Category Archives: 70’s

20 Feet from Stardom

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" Portraits - 2013 Sundance Film Festival

20 Feet from Stardom, a documentary by Morgan Neville, opens with an oddly wooden Bruce Springsteen (botox, plastic surgery?) explaining how rock-and-roll backup singers have to be even better than the headliner.  Other rock demi-gods agree, but by the end of the movie we become aware that despite legions of praise by the headliners, it’s only on these special occasions where backup singers get their due.

Neville circles around this theme, suggesting that the lack of recognition stems from factors such as racism, record company politics, lack of ego in the singers, “fate” (a reason offered by the wizened Sting), and finally a healthy lack of ambition.   While it’s helpful to present options, the lack of a central point-of-view made this film less successful than it could have been for me.  In the meantime though we get to see and hear some great unheralded performances.

Just how vital backup singers are to a song is demonstrated in one of the first sequences, the Talking Heads “Slippery People”, where, perhaps on purspose the backup vocals are muted:slippery

The backup singers add variety, dynamics, call-and-response, support, and in this particular case, some fantastic dancing.

“20 Feet” then delves into the history of background singing, back to the tame, white-girl singers who would accompany crooners like Perry Como.

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The film then wisely focuses on some of the pioneer female black singers, including Darlene Love, who resorted to cleaning houses after he contract was manipulated by Phil Spector:

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We see a scene where she does a  duet with Tom Jones  and he does not benefit from the comparison.

Merry Clayton’s star turn in the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” is played in isolation, and it gave me chills.  She did the takes while pregnant and in curlers, called out of her bed to a late-night recording session.

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Clayton’s solo career was short-lived.  Above we see her belting out a version of Neal Young’s “Southern Man” that knocks your socks off.

“Gimme Shelter” has been sung live since 1989 by Lisa Fischer.  I found her to be the most gifted of the featured artists.  Here’s her one hit as a solo artist:

The explanation given is that she did not want to, it was not in her personality not everybody needs to grab the spotlight.  Yet with all of these singers there is a wistfulness and sadness about not being able to step out of the shadows.

Finally we see the up-and-comer Judith Hill:

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Will she make it?  The film stops short of casting her as a redeeming figure, ending on an uncertain note when it comes to her solo career.  After watching 2014 Winter Olympic coverage, and sitting through countless exhortative “follow your dream” big corporation commercials, I took this as a welcome grace note.

Herzog the Unnatural

Remember Werner Herzog speaking on the topic of nature while filming Aguirre, Wrath of God ?

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(Click to see the interview on Youtube, it’s worth it)

In his latest film, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”, he’s done a complete about-face, creating a paen to nature:  a cross between a Leni Riefenstahl-style “Bergfilme” and a Disney documentary.

Let’s not forget, this is a director who created a definitive cinematic statement on man’s powerlessness against nature – “Aguirre – The Wrath of God” In that film nature is an irresistable force that causes only madness and death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even as recently as Grizzly Man there was an ominous undertone to his depiction of the natural world. Gradually though  (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters at the End of the World) his view has become much more sanguine. And by that I don’t mean “bloody”.

“The Happy People” features self-reflective, ethnic-Russian fur-trappers, musing philosophically as they conquer nature with a series of canny traps, self-made gadgets, dugout canoes, and home-brewed insect repellent (along with snowmobiles, chainsaws and plastic sheeting). I find this sort of thing very enjoyable, there’s a Robinson Crusoe-esque self-reliant quality that seems like a good antidote to the anxiety of modern life.

The problem I had with “The Happy People” isn’t want Herzog puts in, it’s what he leaves out. He barely touches on the indigenous “Ket” people of that region of Siberia, who are at the bottom of the social order.  They are plagued by alcoholism, and their culture and language are disappearing.

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As you can see, these are not the “Happy People”. They are like the mythological Eris, left out of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and it would have been more fruitful for Herzog to explore their discord. They in fact invented many of these canny traps and techniques that the Russians use.

But Herzog now seems to be beyond provocation and provocativeness.  He’s in a steady groove that ignores reality but garners good reviews all around. Kael’s comments on later Scorcese seem applicable:

“He has become a much more proficient craftsman… but the first films he did that I responded to intensely – Mean Streets and Taxi Driver had a sense of discovery. He was looking into himself and the world…. Even though Scorcese shows what he can do in some ways, he doesn’t shape the material.” (Conversations with Pauline Kael, p. 167)

I have some other quibbles. Could a man really travel 150 kilometers in -50F weather at night in a snowmobile? I don’t think “Survivorman” would try this with the best gear.  How would you survive if your snowmobile breaks down? How do you get out of bed when it’s that cold? How do you wash yourself? How happy a person are you when a tooth becomes infected?

