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  • Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music
    Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music
    by David N. Meyer
  • The 100 Best Films to Rent You've Never Heard Of: Hidden Treasures, Neglected Classics, and Hits From By-Gone Eras
    The 100 Best Films to Rent You've Never Heard Of: Hidden Treasures, Neglected Classics, and Hits From By-Gone Eras
    by David N. Meyer
  • A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Renter's Guide to Film Noir
    A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Renter's Guide to Film Noir
    by David N. Meyer
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Monday
Sep162019

"All art fades, but sex fades fastest" 

THE LIFE AND WRITING OF EVE BABITZ

 

“I looked like Brigitte Bardot and I was Stravinsky’s goddaughter.”

Critics often compare Eve Babitz to Joan Didion. But Eve Babitz is nothing like Joan Didion. Eve Babitz loves fucking.

And drugs. And rock and roll and drinking and beauty and glamour and style and charismatic, accomplished guys and Hollywood. Babitz passionately embraces everything Didion despises, especially joy and abundance.

For graceful sentence-making, dead-on cultural parsing, astonishing common-sense insights and ruthless social anthropology, only Didion and Renata Adler compare to Babitz. But Babitz, whose books from the 1970s have only recently been brought back into print by the New York Review of Books, never garnered the serious literary cred in which Didion and Adler rightfully bask.

Maybe because Babitz’s subject matter – fucking, drugs, rock and roll, drinking, beauty, glamor, style, accomplished, charismatic guys, and Hollywood – wasn’t deemed sufficiently serious, few recognized the poetic depth of Babitz’s insights. Maybe because she had too much fun writing and living, Babitz never vested in the astringent, antiseptic distance from which Didion and Adler eviscerate. Babitz wrote from the eye of the storm, a storm she most likely created. Her knives were as sharp as Didion’s and Adler’s, but always tempered with compassion and wit. And, often, lust.

Almost everyone who writes about Babitz – both in the 1970s when her books were first published and recently upon their re-publication – regards her as they would a talking dog. Surprisingly, even women writers default to the talking dog position. They first describe Babitz – accurately – as hot, brazen, stylish, wild, brilliant and untamable. Then they talk about her top-shelf remuda of absurdly famous lovers. They always cite those lovers. Then and only then do they mention Babitz’ astute perceptions, her moral and artistic courage, her singular voice – and that with astonishment. They take the tone that this modern-day Venetian courtesan had no right to write like a genius.

Babitz touches on this dilemma in her writing on Marilyn Monroe, with whom she was mildly obsessed. It infuriated her that everyone regarded Arthur Miller as a jewel in Marilyn’s crown, rather than her as a jewel in his. Babitz regarded Marilyn as something she would never, ever be: an ingénue. Babitz could never be an ingénue, she writes. Ingénues are doomed because they insist on being undervalued.

The ingénue’s role is of the lamb to the slaughter, a lamb who pretends innocence as a dreadful, instinctual, inescapable collusion with her butcher. That collusion, Babitz thinks, is crucial to an ingénue’s charm – the ability to act like no one is hurting you even as they sever one limb after another. Babitz expresses awe at both how long Marilyn let her butchers chop away and how untarnished Marilyn remained. Only a select few in Eve’s Hollywood remained untarnished.

Babitz never regards herself as so. Her understanding of the rarity of being uncorrupted by Hollywood, rock and roll, style, glamor, money and success led Babitz to a profound appreciation of the corrupt. She admired and, for a while, enjoyed the company of those who avoided the middle steps of attempting to hold onto innocence and failing. The truly corrupt did what the ingénue could not: They embraced and paraded their strengths, behaved as they wanted and ignored the toll others paid for their corruption.

In the first half of Sex and Rage, which features little straightforward depiction of either, Babitz describes falling into an international haut demimonde that had descended, in their unending circuit around the globe, upon LA. Night after night and week after week of morally, socially and emotionally complex debauchery followed. Babitz finally totaled up the rent this demimonde demanded when, on the way home as the sun rose, Babitz realized she had consumed fourteen White Ladies – a cocktail most likely made of gin and Cointreau – in a single evening. From that moment, Babitz began, despite the sex, fun, style and glamour available, to extricate herself from that world. Looking back from a survivor’s distance, she understood of the demimonde that “most of the girls they used for local color died before they were thirty.” All those girls attempted some version of the ingénue’s gambit.

