Tag Archives: Essays

Punk is a feeling: The Gits ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 19, 2008)

Viva Zapata: Mia and her fans, circa 1991.

In the fall of 1992, I moved to Seattle with no particular action plan, and stumbled into a job hosting the Monday-Friday morning drive show on KCMU (now KEXP) , a mostly volunteer, low-wattage, listener supported FM station broadcasting from the UW campus with the hopeful slogan: “Where the music matters.” I remember joking to my friends that my career was going in reverse order, because after 18 years of commercial radio experience, here I was at age 36, finally getting my first part-time college radio gig. I loved it.

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to cue up whatever I felt like playing, as opposed to kowtowing to the rigid, market-tested “safe song” play lists at the Top 40, Oldies and A/C formats I had worked with previously. A little Yellowman, Fugazi, Cypress Hill, Liz Phair, maybe a bit o’ Mudhoney with your Danish? Followed by a track from Ali Faka Toure, some Throwing Muses, topping the set with an oldie like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to take you up to your first coffee break? Sure, why not? I was happier than a pig in shit.

What I didn’t realize until several years following my  7-month stint there, is that KCMU was semi-legendary in college/alt-underground circles; not only was it literally the first station in the country to “break” Nirvana, but counted members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam among former DJ staff. I was just a music geek, enthusiastically exploring somebody else’s incredibly cool record collection, whilst taking my listeners along for the ride; in the meantime I obliviously became a peripheral participant in Seattle’s early 90’s “scene”.

One of the countless bands that migrated to Seattle during the city’s brief and shining heyday as America’s D.I.Y Mecca was a quartet hailing from Ohio, who called themselves The Gits (in honor of a Monty Python sketch). Led by talented singer-songwriter Mia Zapata, the band mixed the aggressive melodic punch of L.A.’s X with the art-punk lyricism of San Francisco’s Romeo Void. Zapata’s powerful, bluesy Janis Joplin-meets-Exene Cervenka vocal delivery and charismatic stage presence made her a formidable front woman, and the band quickly gained a strong local following.

They also soon gained the attention of local music producers, and were on the verge of being courted by some of the major labels, when it all came crashing to earth with a resounding thud. In the summer of 1993, Mia Zapata was beaten, raped and killed, her body unceremoniously dumped in a vacant lot. Her murder remained unsolved until an astounding break in the case in 2003 helped bring her killer to justice (thanks to advancements in DNA forensics).

Her frighteningly random and brutal murder not only had a profoundly disheartening and long-lasting effect on Seattle’s incestuous music community, but at the time, symbolically represented the beginning of the end for the city’s burgeoning music renaissance; it was sort of the grunge era’s Altamont, if you will.

In their documentary The Gits (available on DVD), super-fans and first time filmmakers Kerri O’Kane (director) and Jessica Bender (producer) have constructed an engrossing, genuinely moving portrait of the band and Zapata’s legacy. When O’Kane and Bender were doing initial research for their project, they began snapping up all the Gits memorabilia they could get their hands on, acquiring much of it via eBay, and mostly through one particular seller.

That person turned out to be the band’s drummer, who was beginning to wonder who these two particularly obsessed fans were. This eventually led to full cooperation from the surviving band members, after they were assured that O’Kane and Bender weren’t a couple of weird stalkers.. This was a legitimate concern due to the fact that Zapata’s killer was then still unknown and presumably still at large. Thus began a six year labor of love for the pair.

The first half  is devoted to Gits’ history, beginning with their formation at Antioch College in Ohio in 1986. By the time they moved to Seattle in 1989, the band had developed a sonic sensibility more simpatico with  punk rock than it was to the trendy “grunge” sound of the time (speaking as an “old school” rock fan, grunge always sounded like warmed-over Blue Cheer or Sabbath to me, while punk was closer to the spirit of The MC5 and The Ramones).

O’Kane does a nice job encapsulating their Seattle years with well-chosen performance clips and archival photos. Interviews with the band, their friends and members of Mia’s family are supplemented by recollections from professional peers like Joan Jett and members of 7 Year Bitch, an all-female Seattle band who were generously mentored by the Gits (and ironically, signed by a major label long before their more musically accomplished mentors were “discovered” themselves). The music business is a harsh mistress.

The second half of the film deals with Zapata’s death. To their credit, the filmmakers don’t exploit the sensationalist aspects of the crime or dwell on all the gory details of the murder itself. Instead, they take the high road and examine the profound effect her loss had on her family, friends, fans and fellow members of the music community.

The sensitive and respectful handling of the latter part of the story ultimately accentuates what lies at the heart of a film that could have been a real downer: an inspiring portrait of a group of close friends truly committed to each other, their music and their fans.

With all the soulless pap oozing from the music charts and Stepford Idol marionettes warbling their glorified karaoke at us from our Empty Vee these days, it’s enough to give one a glimmer of hope that, somewhere out there in the ether, there will always be someone making Music That Matters (I can always dream, can’t I?)

