Friday, September 25, 2009

The Funhouse interview with Cedric Klapisch

Two clips are now up from my interview with French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch, who was in town a few weeks back to promote the NYC opening of his film Paris. Here, we talk about his scripting films with large ensembles and separate plot threads:

And now for the fun part of the discussion. We talk about his eclectic and very catholic (with a lowercase “c”) use of music in his films:

With two great examples I used on the show. First, a kinetic moment that mixes four different genres, from When the Cat’s Away (1996):

And a very adorable moment when two middle-aged characters rock out to Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” in the family drama/comedy Un Air de Famille (1996).

The white-on-white subtitle phenomenon — or, why did New Yorker hide so many great acquisitions?

To complement this week’s episode of the Funhouse, on which I discuss the death of the arthouse distributor New Yorker films (which I wrote about on this blog), I offer the following scene from one of the many, many masterpieces that New Yorker acquired but never released on either VHS or DVD. Jacques Rivette’s L’Amour Fou (1969) is an absorbing film about a marriage in crisis, that finds the lead couple warring as both a theatrical production and a documentary are taking shape.

The sequence I uploaded here is one of the most notable moments in the film, as the lovely Bulle Ogier and the intenser-than-most Jean-Pierre Kalfon reach an impasse. It is noted in the very fine documentary on Rivette by Claire Denis and Serge Daney that Kalfon did indeed cut his chest when he did this scene (method!). The film is one of eleven superb Rivette films that is not available on DVD in the U.S. (including the overwhelming and quietly, insidiously brilliant Out 1). Out of those eleven, only two were ever out on VHS; one can only hope that Rivette gets some representation over here while he is still with us and still making films (his latest, Around a Small Mountain, is currently on the film festival circuit).

But the fact that L’Amour Fou was acquired and then hidden away by New Yorker is NOT the only reason I’ve uploaded this clip. The other is the fact that it contains some dreadful white-on-white subtitling. As all but one of the American DVD labels specializing in arthouse releases still use the white-on-white method, I’d just like to note that it is often really very fucking hard to distinguish white-on-white titles (why dance around the topic — I’m not getting paid to write this….). I know that the answer to this dilemma, yellow subs, is loathed by certain video/DVD labels, as it presumably “distracts” from the beauty of the visual (and this can well be the case with gorgeous black and white films or specially stylized color features), but some filmmakers are as brilliant at screenwriting as they are at directing. Thus, you have a dilemma: would you rather see a pristine print of a Bergman film with white-on-white subs where you may well miss a portion of the dialogue, or would you rather have yellow subtitles that may “distract” for a short while (the eye becomes used to them very quickly) and understand all that is being said by the characters? (And why can't modern computer-titling advancements that "enhance" titles with a slight gray backing be used?) This debate is virtually moot, as only Koch Lorber seems to still use the yellow-subtitling method that renders every line readable.

So, if you watch the following clip from L’Amour Fou and comprend le francais, you will be entranced (although the picture quality does suck too, but Kalfon and Ogier’s performances can make one forget that for a bit). If you don’t understand French, you will lose the dialogue that leads up to Kalfon’s intense act of self-destruction. I think the one and only lesson that comes from watching this kind of godawful print of an arthouse feature is indeed how devoted fans can be to great filmmaking: to fall in love with a film that looks THIS BAD means that truly you’re watching a great work of cinema.

After I posted this, I discovered that another fan had put the clip up in a clearer copy; he has taken it from Denis and Daney's documentary (also unavailable over here), so it's much shorter and is missing the lead-in to the violent act. It can be found here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

He wrote *the* song: Deceased Artiste Jim Carroll

Jim Carroll was one of those NYC artist types that I have absolutely admired and respected, and have walked past in several circumstances, and yet I never told the guy how much his work has meant to me. Perhaps it was because he was physically imposing: a tall mutha, he sported bright red/orange hair (seemingly inspired by Bowie in the early Seventies) and, like any New Yorker worth his/her salt, walked as if he knew where the hell he was going to (no aimless rambling for New Yorkers, even if they’re headed to the local deli). Perhaps it was because I had nothing witty, interesting, or wise to say to him about my admiration for his work. Or perhaps it was because the Catholic Boy LP was so important to me at the time it came out, I played the thing so many fucking times, that it was almost redundant to stop the guy in the street and just say “hey man, I really loved that album so much….” When these folks die, you think about these things, as if your having imparted these positive feelings might’ve affected the artist in some way (the idea that we, the fans, can in some way touch the artist, is a mighty, mighty egocentric conceit). In any case, I loved Carroll’s music and, yes, his poetry (the latter being the bulk of his work over the years) and his memoirs.

