Monday, May 30, 2016

The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood (John Francis Dillon, 1932)

The only reason I saw this flick in MOMA's Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928–1937 series is this description from the site: "This one throws in a satire of the movie business, as young Kitty Kelly (June Clyde) becomes a star at Continental Productions, and young Melville Cohen (Norman Foster) writes songs for musicals. Crisis arrives when audiences grow tired of all singing, all dancing—an experience Junior Laemmle knew firsthand." Well, that doesn't happen until well into the 75-minute running time. Dillon (who?) never shows young Cohen working on a musical. But you do receive an acknowledgment that theme songs were crusty by 1932. And apart from a scene in which Boris Karloff, Lew Ayres, Tom Mix, Gloria Stuart, etc. are hobnobbing at the Coconut Grove (I think...I was getting sleepy by that point), that's all worth noting about this wincingly unfunny ethnic comedy. Most painful was an interminable scene in which a Russian director rants while perfecting his art on the set. Ugh.

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

An Edward L. Cahn double feature!

Not even a Subject for Further Research in Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema, Edward L. Cahn has long had the profile of a hack what with being relegated to shorts throughout the 1940s and B/Z-movie fare in the 1950s. But a 2011 profile by Dave Kehr in Film Comment has helped reverse his historical fortunes and now Kehr has programmed two of Cahn's 1930s titles in MOMA's Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928–1937 series. One of them, Laughter in Hell (1933), is a revelation. 

A superlative entry in the chain gang cycle, Laughter in Hell follows Pat O'Brien to prison after he reacts indelicately (to borrow R. Emmet Sweeney's great spoiler-preventing line) to his wife's infidelity in a disorienting scene shot with zooms (although I still don't *quite* believe that's true...could these shots have been optically printed to appear as zooms?). He enters a prison camp where the incarcerated are kept in cages on wheels and the black prisoners sing spirituals non-stop. For me, this latter was the most remarkable aspect of the film. These songs blanket the soundtrack for long periods of time and become oppressive as a form of resistance. Indeed, I was ready to tear my hair out along with new young prisoner Tom Brown towards the end of the film. Everywhere present but nowhere seen, the close harmonizing recalls Sternberg's use of the same in the prison scenes from his masterpiece Thunderbolt (1929). And in what must be the most brutal lynching scene in an American film of the time, Cahn links the prisoners together in protest by cutting mid-sentence so that they finish one another's sentences (similar to the incredible "America" sequence in Lewis Milestone's Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! released a month later in 1933). Amazing flick with fantastic supporting performances, especially from Gloria Stuart in a dour turn. 

 Pre-Code fans have already overrated Afraid to Talk (1932) for its unflinching glimpse into police and city official corruption. It's a damn fine film with a knockout cynical ending. But it pales before the formal fireworks of Laughter in Hell, especially in its overreliance on tickers and newsies to convey story information. Noteworthy for a seemingly random priss queen who saunters into an elevator in one brief scene (sorry for the hideous quality but it's the only copy I have). 
In short, the rehabilitation of Edward L. Cahn  must continue in earnest! I am particularly intrigued by Prejudice (1949) given this IMDb description: "The film, a social, religious drama, presented by The Protestant Film Commission and The Antidefamation League, had a non-theatrical release, opening in 100 churches in the USA and Canada on 18. Oct. 1949." It stars Barbara Billingsley! Some Leave It to Beaver dork must have a copy on VHS.

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Saturday, May 07, 2016

Music To F*ck By (NSFW)

I finally found my "Music To Fuck By" article from the June 1997 issue of Drummer. The legendary leather magazine neglected to pay me and then folded a year or so later thus joining such wastes of time as Joey Magazine, American Bear, and countless deceased local queer rags. But here they are, two pages of desperate attempts to get free records/published anywhere/gay men interested in anything beyond penis. The writing is, er, stiff because I couldn't figure out how to seamlessly integrate the sex fantasies my editor, Wickie Stamps, required of me. But I'm proud of the Beastie Boys scene.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Twilight Saloon (Tomu Uchida, 1955)

If you're one of the thousands (millions?) who have fallen in love with Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives, then you ought to check out Twilight Saloon. Confined to a saloon from open to close one evening, the narrative follows the lives of various patrons and employees and some viewers will no doubt disdain the telegraphed stories and hastily wrapped up conclusions. But the real drama here is musical. Twilight Saloon is choked with songs - folk songs, pop songs, military songs, workers' protest songs, arias. Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," a record of Josef Marais' (I think) take on "Brandy, Leave Me Alone" (and allusion to the "Whiskey, Laisse-moi Tranquille" scene in Hawks' The Big Sky?), a story-turning "Toreador Song," Japanese music about which I'm ignorant, etc. It's about what we do with songs, how they insinuate themselves into our lives, how they police the distinction between professional and amateur, how they signal disappointment, hope, rage, lust, justice, resignation. I absolutely adored it and kudos once again to Michael Raine for programming it at Japan Society's Japan Sings! series.

