Tag Archives: Tribute

This Byrd has flown: RIP David Crosby

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 21, 2023)

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In his Jeff Beck tribute last week, music industry maven Bob Lefsetz observed:

And [Beck’s] death was so sudden. At 78. May sound old to you, but then you’re probably not a baby boomer. I mean the end is always looming, but you always believe it’s at some distant point in the future, when in truth it’s closer than you think.

But it’s even weirder than that. The giants are falling. The building blocks of not only the British Invasion, but classic rock, are passing. The icons and the secondary players. But they were all major players to us, music was everything. Not only was it soul-fulfilling, it told you which way the wind blew. And the hits were not all the same and new ones popped up all the time, it was a veritable smorgasbord of greatness.

Falling like dominoes. To paraphrase The Giant in Twin Peaks: “It is happening again.”

“Difficult and gifted” would be a fitting epitaph. But with Crosby, the “gift” far out-trumped the “difficult”. No matter how bad things got for him, that heavenly, crystalline voice never faltered. In fact, his pipes were so pure and pitch perfect that while I can always isolate Stills, Nash, and Young’s individual parts in those patented harmonies…try as I might, I can never “hear” Crosby. I know he’s in there, somewhere-but I’ll be damned if I can detect his contribution. Yet, I would notice if he were not there.

He was one of the best harmony singers that I have never heard.

Crosby was not only an ideal  “middleman” for facilitating lovely harmonies, but an essential catalyst for several iconic bands that sprang from the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1960’s. In my review of the 2019 documentary Echo in the Canyon, I wrote:

“The Byrds were great; when [The Beatles] came to L.A. [The Byrds] came and hung out with us. That 12-string sound was great. The voices were great. So, we loved The Byrds. They introduced us to a…hallucinogenic situation, and uh…we had a really good time.”

– Ringo Starr, from the 2019 documentary Echo in the Canyon

Someone once quipped “If you can remember anything about the 60s, you weren’t really there”. Luckily for Ringo and his fellow music vets who appear in Andrew Slater’s documentary Echo in the Canyon, they’re only required to “remember” from 1965-1967.

That is the specific time period that Slater, a long-time record company exec, music journalist and album producer chooses to highlight in his directing debut. His film also focuses on a specific location: Laurel Canyon. Nestled in the Hollywood Hills West district of L.A., this relatively cozy and secluded neighborhood (a stone’s throw off the busy Sunset Strip) was once home to a now-legendary, creatively incestuous enclave of influential folk-rockers (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, et.al.). […]

Frankly, there aren’t many surprises in store; turns out that nearly everybody was (wait for it) excited and influenced by The Beatles, who in turn were excited and influenced by The Byrds and the Beach Boys, who were in turn inspired to greater heights by the resultant exponential creative leaps achieved by the Beatles (echo in the canyon…get it?) […]

One comes away with a sense about the unique creative camaraderie of the era. Roger McGuinn once received a courtesy note from George Harrison that the main riff he used for the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone” was based on the Byrds’ “Bells of Rhymney”. Apparently, McGuinn was totally cool with that. […]

According to Stephen Stills, there was so much musical badminton going on at the time that a little unconscious plagiarism now and then was inevitable. In one somewhat awkward scene, Dylan asks Eric Clapton about the suspiciously similar chord changes in Stills’ song “Questions” (by Buffalo Springfield) and Clapton’s “Let it Rain”. After mulling it over for several very long seconds, Clapton shrugs and concurs “I must have copped it.”

Crosby was right there, at the epicenter. As Michael Des Barres noted, he “stuck to his guns”, wearing the ethos of 60s counterculture idealism and political activism on his sleeve until his dying day. From my review of the 2008 documentary Déjà Vu:

Cracks about geriatric rockers aside, it becomes apparent that the one thing that remains ageless is the power of the music, and the commitment from [Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young]. Songs like “Ohio”, “Military Madness”, “For What it’s Worth” and “Chicago” prove to have resilience and retain a topical relevance that does not go unnoticed by younger fans. And anyone who doesn’t tear up listening to the band deliver the solemnly beautiful harmonies of their elegiac live show closer, “Find the Cost of Freedom”, while a photo gallery featuring hundreds of smiling young Americans who died in Iraq scrolls on the big screen behind them, can’t possibly have anything resembling a soul residing within.

Adieu to a musical icon. Here are 10 of my favorite Crosby songs. Feel free to tear up.

What’s Happening?!?! – The Byrds (written by David Crosby; from Fifth Dimension)

Triad – The Byrds (written by David Crosby; from The Notorious Byrd Brothers)

Guinevere – Crosby, Stills, & Nash (written by David Crosby; from Crosby, Stills, & Nash)

Wooden Ships –  Crosby, Stills, & Nash (written by David Crosby, Paul Kantner, and Stephen Stills; from Crosby, Stills, & Nash)

Déjà Vu – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (written by David Crosby, from Déjà Vu)

Almost Cut My Hair –  Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (written by David Crosby, from Déjà Vu)

Laughing – David Crosby (written by David Crosby; from If I Could Only Remember My Name)

Have You Seen the Stars Tonight? – The Jefferson Starship (written by Paul Kantner and David Crosby; from Blows Against the Empire)

Whole Cloth – Crosby & Nash (written by David Crosby; from Graham Nash David Crosby)

In My Dreams – Crosby, Stills, & Nash (written by David Crosby; from CSN)

The Alchemist: RIP Jeff Beck

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 11, 2023)

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Goddam it all, anyway. This one hurts.

The music world has lost one of its greatest vocalists. That is not a typo. Jeff Beck could make a guitar speak, in every sense of the word. He rarely stepped up to the mic during the course of his 60+ year career, but whenever he set his fingers to a fret board, he told you a story; sometimes joyous and life-affirming, sometimes sad and melancholy…but it never meandered into masturbatory self-indulgence. Every note held import, serving a distinct narrative that had a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Like all great artists, he was loathe to dawdle too long in a comfort zone; he never stopped exploring, pushing the boundaries of his instrument ever-further with each performance (whether on stage or in the studio). While he was generally relegated to the “rock” section, he could slide effortlessly from blues, boogie, and metal to funk, R & B, soul, jazz and fusion (more often than not, all within the same number).

He made it appear easy as an oil change, but I’m sure he put in his “10,000 hours” of practice at some point (when he wasn’t tinkering with his cars, which was his “happy place” off stage). I’ve been playing guitar for 50 years, and no matter how closely I’ve studied his fingers in concert videos, I am stymied as to how he wrestled those sounds from his axe. All I know is that it had something to do with the whammy bar, volume knobs, thumb-picking, and a magic ring. It’s some kind of alchemy way beyond my ken.

I saw Beck in L.A. with The Jan Hammer Group, circa 1976 at the Starlight Amphitheater. I was in the nosebleed section, but I. was. mesmerized. A command performance.

You’ve heard the term “musician’s musician”? The Twitter tributes confirm he was.

And how can we forget his Antonioni moment?

Even from somewhere out there in the ether, he’s expressing what I’m feeling right now, as I listen to my favorite Beck instrumental. Rest in peace, maestro. Rave on.