As some folks “write the book” on a specific topic, Carroll “wrote the song” on death (on the up-tempo side; downbeat being “My Death” by Brel). His “People Who Died” never was a Top 40 hit, but it’s never forgotten by anyone who hears it: a laundry list of his friends who died young, in colorful and supremely fatal ways. To honor Carroll’s passing, I want to point to my favorite songs of his, but perhaps I’d best start out with the words, spotlighting some clips of him reading poetry.

Before the poetry, however, a little access. Jim on an Ohio public access show in 1991, being interviewed about his basketball playing as a younger man:

And the most amazing Carroll interview ever, him on the Today Show in 1999 discussing the fact that various “school shooters” had been inspired by the movie version of The Basketball Diaries. I loved the book, and have never taken the time to see the movie, thanks to the unfortunate casting by director Scott Kalvert of the leads (I guess he, like Scorsese, saw something in Leonardo that I just do not see, namely breadth of ability as a performer). I was very glad to watch this interview last night and find out Carroll himself was no fan of the movie. It’s an incredibly eloquent and intelligent interview:

Carroll can also be seen/heard reading his poetry here and here. A wonderful full-length reading that took place at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in 1998 can be seen here:

A clip from a “video diary” project that never came to be:

And now, the musical side. The two most interesting revelations in Jim’s obits were the fact that Keith Richards arranged for his record deal with Atlantic (Patti Smith already having encouraged him to make the leap from poet to rocker), and that when his record deal died he wrote lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult and Boz Scaggs (???). Here he is performing the lead song from Catholic Boy, “Wicked Gravity” live:

The one major network TV appearance by Carroll that I remember fondly was on the uneven but sometimes very amusing Fridays (2/6/81). He performed a lesser tune and this awesome piece that has the great opening salvo “It’s too late/to fall in love with Sharon Tate/but it’s too soon/to ask for the words I want carved on my tomb”:

I like the second and third albums Carroll recorded, and his “comeback” to rock, Pools of Mercury, but none of them had quite the force of the first LP. One song that did gather attention was his cover of “Sweet Jane,” which was represented by an actual music video (a student of Rimbaud, Frank O’Hara, and Wm. Burroughs does a music vid!), which had the benediction of having a guest appearance by one of Jim’s other obvious influences, Lou Reed:

Sweet Jane

I loved and played to death several songs on the Catholic Boy, including “Three Sisters,” but the title tune had the most resonance for someone trapped in the rigors and dogma of a Catholic education. And it don’t age, either (’cause I’m sure those fuckers ain’t changed one bit):

The most poignant public moment involving Carroll in the years following his “retirement” from rockin’ was the publication of his moving poem “8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain,” which I first saw in The New York Times magazine section, and which he later performed live on MTV’s “Unplugged” (when poetry was the rage for a minute, thanks to “slams”). It’s a beautiful, heartfelt piece by a fellow sufferer, and can be found here.

And since “People Who Died” HAS to be heavily celebrated in any forum where Deceased Artistes are the order of the day on a regular basis, I present two versions of the song. First, a very up-tempo live rendition (from Fridays, I believe) for those who already know the lyrics:

And for those who haven’t heard it yet, I guess the lyrics are clearer on this “official” music-video version released in conjunction with the Basketball Diaries movie, with interspersed images of the Baby-Faced One:

Deceased Artistes for September 2009: "...on the waters of oblivion..."

I’ll state straight at the outset that my only interest in Patrick Swayze ever is that he starred in the godawful but wonderfully amusing Roadhouse, where Ben Gazarra says he fucked guys like him in prison (which I misremembered as “I fucked guys tougher than you in prison,” which I think that has that extra “touch” of refinement….). In any case, numerous show biz folks have died in the last week besides the one who danced in a dirty way.

Firstly, Larry Gelbart, the comedy writer who was part of one of the best writing teams ever on any TV comedy show, the group that penned the sketches on Your Show of Shows and its follow-up, Caesar’s Hour. I regularly watched M*A*S*H as a kid and greatly enjoyed the initial years, for which Gelbart was the chief writer; I can’t revisit the show now because it jumped the shark so severely — most likely at the moment that Gelbart and supporting cast members started to take a hike — that it became unwatchable.