Babitz acknowledges the ingénue’s power. The ingénue knows that when someone falls for her innocent act – and 99.99% of them are dudes – she can get away with murder. The ingénue also knows that those who throw themselves on the pyre of her performance of innocence will take care of her. That’s the ingénue’s pendulum; she swings between the sucker and the butcher. There are no other options.

Babitz sought neither suckers nor butchers. She evokes Tina Fey’s self-descriptions: Babitz never entered any social situation feeling or acting like an underdog. Igor Stravinsky is her godfather, for crying out loud; Stravinsky named her! Babitz grew up in a family of intelligent, good-willed bohemians who only wanted her to be true to herself.

Consider nineteen-year-old Babitz naked playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, in a photograph that started as a goof and became an icon. Look at that woman, naked with her identity shrouded by hair: She don’t lack for confidence. She knows how to be simultaneously a person and a persona. She knows how to revel in and withhold her sexuality. She is at ease in the most ridiculous and profound of circumstances. All this comes through in Babitz’s prose, even when she writes movingly of her own recurring social terror.

Babitz describes herself as surfer moving through the world with a surfer’s balance and a surfer’s eye for which swells to catch and which to let flow beneath her. What stirs her soul are people like her, who could only be themselves, just bigger. She admires songwriter J. D. Souther when he tells her he spent his first year in Los Angeles “learning how to stand.” Babitz’s famous lovers were all men who studied themselves and the waves of their chosen oceans with care and cunning and created the persona that would let them ride the crests to where they wanted to go. Their skill and self-directed ruthlessness enthralled her.

Of course, I’d like to tell you about the stars – and I mean stars – of art, comedy, rock and roll and Hollywood that became Babitz’s handpicked boyfriends. How she almost always chose them before they were famous and how she nurtured, encouraged and guided them as their lives exploded. It’s some juicy gossip and contextualizes Babitz’s 1960s/‘70s hellraising and allure as few examples could. But if I tell you, you might think I’m suggesting that her queue of world-beater boyfriends might be jewels in her crown and not vice versa. That those famous names gave her credibility… If I write about whom she fucked and loved, I’d be calling her a talking dog: a woman with famous boyfriends who happened to write. And that ain’t right. Babitz is a writer. Her personal life is her business. A business she wrote about in granular detail. Them boyfriends are all front and center, if you can suss the clues.

Please, join me in discovering whether I get to the end of this piece without listing her boyfriends and the telling, tragic, harsh, loving and riotous things she wrote about them. The suspense is killing me.

Here’s a hint:

She writes that Val Kilmer could never portray Jim Morrison accurately because Val Kilmer had always been a prince. Since high school, when the princely Val Kilmer walked into a room, every woman there wanted to lick the sweat off his neck. This was not true of Jim Morrison. Growing up, Jim Morrison was a fat, lonely, picked-upon, bookish nerd from the sticks with delusions of grandeur. Then, one magical day, according to Babitz, Morrison discovered speed, among other drugs, and lost a shit-ton of weight. Overnight, he became a prince. Overnight, women who had ignored or scorned him for the first twenty years of his life were mega-hella hot for his bod. Overnight, women he never thought he had a prayer of nailing begged for a moment, just a moment, of his attention. This, as Babitz points out, might really fuck up a former fat nerd’s head. It fucked up Morrison’s big-time. He became a screaming, pretentious asshole, as who among us would not? Babitz maintains that no one who is born beautiful – like Kilmer – could ever understand the identity-shredding pathos of becoming beautiful.

“In L.A. when someone gets corrupt, it always takes place out by the pool.”