O’Kane even manages to find and highlight one bittersweet “positive” (for want of a better word) that resulted from the tragedy, which was the formation of Home Alive, an anti-violence non-profit organization that is perhaps best described by the mission statement posted on their website:

Home Alive is a Seattle based anti-violence non-profit organization that offers affordable self-defense classes and provides public education and awareness. We believe violence prevention is a community responsibility as well as an individual issue. Our work in self-defense encourages everyone to recognize their entitlement to the basic human right to live free from violence and hate. Our goal is to build a cultural and social movement that puts violence in a context of political, economic and social oppression, and frames safety as a human right.

Sounds like a damn fine plan to me. Now, if we just could convince the rest of the world to start acting so…punk rock.

Death of a Lens man: R.I.P. Laszlo Kovacs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2007)

You know what “they” say- it always comes in threes. We recently lost two masters of world cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Then, on July 21, we lost someone with a bit less name recognition but no less importance. I am referring to one of American cinema’s most respected and influential cinematographers, Laszlo Kovacs. This week, we’ll take a look at some “must see” films from this craftsman’s prolific 50-year career.

Kovacs’ journey to the United States from his native Hungary plays like a nail-biting Cold War thriller. When the Hungarian Revolution exploded on the streets of Budapest in 1956, the young Kovacs, together with fellow student Vilmos Zsigmond, boldly documented the ensuing events with a hidden camera (on loan from their school).

The budding film makers then risked life and limb to smuggle the resulting 30,000 feet of footage across the Austrian border. Both men subsequently sought and won political asylum in the U.S. in 1957. (BTW, there is a forthcoming documentary entitled Laszlo & Vilmos: The Story of Two Refugees Who Changed the Look of American Cinema). The cinematography style of Kovacs and Zsigmond was quite literally borne from revolution; and it certainly revolutionized American cinema in the 1970’s with a signature “look”.

I’m not sure what his feelings were about this (or if he even cared), but in the course of his long and illustrious career, it’s interesting that Kovacs never once snagged an Oscar (although he was nominated a few times). His friend Zsigmond fared better with the Academy; likely because to tended to work on higher profile films, whilst Kovacs gravitated more toward artistic and/or independent projects (at least through the period leading up to Ghostbusters, the biggest box office hit he ever collaborated on).

Ironically, the final film that Kovacs is credited on prior to his death was a 2006 project with his old friend Zsigmond, a documentary that was produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution called Torn from the Flag. In an artistic sense, you could say that he came full circle.

For additional back story on the American film renaissance of the 1970’s, I highly recommend the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (Kovacs is a featured interviewee.)

Here’s a  sampler of cinematic gems from Kovacs’ resume:

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Targets (1968)-Director Peter Bogdanovich’s impressive debut and the first of many collaborations with DP Kovacs. Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not such a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a “normal” young man who is about to go totally Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. This film presaged the likes of Taxi Driver, The Stepfather and Falling Down in its implementation of the “disenfranchised white male snaps and goes on a killing spree” theme. A real sleeper.

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Easy Rider (1969)-Dennis Hopper’s groundbreaking directorial debut also put Kovacs on the map. The dialogue (along with the mutton chops, fringe vests and love beads) may not have dated so well, but thanks to Kovacs’ exemplary DP work, those now iconic images of expansive American landscapes and the endless gray ribbons that traverse them remain the quintessential touchstone for all the American “road” movies that have followed in its wake.

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Five Easy Pieces (1970)-“You see this sign?!” Easy Rider collaborators Kovacs, director Bob Rafelson and star Jack Nicholson were reunited for one of  the defining road movies of the 70’s. Nicholson fully realized the iconic “Jack” persona in this character study about a disillusioned, classically-trained piano player from a moneyed family, working a soulless blue-collar job and teetering on the verge of an existential meltdown. Karen Black contributes outstanding support as his long-suffering waitress girlfriend. Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked milieu of the Pacific Northwest. No substitutions!

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What’s Up, Doc? (1972)- Another Bogdanovich-Kovacs collaboration, this hysterically funny homage to Hollywood’s golden age of screwball comedies (think Bringing Up Baby) features wonderful tongue-in-cheek performances from Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand. Kovacs works his usual DP magic with the luminous San Francisco locale.

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The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)-The Rafelson-Nicholson-Kovacs triumvirate hits yet another one out of the park in this intense neo-noir character study about a cynical radio talk show host (Nicholson) who attempts to save his low-life con artist brother (Bruce Dern) from himself, only to become embroiled in one of his sleazy schemes. Ellen Burstyn gives one of the best performances by an actress ever, period. Kovacs expertly wrings every possible drop of noir atmosphere from the grim, gray Atlantic City locale. A brilliant work of art, any way you slice it. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

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Paper Moon (1973)-The true test of a cinematographer’s mettle is how well they can work in black and white; and Kovacs passes the “shadows and light” test with flying colors in this Bogdanovich film about a Depression-era bible salesman/con artist (Ryan O’Neal) and his precocious young sidekick (40 year-old midget Tatum O’Neal).