His later career is made up of things that are funny, but in a pleasant, non-hysterical way (I know, I know, I’ve just infuriated some fans of Tootsie, a film that is fun but, christ, can it indeed be rewatched like a prime piece of Mel or Woody?). He scripted, among others, Blame It On Rio, Movie Movie, and the beyond-unnecessary remake of Bedazzled. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has gone down in history as one of the great Broadway farces; sadly, the movie has moments but doesn’t hang together, despite the awesomeness of its cast. Well, anyway, what was the finest inclusion in Gelbart’s obit? That his father, a noted Hollywood barber, got him his first big-time job by bragging about his son to Danny Thomas, one of his customers. Thomas asked to see some of the kid’s jokes, and thereafter Larry worked for not only the future “Daddy” (who has one of the most fun H’wood urban legends linked to his name), but also Bob Hope, Jack Paar, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carson (not Johnny), and Joan Davis, and then the great Sid.

The next big show-biz death that occurred this very week, post-Swayze-guy was Henry Gibson. Gibson was a mild-mannered comedian who delivered poems (pronounced “po-em”) on Laugh-In when it was at its peak. He performs one of these little numbers on a Dick Van Dyke Show episode — and interestingly enough, he kept it around long enough so that it became a lyric for his turn as the Roy Acuff-inspired character in Altman’s perfect Nashville. Although he later had some nice plum supporting parts in dramas and comedies — I think he was rather marvelously cast as Teller’s dad (as in “Penn and…”) in the cable Bull Durham knock-off Long Gone with the awesome Virginia Madsen — Gibson was indeed given his best film roles by Altman. Before Nashville, he escaped his wimpy comic persona in The Long Goodbye as the doctor rehabbing ultra-macho novelist Sterling Hayden (and smacking him around at one point).

Here’s Gibson doing his shtick on Laugh-In:

Also checkin’ out this week was Paul Burke, TV actor and stalwart lead emeritus. The most interesting story in his obit is the one about how in 1990 he was acquitted of “racketeering” charges, along with Harry Connick Sr. He later claimed this harmed his ability to get roles in Hollywood, but his salad days were definitely in the Sixties, when he appeared in pics like Valley of the Dolls. A typical bit of Burke’s TV work is this scene from 12 O’Clock High, a series from 1964-67:

Burke’s best-known starring role was, of course, in the unforgettable Naked City TV series from 1960-1963 as police detective Adam Flint. He played the very embodiment of an honest lawman, as the city around him swirled in mists of noir behavior. Here he is with a “troubled” young man, played by Richard Jordan.

I plan on devoting a whole blog post to Jim Carroll, so I will honor Mary Travers’ passing by pointing the way to some lesser-known songs done by her and Messrs. Yarrow and Stookey. The most interesting tidbit in her obituary wasn’t the fact that PP&M were a “fabricated” folk trio — that fact doesn't much matter when one considers their beautiful harmonizing, wonderful catalogue of hits, and years of performing at benefits and significant political events. The nice bit of trivia was that she was perhaps the only folkie in Greenwich Village at that time to make it big who actually had lived in that part of NYC for her whole life. Her voice was indeed gorgeous, and so, music maestro, please! First the haunting “Early Morning Rain” by Gordon Lightfoot:

Okay, ONE hit, “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” which is pretty much her tune:

One of my faves as a kid, a hit that nobody plays anymore because it’s wonderfully, gloriously dated. “I Dig Rock ’n’ Roll Music,” as performed on The Jonathan Winters Show:

A forgotten Dylan cover by PP&M, “Too Much of Nothing,” as performed on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Another tune I can’t get out of my head, and the lyrics are classic Dylan, in that I have absolutely no idea what they mean (“Say hello to Valerie/Say hello to Marianne/Send them all my salary/On the waters of oblivion…”).

And there is no better way to close out than the rousing “Day is Done,” from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour:

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Silence is Golden: Gerard Courant’s “Cinématon” portraits

Yeah, go ahead and blame Andy Warhol again. Warhol’s various conceptual practices have lived on in a number of different ways, and his "screen test" idea seemingly was given new life by the French film artist Gerard Courant in the 1980s. Courant has been making avant-garde/"underground" films from 1976 to the present day. I have to confess my ignorance of his work until I encountered this odd silent study of our hero Uncle Jean:

The YouTube posting links back to Courant’s site, which has a full filmography and biography of the gentleman, plus a few dozen more of these “Cinématon” shorts, as he calls them. The films are silent studies of various folks associated with the film industry and, to my mind, they succeed best in doing one thing: offsetting the awful profusion of Entertainment Tonight/E! Channel/DVD "supplement" interviews in which the filmmaker or performer is asked to summarize his/her role in the movie, or retell the damned plot of the picture.

