs like "Heroin", as with every other song he wrote for the Velvets regardless of their ostensible subject, were about lived human experience. In point of fact, in an epoch where it seemed as though an alternate American culture had become one gigantic pose, the Velvet Underground simply refused to be a part of it. Their committment to musical and lyrical honesty may have caused them to pay dearly in terms of bleak sales figures, but it produced music that hasn't aged a second and earned them the undying respect of the only people who count: Those who listen to music with both ears, an open mind and a heart filled with the agony only real love can give birth to. You have to be longing for something genuine in this world to touch you if you want to experience the Velvet Underground to the very marrow of your soul; which is precisely what their music will do. Coming down from being drunk or stoned leaves one quite open for such longings of the spirit.
I can hear the recess bell ringing. Be back here in your seats afterwards.
Sweet silver angels over the sea
Please come down flying low for me
One time I trusted a stranger
'Cause I heard his sweet song
It was gently enticing me
But there was something wrong
And when I turned He was gone
His song remains reminding me
He's a bandit and a heartbreaker
My Jesus was a cross maker.
"Let me state once and for all that this self-confident cripple was the most powerful hypnotist I have ever seen in my life. It was pretty plain now that he threw dust in the public eye and advertised himself as a prestidigitator on account of police regulations which would have prevented him from making his living by the exercise of his powers. The audience laughed and applauded as they followed the grotesque details; shook their heads, clapped their knees, fell very frankly under the spell of this stern, self-assured personality."
-- Thomas Mann
It's possibly unseemly to piggy-back like this, but Stephen's quite lovely tribute to The Kinks has moved me to add a few words; particularly on the matter of Ray Davies songswriting.
I'm convinced that if you listen to The Kinks' recordings from the mid-to-late 60s at a young enough age (as I did) they never leave you for the rest of your life. Perhaps I'm being too general, but I believe Ray Davies songs connect with people like Stephen and myself because . . . speaking for myself, anyway . . . I grew up relatively conscious of the world around me and its 1001 varieties of heartbreak, absurdity, drunkenness, despair, joy, venality, myopia and occasional manifestations of real love and mercy. Davies wrote about it all with a bottomless compassion we could, even as kids, understand. He knew and cared about the human experience at our level, and he never tried to make the world in his songs seem any better or any worse than it was.
The most honestly emotional songwriter of our times (only Smokey Robinson, the Van Morrison of "Astral Weeks" and the Brian Wilson of "Pet Sounds" came close in those days), Ray Davies dealt with everyday living in ways the more celebrated songsmiths such as Jagger/Richards, Lennon/McCartney, even (yes) Bob Dylan himself simply had no interest in. He gave us so much more than anyone else was giving us and, I don't know about Stephen, but who can not open their heart to an artist of that generosity?
The Kinks (circa 1966)
I've reached the end of my five Ws and one H, with this image, of my favourite musical act of all time. Why the Kinks? Their best music simply strikes a chord with me, romantic without being maudlin, sentimental without getting sloppy. Songs like Waterloo Sunset and Days were a gateway to nostalgia for me, and led me to understood why we should cherish the past without wanting to live there. (Village Green Preservation Society may contradict that, but Ray Davies--ever the satirist--may have been taking the mickey out of that attitude, although I still say God save Sherlock Holmes and Desperate Dan.)
Davies' ability to reach out to that music loving loner is what's kept the Kinks legend alive for so long, whether singing about a tryst with a convincing transvestite or a stroll with the ghosts of Hollywood royalty. I feel like Davies has spoken to me in a way that few songwriters have been able to (although a lot of Pet Sounds is a lightning bolt to the psyche) and for that I am eternally grateful.
God save the Kinks.