Babitz writes with delicacy, obliqueness and brutal directness about Gram Parsons, with whom she was close. Unlike most writers, she spends little time on his music. She focuses on his grace, incongruous charm, well-mannered remove and refusal to be motivated to do anything. She touches with empathy but never respect on the paradox of a genius who had too much money to care whether he ever manifested his gifts. Unsurprisingly, when Babitz writes about Gram, she also writes about cocaine. On the, ahem, cutting edge as always, Babitz had her first private encounter with Gram in his suite at the then-moldering Chateau Marmont. As she came into the suite, Gram – whom Keith Richards described as having “better coke than the CIA”; and Keith oughtta know – was bent over the living room table, chopping fat rails of uncut German pharmaceutical right out of the vial(s). In 1971, snorting pure German pharmaceutical from the vial(s) was not cutting edge – it was avant-garde.

In writing on Gram, Babitz posits her “Three Rules of Cocaine.” Her Rules are shocking for their clarity, accuracy, immutability and immortality. Babitz’s Rules so codify the cocaine universe that there was not then, has not been since and is not now any need for a fourth.

Eve Babitz’s Three Rules of Cocaine

1) The first time is always the best.

2) There is no such thing as enough.

3) The process of learning the truth of Rules 1) and 2) is very, very expensive.

 

“Rosewood Casket,” probably the best-known and most-cited story in Eve’s Hollywood, concerns Gram and Keef. Incongruously, Babitz defaulted to pseudonyms. Since she names names almost everywhere else, her refusal to do so here feels almost cowardly. Perhaps she feared, for good reason, Gram’s gorgeous, ferocious, litigious 17-year-old girlfriend and later wife. Babitz describes Gram and Keith, thinner than any vampires, hanging onto each other for dear life at the Whiskey a Go Go, radiating such heretofore unseen death’s door charisma and Otherness that even the most carnivorous groupies – and groupies lined the walls and the stage at the Whiskey – hung back in dread and wonder, not daring to approach. Even for such a connoisseur of degraded, drug-soaked magnetism, the tightrope these two walked held no glamour for Babitz. She saw tragedy looming. Having long since left the demimonde, Babitz became a hard-eyed realist. When asked whether she thought Gram and Emmylou Harris had been lovers, Babitz answers ruefully, “Gram was too high to make it with anybody.” For Babitz, that was a fate worse than death.

Having fallen out of touch, Babitz was unaware of when exactly Gram took off to Nellcote to hang with Keith as the Stones recorded Exile on Main Street. And she was taken by surprise when Gram returned a shell of his former self. She describes going into shock when she was told: Gram got fat! After seeing him, she inflicted upon Gram the worst insult anyone suffers in these three books. He looked, Babitz writes, like a fat southern cop. No one could look worse than that.

This is not a superficial response. It’s a nuanced, Henry James/Oscar Wilde response – a tragic insight, one that broke Babitz’s heart. She wrote that anywhere other than the LA rock and roll scene or the offices of Vogue, Gram would not be regarded as a fat guy. He’d be a normal guy. But for the god of glamor Gram once was to show up on Olympus – the Whiskey – looking like a fat southern cop meant the end. The end of self-awareness, of self-control, of self-regard, of self-salvation. Babitz knew, and in saying no more than that Gram got fat, makes clear that Gram had sunk to a depth from which he would not and could not surface. And Gram never did.

“I don’t believe in facing pain unless it’s the kind you like.”

 

In common with Gram, Babitz sought only the coolest, most rigorous scenes that demanded the most skillful artifice laid atop the least self-conscious naturalism. In those scenes, you had to be yourself, only more so. There, as Babitz depicts with compassion and schadenfreude, the self-conscious flounder. Phonies flourish, but only on the strength of their a) drugs or b) ability to amuse. Those scenes undid Gram, maybe because the scenes he chose revolved around proving your mettle by creating great music. Babitz hung in those scenes with ease, and she hung in scenes where she proved her mettle by using the right fork or delivering the killer bon mot at 6AM after a long night of fucking, cocaine and opium.

