FEVER DREAMS, DANGEROUS ASSUMPTIONS (Segue of the Day: 4/16/17)

North by Northwest (1959)
D. Alfred Hitchcock

and…

For a Few Dollars More (1965)
D. Sergio Leone

I’ve seen these many times, but never in tandem. I snuck out to the multiplex to catch a screening of North by Northwest last night and for some reason woke up this morning in a Sergio Leone mood.

They do kind of speak to each other.

One thing Hitchcock and Leone had in common was a belief in “the language of film.” The term might have been developed by critics, but plenty of filmmakers believed in it first–who needs a story when you have great scenes!

Certainly not these two.

Hitchcock wasn’t entirely adverse to story. Only when it got in the way of his Visual Imagination. And as his career ripened, it got in the way more and more. By the time he made North by Northwest–a straightforward commercial pictured designed to make up for his failure to rope in audiences with the Art of The Wrong Man and, especially, Vertigo–he had no more use for continuity than he had for brunettes. Hence, the most famous scene in the movie, with Cary Grant being chased by a crop duster, isn’t even internally cohesive. There’s no reason for a plane to fly into the side of a semi-truck, even if there’s a reason for bunch of killers to use a plane to chase down a solitary, unarmed man they’ve drawn into the middle of nowhere when pulling up in a car and popping him with a couple of well-placed bullets would be much more effective….just not as Cinematic.

Of course, all of that pales next to the movie’s real message, which is an early assurance from the Security State: Trust Us.

Oh, we may get a few details wrong now and again but you must admit we are well intentioned and, what with not being able to keep you properly informed about all those things that wold only worry you and make our job of protecting you even more difficult, you must admit it isn’t easy to keep you from putting yourself in harm’s way every now and then, perfect innocent that you are.

Nobody says those words exactly, of course. But, seen from this distance, the paternalism not only can’t be missed, it lend the whole enterprise a whiff of badly needed sulfur. If only Hitch’s famous paranoia had extended to the Real Enemy–or if Cary Grant had been able to develop a more than professional interest in a lightweight like Eva Marie Saint, the way he was with Audrey Hepburn a few years later in the crackerjack Hitch imitation Charade (the first of many that have proven more durable than all but his half-dozen best)–I might have kept from nodding off a time or two.

I fell asleep twice during A Few Dollars More, but that was just because I was tired. The one night stand between Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef is way more compelling than the romance in North by Northwest. Comes to that, it’s the only thing holding the picture together. Where will whichever one isn’t on screen at present show up next?

In between it’s standard Leone. Great scenes held together by location, location, location and a fierce, principled commitment to sadism. Taken in the abstract, I love every stylized moment. Watching Leone’s films, one never need worry about nonsense, because his dreamscapes are honestly presented as such.

But as I get older, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m participating in an act of destruction.

See, you start by not caring whether the movie you’re watching makes any sense, as long as you get a thrill from either giving in to it or resisting it.

You end by…

Well, you see the news.

You know how it ends.

POP SYMPHONIES (Segue of the Day: 4/4/17)

The way it was in ’65.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those of you who have been following along for a while here know I’m fond of Time Life’s year-by-year surveys of music from the fifties, sixties and seventies.

The foundation for it all is a handful of CDs a fellow at work gave me about twenty years ago in lieu of sending them off to Goodwill. They survived the great CD selloff of 2002 because the record store wouldn’t take them. First among those were 1965: Classic Rock and its companion volume 1965: The Beat Goes On.

With oldies’ radio now a distant memory in my market, these are my closest proxy. (Somehow, listening to “radio” on the internet, or my satellite TV package just isn’t the same.) And, while I almost always learn something when I listen close to any given volume, these are the ones that still startle me the most.

With the Beatles, Stones and Dylan all missing (due to their catalogs being jealously guarded), you could still pick any couple of the forty-four cuts on these two discs, where there is nothing close to a pedestrian side, and write a short history of the Universe.

Relax: I’m not gonna do that.

I’m just going to talk about the Supremes and the Shangri-Las, two of my favorite subjects anyway, and paired here on tracks 16 and 17 of The Beat Goes On.

Funny enough, I had never really noticed it before: “I Hear a Symphony” and “I Can Never Go Home Any More” set back to back. This…

which, given Diana Ross’s gift for finding seduction in the saddest, most desperate breakup songs and melancholy in the most joyous love songs, could just as well be about the guy who left Mary Weiss in this…

…the most wrenching tale in the Shangs’  own little universe, which has more wrenching tales than any universe I know.

It’s not implausible to think that, if Berry Gordy had grown up in Queens instead of Detroit, Wiess might have had a dozen #1s and Ross might have had one or none.

But it’s probably not that simple. Alternative universes never are.