 

Not necessarily in that order: A (roundabout) tribute to Jean-Luc Godard

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2022)

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December 3, 1930-September 13, 2022

A film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. –Jean Luc-Godard

Speaking of “non-linear”, that reminds me of a funny story (well, not “ha-ha” funny). I once had the privilege of seeing the late Jean Luc-Godard in the flesh before I had seen any of his films. To be honest, this memory had been tucked away in the cobwebs of my mind until several days ago, when it was triggered by this AP news flash:

Jean-Luc Godard, the iconic “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave who revolutionized popular cinema in 1960 with his first feature, “Breathless,” and stood for years among the film world’s most influential directors, died Tuesday. He was 91.

Godard died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle, on Lake Geneva, his family said in a statement. The statement gave assisted suicide, which is legal in Switzerland, as the cause of death.

A medical report recently revealed the director had “multiple invalidating pathologies,” according to the family statement, which did not specify the conditions.

Over a long career that began in the 1950s as a film critic, Godard was perhaps the most boundary-breaking director among New Wave filmmakers who rewrote the rules for camera, sound and narrative — rebelling against an earlier tradition of more formulaic storytelling.

[JUMP CUT]

Be advised that this will not an assessment of his oeuvre. No one could accuse me of being a Godard scholar; out of his 40+ feature films, I’ve seen 12. And out of that relative handful, the only two I have felt compelled to watch more than once are Breathless and Alphaville.

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The aptly entitled Breathless still knocks the wind out of me; it was (and remains) a freewheeling, exhilarating poke in the lens of conventional film making. And…sodamsexy. Despite its flouting of the rules, the film is (possibly) Godard’s most easily digestible work. Over the years, his films would become ever more challenging (or downright maddening).

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Indeed, even my second-favorite Godard film, Alphaville, played hard-to-get with me. From my review of the 2019 Blu-ray reissue:

The first time I saw this 1965 Jean-Luc Godard film I said to myself “WTF did I just watch?” I shrugged it off and forgot about it for about a decade. Then, a couple weeks ago I picked up a copy of this newly restored 4K Blu-ray and watched it a second time. This time, I said to myself, “Oh. I think I got it.” Then, after pausing a beat “No. I don’t got it.” Now bound and determined, I watched it AGAIN several days later.

This time, by George…I think I got it: Godard’s film, with its mashup of science fiction, film noir, dystopian nightmare and existential despair is a pre-cursor to Blade Runner, Dark City and Death and the Compass.

See? I freely admit to being a middlebrow film buff with a high school diploma who’s been to two worlds fairs and a rodeo, but I eventually “get it”. Now, it’s possible the stumbling block that I can’t quite articulate is the “disturbing quality” of Godard’s films that Pauline Kael expounds upon thusly in her 1966 essay “Movie Brutalists: The French New Wave”:

There is a disturbing quality in Godard’s work that perhaps helps to explain why the young are drawn to his films and identify with them, and why so many older people call him a “coterie” artist and don’t think his films are important. His characters don’t seem to have any future. They are most alive (and most appealing) just because they don’t conceive of the day after tomorrow; they have no careers, no plans, only fantasies of the roles they could play, of careers, thefts, romance, politics, adventure, pleasure, a life like in the movies. […]

An elderly gentleman recently wrote me, “Oh, they’re such a bore, bore, bore, modern youth!! All attitudes and nothing behind the attitudes. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, I went places and did things. The reason they all hate the squares is because the squares remind them of the one thing they are trying to forget: there is a Future and you must build for it.”

He’s wrong, I think. The young are not “trying to forget”: they just don’t think in those terms. Godard’s power—and possibly his limitation—as an artist is that he so intensely expresses how they do feel and think.

OK, I think I get it now. Godard was intense. Like a repo man (to paraphrase Harry Dean Stanton). And you know what? Akin to Ms. Kael’s elderly gentleman, when I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, either… I went places and did things. Like that time I was living in San Francisco and went to see Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard.

[FLASHBACK]

I should back up a second and explain how it was that I ended up seeing Godard before seeing any of his films. From my 2017 essay about the demise of the neighborhood theater:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 3-year period of my life (1979-1982) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260-mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 60s and 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit.

[FLASH-FORWARD]

Which brings us back to the news of Godard’s passing this week. I suddenly remembered attending an event in the early 80s that featured Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard onstage somewhere discussing (wait for it) film. But since my memory has been playing tricks as of late (I mean, I’m 66…however the hell that happened), I thought I’d consult someone who was there with me…my pal Digby. She not only confirmed that she and I and my girlfriend at the time did indeed pile into Digby’s Volkswagen to see Kael and Godard (at the Marin Civic Center in Mill Valley, as it turns out), but somehow dug up a transcript of the proceedings.

There was much lamenting and gnashing of teeth when we realized this happened 41 flippin’ years ago (oh, to be in my mid-20s again). Anyway, the evening was billed as “The Economics of Film Criticism: A Debate with Jean Luc-Godard and Pauline Kael” (May 7, 1981). I recall primarily being super-jazzed about seeing Kael (I was more familiar with her work than Godard’s). I can’t recall a word either of them said, of course, but I do remember my surprise at how engaging and effusive Godard was (I had fully expected to see the “enfant terrible”).

Reading through the transcript…I must have learned a lot (it didn’t stick). For the most part, Godard was wearing his thoughtful critic’s hat that evening. Here’s one fascinating exchange:

J-LG: Well, just five minutes ago you told me that I should not hold you responsible for all American film criticism, but I think you are, in a way, just as I feel responsible for the movies I see even if I have not made them.

PK: Oh, no, I won’t accept that. I can’t believe that you personally feel that you are responsible for the work of somebody whose work you hate.

J-LG: Well, let’s take this article, for example. You wrote about why movies are so bad, and you attack (and I disagreed with you) a good fellow you mentioned by name who was Vice President of some conglomerate. You made him responsible for everything that is bad in the movies. I said to myself, “How can one man be responsible for… ?” I mean a movie is made by a hundred people at least. It’s like war. Nixon is responsible, but the American people are responsible for electing Nixon.

PK: Well, let me explain what I mean about the people at the top having that much influence. If the people at the top of the movie company are not primarily interested in movies, but come either from agencies or law firms or the business community itself, if they are from the Harvard Business School, as many of them are, and they are put in to rationalize the business, and if they look strictly in terms of how much money they can get out of a project before it goes into production, that is to say of how much they can be sure of from television, from overseas televisıon, from cable, from cassettes, they know they can get the most money from pictures that have stars or have a big bestseller property. Those pictures are the easiest to market, and so it is the marketing decisions that determine which pictures they will make. And often if a picture comes along that they did not have much confidence in and really couldn’t sell in advance, they don’t do anything for it so that a picture like Melvin and Howard or, say, All Night Long or Atlantic City doesn’t get anything like the promotion of those movies that they are sure of. As a matter of fact, they are embarrassed to be connected with those movies because they assume those movies are going to fail financially and so, inadvertently, they make those pictures fail.

J-LG: Yeah, but it’s not a good reason. It’s right, but it doesn’t describe the reality of making a movie. They alone are not making the movies, the movies are made by the audience, the movies are made by the cinematographers, by the union people, they are all responsible. . . I mean why don’t they sell American cars today?

PK: Jean-Luc, let’s put it this way….

J-LG: No, it’s because who is obeying this order? I try never to obey it. That’s why….

PK: You don’t work in a big studio system.

J-LG: I wish I could (laughter).

PK: But the reason you can’t is the reason I am explaining. It’s the same reason that an American Godard could not work in the big studio system.