Babitz enjoyed blocked geniuses, like Gram. She adored and cared for doomed beauties, who are legion in her books and as Hollywood as bougainvillea. But genii who never get it together and gorgeous women broken by their own beauty don’t engage Babitz’s close attention. Those people form wretched Hollywood wallpaper; they’re part of Los Angeles and always will be. The men and women who engage Babitz closely may have been worldwide platinum successes – before there was such a thing as a platinum record – or they may have been glamorous, insightful, seductive widows who sat on their silk-covered living room couches welcoming the world with unquenchable élan.

Doomed Dean Memimger, who played a couple seasons for the New York Knicks and spent most of the rest of his life as a crackhead, said the truest thing: “If you don’t play ball, you can’t hang out.” If there’s a sun of a thesis around which all of Babitz’s planets revolved, there it is. She and Dean recognize that success demands both skill sets. That’s why Babitz respects J.D. Souther for taking a year to learn to stand. Souther might have made it on his songs alone, but to catch the wave he wanted he knew he had to learn how to hang. Merely hanging won’t cut it. Hanging was like breathing for Gram, but he couldn’t get out of his own way long enough to play.

So, you learn to play ball and to hang out and when you become champion, from then on everything takes place only on your court. When Babitz’s not-yet-famous boyfriends reached that pinnacle, she lost interest.

Babitz understands that social power is the one necessary superpower. Her books explore the intricacies and subtleties of social power in numerous arenas. Those whose only power is social, like the beautiful, compel her. Babitz writes that she learned in the classrooms at Beverly Hills High, where at least 20 girls in her class were world-beater beauties, that every door opened to the gorgeous. Anywhere the beautiful wanted to hang, they were welcome. This is the true magical power of beauty, Babitz writes: not being desired; being welcome. Babitz was never jealous of that power because she always hung wherever she wanted. Being free of jealousy of pretty much everyone helps fuel her insights. Babitz, unlike most writers, never wanted to be anybody else.

Babitz is a journalist. Her books, even her putative fiction, are Babitz reporting on her life and her in it. Though she’s an excellent reporter, facts are not her métier; her métier is essence. With spare elegance, Babitz evoked the valence of a stride, a glance, a pause in conversation, a jacaranda blossom, the glint in a man’s eye, a dusty road or a glass of tequila. This gift, too, stemmed from her surfing adolescence; she grokked the ineffable long before the practical details registered. She prioritized the poetic and wrote as if that priority required no explanation.

Babitz’s greatest gift is that she can tell the difference. Few people or moments deceive her gimlet eye. Her writing reflects a central belief of her era of growing up. That belief emerges from the pioneer existentialists and the Beats: that there is such a thing as a Moment and that the astute, attuned individual can Nail it. Babitz journeyed through her life seeking Moments – or deliberately obliterating them with drink and drugs and fucking – and Nailing them. She saw as others could not. She never defaulted to cynicism. Somehow, throughout her journeys, her romantic soul endured.

 

Parsing the rules, games, purpose and valence of every social scene she encounters is Babitz’s singular genius. Though her books are set in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they are not time capsules. They delve deeply into their eras, but are of every era. Babitz’s comedies and tragedies of manners are – like Wharton’s, like Wilde’s, like Waugh’s, like Austin’s, like Eliot’s, like Joseph Heller’s and like Joan Didion’s – timeless.

Sunday
Feb262017

ELLE

He Hit Me (and it did not feel like a kiss)

Isabelle Huppert has been cast as the knowing, impervious, Paris-cool damage object in the misogynist fantasies of creepy old pervs so many times audiences barely react to her being abused. As Elle opened on a dark screen over Huppert’s anguished screams I actually thought: “Oh, another Huppert rape scene...” Nothing in it moved or touched me. Director Paul Verhoeven presented the rape as a trope and that’s what I took it for. As the movie developed into a witty, snarky comedy of the discreet charm of the French bourgeoisie – and the casual genius of their scarf-tying – I almost forgot that Huppert's character development was built on her being beaten and then fucked against her will.Isabelle Huppert and a creepy old perv

When the rape came around a second time, it was horrifying. And served its plot function: to further terrify and emotionally paralyze an already PTSD Huppert who cannot connect to any emotion save irritation. So, up to that moment, Verhoeven’s graphic depiction of the traumatic, humiliating sexual assault of a powerful, successful woman could claim at least some moral and aesthetic justification.

