A Secret History, Part I (1975-83)

My friend Rachel has this odd thing for Barry Manilow. Supposedly, her parents played a lot of it for her as a child, and she just hasn’t been able to shake off the strains of “Mandy”, “Copacabana”, and “I Write The Songs” that permeated her formative years.

Rachel’s confession of this slight Manilow fixation was hilarious when we were 19. I teased her about it incessantly, purchasing a vinyl copy of his infamous 1977 live album for 99 cents. On one inebriated night at my apartment, she had asked me to dub Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” onto a cassette tape for her. Impulsive and intoxicated, I took this as an opportunity to also dub her “V.S.M. (Very Strange Medley)” a truly terrifying tidbit from that live Manilow record. It’s a seven-minute medley of commercial jingles that Manilow either wrote or sang on, climaxing grandly with “You Deserve A Break Today”. The horror… the horror…

But even at that time, I understood her fascination with Manilow. The music we’re exposed to in our youth forever follows us, whether we will own up to it or not. My parents had a relatively small collection, heavy on the Barbara Streisand, Burt Bachrach, and later, Al Jarreau. Their tastes were extremely safe, “hip” easy listening with occasional dollops of soft rock and a few Original Cast Recordings (the cover of “Hair” always intrigued and frightened me). Needless to say, the “cool jazz” format that sprung up in the late 80s was made for them, and their copy of War’s “The World Is A Ghetto” sorely stuck out amidst all the Sergio Mendeses.

None of this music stayed with me as indelibly as Manilow did for my friend, but when I unexpectedly fell in love with “Dionne Warwick’s All-Time Greatest Hits” at the age of twenty, I had only my parent’s Bachrach records, and exposure to her renditions of his songs on the radio to blame. In the days before cars had tape and CD players (days that lasted roughly until 1998 for my mother), my parents always listened to the radio. From that first decade of my life, particular songs left an imprint. And as I got older, I rediscovered some of them on my own, hearing them again on the radio as I drove, hearing them as muzak in an Army/Navy surplus store, hearing them on compilation CDs borrowed from the library.

In addition to Dionne’s oeuvre (especially the inimitable woah-woah-woah’s of “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”), these songs all bring me back to sitting in the back seat of our Mercury Monarch, for better or worse.

Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”. A breezy, circular melody, a syncopated electric piano, and that phone ringing after “d-d-d-digital”.

Gerry Rafferty, “Baker Street”. A warm, unforgettable sax solo so good that you just did not need a sung chorus.

Donna Summer, “Hot Stuff”. I loved singing along to this driving paean for sexual fulfillment at the age of five, never expecting that it wasn’t simply a song about lunch.

The Beatles, “Penny Lane”. Still one of my favorites, though for years I thought it was called “Elaine”.

Eddie Rabbitt, “Step By Step”. A counting song! When you’re six years old! How perfect is that?!

Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”. Spent years trying to figure out what the hell this song was about, obviously not being familiar with “The Graduate” or Joe DiMaggio.

Wings, “Silly Love Songs”. Hypnotic bassline, but this was the song that seemed like it would never end.

Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Midnight Train To Georgia”. Always sat in anticipation for the end, when she can’t hold back and screeches, “I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go!”

Billy Joel, “The Piano Man”. Why does the microphone smell like a beer? Why would anyone put bread in his jar?

Any drippy Air Supply hit ballad. Man, without fault, they played one every hour on Mix 99 in the early 80’s.

Also, let us take a moment of silence for “Solid Gold”, “American Bandstand”, “Sha Na Na”, and last and certainly least, “Hee Haw”, all of which gave us a visual counterpart that must look pretty silly now.

There was also a time when I believed that the music heard on the radio was actually being performed, right now!, in a high rise building with one floor devoted to each station. I speculated that Journey must be getting tired of playing “Open Arms” so many times every week.


And All That Shite... Oscar Predictions


WILL WIN: Chicago. At this point, is there any doubt? Too many people hate The Hours and Gangs of New York, not enough have seen The Pianist, and the final installment of The Lord of the Rings will have a better chance (and better reason) to win next year.

SHOULD WIN: Chicago. It’s not as deep as The Pianist or as “tailored made for prestigious awards” as The Hours. But it’s certainly a hell of a lot more fun, and a much better, if less visionary work than Moulin Rouge. Don’t let the hype distract you; it’s worthy.


WILL WIN: Rob Marshall. All he has against him is inexperience, although that wasn’t a problem three years ago for Sam Mendes. Directing a musical ain’t easy, so expect Marshall to get the award because he made it look so effortless and seamless. I’ll be shocked if they give the award to Scorsese for such a mediocre effort as Gangs of New York, sympathy be damned.

SHOULD WIN: Pedro Almodovar. He made Talk To Her also seem so breathtaking by carefully handling the shifting tones and outlandish plot twists so that they did not seem jarring or ridiculous at all.


WILL WIN: Daniel Day-Lewis. The academy sure loves its scene shredders (see Denzel, Russell, Roberto, Jack)… the only truly honorable winner of this award in the past five years was Kevin Spacey for American Beauty, and even that performance had its share of bravura and showiness.

SHOULD WIN: Jack Nicholson. I’ve been going back and forth between him and Michael Caine, and as much as I admire the latter’s stunning presence in The Quiet American, I can’t overlook the astonishing final scene from About Schmidt. Nicholson has rarely shown more nuance or complexity, and that’s remarkable for Mr. You-Can’t-Handle-The-Truth.


WILL WIN: Nicole Kidman. There’s nothing the Academy likes more than dramatic physical transformations (Hillary Swank), and though her Virginia Woolf isn’t nearly as intriguing as Swank’s Brandon Teena, she’s fine, and too many people thinks she deserves this award after not getting it for Moulin Rouge. Zwelleger or Moore could upset, but Chicago’s already going to get a buttload of awards, and not enough people have seen Far From Heaven.

SHOULD WIN: Julianne Moore. Without a doubt, she gave the year’s best, riskiest performance in a film that should have received more nominations. Just compare her awesome work here to her middling turn in The Hours and that should be reason enough to give her the award.


WILL WIN: Chris Cooper. Christopher Walken could easily upset, and sure, Adaptation’s audience is miniscule compared to Catch Me If You Can’s, but can anyone who has seen the former deny Cooper the award? Without trying to sound hyperbolic, he’s brilliant and the reason for seeing the film (more so than Cage or Streep.) SAG aside, everyone seems to agree.

SHOULD WIN: Chris Cooper. See above. Of the other nominated performances, I’ve only seen John C. Reilly (nearly as brilliant, but the role is way too small and I’d like to see him win for something meatier) and Ed Harris (barf--the year’s most dubious nod).


WILL WIN: Catherine Zeta-Jones. If any of Chicago’s acting nominations are going to win, it’ll be her. On her side, she has that electrifying opener, and she never lets you forget who’s the more talented performer in her scenes with Zwelleger. Latifah’s role is too small, and Bates was great but all she has going for her with the Academy is the audacity to appear nude in a hot tub. Streep could sneak in, but I think Cooper will get the kudos for that film instead.

SHOULD WIN: Kathy Bates. So what if she’s already won an Oscar for an arguably better role (Misery)? She leaves a most indelible impression in About Schmidt, as likable and funny as she is oddly unsettling. And you cannot possibly underrate that brave and crazy hot tub scene.


WILL WIN: The Hours. Face it; this was a difficult one to adapt. It didn’t capture every nuance of the book as one would hope, but at least it’s true to Cunningham’s story and far from embarrassing. It also helps that while the book isn’t the most middle of the road choice out there, the screenplay undoubtedly is.

SHOULD WIN: Adaptation. This is a tough one. About Schmidt was criminally snubbed in this category (among others), and I have reservations about all five screenplays. However, even though Charlie (and let’s not forget Donald) Kaufman’s adaptation bears little resemblance to the book and those last fifteen minutes are pretty debatable, the sheer ingenuity of what proceeds them is staggering.


WILL WIN: Far From Heaven, to atone for the many nominations it should’ve received. I do have this nagging fear that it could just as well go to My Big Fat Greek Abomination, but I have to believe, humongous box office aside, the academy will award style and substance over a film devoid of both.

SHOULD WIN: Y Tu Mama Tambien. Talk To Her and Far From Heaven are nearly as worthy, but this is really the year’s best film.


Vertigo Film Notes

Vertigo is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and undoubtedly one of his greatest films. Last year, it placed an impressive second (after Citizen Kane) in Sight and Sound’s Critic’s Top Ten Poll of all-time favorite films. Such a feat seems astounding when one considers the lukewarm response the film received from critics and audiences during its initial 1958 release.

Perhaps Vertigo was just slightly ahead of its time. From its innovative, Saul Bass-designed opening credits (which continually zoom in on a woman’s eye until giving way to a series of dizzying, spiraling graphs) to its harrowing, utterly devastating final scene, Vertigo is particularly demanding for a 1950s studio film. Adapted from a French novel (D’Entre Les Morts (From Among The Dead, one of the film’s many working titles) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac), it tells an intricate, psychologically complex tale. John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is a San Francisco detective forced into early retirement due to a “vertigo”, or fear of heights he develops in the film’s shocking first scene. At first, he looks to his droll friend and one-time fiancé, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) for consolation. Before long, an old college chum (Tom Helmore) asks Scottie to trail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), whom he believes to be mentally unsound and suicidal.

Scottie follows Madeleine as she frequents symbolically significant sites in and around the city. He gradually falls in love with her as he also pieces together an explanation for her strange behavior—or so he thinks. What develops between them leads to one of the most startling, brilliantly executed, and prematurely revealed (two-thirds of the way in!) twists in all of cinema. It’s too good to reveal to someone who hasn’t seen the film, and its implications make subsequent viewings intriguing. One comes to see Vertigo as Hitchcock’s most personal film, passionately concerned with desire, obsession, and the consequences of controlling and shaping another person’s physical attributes and emotional states (think of Hitchcock’s attitude towards his actors, whom he often referred to as “props”.)

Stewart, who had previously acted for Hitchcock in Rope, Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much, was rarely ever darker, more frightening or vulnerable onscreen than he is here. Novak was a late replacement for a pregnant Vera Miles, and critics originally dismissed her as too sterile and comatose (one memorably dubbed her “Kim Novocain”). In the tradition of Grace Kelly, Novak was the latest and most extreme in a series of chilly, blonde Hitchcock heroines. Gorgeous, seductive, enigmatic, even androgynous (that tightly curled-up hair and gray suit!), Novak’s Madeleine was a most unusual and illusive object of longing.

That it was nearly impossible to view a print of Vertigo for many years only heightened the film’s mystique. In the early 70s, it was pulled from distribution, along with four other Hitchcock classics (including Rear Window). Hitchcock brought the rights for these films back from the studios, and left them to his daughter Patricia. Not long after his death in 1980, they were gradually re-released, with Vertigo finally returning to movie screens in December 1983. Unfortunately, in the following decade, most circulating prints of the film were very poor, and the video release hardly captured the quality of what it was like to see it on a big screen in 1958.

In 1996, James C. Katz and Robert A. Harris finished a complete restoration of Vertigo that transferred the film from its original Vista Vision format (Paramount’s version of CinemaScope) to a sparkling 70mm print. Highly acclaimed, it premiered as a sold-out special event at the New York Film Festival, and then played packed theaters throughout the world. The restoration was not without controversy. The soundtrack, featuring Bernard Herrmann’s grandiose, stirringly romantic score (as essential to the film’s success as anything) had to be re-recorded in DTS Digital Stereo. As Dan Auiler notes in his book Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic (St. Martin’s Press, 1998), such enhancements raised the concern, “At what point does an improvement begin and the director’s original vision end?”

Regardless, viewing the 1996 restoration is still a revelatory experience, even for those not seeing Vertigo for the first time. This version survives on video and DVD, but it all comes marvelously alive—the rooftop chase, Novak’s grand entrance, the mission bell tower sequences, the climactic 360 degree camera shot embrace—most effectively on a big screen.


It took me an embarassingly long time to even begin writing my "Vertigo" notes for the Brattle, and even though I only managed to eke out 300 words or so, I can feel the blog calling me.

It's been crying, eight days left alone for naught. And as much as it craves legible, readable film and music reviews, it wants something realer, more personal, maybe even a little half-assed.

I was going to write about depression, but VH1 Classic is playing the Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone" video, and how can you possibly feel down and out when they're playing a Femmes video? I won't even let Wang Chung completely dampen my spirits... ah, I no I'm not the first person to say this, but these ah tough times we're living in. I could go on about how wrongheaded and ridiculous this impending war with Iraq is, or how little respect I have for the Bush administration, how this decade is going to be as politically brutal and damaging as the 80s, the only difference being is that more of us are aware of the corruption, the corporate evil, the misplaced priorities. At least I'd like to think that's the case.

And on the personal front, things are slightly less challenging. I've felt introspective and a little numb lately, wondering what it all means. Am I better off looking for a soulmate or learning how to be more independent? How do I prevent myself from falling too quickly for someone, constantly overlooking the discrepancies and ugly underneaths? What do I do with all of this time for myself, and is it enough to take consolation in the fact that I am not alone, that everyone suffers and questions these same dilemmas? How do I nuture the pain in my life so that it's cathartic and holistic rather than destructive?

I can't remember the last time I bawled. I've been trying since last June, and I've come close a few times, but no dice, no massive tears. I never had this problem when I was a kid. I remember third grade, sobbving uncontrollably after watching the 60's Disney flick "Sammy The Way Out Seal" in the school lunchroom. I was the only one and I couldn't hold back... so mortified at my own grief that I keep claiming, "I'm not crying at the movie, my stomach just hurts!" I was known as the class crybaby, so convenient that one could presumably pronounce my last name as "Cry-off-ski", it's not too cool for a boy or a man to cry. Apart from an isolated incident involving a bully in a biology lab, I rarely turned on the waterworks in high school and beyond.

Now, I find that only particular movies or music can move me to the verge of tears. I saw "Rabbit Proof Fence" over the weekend, a dramatization of three half-aboriginal girls taken from their families in 1930s Australia. They're placed in a camp 1500 miles away, and remarkably, they escape, making the long journey back home. The film concludes with footage of two of the actual women, 70 years later. It's so startling just to see them at this point. Their actual presence makes such a moving, harrowing impact on the viewer.

Then, yesterday early evening, walking along the Esplanade, I was listening to "Scarlet's Walk" (which I keep meaning to write about in greater detail), and the song "Taxi Ride" came on as I reached the hatch shell. There's just something about that song--the melody sounds so outgoing, the instrumentation so warm and inviting, Tori's vocal so urgent and reassuring, especially as she sings in the chorus, "I'm glad you're on my side".


Not Entirely Lost: "Gerry"

Let’s get this straight; just because Gus Van Sant’s done a daring, experimental, weird film doesn’t mean it’s going to be great. Likewise, when he turns in a mainstream studio movie like “Finding Forrester” or “Good Will Hunting”, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s totally betraying his wild indie roots, or that it’s gonna suck, either (for all its flaws, I liked “Forrester”). Yes, “Gerry” is a radical departure from everything he’s done, but is it really more audacious than trying a shot by shot remake of Hitchcock’s most famous work (“Psycho”) or adapting an inadaptable Tom Robbins novel (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”)?

In “Gerry”, two men (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) drive out to the middle of Death Valley, take a nature hike, and get lost. It’s Van Sant’s stab at good old postmodern minimalism, more extreme than Antonioni, not as severe as Chantal Akerman. Dialogue is rare, and mostly unintelligible; the lengthiest narrative stretch finds Damon relating an episode of “Wheel of Fortune” to Affleck. Scenes extend for ten minutes and beyond; the opening shot of the two men driving, driving, driving... in silence amidst Arvo Part’s stark, icy piano score immediately sets the overall tone and pace.

Damon and Affleck seem like ill-advised choices at first (though thank Gus it’s Casey and not Ben); if Van Sant had used unknowns, he’d have bypassed that whole aura of “Let’s see Matt and Casey do an “avant-garde” film and get lost in the desert!” But as “Gerry” progresses, especially as time passes and the duo gets more desperately lost, do you appreciate how much they carry the film. Their presence is apparent even when rendered (pretty often) as miniscule dots in massive, endless landscapes. One of the main reasons to see “Gerry” in a theater (while you can) is, of course, Harris Savides astonishing cinematography (reminiscent and worthy of Kiarostami’s films), but the film would just be a travelogue if we didn’t care about the two lost men. Their struggle isn’t dramatized or stylized but made very real by lack of action or conflict. They’re only left to contend with nature, a fight they cannot win through physical or intellectual prowess, but only through luck.

That said, even knowing what to expect from it, “Gerry” is still often excruciating to endure. Some scenes go nowhere and seem pretty lame, particularly Affleck’s attempt to jump off a very large boulder that seems impossible for him to have climbed up on in the first place. Van Sant also tends to favor aimlessness over formalism, not leaving room for a payoff that a film with a similar feel but more rigid structure like Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” achieves when one ritualistic element is suddenly, excitingly out of place. But if you can get past this, and give yourself over to the film’s unorthodox rhythms (especially in its superior second half), “Gerry” turns hypnotic and appropriately haunting, and has a splendidly ambiguous ending. It’s not an artistic achievement on par with “Russian Ark”, but it is what it is, and it begs to be experienced, at least once.


Alison Moyet, “Hometime”

“Hometime” seems an appropriate album title for a woman who hasn’t released any music since her 1995 “Singles” compilation. However, most of the songs here allude neither to hibernation nor domestic pleasures but to the final, crumbling stages of a relationship and its aftermath (though not necessarily in that order.) “Hometime” teems with heartbreak, turmoil and loss, and yet it’s often strangely, beautifully uplifting. This is the sound of a woman sifting through memories, considerations, disappointments and misunderstandings. Although the devastation in Moyet’s still exceptionally soulful voice is loud and clear, she sounds remarkably stronger than ever, devoid of pity or lethargy.
Conceived and recorded with a collective of musicians called The Insects, “Hometime” often feels like an earthier Massive Attack, augmenting subtle electronics with strings and more guitars than Moyet has ever had on any of her recordings. These songs cunningly sneak up on you. Take “Say It”, where she steadily, delicately lays out each line until letting loose in the chorus, tumultuously repeating the song’s title a memorable seven times in succession. You hear not so much the ghost of Billie Holiday on the title track as her influence on Moyet, who takes inspiration from Lady Day’s phrasing but transforms it with her own sensibility. “Should I Feel That It’s Over” has a keen sense of dynamics as its opening acoustic guitars are gradually enhanced with strings, and its lyrics envelope tragedy with a beckoning sense of discovery. And “You Don’t Have To Go” is a stunning, gospel-flavored closer; Moyet’s fluent, urgent plead is startling in its immediacy, especially as it threatens to careen out of control against an effectively building, Hammond organ-accented arrangement.
On this dazzling release, Moyet keeps all her strengths intact--there’s no mistaking this album as coming from anyone else--but refines her sound and approach so that everything comes together masterfully. For those who thought Moyet would never record again, “Hometime” is a grand return to form and it reaches a zenith that her discography only previously suggested.

The Go-Betweens, “Bright Yellow Bright Orange”

Does the world really need any more literate, jangly guitar pop? Robert Forster and Grant McLennan make a strong case for it with this charming follow-up to their unexpectedly successful reunion album, “The Friends of Rachel Worth” (2000). Like that record, this one is much more low-key and acoustic-driven than their seminal 80’s work. Thankfully, it still has all the essentials: hooks both obvious (the two-finger keyboard that opens “Old Mexico”) and understated (the piano beneath the multi-layered guitars in “Poison in The Walls”), intricate character sketches (“Mrs. Morgan”), exuberant love songs (“Make Her Day”), and ringing guitars (all over the place). These ten songs do sound a little too similar at first, much more so than the ten on “Rachel Worth”. Fortunately, the best, like Forster’s “Two Much Of One Thing” (which compellingly comes off like a quirkier Simon and Garfunkel ditty) or McLennan’s jaunty, sparkling “Old Mexico”, suggest that this reunion is starting to look more like the laudable second phase of a career.


Russian Ark and the Latest Technology

It feels a little overwhelming that I’m sitting here in my cozy bedroom, typing away on a computer that isn’t over a decade old. And I’m only a few steps away from unlimited Internet access (at least until the battery runs out.) For millions, this is no big whoop. I’m sure it will feel like nothing extravagant or extraordinary to me with time.

Aleksandr Sokurov’s extravagant, extraordinary film, “Russian Ark”, might lose some, but not all, of its impact as Digital Video (DV) becomes more commonplace. For now, it is, in form, breathtaking to a degree like no other film since “Waking Life”. This 96-minute feature consists of just one continuous shot—no cuts, no staging tricks like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope". The only other film to attempt this was “Time Code”, which consisted of four continuous shots, all running simultaneously on a screen divided into quadrants. In theory, “Time Code” should seem like the more technologically impressive achievement. But where that film felt like a stunt made to display and exploit the capabilities of DV, “Russian Ark” seems like it was created for more artful, philosophical means.

It opens in total darkness. We hear the voice of an unidentified Russian filmmaker, unclear of his surroundings. We never see him, as the camera is his point of view. He finds himself in a museum (The Hermitage in St. Petersburg), only to have apparently stepped into another era. He watches a group of actors, dolled-up Eighteen Century style, rehearsing. Then, he encounters more figures in the same period garb, only they’re not acting. Eventually, he meets a jovial 19th Century French marquis who is the only person who can see him. The marquis becomes a tour guide of sorts as they cavort through the museum. What transpires is a journey through the past and the present. In some rooms, contemporary patrons admire the museum’s possessions; in others, historical figures whose likeness should be hanging on the walls (Catherine The Great, Nicholas I) appear in the flesh.

As the camera glides in and out and around these rooms and the figures inhabiting them, the significance of Sokurov’s achievement really starts to sink in. Not only because he successfully orchestrated all of the actors, their dialogue and movement in one shot (or “one breath” as he’s described it), but also because the result is so much fun to watch, provided that you’re willing to adapt yourself to its carefully controlled but unhurried pace. The journey he takes us on is at turns imaginative, provocative, playful, reflective, and joyous. At the film’s arresting climax, he re-creates the Grand Royal Waltz of 1913. As the camera gracefully weaves through a sea of dancers and spectators, one is reminded of Maya Deren’s experimental films and their fixation on ritual and movement, only at a gloriously massive scale. “Russian Ark” delivers as many thrills as a Hollywood blockbuster, only they’re of both the heart and the mind, and what synchronicity they’re capable of when given as much weight as the latest technology.