Friday, January 29, 2010

The "eldest brother" of the New Wave: Deceased Artiste Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer remains for me a “subject for further research” (phrase courtesy Andrew Sarris). I have thoroughly enjoyed the films of his I’ve seen, and yet I haven’t seen a good deal of his oeuvre. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he grouped his films in themed series, and although the films can be viewed individually with no loss of comprehension, the completist in me always wants to watch a series of films in the order it was released in. Perhaps it’s because Rohmer’s films are inherently literary in nature, and as such are chockfull of dialogue and characterization, as opposed to the poetry (Godard) and mystery (Rivette) found in my favorite New Wave films (although without question Rohmer stayed “purer” to his own vision of an intellectual cinema than Truffaut and Chabrol did to their initial rebel tendencies). Perhaps it’s simply because Rohmer made films the way Woody Allen has here in the U.S. — and although Woody favors Bergman as his model, I do see him more firmly following in the footsteps of Rohmer. Which is to say, he produced a steady flow of films that ranged from mini-masterworks to deftly realized but forgettable character studies (with his view of Paris and other locales being akin to Woody’s magical depictions of NYC). Sometimes the more films a filmmaker produces, the more I need to see everything he or she has made; sometimes I just see the “classics” and wind up losing track of the artist’s work in midstream.

In any case, what Rohmer did well, he did extremely well. And that was depicting the nuances of male-female relationships, keeping the viewer focused on the action by avoiding all “frills” (close-ups, flagrant musical soundtracks), and, let’s be honest here, casting really beautiful women as objects of desire, usually found in bathing suits on a beach.

A very early Rohmer work, shot in the early Fifties but not released until 1960, is the short Presentation, ou Charlotte et son Steak, starring none other than Uncle Jean himself, our hero Godard. He is so young here he’s not wearing glasses, has hair, and is ridiculously thin. He dubbed his own voice when Rohmer released the film in 1960, and Anna Karina and Stephane Audran dubbed the voices of the two actresses.

Rohmer’s first feature, Le Signe du Lion (1959), is very rarely seen on these shores. Here is a pretty thorough trailer from its initial release, running three minutes long:

And here is a key scene for Uncle Jean lovers, JLG does with a record player what Jean-Pierre Leaud later did with a CD in his terrific Grandeur et Decadense…. So does that mean Rohmer came up with this bit, or did Godard do it at parties to drive everyone nuts?

The opening of the short Nadja a Paris (1964), sans English subs (it’s all about location and girl here):

Rohmer’s first venture in color is BRIGHTLY colored, perhaps because it was released in the magic little year of 1967. La Collectioneuse can be found in its entirety here. This is a peek at the film's opening, and the quite lovely Haydéee Politoff dressed for some conversation:

Pauline at the Beach (1983) was one of Rohmer’s bigger arthouse hits over here. This is the U.S. home video trailer for the film. I love these odd artifacts of VHS Past:

Another underseen Rohmer title, starring the terrific Pascale Ogier (who died tragically at the age of 26), Full Moon in Paris (1984). Here, my friends, is a a little slice of the Gallic Eighties:

Rohmer’s final series was the “Tales of Four Seasons.” Here is the trailer for A Tale of Summer (1996):

I hate just linking to trailers, but Rohmer’s films are notoriously hard to excerpt. Here is the preview for The Lady and the Duke (2001), a period piece in which Rohmer made brilliant use of CGI to render period atmosphere:

And a wonderful rarity, Rohmer’s film of Jean Renoir and Henri Langlois speaking about the Lumiere bros, Louis Lumiere (1968):

My own offering is a slice of Rohmer acting for his friend Jacques Rivette in the intricate and wonderful miniseries Out 1 (1970). Rohmer plays an expert on Balzac who lectures Jean-Pierre Leaud on the mysterious group known as the “Thirteen.” This very dialogue- and seemingly plot-portent-laden scene comes in the series’ third episode after there has been *very* little dialogue. Thanks to Zach for pointing the existence of this English-subbed print out, and Paul for transferring it so awesomely:

And the chunkier second part of the scene:

Friday, January 22, 2010

What the Hell were the Green brothers thinking?: A post-mortem on the death of Air America

I still listen to commercial AM and FM radio. There’s just about nothing at all of any interest or intelligence on commercial radio stations, but like any other deluded dreamer, I keep thinking there’s a chance that something good will appear on the commercial stations — whereas. as anyone who’s still following the Forgotten Medium knows, the only good programming is on listener-sponsored stations, be they Pacifica, NPR, or college stations. Satellite radio offers terrific specialized programming, but I don’t have the money to subscribe to it, and it was sunk right from the start by its massive investment in shock jockery (which ain’t funny when cursing is actually allowed).

And so, yes folks, I’ve listened to the shipwreck that was Air America for the last six years, from its very first week on the air to this week, when I was still monitoring the snippets of the brilliant Lionel, the one remaining must-hear host on the network. Today the death of the network was announced, and its website was taken down, replaced by a goodbye note.

When it was first announced, it was to be “the alternative” to right-wing talk radio, and the three names that were sought were Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, and Michael Moore. Moore wisely sidestepped doing a show on the network. Now-Senator Al took the plunge, however, and was stunningly not into the medium. Interestingly, the exceedingly boring Sundance Channel visual presentation of his radio show revealed quite clearly that he was constantly reading from scripts, had no idea how the medium was paced, and never ever would take listener calls, because he couldn’t banter with dissenters.

Ms. Garofalo, once the crush of just about every guy I knew in the mid-'90s, was extremely angry on-air, extraordinarily angry on-air, to the extent that she would brood at odd moments (usually Friday nights) about not being able to indulge in drink anymore, insult her cohost (the very patient Sam Seder), yell about how ridiculously stupid Republicans are for voting Republican (one time she lit into a befuddled Rachel Maddow and David Bender about this — and they are not now, nor have they ever been, Republicans); yet, on the one occasion when a bona fide dickhead conservative was on her show, namely one Sean Hannity, she remained curiously quiet and withdrawn. Her radio appearances thus made for really absorbing listening, if only because the meltdown factor was front and center. For instance, she would come in on a Monday and describe how she cried over the weekend in frustration because her conservative father had fought with her on a political issue. As with Franken, who tormented us on a regular basis (to the point of dial-switching) by pointlessly debating a “dittohead” friend who never changed his opinion that Rush is always right, Janeane had her conservative dad frequently call into the program (she, like Franken, avoided the call-in aspect of talk-radio otherwise), and she enlisted, among others, Howard Zinn and Mario Cuomo to convince Dad that his beliefs were misguided. She failed each and every time.

It’s hard to pick a favorite Janeane meltdown moment, but perhaps the time in November 2004 when Kerry lost the election would suffice. It was a painful moment for every right-thinking person to see Dubya stay President for another term, but only Ms. Garafalo would have to call into her show on the phone because she couldn’t leave her house, having been so unnerved by Kerry’s loss that she had thrown her back out and was lying on the floor to relieve the pain. It was really something to follow Janeane’s travails during her stay on AAR — as with several of her stand-up colleagues, including ones I find extremely funny, one is never sure when watching or hearing her if one is witnessing an act or a real-time therapy session.

Okay, so the original hoped-for trio of hosts were those noted liberals. But what happened once the network went on the air? The shows hosted by seasoned radio hosts turned out to actually be the best-run programs (surprise!).

-Mike Malloy was a late-night barn-burner who was a bit too left-wing for the network and was jettisoned early on; he remains a dynamite host who can be heard here.

-Randi Rhodes became the single biggest radio celebrity to emerge from the network, with her hardcore Brooklyn accent, her very strong traditional liberal values, her commendable emphasis on reading and “finding out the facts,” and her own propensity to melt down on the air. I will always remember her yelling non-stop at Patti Smith about the latter’s affection for Ralph Nader — it was the most out-of-control, ridiculous behavior in a two-person chat on NYC radio I’d heard since veteran Lefty Lynn Samuels (seen in the pic above with Randi, who has noted she can't stand Lynn) spent two entire airshifts (or was it three?) shrieking at her conservative on-air “partner,” Barry Farber, on WABC.