Diana Ross would have been driven by ambition wherever she was born. Even before she was famous–or Berry Gordy’s squeeze–it’s fair to assume that each record was part of a larger plan.

Weiss’s genius was for making every song she sang sound like it might be her last. That’s not exactly a surefire formula for building a career.

These two songs running together on a comp made her and Diana sound like sisters who never quite got along and thus walked different paths that only crossed at commitment to something larger than themselves.

They used to call that culture and rock and roll existed to extend it, make it larger, let new voices from places like Queens and Detroit sing out and express whatever special quality they possessed. Culture is supposed to make the world larger.

Except when we’re fooling ourselves, we don’t call it culture or anything else now, because the essential thing that made these records possible has vanished like smoke. Not the technology or the musical training or the will or even the voices themselves. Just the belief that it matters to something more than the bank account.

These days, everyone has an eye on their career from the cradle to the grave, so no one gives too much away in any single moment.

Once you start down that path–where Mary Weiss can’t exist–then Diana Ross can’t exist either, because there’s nothing for her to measure herself against.

If you want to know what that sounds like, now that even the 70s are becoming a distant memory, you can turn on your car radio any hour of the day and let it run straight from the lowest number to the highest.

And if you think that’s depressing, just be glad I”m not giving you access to what went through my head concerning the Roger McGuinn picking vs. Jeff Beck shredding guitars on “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “I’m a Man!” because, except through a pair of cheap headphones, we can’t go back there either.

PASSING THE TORCH (Segue of the Day: 3/14/17)

I’ve been waiting for these particular Patty Loveless/Miranda Lambert duets to pop up on YouTube with audio to do the performances justice. They’re here at last. And while Patty Loveless can’t truly pass a torch any more than George Jones or Al Green could, Miranda Lambert is the performer who has benefited most–both artistically and commercially–from the ground she broke open, stone by stone, a generation earlier without Rolling Stone or the Village Voice paying the least mind. The way Nashville politics work, Miranda will probably make the Hall of Fame before Patty does. (Go ahead, Nashville, surprise me…I’ll eat crow from now til the Judgement if you do. Cross my heart and hope to die.) But there will never be any doubt about who walks in whose shadow….and they really should do a duet album.

MIND BLOWN (Segue of the Day: 3/7/17)

I’ve been listening to various editions of Rhino’s old twenty-volume Didn’t it Blow Your Mind series for the last few weeks. The series is an excellent overview of 70s soul, and perhaps unique in that emphasizes the breadth and depth of the genre rather than the preeminence of big names like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder.

Some of those names are present, but, in this context, their records flow by in a river that’s far deeper than any handful of geniuses could have either created or maintained by themselves. Given time I’ll want to write about it at length some day, because the scope really is staggering. I’m not going to say the 70s were the greatest decade for black music–that would be a hard case to prove, given what had gone on during every decade back to the 20s. But if “greatness” were simply measured by now many fine records were made, and how much those records managed to say, then I’ll say it would probably take longer to get to the bottom of the soul 70s than any other decade of black music.

For instance, you can be nodding along, to something like Volume 13 of Didn’t it Blow Your Mind, still knocked out by the hits you know by heart–“Rock the Boat,” “Rock Your Baby,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Side Show”–and then have your entire perception (er, “mind”) opened up (er, “blown”)–by nothing more than some old pros doing what they do. And if you think, as I do, that these deceptively modest records, huge hits on the R&B chart which also made the pop charts, carry the weight of history as much as big and fabulous crossover smashes like “Tell Me Something Good” (which follows them on Volume 13), you might experience nothing less than an ephipany.

 

AS FAKE NIHILISM ENTERS ITS INEVITABLE NOSTALGIC PHASE (IN WHICH, INSPIRED BY UPCOMING EXTERNAL EVENTS, I CREATE MY FIRST COMPLETELY SELF-REFERENTIAL SEGUE OF THE DAY: 2/23/17)

Since Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are going to represent the Oscar for best film this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde failing to win any major Oscars, I thought I would celebrate this, nihilism’s most fabulous celebration of itself yet (those occasional Sex Pistols’ reunions, always being minus Sid Vicious, the only one stupid or committed enough to off himself, are bound to go on paling by comparison), by linking back to my 2014 mini-reviews of both Bonnie and Clyde and The Miracle Worker.

I don’t usually get this lazy. But the open war between Donald Trump and the Security State has left me exhausted from fiercely resisting the temptation to start a political blog (don’t worry, I’ll fight it off in the end…I know when it’s the Devil calling), and finding it a little hard to concentrate on my usual insistence on celebrating all that is Great and Good in the face of Imminent Doom.