Then the rapes came like waves to the shore; cadenced, deliberate markers attempting to show the perversity people must embrace to overcome contemporary alienation and self-alienation. And that's the rubric under which so many normally perceptive reviewers attempt to brand this a feminist film. But Verhoeven ain't no feminist. Throughout his career he’s gotten off depicting violence against women. He digs it. The rape scenes are his most heartfelt and convincing. They're brutal, presented as primal fun for the rapist and kinda thrilling – by the fourth time – for Huppert. Verhoeven frames the fourth rape as a triumphal breakthrough of intimate connection.

This encounter hews to the (male) cliché of a mutually consenting and fulfilling rape fantasy in a meta-y, self-conscious way that's supposed to be “subversive” or about “agency” for women or some such horseshit. Instead, it’s Verhoeven signposting he thinks rape is hot. And that women who go around asking to be beaten up and fucked – because they, like Huppert, have power and wield it – feel improved by rape.

In one particularly ugly but revealing scene, Huppert’s married lover shows up at her office. The night before she told her social circle, including him, about being attacked. He tells her to quit whining and pulls out his dick. He wants a French, in-office handjob, apparently. By way of assent, Huppert picks up a garbage can and puts it between them. This is Verhoeven’s idea of a joke, and for a moment, it’s smirk-inducing. But really, who jacks off a lover into a metal garbage can with no can-liner? What Huppert needed was a box of Kleenex. But that wouldn't support Verhoeven’s 10th-grade sense of humor or present his quote theme close quote.

The men in Huppert’s life view her as a means to an end – sexual, career, nurturing – and couldn’t care less about her emotions or well-being. Contempt and hostility fuel their desire. Vorhoeven then posits rape as a straightforward, unhypocritical expression of male hostility. And that, he suggests, makes Huppert grateful and aroused.

As always in Verhoeven pictures, the cast is a mix of relaxed naturalism and bombastic self-consciousness. Charles Berling, as Huppert’s ex-husband, personifies moral ambiguity. Her lover, Christian Berkel, looks like a horny German cop and performs on that level of subtlety. In a throwaway role, Anne Consigny is relaxed and charming as Huppert’s business partner. She doesn’t get raped, the film suggests, because she seldom asserts herself.

The unrelenting ugliness is wearying. The consensual sex is hyper-meaningless; men and women regard each other with mutual contempt and loathing; deception is the primary relationship glue and everyone’s manners are perfect. The bottomless mean-spiritedness – and Huppert being raped – pushed me away. I checked out for good when Huppert uses binoculars to spy on her hot neighbor and glumly masturbates while he arranges Nativity scene statues. In the immortal words of the wise man from Planet Ten: “So what? Big deal!”     

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIQqBlLR4u8  

The commentary on French manners and mannerisms proves consistently hilarious and well-observed. The depths of Huppert’s psychological damage are thoroughly plumbed, but in aid of what? Characters turn into plot-puppets, the whole ordeal’s repetitive, at least 20 minutes too long and far less than the sum of its parts. With each gag ‘n sexual assault, Verhoeven’s message becomes increasingly clear: Huppert gets raped because it brings her not only secret pleasure, but personal insight. If that’s your idea of an artistic position, have a ball. But don’t pretend it’s feminist.

 Coda

I sent this review to writer/editor Greg Burk (metaljazz.com) and he wrote: “I think of Verhoeven as a comic filmmaker who enjoys twitting our voyeurism and his own, especially since he makes millions at it. We're supposed to feel both aroused and ashamed. Seems like he might have crossed the line, but you may be taking it more seriously than he (having his cake and eating it) intends. The trashcan and the Nativity wank are examples of his comic sense, as you point out. But your charge of sexism is justified, even though he wants to blame men (and himself).”

