Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I Just Wasn't Made For These Times: Scheider Redux

I just read an interesting and somewhat depressing passage about Roy Scheider in Ryan Gilbey's It Don't Worry Me: The Revolutionary American Films of the 1970s published by Faber and Faber in 2003.  In the wake of Scheider's recent passing, I thought it was worth highlighting and noting that, in fact, Gilbey's words read something like an early eulogy for Scheider, and other actors of his generation, for that matter.

Gilbey's book is divided into ten chapters each focusing on a different prominent director of the era.  The chapter on Jonathan Demme discusses Scheider's role as Harry Hannan in Last Embrace and while the author begins by commenting on Scheider's character, he ends talking about Scheider's already fading career as a leading man: 

"Demme had expressed the view that Scheider 'could be the Humphrey Bogart of the 1970s,' and you can just hear Bogart reciting those lines, sounding as ever like a man with lockjaw talking in his sleep. Scheider looks fabulously lost and, unfortunately, so untrustworthy that surely no one would want to help him find his way again.  With that flat face (he has no profile) and oily skin, it's clear now that he was an endangered species.  In the same year, Richard Gere would manage to look swell while also falling apart in Paul Schrader's American Gigolo, and the preppy locker-room blandness of Tom Cruise and his brat-pack siblings was only a few years away.  How could Scheider have hoped to survive?  The fact that he didn't, and was more stubborn and gnarled than heroic by the time he played the lead in Blue Thunder in 1983, lends Last Embrace an uninvited poignancy. 

When Harry visits the graveyard, the New York skyline is set high in the distance behind him, and beyond it stands a rusty sunset: he seems to be saying goodbye to more than just his wife (Scheider might be bidding farewell to his own popularity, and also to the era of Jaws, his greatest success).  When he steps out on to the viewing deck next to Niagara Falls in the film's climax, he lets out an involuntary groan that corresponds to the visual shock of his white suit infiltrating a throng of banana-yellow sou'westers, and you imagine that Scheider's reaction to the encroaching generation of pretty-boys, flawless, and homogenous, was similarly fraught."

After reading this passage, you would not think that Scheider would live nearly thirty more years and complete many other film projects. Yet, Gilbey's sentiments about the next generation, with its preponderance of pretty faces and callow personalities, largely rings true. Still, the continued success of contemporaries like his French Connection compadre Gene Hackman indicate that some of Scheider's late-career troubles were due, in part, to poor film choices and a fiery persona that did not always endear him to the industry. Diane C. Kachmar's in-depth, Scheider: A Film Biography details Scheider's infamous troubles on Jaws 2 (which you can read about in this free preview), a film which he was contractually committed to, and which contributed to his having to bow out of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (his role went to Robert De Niro).  Scheider finished the gig, but not before scuffling with director Jeannot Szwarc (Somewhere in Time; Supergirl).

No, that's not Jaws 2 director Szwarc about to get whacked by Scheider, but a very young and unknown Mandy Patinkin.  

Obscure One-Sheet: Cover Me Babe

Life.  Love.  Illusion.  At 24 Frames Per Second.

With those immortal words, Cover Me Babe (or cover me babe, if we follow the poster's lead) was unleashed on the public.  Still unavailable on home video, Cover Me Babe was director Noel Black's unsuccessful follow-up to his masterful debut Pretty Poison, an achievement he was never able to match. Vincent Canby was especially scathing in his review, saying, "Although Cover Me Babe is a second feature, it looks very much like a first and had it been a novel, it probably would have stayed in somebody's trunk.  Because of the huge investments involved, even mistakes like this can't be allowed the honor of decent obscurity."  

This was also one of the projects that star Robert Forster immediately signed up for after his well-received work in Haskell Wexler's towering Medium Cool.  Where Black's precipitous decline led to the likes of Private School (a suitably raunchy T & A flick, but still...), Forster would recover to make exploitation hits such as Alligator and, much later, Tarantino's Jackie Brown

Cover Me Babe has shown up on the Encore networks in fairly recent times, but I've always managed to catch it in the middle.  Forster plays a disagreeably pretentious student filmmaker who dreams of artistic success outside of the studio system. The supporting cast includes a pre-Clint Sondra Locke, Ken Kercheval (who had appeared briefly in Pretty Poison), Mike Kellin (so good in Midnight Express), and a young Sam Waterston.  

