Saturday, June 7, 2014

Eight Arms to Hold You: The Criterion Collection Celebrates the Fiftieth Anniversary of A Hard Day's Night

"The first rock and roll movies had little or nothing to do with rock and roll music, and everything to do with the rock and roll ethos," wrote Greil Marcus in his assessment of the genre. That ethos he describes was present in many Fifties pictures where adolescents were no longer accepting the proscribed values of the status quo. You could see it in Marlon Brando's defiance in The Wild One (1953), where when asked about what he was rebelling against, he replied, "Whaddya got?" You could recognize it in the painfully vulnerable James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), as he attempts to wake up his incognizant parents to the misunderstood youth they were alienating. The distilled essence of what would soon become rock 'n' roll was weaved into the fabric of those movies. According to Marcus, though, its power wasn't fully comprehended until Bill Haley & the Comets drove home the combined sociological screeds of The Wild One and Rebel in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), with its opening blast of "Rock Around the Clock."

After that, aspiring rock artists started lining up to see their possible future on the silver screen; and John Lennon began thinking that maybe this was a cool job. The Beatles were first turned on by The Girl Can't Help It (1956), which featured Little Richard in the opening credits singing the title song. The plot was largely superfluous, but significantly, it was about how the music business was run by the mob (giving a whole new meaning to the word hitmen). Besides grooving to Little Richard, Gene Vincent, the Platters and Eddie Cochran, youngsters also swooned as the buxom bombshell Jayne Mansfield strutting by in her tight clothes, clutching milk bottles to her heaving breasts. In 1956, having been one of those kids first stunned by Brando, Elvis Presley stepped onto the screen in the Civil War drama Love Me Tender, where two brothers fight over politics and the love of Debra Paget. His elegiac ballad, "Love Me Tender," which maybe planted the early seeds for McCartney's eventual "Yesterday." But it was his role as the violent rockabilly singer Vince Everett in 1957's Jailhouse Rock where the rock ethos fused effortlessly with the music. From there, just as the rock movie began, it seemed almost over. Except for the tabloid chic of High School Confidential (1958), which delved pruriently into a teen dope ring, it was the sanitized Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach party movies and Elvis's decline in Hollywood.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Breaking Out of Genre: Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band's Landmarks

Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band (Photo by Kristian Hill)

Is it possible to create music that goes beyond category? For the editors of Downbeat Magazine, who create a separate category for such a notion in their annual polls, the answer is an unqualified "yes." For drummer and composer Brian Blade, it could be the boundary-free category that best describes his music and his band because the category of jazz is simply not the best descriptor.

Landmarks (Blue Note) is the most recent release from the superlative, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band. It's a thoughtful exploration of "place," geographically and emotionally speaking. This blend of nostalgia and location goes a long way on Landmarks, a concept album that took years to make, but worth the patience and investment of time required. The reason is entirely based on leader Brian Blade's demanding schedule. Blade is constantly working. He's principle drummer for Daniel Lanois and he's in demand as an arranger and bandleader for special projects, including the 2013 tribute to Joni Mitchell held in Massey Hall in Toronto. He also plays for the unstoppable Wayne Shorter. So when he gets the chance to record with the Fellowship Band, it's an opportunity he rarely gives up. Brian Blade leads the group, drums, with Jon Cowherd, piano, Melvin Butler, reeds, Chris Thomas, double bass and Myron Walden, bass clarinet and saxophone. For this record, guitarists, Melvin Sewell and Jeff Parker, complement the band.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Afterlife: Abel Gance's J'Accuse & George Romero's Night of the Living Dead

In 1919, when French director Abel Gance made his anti-war drama J'Accuse, the picture was perfumed with the scent of death, and informed by endless reports he received of his friends dying at the front during WW1. But unlike many anti-war pictures, good and bad, J'Accuse wasn't designed as political agit-prop. "I'm not interested in politics," he would later remind film archivist and author Kevin Brownlow in his book on the silent film era, The Parades Gone By. "But I am against war, because war is futile. Ten or twenty years afterward, one reflects that millions have died and all for nothing. One has found friends among one's old enemies, and enemies among one's friends." Gance had good cause to skirt the expediency of political agendas and reflect more soberly on matters of life and death. He had once been drafted into the French Army Section Cinématographique, but ended up being discharged due to ill-health, which likely spared his life. He would then go on to a film career that would include the tragic drama La Roue (1923) and his landmark epic Napoleon (1927).