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Saturday, April 09, 2016

You Can Succeed, Too (Eizô Sugawa , 1964)

It's going to be difficult to top the opening night film at Japan Sings! The Japanese Musical Film at Japan Society. You Can Succeed, Too (Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru) is an absolute stunner, calling to mind Yasuzo Masumura's Giants and Toys, Frank Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and easily the equal of any of them. Concerning a tourist agancy's attempts to become more efficient like (their perception of) America, the film is most memorable for how it reprises several of its big musical numbers in more ironic contexts at later points in the narrative, especially the showstopping "In America" number available in a horrible Youtube clip below without subtitles (indeed, the print last night was shown with live subtitles). 

I cornered the curator, Michael Raine, Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Western University, Canada, after the film and he told me that the final number which takes place on a construction site was actually an American military base. But the filmmakers could get only a few shots since they were kicked off the site! So the scene quickly switches to hilariously fake studio sets. Raine suggests that these material conditions reflect the film's main theme - the need to but ultimate impossibility of emulating America. And it definitely serves as the film's hysterical moment, as per Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's "Minnelli and Melodrama," when realist representation breaks down to signal the film's inability to contain its own contradictions. Raine also told me he showed it to Miriam Hansen who loved it! You will too!!

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Monday, April 04, 2016

SCMS 2016 Final Day :(

Sunday mornings are even more appropriate for porn (studies), particularly the Pornography is a Fighting Word: Sex Media and the Law panel. Laura Marks' "The New Wave: The Fall Out of Traci Lords" discussed the reedited Talk Dirty To Me Part III which shoddily cuts out scenes featuring an underage (under USA law) Traci Lords and replaces her with actress Lisa De Leeuw. For Marks, the reedit speaks to several tensions within porn fandom and history. Porn fans feel betrayed and lied to by the industry. Covers advertise scenes and even stars that do not appear in a film/video. And the reedit conveys the industry's cavalier attitude toward artistry. For instance, the new scenes were shot on video while the original was shot on film making for an in-your-face sloppiness. But such attitudes leave porn fans in a difficult place since they also have to defend the artistry/importance of pornography much of the time. Marks positions the reedit at the threshold of the turn to video and eventually gonzo, especially in a masturbation scene in which the director's instructions are left on the soundtrack. direction.

Peter Alilunas' "Regulation, Authenticity, and Pornography: The Legacy of “Freeman v. California”" focused on the landmark case in which porn producer Harold Freeman was arrested for pandering due to the sex acts in the film Caught From Behind (1982). Five female (but no male) performers were brought to trial and maintained that they were performers, not prostitutes. As Rhonda Shantell stated, "the sex acts were totally devoid of sexual arousal, gratification, or pleasure." However, the jurors only read the screenplay and concluded that the acting stopped when the sex began. In short, the pleasure was believed and Freeman was convicted on five counts of pandering. Appeals determined that the performers were acting sex rather than having actual sex. In 1988, the California Supreme Court found that the pandering law had no bearing on adult films and the US Supreme Court declined to hear any appeals. At stake here is the very definition of pornographic realism. But I was equally intrigued/repulsed by Dennis Conte of the Los Angeles Vice Squad who harassed performers and coerced them into testifying.
Constance Penley was the respondent and in her scholarship discovered that the porn industry is more afraid of censorship from Verizon and Google than any government obscenity trials. She also reported on a pleasant 45-minute phone conversation she had recently with a Los Angeles Vice Squad officer who told her "Our job would be so much easier if you could just tell us what obscenity is."
Then it was off to the Sound Studies SIG and my illustrious panel, Tracking Sound: On Film Music, Aesthetics, and Narrative. Paula Musegades' "Communism, Propaganda, and Music: Aaron Copland’s Film Score for Lewis Milestone’s The North Star"(1943)" covered the myriad songs in Milestone's de facto propaganda film about partnering with the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis. Dana Andrews and Farley Granger sing! For "Love Me Tonight (1932) and the Development of the Integrated Film Musical," Hannah Lewis looked at early scripts for Rouben Mamoulian's masterpiece at the Library of Congress and revealed that the filmmakers were far more interested in technological innovation than so-called integration. In fact, one earlier script provided more narrative motivation for the tenuously integrated numbers than what wound up in the film. Finally, Matthew McDonald's "Behind the Whirring Machinery: Narrative Levels in the Coen Brothers’ Films" analyzed the interplay of narrative elements that distort the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic. Oh yeah, and my paper, "Music is heard, not seen: Grand Rights and the Visualization of Song in Hollywood Cinema" was FABULOUS!

