Sunday, May 25, 2008


I just watched the Criterion Edition of French Cancan, the first film Jean Renoir made in France after being practically run out of the country for Rules Of The Game 12 years earlier. I watched the brief bits of commentary and picked up on how this film was Renoir's tribute to show business and wish to entertain the French public. What surprised me though was that the film also seems to be Renoir's version of the classic old Hollywood musical, 42nd Street.

It follows the same plot with a down and out producer trying to put on a show and showing special attention to an innocent little dancer who eventually becomes the show's star. It also has the same subplot about the show's leading lady being jealous of the newcomer and Jean Renoir, playing the producer, give a rousing speech to the heroine near the end similar to Warner Baxter's famous "You're coming back a star" rant in 42nd Street. However this is a French film so the entire situation is a lot more adult than anything Hollywood would dare even back in the Pre-Code days.
The "leading lady" is actually a dancer/courtesan who seems to be modeled after the famous Lola Montes. There's also more than professional jealousy around since everyone is sleeping with eveyone else. The leading lady sleeps with Gabin and the show's backers. The little ingenue eventually becomes Gabin's mistress. In fact she deliberately loses her virginity with her boyfriend so Gabin won't think she's an innocent! At the end the young girl is the hit of the newly opened Moulin Rouge with no steady lover in sight and she loves it. All this is done with that wonderful Gallic whimsy Renoir was expert at in his frothier pictures. I have no idea if Renoit ever actually saw 42nd Street but it's certainly possible he saw it.

Anyway the film is as much a fun love letter to French theatre as the earlier one was to Broadway.


This is the kind of movie that seems slightly forced 40 years after the fact. It's a perfectly good thriller about three men who get together to pull off a one time bank robbery. The twist is that one of the men (played by Harry Belafonte) is black and another one (Robert Ryan) is a bigot.

That is certainly a workable angle and for the most part the movie works fine as a downbeat noir film with fine acting from Belafonte, Ryan, Ed Begley, Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame and an excellent score from the Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis. The racial angle is played too blatantly but the movie ends in an apocalyptic climax that seems really abrupt. For the ending to feel real Belafonte's character would have to be as prejudiced as Ryan's is and there is really no evidence of that in the movie outside of one speech he gives to his estranged wife. Without it when the mushroom clouds appear at the end all you can say is "Huh?".

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Blockbuster Blues

This is the time of year when I almost never go to a movie theatre any more. This is, of course, the !!SUMMER MOVIE SEASON!! when some would be blockbuster comes out every week beating you over the head with noise and special effects until you're unconscious.

Once upon a time I used to go to these things and liked them. That was back in the days of the early Star Wars, Superman and Indiana Jones movies. Then those were rare enough to be special events and they were actually fun. After "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom" though I began to check out. That was when I realized they were all the same, action sequences and dumb jokes that led you around by the nose and dictated how and when you should react. That was also before it all got to be an every week of the summer phenomenon with every weekend bringing some new two-and-a-half-hour long picture derived from a TV show, cartoon, comic book or old movie, not to mention sequels.

I certainly have nothing against the source materials. I avidly read comic books from the 60's into the 80's and I know more about Iron Man, Spider Man and The X-Men than most people. I just have no desire to see them in live action which is invariably not as impressive as the old crazily scripted and drawn original work was. I did see the first X-Men movie and I had no desire to go back for more.

Right now there's really not even anything in the "art" theatres that strikes my fancy. I probably won't venture into a theatre again until the "Oscar bait" movies start coming out in the Fall. There are still DVDs though and I'll be writing about some recent viewings in the next few days.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A special voice

I've just added some videos on the side of Carmel McCourt, a British singer who came along in the mid-80's at a time when all the Bright Young Things in Britain were declaring "rock" passe and embracing more sophisticated jazz and soul. Carmel fit right in with that. Her basic band was a trio of her voice, bass and drums and she sang a blend of gospel, soul and jazz that really got to you. Her first album, The Drum Is Everything, was released in America but nobody paid any attention here. She had her big commercial success in Europe espcially in France.