I love how the one-sheet design very tastefully covers the model's breasts with camera lenses, literally covering her while offering a play on the film terminology of "covering" or "getting coverage."  In case the watermark on the bottom isn't clear, the scan comes from Moviegoods

Check out the opening credits:


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dennis Wilson Is The Mechanic

The above title, of course, refers to the original marketing campaign for Two-Lane Blacktop and Dennis Wilson's role in that now-classic road film. However, my point in bringing up Wilson was not to discuss his lone acting performance, but the imminent, and long-delayed, reissue of his lone solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue.  An album that no less than Julian Cope considers a "contender for greatest album of all time," Pacific Ocean Blue has nevertheless been out-of-print since the early 1990s.  Since that time it's fetched large sums on the collector's market, but this situation has been somewhat remedied by the fact that downloads of the album have appeared on music blogs in recent years.  Pacific Ocean Blue has reportedly been the victim of the unfortunate, and much publicized, infighting that has plagued the Beach Boy family for the last few decades.  

Happily, the legal hurdles seem to have been cleared and Pacific Ocean Blue is slated to be released in a 2-disc set (on CD and vinyl) from Caribou/Epic/Legacy that will include the album proper and previously unreleased sessions from Wilson's aborted follow-up, Bamboo (shades of Smile).  I'd read this Pitchfork announcement last month and stuck it under my cap until I unexpectedly heard Pacific Ocean Blue playing in my favorite pizza joint here in Bloomington, Indiana.  Turns out the kid behind the counter had just discovered the album online and I was happy to tell him that the real deal was finally coming back.  So if you're considering one of these, try and hold off until May.  

As for the music, the album is a prime slice of '70s California rock and it's a shame that it's been so very obscure and underappreciated for so long.  Wilson himself was dismissive of his efforts, but this shouldn't deter potential listeners as Pacific Ocean Blue offers many pleasures, not the least of which are Wilson's weathered, heartfelt vocals, effectively spare arrangements, poignant and haunting lyrics, stellar piano work, and even a cameo from brother Carl.  To my mind, "Time" is as achingly beautiful a song as anything brother Brian has given us.  The remainder of the album is a mix of soulful love songs/confessionals ("Moonshine," "End of the Road," "You and I") and jauntier, bluesy numbers ("Pacific Ocean Blues," "Friday Night," "River Song").  A tragic figure to be sure, the troubled, hard-living Wilson was able to keep it together long enough to produce what, up until now, has been a lost classic. 

Someone over at the Criterion message forums, said that if Criterion were ever to start releasing albums, Pacific Ocean Blue would be a prime candidate and I couldn't agree more. With Two-Lane Blacktop getting the Criterion treatment in December, that would have been the perfect time to start up the new line.  Obviously, there's no need for that now, but I wouldn't mind seeing Criterion dip their toes into the reissue market along the lines of a Soul Jazz or Rhino Handmade.

Finally, I must acknowledge the very nice "Denny" tribute site where most of the pictures I've posted came from.

Friday, February 15, 2008

"I Don't Love You Since You Ate My Dog."

Something Wild (1986, Jonathan Demme)

There's a remarkable moment roughly halfway through Jonathan Demme's Something Wild when the film shifts gears from a screwball road movie to a dark thriller.  For most films such a drastic change in tone would be a recipe for disaster, but in the capable hands of Demme, screenwriter E. Max Frye, and stars Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, and Ray Liotta, Something Wild is a work of art.  Of course, for 1986 audiences this aspect of the film was too troubling for it to achieve any sort of box-office success, but more than twenty years after its release, Something Wild looks like one of the best movies of the 1980s.  From its opening images of the New York skyline via the East River, set to David Byrne and Celia Cruz' joyous title song, "Loco De Amour," Something Wild casts a spell that's hard to shake off.

Prior to Something Wild, Demme had built up a solid directorial reputation from his beginnings with Roger Corman (Caged Heat, Crazy Mama, Fighting Mad) to critical favorites Handle With Care (aka Citizen's Band), Melvin and Howard, Last Embrace, and Stop Making Sense.  However, his most recent Hollywood outing, Swing Shift, had ended bitterly when he clashed with high-powered star and producer Goldie Hawn over creative differences.  He lost the right to final cut to Hawn and the finished film was a shell of Demme's original vision.  [You can read more about the Swing Shift saga here.] Following the failure of Swing Shift and the success of the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, Demme received the script by unknown E. Max Frye that would become Something Wild.

At the start of Something Wild, mild-mannered and recently divorced Charlie Driggs (Daniels) has just been promoted to Vice President at his Wall Street investment firm.  Eating lunch at a downtown diner, he doesn't realize he's been carefully watched by Lulu (Griffith), an impulsive East Village bohemian. After Charlie walks out without paying his check, Lulu confronts him and senses correctly that he is a "closet rebel."  Something about this odd couple clicks and soon they embark on a wild five-state road trip, which causes Charlie to re-evaluate his life and fall for Lulu, and which eventually leads both people into the clutches of Lulu's vengeful ex-con husband, Ray Sinclair (Liotta).