Being consumed by thoughts of the dead, especially the war dead, is not unusual for a film director – especially a pioneer like Gance who would along with D.W. Griffith invent a cinematic language that would change the course of dramatic narrative. With this awareness of an emerging art also came the knowledge that moving pictures could provide houses for lingering ghosts who would haunt us for decades. The photograph froze a moment in time, but a movie depicted time in motion, and breathed air into and gave life to the people who were part of the picture. In the years to follow, as actors would become movie stars, their iconic selves – from James Dean in his rebellious red jacket to Marilyn Monroe in her billowing white dress – would fix themselves in the collective unconscious, unchanged by time, and even untainted by their own early, tragic deaths. Where in life, mortality claims everyone; in film, you can live forever and remain fully intact. Somewhere today streaming in cyberspace, James Dean still pleads to be understood by a revolving cast of indifferent adults in what is perhaps another afterlife.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Bigger Than Life: I Am Divine

I Am Divine, Jeffrey Schwarz’s affectionate, scrapbook-style documentary about the actor Glenn Milstead, who achieved fame as his drag persona Divine, opens in early 1988, when John Waters’ Hairspray had its première in Waters’ and Milstead’s home town of Baltimore. It’s the logical high point of Divine’s career. Hairspray was the eighth feature film Divine appeared in, all but two of which were John Waters productions. (Before their 16-mm first feature, 1969’s Mondo Trasho, they also made three shorts together, including The Diane Linkletter Story, with Divine in the title role, and Eat Your Makeup, which included a re-enactment of the assassination of President Kennedy, with Divine, in a black wig and pillbox hat, as Jackie.)

Hairspray was a breakthrough for the two collaborators; a low-rent nostalgic musical comedy set in the early 1960s, the movie managed to satirize message movies while wholeheartedly embodying the all-accepting, liberating spirit that drives people to push past the boundaries of racial separation and repressive sexual identities. It’s a movie in which white and black kids don’t think in racist terms, because they enjoy dancing with each other too much, and are too turned on by each other, to accept social segregation. It was also the first of the Waters-Divine movies in which Divine wasn’t the leading lady; that role fell to the 19-year-old Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad the chubby star of a local TV dance show, whose celebrity challenges conventional standards of beauty.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Childhood's End: Revisting Coraline, Pleasantville and Watchmen

When I was a kid, I used to love those pop-up books where, when you turned each page, the characters (and their peculiar characteristics) would jump out at you. In Henry Selick’s animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s SF fantasy novel Coraline (2009), he elegantly employs 3-D to essentially invoke the same effect (as Martin Scorsese would later do with wondrous aplomb in his 2011 Hugo). Yet you don’t find yourself thinking about how Selick (A Nightmare Before Christmas) achieves the kind of macabre splendour he does here, but rather, you become saturated by the tempest of a young girl’s runaway imagination. Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) has just moved into Palace Apartments with her socially-conscious parents, Mel (voice of Teri Hatcher) and Charlie (voice of John Hodgman), who are so busy working on their new gardening book they don’t notice that their precocious daughter could care less about foliage and dirt. Due to her parents’ neglect, she becomes curious about a tiny door in their living room wall. Although she initially fails to find out what’s inside, one night, a small mouse leads her behind the door where she encounters a replica of her family – except these parents are “perfect” and cater to her every whim and desire. What Coraline soon realizes, though, when she sees that her “other” parents have buttons for eyes, is that things aren’t as perfect as they seem.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Morality Play: The Emergence of Ethics in Video Games

Dialogue choice, from Bethesda’s Fallout

Video games, perhaps more than any art form, have the ability to engage their audience personally. This makes them an ideal forum for grappling with the difficult questions art has always sought to identify and answer. Games are not a passive experience; you have a direct effect on the outcome, so you are involved personally in how you arrive there. Nobody would question your willingness to tap a button and zap the alien aggressors in a Space Invaders arcade cabinet – but the more “realistic” that video games become, the more pertinent these questions become. If the invading aliens were depicted with a unique culture or societal structure, distinct from our own, with a religious system that drives them to invade, or a fanatical government which forces them to subjugate us – if, in other words, you came to understand them as beings, and not just pixels on a screen – would you hesitate before pushing that button? As we have been able to render fictional settings with greater and greater detail and verisimilitude in games, the question changed from “What can the player do in our game?” to “How should the player feel about what they can do in our game?” Morality and ethics are a part of the postmodern video gaming experience, whether it’s recognizable or not, and their effect can be drastic and potent.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Tempest: A.R.T.’s Magic Show

Nate Dendy, Tom Nelis, and Charlotte Graham in The Tempest  (Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey)

The American Repertory Theater’s new mounting of The Tempest is part nineteenth-century-style theatrical spectacle, part magic show – overlapping entities). The adaptors and co-directors are Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn and Teller), and the magic, which includes card tricks, cheeky bits of business like a kinetic hankie with a will of its own, and real stage sorcery (Prospero levitates a sleeping Miranda in act two), is witty, ticklish and occasionally dazzling. The idea of Teller working on a production of this particular Shakespearean romance, with its sorcerer protagonist, struck me as irresistible, and I was high on him after seeing his documentary Tim’s Vermeer, in which an inventor deconstructs and then reproduces the Dutch master’s particular brand of magic – his process for developing his distinctive approach to realism. So I had high hopes going in. But this Tempest is more than I could have wished for.