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Shampoo (1975)-Sex and politics (and more sex) are mercilessly skewered, along with the shallow SoCal lifestyle in Hal Ashby’s classic satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment “issues” (Oy, having to choose one “favorite” between Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie would give anyone such tsuris!)

Beatty allegedly based his character on his close friend (and hairdresser to the stars) Jay Sebring, one of the victims of the grisly Tate-LaBianca slayings in 1969. This was one of the earliest films to step back and satirize the 60’s counterculture zeitgeist with the hindsight of historical detachment. Kovacs gives the L.A. backdrop an appropriately soft, gauzy look that perfectly matched the protagonist’s fuzzy approach to dealing with adult responsibilities.

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Heart Beat (1980)-John Byrum’s slightly flawed but fascinating take on the relationship between beat writer Jack Kerouac (John Heard), Carolyn Cassady (Sissy Spacek) and Neal Cassady (Nick Nolte) over a 20-year period. A well-acted character study, with great work by Kovacs.

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Frances (1982)-The sad story of how the bright, headstrong and politically outspoken actress Frances Farmer transitioned from a promising young Hollywood starlet in the 1940’s to a lobotomized mental patient, dying in near-obscurity is dramatized in this absorbing biopic from director Graeme Clifford. Jessica Lange throws herself into the role with complete abandonment, providing a compelling impetus for staying with this otherwise overlong film. Kovacs drenches this dark, tragic tale with a gothic atmosphere.

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Shattered (1991)-Kovacs teamed up with action director Wolfgang Petersen for this Hitchcockian tale of a man attempting to piece his life back together after suffering amnesia following a serious auto accident (or was it an accident?). Granted, this plot has been done to death, but the attractive leads (Tom Berenger and Greta Scacchi steam up the screen), taut direction and the dynamic lens work by Kovacs make it a worthwhile watch.

Whacking philosophical: The Sopranos coda

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 10, 2007)

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Well, this is it. After tonight, no more Sunday night dinners with Tony, Carmela and the, erm, Family (Hmmm…maybe no more Tony-we’ll know definitively by 10pm Eastern).

Whatever happens tonight on the series finale of HBO’s The Sopranos, one thing we can count on is this: It’s not likely to resemble M*A*S*H: The Final Episode (with the possible exception of the gunshot traumas). Let’s just say I don’t foresee a lot of hugging.

This mash-up of The Honeymooners with I, Claudius was a stroke of genius, and we probably will not see its like again anytime soon. Love it or hate it, David Chase’s epic mob drama has changed the formula of what constitutes a “hit series” and upped the ante considerably on TV drama in general. A 48 minute story arc just won’t cut it any more.

The Sopranos has weathered many storms since its 1999 debut, from initial accusations that the show was only serving to reinforce the Italian-American gangster stereotype, to a sophomore slump (Chase allegedly endured a paralyzing creative block getting the much-delayed and grumpily received fourth season underway), and most recently suffering a dramatic drop-off in viewership.

But despite the vacillating loyalty by viewers, the outcries from the PC police regarding stereotypes, sex and violence, and all the fan boys hand wringing themselves silly online over who shouldn’t have been whacked and who deserves to be whacked, one thing about the show has remained consistent. The directing, writing and acting has been, hands down, some of the best I have seen in any medium, whether it be network TV, cable or film. The Sopranos deserves every Emmy it has received and more, and I miss it already.

So what are we going to watch now on HBO Sunday nights? John from Cincinnati?! I hate it already. Somehow, the idea of a show centered on a philosophical surfer dude by the creators of Deadwood isn’t exactly grabbing me (why don’t they just call it “Driftwood”-because that’s all it’s going to be in the wake of The Sopranos, IMHO).

And the biggest question of all-what’s James Gandolfini going to do now? Will he face the “Spock” curse of being so indelibly linked with one particular television character that he can never be taken seriously in any other role? Well, maybe he could look to Bill Shatner for inspiration… wait a minute…that’s it!

Picture if you will: later tonight, after the final episode has been put to bed, Denny Crane and Tony Soprano are sitting on the balcony, enjoying their well-earned scotch and cigars. Denny turns to Tony and says reassuringly, “Don’t worry, Tone. There’s life after a cult series. Seriously.” Tony raises his glass, and with a sparkle in his eye, says: “Sleepover tonight?” To which Denny replies: “You don’t mean…’with the fishes’, do you?” Both men laugh and clink glasses.

(Music up, fade to black.) Adieu, Tony. Adieu.