More than anything Something Wild is about the awakening of Charlie to the world outside his very limited comfort zone.  Through Charlie's eyes, the audience is given a tour of a diverse, strange, and often beautiful Americana that is rarely seen on film.  If Lulu, whose real name is Audrey, represents the sense of adventure and creativity missing from Charlie's life, Charlie offers the normalcy and stability that she craves.  Demme fills the film with images of a colorful back roads America filled with interesting people of all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.  While watching, I was reminded at times of William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, with its emphasis on an America beyond the interstate.  All of this is evocatively filmed by Demme and his regular cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto.  

As for those aforementioned "interesting people," Demme has a knack for casting distinctive non-actors in small parts, people who make their presence felt even if they are not speaking. These are the kinds of oft-neglected people that Least Heat Moon focuses on, and I sense something similar here, even if they are peripheral to the main story and characters.  However, this element is something that elevates Something Wild to another level and sets it apart from other Hollywood films, and, I think, gets at the heart of what Demme does so well throughout his oeuvre.  I think, in particular, of Audrey's perceptive mother Peaches (Dana Preu) who provides the film with some of its most poignant moments.  And, the motel philosopher (Jim Roche) who wears the hilarious t-shirt inscribed with the message, "I don't love you since you ate my dog," and who provides Charlie with an anti-hangover concoction (for the short term) and the important credo he will adopt later on, "It's better to be a live dog than a dead lion."  There's the hitchhiking cowboy, guitarist, and kids who sing a rousing version of "Wild Thing" on the road with Charlie and Audrey.  I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful scene in the second-hand shop run by the two elderly women (the mothers of David Byrne and Demme) in which Audrey buys Charlie a new suit and sheds her New York threads for a more traditional summer dress. There are countless other such moments in the film, populated by friends and relatives of the filmmakers, other filmmakers (John Waters, John Sayles), and cult favorites (Charles Napier, Tracey Walter).  

Daniels is superb as Charlie, injecting his performance with a combination of vulnerability and goofiness at the beginning, strength and conviction when the film veers toward noir territory. Griffith turns in perhaps her strongest performance as Lulu/Audrey.  Her Lulu is appropriately sexy and reckless, and with her distinctive Louise Brooks bob hairstyle, she is aptly named. When she takes Charlie back to her Pennsylvania hometown to meet her mother and go to her high school reunion, she becomes a new character, Audrey, and displays a heretofore unseen sensitivity and sadness.  Though it is not touched upon in most other reviews, the underlying sadness of both Charlie and Audrey is palpable throughout the film, even its comedic sections, and it is an aspect of the film that I think is more resonant upon further viewings.

The reunion is the dividing line of the film.  Where the first half of the film is rife with humorous moments, kinky sex, and delightfully offbeat characters, the film literally turns dark at the reunion.  After Charlie and Audrey dance to a faithfully funky version of David Bowie's "Fame" by reunion band the Feelies (performing as the Willies), the lights go out, and the band launches into the decidedly more haunting, guitar-driven original "Loveless Love."  While Charlie and Audrey dance in a close embrace and kiss passionately, Ray literally swoops in and disrupts the close bond that they have formed.  Liotta is a revelation as Ray, his performance here every bit the equal of his more celebrated turn in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.  Liotta singlehandedly provides the menace and energy which kicks the film into its harrowing final act.  He is crudely funny and despicable, but it is a credit to the screenplay and Liotta's performance that Ray is also shown to be smart and even given a modicum of sympathy.  This is no two-dimensional villain.  We can understand why Ray might be angry given that his wife did not visit him in the joint and is now with another man. 

One cannot talk about Something Wild or most of Demme's career, for that matter, without mentioning its brilliant soundtrack, carefully compiled by Demme who is clearly something of an aficionado of smart, under-the-radar music.  The soundtrack is filled with an eclectic, in the best sense, melange of underground rock, reggae, dance, and pop tracks.  While many are heard for just a few seconds, their presence is not there for the sake of selling soundtracks or promoting a record label's new acts.  No, the great majority of these tunes do not appear on the official soundtrack released by MCA Records and, of those unreleased tracks, many are nearly impossible to find in any format.  Artists include David Byrne y Celia Cruz, New Order, UB40, Jimmy Cliff, X, Timbuk 3, the Motels, the Feelies, Jerry Harrison, Yellowman, Big Youth, Steve Jones, the Go-Betweens, Fine Young Cannibals, the Troggs, Oingo Boingo, Big Audio Dynamite, the Knitters, Jean-Michel Jarre, Sister Carol, and the elusive Q. Lazzarus. The effective, minimalist score is by art rock icons, John Cale and Laurie Anderson, which also remains unreleased.