I’m not certain if Courant got these studies under the auspices of press junkets or a film festival — it looks to be the latter — but what he did was to conduct an experiment that will delight some and bore others, but which does bear a relation to the press-junket phenomenon, in which a TV reporter/journalist/hack (pick yer poison, folks) comes into a room with a person representing a film and gets 5-10 minutes time to barrage them with questions, most of which they’ve been answering all day. Courant’s studies cut out the Q&A aspect out entirely, and what you’re left with is the person’s face, and gestures (if they chose to make any). The filmmakers seem awkward on camera (unless they chose to, no surprise, keep talking, as if the study was still an interview), but it’s interesting to note that even some of the performers — as with the lovely and talented Sandrine Bonnaire — seem awkward in front of Courant’s camera.

Courant’s “Cinématon” call to mind portrait photography and silent cinema, but they also serve another purpose: to commemorate the Deceased Artistes he encountered, including the New Wave queen of the pout, the sacred actress who starred in several Godard and Rivette films, Juliet Berto. Also, since time doth move on, Courant also has recorded the fashion “choices” folks made, as with Wim Wenders’ early Eighties “new wave” hairdo (Wenders chooses not to address Courant’s camera, but to ignore it instead — perhaps as a result of his own work as a still photographer).

And last, we learn a very obvious lesson: that comedians can’t be still and “studied” — especially not by a serious-minded art filmmaker. I highly recommend the “Cinématon” of one of my faves, Roberto Benigni (I love Benigni deeply, and think Americans have to just to forget his wacky behavior at the Oscars a decade ago, and that awful, way-too-often-shown Blake Edwards pic he made….). True to his nature, Roberto continues to talk in his film portrait, but what he’s saying is instantly “readable” to those who know elementary French: he was “pas payé” (not paid) for what he’s doing, thus the Gainsbourg-ian destruction of money. Benigni experiments at one point with leaving frame entirely, which becomes the keynote of another comic performer/artist’s portrait, Terry Gilliam. Terry “eats” money rather than tearing it, futzes around with the frame, and actually questions the time factor by counting down until his “disappearance”:

Having done a number of press junkets, I have to say that, while you can indeed get some very good answers from the “strapped-in” participants if you ask them different questions (and don’t have them recite the fucking plot or reflect on their characters!), perhaps Courant’s approach is the proper one: get rid of words entirely….

Thursday, September 10, 2009

AM pop heaven: part the second

Continuing on from last week’s post, I offer two more hook-driven Sixties hits that will never, ever exit my cranium. First, the tale of a young lad who love the daughter of his bossman, the melodramatic and catchy-as-hell Billy Joe Royal 1965 chart-topper “Down in the Boondocks.” The song was written by Joe South, who had hits of his own around the same time. The song can be heard in in its thoroughly produced single version or you can view Billy Joe singing it live on Shindig:

And because one hook conjures another, I salute one of my fave-ever pop ditties which, unbeknownst to me, has been revived a whole buncha times. I was introduced to the awesome “Concrete and Clay” by the admittedly Seventies-mellow version of the tune by Randy Edelman. The original is the faster-paced and thoroughly awesome version by the Sixties group Unit 4 + 2 (which, naturally enough, had five members).

The song has the simplicity of a doo-wop tune with a bossa nova beat, a rock-solid hook, and blissfully corny lyrics. Little did I know that the sucker had come back several more times, including an oh-so-Eighties version by a German band named Hong Kong Syndicat. None of the cover artists produced as weird a visualization of the tune (well, actually there's neither concrete nor clay involved) as this 1999 bit of gender-bending bizness from former Dexys Midnight Runners’ lead Kevin Rowland. It’s a nice little what-the-fuck music-vid (Kevin does not make a good lingerie model) that proves the song is as indestructible as any great pop tune.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Queen of Heartache and Cool Gibberish: Deceased Artiste Ellie Greenwich

The obits for Brill Building legend Ellie Greenwich elaborated the many, many hits she cowrote with her then-husband Jeff Barry (from “Then He Kissed Me” and “Leader of the Pack” to “I Can Hear Music” and “River Deep, Mountain High”), but what impresses me about Greenwich’s work was the the split — the wonderful only-in-pop-music schism between heavy-duty melodramatic tales of heartbreak and woe, and three of the most impossible to forget goofy-hook songs of the Sixties: “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Hanky Panky,” and “Doo Wah Diddy.” Not to mention “Niki Hoeky," which I particularly like since it’s never, ever played on oldies radio.

Her earliest hits were written with a Funhouse favorite, Brill Building tunesmith turned singer-songwriter Tony Powers (“Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts”). Along with her husband and co-writer Jeff Barry, Greenwich also produced Neil Diamond’s unforgettable early hits on Bang records (“Cherry Cherry,” “Kentucky Woman”). In her later years, she was a constant presence on the NYC theater scene, supervising the musical “Leader of the Pack,” which began at the late, lamented Bottom Line and eventually moved to Broadway. She also did backing vocals on Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album and Blondie’s Eat to the Beat.