Creative people often have a brief shining period of amazing originality, followed by years of reputation-coasting. It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to be Picasso.  Herzog has become a master emcee.  I’ll remember his earlier work.  I’ll remember Woody Allen’s “earlier, funnier films” too.

In the meantime, may I recommend the low-budget film “Alone in the Wilderness”, the story of a man who builds himself a log cabin in the Alaskan wilderness with just hand tools.  Think of it as  “The Happy People” without the quirky Bavarian voice-over.

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Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Absent (thanks to HBO)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to decide which is more depressing: the state of American film criticism or the current quality of mainstream documentaries.  In “Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Present” HBO Documentaries and Matthew Akers have made a film that undermines the power of her seminal career, and that’s a considerable feat.

Critics are lauding “The Artist is Present”: Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles times calls it “A riveting portrait”.  It’s easier for them to conflate subject with film, than it is to analyze what does and doesn’t work in this piece. The truth is that t.v. director Akers has cobbled together a couple of bad Lifetime t.v. episodes, called it a documentary and done Abramovic a disservice.

Marina Abramovic is a hard-core performance artist whose best work has brought “negative” elements such as stillness, grief, hunger, pain, and isolation into sharp focus, through works that often involve great endurance and physical suffering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In 1997 she performed Balkan Baroque at the Venice Biennale. It involved her scrubbing clean 1,500 cow bones six hours a day for four days and weeping as she sang songs and told stories from her native country” (Sean O’Hagan, Guardian UK).

In “Rhythm 0” she lay quietly next to 72 objects, including a loaded gun, scissors, and a whip, and let museum-goers do whatever they wanted to her.  As time passed the audience became more aggressive, cutting up her clothes and poking her with thorns.

“The Artist is Present” is organized around the event of her eponymous 2010 MoMA exhibition.  There she sat silent and immobile for 7 hours a day while museum spectators took turns sitting opposite her.  As the exhibition continued, Abramovic’s rock-star status began to grow – people would camp out overnight for the chance to sit with her.  Eventually she became so popular that tight controls were placed on spectators, they could only sit for 4 minutes at a time, whereas before the time was unimited, they could not make any gestures or sounds.  There is a touching scene where a young woman removes her dress as she sits down and is swiftly escorted away by the security squad.  This is jarring because most of Abramovic’s work involves her being nude, we get very familiar with her body.  Witnessing young fan shut down for that act of emulation is ironic and telling, but this goes unexplored.

Instead the focus is on the crying.  Many attendees tear-up when looking at the impassive queen-bee-like Abrmovoic, in her religious-looking smock.  The soundtrack repeats the sins of  “March of the Penguins”, a cloying musical score, telling us dummies that “it’s time to feel now”.  A montage of artfully-focused ethnically-and-age-balanced faces, in varying stages of composure, felt like a Benetton ad.  Akers should have been smart enough to realize that viewers can’t help but intuit the tarnished corporate halo in this aesthetic.  Too many t.v. ads are like this, especially ones for big “faceless” corporations.  It’s about as far from cleaning bloody bones as you can get.

Focusing on a singlular event feels like a panicky move by documentarians.  Sure there are some films where the event is the event (“The Last Waltz”), but here it’s used as a way to expose the artist, and honestly I did not know much about Marina after 2 hours than I did after 15 minutes. And the fact that the film literally ends with her final bow at MoMA makes me think that Akers didn’t have the curiousity to explore the question “What is it like to enter the normal world after that intense level of communication with thousands of people?”

As I’ve suggested before, the way to make documentaries interesting is to show themes, to then illustrate patterns within those themes, and then to identify when and why those patterns are broken.  That is all the event you need.  And indeed the audience wants something to happen in any performance.  Focusing on an orchestrated “happening” can cover up the actual personal changes that make for narrative.

What are some of those themes that could have been explored?  In the beginning of the film we see Marina in her huge NYC loft, also at her beautiful Hudson Valley farmhouse.  Later she enters a truck that she livd in for 5 years in Europe (it has been brought to MoMA as an exhibit) and begins weeping, saying that this was the simplest, happiest time of her life.    She is visited by her former lover, Ulay, with whom she lived in the truck.  He is deflated by her wealth, you can see he longs for that level of material success.

So to me a central question raised by the film was “What does success mean and what has it done to the artist?”  Is she less successful now that she is “successful”?  What is the significance of the change from allowing the audience to do anything they want  (“Rhythm 0”) to being prohibited from make a simple gesture (“The Artist is Present”)?

Another theme is artist vs. art. Marina admits to craving attention, to using performance as a way of getting the love she didn’t as a neglected child.  Does this minimize the value of her statements about war and suffering?  If she were to find love, would her art suffer?  She says that when her performances with Ulay were at their best, their personal relationship was at it’s worst.  What does this say about art?