She is still around today and there are other more recent videos on YouTube that show her experimenting more with electronic effects and pure rhythm but these are all from the Eighties. "Bad Day" especially kills me every time I hear it.

Will Elder. R. I. P.

I was sad to hear of the death of the great artist Will Elder the other day. I discovered the original Mad comic book through reading the early paperback collections like Inside Mad and The Mad Reader and Elder's brilliant funny parodies of comic strips and TV shows were the essence of that type of humor to me. I knew Wally Wood, John Severin and Jack Davis from their work on other comics and humor magazines but those paperbacks were the only place I ever saw Elder's craziness up to that point. I wouldn't find out about his later work with Harvey Kurtzman like Goodman Beaver and Little Annie Fanny until much later.

It's sobering because it brings to mind how many of the great classic comics creators are left, Davis, Severin, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee among others and now there's news that Gene Colan, the great artist of Iron Man, Tomb Of Dracula, Howard the Duck and other books, is in ill health. Even when they are essentially retired, it hurts to see the legends go.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Library Of Alexandria

The Library Of Alexandria (seen in an artists' representation on the right) was one of the wonders of the ancient world, a repository of just about all the writings in science, philosophy, history and arts done to that point. A fire destroyed the library and much of the collected knowledge of the world was lost forever.

Today things are very different. Thanks to technology and cyberspace nothing seems to be lost forever, especially anything that can be stored on CD or DVD. A lot of old films may be gone without a trace for the time being but at the same time it seems that weekly some rare or forgotten film or TV show suddenly shows up on the market. From Stan Laurel silents and rare cartoons to 1948 TV shows and legendarily obscure independent films from the 60's somebody somewhere puts it out. The same goes for music.

As a result even chain stores like Blockbuster or Barnes and Noble can be looked on as modern libraries of Alexandria. The humblest of them still hold thousands of different titles and if you look around, there's always something more on the shelves besides last summer's blockbuster movies or the latest disc from some American Idol zombie. That's not to mention what you might find in a place like Netflix or in any of the independent stores that are still around.

From now on that is what I'll be concentrating on in this blog, all the cool pieces of sonic and visual art out there that the mainstream misses out on, at least the ones that strike my fancy. I've been doing this all along but in a really lackadaisical way. From now on I will endeavor to regularly write about the work I come across. Hopefully I can keep this going a while. Whoever reads this maybe I can tell you something you didn't know before, and once I master YouTube, show you a few things as well.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Fear and Romance The Hard Way

I'm slowly trying to make this blog more focused and professional looking and I hope to starting adding things like videos soon, but for now I want to get my thoughts on two recent movies out of the way. I recently found the local Blockbuster so I can get in the habit of seeing more recent films again. Both of the first two films I rented featured John Turturro in some regard but not at his best.


This was supposed to be the big American crossover success for Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn who had previously made a really good thriller in his home country called "Pusher". Needless to say things didn't work out that way and watching Fear X I understand why.

John Turturro stars in this movie as a mall security guard obsessed with finding the mysterious person who shot and killed his wife in a parking lot. There was such an ominous, hallucinatory atmosphere throughout this picture that I was afraid they were going to end it with the predictable twist of Turturro himself turning out to be the killer. Thankfully they didn't go that route but the plot that did unfold was an underwhelming X-Files / Twin Peaks hybrid involving vigilante cops. It all turned out to be much more vague and unsatisfying than it needed to be with low-lit sinister tableaux that seemed to be imitations of much better and more original works. Watching Turturro creep around dark red hotel corridors flashed me back to "Barton Fink". I kept expecting John Goodman to run down the hall carrying a shotgun and screaming "I'll show you the life of the mind!".

When Turturro was playing the part of a blocked writer in "Barton Fink" it turns out he actually did begin working on a screenplay. That screenplay became the second film I saw:


Turturro both wrote and directed this tongue-in-cheek musical about a steelworker with a wife and three grown daughters who is having a torrid affair with another woman. You could actually believe the Barton Fink character wrote this. It's pretentious, obvious and silly, a movie that takes its cues from ironic works by the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Fassbinder and Dennis Potter but doesn't do anything that hasn't been many times before. Just like in Potter's "Pennies From Heaven" the characters express themselves by singing along to pop songs, this time including "Piece Of My Heart", "A Man Without Love" and "Delilah" but there's no surprise to it especially when there are so many familiar faces in the cast.