One thing which came up in my modest research to assure myself that I had my facts straight on what exactly Beatty and Dunaway would be presenting, was the reminder that Dunaway’s performance-for-the-ages in Bonnie and Clyde lost Best Actress to Katherine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Dissing terrible Oscar choices is not something I usually go for and nothing against that fabulous Yankee-est-Yankee-Ever Miss Kate. But if anybody wants to suggest that might be the worst, most gutless snub of all time, they won’t get any argument from me.

The girl from Two Egg was robbed (as she would be again on Chinatown)!

And the one they threw at her for doing what any good actress could have done in Network ain’t no kind of makeup.

As we say in North Florida...That’s all’s I’m sayin’!

BROTHER RAY NEGATES THE FUTURE BEFORE IT CAN NEGATE US ALL (Segue of the Day: 2/15/17)

Rhino’s box set of Ray Charles’s Complete Country & Western Recordings: 1959-1986 is a gift that never stops giving. I don’t get a chance to listen to it nearly enough, but when I do, the rewards, from his justly famous Modern Sounds in Country and Western volumes to his raising John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” to Biblical proportions, are endless.

This week, because I had it on headphones, I finally heard how impossibly long he holds the impossibly blue note at the end of “Born to Lose,” the sinkhole of sorrow under “A Girl I Used to Know,” the “that’s me baby!” that redeems what has, up to that instant, seemed a far too straightforward take on “Wichita Lineman,” the way he turns in the middle of the mournful standard, “We Had It All,” (done by practically everyone in Nashville, its mournfulness forever defined by Dobie Gray), and threatens to turn back time, to obliterate the distance between a present that hurts too much and a past that never quite happened and to hell with the time-space continuum, he’s gonna reach straight through time and have the “all” he missed.

For a few seconds, you know he’ll make it. He’ll defeat mere time and dust and sorrow. He’s Ray Charles after all. Another great rock and roller with no real precedents and nothing close to an heir. Which only makes it hit all the harder when the few seconds pass and you know he won’t. There’s not much worse than rediscovering mortality–yours, his and everyone’s–ten seconds after you’ve grasped immortality.

Heavy.

But nothing weighed on me quite like these, resting next to each other…

You never know quite why some thoughts come when they do, but it was while listening to these songs that I glimpsed the future, where historians will write our epitaph, and realized every book that ponders our fate will have the same title, translated into all the future’s ten thousand languages.

America: What the Hell Happened?

And I realized it’s not even impossible that those of us who lived in Ray Charles’s time for a while might live to see it.

PICK THE PUNK (Segue of the Day: 1/30/17)

Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):

“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**

It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of  Tom Petty or Prince.

And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.

But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.

The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.

But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.

Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.

That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.

For a while anyway.

Long enough to become iconic.

Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.

That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.

The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.

I’d love to hear it.

I won’t hold my breath.

**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)

ANTHONY MANN’S EPIC AUTUMN (Segue of the Day: 1/7/17)

El Cid
(Anthony Mann, 1961)

The Fall of the Roman Empire
(Anthony Mann, 1964)

Anthony Mann does not yet get his due. There are occasional professional contrarians who will tell you he’s better than John Ford, but they are a cult and Mann, who would have been the first to tell you he wasn’t quite John Ford, deserves far better. I’ve been counting him as one of my five favorite directors for a while now, but in the latest list from “They Shoot Pictures Don’t They,” the most exhaustive ranking of great films available, he has one entry (The Naked Spur, at #969 of a thousand).

That’s one fewer than Michael Mann, who I still think of as the Miami Vice guy, and the same number as John Avildsen, who’s on the list for Rocky.

All of which adds up to just another brick in the towering wall of our modern delusion. Mann made a handful of noirs and a hatful of westerns (hence the Ford comparisons) that are better than anything Michael Mann has done. He also made these two epics from the early sixties, which time is beginning to reveal as masterworks in their own right.

Watching them together (as I’ve done since I discovered them a few years back…this was my third go-round), in these hurly-burly days is an experience. And, for me, what was even more salient this time was having recently seen Marketa Lazarova, the Czech film from 1967 which I wrote about here, for the first time.

The long view of history I mentioned there is as fiercely present here, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Mann’s films served as some sort of inspiration in how to handle narrative and editing in Marketa or any other epic-minded film that uses similar devices to collapse time and space for the purpose of expanding our imaginations.

Of course these carry some Hollywood gloss–big stars playing against ethnic type, fabulous sets and costumes, casts of literally thousands. But once you absorb all that, and understand the level of obsession that went into these films (obsessions that encompassed and enfolded Mann himself, producer Samuel Bronston, the set designers, even the composers, all properly lauded in the fine documentaries that accompany the 2-disc versions from the Miriam Collection) it’s possible to recognize just how thorny and disorienting they are, how fully they (like Marketa) capture not merely lost worlds but lost value systems.

