Saturday, December 13, 2014

D'Angelo: Voodoo (Cheeba/Virgin, 2000)

In anticipation of D'Angelo's fifteen-years-aborning Black Messiah, reportedly to be released on Tuesday, I decided to try once again to hear what so many others adore about Voodoo. And after playing it twice in a row this afternoon, I still don't get it. My Addicted to Noise review is below and I stand by it. The two reference points for me remain Eno and Sly's Riot. But Riot has give to it, acknowledging Me Decade fatigue but not for one second succumbing to it. Voodoo is all foreplay and no pop, mad stamina and no delivery, Viagra music, wearying if not flat-out tedious. Another Green World or Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics or On Land are bereft of ego and allow the listener to waft in and out. D'Angelo is always front and center whether he's mumbling over verse-chorus-verse, blurring distinctions with his falsetto, or consigning multitracked D'Angelos to the curbs of his soundscape. He wafts in and out of you and after 79 minutes, never mind 158, you just want to swat him away.

I'd work harder on turning these negatives into dearly held values if I hadn't heard from several sources at the time (not just Xgau) that his live shows "changed everything up except 'Untitled'" (direct quote from an acquaintance) and several stops on the tour inspired religious experiences. No bootlegs have turned up that I know of and that's still no guarantee of visions of R&B Jesus. So for now (and probably always), Voodoo remains a skeleton of something greater that someone else witnessed.

Voodoo (Cheeba/Virgin)
Rating: **1/2
Release Date: 1/25/00

The seventy-nine minutes of live jam and indistinct falsetto and melodic deficiency syndrome that is Voodoo, D'Angelo's sophomore disc, has little to do with the state of R&B today. Rather less monumental than that, its main achievement lies merely in how it makes his 1995 debut, Brown Sugar, sound so articulate. All sorts of noises which previously came across as too abstract or barely audible have now taken on the force of mnemonic devices: the snaky bass line in "Alright;" the warm catchiness of the title hook in "When We Get By;" the dew gathering on the keybs in "Jonz in My Bonz."
Who knows which parts of Voodoo will come to the fore once the next album is out in 2005? Many critics have amazingly claimed to hear them right now. You read about the funky space transmissions in "Devil's Pie," the backwards guitar in "Africa," the brief jazzy interlude tacked onto the end of "One Mo'Gin," all somehow seized as major pleasures. But either they're working too hard at it or they're just bullshitting because D'Angelo is barely throwing them a bone here. He's much more interested in subsuming the potential hooks and shape-shifters above into a long, undifferentiated flow.
Further obscuring any recognition factor was the decision to emulate flow through the use of tentative live jams. Where most popular artists resort to live jams as building blocks, D'Angelo opted to keep their discursive feel, reserving studio sorcery mainly for his multi-tracked, mush-mouthed falsetto. He mumbles from the margins of an already marginal music while Rootsman ?uestlove's perversely unwavering four-on-the-floor refuses to direct the flow towards the dancefloor (or anywhere really). So labeling anything in the lyric sheet "chorus" or "bridge" is obviously a tease. If you follow the verse to "Chicken Grease," quite possibly the most anti-social "get down everybody" song ever recorded, you'll notice the sour minimalism is supposed to "breakdown." But the chicken-scratch guitar is so slight and quiet that it barely registers as sound much less a breakdown.
So what does that leave to listen to? Not much or, as Greg Tate put it in Vibe, "D'Angelo defin(es) himself as much by what his funk refuses to do as by what it does to legitimately function in the post-James Brown continuum." Ok, especially in the post-everything era, that line is relatively easy to buy. But it'd smell a lot less like manure if Voodoo's running length wasn't seventy-nine minutes, twenty-six longer than Brown Sugar. D'Angelo is subject to the laws of diminishing returns just as decisively as the most anonymous ambient doodler – it's hard to keep the foreplay up that long without the promise of some sort of gush to come. Had he pruned back some, "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" might have sounded as Princely as claimed. "The Line" would have told us something about his tardiness (or his tradiness) and came off as outré and less chickenshit than the debut's "Sh*t, Damn, Motherf*cker." And listeners wouldn't have to try so hard to enjoy it all just because they've been waiting so long for the second coming of the neosoul messiah.


Saturday, December 06, 2014

Two utterly related films

A bargain basement Grapes of Wrath, Three Faces West (Bernard Vorhaus, 1940) follows Dr. Braun (Charles Coburn) and his daughter, Leni (Sigrid Gurie, the Norwegian Garbo; check out her curiously intimate IMDB biography), two refugees from Hitler, to the States where they offer their services to a small town ravaged by unforgiving Dust Bowl winds and drought. Leni immediately despises the town's shabby living conditions and is determined to leave the following morning. But Dr. Braun's humanitarian impulses win out and Leni soon falls in love with John Phillips (John Wayne), a farmer who will lead the town to reportedly greener pastures in Oregon.