Randi is now back in Florida and a good deal calmer; she can be heard here. She of course was pitched off Air America for publicly calling Hillary Clinton a “cunt” at an AAR-sponsored live event. She noted that she had received a letter of thanks from AAR for hosting the event at which she made that lovely remark, but Air America was never a truly radical outfit and decided to oust her — and then, months later, heavily promoted her return to radio through another syndicator on its website! (When the second, AWFUL, daytime airing of Montel was playing on AAR stations around America, the AAR website was streaming Randi, who wasn’t even a part of their network — ah, the Greenery of it all!)

-The breakout star without question, however, was Rachel Maddow, whom I wrote a little paean to here. Rachel was consistently sidelined and minimized by the network, particularly when its ownership was purchased by politician Mark Green and his realtor brother Stephen Green. Initially Rachel cohosted the wonderful “Unfiltered” with Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead and Public Enemy founder Chuck D, and was clearly willing to stick by AAR no matter where they placed her on the schedule. As the months went by and she began to develop a following, through positive reviews from people like the very perceptive Richard Corliss, the heads of AAR began to move her to the worst “dayparts” one can imagine, to the point where she was actually on for a single hour in the morning (the ungodly fucking hour of 5:00AM!).

All the while her star kept rising through appearances on MSNBC, and as it became apparent that she might indeed get her own show on that network, AAR finally put her back on at a listenable time — which then, of course, clashed with her MSNBC show (and in the meantime, the Green administration had pink-slipped her essential on-air sidekick Kent Jones — great move, guys! Especially since Kent had stuck with her even through the dim, dark 5:00AM period). Rachel finally, very wisely, chose to not do a daily radio program on AAR — how could it possibly benefit her to prepare a new show every day on a network that has been dying since its inception, and most certainly since the Green takeover? Despite her brilliance and warm radio personality, she also, like Franken, was not used to answering phones or bantering with dissenters.

As the years went by and the network seemed more and more like it was functioning without a rudder (or a map, or a compass, or the *slightest fucking idea how to run a radio network*), other great hosts came and went from the network. Al Franken’s departure brought in Thom Hartmnn, who is incredibly intelligent, if a bit too nice-guy-ish and dull. Sam Seder hosted shows on his own after Janeane departed for the greener pastures of 24, and distinguished himself as a witty, wise-assed host. Stand-up vet Marc Maron hosted a series of shows that were unfairly and moronically bounced off the network one by one — first an incisive morning show co-hosted with the excellent Mark Reilly, and later in highly personalized programs that live on in his current podcast WTF, where he offers his own memorably neurotic insights on pop culture and offers much “shop talk” about comedy with fellow stand-ups. Noted (and notorious) first-amendment lawyer Ron Kuby did a hell of a good afternoon show on AAR for a while, which was tossed off the air in favor of everyone’s favorite charlatan, Montel Williams, who was the “final movement” in the insane saga of the network. The final astounding decision to air Montel twice a day — the second instance being a time-delayed rerun, during afternoon drive time! — was nothing less than a sure-fire way to kill a network. And we now see the results.

I had the opportunity to personally chat with Mark Green sometime in the summer of 2008 when he was standing on a street corner in Brooklyn, asking passersby to sign a petition to allow him to run for Public Advocate. [For those outside of New York, I should note that Mr. Green is a devoted liberal who has done some great work in his years as a politician, but his disagreements with the equally stubborn Fernando Ferrer split the local Democratic Party in two in 2001… and thus was born the never-ending Mayoral term of tiny tyrant Mike “Greedy Rich Bastard” Bloomberg.]