In addition to the aforementioned performers, the film's stellar supporting cast includes Jack Gilpin (as Charlie's admiring co-worker, Larry), former Suburban Lawns front woman Su Tissue (as Larry's amusingly dour pregnant wife), former Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club touring musician Steve Scales (as the gas station attendant), the late Robert Ridgely (as Charlie's boss), Margaret Colin (as Ray's "date," Irene), and reggae performer Sister Carol (as the waitress, Dottie). 

One last note, for the location buffs, the diner where Charlie and Lulu meet can be found at the intersection of Watts Street and 6th Avenue in New York.  It's now Lupe's East LA Kitchen.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

R.I.P.: Roy Scheider

I was very sad to hear that Roy Scheider had passed away due to complications from multiple myeloma.  In fact, when I saw him at a 2006 gala for Steven Spielberg in Chicago it was apparent to my eyes that Roy was not in the best of health.  Still, he gave a warm and humorous tribute to Spielberg to kick off of the evening's festivities. One of the finest stage and screen actors of the last forty years, Scheider will be most remembered for his starring role in
Jaws, however he lent his rugged, blue collar presence to many other quality films including: The French Connection, Sorcerer, Marathon Man, All That Jazz, Klute, Last Embrace, Blue Thunder, 52 Pick-Up, Naked Lunch, Still of the Night, and Cohen & Tate.  

Of Scheider's films, I must confess a special affinity for Blue Thunder in which Scheider plays a slightly unhinged Vietnam vet police helicopter pilot who goes against a collection of crooked feds led by a deliciously over-the-top Malcolm McDowell.  This was one of the first R-rated films I saw and I vividly recall sneaking into an afternoon showing with my father after seeing Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone in 3-D.  Aside from the juicy McDowell role, Blue Thunder also features the inimitable and irascible Warren Oates (coincidentally pictured in the below post) in his final feature film role.  [Richard Fleischer's Tough Enough, released just after Blue Thunder and in which Oates also appears, was actually completed earlier in 1981.]

Last Embrace, a Hitchcock-like thriller, is often overlooked in director Jonathan Demme's oeuvre, but it is worth pursuing.  Needless to say, this sleeper is not yet available on DVD. Scheider stars with the late Janet Margolin (David and Lisa), John Glover, Sam Levene, Charles Napier (a Demme and Russ Meyer favorite), and Christopher Walken.  Cult director Jim McBride, cult actor Joe Spinell, and Mandy Patinkin make brief appearances.  The screenplay is by the late David Shaber, who wrote or co-wrote several memorable scripts, including The Warriors, in a relatively brief career.  The legendary Miklos Rozsa contributed one of his last scores to the film.

In the late 1980s and into the 90s, Scheider transitioned to more character and supporting roles and was seen in less high-profile productions.  Scheider had been ill for the last several years, but continued to appear in a mixture of film and television productions, mostly of the independent variety.  At the same time, he became increasingly active in the political arena and was a visible presence at anti-war rallies in recent years.  For further information, take a look at Dave Kehr's obituary at the New York Times.

At the risk of sounding slightly crass, I'll sign off by quoting McDowell's favorite catch phrase from Blue Thunder, one which Roy memorably throws back in his face, "Catch you later."

Friday, February 8, 2008

"And bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia while you're out there."

Not sure where the posters come from, but the quality is superb.  See more at the Poster Pit.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Can't Wait to Touch You in the Flesh

Happy 25th, Videodrome!

Quite possibly David Cronenberg's finest hour, Videodrome was released on February 4th, 1983 and, appropriately, Tim Lucas has posted a most enlightening memoir of his time on the set on his Video Watchblog site.  Lucas also lets us know that his book on Videodrome will be published this spring.  In addition, there's an ongoing thread on the film's anniversary at the Mobius Home Video Forum.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

In Defense of: Gang of Four's Hard

As the (former) title of this blog ("Natural's Not In It") indicates, I am quite a fan of seminal post-punk band Gang of Four.  For the uninitiated, "Natural's Not In It" appears on the band's masterful debut album, Entertainment!. Fast forward five years and three albums later, to 1983 and the band's first swan song, Hard.  Lambasted by critics and fans alike, Hard has gotten a raw deal in my estimation. While I would rank it fourth out of the band's first four albums, I also consider Hard a fine record on its own terms.  In fact, it is not much of a departure from the previous year's Songs of the Free, which featured the band's biggest hit, "I Love a Man in a Uniform," a favorite in dance clubs on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hard suffers in comparison to Gang of Four's earlier output, in particular Entertainment! and Solid Gold. To longtime fans of the band, Hard was and is considered a sell-out.  A band that once refused to write songs about love now released a single entitled "Is It Love." However in the context of the band's progression, particularly on Songs of the Free, the refined dance-pop of Hard is a logical next step.  No doubt feeling pressure to follow-up the surprise success of Songs of the Free, Gang of Four went the way of other post-punk outfits such as Scritti Politti and further tweaked their sound to fit the then-current craze for all things New Wave and synth pop.

