Friday, August 31, 2007

Death Take a Holiday...Seriously.

Okay, I want to finish this month of belated eulogies with a couple of brief mentions and then hopefully not write anything about death for a long time; Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood please take good care of yourself.

Merv Griffin 1925-2007
Sure he may have had a popular talk show and built a game show empire (as a kid I recall pretty much every afternoon game show concluding with an announcer informing us that it was a "Merv Griffin production") , but to me Mr. Griffin will always be the Elevator Killer.

Tony Wilson 1950-2007
One of the biggest behind the scene names in the British punk & post-punk movement, Tony Wilson founded Factory Records whose roster included seminal bands Joy Division, New Order, A Certain Ratio and the Happy Mondays. He also opened the popular Manchester nightclub The Hacienda which brought dance music to rock audiences. He was the basis of Michael Winterbottom's 2002 film 24 Hour Party People where Steve Coogan gave a wonderful and hilarious performance as Wilson (perhaps now we can get a new DVD cover). Here's a 1984 interview with Wilson at the Hacienda where you get a sense of Wilson's personality and wit:

And here's a clip from the movie where Coogan as Wilson converses with God who overall praises Wilson's accomplishments but with one caveat, not signing The Smiths:

Ulrich Muhe 1953-2007
He appeared on the verge of if not international fame at least a long and interesting career as a character actor coming off his great performance as a Stasi agent hired to spy on a playwright in this year's Academy Award winning Best Foreign Language film, The Lives of Others. After seeing Others I had thought that he would make a great Bond villain. His final performance will be in a Italian/German co-production called Nemesis, hopefully it will attract a stateside release.

Jeremy Blake 1971-2007
Artist Jeremy Blake's suicide following the suicide of his longtime girlfriend Theresa Duncan is a fascinating and tragic story of two very talented people pushed to the edge by paranoia. To get a more in depth look at the story, here's an article that sums up what drove the couple to the edge. I'll have to admit that I knew very little about Ms. Duncan before her death, but I knew Blake's work, most notably the cover to Beck's Sea Change album and his inter-scene color animation experiments in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Death Goes to the Movies, Sees an Arty Foreign Film at a Rep Theatre

The belated eulogies continue as we grieve three giants of film:

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007
Michelangelo Antonioni 1912-2007
Sherman Torgan 1943-2007

Whether or not you know anything about world cinema, the first two names are instantly familiar to you, and if you are a film buff, then in the last few weeks you probably have read approximately 457 articles or blog entries about their death. I don't feel I have a fresh or interesting new perspective to add to the conversation, I enjoy films by both men, but have seen far too little (three of Antonioni and about eight of Bergman) to consider myself well versed in their oeuvre. For informed opinions, I recommend reading this interview with Bergman fanatic and disciple Woody Allen at Time. And for Antonioni, Martin Scorsese should do.

What I did find interesting was the reaction that their day-apart passings stirred in cineastes. At the Criterion Collection forum, the overwhelming conclusion was that the two auteurs' passing signaled nothing short of the final death blow for the foreign art film. A strange assertion seeing how in the past 25 years, Bergman directed all of one theatrically released film (he was however still very active in theatre in his home country of Sweden) and Antonioni co-directed one feature, in 1995. Agreeing with the assertion that the art film is officially dead was none other than noted feminist author Camilla Paglia, but while she loved her some early Bergman and Antonioni, she doesn't consider the death of art films as such a bad thing(link).Meanwhile, as they are apt to, the contrarians came out to declare Bergman as "not all that", most famously Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, which inspired a reaction from Roger Ebert, basically amounting to: "is so!"
I do see the worrywart foreign film buff's point to some extent. How many modern day foreign filmmakers, or at least those who work solely or primarily in their native country, are the household name that either Bergman or Antonioni were, even by people who never saw one of their films? Pedro Almodovar, perhaps. Maybe Wong-Kar Wai. All the other big name modern foreign auteurs I considered have worked pretty evenly between their country and American features (John Woo, Ang Lee, Alfonso Cauron, et cetera). Let's be frank, there was never a time when Ma and Pa Kettle in the Heartland ever thought "You know what I'd like to watch tonight? A film dealing with ennui amongst the European elite, that's what!" "What? While there's that dreamy meditation on god existsence?" However, there was a time when its was considered a necessity to catch the latest arty foreign fare if you lived in a major metropolitan city or college town (see Woody Allen's 70's input for examples). Many of Bergman's films were theatrically distributed in America via major studios such as Warner Bros, as were three of Antonioni's most notorious (albeit English language) input from the 60s & 70s, including his only American made film, Zabriskie Point , which famously concludes (I must admit I haven't see the film, hopefully his death will prompt a DVD release) with "FUCK AMERICA" written in the sky.