Plus ca change

That’s my Jean-Luc Godard story, and I’m sticking to it. As mentioned earlier, I did eventually catch up with some of his earlier work; now that his final reel has played and the lights have come up, I should probably catch up a little more before my end credits start rolling (or they revoke my film critic’s license…whichever comes first). Maybe I’ll begin with his final film and work my way back until I meet myself in the middle. In the end, it’s all relative. After all, as  supercomputer ALPHA-60 says in Alphaville, “Time is like a circle which turns endlessly.”

[FIN]

It’s only a canvas sky: R.I.P. Peter Bogdanovich

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2022)

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From a 2017 piece I wrote on the demise of neighborhood theaters:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 2 ½ year period of my life (1979-1981) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all of these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 2 ½ years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

Alas, as it is wont to do, Time has caught up with a number of those filmmakers. This week, it caught up with Peter Bogdanovich. Along with Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Ashby, Malick, and De Palma, Bogdanovich was at the core of the revolutionary “maverick” American filmmakers who flourished from the late 60s through the late 70s.

Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter called him “a surrogate film professor for a generation”. That’s a good encapsulation of his professional life off the set; he lived and breathed cinema. Perhaps not surprising, considering he wrote about movies before becoming a filmmaker (as did Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Schrader, et.al.).

One of Bogdanovich’s contemporaries, Martin Scorsese, issued this statement:

 “In the 60s, at a crucial moment in the history of the movie business and the art of cinema, Peter Bogdanovich was right there at the crossroads of the Old Hollywood and the New. Curator, critic, historian, actor, director, popular entertainer…Peter did it all. As a programmer here in New York, he put together essential retrospectives of then still overlooked masters from the glory days of the studio system; as a journalist he got to know almost everybody, from John Ford and Howard Hawks to Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. Like many of us, he made his way into directing pictures by way of Roger Corman, and he and Francis Coppola broke into the system early on: Peter’s debut, ‘Targets,’ is still one of his very best films.

“With ‘The Last Picture Show,’ he made a movie that seemed to look backward and forward at the same time as well as a phenomenal success, followed quickly by ‘What’s Up Doc’ and ‘Paper Moon.’ In the years that followed, Peter had setbacks and tragedies, and he just kept going on, constantly reinventing himself. The last time I saw Peter was in 2018 at The New York Film Festival, where we appeared together on a panel discussion of his old friend Orson Welles’ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ (in which Peter gives a great performance, and to which he dedicated a lot of time and energy throughout many years). Right up to the end, he was fighting for the art of cinema and the people who created it.”

I think Scorsese has articulated why this passing feels significant. I’m confident there are curators, critics, historians and filmmakers who will pick up the torch …those who can “look backward and forward at the same time”. It’s important. After all, as someone says in The Last Picture Show: “Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.”

Here are my picks for the five most essential Bogdanovich films:

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Targets – Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this impressively assured directorial debut; a low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a “nice” young man (a Vietnam vet) who is about to go Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. It holds up well, as it is (sadly) quite prescient. Chilling and effective. The film marked the first of several collaborations between the director and cinematographer László Kovács. Bogdanovich co-wrote the script with (his then-wife) producer/production designer Polly Platt, and Samuel Fuller.

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The Last Picture Show – Oddly enough, I was Tweeting about this film only last week:

Indeed, Bogdanovich’s most celebrated film, which he co-adapted with the great Larry McMurtry from the author’s eponymous novel, is an embarrassment of riches on every level-directing, writing, cinematography (outstanding B & W work by Robert Surtees), production design (Polly Platt), and acting.

Set in the 1950s, this network narrative (a sort of “Peyton Place on the prairie”) concerns the citizens of a one-horse Texas burg called Anarene (it was actually filmed in McMurtry’s home town of Archer City). This is a town of beginners and losers, with naught in-between but those living lives of quiet desperation. Okay, it’s depressing as hell.

But what a cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson (Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Cloris Leachman (Best Supporting Actress Oscar), Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, and Randy Quaid. Every performance, down to the smallest part, feels authentic; you feel like you know these people (and if you’ve ever lived in a small town…you do know these people). A landmark of 70s American cinema.

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What’s Up, Doc? – Bogdanovich’s 1972 film is a love letter to classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s (the most obvious influence being Bringing Up Baby). Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have wonderful chemistry as the romantic leads, who meet cute and become involved in a hotel mix-up of four identical suitcases that rapidly snowballs into a series of increasingly preposterous situations for all concerned (as occurs in your typical screwball comedy).

The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton. The fabulous cast includes Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and Michael Murphy. In his second collaboration with the director, cinematographer László Kovács works his usual magic with the San Francisco locale.

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Paper Moon – Two years after The Last Picture Show, director Peter Bogdanovich had the audacity to shoot yet another B&W film-which was going against the grain by the early 70s. This outing, however, was not a bleak drama. Granted, it is set during the Great Depression, but has a much lighter tone, thanks to precocious 9 year-old Tatum O’Neal, who steals every scene she shares with her dad Ryan (which is to say, nearly every scene in the film).

The O’Neals portray an inveterate con artist/Bible salesman and a recently orphaned girl he is transporting to Missouri (for a fee). Along the way, the pair discover they are a perfect tag team for bilking people out of their cookie jar money. Entertaining road movie, with the built-in advantage of a natural acting chemistry between the two leads.

Also on hand: Madeline Kahn (wonderful as always), John Hillerman, P.J. Johnson, and Noble Willngham. Ace DP László Kovács is in his element; he was no stranger to road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Alvin Sargent adapted his screenplay from Joe David Brown’s novel, “Addie Pray”.

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Saint Jack – After refreshing my memory by dusting off my DVD copy for a re-watch last night, I have to say that Bogdanovich’s least “commercial” project is my favorite, after The Last Picture Show. Adapted from Paul Theroux’s novel by the author, Howard Sackler and Bogdanovich, this 1979 drama is a low-key character study about an American (Ben Gazzara) hustling a living in Singapore during the Vietnam War era.

Gazzara plays Ben Flowers, an ingratiating fellow who specializes in showing visiting foreigners (mostly Brits) a good time. His modest brothel and bar isn’t exactly Rick’s Cafe, but he dreams of expanding, making a bundle and heading back to the states with a comfortable nest egg.

Unfortunately, this has put him on the radar of the local triad, who are escalating their harassment by the day. Flowers is wary, but too good-natured to go to the mattresses, as it were (he’s the antithesis of a “mobster type”, which is what makes the character so interesting). Eventually, however, he’s forced to seek another avenue-running a CIA-sanctioned brothel for soldiers on R&R from tours of duty in Vietnam.

I haven’t seen all of his films, but Gazzara’s performance is surely one of (if not “the”) best he ever delivered. The film is also a late-career highlight for the perennially underrated Denholm Elliot, who was nominated for a BAFTA award in 1980 (but didn’t win). Keep your eyes peeled for George Lazenby in the penultimate scene-a wordless, yet extraordinary sequence. Bogdanovich casts himself as a mysterious government spook. Leisurely paced but completely absorbing, it’s one of those films that has an immersive sense of “place” (beautifully shot on location by the late great Robby Müller).

Guest post: Charlie Watts…More with less

By Bob Bennett

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Charlie Watts has died.  A soft-spoken gentleman, Charlie would sign his notes with a parenthetical “(Rolling Stones)” after his name as if people might not place his name.

Let’s focus on his actual drumming.  He played on a small 4 piece 1956 Gretsch drum kit which was more of a be-bop configuration.  This minimalism seemed to fit his yeoman’s approach to his job as drummer, no doubt simplifying set-up, getting a consistent sound, facilitating upkeep and minimizing the bane of all drummers – transport.  He was not the kind of drummer to use a double-bass drum kit that would spin above the stage (Tommy, here’s lookin’ at you).  I would argue Charlie made more with less.

No, Charlie didn’t seek the spotlight, but his legacy of playing on every Rolling Stones song ever made easily cements him as one of the greats of all time.

First and foremost a jazz fan, Charlie had to be coaxed into joining a rock and roll band (apparently by Ray Davies of The Kinks no less).  His thundering performance on their early hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” showed no doubt that he could adapt.  Charlie could hit the drums hard, even though he used a traditional grip like jazz players do.

When he comes in with a *crack* near the beginning of “Start Me Up”, his heavy snare sounds like one of his disciples, Max Weinberg, who drummed in a similar way on Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Getting that sound from a small kit is not only an engineering feat, it requires deep experience in where and how to hit the drums.  Charlie had it (as does Max!).

My friend, Dennis Hartley wrote a tribute to Charlie Watts, concluding he was the Rock of the Stones.  So true, and yet I think his brilliance also lay in his ability to Roll.  A perfectly on-time, metronome-like beat is lifeless (and easily obtained with a drum machine) but you cannot teach a person or a machine to play with the “feel” that Charlie brought.

Call it a slight swing or a shuffle, it can be heard on songs like “Midnight Rambler” where Charlie sometimes swings and sometimes plays with the expected “rock” back-beat.  “I like to play straight ahead with a groove,” Charlie once said in one of his rare interviews in reference to his playing on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”. Without Charlie adding that dash of sultriness, the Stones (including Mick’s swaggering hip shakes) would never have lasted as long as they have.

Charlie also had great dynamics and cymbal work.  He sometimes had a jerky look when playing the hi-hat and snare together as he preferred to alternate between them (most drummers will play consistent 1/8 or ¼ notes on the hi-hat and simply layer on the snare, typically on beats 2 and 4).  Maybe his habit of playing one or the other let him focus his intensity on one thing at a time.  It worked, and provided another organic layer to his playing that perfectly fit the sometimes raggedy sound of the guitars.

Charlie was good at letting songs breathe, never overplaying and sometimes sitting out on entire songs.  When the drums did come in, they often did with gusto as one can hear on innovative songs like “She’s a Rainbow” or “Ruby Tuesday”.  One of his most innovative performances was playing a tabla with sticks on “Factory Girl” (Ricky Dijon also played on conga).

Like the knowing scrape of a boot from a cool cat’s walk, Charlie’s drumming had a sexiness and a *crack!” which is to say he could rock and roll.

Charlie is our darling: A tribute

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 24, 2021)

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Well, it sucked to rub my sleepy eyes and see this circulating on social media today:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/E9kgKKnXEAY64PX?format=jpg&name=mediumStalwart to the end, Charlie Watts was the “rock” in rock ‘n’ roll. Solid, reliable, resolute. He sat Sphinx-like behind his kit for over 50 years, laying down a steady beat while remaining seemingly impassive to all the madness and mayhem that came with the job of being a Rolling Stone. He was cool as a cucumber, as impeccably tailored and enigmatic as Reynolds Woodcock. “Reynolds Who?” As I wrote in my 2018 review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread:

As I watched [Daniel] Day-Lewis’ elegantly measured characterization unfold, I kept flashing on the lyrics from an old Queen song. Reynolds Woodcock is well versed in etiquette, insatiable in appetite, fastidious and precise-and guaranteed to blow your mind.

This is one weird cat; which is to say, a typical Anderson study. Handsome, charismatic and exquisitely tailored, Woodcock easily charms any woman in his proximity, yet…something about him is cold and distant as the moon.

He may even be on the spectrum, with his intense focus and single-mindedness about his work (or perhaps that’s the definition of genius, in any profession?).

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I’m not suggesting Charlie was on the spectrum (not that there would be anything wrong with that), but the intense focus was visible; the genius evident. The fascinating thing about his drumming was that you couldn’t always “hear” it, but his contribution was just as essential to the Stones’ gestalt as Keith’s open ‘G’ riffs or Mick’s “rooster on acid” stagecraft. He wasn’t all about Baker flash, Bonzo bash or Moonie thrash…he was, as Liz Phair distilled it so beautifully today-a “master of elegant simplicity”.

Smiling faces I can see
But not for me
I sit and watch
As tears go by

Rest in rhythm, Mr. Watts.

(The following piece was originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 26, 2016)

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“I think that, finally, the times are changing. No?”-Mick Jagger, addressing 450,000 fans at the 2016 Havana concert

It’s been quite a groundbreaking week for Cuba, kicking off with the first official U.S. presidential visit since 1928, and closing out with last night’s free Rolling Stones concert at the Ciudad Deportiva stadium in Havana. While it marked the first Cuba appearance for the Stones, the boys have seen many moons since their first-ever gig, 54 years ago (!) at London’s Marquee Club.

The fledgling band wore their influences on their sleeves that night (July 12, 1962) with a covers-only set that included songs by Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. And despite the odd foray into chamber pop, psychedelia, country-rock and disco over time, they haven’t really strayed too awfully far from those roots. They simply remain…The Stones (it’s only rock ’n’ roll).

In honor of their contribution to helping thaw out the last vestiges of the Cold War, here are my top 5 picks of films featuring the Rolling Stones (in alphabetical order, as usual).

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Charlie is My Darling – The Rolling Stones did a few dates in Ireland in 1965, and filmmaker Peter Whitehead tagged along, resulting in this somewhat short (60 minute) but historically vital cinema verite-style documentary. We see a ridiculously young Stones at a time when they were still feeling their way through their own version of Beatlemania (although it’s interesting to note that it’s primarily the lads in the audience who are seen crying hysterically and rushing the stage!).

In a hotel room scene, Jagger and Richards work out lyrics and chord changes for the song “Sittin’ on a Fence” (which wouldn’t appear until a couple years later on the Flowers album). The concert footage captures the band in all of its early career “rave up” glory (including a wild onstage riot). The film recalls P.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (filmed the same year), which similarly followed Bob Dylan around while he was in London to perform several shows.

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Gimme Shelter – It’s unfortunate that Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 film is chiefly known for its inclusion of (unwittingly captured) footage of the infamous incident at a 1969 Rolling Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California where a man near the front of the stage was stabbed to death in full view of horrified fellow concertgoers by members of the Hell’s Angels (who were providing “security” for the show)-but there you have it. Those scant seconds of the doc’s running time have forever tainted what is otherwise (rightfully) hailed as one of the top rockumentaries. One of the (less morbid) highlights of the film is footage of the Stones putting down the basic tracks for “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios.

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Let’s Spend the Night Together– By the time I finally had an opportunity to catch the Stones live back in October of 1981 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Brian Jones was 12 years in the grave and the band was already being called “dinosaurs”. Still, it was one those “bucket list” items that I felt obliged to fulfill (it turns out there was really no rush…who knew that Mick would still be prancing around in front of massive crowds like a rooster on acid 35 years later…and counting?).

At any rate, the late great Hal Ashby directed this 1983 concert film, documenting performances from that very same 1981 North American tour. Unadorned by cinematic glitz, but that’s a good thing, as Ashby wisely steps back to let the performances shine through (unlike the distracting flash-cutting and vertigo-inducing, perpetual motion camera work that made Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light downright unwatchable for me). The set list spans their career, from “Time Is on My Side” to the 1981 hit “Start Me Up”.

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The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus– Originally intended to air as a TV special, this 1968 film was shelved and “lost” for nearly 30 years, until its belated restoration and home video release in the mid-90s. Presaging “mini concert” programs like The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that would flourish in the 70s, the idea was to assemble a sort of “dream bill” of artists performing in an intimate, small theater setting.

Since it was their idea, the Stones were the headliners (of course!), with an impressive lineup of opening acts including The Who, John & Yoko, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal and Marianne Faithfull. The “circus” theme (and the arrhythmic hippie dancing by the audience members) haven’t dated so well, but the performances are fabulous.

Jagger’s alleged reason for keeping the show on ice was that the Stones were displeased by their own performance; the whispered truth over the years is that Mick felt upstaged by the Who (they do a rousing rendition of “A Quick One”). Actually the Stones are good; highlighted by a punky version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and a great “No Expectations” (featuring lovely embellishments from Brian Jones on slide guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano).

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Sympathy for the Devil – Relatively unseen prior to home video release, this 1968 film (aka One plus One) tends to loom at bit larger as a legend in the minds of those who have name-checked it over the years than as a true “classic”.

Director Jean-Luc Godard was given permission to film the Stones working on their Beggar’s Banquet sessions. He inter-cuts with footage featuring Black Panthers expounding on The Revolution, a man reciting passages from Mein Kampf, and awkwardly executed “guerilla theater” vignettes (it was the 60s, man).

While I think we “get” the analogy between the Stones building the layers of the eponymous song in the studio and the seeds of change being sown in the streets, the rhetoric becomes grating. Still, it’s a fascinating curio, and the intimate, beautifully shot footage of the Stones offers a rare “fly on the wall” peek at their creative process.

R.I.P. George Segal

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 27, 2021)

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I was saddened to learn of George Segal’s passing earlier this week. I confess up front that I have zero awareness of his latter-career television work; but then again, I haven’t followed any network sitcoms with much interest since Seinfeld went off the air in 1998.

For me Segal’s visage will be forever associated with a streak of memorable film roles from the mid-60s through the late 70s (perusing his credits on the Internet Movie Database, I realized that apart from David O. Russell’s 1996 comedy Flirting with Disaster I have not seen any of Segal’s big screen work beyond Lost and Found (Melvin Frank’s disappointing 1979 sequel to his own 1973 romantic comedy A Touch of Class).

I will remember him for his masterful comic timing (he was the king of the reaction shot) but he also had great drama chops. He was also a decent banjo player (I searched in earnest for any instance where he may have jammed with Steve Martin…but alas, if it did happen, there is no extant footage). Here are my top 10 George Segal recommendations:

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Bye Bye Braverman – Viewer caution: This film contains graphic depictions of extreme Jewishness (I’m allowed to say that…I’ve lived it). A lesser-known gem from Sidney Lumet, this 1968 comedy-drama follows the escapades of four Manhattan intellectuals (Segal, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Warden and Sorrell Booke) who pile into a red Beetle and spend a Sunday afternoon schlepping around Brooklyn searching for the funeral of a mutual friend who dropped dead following a coronary. Much middle-age angst ensues.

Episodic but bolstered by wonderful performances and several memorable scenes. My favorite involves a fender-bender with the great Godfrey Cambridge, playing a fast-talking cabbie who has converted to Judaism. Another great segment features Alan King as a rabbi giving an off-the wall eulogy. A scene where Segal delivers a soliloquy about modern society while strolling through a vast cemetery will now have added poignancy.

The screenplay was adapted from Wallace Markfield’s novel by Herb Sargent, who later become a top writer for Saturday Night Live from 1975-1995. Also in the cast: Phyllis Newman, Zohra Lampert and Jessica Walter (who also passed away this week, sadly).

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California Split – While it has its share of protracted scenes and an unhurried, naturalistic rhythm you expect from Robert Altman, I think this 1974 comedy-drama is the director’s tightest, most economical film; I would even venture it’s damn near perfect.

A pro gambler (Elliot Gould) and a compulsive gambler with a straight day job (Segal) bond after getting roughed up and robbed by a sore loser and his pals in a poker parlor parking lot. Gould invites Segal to sleep over at his place, a house he shares with two self-employed sex workers (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles). The men become gambling buddies. Soon they are mutual enablers, spiraling down the rabbit hole of their addiction.

The film doubles as a beautifully acted character study and a fascinating, documentary-like dive into the myopic, almost subterranean subculture of the degenerate gambler. As Roger Ebert put it so beautifully in his original review of the film: “This movie has a taste in its mouth like stale air-conditioning, and no matter what time it seems to be, it’s always five in the morning in a second-rate casino.” Perceptive screenplay by actor Joseph Walsh, who also has a great cameo as a menacing loan shark.

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The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so it’s back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Segal, Robert Redford Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.

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LovingAmerican Beauty meets The Prisoner of Second Avenue in this 1970 sleeper, directed by the eclectic Irvin Kershner (A Fine Madness, The Flim-Flam Man, Eyes of Laura Mars, Never Say Never Again). Segal is in his element as a freelance commercial illustrator and suburban dad on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Dissatisfied with his own work, on the rocks with both his wife (Eva Marie Saint) and his Manhattan mistress (Janis Young), he’s fighting an existential uphill battle trying to keep everyone in his life happy.

The story builds slowly, culminating in a near-classic party scene up there with the one in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo. Patient viewers will notice the film is well constructed and despite being made 50 years ago, still has much to say about modern manners and mores (all in the space of 90 minutes). The intelligent screenplay was adapted from J.M. Ryan’s novel by Don Devlin.

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The Owl and the Pussycat – Segal plays a reclusive, egghead NYC writer and Barbra Streisand is a perfect foil in one of her best comedic turns as a profane, boisterous sex worker in this classic “oil and water” farce, directed by Herbert Ross. Serendipity throws the two odd bedfellows together one fateful evening, and the resulting mayhem is crude, lewd, and funny as hell. Buck Henry adapted his screenplay from Bill Manhoff’s original stage version. Robert Klein is wonderfully droll in a small but memorable role. My favorite line: “Doris…you’re a sexual Disneyland!”

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The Terminal Man – Paging Dr. Jekyll! Segal is excellent in the lead as a gifted computer scientist who has developed a neurological disorder which triggers murderously psychotic blackout episodes. He becomes the guinea pig for an experimental cure that requires a microchip to be planted in his brain to circumvent the attacks.

Although it’s essentially “sci-fi”, this 1974 effort shares some interesting characteristics with the post-Watergate paranoid political thrillers that all seemed to propagate around that same time (especially The Parallax View, which also broached the subject of mind control). Director Mike Hodges (who directed the original version of Get Carter) adapted his screenplay from Michael Crichton’s novel.

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A Touch of Class – Directed by Melvin Frank (The Court Jester, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) this 1973 film was co-written by the director with Jack Rose and Marvin Frank. Segal and Glenda Jackson make a great comedy tag team as a married American businessman and British divorcee who, following two chance encounters in London, realize there’s a mutual attraction and embark on an affair. The best part of the film concerns the clandestine lovers’ first romantic getaway on a trip to Spain. The story falters a bit in the third act, when it begins to vacillate a little clumsily between comedy and morality tale, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny.

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Where’s Poppa? – If you are easily offended, do not go anywhere near this film. But if you believe nothing is sacred in comedy and enjoy laughing so hard that you plotz-see it.

Where do I start? Carl Reiner’s 1970 black comedy (adapted by Robert Klane from his own novel) concerns a New York City attorney (Segal) who lives in a cramped apartment with his senile mother (Ruth Gordon). Honoring a deathbed promise to his dearly departed poppa, Segal takes care of his mother (well, as best he can). She is a…handful.

The beleaguered Segal’s day begins with prepping his mother’s preferred breakfast of 6 orange slices and a heaping bowl of Pepsi and Lucky Charms (interestingly, in California Split Segal himself is served a breakfast of beer and Fruit Loops by the two sex workers).

His businessman brother (Ron Leibman) is too “busy” to help, so Segal must hire nurses to take care of ma while he’s at work. Unfortunately, she has a habit of driving them away with her over-the-top behavior. When Segal falls head-over-heels in love with the latest hire (Trish Van Devere, in a priceless performance), his thoughts about how he’s going to “take care” of ma and keep this blossoming romance abloom become…darker.

Segal was rarely so hilariously exasperated as he gets here, it’s Gordon’s best (and most outrageous) comic performance, and the supporting cast (which includes Barnard Hughes, Vincent Gardenia, Paul Sorvino and Garrett Morris) is aces. Again, this film is not for all tastes (it would never get green-lighted now) …but rates as one of my all-time favorite comedies.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after years of shrill, shrieking matrimony, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”. Mike Nichols’ 1966 directing debut (adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this battle-scarred middle-aged couple.

After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple (Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. As the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece.

Here are some additional George Segal films worth a look:

King Rat (1965; WW2 drama, dir. Bryan Forbes)

The Quiller Memorandum (1966; Cold War spy thriller, dir. Michael Anderson)

Blume in Love (1973; romantic comedy-drama, dir. Paul Mazursky)

The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976; western comedy, dir. Melvin Frank)

Fun with Dick and Jane (1977; crime caper/social satire, dir. Ted Kotcheff)

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978; comedy-mystery, dir. Ted Kotcheff)

Flirting with Disaster (1996; comedy, dir. David O. Russell)

 

R.I.P. Yaphet Kotto

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2011)

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I was sad to learn actor Yaphet Kotto has passed away at age 81. Most of the headlines today are along the lines of “Yaphet Kotto, star of Live & Let Die…” Well yes, his “Mr. Big” was one of the more memorable Bond villains, but that was hardly his defining role! His other big-screen credits included Nothing But a Man, Across 110th Street, Blue Collar, Alien, Brubaker and Midnight Run. He was also an accomplished stage actor.

He had a stereotype-shattering role as Lt. Al Giardello on David Simon’s brilliant police procedural series “Homicide” (1993-1999) which showcased his considerable acting chops.

My favorite Yaphet Kotto feature film performance is in Paul Schrader’s 1978 drama Blue Collar (co-written by his brother Leonard). Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Kotto portray Detroit auto workers tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.

Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard black-and-white “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).

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Kotto was also a good sport. In 1994 he appeared “as himself” as part of this fascinating social experiment conducted by Michael Moore for his 1-season series TV Nation. This bit presages the “prank with a point” that has become stock-in-trade for Sacha Baron Cohen.

Same as it ever was. Rest in peace, big man.

Connery from A to Zed

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2020)

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I’m posting a belated tribute to Sean Connery, who passed away last week (on Halloween, no less). I already had a post planned for last Saturday, and as you may have heard there was an election thingy going on all this week that I’ve found a bit …distracting.

There’s not much of a revelatory nature I can add to the plethora of tributes that have poured in since, except to acknowledge that being of “a certain age”, Connery was a figure who loomed large in my personal pop culture iconography (I can still remember my excitement when I received a “Goldfinger” board game for Hanukah when I was 10).

He was, and will likely always be, the definitive James Bond of course; but he did tackle a number of other roles during his career well outside the realm of the suave secret agent.

With that in mind, and a nod to Bond’s service number, here are my top 7 Connery films.

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The Anderson Tapes – In Sidney Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private. To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).

Also on board are Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and Quincy Jones provides the score.

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Goldfinger – While you can’t really go wrong adding any of the first four James Bond entries to a “best of Connery” filmography (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, or Thunderball), if I had to choose one as my desert island disc, I’d go with Goldfinger.

This was the first of the four Bond films directed by Guy Hamilton (he also helmed Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, and The Man With the Golden Gun). Paul Dehn’s screenplay (co-adapted by Johanna Harwood from Ian Fleming’s novel) is infinitely quotable (“No, Mr. Bond…I expect you to die!” “I never joke about my work, 007.” “You can turn off the charm. I’m immune.” “Shocking …positively shocking!”).

From its classic opening theme (belted out by Shirley Bassey), memorable villain (played to the hilt by Gert Frobe), iconic henchman (Harold Sakata as Goldfinger’s steel-rimmed bowler tossing bodyguard “Oddjob”) and the best Bond girl ever (Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore) to Q’s tricked-out Aston-Martin (with smoke screen, oil slick, rear bullet shield, revolving license plates, machine guns and my favorite – the passenger ejector seat), this will always be the quintessential 007 adventure for me.

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The Man Who Would Be King – Look in the dictionary under “ripping yarn” and you’ll find this engaging adventure from 1975, co-adapted by director John Huston with Gladys Hill from Rudyard Kipling’s short story. Stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine have great chemistry as a pair of British army veterans who set their sights on plundering an isolated kingdom in the Hindu Kush. At least that’s the plan.

Before all is said and done, one is King of Kafiristan, and the other is covering his friend’s flank while both scheme how they are going pack up the treasure and make a graceful exit without losing their heads in the process.  As it is difficult for a king to un-crown himself, that is going to take one hell of a soft shoe routine. In the realm of “buddy films”, the combined star power of Connery and Caine has seldom been equaled (only Redford and Newman come to mind). Also with Christopher Plummer and Saeed Jaffrey.

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Marnie – I know it’s de rigueur to tout Vertigo as Alfred Hitchcock’s best “psychological thriller”, but my vote goes to this  underrated 1964 film, which I view as a slightly ahead-of-it’s-time precursor to dark, psycho-sexual character studies along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park.

Tippi Hedren stars as an oddly insular young woman who appears to suffer from kleptomania. Sean Connery is a well-to-do widower who hires Marnie to work for his company, despite his prior knowledge (by pure chance) of her tendency to steal from her employers. Okay, he’s not blind to the fact that she’s a knockout, but he also finds himself drawn to her as a kind of clinical study. His own behaviors slip as he tries to play Marnie’s employer, friend, lover, and armchair psychoanalyst all at once. One of Hitchcock’s most unusual entries, bolstered by Jay Presson Allen’s intelligent screenplay.

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Robin and Marian – Richard Lester’s elegiac take on the Robin Hood legend features one of Connery’s most nuanced performances. The 1976 comedy-adventure boasts a witty and literate screenplay by James Goldman (The Lion in Winter, They Might Be Giants) music by John Barry (whose name is synonymous with Bond films) and a marvelous cast that includes Audrey Hepburn (Maid Marian), Robert Shaw (the Sherriff of Nottingham), Richard Harris, Nicol Williamson, Denholm Elliott, and Ian Holm.

20 years after Robin and his merry band had their initial run-ins with Prince John and his henchman, the Sherriff of Nottingham, our Crusades-weary hero has returned to England accompanied by Little John (Williamson). Eager to reunite with his ladylove Marian, Robin is chagrined to learn that she has gotten herself to a nunnery. This is the first of many hurdles for the middle-aged (and more introspective) swashbuckler; but he is determined to have one last hurrah. Connery and Hepburn are simply wonderful together.

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The Untouchables – Sean Connery delivers one of his last truly great performances in Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime drama. While the film bears little resemblance to the late 50s TV show, it is loosely based on the same real-life memoirs of U.S. Treasury agent Elliot Ness, who helped the government build a case against mobster Al Capone in 1929.

Connery plays Jim Malone, a hard-boiled Chicago cop recruited by Ness (Kevin Costner) to be part of an elite squad of T-men who are tasked with bringing down the various criminal enterprises run by Capone (a scenery-chewing Robert De Niro) by any means necessary. Also on the team: Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia. Patricia Clarkson plays Ness’ wife. Billy Drago is memorable as Capone’s sneering hit man Nitti. Well-paced, sharply written (by David Mamet) and stylishly directed by De Palma (a climactic shootout filmed in Chicago’s Union Station is a mini masterpiece of staging and editing).

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Zardoz – I suspect my inclusion of John Boorman’s 1974 spaced-out oddity as one of Sean Connery’s “best” films will raise an eyebrow or two, but as I’ve admitted on more than one occasion-there’s no accounting for some people’s taste! Once you get past sniggering over Connery’s costume (a red loincloth/diaper accessorized by a double bandolier and thigh-high go-go boots), this is an imaginative fantasy-adventure for adults.

Set in the year 2293 (why not?), Boorman’s story centers on thuggish but natively intelligent Zed (Connery) who roams the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic Earth with his fellow “Brutals” killing and pillaging with impunity. This all-male club worships a “god” named Zardoz, who speaks to them via a large flying stone head, which occasionally touches down so they can fill it with stolen grain. In exchange, Zardoz spews out rifles like a giant Pez dispenser, while intoning his #1 tenet “The gun is good, the penis is evil.”

One day Zed manages to stow away in the head just before takeoff, and when it lands he finds himself in the invisible force-field protected “Vortex”, where the elite “Eternals” live a seemingly idyllic and Utopian life that is purely of the mind. Bemused and fascinated by this “specimen” from the outside world, one of the Eternals  “adopts” Zed is as his Man Friday while his fate is being debated. But who is really studying who?

Boorman’s story takes some inspiration from HG Wells’ The Time Machine, as well as another classic fantasy that becomes apparent in the fullness of the narrative, but it still stands out from the pack for sheer weirdness. There are also parallels to A Boy and His Dog (another film I’ve seen an unhealthy number of times).

In a way the “Eternals”-what with their crystals, pyramids, and hippy-dippy philosophical musings, presage the New Age Movement. Also, they pass judgement on anyone in their collective suspected of having “negative thoughts” with a telepathic vote; if found guilty the accused is “aged”  to drooling dotage and banished from the community (that’s social media in a nutshell!).

I Caught It At The Movies: Can theaters survive?

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 17, 2020)

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In 2017, my neighborhood theater, Seattle’s legendary Guild 45th shut down. I took the above photo about a month ago. It breaks my heart to witness the results of 3 years of dilapidation. The witless taggers surely have no clue as to its history.

Sadly that blank marquee could portend the future of theaters, period. From Variety:

[Film critic Peter DeBruge] I saw “Tenet” in a theater […] and it was an unnerving experience. I understand why many people don’t feel comfortable taking the risk. I caught COVID back in early March, so I was operating on the principle that I must have at least some protection from the antibodies — and if that’s not the case, then we can kiss the idea of an effective vaccine goodbye. After driving all the way down to a Regal Cinemas in Orange County, I was disappointed by the way the dozen or so people in that enormous RPX auditorium were all clustered in the center with just a single empty-seat buffer between them. What’s more, nearly everyone had bought concessions, treating an $8 soda as a ticket to remove their masks for the entire film, whether or not they were actively eating or drinking at the time. […] I found myself distracted by the question of whether I could get re-infected by all these inconsiderate fans surrounding me.

DeBruge’s observation regarding the “inconsiderate fans” resonates with me, because that is my personal greatest fear about returning to movie theaters: my innate distrust of fellow patrons. While I haven’t worked out since March, it’s the same trepidation I have for returning to my gym. After a 5-month closure, they sent me an email in early August:

We have good news! We are re-opening the rest of our clubs in Washington on Monday, August 10th at 6am. Thank you for your patience, loyalty and support while waiting for this to happen! You have been missed and we are looking forward to welcoming you back in person. While closed, we’ve been working on changes aimed at making our clubs the safest place you can work out.

The email continued with a 12-point list of caveats and precautions and reassurances and meow-meow and woof-woof, but the paragraph at the bottom was a deal-breaker:

We also encourage you to help keep yourself and your fellow members safe by familiarizing yourself with, and following, current state and local guidelines. As these guidelines stress, please do not visit the club if you are sick or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and consider postponing your use of the club if you are an at-risk individual.

Thanks, but no. I can trust myself to adhere to a common-sense approach, but it’s been my observation throughout this COVID-19 crisis that everybody isn’t on the same page in regards to taking the health and safety of fellow humans into consideration.

OK. I’m being too polite. This may be an exclusively “American” problem at this point:

[Variety’s executive editor of film and media Brent Lang] The problem is that [the film industry] needs rescuing now — it doesn’t have time to evolve into a high-end indulgence. Just as our libertarian-leaning nation was poorly suited to deal with a pandemic that probably demanded a massive government response to curb the outbreak, so too is hyper-conglomerated Hollywood poorly positioned to meet this current crisis.

[…]

[Peter DeBruge] What’s frustrating to me right now is that the studios won’t even show [their big-budget releases] to press. Variety is an international publication, and we’ve always reviewed movies whenever they open in the world. But Warner Bros., Disney and even STX won’t show their films to American critics, either by link or in safe, limited-capacity screenings. But they will show them to critics abroad. What’s the difference? How is London any safer than Las Vegas for “Tenet” or Pixar’s “Soul”? Private screening rooms have been operating in Los Angeles since at least April, and I’ve been to eight in-theater movies in as many weeks. It is possible, and I can attest: The safe but solitary at-home experience is no comparison.

[Film critic Owen Gleiberman]: Peter, that’s just one more example of the cognitive dissonance factor. Why show movies to critics abroad and not in the U.S.? Because the very idea of seeing a movie on the big screen in America has been tainted by COVID. No one is questioning that the experience needs to be made supremely safe. Yet there’s a perception-and-reality dynamic at work. Some people are scared to go back to the movies, but the larger issue is that between the streaming revolution, the rise of COVID, and the fact that so many viewers have been grousing about the theater experience for years (the ads, the cell phones, the sticky floors — we all know the mythic litany of complaints), the notion that going out to a movie simply isn’t worth the trouble has taken root.