There are many other areas in this artist’s life that would have been fruitful to explore.  Instead, by the end, I felt like an audience member denied my time across from Marina.

Well, THAT’S the pot calling the kettle “beige”

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I thought “The Boys in the Band” would be a campy ridiculous movie, redeemed only by its groundbreaking status as one of the first mainstream films that dealt with homosexuality.  Instead I found it to be thoughtful, serious, well-written, and brilliantly-acted.  Its dubious reputation is the result of homophobic film reviewers (the dark side of Pauline Kael) and the fact that, as gay liberation blossomed, the gay community felt a need to distance itself from the subject of self-loathing.

In terms of camp, many primetime t.v. shows now feature outre gay characters for comic effect.  Every “Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” owes an immense debt to Mart Crowley (writer, producer) and William Friedkin (director).   The point to this campiness in 1970 was to establish that this was not going to be a film about assimilation, about how gay people are just like anyone else except maybe more sad.  Instead this film would show a (literal) walled garden where gay men acted as they would were nobody watching.

The result was pathos, similar in tone to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). in which the reigning heterosexual king and queen of the movies, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, exposed a self-loathing just as deep.

The plot is strikingly similar, an outsider arrives and witnesses the reality that lies beneath surface appearances.  In “The Boys in the Band” Peter White, as straight college chum Alan,  plays the naif role that belonged to George Segal and Sandy Dennis in “Woolf”.  Both movies started as stage plays and feature strong acting ensembles.

Leonard Frey, as Harold, the “thirty-two year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” is particularly compelling.  And I just don’t see performances like Kenneth Nelson’ as Michael – breaking down at the end of the movie when the reality of his situation hits him – in movies today.  Maybe I am watching the wrong movies.  The movie ends with a note of hope: after Harold verbally demolishes  hypocritical, abusive Michael, he leaves and as he is going says “Call you tomorrow…”  underscoring that their friendship will survive even this .  I have to admit to envying the depth of their connection, most friendships between heterosexual men, mine included, seem mannered and fearful in comparison.

“The Boys in the Band” highlights for me the terrible treatment gays have received up until a short time ago.  As I’ve mentioned before,  the good old days weren’t so good for gays, blacks or anyone different.  Which causes me to think about which groups are marginalized today in a way that we won’t acknowledge as a society until decades hence.  I think certainly animals: Jonathan Safer Foer’s “Eating Animals” seemed to me to be a necessary call-out to Michal Pollan’s evasive “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. I struggle with this issue practically daily and haven’t been able to convert to vegetarianism.   Other groups might include the physically ugly –  the greatest most-unspoken discrimination ever I think, the aged, and, in terms of sexuality, BDSM practitioners, acceptance of whom is slowly becoming more mainstream, at least if you go by porn as a leading indicator.

Most of the actor’s in “The Boys in the Band” died in the first part of the AIDS epidemic.  To me they were brave, and their work showed us a glimpse into “real” life,  often I think art, movies, films, culture are the only true public glimpse into what’s actually going on people’s heads.  To dismiss “The Boys in the Band” as campy self-loathing says more about the reviewer than the film.

World’s Fair-y Tale

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The 64-65 World’s Fair marks the crossing of a cultural Rubicon. In 1965 DuPont Corporation sponsored an exhibit called the “Wonderful World of Chemistry”, featuring a musical with a song called “The Happy Plastic Family”. Two years later, in 1967 the movie “The Graduate” was released, with the famous exchange:

I just want to say on word to you,just one word.

Yes, sir.

Are you listening?

Yes I am.

Plastics.

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(Dustin Hoffman underplays it the whole way.)

From 1965 to 1967 the concept of plastics was shifting from hopeful to ominous. Today we are faced with a giant floating island of plastic debris in the North Pacific, twice the size of the Continental United States. You turn away and hope that some solution will be found or you will be dead before it becomes a big problem. Imagine, then, not only not worrying about the impact of new chemicals, but actively celebrating it. Imagine GM’s “Wonderful World of Tomorrow” ride which took people on a tour of ecosystems, from desertscape to moonscape, to underwater diving bell, each fantastic and hopeful.

Robert Moses, the organizer of the 1964-65 World’s Fair, broke ranks with the governing Bureau of International Exhibitions, by demanding that participating countries pay exhibition fees. The BIE instructed their member countries not to attend, and the result was a fair dominated by Third World countries, with Spain and Vatican City being the only major exhibitors. Commercial interests filled the void. The ’64-65 World’s Fair marked the point at which corporations finally superceded nations in the Western cultural consciousness. Never again would plastics seem as innocent.



“Where’s Poppa”: When farces plod.