I agreed to sign the petition if I could talk to him about the network, being the wildly disappointed, but also curiously devoted, listener that I was (I guess I can’t look away from shipwrecks — especially if the ships contain talented individuals!). Mr. Green allowed me to comment on the network, and I thus filled his ear for a quick 90 seconds (those who’ve seen the show know I can talk very rapidly and cogently when I need to) with a laundry list that started with making Montel the “face” of the network, after a similar AAR decision to do so with Jerry Springer had died a horrible death years before; mentioned Maron and Seder being reduced to an online-only stint that found them hosting a very funny but barely acknowledged show from the network’s kitchen; Kuby being taken off-air; and the station’s sole remaining brilliant broadcaster, Lionel, being kept off-air for a time (only to be put back on later in the early morning, before-the-dawn slot not carried in NYC and many, many other markets by AAR affiliates). Mr. Green listened to my articulate little laundry list, and responded merely with, “So you don’t like Montel, huh?” When I replied that Montel brought on his favorite psychic-friend, Sylvia, on a weekly basis for more than an hour of air time, and it took AAR completely away from its original progressive message, Green nodded, and clearly wanted to move on to getting his signatures.

So now that the network is dead, those of us who really need to forget commercial radio entirely can bask in the memories of the meltdowns we heard on AAR on a regular basis; the truly golden moments supplied by Lionel, Rachel, Randi, Mike, Marc and Mark, Ron, Sam, even Ron Reagan and weekend host Mike Papantonio; and the fact that the AAR management provided an object lesson in how not to run a progressive network. Or a network of any kind for that matter.

Final message: someone get Lionel a slot quick, the man is brilliant and does a helluva smart, savvy, and very funny radio program. I would even brave the wilds of commercial radio to hear him again… (we all know never to say never….)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

From down-home rock to gorgeous folk: more Deceased Artistes take their leave…

Last week reader “Jckinnick” brought to my attention the fact that Bobby Charles died. I will readily admit I didn’t recognize the name, but on further research I definitely knew the music. Charles was a Cajun rock ’n’ roll pioneer who jumpstarted the subgenre known as “swamp pop” as a performer, but who is best-known as a writer. He gave us “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” by the Fat Man (Mr. Domino) and “(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do.” His biggest hit as a tunesmith was this rock classic:

In digging into the Charles tunes that are readily available (where else? YouTube!), I found a bunch of really great traditional r’n’r, such as “Good Lovin’” (not the one the Rascals sang):

I’ve only heard about an album’s worth of Charles’ music, but my hands-down favorite has got to be “Take It Easy, Greasy”:

Charles died last week, and today’s music-obit news was about the passing of dyed-in-the-wool folkie Kate McGarrigle at 63. Of course best known as half of the the McGarrigle Sisters (not to be confused by old movie fans with “the Great McGonigle”) and as mom of Martha and Rufus Wainwright, Kate made some absolutely beautiful music, and here is a memorable sample, the song “Talk to Me of Mendocino”:

It was noted in Kate’s obits that she and Anna were first taught to play piano by nuns. It’s good to hear of some teaching nuns actually doing something productive.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Part of You: Gumby and Deceased Artiste Art Clokey

I deeply loved Gumby as a child. I still love the little green guy, because his creator, Art Clokey, who died this week at 88, was a wonderfully imaginative individual who subtly injected the Sixties zeitgeist into the minds of children like myself. This is not an insignificant achievement — especially considering that his other contribution to pop culture was the extra-sedate, morally balanced, and too often preachy Davey and Goliath.

Cloakey’s mythology has been explored at length: how his biological father’s odd “tilted” hairstyle inspired Gumby’s odd-angled head; how he was going to make religious films until he studied under avant-garde master Slavko Vorkapich and came up in 1953 with “Gumbasia,” a blissful mindfuck of colors, shapes, and patterns, all rendered in clay. The three-minute short was purely inspired by earlier works of cinematic art. Clokey said that he didn’t even try a hallucinogenic drug until *after* he had completed the first series of Gumby episodes:


In 1956, he created his first Gumby short, which premiered on the Howdy Doody show (I can’t imagine what it looked like in b&w, seeing as Gumby was always a multi-colored sensory assault). From that early era, here’s “Gumby on the Moon,” one of the many shorts where Gumby doesn’t talk. I love the free-form weirdness of the Fifties shorts, but wasn’t a fan of the sloppier-looking Gumby (I was too used to his later, sleeker incarnation):