But that’s a perception; it’s not a reality. It’s something that can change if we have the will to change it. This is an issue so layered it goes right to the top — by which I mean, it could be profoundly influenced by the presidential election. If Biden and the Democrats win big, I could easily envision them mobilizing to find the funds that could help sustain and ultimately save movie theaters; whereas Trump and the Republicans aren’t interested in saving anything but themselves. Years from now, we’ll look back on this moment not only as a health and financial and political crisis, but as one that raised essential cultural questions. Such as: Does this culture still believe in movie going?

Well, Mr. Gleiberman…I still believe in movie going. I miss sticky floors, the smell of stale popcorn, and paying $8 for a Diet Coke with too much syrup and too little CO2. With that in mind, I’m re-posting my 2017 tribute to the Guild 45th (sorry about the 1000-word intro. Think of it as the cartoon before the movie). Have you found a good seat? Lights down. Psst: Remember to vote on November 3rd…vote as if the future of your favorite neighborhood theater depended on it. OK, previews are starting. Shh…

(The following piece was originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 17. 2017)

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This is the song at the end of the movie
When the house lights go on
The people go home
The plot’s been resolved
It’s all over

 – Joan Baez

“How tall was King Kong?” asks Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 black comedy, The Stunt Man. Once you discover that King Kong was but “three foot, six inches tall”, it’s clear Cross’s query is code for a bigger question: “What is reality?” Or perhaps he’s asking “What is film?” Is film a “ribbon of dreams” as Orson Welles once said?

Those are questions to ponder as you take Rush’s wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment that its protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is filming an art-house World War I drama, his (and our) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes diffuse.

Despite lukewarm critical reception, it is now considered a classic. A 43-week run at the Guild 45th Theater in Seattle (booked by Rush himself, out of his frustration with the releasing studio’s lackluster support) is credited for building word of mouth and assuring the film’s cult status. There is symbiosis in that story (recounted in Rush’s 2000 documentary, The Sinister Saga of Making the Stunt Man); for as surely as The Stunt Man is a movie for people who love movies, the Guild is the type of “neighborhood theater” that people who love movies fall in love with.

The Guild’s buff-friendly vibe stems from the ethos established by former owner-operator Randy Finley. As Matthew Halverson writes in his 2009 Seattle Met article, “The Movie Seattle Saved”:

Randy Finley didn’t like to take chances when booking movies for the Guild 45th Theatre. He took it so seriously that during his 18 years as owner of Seattle’s Seven Gables Theatres chain, he recruited a small cadre of film-buff confidantes who would join him at screenings and then debate whether what they’d seen met Seven Gables’ standards: Could it generate compelling word of mouth? Would it get great critical support? Did they like the people behind the picture? He took a lot of pride in having run movies like “The Black Stallion” and “Harold and Maude” in his theaters when others wouldn’t. And he took even more pride in turning them into art house hits. “If you went to the Guild 45th when I was booking it,” Finley says, “you would walk out thinking you’d just seen one of the best pictures of the year—if not the best.”

The Guild originally opened circa 1920; it was called The Paramount until the Seattle Theater (downtown) adapted the name in 1930. It went through several ownership changes (Finley purchased it in 1975, adding the venue to his local Seven Gables chain). In 1983, Finley added a smaller auditorium two doors down (The Guild II). In 1989, both theaters (along with the rest of the Seven Gables properties) were sold to Landmark, who have run them ever since.

That is…until this happened:

[From The Stranger Slog]

On Monday afternoon, Griffin Barchek, a rising junior at UW, headed to Wallingford to work a shift at the Guild 45th, as he had been doing roughly 30 hours a week for the past year-and-a-half. He heard the bad news before he even stepped inside. “I was the second person to get there,” Barchek said. “I was told immediately by a disgruntled co-worker outside. Then there was a sign on the counter that said ‘We’re closed for renovations.’”

Though he had no hard evidence to support the hypothesis, he believes the sign is a pipe dream. “Renovations are very unlikely,” he speculated. “It’s probably just closed for good.”

Once inside, Barchek said a representative from Landmark’s corporate office was on hand to inform him and his co-workers that both the Guild and the Seven Gables would be closed indefinitely (“for renovations”), that their services were no longer required, and that they’d all be receiving three weeks’ severance. Barchek said he earned the $15/hr minimum wage for his work as an usher, in the box office, and behind the concessions counter.

“She just kept saying ‘I’m sorry’ and kind of making a duck face,” he said of the Landmark representative. (As has been the case with all press inquiries regarding the sudden closure of these theaters, Landmark has refused to comment beyond saying they are closed for renovations.)

I was blindsided by this myself. Last Sunday, I was checking the listings, looking for something to cover for tonight’s weekly film review (preferably something/anything that didn’t involve aliens, comic book characters, or pirates), and was intrigued by Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled. Being a lazy bastard, I was happy to discover that the exclusive Seattle booking was at my neighborhood theater (the Guild 45th!), which is only a three-block walk from my apartment.

Imagine my surprise when I went to their website for show times and was greeted by this message: “The Seven Gables and Guild 45th Theaters have closed. Please stay tuned for further details on our renovation plans for each location. During the down time, we look forward to serving you at the Crest Cinema Center.”

The Crest (now Landmark’s sole local venue open for business) is another great neighborhood theater, programmed with first-run films on their final stop before leaving Seattle (and at $4 for all shows, a hell of a deal). But for how long, I wonder?

It’s weird, because I drive past the Guild daily, on my way to work; and I had noticed that the marquees were blank one morning last week. I didn’t attach much significance to it at the time; while it seemed a bit odd, I just assumed that they were in the process of putting up new film titles.

Also, I’ve been receiving weekly updates from the Landmark Theaters Seattle publicist for years; last week’s email indicated business as usual (advising me on upcoming bookings, available press screeners, etc.), and there was absolutely no hint that this bomb was about to drop.

Where was the “ka-boom”?! There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering “ka-boom”. Oh, well.

It would appear that the very concept of a “neighborhood theater” is quickly becoming an anachronism, and that makes me feel sad, somehow. Granted, not unlike many such “vintage” venues, the Guild had seen better days from an aesthetic viewpoint; the floors were sticky, the seats less than comfortable, and the auditorium smelled like 1953…but goddammit, it was “my” neighborhood theater, it’s ours because we found it, and now we wants it back (it’s my Precious).

My gut tells me the Guild isn’t being “renovated”, but rather headed for the fires of Mount Doom; and I suspect the culprit isn’t so much Netflix, as it is Google and Amazon. You may be shocked, shocked to learn that Seattle is experiencing a huge tech boom. Consequently, the housing market (including rentals) is tighter than I’ve ever seen it in the 25 years I’ve lived here.

The creeping signs of over-gentrification (which I first started noticing in 2015) are now reaching critical mass. Seattle’s once-distinctive neighborhoods are quickly losing their character, and mine (Wallingford) is the latest target on the urban village “up-zoning” hit list. Anti-density groups are rallying, but I see the closure of our 100 year-old theater as a harbinger of ticky-tacky big boxes.

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Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 3-year period of my life (1979-1982) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260-mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 60s and 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 3 years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

Of course, in 2017 any dweeb with an internet connection can catch up on the history of world cinema without leaving the house…which explains (in part) why these smaller movie houses are dying. But they will never know the sights, the sounds (the smells) of a cozy neighborhood dream palace; nor, for that matter, will they ever experience the awesomeness of seeing the classic films as they were originally intended to be seen-on the big screen. Everybody should experience the magic at least once. C’mon-I’ll save you the aisle seat.