For the first half of this solid-plus effort from Republic, Vorhaus exhibits a leisureliness that should please Ford fans. For instance, it takes almost half an hour in a 75-minute film for Dr. Braun to make the final decision to stay in the town. That leaves time for a love triangle and a rogue farmer battling The Duke for power en route to Oregon. The triangle is extinguished in a rushed denouement which is a tad disorienting. But the speed up serves to underline the formation of the heterosexual at the end as the arbitrary imperative that it is, always a welcome reminder.
Best part occurs when John takes on the Soil Conservation Division of the Department of Agriculture which deems his town "doomed": "You can't shove us around to match pretty pins on your maps. We're not swivel chair farmers. And we're not licked yet!" He'll have none of that bureaucracy! But of course, they are licked and John's humbled capitulation to moving west makes this a very different kind of western (which to some might mean it's no kind of western at all).

As per the cynical practice of so much exploitation cinema, The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (Charles W. Broun Jr., Joel Holt, Arthur Knight, 1968) is a Frankenstein's monster of a film. Slapped together to capitalize on Mansfield's car crash death in 1967, it's a sleazy mondo film comprised of abandoned footage from another mondo film shot in 1964 called Jayne Mansfield Reports Europe and filled out with scenes from several Mansfield films, new material featuring bad body doubles and eliciting Kuleshov-effect-abusing reaction shots of Mansfield, and, of course, stills of the car crash. I was all prepared to quote the windy, awkwardly phrased, über-camp narration from Ms. Mansfield until I discovered that it was performed by her voice dubber Carolyn De Fonseca. Turning Mansfield herself into a Frankstein's monster in this manner brought out the prude in me and I soon lost the humor in (oh ok) such howlers as "The Eiffel Tower......[that's a real pause, by the way] was built in 1889. That's so long ago! And high!" So for me, the chief pleasure was in its glimpses of pre-Stonewall gay life in visits to an "underground" bar and a drag contest as well as some staged cruising.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Mardi Gras (Edmund Goulding, 1958)

One need only compare Best Foot Forward with its quasi-remake Mardi Gras to grasp the sorry state the Hollywood musical was in after rock 'n' roll. Dick Sargent (the second Darrin on Bewitched), Tommy Sands, Gary Crosby (Bing's son), and Pat Boone sleepwalk through a story by Curtis Harrington, of all people. Goulding couldn't save it even if he weren't sleepwalking himself. This was his last film in a rather undistinguished career (including the freakishly overrated Grand Hotel). What little oomph he brought to The Old Maid or Nightmare Alley had evaporated by this point. Crummy songs, poorly distributed musical numbers, no choreography to speak of, the pits. Some decent cheesecake, though.


Sunday, November 02, 2014

Jandek stars in a movie!

Jandek's first film will air on PBS this Tuesday. But you can watch it right now here. And it's precisely as gnomic as you would anticipate.

For one thing, it's called a play, not a film, the official title of which is kooken - a one act play. According to the site, it "was produced by Hardly Sound in conjunction with Corwood Industries and was filmed in Houston, Texas at an undisclosed location on August 29th and 30th of 2014." The end credits read "guest directed and edited by Corwood Industries."

Black and white and running about 27 minutes, kooken - a one act play features Jandek and an unnamed bohemian gal who recalls early 1980s Exene Cervenka. They leave a house and walk around to the backyard where they sit on a small brick patio and talk. Their conversation takes up most of the film. She calls him kooken and the chat proceeds with no direction and plenty of philosophizing. kooken expounds on the need to say no to the past and live in the present. The gal is somewhat familiar with him, comfortable giving him playful pushes but never expecting satisfying answers to her questions. They gab back and forth in a lightly argumentative manner, exacting one moment and contentedly resigned the next. A gaunt, artier Clint Eastwood, kooken talks in the guarded cadence of one not used to conversation. The handheld camera keeps them mostly in a two shot occasionally swooping away to show the trees in the yard and even some of the film crew. There are few cuts. The gal disses Yanni at one point.

They move back inside for the last few minutes with the camera focused on kooken in a medium closeup. He gives forth on bad poetry and distractions, stating that having too many friends means you can't be a friend to yourself. Cut to black. The credits do not identify the actors.