The character continued on until 1959, but was fully, er… fleshed out in the Sixties, from ’61-’63 and ’66-’68, when warped children like myself were treated to the color adventures of Gumby, his pony pal Pokey, and the evil Blockheads, who were always around to totally undermine and destroy, for no particular reason other than that they were evil, and very, very square. From that period, I give you the theme song burnt into all of our brains:

One diehard fan has put up several Gumby shorts, but I should also draw your attention to the documentary Gumby Dharma. Here is a clip in which Clokey talks about becoming a middle-aged hippie and experimenting with drugs:

From the Sixties, we jump ahead to 1988, when a new series of Gumby adventures was created by Clokey (a few years after Gumby came back into the public consciousness, thanks to Eddie Murphy's characterization on SNL). I will openly admit that I was unemployed in 1989 for some weeks and became hooked on these episodes, as they were the strangest viewing experience one could have watching commercial television (and did not require the ingestion of any sort of chemical). At that time, Clokey recognized what the hot trends were, and so one adventure found Gumby preparing to make a music video with his band:

And to close out this post, I want to mess up your minds the way Clokey messed up mine. First, you need to see “All Shook Up,” a 1968 short that finds Goo and Prickle, Gumby’s pals, performing a “modern music” concert. Goo and Prickle were intended by Clokey to represent Alan Watts’ two states of being (the fluid and the rigid), and so for this concert, Prickle, the male dinosaur/dragon plays a note on an instrument and Goo, the seal/fish-like female turns into a visual representation of it. This is some VERY STRANGE stuff to watch when young. Clokey was oh-so-subtly working on the developing minds of his kid viewers.

And, finally, a fascinating Gumby adventure called “Funtasia,” which Clokey did not make, but his influence is felt throughout. This must hail from the 1988 series, and it’s an evocation of the 1950s shorts with no dialogue. Here a character perplexes Gumby and his pals by changing shape every few seconds. I’m certain that Bruce Bickford (of Baby Snakes and The Amazing Mr. Bickford fame) — whose stop-action claymation is the freakiest and most imaginative work I’ve seen intended for adults — was heavily influenced by Clokey’s ground-breaking work in the Fifties and Sixties. And, of course, drugs can enhance the experience, but are not at all necessary.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Turn Off the Lights: Deceased Artiste Teddy Pendergrass

R&b superstar Teddy Pendergrass was an ordained minister at the age of 10, a seasoned drummer, and then a charismatic singer who rose from the ranks of early ’70s Philadelphia soul and kept his career moving right up until his untimely death this week at 59 from cancer. Pendergrass’s crippling injury in a car accident way, way, way back in 1982 might have curtailed his live performances, but it in no way stopped his singing career.

Since I deeply love the works of the wildly underrated filmmaker Alan Rudolph, I’ll of course point out that Pendergrass supplied the sexy songs for Rudolph’s “turning point” picture, Choose Me (1984). The opening credits for the film (sporting that wonderfully dated yet still awesome “neon” Eighties look) have been posted to YT by a Spanish fan (thus the dubbed lines of dialogue at the very end of the clip):

For most AM radio fans, Pendergrass will forever be best known for his terrific work as a lead vocalist for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Here they are back in 1972, doing their biggest hit “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” on (what else?) Soul Train:

And here is arguably the group’s most timely (and timeless) song, the Marvin Gaye-esque “Wake Up Everybody” from 1975. It might not quite be “What’s Going On,” but it stands as a rather conscious “answer song” to “Let It Be” that urges the listener to change the world:

Friday, January 8, 2010

When "Stinky" Met Sky: "The Mothers-in-Law"

Two posters have already uploaded to YouTube the legendary moment when garage rock burst onto America’s TV screens in the odd guise of a “hippie band” appearing on a very square sitcom: the Seeds, led by the late, great Sky Saxon, doing their hit “Pushin’ Too Hard” on “The Mothers-in-Law,” the Desi Arnaz-produced sitcom starring Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard. One upload is here, my own addition folllows... (the color on the first clip is very washed out)