Greg’s comments made me realize that Elle led me to default to a moral and not a critical response – a not very useful position for a critic. Perhaps I am taking it too seriously. But the film asks the viewer to collude in its own amoral worldview and I don’t wanna. Verhoeven exploits our readiness to chuckle knowingly over genuinely toxic material. He presents his own moral bankruptcy as merely representative of the degraded social commerce of urban sophisticates in the 21st Century. Accepting a picture like this as witty or, much worse, psychologically true, only accelerates that degradation.

Isabelle Huppert incarnating the director's castration anxiety

Friday
Nov112016

Anna Biller's THE LOVE WITCH

When I say I’m in love you best believe I'm in love L U V

Samantha Robinson as Elaine (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

You wouldn’t want to mistake The Love Witch for an updating of or commentary on Beyond The Valley of the Dolls. Beyond is a camp evisceration of every sacred Sunset Strip-era trope – groovy language, bell-bottoms, LSD, free love and even rock and roll – delivered in the guise of an exploitation film. Its enduring pleasure derives from the considerable tension between director Russ Meyer’s devotion to exploitation and his apparent lack of awareness that the screenplay exploits his devotion in the service of self-parody.

Anna Biller’s The Love Witch shares with Beyond only naked young women, post-Swinging London Cleopatra eye makeup, a Kodachrome candy-apple color palette, that super-glossy, high-key early ‘70’s lighting and architectural hair. That’s it.

The Love Witch is not an exploitation film. It’s not camp. It’s a witty, endearing, meticulous, double-helix deconstruction and deadpan celebration of the cinematic presentation of gender, seduction, narcissism, self-delusion, love, “love” and naked young women. If it seems for brief moments like an exploitation film, that’s the camouflage Biller wears while hunting bigger game. Feeling Biller tiptoe up to the edge of camp and exploitation – a tightrope she walks with glee – never lessens the contradictory emotions or the political, cinematic and romantic considerations the film evokes in ways you cannot name. Those considerations and emotions never lessen the fun.

Biller triggers your detached intellect even as you immerse in and savor, for example, star Samantha Robinson’s red Mustang convertible, fantastically tacky paintings or honeyed skin. Your interest in the plot matches the director’s. When she vests, you feel the suspense. When she shifts priorities, so do you. For much of the film, plot and ideas interweave and prove equally compelling. After a while, the plot becomes secondary and that’s fine.

Biller’s mise en scene is incantory – it puts you in another state. Or, another world, one entirely constructed by Biller, who made the costumes, built the sets, composed the music and wrote the screenplay. According to an interview in The LA Weekly, Biller took six months to hook a pentagram witchcraft rug because she couldn’t find one she wanted. Her years-long investment in her vision pays off in that each moment and dialogue exchange – no matter how casual the action – seems incongruously crucial.

Anna Biller's handmade mise-en-scene (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Samantha Robinson plays Elaine, a love-starved witch. As she desperately contorts herself into her projection of what every man wants, Elaine’s unaddressed rage at those contortions leads her to create love potions that kill the men she seduces. Or worse – because Elaine accurately manifests their fantasies – the potions reduce them to babbling emotional wrecks. And as soon as a man falls for her or weeps or conveys need, Elaine has but a single thought: “What a pussy!”

The hunter here is rarely captured by the game. And why should she be? The guys revert to children any time they express their precious feelings. Biller shows an impressive grasp of the horror of 1970s men’s hair and beards. The men are off, somehow; they’re all hairy dipshits. Among themselves, the women discuss emotions and desires calmly. Then the guys show up with their insistence on being in charge and it’s clear they’re the lesser beings. Elaine’s self-esteem issues mean she can no more “be herself” around a guy than she can stop fucking down. Because she can’t, when her lovers kick the bucket, she seldom experiences loss.

But when she does, Biller flips the switch. Elaine’s grieving brings forth the primal and chthonic no witch saga can exist without. She creates a totem, a bottle of her urine in which float her used tampons. It’s a measure of Elaine’s tragic cluelessness about the male psyche that she cannot fathom why the (male) cops freak at the sight of such a thing. She attributes their disgust to an irrational fear of witchcraft.