Somewhere between Solid Gold and Songs of the Free (perhaps the Another Day, Another Dollar EP), the band completed a concerted shift from the heavy, grinding funk of Solid Gold to the decidedly slicker, more chart-friendly sound of Songs of the Free.  This transformation coincided with the departure of original bassist Dave Allen, who would go on to form Shriekback with former XTC member Barry Andrews, and the arrival of new bassist Sara Lee.  Hard took this trend one step further as band leaders Andy Gill and Jon King axed drummer Hugo Burnham and replaced him with...a drum machine.  

Not an auspicious start to be sure, but the remaining band and producers Ron and Howard Albert have crafted a smart dance record, not unlike the music of Martin Fry's ABC, but with the biting lyrical content one had come to expect from a Gang of Four record.  Hard is certainly over-produced at times, however the band manages to retain its edge despite the addition of strings, backing female vocals, and disco flourishes. Most importantly, Gill's trademark staccato guitar bursts remain front and center in the musical arrangements, and Lee continues to be a more than capable replacement for Allen on bass.  In short, Hard delivers a fast-moving, catchy set of songs, heavy on rhythm and groove.  

While Gill and King venture into new, perhaps unwelcome, lyrical territory with songs like the aforementioned "Is It Love," the characteristic trenchant wit of Gang of Four is present on much of the album. In particular, "A Man With a Good Car" and "Woman Town," songs which comment on commodity culture and sexual politics, respectively, hark back to the classic Gang of Four catalogue.

Hitting what would seem to be the proverbial creative dead end, the band would disband in 1984 after releasing the live album, At the Palace and a song on, of all things, the Karate Kid soundtrack.  Andy Gill and Jon King would revive the Gang of Four name for two underwhelming albums in the early '90s before the entire original band reformed in 2005.

Monday, February 4, 2008

New Wave Hot Dogs

Quintessential New Jersey Locale Not Immortalized by the Boss or the Sopranos: Rutt's Hut

As a transplanted New Jerseyan living in Chicago, I can say that while I enjoy the Chicago-style hot dog, it pales in comparison to the one-of-a-kind dog (aka "ripper") produced at Jersey dive landmark Rutt's Hut. One of the few places I consistently visit whenever I return to my home state, Rutt's remains the favorite of many fast food joints that my father introduced me to during my childhood.  While other stalwarts such as the Hearth and the Red Chimney have closed up shop or undergone extensive remodeling, Rutt's remains the same even as ownership has changed hands. 

I write about Rutt's today in honor of my late father and his beloved New York Giants who won this year's Super Bowl in most shocking fashion.  You see, in our many trips to the Meadowlands to see either the Nets, Giants, or Jets, Dad made it a tradition to stop at Rutt's rather than pay for the inferior, overpriced product at the game.  I can still remember standing at the children's counter in the rather minimalist back dining area over twenty-five years ago. Other than the rotating pinball machines, I reckon it remains largely the same as it did in the 1950s and '60s when my dad came here as a Passaic youth.  

The fluorescent-lit, white-tiled back room isn't much to look at, but for aficionados it's the only place to enjoy a ripper or two.  A couple of words about the ripper (pictures cannot do it justice): the pork and beef hot dog is deep-fried to the point that the skin rips (hence the nickname), which gives the dog an amazingly satisfying crunch upon each bite.  The dogs are flavorful enough that little dressing is necessary--some Gulden's mustard and/or house mustard relish do the trick. Anything else on the ripper is excessive, but visitors are heartily encouraged to add a side of onion rings to any order.  This New York Times profile adds more detail and historical background.

As much as Rutt's fits the Springsteen milieu, its Clifton location is probably a little too far north of Springsteen's Monmouth County stomping grounds to figure into his songbook.  And while The Sopranos left its mark all over Northern Jersey, somehow its cameras never ventured inside Rutt's. No matter, Rutt's remains refreshingly unpretentious and unchanging, without question, a uniquely Jersey experience.