Now that’s all well and good, but I noticed that no one had uploaded the episode’s finale, in which the Seeds encounter a certain Mr. Joe Besser, the fey-est Stooge and well-known as grown-up man-child "Stinky" on The Abbott and Costello Show. Thus I provide the missing link. And just in case this sitcom meeting of immortals isn’t weird enough, let me just note for the record that Desi himself directed this episode. The Sixties were a strange, bizarre time for popular culture….

"Video Business" magazine closes up shop

As if any further indication was needed that the DVD industry is in a tailspin, I sadly note the death this week of the trade publication Video Business, which much to my delight had kept its original name all these years (hey, the “V” in DVD does stand for “video”). In a weird way, the home-entertainment industry has seen nothing but deaths in the past decade or so — most interestingly, the chain that set out to decimate the mom-and-pop store in the Eighties (the dreaded Blockbuster) has now fallen victim to Netflix, a notion that requires the absolute minimum of activity on the part of its customers (ah, the pure American-ness of not having to actually *do* anything, and yet still be a consumer!)

For full disclosure’s sake, I will note that I have been writing for the magazine for approximately nine years as a freelance reviewer and reporter. But I began reading it when I worked at a video store back in the late 1980s and later on, when I worked at the most famous (and still curiously alive… why?) TV listings weekly, I returned to VB as a reader because we were desperately in need of finding someone, *anyone* who actually was watching the crappy straight-to-video features (Shannon Tweed, Don “the Dragon” Wilson, Jeff Fahey, Shannon Whirry, et al) that we couldn’t evaluate because the cable nets showed ’em but were never going to provide screeners of them.

Video Business has filled that void for thirty years, and yes, these days you can indeed find a stray blogger who will review the same material for free and perhaps even in more depth, but it just ain’t the same, since VB often actually panned the freaking things, and their reviewers (I’m talking a decade before I had any participation in it) seemed to be folks who knew their bad films (and, more importantly of course, their good-bad films). Bloggers generally know their topic backward and forward, but they are a tad cautious to pan things they are getting for free from cordial publicists.

In any case, Video Business issued official word on Wednesday that it ceased publication this week with its current issue, December 4th. As a regular reader of the magazine, I think that it’s a major loss, since I notice several movie-news websites simply tossing up DVD label press releases with no fact-checking or follow-up calls involved. VB has been a reputable source of home-entertainment industry news, even as its happy stories about new horizons in technology were turning to revelations about the ways in which its readership — namely, the local video merchant — were being squeezed out of business by the lazyman juggernaut that is Netflix. I’ve heard that the magazine’s website will go offline, which is a major loss since the magazine covered titles that weren’t being reviewed anywhere else.

As a writer for the publication, I extend a personal thanks to editor and good friend Laurence Lerman, who’s done a terrific job of covering the disparate threads of an industry that’s gone in some very strange directions in only two decades: from a glut of “straight to videos” (with titles like Indecent Deadly Bloody Fatal Illusion), to rather luster-less “DVD premieres” (not ANOTHER Dennis the Menace sequel that no one knows exists?), to crystal-clear BluRay restorations of the same films that have been out umpteen times before. Laurence is a class act who has been one of the best editors I’ve had the pleasure to work with. His sweet tooth for kitsch aside (why do you think we’re friends?), he has exhibited a special talent for juggling both the “high” and the “low” in VB’s movie-review section; this aspect made it a very important read for DVD retailers around the country. And yes, there are still some mom-and-pops bravely weathering the slow, strange death of the home-entertainment industry. They deserve your business right now — get up off your asses and forget the Netflix envelopes and *rent* a movie in person, fer chrissake!

And so I raise a glass in toast to Laurence and the other folks who like myself have toiled in any capacity for Video Business. I can’t imagine future news-sources of info about movie “platforms” (Download Business???) ever being as adventurous, or as worth reading.