Though she’s been compared to many exploitation goddesses, Elaine strongly evokes Celeste Yarnall in 1971’s The Velvet Vampire, directed by Stephanie Rothman and co-starring Michael Blodgett, the iconic Lance Rocke in Beyond. Elaine has Celeste’s wide, staring eyes, preternatural cool and seductive remove. Biller’s evocation of past low-rent cinema is never smirking or condescending. Quite the contrary. It’s Biller’s sincere love of the genre that make what could be awkward moments genuinely moving.

Elaine and one beau come upon a Renaissance fair. Everyone recognizes their connection. The fair people lovingly clothe Elaine and her guy in gleaming white and marry them in a mock wedding as Renaissance fair-type music plays. It should be unspeakably cheesy. Well, it is unspeakably cheesy because Elaine’s romantic delusions default to cheese. But Biller’s affection for her story and its players turn the scene into an almost heartbreaking metaphor of the distance between our dreams of romance and its reality. 

"Make our dreams real!" (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The Love Witch opens tonight - November 11th - at, among other venues - LA's NUART theatre, where Anna Biller will hold a Q & A at 7PM.

Friday
Sep302016

DANNY SAYS  

A Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: © Arturo Vega/Danny Fields Archive.

CASTLES IN THE SAND

As popular music grew from a tail of culture to the dog itself, tales of giants emerged. The giants had atuned ears and, more significantly, money and access to the means of production. When they liked what they heard, the world heard it. Jim Stewart and Estelle Aston, Dave Bartholomew, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, John Hammond and Berry Gordy, Jr., among others, had money and studios and systems of distribution.

What did Danny Fields have?

Danny Fields had an unerring instinct for the real. Passion recognized passion. Fuck accessibility. Fuck expertise. Fuck good manners. Danny sought blood and soul. If it moved him, Danny wanted to the world to hear it, no matter what. And Danny was never wrong. He never got rich, but he never signed Aerosmith, either. Steven Tyler wore his ornate stage jacket to a post-gig restaurant meeting. Danny took that as a rookie move and wanted nothing to do with Tyler or his band. Of course, the Ramones wore their stage jackets everywhere, but their jackets were cooler. 

Danny spent his formative years becoming an aesthete. Then he became something more rare and valuable: the aesthete who takes action. Danny Fields did not build empires. He built sand castles. And every one collapsed, as sand castles do. But the reverberations of their collapsing changed, as Danny Says will tell you, everything. Of my all-time top four favorite bands, Danny Fields helped discover and promote two. Those two inspired at least 10,000 other bands. Apiece.

 Danny Fields, Iggy Pop, Lisa Robinson, and David Bowie; Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: © Leee Black Childers/Danny Fields Archive.

Danny Fields snakes like a main cable through the 15 richest, most influential years in white American rock. Every band that seemed too weird, driven and intelligent to even exist – never mind make it; that time proved was decades ahead of its time; there’s Danny, fighting to get them on the radio. And every one of those bands today exerts the influence Danny always knew they would.

Danny Says is a rambunctious, low-budget, loving, companionable ode. Danny Fields deserves the reverent five-star HBO treatment. But a rambling, affectionate, awe-struck tone better suits the subject. The film consists of Danny telling stories and musical interludes. Other people, like Iggy, tell stories, too. Their stories are nowhere near as much fun as Danny’s. Nobody’s stories are as much fun as Danny’s.

Danny a freshman at Penn at 15; Danny at 19 learning how cool functions from Warhol and the Factory gang. Danny introducing Jim Morrison to Nico. Danny signing the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges with one phone call. Danny getting John Cale to produce the Stooges. Danny introducing Iggy to David Bowie. Danny declining to throw away his life to save Iggy. Danny seeing one Ramones gig and instantly becoming their manager. Danny bringing the Ramones to England and inspiring another 10,000 bands. Danny on Robert Mapplethorpe: “Everybody fucked Bobby!” Danny putting heartthrob shots of the Ramones next to David Cassidy in teen magazines.

Danny laughing and smiling, Danny rueful, Danny unpretentious and heartfelt; the coolest guy in any room who long ago dropped any pretense of cool. You know that stupid question: What historical figure would you most like to have dinner with? Now you know.