It's easy to read kooken - a one act play as a Jandek manifesto if not a mock interview with the Corwood Industries representative. kooken definitely comes across as Jandek (or the public persona of Sterling Smith we've been exposed to over the last decade) and the film slots into his oeuvre as yet another attempt at meeting the most minimal requirements for communication. There are plenty of ways to remain stubbornly elusive as a public figure (check out the new Jerry Lee Lewis biography for one method). But Jandek's remain the most extreme and uniquely his own.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Jerry Lewis, Blockhead

I saw Jerry Lewis at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, IL at 3pm last Sunday. Think about that - Jerry 3pm...on Sunday. One anticipated rank nostalgia on the menu but the venue and time promised little else. In Chicago on a Friday or Saturday night, the evening might have attracted art types hungry for some insight into the greatest American film comedian. Instead, the good old days crowd dominated the Paramount and were in bed by 8pm. At 88, Lewis should by all rights be part of that crowd. But the genius hasn't slowed down. He's still trying to bring the musical version of The Nutty Professor to Broadway and just last year, he starred in the barely seen drama Max Rose.

Sadly, none of this recent vitality was in evidence on Sunday. Lewis sat alone on stage, recounting past glories, telling jokes, and singing songs. In between, reportedly rare film and TV highlights, all of which are available on youtube, were shown as avi files projected from a computer while Lewis sat engulfed in darkness waiting for the clip to end. With no interlocutor and the Q&A cancelled, the evening came off as a rather oppressive slide show. And to make sure those past glories stayed in the past, Lewis pandered to the audience with an out-of-nowhere rendition of "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore," the mawkish low point of the entire affair.

And yet, both the out-of-nowhereness and the grotesquerie of the sentiment were perfectly in keeping with Lewis' genius. As with his film masterpieces, the show was constructed as a series of building blocks, to borrow Chris Fujiwara's analogy from his fine monograph on the director. Each block is a self-contained unit, mimicking the gag structure of his pre-Hollywood stage routines, that forestalls forward progression. Even in his more story-driven vehicles, Lewis never cared all that much about a tight three-act structure that propels the narrative onward. So why should he wedge his career into one? This was no "And then I wrote"-type reminiscence. The "here a song, there a joke" format mangled chronology and conveyed freedom rather than aimlessness.

The mawkishness and self-absorption are harder to defend but are as essential to the Lewisian effect as his anti-linear materialist filmmaking. Even Fujiwara tries to justify such grotesquerie by claiming it "harbors deep uncertainty that always stands ready to undermine what seem to be their own most firmly held values and basic imperatives, even as Lewis' insistence on sentiment threatens to become a parody of obviousness" (45). But if he truly was id to Dean Martin's blasé, stabilizing super ego, then why wouldn't he act like a self-pitying, attention-starved child in every other context? Indeed, that's his proto-rock 'n' roll gift to us and thus he requires no escape clause. In this, he recalls Simon Frith's words from Stranded on the Rolling Stones: "The real point of the Stones soap opera turns out to be that they get away with behavior most of us daren't risk for fear of consequences...for the rest of us, engaged in constant behavioral calculus, it is the Stones' lack of interest in moral accounting and not their supposed 'sinfulness' that is shocking" (34). So on Sunday, Lewis told the audience that no one but him understands what it means to receive fifty-plus years of applause to which the audience responded with even more applause. Instead of lessening (or even negotiating) the eternal divide between performer and audience, Lewis augmented it - I'm on top of the world and you're not. It was a repulsive moment but only insofar as we want the spotlight too and can't have it. We can pout and cry all we want but we have jobs and relationships and pouting, crying children to attend to. The consequences are dire when we act like babies or demand the mic. When Lewis does it, he gets applause (and tons of cash besides). Our need for attention, even (or especially) across from such blazing talent, explains why shouts of "We love you, Jerry!" spread around the theatre like coughs at an opera. For the briefest moment, each fan commanded the spotlight. But Lewis quickly grabbed it back: "You must be in heat."

This is the fate of the lonely clown and it's no surprise he's a frequent subject of kitsch art. He goofs off for our sins of living a decent, sober, careful life, to quote Frith (33) and in turn transforms secular entertainment into religion. We come to worship the clown in order to feel out the limits of our everyday actions. It's something else Lewis understands better than we do as evinced in this remarkable meditation on comedy/drama from an interview with Fujiwara:

"When I stand in front of an audience on New Year’s Eve, let’s say, years ago, and I see the young man and his girl, man and his wife, girl, boyfriend, couples, lovers, all that wonderful stuff ringside. I’m standing up there alone and making a fucking fool of myself to entertain all of them. There’s nothing more dramatic than that moment, Chris. It’s very dramatic. Because I have to call on something that’s not what I want to be at that moment. I want to be there with my girl or my wife watching some other schmuck make of fool of himself. But I never ever thought of what I did as demeaning. What I thought of it was: other than me at that moment. So it’s very dramatic. I love when somebody said, 'Did you ever think of doing drama?' What? Do you really think that Jack Nicholson does drama? He reads material, he’s directed in a scene, and he plays it as a very good actor. There’s nothing dramatic about that. He’s a very good actor reading the words and not bumping into the furniture. When you ask a comedian if he ever would do anything dramatic – he’s done it from the day he decided to make people laugh! He’s far more dramatic than any dramatic actor. Sir Laurence Olivier said to me, 'I wish I knew your drama'...You don’t have to ask Sir Gielgud to be dramatic; you ask him to act and learn the words and do the scene. Of course it’s called drama because it’s a story of a man who lost his son, and it’s terrible. But it’s not as dramatic as this" (109-110).

Therein lies the dilemma that gives rise to his maudlin moments. But it's those moments, in addition to every other facet of his genius, that make him equal to the Chaplin of Limelight, the Raj Kapoor of Mera Naam Joker, and the Tait of Parade.


Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Best Foot Forward (Eddie Buzzell, 1943)

Military academy movies are homoerotic enough. Fuse one with the musical's propensity for turning bodies into decorative elements and you have a Vesuvius of male objectification. In MGM's Best Foot Forward, Lucille Ball, playing herself, winds up at a military academy teeming with horny boys. But well before they literally tear her clothes off in one scene, the young men of fictional Winsocki find their own bodies subjected to hazing and awkward ornamental choreography.
My favorite scene has a row of cadets singing one line each of "Wish I May Wish I Might" into one another's eyes:
Wish I had an old jalop job

Just a little olden top job

Wish I had myself a C card

That would suit me to a T, pard

I could take my drag a-drivin'/And I would get the wish I wish tonight

And the cadets are always touching each other in that guileless, pre-Stonewall way.
So much so that the über-catchy "Three Men on a Date" doubles as a song about three men on a date with each other.
Other selling points:
Rubber-faced Kenny Bowers (on the left in the pic above) still playing to the nosebleed seats
A frothy score by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane
Nancy Walker butching things up in a spirited but arch performance
Several hot numbers from Harry James and His Music Makers

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College Coach (William A. Wellman, 1933)

As the author of the indispensable coffee table book The Hollywood Musical: Every Hollywood Musical From 1927 to The Present (New York: Crown, 1981), Clive Hirschhorn is an oedipal father I have to kill. So I get snippy when I watch a film he deems a musical that turns out to be no so such thing. Hence College Coach, a tough, punchy campus flick typical of the programmers Wellman was pumping out in the early 1930s.
Of the five songs listed by Hirschhorn (and IDMb), one is a school song heard over the opening credits and five minutes later sung by a group of students around a piano. Another has only one line sung - a news reporter modifies "Just One More Chance" as "Just One More Pose." I heard neither "Meet Me in the Gloaming" nor "What Will I Do Without You?" at any point in the film (perhaps they formed part of the non-diegetic score). Which leaves only one song, "Lonely Lane" sung by Dick Powell for no discernible reason.

It's a serviceable enough hour-plus, though, that touches on corrupt college football coaches. Future Ed Wood luminary Lyle Talbot is in it and so is John Wayne in a brief speaking role.

Bresson scholars might want to check out a fight scene played out, in part, below the waist.
And I was partial to the moment when two boys dance together after a score.
But yeah, so not a musical.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Footlight Serenade (Gregory Ratoff, 1942)

More than any other classical Hollywood genre, the musical affords directors the opportunity for displaying the male body and nowhere is that more apparent than in the "I'm Still Crazy For You" number from Footlight Serenade (Gregory Ratoff, 1942).
That's John Payne getting a rubdown and then some from Betty Grable. It may have been part of his star text to display his beauty so nakedly. Just check out the photo with which IMDb saw fit to represent him. Nevertheless, "I'm Still Crazy For You" indulges in a role reversal typical of the musical with a de-cheesecaked Grable the aggressor wrestling Payne's near-nude flailing body.

And it ends on an even itchier note as the couple face away from the camera for the last line of the song and a bit of dialogue thereafter, sweat glistening off of Payne's back. Head-scratching but delightfully queer.
Other selling points include a typically excellent performance by Victor Mature as an unstable love interest. The Medveds were high when they nominated him for The Worst Actor of All Time in The Golden Turkey Awards (Richard Burton won). He was one of the greats, outclassing everyone in this film and capable of using his agitation with the profession to lend his characters a slight psychotic edge. And keep an ear cocked for "Except with You," a Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin nugget begging for a country remake.