I remember when I was kid seeing the poster for Bergman's Fanny and Alexander in the lobby of the theatre where I saw A Christmas Story (and what a great double bill those films would make, two radically different takes on childhood holiday nostalgia). I grew up in San Jose, not exactly a small town, but in 1982, pre-internet boom, not a major metropolitan city by any stretch. Today, foreign films, unless they have a sellable hook or are genre fare, tend to be stuck mainly to the festival circuit and a one or two week theatrical engagement, even in Los Angeles and New York. Whether that is due to changing exhibition methods or DVD or a shift in general taste in America towards escapist fare is up to a lengthier debate then I am prepared for on this humble blog, but what I will state is that even if Ingmar and Michelangelo lived and made films into their 200s this would not alter the fate of the foreign art film, which will always have its devoted following, but probably never regain their prominence in America.

A death that saddens me more than the two directors (who at a combined age of 187 weren't exactly spring chickens) was Sherman Torgan, a name that unless you live in Los Angeles is no doubt unfamiliar to you (sadly its probably the case even for many that do reside in LA). He was only 62 years old when he suffered a heart attack and died in late June. He was the owner/manager/propertier of the New Beverly Cinema, one of the last remaining repertory theatres in Southern California, and my personal favorite.

The New Beverly, a former pornographic theatre, was refurbished in the 70s by Torgan and turned into a rep theatre with revolving double bills of classic, cult, foreign and forgotten films, usually changing features every two or three days. When I moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, it was the place that made me fall in love with the potential of the city. I've had two first dates there as well as the second date with my fiance. In the five years living here I've seen theatrically for the first time at the New Beverly: Notorious, MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Sunset Boulevard, The Magnificent Ambersons, Duck You Sucker, Bottle Rocket, and a week before Sherman's passing, Barry Lydon to name just a few. It struck me while watching Barry Lyndon why I loved the theatre. Here I am experiencing a thirty year old methodically paced three hour epic considered at the time of its release a major disappointment with about a hundred others who were caught in just as much rapt attention and awe as myself.

While I never had any conversations with him personally, I will always remember Sherman as the guy who was eternally running low on small bills and would give a little staredown to those that paid using a twenty dollar bill for his cheap (especially in Los Angeles) seven dollar admission. I always tried to make a point of giving him exact change as a small form of gratitude for his work. Sherman made keeping the admission affordable a top priority, and I'd often notice people in the theatre that look downtrodden or even homeless, I assumed Sherman would let them in free of charge, giving them entertainment and temporary respite from outside.

The theatre felt like a secret to many of LA's film enthusiast, if you look closely you can see the famous New Beverly calendar make appearences in Swingers and Border Radio, but in March it gained some exposure as Quentin Tarantino threw a two month long Grindhouse Festival at the theatre to promote Grindhouse. The Los Angeles Times who usually gives the theatre little more than perfunctory notices in its revival theatre listings dedicated a weekend Calendar front page to the festival. When I caught a few of the films in the series I was greeted with a sight I had never experienced, lines around the block. This was one secret I had no problems sharing however, and I was glad that its once questioned future seemed bright for a change.

After much soul searching, Sherman's son Michael has decided to keep the theatre operating, and to that I say "thank you". I know the loss of a father trumps a film geek's loss of his or her favorite theatre, but the New Beverly was Sherman's gift to us and his life's work, and I am glad that it will be around to entertain and educate its patrons for the foreseeable future (though if you want to put in new seats, I will totally be okay with that!)

Think globally, act locally is a famous if simplistic slogan, but Torgan's theatre represents that very ideal. For it and its ilk are the places that will ensure that films by the likes of Bergman and Antonioni will not only still be seen, but seen in a theatre with a receptive audience, where they should be.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Death goes straight, opens up your gates, maybe tells you about Phaedra

Lee Hazlewood 1929-2007

I think what best displays the originality of the recently deceased singer-songwriter Lee Hazlewood is that three of the music stores I frequent all classify him under three separate genres. In one store he will be found with the country western artists, in another, the "oldies" section (alongside 60's psych bands like Love and 13th Floor Elevators and pop harmonists such as the Righteous Brothers and The Ronettes) and in the third, amidst the pop vocalist amongst such icons as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Apropos because where exactly would you put someone who can be considered a hybrid of the likes of Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and the sixties psychedelic garage movement? Writers invented a genre to try a scratch the surface of Hazlewood's style, "cowboy psychedelia". While he never gained the fame of a Sinatra or Dylan or Cash, his uniqueness is what has kept him relevant long after artists that sold more have been forgotten. In the past ten or so years, younger bands and music collectors have started to recognize his talents. His songs have been covered by the likes of Primal Scream and Slowdive, his music has popped up in films (such as Lynne Ramsey's Morvern Callar) and part of his oeuvre has been rereleased through Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly's record label, Smells Like records.