Turturro seems to have gotten all of his New York area acting buddies like James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon and Steve Buscemi into this but not given them anything new to do. Buscemi plays a typical Steve Buscemi role. Christopher Walken plays a typical Christopher Walken role, including dancing, and Gandolfini even does his entire role in his Tony Soprano voice. It's a cute idea to cast Mandy Moore, Mary Louise Parker and Aida Turturro as Gandolfini's punk rocker daughters (even though two of them are close to his age) but they have nothing to do except stand around the edges and complain. Kate Winslet's foul mouthed Molly Bloom take as the other woman would have been more memorable in a better movie.

The cast may be attractive but this is really a massive piece of self indulgence that was probably a lot more fun to make than it is to watch.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Nostalgia Is Overrated

I should stay away from the Ain't It Cool News website but I still look at it regularly. I read something there today that shows it's not meant for me. There was a comment by one of the regular writers on a Talkback that This Week's Summer Blockbuster, "Speed Racer" was a wonderful trip back to your childhood and that anyone who didn't like it was just being a "Too Cool For The Room" hater.

That bothered me. If somebody else loves this movie, fine. I didn't care about the cartoon Speed Racer and I could care less about this movie but I really get depressed by the constant gushing by adults in their 20's and 30's who think reliving your childhood is the greatest thing imaginable. They never think that some people have no desire to go back to their childhoods. I was miserable as a kid. I was picked on in school and didn't think my parents cared about me. Why the hell should I want to go back to that? There were cartoon shows I liked then and that I still like now but I like them because they are genuinely funny not because they send me on some Proustian nostalgia kick . I was never too much into drooling over Summer Movies and I especially avoid the ones that are rehashes of thirty year old kiddie entertainment.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Pool Hustlers and Life

Okay, over the next few weeks I'm going to start commenting on my favorite movies as I watch them again and refresh my memories of them. Unfortunately I probably won't get around to Celine And Julie Go Boating any time soon because it's not on DVD. Other than that I'll start with my all-time favorite:


It's been said before but when Paul Newman won his only Best Actor Oscar for playing Fast Eddie Felson in The Color Of Money, he won for the right role but the wrong movie. His Fast Eddie in The Hustler is the center of an incredible film, a fable about ambition, greed, life, death and love told in the story of a pool hustler whose overarching ambition is to be called the greatest pool player of all time.
This movie is most famous for its pool scenes but it has so much more especially in the scenes between Fast Eddie and his sad, alcoholic girlfriend played by Piper Laurie. A beautiful, tragic love story emerges as they go from being two sordid losers screwing and drinking like hermits in their apartment, become more of a normal young couple in love after Eddie breaks his thumbs and temporarily cannot play pool and spiral back down to disaster after the slimy Bert Gordon, played brilliantly by George C. Scott, becomes Eddie's manager.
The blowaway ending of the film is not the final pool game where Eddie finally beats Minnesota Fats. It's the beautiful sequence immediately after when he confronts Bert, realizing that the tragedy that destroyed his girlfriend killed him inside and that he has sacrified his humanity to become the "winner" he always wanted to be. It's a perfect example of "Be careful what you wish for."
Watching the film again I noticed the homosexual subtext for the first time, that Bert, in essence pimps out Eddie, especially in setting up a match for him with an effeminate billiards player at the Kentucky Derby played by Murray Hamilton. Eddie looks so disheveled and disgusted at the end of that scene you wonder if they were doing something else besides playing billiards.
There's also the amazing subtlety in the first marathon pool sequence where little is said but characters are delineated and the story told all through posture and looks. Watching the faces of Bert, Eddie, Fats and Eddie's manager, Charlie, tells you all you need to know. I also picked up on how uniformly great the acting is in this movie. Newman, Scott, Laurie, Jackie Gleason and Myron McCormick in his few scenes as Charlie are all outstanding. I feel drained every time I finish watching this movie. It's like watching a man descend into Hell.