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Sunday, April 03, 2016

SCMS 2016 Day Four

Day Four was for bouncing around starting with Misha Kavka's "Truly, Madly, Queerly: Extending the Camp Canon" at the New Cultural Politics of Camp panel. Kavka traced the migration of camp into sitcoms, news, Republican debates, and, especially, reality television. While convergence works against the common reference point so crucial to the logistics of camp, a show like Mob Wives makes clear that camp is no longer a private code. A queer stylistic takes over such that the wives' behavior recalls transgender performance. But anger and fighting have replaced the life-affirming energy of camp.  

Then it was off to the Music Matters: Sound Studies in Context panel. Brain Fauteux's "'Songs You Need to Hear': Public Radio Partnerships and the Mobility of National Music" about the transnational song sharing programs of the BBC and the CBC. Fauteux asks: How does public radio constitute national identity in a transnational digital mediascape, especially when such sharing can lead to a global brand?
Steve Spence's "Eyes on the Prize and the Music of Black Power" was about the 1987 civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. Spence played a clip from the film in which Dr. Bernice Reagon explained the importance of song to the civil rights movement. When we sing, we resonate. Thus, songs can bring communities into existence. The song maintains the air around you so that no one (particularly, the police force) can take the space back. It changes the very air around you. Moral (courtesy of Kodwo Eshun): Rhythm is a biotechnology.
Colleen Montgomery's "From The Little Mermaid to Merida: Female Vocal Performance in Disney and Pixar Animation" discussed how a film like Brave gives girls' experience a voice given how the film is about finding a voice. Montgomery also demonstrated how the Dolby Atmos sound system had the mother and daughter's voices separated in surround speakers to heighten the dramatic conflicts between the two. 
Tim Anderson's "Listening to What I Want to Become: Instructional Records, Instructional Listening" explored the Music Minus One label as well as albums like Albert Brooks' Comedy Minus One - records in which one element of a song or routine is missing so that the listener (as musician or actor) can fill in the blanks. Anderson conceives of these curious discs as a method of teaching the listener how to listen to records. I would add that they encourage the kind of musical amateurism thought to be killed off by the decline of pianos and organs in family homes.
The fascinating Queer Excisions in Global Media panel featured Karl Schoonover on "Queer Excision 1: Jump Cuts as History and Aesthetic Form." Schoonover contends that because queers are written out of history and archives, excision becomes a mode of queer temporality. As an illustration of his contention, he showed Youtube clips of Tubog as Ginto (Dipped in Gold), a 1971 bomba film directed by Lino Brocka. The fact that we can watch these films in crappy bootlegs versions on YouTube is both archival and anarchival. Odd ellipses and repetitions suggest censorship. And there is a signalling of pleasure with some scenes played over and over leading to tape deterioration. Bootlegs thus trace the reception practice of sharing and desire. However, some shots of same sex intimacy are not in the YouTube version. We see a caress twice in a loop with dissolves or a jump cut of a remainder of a dissolve. They make for a revised queer space and time, unhitching viewing from the narrative event. In sum, some queer scholars have maintained that the classical continuity system makes heteronormativity an inevitabilty on top of which queer style can happen. But he's trying to redefine continuity as a mode alllowing different forms of connectedness. 
Marc Siegel's "How Do I Look Now?" harked back to the seminal 1991 Bad Object Choices collection How Do I Look? to look beyond the interests of the nation state and homonationalism. He analyzed two short films (Jaurès and Mondiale 2010) that look away from gay relationships and the couple through windows at Afghani immigrants and Palestinian refugees.
Keith Corson's "Tyler Perry Superstar: Brand Management and the Re-Imagination of Gospel Theater" revealed that Perry has never left the stage despite the success of his films. The live experience allows him to test what would work on film. He continually breaks the fourth wall and breaks character not in attempt at Brechtian distanciation but to make mental notes out loud. His films then generate an expectation of participation. They even have beats to allow for it. Thus, he turns the movie theater into gospel theater.

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