For a prime example of Greenwich in singer-songwriter mode, I direct you to the Red Telephone 66 blog’s posting of her 1973 LP Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung. The Red Telephone blog-master does a marvelous job of supplying rips of vinyl that is looooong out of print; for this he deserves our gratitude.

As a tribute to the songwriting talents of Ms. Greenwich, I decided to repost a clip I had put on the original Funhouse blog, one which had gotten a lot of hits and much traffic when it was on YT. It's from a rare 1965 TV special hosted by Murray the K. One of its finer moments features the Ronettes doing “Be My Baby” in the streets of Little Italy. Considering the song’s solid identification with the once and future classic Mean Streets, the clip is doubly historic. Sure, it’s a lip-synch (and the sound ain’t so hot on the mono VHS copy I’ve got), but it’s loaded with “atmosphere.” R.I.P. Ellie G. The songs will not be forgotten....

Rock Us, Jerry Lewis: A Labor Day Mega-Post

It’s that time of year again, Jerry Lewis Telethon time! These days I’ve taken to paying tribute on the Funhouse to the cinematic Jerry, since the ’thon itself is clearly in its waning years, and I find a lot more enthusiastic “old show biz” in the NYC portions of the show, hosted by the unstoppable Mr. Tony Orlando.

So, since I’m on the topic of Jer the movie performer and “total filmmaker,” I must single out the YouTube poster of the week, a person who wants to be known as LoveJoeCartwright. This UK fan-poster has put up close to 900 videos relating primarily to Dean and Jerry — and also Michael Landon, Roy Orbison, and Gene Pitney. The Dean stuff consists of postings of his songs, like one of my fave earlier tunes. Also Westerns like Five Card Stud. The must-see (although here it is presented without letterboxing) is Billy Wilder’s masterful Kiss Me, Stupid:

And, for sheer Sixties superspy fun, Phil Karlson’s The Silencers:

The poster has put up a LOT of Dean and Jerry on the radio, and also most of their feature films. The complete Martin and Lewis films up are My Friend Irma, My Friend Irma Goes West, At War With the Army, Sailor Beware, Jumping Jacks, The Stooge, Scared Stiff, The Caddy, Money From Home, Living It Up, Three Ring Circus, You’re Never Too Young, Hollywood or Bust, and Pardners

I enjoy the M&L features, but most hardcore fans will readily admit that the most entertaining work the team did was on The Colgate Comedy Hour. A sample:

Solo Jerry is an up-and-down affair, with the most essential pics to watch being the early films he directed himself and several utterly charming films directed by the master, Frank Tashlin (seen to the right with Jerry on the set of It's Only Money in 1962). The complete films up on YT are The Sad Sack, Tashlin’s Rock-a-bye Baby and The Geisha Boy, Don’t Give Up The Ship, The Bellboy, Tashlin’s Cinderfella, The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, Tashlin’s Who’s Minding the Store?, The Patsy, Tashlin’s The Disorderly Orderly,
The Family Jewels, Boeing Boeing,
Three on a Couch, Way Way Out, Don’t Raise the Bridge…, Hook, Line and Sinker, Which Way to the Front?, and Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece (from the period when Scorsese commanded worship, which has gone sadly the way of Leo) King of Comedy.

This week on the show I’m presenting short clips from one of the forgotten Jerry comedies, Tashlin’s tiptop It’s Only Money (1962):

Jerry’s Seventies “comeback” movie, Hardly Working, is pretty hard-going at points, but it has a terrific opening montage “music video” of earlier Jerry moments:

And perhaps his most over-the-top film, his second “comeback” pic which never received a theatrical release in America — but which played in France as “You’re Nuts, Jerry!” — Smorgasbord aka “Cracking Up”:

Another poster, nicknamed “Safe in Pants,” has put up the best single Martin and Lewis movie, Frank Tashlin’s terrific Artists and Models:

And please, now go to the “Watercooler to the World” blog and listen to the closest thing to a “carol” for this telethon season, “Rock Me, Jerry Lewis”

AM pick to click (in another era)

The sheer hookiness of old pop can't be beat, and for discovering these songs at a moment's notice, YouTube is quite the inescapable destination. To wit, a ridiculous publicity film for a song I haven't heard on the radio in three decades, Bobby Bloom's terminally catchy "Montego Bay":

And since we're saying goodbye to the season this weekend (although, as we all know, the seasons are staggered now that the planet is being melted off its fucking axis), I evoke this ditty, which is actually in occasional "rotation" on oldies radio: