End of Summer (Camp) with a Bat, a Cat and a Clown

bat-cat-2-500x366

IT IS AN INEXORABLE, if lamentable rite of passage: revisiting mementos from one’s childhood and discovering that, to an adult’s eyes, they’re lacking.

But then, “putting away childish things” is how we avoid arrested development, a condition that impairs critical faculties, stymies meaningful relationships and makes one susceptible to things like libertarianism. (If, for instance, you re-read Ayn Rand and her porcine-fisted prose still seems eloquent, you’ve got some growing up to do; if you encounter her sophomoric metaphysics for the first time as an adult and are inexplicably smitten, you are, unfortunately, a lost cause, both morally and intellectually.)

When I was a child, you would have had to pry the bowl of Boo Berry from my cold, dead hand. Now I understand my teeth would rot on contact, even if I were able to score a box online (apparently this is actually possible; this is America). I used to think a Big Mac (washed down with that non-carbonated orange drink, obviously) was the height of culinary bliss, a sort of pre-adolescent ambrosia. I thought scary movies were, well, scary. In other words, I thought a lot of things. I was even correct about one or two of them.

I thought, for instance, that the Batman TV series was amazing. It turns out I was wrong. It’s not amazing; it’s sublime.

Bear with me. When’s the last time you saw (when’s the last time you thought about) Batman and imagined Adam West instead of, say, Christian Bale or Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson, etc.?

It probably has been a while because, annoyingly, the old episodes are currently unavailable via Netflix and, until recently, even to purchase. And you’ll need a couple hundred bucks to satisfy your curiosity via the box set series. The show does still get airplay on certain TV channels. I know this because I have friends who have kids. Quite serendipitously, I was babysitting one of these little cherubs and per her request (!) we caught a couple of old school episodes. I’m here to tell you, without shame and with inexplicable enthusiasm, it was something of a revelation.

There are several angles I could take here, but my rekindled interest can be reduced to two words: Cesar Romero. The O.J. (as in, Original Joker).

JOKER

Folks, anyone born after 1980-ish probably can’t appreciate this, but for people of my generation, Cesar Romero was The Joker. I sort of recall reading the occasional comic book but don’t have any special memories of how he translated on the page. I do have memories of the laugh, the green hair, the purple suit and the unhinged antics that were, at once hilarious and horrifying. What I did not recall, since I was a kid at the time, was how irredeemably, magnificently campy the show was.

I certainly recall that the original Superman never resonated with me, in part because that show was not old school, it was antediluvian school. Plus, the George Reeves incarnation was always a tad too fascistic for my delicate sensibilities. (Incidentally, am I the only one to recently discover George Reeves died by a bullet wound that may have been suicide? Holy irony, Batman.) Then again, I’ve never been much of a Superman guy; in my formative years it was always Batman and Spiderman, both of whom were funnier, darker and more human.

Anyway, back to The Joker. Obviously Jack Nicholson was tapping into that campy vibe in 1989, but his role, however amusing, was over-the-top in ways that don’t age particularly well (kind of like the movie itself). Not many people would argue that Heath Ledger’s pitch-black, though still sardonic take was not a huge improvement. Nevertheless, before we crown Ledger’s uncanny performance the final word on the subject, we are obliged to return to the beginning. Have you forgotten how unbelievably perfect Cesar Romero was? Check it out:

Any questions?

Maybe it’s the fact that he was a bit older. It also didn’t hurt that his Cuban/Italian descent imparted a subtly exotic, almost indescribably outré edge. This is The Joker I grew up with, and it’s the only arch villain I can imagine actually rooting for—as a child or an adult. Just reading about Romero makes me happy. Check this out. The fact that he refused to shave his mustache—his decades-old trademark—for this role is so genius I can scarcely handle it: like the Joker himself, a recalcitrant rascal. How brilliant is that? The most incorrigible fiend played by an incorrigible, image-conscious movie star with prima donna tendencies? Bliss. And extra marks: if you look at photos or, if you’re smart, find some clips online, you can totally see the impossible-to-conceal ‘stache in each episode. Truth is always odder and better than even the best fiction.

And let’s do a quick sidebar for how outstanding the other bad guys were. Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, anyone? Yes, please. And don’t overlook Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. This trio comprises an untouchable criminal triptych that could not possibly be improved upon. For irrefutable evidence of this claim, please appreciate this clip from the movie, wherein we have Penguin fencing with Batman (making appropriate Penguin noises), Romero’s brown hair obvious under the wig and The Riddler doing some bad ballet on board a boat: it’s the sine qua non of caped-crusading camp. This is the all-in Battle Royale (with cheese), a brawl that involves all the assorted players, because duh. And the capper, when our hero saves the kitten from drowning with the winking send-off “Bon voyage pussy!”. Holy blissful extravagance, Batman!

And lest we forget (how could we forget?) there is Catwoman. Can I get an Amen? I’m a rather huge fan of Lee Meriwether, and everyone has to appreciate the incomparable Eartha Kitt (from Season Three). But let’s not kid ourselves here: it’s all about Julie Newmar. The young me would like to say, Thank you, Catwoman. The adult me would like to say, Will you marry me, Ms. Newmar?

Her perfection as Catwoman, as a woman, period, would suffice, but seeing how she has remained engaged, politically active, and completely down to earth (and appreciative, after all these years, of her fans) makes her as attractive, eight decades on, as she’s ever been. (Swoon.)

And don’t think I’m sleeping on Adam West. I won’t (can’t?) compare him to the subsequent Batmen played in the various movies, but kind of like with The Joker, he did it first and he did it best. He is Batman. A gentleman, a humanitarian, a…dork. His (West’s) goofiness can’t be overstated, and that humanity gives the character a distinct vulnerability. How can you not love this guy?

In addition to everything else, it’s possible that Batman was the first series to jump the shark (or at least repel the shark). Consider the clip, above: obviously the series was straining to keep its edge (or appeal, or whatever) and by Season Three the producers/writers seemed to understand what may have worked in 1966 was not registering in late ‘67. The world, of course, was changing. Hence, we have the most camptastic—and transcendent—few moments of TV I can ever recall watching: Batman and Joker surfing. With bathing suits over their costumes In shark-infested waters, obviously. (And a handy, if obligatory bottle of Shark Repellent, because OBVIOUSLY.) With real surfers cheering from shore. This is a line in the sands of Santa Monica: you’re either with me or against me. I defy you to watch this clip and not join the party.

Summer may be winding down and all of us are getting older every second, but retaining a child-like joy for certain things is still the best way to keep age and cynicism at bay.

So, in closing and with eternal gratitude, the campy, iconoclastic genius of the show summarized in one scene (keyword BATUSI):

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 9/16/15.

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Four Albums and a Film: The Best Summer Entertainment

congo2

The Congos – Heart of the Congos (1977)

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. For an alternative that’s both inspiring and educational, the first reggae disc you should turn to as soon as the weather warms is Heart of the Congos. Shepherded into existence by the incomparable Lee “Scratch” Perry at the height of his uncanny powers, this album functions as a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices” to create a soulful, occasionally unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. On many tracks, Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, maximizing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968)

Electric Ladyland is not merely one of the ultimate summer albums, it is summer. From the hot-town-summer-in-the-city chaos of “Crosstown Traffic” to the midnight lightning of “Voodoo Chile” and the sexual swagger of “Gypsy Eyes” to the sweat-soaked croon of “Long Hot Summer Night” (!), this double-disc oozes with bright lights (“House Burning Down”) and warm remorse (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Even the Apocalyptic imagery, properly psychedelicized in “All Along the Watchtower” (the only time Bob Dylan had his own work improved upon) mutates from cryptic folktale to field report from the steamy jungles of Vietnam and/or the sweltering streets with police staring down protestors. And then there’s the extended suite that occupies all of Side Three: it starts with a saxophone and a smile (“lay back and dream on a rainy day”) and then slips underwater, literally: our feet find the sand and the sea is straight ahead. By the time the moon turns the tides (gently, gently away) you have most definitely been experienced: it’s a hot, sweet and soulful adventure. Electric Ladyland is a trek through sights and sounds that only one man could convey, and he seems like he’s eager to shed his skin and get to a place where his body will not constrain him.

Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

It’s not so much that Floyd’s debut helped define the Summer of Love (though it did), or that there is necessarily anything one can associate with hot weather in those sounds. It’s more than that: from the echoed cadence of roll-called planets to those last surreal goose honks, Syd Barrett’s guided tour through the miniature landscapes and dreamscapes he was imagining does transport you to other places, but also another time: youth. Everything about the execution, and realization, of this spectacular album exudes the uncorrupted innocence of a novel conception. More inspiration than insanity, Barrett’s acid-inspired reveries unlocked the obvious genius teeming inside his head. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an enduring and ever-relevant document of unbridled and ecstatic creativity realizing its initial and immediate fulfillment, a full-flowering burst that would not (could not?) be duplicated. Listening to it, especially during months that might remind you of a (sigh) more innocent time, it’s not unlike a trip to the beach for your mind.

The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

“The beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real…” The Who’s masterwork Quadrophenia could almost be described as “accidental beach music”. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic and claustrophobic—the story of a sensitive, chemically altered teenager uncomfortable inside his skin. There is only one release for him: the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with electrified air of a summer storm; in between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, and bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself and rises and falls like the moods of adolescence, until the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

A confident, if impetuous detective sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as the day’s light drops into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly conceals the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Jack Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is about to lift up a rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American Dream. It is hot and dry; indeed, the backdrop of the story is a severe drought that is wreaking havoc on local farmers. Over the course of a few scorching days, cars overheat, people drown in dry riverbeds, and a great deal of blood, sweat and tears indelibly compensate for the rain that won’t fall and the relief that never comes.

Elements of several of these essays are featured in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

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Celebrating Chinatown: The Ultimate Summer Movie (and the Perfect American Movie)

ct

Chinatown does not usually make the short list of best American films. In fairness, it probably shouldn’t. It will have to settle for merely being the only perfect American film ever made. Perfect? Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition of perfect might include the notion that there is no such thing as perfection in art. Nevertheless, by any number of criteria, Chinatown continues to satisfy more than thirty years on. In the final analysis it’s the magnificent sum of its considerable parts: it’s tragic, it’s hilarious, it’s (at times) scary, it’s challenging, it’s complicated, it is unnerving. It is, in short, America. Or at least it does the near impossible: it articulates the symbiotic relationship between greed and power that props up capitalism, a narrative that played an ever-increasing role in 20th century America. Much could—and should—be said along these lines, and how Robert Towne’s meticulous screenplay was ideal fodder for Roman Polanski’s dark and utterly authentic vision (Polanski also deserves extensive praise for resisting the happier ending Towne wanted).

That’s all well and good, but why does Chinatown remain compelling, and worthy of repeated viewings? Speaking personally, I’ve seen the film at least 15 times in the last 20 years, and each viewing has revealed new layers or nuance, and has only confirmed that initial impression: it’s perfect. The screenplay, the soundtrack, the casting: all unassailable. Memorable scenes? Really, the entire movie is just a series of memorable scenes. Or, more accurately, a continuous stream of indelible moments: Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the barber shop, covered in shaving cream, angrily inviting the wiseass banker to step outside and “discuss things”; Gittes sardonically lamenting the loss of his shoe (“Son of a bitch! Goddamn Florsheim shoe!”); Gittes telling the dirty joke unaware of his soon-to-be-client and lover standing behind him; Gittes driving frantically through an orange grove to escape some pissed off farmers whose land he is trespassing upon; Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil) persistently, and quite intentionally, mispronouncing Gittes name (Mr. Gits); Gittes calling the officious jerk in the public library a weasel; Gittes imploring Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to let the police intervene against Cross (her father) and her unsettling response: “He owns the police!”… the list could go on.

Perhaps most importantly, this is, quite simply a beautifully crafted work, the type of movie that can be savored without the sound on. One example: Gittes sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as day slides into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly masks the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Gittes is about to lift up the rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American dream.

Naturally, Chinatown passes the ultimate test: is it still meaningful, today? Does it still tell us something about ourselves? Sadly, it does. Impossible as it may have been for Towne and Polanski to imagine, there would come a time where public trust of those in power deteriorated beyond even the Watergate era nadir of Nixonland. Today, as the fabricated sheen of Wall Street crumbles around us, we might ask the wizards who wrought this mess the same question Gittes asks Cross—and expect the same answer:

“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gits! The future!”

There it is: the most accurate and succinct depiction of unfettered greed you’re likely to hear. And to see John Huston convey it is to appreciate, and be appalled by, the allure and immorality of depraved power. Jake hears it, and sees it, and for him—and the country—it’s too little, too late. As always. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” his partner admonishes him. But Jake can’t forget it, and we know he won’t forget it. Neither will we.

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters and is featured in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

 

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End of Summer (Camp) with a Bat, a Cat and a Clown

bat-cat-2-500x366

IT IS AN INEXORABLE, if lamentable rite of passage: revisiting mementos from one’s childhood and discovering that, to an adult’s eyes, they’re lacking.

But then, “putting away childish things” is how we avoid arrested development, a condition that impairs critical faculties, stymies meaningful relationships and makes one susceptible to things like libertarianism. (If, for instance, you re-read Ayn Rand and her porcine-fisted prose still seems eloquent, you’ve got some growing up to do; if you encounter her sophomoric metaphysics for the first time as an adult and are inexplicably smitten, you are, unfortunately, a lost cause, both morally and intellectually.)

When I was a child, you would have had to pry the bowl of Boo Berry from my cold, dead hand. Now I understand my teeth would rot on contact, even if I were able to score a box online (apparently this is actually possible; this is America). I used to think a Big Mac (washed down with that non-carbonated orange drink, obviously) was the height of culinary bliss, a sort of pre-adolescent ambrosia. I thought scary movies were, well, scary. In other words, I thought a lot of things. I was even correct about one or two of them.

I thought, for instance, that the Batman TV series was amazing. It turns out I was wrong. It’s not amazing; it’s sublime.

Bear with me. When’s the last time you saw (when’s the last time you thought about) Batman and imagined Adam West instead of, say, Christian Bale or Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson, etc.?

It probably has been a while because, annoyingly, the old episodes are currently unavailable via Netflix and, until recently, even to purchase. And you’ll need a couple hundred bucks to satisfy your curiosity via the box set series. The show does still get airplay on certain TV channels. I know this because I have friends who have kids. Quite serendipitously, I was babysitting one of these little cherubs and per her request (!) we caught a couple of old school episodes. I’m here to tell you, without shame and with inexplicable enthusiasm, it was something of a revelation.

There are several angles I could take here, but my rekindled interest can be reduced to two words: Cesar Romero. The O.J. (as in, Original Joker).

JOKER

Folks, anyone born after 1980-ish probably can’t appreciate this, but for people of my generation, Cesar Romero was The Joker. I sort of recall reading the occasional comic book but don’t have any special memories of how he translated on the page. I do have memories of the laugh, the green hair, the purple suit and the unhinged antics that were, at once hilarious and horrifying. What I did not recall, since I was a kid at the time, was how irredeemably, magnificently campy the show was.

I certainly recall that the original Superman never resonated with me, in part because that show was not old school, it was antediluvian school. Plus, the George Reeves incarnation was always a tad too fascistic for my delicate sensibilities. (Incidentally, am I the only one to recently discover George Reeves died by a bullet wound that may have been suicide? Holy irony, Batman.) Then again, I’ve never been much of a Superman guy; in my formative years it was always Batman and Spiderman, both of whom were funnier, darker and more human.

Anyway, back to The Joker. Obviously Jack Nicholson was tapping into that campy vibe in 1989, but his role, however amusing, was over-the-top in ways that don’t age particularly well (kind of like the movie itself). Not many people would argue that Heath Ledger’s pitch-black, though still sardonic take was not a huge improvement. Nevertheless, before we crown Ledger’s uncanny performance the final word on the subject, we are obliged to return to the beginning. Have you forgotten how unbelievably perfect Cesar Romero was? Check it out:

Any questions?

Maybe it’s the fact that he was a bit older. It also didn’t hurt that his Cuban/Italian descent imparted a subtly exotic, almost indescribably outré edge. This is The Joker I grew up with, and it’s the only arch villain I can imagine actually rooting for—as a child or an adult. Just reading about Romero makes me happy. Check this out. The fact that he refused to shave his mustache—his decades-old trademark—for this role is so genius I can scarcely handle it: like the Joker himself, a recalcitrant rascal. How brilliant is that?  The most incorrigible fiend played by an incorrigible, image-conscious movie star with prima donna tendencies? Bliss. And extra marks: if you look at photos or, if you’re smart, find some clips online, you can totally see the impossible-to-conceal ‘stache in each episode. Truth is always odder and better than even the best fiction.

And let’s do a quick sidebar for how outstanding the other bad guys were. Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, anyone? Yes, please. And don’t overlook Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. This trio comprises an untouchable criminal triptych that could not possibly be improved upon. For irrefutable evidence of this claim, please appreciate this clip from the movie, wherein we have Penguin fencing with Batman (making appropriate Penguin noises), Romero’s brown hair obvious under the wig and The Riddler doing some bad ballet on board a boat: it’s the sine qua non of caped-crusading camp. This is the all-in Battle Royale (with cheese), a brawl that involves all the assorted players, because duh. And the capper, when our hero saves the kitten from drowning with the winking send-off “Bon voyage pussy!”. Holy blissful extravagance, Batman!

And lest we forget (how could we forget?) there is Catwoman. Can I get an Amen? I’m a rather huge fan of Lee Meriwether, and everyone has to appreciate the incomparable Eartha Kitt (from Season Three). But let’s not kid ourselves here: it’s all about Julie Newmar. The young me would like to say, Thank you, Catwoman. The adult me would like to say, Will you marry me, Ms. Newmar?

Her perfection as Catwoman, as a woman, period, would suffice, but seeing how she has remained engaged, politically active, and completely down to earth (and appreciative, after all these years, of her fans) makes her as attractive, eight decades on, as she’s ever been. (Swoon.)

And don’t think I’m sleeping on Adam West. I won’t (can’t?) compare him to the subsequent Batmen played in the various movies, but kind of like with The Joker, he did it first and he did it best. He is Batman. A gentleman, a humanitarian, a…dork. His (West’s) goofiness can’t be overstated, and that humanity gives the character a distinct vulnerability. How can you not love this guy?

In addition to everything else, it’s possible that Batman was the first series to jump the shark (or at least repel the shark). Consider the clip, above: obviously the series was straining to keep its edge (or appeal, or whatever) and by Season Three the producers/writers seemed to understand what may have worked in 1966 was not registering in late ‘67. The world, of course, was changing. Hence, we have the most camptastic—and transcendent—few moments of TV I can ever recall watching: Batman and Joker surfing. With bathing suits over their costumes In shark-infested waters, obviously. (And a handy, if obligatory bottle of Shark Repellent, because OBVIOUSLY.) With real surfers cheering from shore. This is a line in the sands of Santa Monica: you’re either with me or against me. I defy you to watch this clip and not join the party.

Summer may be winding down and all of us are getting older every second, but retaining a child-like joy for certain things is still the best way to keep age and cynicism at bay.

So, in closing and with eternal gratitude, the campy, iconoclastic genius of the show summarized in one scene (keyword BATUSI):

Bonus clip: The cast, older, wiser, gentler:

 This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 9/16/15.
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The American Dream in Stasis: Another Look at ‘Five Easy Pieces’

Five Easy Pieces, 1970 (9)

McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Jake Gittes in Chinatown; Jack “Here’s Johnny!” Torrance in The Shining—these aren’t just characters from famous movies, they are permanent fixtures of American culture. Robert Dupea from Five Easy Pieces seldom registers on the short list of all-time great acting performances, at least in part because the protagonist, like the movie, is not easy to admire or understand. Indeed, the title is more than a little ironic, as there is nothing “easy” about it: the material, the characters, the closing scene’s infamous lack of closure, etc. The type of role tailor-made for an artist who insists upon working without a net, Bobby Dupea is at once emotional, withdrawn, silent, boisterous, persistent and lethargic to the point of apathy.

Five Easy Pieces is, well, easy to recommend, but it’s definitely a movie that demands to be appreciated on its own cantankerous terms. The casting is perfect and the performances are stellar, yet special kudos are warranted for Karen Black, the patient yet pathetic girlfriend and Helena Kallianiotes as Palm Apodaca, the furious yet refreshing hitchhiker. And then there is the scene, which remains one of the supremely amusing and satisfying in cinema history, when Nicholson clashes with the truck-stop waitress and the system she represents.

In the disquieting climax, when Dupea unsuccessfully attempts to persuade the first woman who seems perfect for him, she poses a rhetorical question that underscores the paradox of his antipathy: “How can a man who has no love of himself ask for love in return?” His inability to answer her, and his unwillingness to change himself, suggest that his self-imposed impasse will remain unresolved.

5ep

Five Easy Pieces endures as a study of the restless soul of a gifted individual (who could have been, and still could be, an artist) too smart for his own good, and who has thus far squandered his youth, talent and energy in an ennui-ridden funk where he floats from job to meaningless job, woman to faceless woman, sensation to numbing sensation.

Most us can discern something of ourselves in the insatiable drifter, the citizen who is not content to live a banal existence even as his every action (and lack thereof) further ensnares him in a perpetuation of the life he abhors. In this regard, Five Easy Pieces is not only a commentary on the itinerant American rebel, it also examines the suffocating dynamics of a dysfunctional family, and the dilemma of an individual blessed with extraordinary faculties he feels compelled to suppress.

Five Easy Pieces (screenplay by Carole Eastman—as Adrian Joyce—with considerable input from Rafelson and, on set, Nicholson) encapsulates a very particular American phenomenon, circa 1970, and as such, remains a touchstone of its time and a prescient depiction of the cultural rupture that would accelerate during the “me-decade”. The film is a character study, of sorts, focused on a very familiar trope: the individual caught between two worlds, and with a remarkable lack of judgment, illustrates the pressures, appeal and conflict inherent in each.

Dupea leads a life of not-so-quiet desperation, equally out of place amongst the working class and the condescending academics. Talented enough to pursue a respectable, possibly even fulfilling career as a concert musician, Dupea is both fallible and free-thinking enough to understand (not happily) that no matter how much this existence is encouraged, if not expected—and is something his father and siblings have done—it’s simply not for him.

He’s not a malcontent so much as he can’t help comprehending that no matter what you’re paid or how much you’re admired, you’re still a trained monkey, in a monkey suit, doing something (however proficiently) that many other people have done before. Dupea is keenly aware that for all his skill, he is still playing songs someone else wrote, and even if he were sufficiently obsessed to dedicate himself to being the best interpreter of, say, Chopin, he’s still inauthentic on some level.

Of course, he’s certainly not satisfied working on the oil rig, but if a dead-end job has anything going for it, it’s something you can walk away from, without notice or regret, at any moment. Too smart and, despite the aloofness he projects, sensitive for his own good, Dupea is the American Dream in stasis, unable to find satisfaction, much less meaning, in the prescribed existence he was born into, or the peripatetic drifting he capitulates to. He is Ahab, but there is no white whale to chase; he is Ishmael, compelled to return to the sea, only he does not know where he’s going and the only safe harbor is a family home where he finds no peace.

Dupea, finally, is neither an anti-hero nor an everyman. A product of the first generation ostensibly unburdened by class-consciousness or convention, he’s paralyzed by his peculiar autonomy. As the hippie hangover from the ‘60s begins in earnest, Dupea has neither tuned in nor entirely dropped out: his terminal indifference belies a genuine desire to find something that can’t be taught or bought.

Five Easy Pieces is an obvious, if overdue addition to the Criterion Collection. Finally, we have the deluxe treatment, with bonus features and audio commentary (some of this material was already included in the DVD box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story from 2010). The two mini documentaries, BBS: A Time for Change and BBStory provide wonderful and welcome insights into the DIY ethos that ended up influencing a generation of filmmakers. Nicholson, Rafelson and many familiar faces from the early ‘70s all offer up interesting anecdotes and some genuine nostalgia for a (much) more progressive, unshackled era.

If you own a previous edition of Five Easy Pieces this is a worthwhile upgrade. If you don’t own (or have never seen) this masterpiece, it needs to be part of your collection immediately. This is, to be certain, a movie that can be returned to over time: the nuances of the story and the subtle mastery of Rafelson’s direction are to be savored, and studied. This might be Nicholson’s ultimate performance, and the reverberations from his urgent yet honest portrayal still linger on the lower frequencies of our collective consciousness.

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A Week of Americana. Part Five: Chinatown

usa

Chinatown does not usually make the short list of best American films. In fairness, it probably shouldn’t. It will have to settle for merely being the only perfect American film ever made. Perfect? Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition of perfect might include the notion that there is no such thing as perfection in art. Nevertheless, by any number of criteria, Chinatown continues to satisfy more than thirty years on. In the final analysis it’s the magnificent sum of its considerable parts: it’s tragic, it’s hilarious, it’s (at times) scary, it’s challenging, it’s complicated, it is unnerving. It is, in short, America. Or at least it does the near impossible: it articulates the symbiotic relationship between greed and power that props up capitalism, a narrative that played an ever-increasing role in 20th century America. Much could—and should—be said along these lines, and how Robert Towne’s meticulous screenplay was ideal fodder for Roman Polanski’s dark and utterly authentic vision (Polanski also deserves extensive praise for resisting the happier ending Towne wanted).

That is all well and good, but why does Chinatown remain compelling, and worthy of repeated viewings? Speaking personally, I’ve seen the film at least 15 times in the last 20 years, and each viewing has revealed new layers or nuance, and has only confirmed that initial impression: it’s perfect. The screenplay, the soundtrack, the casting: all unassailable. Memorable scenes? Really, the entire movie is just a series of memorable scenes. Or, more accurately, a continuous stream of indelible moments: Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the barber shop, covered in shaving cream, angrily inviting the wiseass banker to step outside and “discuss things”; Gittes sardonically lamenting the loss of his shoe (“Son of a bitch! Goddamn Florsheim shoe!”); Gittes telling the dirty joke unaware of his soon-to-be-client and lover standing behind him; Gittes driving frantically through an orange grove to escape some pissed off farmers whose land he is trespassing upon; Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil) persistently, and quite intentionally, mispronouncing Gittes name (Mr. Gits); Gittes calling the officious jerk in the public library a weasel; Gittes imploring Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to let the police intervene against Cross (her father) and her unsettling response: “He owns the police!”… the list could go on.

Perhaps most importantly, this is, quite simply a beautifully crafted work, the type of movie that can be savored without the sound on. One example: Gittes sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as day slides into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly masks the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Gittes is about to lift up the rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American dream.

Naturally, Chinatown passes the ultimate test: is it still meaningful, today? Does it still tell us something about ourselves? Sadly, it does. Impossible as it may have been for Towne and Polanski to imagine, there would come a time where public trust of those in power deteriorated beyond even the Watergate era nadir of Nixonland. Today, as the fabricated sheen of Wall Street crumbles around us, we might ask the wizards who wrought this mess the same question Gittes asks Cross—and expect the same answer:

“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gits! The future!”

There it is: the most accurate and succinct depiction of unfettered greed you’re likely to hear. And to see John Huston convey it is to appreciate, and be appalled by, the allure and immorality of depraved power. Jake hears it, and sees it, and for him—and the country—it’s too little, too late. As always. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” his partner admonishes him. But Jake can’t forget it, and we know he won’t forget it. Neither will we.

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Four Albums and a Film: The Best Summer Entertainment

congo2

The Congos – Heart of the Congos (1977)

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. For an alternative that’s both inspiring and educational, the first reggae disc you should turn to as soon as the weather warms is Heart of the Congos. Shepherded into existence by the incomparable Lee “Scratch” Perry at the height of his uncanny powers, this album functions as a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices” to create a soulful, occasionally unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. On many tracks, Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, maximizing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968)

Electric Ladyland is not merely one of the ultimate summer albums, it is summer. From the hot-town-summer-in-the-city chaos of “Crosstown Traffic” to the midnight lightning of “Voodoo Chile” and the sexual swagger of “Gypsy Eyes” to the sweat-soaked croon of “Long Hot Summer Night” (!), this double-disc oozes with bright lights (“House Burning Down”) and warm remorse (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Even the Apocalyptic imagery, properly psychedelicized in “All Along the Watchtower” (the only time Bob Dylan had his own work improved upon) mutates from cryptic folktale to field report from the steamy jungles of Vietnam and/or the sweltering streets with police staring down protestors. And then there’s the extended suite that occupies all of Side Three: it starts with a saxophone and a smile (“lay back and dream on a rainy day”) and then slips underwater, literally: our feet find the sand and the sea is straight ahead. By the time the moon turns the tides (gently, gently away) you have most definitely been experienced: it’s a hot, sweet and soulful adventure. Electric Ladyland is a trek through sights and sounds that only one man could convey, and he seems like he’s eager to shed his skin and get to a place where his body will not constrain him.

Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

It’s not so much that Floyd’s debut helped define the Summer of Love (though it did), or that there is necessarily anything one can associate with hot weather in those sounds. It’s more than that: from the echoed cadence of roll-called planets to those last surreal goose honks, Syd Barrett’s guided tour through the miniature landscapes and dreamscapes he was imagining does transport you to other places, but also another time: youth. Everything about the execution, and realization, of this spectacular album exudes the uncorrupted innocence of a novel conception. More inspiration than insanity, Barrett’s acid-inspired reveries unlocked the obvious genius teeming inside his head. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an enduring and ever-relevant document of unbridled and ecstatic creativity realizing its initial and immediate fulfillment, a full-flowering burst that would not (could not?) be duplicated. Listening to it, especially during months that might remind you of a (sigh) more innocent time, it’s not unlike a trip to the beach for your mind.

The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

“The beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real…” The Who’s masterwork Quadrophenia could almost be described as “accidental beach music”. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic and claustrophobic—the story of a sensitive, chemically altered teenager uncomfortable inside his skin. There is only one release for him: the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with electrified air of a summer storm; in between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, and bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself and rises and falls like the moods of adolescence, until the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

A confident, if impetuous detective sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as the day’s light drops into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly conceals the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Jack Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is about to lift up a rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American Dream. It is hot and dry; indeed, the backdrop of the story is a severe drought that is wreaking havoc on local farmers. Over the course of a few scorching days, cars overheat, people drown in dry riverbeds, and a great deal of blood, sweat and tears indelibly compensate for the rain that won’t fall and the relief that never comes.

Share

A Week of Americana. Part Five: Chinatown

Chinatown does not usually make the short list of best American films. In fairness, it probably shouldn’t. It will have to settle for merely being the only perfect American film ever made. Perfect? Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition of perfect might include the notion that there is no such thing as perfection in art. Nevertheless, by any number of criteria, Chinatown continues to satisfy more than thirty years on. In the final analysis it’s the magnificent sum of its considerable parts: it’s tragic, it’s hilarious, it’s (at times) scary, it’s challenging, it’s complicated, it is unnerving. It is, in short, America. Or at least it does the near impossible: it articulates the symbiotic relationship between greed and power that props up capitalism, a narrative that played an ever-increasing role in 20th century America. Much could—and should—be said along these lines, and how Robert Towne’s meticulous screenplay was ideal fodder for Roman Polanski’s dark and utterly authentic vision (Polanski also deserves extensive praise for resisting the happier ending Towne wanted).

That is all well and good, but why does Chinatown remain compelling, and worthy of repeated viewings? Speaking personally, I’ve seen the film at least 15 times in the last 20 years, and each viewing has revealed new layers or nuance, and has only confirmed that initial impression: it’s perfect. The screenplay, the soundtrack, the casting: all unassailable. Memorable scenes? Really, the entire movie is just a series of memorable scenes. Or, more accurately, a continuous stream of indelible moments: Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the barber shop, covered in shaving cream, angrily inviting the wiseass banker to step outside and “discuss things”; Gittes sardonically lamenting the loss of his shoe (“Son of a bitch! Goddamn Florsheim shoe!”); Gittes telling the dirty joke unaware of his soon-to-be-client and lover standing behind him; Gittes driving frantically through an orange grove to escape some pissed off farmers whose land he is trespassing upon; Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil) persistently, and quite intentionally, mispronouncing Gittes name (Mr. Gits); Gittes calling the officious jerk in the public library a weasel; Gittes imploring Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to let the police intervene against Cross (her father) and her unsettling response: “He owns the police!”… the list could go on.

Perhaps most importantly, this is, quite simply a beautifully crafted work, the type of movie that can be savored without the sound on. One example: Gittes sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as day slides into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly masks the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Gittes is about to lift up the rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American dream.

Naturally, Chinatown passes the ultimate test: is it still meaningful, today? Does it still tell us something about ourselves? Sadly, it does. Impossible as it may have been for Towne and Polanski to imagine, there would come a time where public trust of those in power deteriorated beyond even the Watergate era nadir of Nixonland. Today, as the fabricated sheen of Wall Street crumbles around us, we might ask the wizards who wrought this mess the same question Gittes asks Cross—and expect the same answer:

“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gits! The future!”

There it is: the most accurate and succinct depiction of unfettered greed you’re likely to hear. And to see John Huston convey it is to appreciate, and be appalled by, the allure and immorality of depraved power. Jake hears it, and sees it, and for him—and the country—it’s too little, too late. As always. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” his partner admonishes him. But Jake can’t forget it, and we know he won’t forget it. Neither will we.

Share

Four Albums and a Film: The Best Summer Entertainment

The Congos – Heart of the Congos (1977)

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. For an alternative that’s both inspiring and educational, the first reggae disc you should turn to as soon as the weather warms is Heart of the Congos. Shepherded into existence by the incomparable Lee “Scratch” Perry at the height of his uncanny powers, this album functions as a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices” to create a soulful, occasionally unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. On many tracks, Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, maximizing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968)

Electric Ladyland is not merely one of the ultimate summer albums, it is summer. From the hot-town-summer-in-the-city chaos of “Crosstown Traffic” to the midnight lightning of “Voodoo Chile” and the sexual swagger of “Gypsy Eyes” to the sweat-soaked croon of “Long Hot Summer Night” (!), this double-disc oozes with bright lights (“House Burning Down”) and warm remorse (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Even the Apocalyptic imagery, properly psychedelicized in “All Along the Watchtower” (the only time Bob Dylan had his own work improved upon) mutates from cryptic folktale to field report from the steamy jungles of Vietnam and/or the sweltering streets with police staring down protestors. And then there’s the extended suite that occupies all of Side Three: it starts with a saxophone and a smile (“lay back and dream on a rainy day”) and then slips underwater, literally: our feet find the sand and the sea is straight ahead. By the time the moon turns the tides (gently, gently away) you have most definitely been experienced: it’s a hot, sweet and soulful adventure. Electric Ladyland is a trek through sights and sounds that only one man could convey, and he seems like he’s eager to shed his skin and get to a place where his body will not constrain him.

Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

It’s not so much that Floyd’s debut helped define the Summer of Love (though it did), or that there is necessarily anything one can associate with hot weather in those sounds. It’s more than that: from the echoed cadence of roll-called planets to those last surreal goose honks, Syd Barrett’s guided tour through the miniature landscapes and dreamscapes he was imagining does transport you to other places, but also another time: youth. Everything about the execution, and realization, of this spectacular album exudes the uncorrupted innocence of a novel conception. More inspiration than insanity, Barrett’s acid-inspired reveries unlocked the obvious genius teeming inside his head. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an enduring and ever-relevant document of unbridled and ecstatic creativity realizing its initial and immediate fulfillment, a full-flowering burst that would not (could not?) be duplicated. Listening to it, especially during months that might remind you of a (sigh) more innocent time, it’s not unlike a trip to the beach for your mind.

The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

“The beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real…” The Who’s masterwork Quadrophenia could almost be described as “accidental beach music”. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic and claustrophobic—the story of a sensitive, chemically altered teenager uncomfortable inside his skin. There is only one release for him: the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with electrified air of a summer storm; in between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, and bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself and rises and falls like the moods of adolescence, until the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

A confident, if impetuous detective sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as the day’s light drops into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly conceals the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Jack Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is about to lift up a rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American Dream. It is hot and dry; indeed, the backdrop of the story is a severe drought that is wreaking havoc on local farmers. Over the course of a few scorching days, cars overheat, people drown in dry riverbeds, and a great deal of blood, sweat and tears indelibly compensate for the rain that won’t fall and the relief that never comes.

Share

A Week of Americana. Part Five: Chinatown

 

Chinatown does not usually make the short list of best American films. In fairness, it probably shouldn’t. It will have to settle for merely being the only perfect American film ever made. Perfect? Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition of perfect might include the notion that there is no such thing as perfection in art. Nevertheless, by any number of criteria, Chinatown continues to satisfy more than thirty years on. In the final analysis it’s the magnificent sum of its considerable parts: it’s tragic, it’s hilarious, it’s (at times) scary, it’s challenging, it’s complicated, it is unnerving. It is, in short, America. Or at least it does the near impossible: it articulates the symbiotic relationship between greed and power that props up capitalism, a narrative that played an ever-increasing role in 20th century America. Much could—and should—be said along these lines, and how Robert Towne’s meticulous screenplay was ideal fodder for Roman Polanski’s dark and utterly authentic vision (Polanski also deserves extensive praise for resisting the happier ending Towne wanted).

That is all well and good, but why does Chinatown remain compelling, and worthy of repeated viewings? Speaking personally, I’ve seen the film at least 15 times in the last 20 years, and each viewing has revealed new layers or nuance, and has only confirmed that initial impression: it’s perfect. The screenplay, the soundtrack, the casting: all unassailable. Memorable scenes? Really, the entire movie is just a series of memorable scenes. Or, more accurately, a continuous stream of indelible moments: Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the barber shop, covered in shaving cream, angrily inviting the wiseass banker to step outside and “discuss things”; Gittes sardonically lamenting the loss of his shoe (“Son of a bitch! Goddamn Florsheim shoe!”); Gittes telling the dirty joke unaware of his soon-to-be-client and lover standing behind him; Gittes driving frantically through an orange grove to escape some pissed off farmers whose land he is trespassing upon; Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil) persistently, and quite intentionally, mispronouncing Gittes name (Mr. Gits); Gittes calling the officious jerk in the public library a weasel; Gittes imploring Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to let the police intervene against Cross (her father) and her unsettling response: “He owns the police!”… the list could go on.

Perhaps most importantly, this is, quite simply a beautifully crafted work, the type of movie that can be savored without the sound on. One example: Gittes sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as day slides into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly masks the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Gittes is about to lift up the rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American dream.

Naturally, Chinatown passes the ultimate test: is it still meaningful, today? Does it still tell us something about ourselves? Sadly, it does. Impossible as it may have been for Towne and Polanski to imagine, there would come a time where public trust of those in power deteriorated beyond even the Watergate era nadir of Nixonland. Today, as the fabricated sheen of Wall Street crumbles around us, we might ask the wizards who wrought this mess the same question Gittes asks Cross—and expect the same answer:

“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gits! The future!”

There it is: the most accurate and succinct depiction of unfettered greed you’re likely to hear. And to see John Huston convey it is to appreciate, and be appalled by, the allure and immorality of depraved power. Jake hears it, and sees it, and for him—and the country—it’s too little, too late. As always. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” his partner admonishes him. But Jake can’t forget it, and we know he won’t forget it. Neither will we.

Share