El Cid was a big hit, so big it made The Fall of the Roman Empire’s impossible air of art-house risk possible. For better or worse, the presence of Charlton Heston, then strongly identified in the movie-going public’s mind with The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, massive hits that had done a fine job of capturing value systems not yet lost in the previous decade, was able to carry El Cid to similar box office heights. But he refused to work again with his co-star, Sophia Loren, on the second film. Mann was already pushing the boundaries of acceptable narrative in El Cid. Any chance that he wouldn’t push past the edge in the followup was gone the minute Heston refused to sign on.

Whatever the reasons, Heston’s absence allows Fall to play as the more contemporary film.

I won’t say “better” because I’m a long way from comprehending either film at the level required to make that judgment. But, purely in artistic terms, Heston’s absence may have been as much a blessing as it was a box office curse. Fall became a famous flop, effectively breaking both Mann and Bronston in ways that went beyond the merely financial. Sadly, neither lived to see it redeemed by recent critical appraisals in a way that Cleopatra, a similar back-breaker from the same period, never will be. El Cid needed Heston because it’s a hero’s narrative. Fall didn’t need him (and one wonders if this was the real reason he passed on it), because it’s an anti-hero’s narrative.

The neck-snapping irony in this, is that El Cid is set in a moment when the Christendom just emerging (sotto voce because it’s never mentioned) in The Fall of the Roman Empire, is being saved from extinction.

The further irony is that Fall is even more opulent, something that seems impossible while you are actually watching El Cid.

In terms of both spectacle and historical accuracy, Bronston was determined to make David O. Selznick look like a kid in short pants. With Fall he succeeded. It took me this third viewing to comprehend how much his obsession with the details of Rome’s face, at the singular moment when the mask was finally beginning to show its cracks, has as much to do with creating the film’s unique aura of displacement as Mann’s sudden shifts of tone, mood, lighting, weather.

In the midst of the towering monuments to Rome’s glory, literally recreated with stunning scale and specificity on a plain in Spain, Christopher Plummer’s Commodus (the role of his career), and Stephen Boyd’s hapless Livius, really do seem like they are being toyed with by ancient and angry gods.

Livius himself–the hero Charlton Heston wouldn’t play–is redeemed only by his devotion to the old ways and Commodus’s sister. And it becomes clear, over time, that these virtues are inextricable from a stubbornness and pride that end up costing the lives of nearly everyone and everything he holds dear.

Boyd puts every bit of the bitterness that would come from such a man’s recognition of his own failures into his final line, a line sufficiently damning that one wonders how anyone thought they could get a hit out of this.

What we’re left with is indescribable opulence (it really has to be seen to be believed and I can’t even get my head around what these films must look like on the big screen), endless back-stabbing among cabals who vie for the loyalty of the military and the deep state, a hapless legislative body made exclusively of fops and fools, the endless peddling of influence. All these qualities course through El Cid and finally overwhelm the characters who populate The Fall of the Roman Empire.

The history runs in reverse, as history is wont to do.

The first film replicates the preservation of what rose in the place of what fell in the second film.

Whatever order one views them, these films, especially The Fall of the Roman Empire, which broke Samuel Bronston’s bank account and Anthony Mann’s health, are in the DNA of everything from Star Wars to Kurosawa’s late epics to the best work of the similarly under-appreciated Ridley Scott (who now must labor under the burden of CGI, an empire whose reach and grasp far exceed Rome’s…one hopes that Mann appreciated how lucky he was to fall in with a fellow visionary like Bronston even for a heartbeat).

You can take your pick of which reminds you most of the City by the Potomac these days, as the man who the Alt-Right likes to tweak all and sundry by referring to as the God Emperor ascends, rising from the bottomless sea of our present corruption, within which the deepest muck he was born to rule.

TIS THE SEASON (Segue of the Day: 12/16/16)

Recent Christmas seasons, my “shopping” consists of a trip to the local antique mall, where I can usually find what I need for the one or two people I still exchange actual gifts with. This little spree is usually accompanied by sitting down for lunch somewhere, a few errands, riding around in the car, the kind of activities that expose you to Christmas music.

I’m not saying I never hear anything good, but even if I do, it’s an awful lot of the same old same old. Which made coming into contact with the Christmas Elvis–the later incarnation, not the “Blue Christmas” one–was a jolt to the system as I browsed the book stall, looking for what I was going to get myself (the rest was already bought).

It was even more of a jolt to realize that the whole album was playing. I picked it up near the end, so I heard these three in a row, the last as I was checking out (when your pockets are short, it takes even less time to shop for yourself than for the few remaining others).

And I wondered, yet again, who could range so broadly across so much American space with so much off-handed ease–on three songs for a kinda-sorta throwaway Christmas album no less?

You know the answer to that.

Nobody. That’s who.

Wake up Putt….