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I was prepared to love “Where’s Poppa”, it features the nexus of Normal Lear sitcom character actors who, when I was growing up, felt like extended members of my raisenette-sized broken nuclear family. How fun it would be to see censor-free Barnard Hughes, Vincent Gardenia, Ron Liebman, Rob Reiner, and a pre-SNL Garret Morris.

But alas,”Where’s Poppa” drags. It’s claustrophobic and plodding, and breaks the cardinal rules of farce, lightness of mood and a fast pace.

The plot involves the efforts of a lawyer (George Segal) to rid himself of his overbearing Jewish mother, who lives in his gigantic New York apartment. Along the way we are exposed ridiculous characters and situations: a comedic group of muggers who repeatedly mug the brother of the main character, the rape of a policeman which involves the use of a gorilla suit and subsequent gay love, Ruth Gorden pulling down Segal’s pants and biting his ass as he serves her dinner. Why doesn’t this work?

Part of the explanation is the sense of doom engendered by the cramped, dark interiors and antique set-decoration. I absolutely eat up cinematography of New York during this era, but watching this movie felt like I was leafing through the Police Gazette in a dark bus terminal.

The main reason though is the slow pace. Modern MTV-style quick cuts have changed what moviegoers feel is a comfortable editing tempo, but, even taking this into consideration, camera shots are held for an excessively long time. Plot developments are also very slow. There is one situation in which this works: a weird love song George Segal sings to Trish Van Devere, softly, very close to her face, and for an excruciatingly long period of time. It reminded me of those cringeworthy extended shots in the British version of “The Office”, where you find yourself mentally begging the camera to cut away, and at the same time you can’t stop looking.

Sadly, most of the film is more “hurry up” than “can’t look away”. Which made me wonder if it’s possible to have a black comedy that is also a farce. The dilemma is that the gravitas of the subject matter in a black comedy tends to weigh down lightness of the farce. Movies like Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H” and Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” prove that it can be accomplished.  They do this not only through speed but also through entertaining subplots,  something “Where’s Poppa” neglects.

Although the film features multiple, stereotypically-funny characters, almost all of them are directly involved in the central drama of how to deal with the recalcitrant mother. The scenes featuring Garret Morris and the Central Park muggers are as close as the viewer gets to a mental break. The muggers seemed almost Shakespearean, following the tradition of comic ne’er-d0-wells. If the rest of “Where’s Poppa” had clung a little more closely to stage tradition it would have been a better film. Edgier isn’t always better. It’s as if all these talented actors and the director Carl Reiner, were taking a short sabbatical before the creative maelstrom of the 70’s .

Random notes: After stealing Ron Liebman’s clothes, the muggers mention Cornel Wilde’s “The Naked Prey” (1966), a great action movie that was a stylistic precursor to 1968’s “Planet of the Apes”.

As politically incorrect as he was, it’s disquieting to learn about the death of an action hero as formidable as Charleton Heston. Linda Harrison, who played “Nova”, Taylor’s mute mate, said that James Fransicus, in the sequel seemed to be cute and tiny compared to Heston.

Love Story

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Ali McGraw is so appealing in Love Story. Ryan O’Neal too. The movie is overwrought but it’s truly character-driven. Ali McGraw looks like an ex of mine, and the deathbed scenes reminded me of my mom’s recent passing so I suppose the experience was preloaded. I found myself feeling that slightly painful feeling of falling in love. I suppose that’s the motivation for the teenage girls who would see the movie multiple times during its first run.

Ryan O’Neal was great at one time, fantastic in “Paper Moon”, funny in “What’s Up Doc?” How did he turn into a bloated angry mess? Ali McGraw wrote a book called “Moving Pictures” where she describes her battles with alcohol and her relationship problems – like Jane Fonda she was only attracted to cold, witholding men. Who could have predicted that watching her be so fresh-faced, funny and cynical back in 1970?

Once upon a time in your living room.


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If I walk around with a t-shirt that says “main character” will I be protected from harm?

Clint Eastwood, as Pauline Kael said, only has one expression, but he does that expression really well.

Does no one else notice the similarity between Clint Eastwood and Hugh Jackman? Both gracile action stars who bulk up to keep their bodies from giving away the message of vulnerability.

70’s-era Westerns can be damn funny. There is always a dwarf named Mordecai, and a balding Franklin Pangborn meets Crispin Glover terrified shopkeeper.

These Westerns also function as horror movies, with eerie soundtracks and weird views of Mono lake desert moonscapes. Now I know where the sounds effects from Planet of the Apes orginated.

I’m trying to experience Nietszche’s idea of sickness being cleansing, energizing and necessary. It only works when I have a minor cold-induced hysteria, which is quickly over and I’m even less energetic for having had it.