Friday, December 29, 2006
A big debate amongst film fans throughout the 80's and 90's was this one: Pacino or De Niro? I was on the fence for a long time but sometime in the late 80s it stopped being a conversation for me because I had my answer. Pacino, after making his comeback with 1988's Sea Of Love, has continued to give great performances in quality films. Pacino's work in films like Carlito's Way, Donnie Brasco, Insomnia, Looking For Richard, Heat and People I Know will all fit in nicely with his legacy. Even misfires like Simone or Two For The Money aren't total embarrassments, Pacino has continued to give us performances in films that are worth his and our time.
De Niro is another story. At his height from 1973's Mean Streets to 1980's Raging Bull he was without question our finest actor. The range he showed in film's like Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, 1900, New York New York, and Godfather 2 is almost beyond comprehension. Something happened after Raging Bull though, of the 11 films he made in the 80s only The King Of Comedy, the underrated Midnight Run and the astonishing Once Upon A Time In American are the equal to his work in the 70's. Perhaps he exhausted himself, perhaps somewhere along the way he just stopped caring.
The 90's should have been a great decade for him but even in his final films with Scorsese: GoodFellas, Cape Fear and Casino he never seems totally engaged. There is never a moment in those films, no matter how great they might be, that he makes us feel the way he had before. Never a moment when he lets us understand things about ourselves the way he had, suddenly he just became....an actor.
He worked alot through the 90s, 25 films including one he directed himself. He gave two of his best performances in Heat and Jackie Brown. Other roles in such films as CopLand, Ronin, and Wag The Dog would allow him characters that he could slip into without going too deep. Nothing he would do in that ten year period would be embarrassing but ultimately it all comes down to his last scene in Jackie Brown when after shooting him Samuel Jackson asks, what happened to him, 'Your ass used to be beautiful.' De Niro, like his character Louis in Tarantino's greatest film, hit a wall somewhere and he's yet to recover.
This decade has seen perhaps the finest actor this country ever produced making lousy film after lousy film. Films like 15 Minutes, Hide And Seek, Godsend and Showtime aren't simply bad films, they are extreme examples of everything that is wrong with modern American film. Films as disposable products and there is our man De Niro stuck right in the middle of them. No longer is he giving voice to the dark and hidden side of men, he's floundering, in trouble and seems only capable of giving us one disappointment after another.
I'm aware of his charity and Tribeca work and that is the excuse we keep giving him, that the money he is making is going towards something good. Ultimately though he could make the same money and not destroy the rich legacy that he's given.
The last time Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro worked together saw them back in New York, back in Black and White only this time it wasn't Jake LaMotta, Johnny Boy or Travis Bickle it was a 60 year old man working in an American Express commercial. Our man working for the man and breaking the heart of everyone that had loved him so much in the first place.
Dear Bobby, come back to us. Although you don't owe us nothing, you know you owe it to yourself. Remember what you said in The Deer Hunter, that thing that it's all about....'One Shot'....One Shot Bobby, we'll give you a million chances but ultimately it's up to you to remember. We've got all this hurt and rage built up inside, we need our communicator back.
Monday, December 25, 2006
Woke up this Christmas morning to the news that the mighty James Brown had died. I can't think of a worse Christmas present than losing one of the last true great authentic geniuses of popular culture.
The keyword is authentic, watching the clips that have played of James today on the news it was that word that kept coming to me. It's something that we are losing rapidly, that authenticity that so many of our disappearing great performers were possessed by.
James Brown leaves behind a monument of great recordings in the studio and a towering collection of live recordings. It's, of course, his demonically charismatic and impassioned live work that everyone always mentions. That shouldn't overpower his accomplishments in the recording studio. Listen to the 2disc compilation The Big Payback which collects his finest and most brutal funk from the late 60s and early 70s. One can imagine that, like Presley, his work in the studio probably resembled a live performance. It wasn't that he just wanted to entertain but something in his very nature demanded it. It's impossible to imagine that James Brown was capable of giving less than his all and even in his later inferior recordings he still possessed more passion than any of his contemporaries.
We've lost a flawed, gifted man who knew how to turn his demons into something that we could all groove to. We won't feel a fire like that again.
Saturday, December 23, 2006
One of my most memorable filmgoing experiences was seeing Leos Carax's Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf on the big screen when it was finally released in this country in the late 90's.
Infamously taking years to make it became the most expensive film ever made up to that point and it marked the last collaboration between Carax and Juliette Binoche, who solidified herself as the finest actress of her generation with this film.
It's an astonishingly alive film awashed with colors and some of the most breathtaking sequences ever shot.
Juliette is also an accomplished artist and these sketches were made while she was on location filming and were used to promote the film upon its original release in 1991. They are taken from the original Japanese pressbook which I was lucky enough to get several years back, the cover of which I have also included.
Friday, December 22, 2006
Had he been lucky enough to have been born just ten years earlier, and come to prominence in the 70's, Mickey Rourke would today be spoken of in the same breath as Pacino, DeNiro and Nicholson.
Luck was never something Mickey Rourke ever seemed to have though. The last few years have seen a bit of a resurgence thanks to director's like Robert Rodriguez and actor's like Johnny Depp wanting to work with him. These guys grew up, like I did, watching and loving this guy. They haven't forgotten just how supremely gifted and beautiful this man was in his prime before whatever demons he carries within him took over.
While the 1980s without question contain some of the worst trends and films in history Mickey Rourke was fortunate enough, for at least a few years, to escape it. The best of his films, Barfly, Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Angel Heart, Diner, Year Of The Dragon, Homeboy and Johnny Handsome all seem outside of the decade even though they were right in the middle of it.
Watch Rumble Fish again and watch Mickey Rourke's Motorcycle Boy. All of those early comparisons to Brando seem now not only correct but prophetic. Here were two gifted individuals that had an early explosive career but lost their footing somewhere along the line for their refusal to compromise the beliefs that had originally driven them. The Manic Street Preachers would later write a song about Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish, about that character who knew that time had passed him by. It was called Motorcycle Emptiness.
Johnny Depp has said his favorite film is The Pope Of Greenwich Village and it features Mickey and that other great doomed actor from the 80's, Eric Roberts, at their peak. The moment towards the end when Mickey faces off with Burt Young and whispers 'I'm The Pope of Greenwich Village now' gives me chills just thinking about it. It also seems to be the film Mickey likes the best or at least one of the only ones he gives a damn about. Watch him lamenting the unfair way Eric Roberts career was destroyed on the Angel Heart DVD interviews and it's easy to see that he's also talking about himself.
Barfly is widely considered his best role, Angel Heart is his most famous. He has said that both A Prayer For The Dying and Nine and a Half Weeks were masterpieces before they were tampered with by the studios. The cutting of the Adrian Lynne film especially seemed to prove a breaking point as it was soon after that you can start to see the stitching coming apart.
Homeboy and Johnny Handsome were his last gasps of greatness. He wrote Homeboy under the name Eddie Cook and it's a brutal, multi-layered performance that was hardly seen by anyone. Walter Hill's Johnny Handsome was a film that Pacino had developed for years that he eventually dropped out of. It's the last really great performance Mickey gave for a long time.
After Johnny Handsome he became a man without a net turning to boxing allowing his beautiful face to get more and more beaten and caved in. He would make the worst films possible and by the mid 90's would be un-insurable for any major films. One of his mentor's, and Rumble Fish director, Francis Ford Coppola would cast him in The Rainmaker in an attempt to help an old friend after regretting not casting him in Godfather 3.
The last ten years have seen lots more bad films but several interesting roles have been given to him by people who idolized him in the 80s. Vincent Gallo would give him a chilling cameo in Buffalo 66, Sean Penn would do the same in The Pledge and Bob Dylan would personally choose him for Masked and Anonymous.
It would be Robert Rodriguez and Johnny Depp who would be the most outspoken and important to his resurgence as of late. Mickey all but steals both Once Upon A Time In Mexico and Sin City playing guys who find a bit of nobility past their prime. They are both killers, dangerous but they are of the heart. Mickey's scenes with Carla Gugino in Sin City would be the best work he had done since Johnny Handsome.
Tony Scott's Domino was the big surprise giving Mickey his largest role in years and he seemed to make everyone around him, including Keira Knightley, rise to the challenge. While the film remains flawed Mickey is magnificent and gives proof that he could carry a film again.
He'll probably blow it though, that old devil luck still isn't in his corner. A truly unfortunate falling out with Tarantino had him removed from the upcoming Grindhouse and one can't help but think that might have been the film that could have truly saved him. His face is near unrecognizable now, he'll never be beautiful again like he was and whether or not he'll ever be given the chance to give another great performance is up in the air. Rodriguez has cast him again in Sin City 2 and more films are on the horizon. I can only hope that one day one of the many talents Mickey influenced will give him a role that will give the real Pope his due.
Award winning actress, writer and director Florinda Bolkan was born Florinda Soares Bulcao in Brazil in 1941. She made her film debut in director Damiano Damiani's 1968 film A Very Complicated Girl. She has since made close to 60 films and continues to work today.
Florinda is known and respected by both art-house and genre film fans. One of the most striking looking of all actresses that came out of the sixties she made her first real mark in Visconti's 1969 film The Damned and Petri's 1970 Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
She would work non-stop throughout the 1970's and won two Donatello awards for best actress and one L.A. Film Critics award for her great performance in De Sica's A Brief Vacation.
Two of her finest performances came just one year apart with 1974's Flavia The Heretic and especially Luigi Bazzoni's mysterious Footprints.
She is probably most loved by Italian Horror fans who rightly hold two performances she gave for Lucio Fulci as high water marks for acting in genre films. 1971's top Giallo A Lizard In Woman's Skin shows her at her finest as a woman suspected of murdering her neighbor. She brings great emotional depth to a character that may or may not be guilty and thrives amongst some of Fulci's most celebrated set pieces.
She would play a very different role, that of a gypsy, in Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling. Duckling was one of the most ambitious Giallos of the seventies with it's tackling of the corruption inherent in the church and upper classes. Bolkan is unbelievably intense in this film and is subjected to one of the most gruelling torture sequences ever filmed.
Fulci's problems with actors are legendary but he loved Bolkan and always spoke the highest of her. Bolkan has also never shied away from her genre work and seems as proud of it as her work with more more generally appreciated director's like Visconti and De Sica.
Later work included working with Laura Antonelli in the 1985 Fulci scripted Collector's Item and very memorably with Jennifer Connelly in the underrated 1988 coming of age drama Some Girls.
Florinda remains as striking as ever, she has a wonderful website at florindabolkan.com and even runs her own production company. She's a wonderfully strong woman and one of the most dignified actresses of this or any other era.
1995 saw the release of Mick Harvey's remarkable Intoxicated Man, a collection of English language covers of the songs of Serge Gainsbourg. The collection was an exciting one, it was difficult to get the original recordings of Gainsbourg in the States at the time and Harvey's versions were the first time I had heard many of these songs.
Mick Harvey was already an underground legend by the mid 90's due to his co-founding of both The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds with Nick Cave. Assisting him on Intoxicated Man was Cave's former muse Anita Lane.
Intoxicated Man is a rare breed of tribute album, that being a genuine one. Harvey and Lane's love and respect for Gainsbourg's work shines through. Harvey's English lyrics are the make or break point and he does a splendid job of carrying over the bite and humor from Gainsbourg's originals.
Highlights are many, from the explosive opening of 69 Erotic Year to the closing Initials B.B. with an incredible string arrangement from Bertrand Burgalat matching Serge's iconic original.
Anita Lane is in splendid from here having the near impossible task of channeling the spirits of Bardot, Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg and the other unmatchable French Chanteuses who had helped make these songs legends.
Harvey would follow up Intoxicated Man with another collection of Gainsbourg's songs two years later, this one entitled Pink Elephants. This one suffered by comparison, mostly due to the tackling of tracks off Gainsbourg's masterpiece Melody Nelson. It still does contain the amazing cover of Je T'aime with Anita and Nick Cave that had originally appeared on her The World's A Girl single.
Minor flaws aside the Mick Harvey tributes were triumphs, they were cut before it was trendy for every young musician to drop Gainsbourg's name. They are albums cut by fans for true fans.
Fast forward to just a bit earlier this year to the major label Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited. This high profiled release promised to bring Serge's work to a larger English language audience with an arsenal of today's top players on the music scene. I suppose as tribute albums go it's a pretty good one with more hits than misses but it still suffers from the thought that most tribute albums do, that many of the people on it are advancing their own careers rather than paying actual tribute.
Still when it's good it's pretty great and the highlights are easy to pick out. Portishead's Requiem For Anna is stunning and serves great notice for their upcoming third album. Franz Ferdinand's storming version Sorry Angel is well served by Jane Birkin's appearance but their performance loses pretty much all of the irony of the original. Jarvis Cocker and Cat Power turn in good if not totally memorable performances of two of Serge's most iconic cuts. Tricky's version of Goodbye Emmanuelle mostly succeeds because of the jaw dropping translation, "Star spangled Emmanuelle plays lip service to Uncle Samuel, Emmanuelle can eat you up quicker than you can say cannibal".
The album's worst moments come every third or forth song. Michael Stipe's massacre of L'Hotel Particulier should have been thrown out with the garbage, it's painful to listen to and Stipe seems the most guilty here of just trying to advance his own dead in the water career. The Faultline, Trash Palace and Rakes performances are all particularly uninspired. Placebo is in way over their head with a limp version of Ballad Of Melody Nelson.
The album picks up towards the end with New York art-rockers The Kills turning in a biting I Call It Art and the album closes with a triumphant version of Those Little Things by the talented Carla Bruni. It's a heartfelt totally committed performance featuring just Carla's voice and lightly strummed guitar, it's the one performance on the album that really channels the spirit of Gainsbourg.
Two bonus tracks are included on the US version, one useless and one pretty good. James Iha trips over Bonnie and Clyde but The Cardigans Nina Persson closes with a nice version of Sorry Angel.
The Portishead and Carla Bruni tracks are the only two on Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited that match Mick Harvey's tributes ten years ago. Still it is nice to have Gainsbourg's name more and more recognized outside of France. The Mick Harvey albums are still in print and are essential for any fan of Serge Gainsbourg or French music, buy Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisted if just out of love for Serge and his remarkable legacy.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
The greatest piece of film acting that I have ever seen comes towards the end of Wim Wender's 1984 miracle of a film Paris, Texas. It lasts just over three minutes and the actress doesn't say a word but gives a lifetime of information just with her eyes. It's the scene where Harry Dean Stanton's Travis is finally telling the story of what happened to him to his estranged wife Jane played by Nastassja Kinski. The words were written by Sam Shepherd and it's an eloquent monologue, the kind that only a great American writer could come up with. Any other director in the world would have placed the camera on Stanton but Wenders knew that the heart of the scene was in Kinski's reaction. For over three minutes the camera films Kinski, and we just watch her listening. It's something that you rarely see in film, a person just listening and silently reacting. For three minutes all of the early comparisons of Kinski to Garbo, Dietrich and Monroe are more than justified. It's a chilling moment that I have never seen equaled in a film and then....she was gone.
The early career leading up to Paris, Texas of Nastassja Kinski was an exciting one. After a string of European films as a teenager she was cast in the leading role in Roman Polanski's heartfelt adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess. Kinski won a Golden Globe for the role and was greeted with international acclaim. Her peak came between 1982 through 1984 in which she would make 8 films and be compared mostly to Garbo and perhaps even more fitting to her favorite Marilyn Monroe. On the surface her dark European looks might have seemed the opposite of Monroe but they shared a vulnerability that most actresses simply do not possess.
The two year peak showed her as a complex and diverse actress capable of seemingly anything. The most iconic role was probably the Cat People remake but I love her work as Susie The Bear in The Hotel New Hampshire opposite Jodie Foster, who would befriend her off-screen. Here she plays a woman so convinced of her ugliness that she hides herself in a bear costume.
She often played characters that caused obsessive reactions of people around her such as Cat People, Maria's Lovers, One From The Heart, Moon In The Gutter and Exposed. It's obsession that seems to fuel all of these films and legend has it that most of the director's filming her in this period suffered from the same fixation. In hindsight it's as if you can see her splitting apart as you watch these films. Finally it's that three minute close up in Paris Texas where she seems to give all that she has left to give.
After filming the disastrous Revolution with Al Pacino in which she spent almost every scene in tears she left Hollywood for almost ten years concentrating on her children and smaller European films. There were interesting performances in this period but all of the intensity of her early work had gone.
She returned briefly in the mid 90's with two great performances in Mike Figgis' One Night Stand and Neil Labute's Your Friends and Neighbors but the relative failure of both these films stopped her comeback.
Nearing her 50th birthday Nastassja Kinski rarely works anymore. A string of terrible straight to video films and TV work hurt the fine work she did with Scarlett Johannsson in American Rhapsody or Michael Winterbottom's The Claim.
Wim Wenders has now worked with her three times in three different decades and has said that he would like to do it again at least one more time. I would love to see her in at least one more great role if only to watch her disappear again.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Probably the most important DVD release of the year is the complete first season of Saturday Night Live. Culturally this is the show that changed television as we know it and the original cast have all become legendary. In the years since SNL first aired we have only been given glimpses of the work of the original 'not so ready for prime time players' and this set gives us the chance to view all of their groundbreaking work, warts and all.
Early reviews of the set expressed some disappointment that the actual episodes didn't stand up to the iconic status that's been given to them. Some seemed unable to accept that not every skit would be genius, that even the originals might have an off night. In a way I suppose this release does damage their reputations as super comedians but it does remind us of their humanity which is what drew people to them in the first place.
The first two disc are the most problematic. The show is still trying to get grounded into what exactly it's going to be. The second episode is essentially The Paul Simon show which is great, especially the reunion with Art Garfunkel, but the players get lost behind the scenes. This happens several times early in the show but things start to change around the Candice Bergen episodes. Bergen was finally getting to prove her comedic chops that she would perfect in the next decade and the cast, especially Gilda Radner, seem to come alive around her. Bergen was so good at hosting that she actually does two shows the first season.
Things really take off, big time, on the Richard Pryor episode. If anyone needs any proof of how possessed by genius everyone on this show was they should watch this episode. Everyone is firing on all cylinders and the season is stronger after this. Pryor himself is demonically funny and is one of their great all time hosts. The famous job interview word association test with him and Chevy Chase is still one of the funniest and most biting things I have ever seen.
The music was always a big part of it and the complete performances are here from (on the great side) the likes of Abba, Gil Scott-Heron, Bill Withers, Patti Smith, John Sebastian, Carly Simon and Kris Kristofferson to (the not so great side) Anne Murray, Desi Arnaz and Loudon Wainwright 111.
The Muppet segments sucked then and they still suck and are the only thing on here that might be skipped over. I love the Albert Brooks short films, even the unfunny ones.
The cast themselves all have shining moments. It's easy to see why Chevy Chase became so popular so quickly and left so soon. The talented and gifted Chase dominates many of the shows and his weekend updates are always a highlight. Garrett Morris and Laraine Newman are always considered the most underused but they are both given many shining moments here, Newman, able to slip into whatever persona handed to her, is particularly sharp. The proper,with a secret, Jane Curtain seems to be the calm in the midst of a major storm and her talk show interviews are hilarious. Dan Aykroyd is Dan Aykroyd and he's always great but seems to be the only one to me slightly underused. Along with Chase the two that shine through completely are the two that are no longer with us. Gilda Radner is lovely and she radiates such a warmth that it's hard to take your eyes off her in a skit, simply one of the most moving comedians who ever lived. John Belushi, like Pryor, is an absolute powerhouse; the singing, the impersonations, his sheer intensity adds an importance to the show that no comedian before or since could have given.
I hope that they continue to release these complete seasons for their cultural importance as well as the fact that at their funniest no one could touch them.
For a lot of people, like myself, who were born in the early seventies Rocky will always be a special moment. Notice I said moment for it goes beyond just a film for many of us. It was the first truly transformative movie that a lot of us ever experienced, we might not have understood at such an early age that the ring was a metaphor for life but we inherently understood that inside those ropes was something special.
I remember seeing each Rocky film growing up vividly, each one like it was yesterday. The first two at a drive in, the third at a packed small theatre in Henderson, Ky with seemingly everyone in the audience including my father cheering around me. By the time the forth one came around something was different, suddenly this character that we had loved and cared about so much had changed, for all of the excitement that film might have created their was something unfortunate and cartoon about it. Perhaps the clearest memory of all because of the disappointment was seeing the fifth with my high school girlfriend. She was a bit younger and couldn't really understand my fascination because at that point we had ten years of Sylvester Stallone pissing away his incredible talents and breaking the hearts of the people who had loved him so much originally. The fifth should have returned the series and Stallone to where he belonged but it failed and I'll never forget the look on some of the people's faces walking out of that theatre, this wasn't just a film that had lost but a special moment in our lives that had been taken away.
A year or so ago when I first heard that Stallone was returning to Rocky one last time I could think of nothing worse. Hadn't enough been done to this character that had meant so much to me? I knew the jokes would start and all of the brilliance contained in that first film would slip further away.
Earlier this year around the time that I was making some major life changes a teaser appeared for Rocky Balboa. A friend told me to watch it online and I nervously clicked on the link dreading what I might see. What greeted me was one of the most effective minutes I had ever seen, just a simple black and white close up of a pair of battered eyes and an astonishing moving monologue playing over it talking about life not being about hard you can hit, 'but it's about hard you can get hit.'
After that I began to build myself up into hoping that this might actually work and for the last few months I have wanted nothing more than to believe again.
If this sounds dramatic, good it is. There isn't anything funny about wasting the talents that God has granted, and I'm talking about myself here as much as Stallone just as a lot of people going to this film will remember the dreams they had in their youth that never came true. Sylvester Stallone is a great actor, writer and director who like a lot of us lost his way and he knows it. Watch or read any recent interview with the man and he knows he blew it and it's regret and the hope that there might be something left inside that fuels the new Rocky Balboa.
Rocky Balboa is everything that I hoped and needed it to be. It's the work of a man who has gotten back what he lost a long time ago, it's a pure emotional film that not only fulfills the promise of Stallone's early career but buries the mistakes he spent two decades making.
Stallone has delivered in 2006 a old school 70's style character study, it's the kind of film that his peers spent the decade making but that he never did. Stallone and his DP Clark Mathis hit on the essence of the original film's wintry desaturated look and the opening montage of Philadelphia sets the perfect tone the film keeps throughout. Everyone delivers, seasoned character actors Burt Young and Tony Burton really shine here as two guys who have also lived with a life that never gave them what they hoped. Real life boxer Antonio Tarver gives a splendid performance that makes the cartoon opponents of the later sequels seem embarrassing. Geraldine Hughes playing Marie from the first film is equalling strong but the film ultimately belongs to Stallone who gives one of the richest performances I've seen in a long time. It's a major piece of directing, acting and especially writing by a guy who's been holding back for a long time.
I realized watching this film that there are two different kinds of Rocky fans, people like me who grew up loving and understanding the characters of the first two films and perhaps people who are a little younger who like the more over the top aspects of the later ones. They will be disappointed, this is a subtle and at times extremely mournful piece of filmmaking. The fight, one of the most brutal and realistic ever captured on film, takes up a very small part of the film and a lot of people will probably consider that a weakness.
We all have moments in our lives that are special to us, moments that have slipped away that we wish we could go back to. I felt like for 102 minutes I got to do the impossible and relive one of those moments that I lost a long time ago. It really doesn't matter what Sylvester Stallone does from this point on, for the guy that Gene Siskel once called the best American screenwriter of his generation, he is pure again.....eternally.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
I first discovered Claudine Longet about fifteen years ago just after my 18th Birthday. I was in a Bowling Green record store sifting through hundreds of old records in a newly purchased bin and came across one Called Colours credited simply to Claudine. It had one of the most striking photos I had ever seen on the cover, a portrait of a haunted looking woman who seemed to look right into you. It reminded me of the first time I saw Nico's The Marble Index cover, it had that same kind of unnerving effect. It was like looking at a picture that couldn't have been taken.
I bought the record not having any idea who Claudine Longet was, I was fortunate that way as I know the tragedy that happened later in her life overshadowed her recordings for a long time.
I remember dropping the needle on Colours for the first time with no idea of what I might hear. First sound is that gorgeous string opening to Scarborough Fair which seems to be announcing something really great and grand, the music softens and then that voice comes in. The words are familiar but her voice transforms it into something beyond mysterious, somewhere between a whisper and silence Claudine Longet's voice floored me the first time I heard it.
I was transfixed throughout the entire record by this strange French singer who was taking many songs I knew well and turning them into something uniquely her own. I immediately felt like I had discovered something wonderfully secret and hidden. I would play the record for friends and watch their reactions, close out mix tapes with her definitive reading of Randy Newman's I Think It's Going To Rain Today and spent hour upon hour searching through record bins for more.
This was long before ebay or the like, the Internet has made us forget the excitement of the hunt. I began to find more records by her and was transfixed everytime even though Colours remains my favorite. I would marvel at how she could take songs that I would count among my favorites like Golden Slumbers or Holiday and turn them into Claudine Longet songs.
I have noticed in the past few years that her music is becoming more and more known. When I first discovered her everything was years out of print, then those amazing remastered Japanese CD reissues and now we actually have a handful of cds available in America. Not bad for someone who was considered for a long time less than a success.
I was thrilled beyond words recently when Ear-X-Tacy in Louisville, one of the best record stores in the country, gave Claudine her own section at their store. DustyGroove.com carries two essential collections, one that covers her early years and the other that houses her Barnaby work. That great site also occasionally gets her imports and original lps. Amazon, of course, has everything that is currently available including the majestic remaster of Colours. Nick DeCaro's lovely string arrangements and Claudine's vocals have never sounded so striking, I must say though that no remastering can replicate that original scratchy vinyl that I heard so many years ago. She remains that same unsolvable mystery that took me and the songs she sang to another world in a time very much lost.
Two essential places to visit of the internet are:
Just before Halloween this year we lost yet another great film icon. Tina Aumont was one of the lovliest stars of the sixties who made her debut at the age of twenty in the underrated Modesty Blaise sharing and stealing scenes with Terence Stamp.
Throughout her long career she would work with directors such as Vadim, Fellini, Bertolucci, Martino, Brass, Garrel and even Jean Rollin. She costarred with everyone from Dean Martin to Laura Antonelli and her presence always made a film more interesting.
The photo is one of my favorites and comes from the December 7th 1968 issue of Tempo.
Ten years ago or so I was fortunate enough to meet maverick Spanish director Jess Franco and his companion and most frequent collaborator Lina Romay at a film convention in New Jersey. It was an incredibly exciting weekend for me, I was in my early 20s and it was the longest road trip I had ever taken alone. My girlfriend at the time had dropped out at the last minute so I took it alone. At the time I remember thinking that it would have been nice to have someone to share the trip with but my own memories of it, even the car ride up listening to 12 hours of Elvis Costello, are some of my finest.
The weekend was a whirlwind of meeting everyone from Ingrid Pitt to Candy Clark and drooling over incredibly expensive uncut Japanese laserdiscs of films that I only had lousy bootlegs of. My major score was getting a reasonably priced beautiful gatefold issue of Zulawski's Possession which I still have.
The highlight of the weekend was meeting the great Franco and Romay. Ironically I ended up standing in the line to meet them with Craig Ledbetter who operated European Trash Cinema which I had ordered from so many times. Just before the weekend I had watched Franco's Celestine which featured one of Lina's most underrated performances, completely charming, humorous and engaging. This performance had provided me with such a contrast with her dark Female Vampire persona that I had become so used to that I was curious as to what she would be like in person. Happy to report that this dark Spanish Goddess was charming, warm and radiated intelligence in person. I actually barely remember meeting Jess who seemed irritated and tired. It was interesting watching them together, if Jess seemed short with anyone Lina would pull them back over with very sweet small talk understanding that this rare meeting might have some significance for film fans.
It was interesting having a moment with a true genius and maverick like Franco. It felt a bit like going back in time to meet Schiele or any number of misunderstood and dangerous artists. The battle scenes of Chimes of Midnight and those close up of Soledad Miranda's face were zipping through my mind as I mumbled something about liking his films. He promptly waved me off and Lina pulled me back over asking where I was from and what I did. A couple of autographs later and the meeting was over and I caught up in a conversation with Ledbetter about Jose Larraz.
I've seen a lot more Franco and Romay collaborations since that meeting, even the most flawed ones are interesting. The early ones remain my favorites from the twisted intensity of Doriana Grey to her iconic portrayal of Countess Irina all the way to the charming Celestine which I still adore. Franco's lovely muse is one of Spanish films most underrated icons and a really nice woman.
Monday, December 18, 2006
Oh how I wish I was in New York right now.
In 1973 Lou Reed stepped into a studio with producer Bob Ezrin to cut the follow up to his surprising smash album Transformer. RCA had been pleased, and perhaps stunned, enough by Transformers success to give Lou and Ezrin complete control in make the album they wanted to make. Lou Reed not content with making Transformer Two recorded a song cycle set in the divided city of Berlin chronicling the lives of a Caroline and Jim. It would take the earlier ideas of divorce and separation from Sinatra's Watertown and plunge as deep as possible into the depths of abuse, addiction and finally a strange sort of redemption.
Upon hearing part of an early mix Rolling Stone proclaimed it to be 'The Sgt.Pepper of the 70's' and a perplexed RCA gave it a royal red carpet arrival with ads and a beautiful fold out sleeve and full lyric sheet. This was beyond Rock and Roll, this was Lou Reed's Brechtian masterpiece that would shove him so far ahead that a new genre was created, 'Lou Reed music'.
The album was lambasted upon first release. Rolling Stone retracted it's initial praise in a scathing review. Lester Bangs famously called it 'The most depressing album ever made.' and it was a commercial bomb.
Swiftly though the album became something of a legend and it's influence starting reaching. David Bowie and Iggy Pop would relocate to Berlin just a few years later to record a mind bending genius set of albums including The Idiot and Low that would reshape rock as we knew it. Berlin as a divided city became a constant reference point for the punk and post-punk movement and it seemed as though Lou Reed's overly ambitious failure had had more influence than anyone could have imagined.
Then the 80's and it was gone again.
I first heard Berlin on it's first cd release in the late 80's. It was the second cd I ever bought, right behind Deborah Harry's Def Dumb and Blonde, and I got it before I even had a player. I remember very clearly taking it to a friends house, who had a player, and the first spinning of that dark and intense tale had a major effect on me.
It would slip in and out of print through the 90's until RCA finally saw fit to remaster it properly at the turn of the decade. Seemingly the story would end there as it's always been an album that divided people but Lou Reed always seemed to know what he had made was something special.
Lou Reed's Berlin lives again at St Ann's Warehouse in New York where it's being performed in it's entirety by Lou for the first time. Directed by artist Julian Schnabel and featuring film scenes projected behind the band by Lola Schnabel of the lovely and talented Emmanuelle Seigner the album is getting performed straight through followed by a short encore.
The reviews have been nothing short of ecstatic, everyone from the New York Times to Rolling Stone is pouring out praise to a piece of art that has deserved it for a very long time.
While I am not in New York to see it I have been fortunate enough to hear an audio recording of the first night and it is majestic. The band featuring Steve Hunter is playing like their lives depend on it and Lou himself seems energized by it. From the first line of 'In Berlin by the wall' to the very end of Sad Song he hits that perfect passionate monotone tone that he became so legendary for. Along with jaw dropping stabs of lead guitar it is to quote culturebot.org, 'One of the greatest performances in the history of live music.'
I hope the praise keeps coming because as legendary as he is Lou Reed the solo artist is still underrated. Dylan, Cohen, Waits....love em but ultimately keep em as I have a date with a tall strung out Germanic Queen and it's been a long time coming.
At the center of possibly the greatest song ever written, The Kinks Waterloo Sunset, we hear Ray Davies telling us of Terry meeting Julie at Waterloo Station every Friday night. The young romantic figures Davies so eloquently drew were of course Terence Stamp and Julie Christie who had just filmed Far From The Madding Crowd together. Both were at the beginning of legendary careers but would soon go in very different directions.
Terence, fulfilling his role as the coolest man on the planet, would find himself dating one of the most impossibly beautiful women of the sixties, Jean Shrimpton. The story is well known and it ends with the most talented actor of his generation getting his heart broken, quitting films and traveling to India for a ten year sabbatical no doubt to simultaneously lose and find himself.
This impossibly beautiful man gave us some of the key performances of the sixties including Poor Cow, Modesty Blaise, The Collector, Teorema and of course Fellini's Toby Dammit. We can see, in these films, the actor who should have become the biggest star in the world. An actor of limitless possibilities who literally threw it all away for love. Romantic perhaps but true and after the sixties we are confronted with mostly forgettable roles with a handful of halfway interesting ones thrown in.
Most artists who lose themselves don't come back but Terence has never been like most artists. He found his way back playing Wilson in Soderberg's 1999 film The Limey giving his greatest performance and reminding everyone who saw it of his importance.
Stamp has said that he wished he could have retired after The Limey as it was the performance he wanted to be remembered for. A person has to earn a living though and he continues to work today always holding back because why should he give his all to films that don't deserve it. There might be great actors who have made more great films than Terence Stamp but the handful he has puts him at the top of my list of the best.
It's 1970 and Frank Sinatra has had enough. He's spent the last few years attempting to deal with the youth culture that has overtaken him. The albums that he gave his all to like A Man Alone and the Jobim collaboration were relative commercial failures and he's watched some of the worst shit he's ever recorded find acceptance. Within a few short years he's gone from being the coolest man on the planet to appearing with The Fifth Dimension wearing love beads.
He's had it and the world's had him. Retiring seems the only logical thing to do, step back and let all of this just pass him by until the world catches up again. One final statement though, one final glance through that wall of isolation that he had visited time and time again.
He had created the concept album when The Beatles and Pete Townshend were still getting their chins wiped by their parents. One more album and let them all burn. Their pinball wizards and lovely meter maids meant nothing to him. His was a world of pain, isolation and separation. He'll make an album about the new modern obsession, divorce, and if it fails all the more fitting as he stopped caring long before.
He gets Gaudio and Holmes to write it. Hell he might even make a TV show out of it and really stick it too them. He'll play a father and husband abandoned by his wife Elizabeth and left to take care of his sons Michael and Peter. The album will trace this dissolve and it'll be a broken man he'll leave for us to find.
No Ring a Ding, no Rat Pack, no more Chairman, that's all behind him and he knows it. He steps into Columbia Studios with a sore throat from a cold and a weary heart from a cold world and lays down 11 of the most gut wrenching powerful performances of his career. Take that he thinks as he leaves, the lights dimming behind him as the master tapes continue rolling.
The record fails, it fails big time, and he slips away into his memories and ours. He will make more records later, some good, some not, but he'll never make another statement like Watertown. He'll never chronicle pain and what it is to be alone, really alone, again. He closes out his career pissed and pissing it away surrounded by whatever trendy 'artist' he's grouped with but always in a separate booth, in a separate town because he never forgot that it was separation that he truly knew. It was separation that he embraced and Watertown was his true last statement, his Waterloo, and the last time he would raise his middle finger to a world that had forgotten just how much they needed him.
I remember very clearly the moment when I first saw Claude Jade. I was 15 and sitting in study hall reading James Monaco's The New Wave instead of whatever assignment I was ignoring that day. The book, which would prove so important to me, was a trade paperback with the pages already yellowing and it's black and white photos becoming less and less clear each time I looked at them. I had found the book in a used Evansville, Indiana bookstore and it fuelled my new found appetite for French film and especially Jean-Luc Godard. The photos of Claude of course were in the Truffaut section and while they conveyed little of what made her so special they stuck with me.
Years later I was at College in Lexington Kentucky in a particular cleaning house phase of my life when I rented a number of Francois Truffauts films from a local video store. Over the period of a few nights I felt transformed by this man and his evoctive memory films. Why I waited so long to discover Truffaut I don't know but I found them at the perfect time.
All of the films I watched that week had a profound affect on me but it was the third Antoine Doinel adventure, Baisers Voles (Stolen Kisses), that left me feeling the warmest. Suddenly those blurry black and white photos I had stored in my memory for so long became alive and I could finally see that her hair was as red as I had imagined with her skin as fair as I had hoped.
Claude Jade was an accomplished screen and stage actress in France. She won awards, wrote a book and even made a film with Hitchcock but it's her work with Truffaut in three films as Christine Doinel that I hold so close.
Upon hearing the news that cancer had taken this lovely woman away a couple of weeks ago made me feel of course very sad but also reminded me of what a wonderful thing it was to be 20. That's how old she was when she made Stolen Kisses in 1968 and that's how old I was when I first saw it around 1993. I think of her as an old friend that I might run into again, a secret crush that I kep't to myself inhabiting a world where things like aging and cancer don't exist.
I'm reminded of what Tony Bennett said upon hearing that Frank Sinatra died, "I don't have to believe that" and that's how I feel about Claude Jade. I have no doubt we'll meet again at 20 and if only for a moment I'll be able to tell her that I've missed her.