If you are interested in Hazlewood's music but don't know where to start, allow me to make three suggestions.

Nancy & Lee (1968) -- After penning Nancy Sinatra's famous kiss-off anthem "These Boots are Made for Walking", the pair teamed up for this duet album. Nancy was Hazlewood's greatest collaborator, on record they have a chemistry that matches Bogart and Bacall's on-screen fireworks. Despite his deep baritone voice, Hazlewood was great at writing songs with equal feminist and masculine P.O.V.s and would continually duet with other female vocalists on later albums. But here is his finest foil. The album contains covers of some standards (such as the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" and "Jackson") along with some original material such as the now classic "Some Velvet Morning" and my personal favorite, "Summer Wine".

Cowboy in Sweden (1970) -- For a spell, Hazlewood lived in Stockholm, while there he recorded this concept album of alienation amongst subcultures, equating the combination of western swagger and European cool as being like, well, a cowboy in Sweden. The song that best demonstrates these contrasting styles is "Hey Cowboy" a duet he sung with Swedish Nancy Sinatra stand-in, Nina Lizell. It's funny, but this album always struck me as being cinematic (I am even in the process of working on a screenplay inspired by the track "The Night Before") but it wasn't until after his death I learned that this album provided the soundtrack for a Swedish television movie by director Torbjorn Axelman. From the look of things, it pretty much a collection of music videos for each track on the album. Here's a clip from the film, the aforementioned "Hey Cowboy".

Requiem for an Almost Lady (1971)-- Another concept album, this time finding Hazlewood readopting the storyteller technique he used on the earlier album, Trouble is a Lonesome Town, to create a narrative revolving around the disintegration of a relationship. Each individual song is introduced with a spoken monologue. This album shares a particularly special place with me because not only was it the first Hazlewood album I ever purchased, I also happened to be going through a break-up at the time I picked it up. Hazlewood perfectly surmises the range of emotional responses of a heartbroken person: sadness, anger, despair, self-hate, and black humor. This is best captured in his introduction to the track "Won't You Tell Your Dreams" where he remarks: "Dreams have never been my friends. When I had you, I never dreamed of you. But since you've been gone, I dream of nothing else. Dreams have never been my friends"

A lot of Hazlewood's work is out of print, I also heartily recommend Trouble is a Lonesome Town and 13, both readily available, and I look forward to picking up The Cowboy and the Lady, a duet album with another saucy 60's chick, Ann Margaret. Last year he released Cake or Death, an album written after he was diagnosed with cancer. If there's one benefit of his passing it's hopefully that his entire oeuvre will soon be assessable. We'll miss you Lee, hope the afterlife is full of beautiful ladies for you to sing with.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Death Scripts His First 15 Plays

Bill Walsh 1931-2007

As I have said before, my very first recollection of any football game was the 1982 NFC Championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers, what is now affectionately referred to as either "The Catch Game" or "The Game That Launched a Dynasty". For the first six or seven seasons that I was cognizant of the game of football, I was lucky enough to root for a team that was coached by William Ernest Walsh, I will consider myself lucky if another 49er coach in my lifetime has half the amount of football savvy or brains that Mr. Walsh possessed.

He is referred to as "The Genius", but genius is a word that gets thrown about too carelessly this days, so I wish to posthumously redub him either "The Architect" or more aptly, "The Artist". Bill Walsh is to the NFL what Orson Welles is to cinema, what Bob Dylan or Miles Davis are to music, what Frank Lloyd Wright is to architecture and hell, what DaVinci was to art (or codes, even). A person who saw past the limitations of his profession and reinvented the form. A person whose distinct influence is more persuasive today then it was in his tenure. Someone whose methods were once considered strange or controversial and today are considered the standard. The NFL is what it is today, the most dominant sporting league in America by a tremendous margin, thanks in large part to Walsh's offensive schematics that changed league emphasis from a primarily run first philosophy to passing early and often. To paraphrase a famous commercial "Chicks dig the Touchdowns!" His "West Coast Offense" spreads across the continent.

Even today, nineteen seasons after he retired from the 49ers, several of his coaching assistants are currently head coaches around the league, including Super Bowl winning coaches Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan and Brian Billick, what more several of these disciples have seen their assistants become head coaches, the Walsh family tree envelopes at least half the NFL. But what I think best displays Walsh's influence on not just the NFL but the sport itself, the University of Nebraska, the program who made prominent the option quarterback who throws about five attempts per game and prided itself on punishing defense and as an institution for strong runners (including 49er alums Roger Craig and Tom Rathman) is now operating out of the West Coast offense.

Goodbye Bill.
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