Danny Fields and Nico; Photo credit: © Linda Eastman/Danny Fields Archive.Director Brendan Toller regards Danny with amazement and delight. Danny Says is inspiring and insanely fun. You can’t wait to hear what’s coming around the corner – the next story, the next deranged incident, the next band that never got over the hump and whose failure broke Danny’s heart. Again.

The limited budget sometimes intrudes. Animation takes over when there’s no archival footage, like when Morrison met Nico and they stood silent, both staring at the same spot on the floor for an hour. The animation is crude, but sweet. There doesn’t seem enough money to buy performance rights; scenes and even still photos repeat. Most regrettably, the brief film of the MC5 makes them looks like clowns. Neither what we do see nor brief contemporary interviews give even a hint of their earthshaking blast. Toller wastes time on wanker John Sinclair, former MC5 manager and founder of the ridiculous White Panther Party. To this party, Sinclair brings nothing, but he’s the only guest who does.

Danny’s former boss at Electra Records comes off self-amused, sophisticated and living proof of how brilliant eccentrics thrive in the music biz. Nuggets compiler, author and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye describes discovering himself with Danny’s help. Iggy credits Danny for something similar. Danny discovered, against the odds, who he was supposed to be. From that he never wavered.

The final scene is almost unbearably poignant. Early in the film, Danny describes growing up brilliant and outcast on Long Island. He came to New York City, he said, seeking friends. Looking back on his life, he remarks on all the beautiful, smart, cool, insane people who became and remain his friends. “I never thought I’d have any friends,” Danny says.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Aerah72IEI

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

 

Tuesday
Aug232016

HELL OR HIGH WATER  

Debts No Honest Man Could Pay

Ben Foster and Chris Pine Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian

Hell or High Water is a sneaky-profound, accomplished, very welcome resurrection of a favorite exploitation genre that tragically disappeared: the mid-1970’s, widescreen, stick-it-to-the-Man, shoot-em-up with a Message. A bleak revisionist Western, Hell plays – as intended – like a modern country song. But not a cornball Nashville nursery rhyme like something by Toby Keith. At its best, Hell becomes a self-aware, hard-edged lament by Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson – a bloody ballad, cadenced and elegiac.

Or, given Hell’s intertwined hope and defeat, it’s pure narcocorrido.* It has all the elements: a good man gone bad for good reason; a bad man who does not want and knows he does not deserve redemption;  a fatherly law enforcement figure whose soul vengeance turns to ice and his “half-breed” partner at home in neither the white nor his native world. Each of their tales fuel a yearning for a lost time and place, a yearning for what coulda shoulda woulda.

The Man getting it stuck to is a Texas bank about to foreclose on the family home of two brothers, Ben Foster and Chris Pine. They set out to rob the bank of enough cash to pay off the mortgage. The bank wants to foreclose to exploit soon-to-begin oil leases; the brothers have to stop the bank, ditto.

Illuminating the theme of disenfranchised working-class whites caught in the cogs of oppressive big business, the brother’s success would bring a double payoff: screwing the bank screwing them and cashin’ in on that oil lucre like the invisible fat-cats who pull the strings that ruined their lives.

 Chris Pine slouches around all monosyllabic gazing sideways into the middle distance, doing his best Chris Hemsworth impression, and it’s pretty good. Ben Foster performs the heavy lifting and so talks non-stop. He occasionally wrecks the taut atmospthere by speaking the film’s themes aloud. At times the two seem like actors who just met trading lines. But at crucial plot moments, their chemistry ignites. Fortunately, their less convincing exchanges come in the first quarter of the film.

The yin to their yang are Texas Rangers, a revelatory Jeff Bridges, accompanied by Gil Birmingham as his wisecracking partner. Insult-swapping cops is an ‘80’s, not a ‘70’s trope, but exploitation demands suppression of male to male affection no matter what the era. Like the bros, the most loving thing the cops can say to each other is: Fuck you. The story crosscuts between the two sets of bros with precision timing and suspense. As in any worthy ballad, rhythm is Hell ’s strong suit.

Hell is men in a man’s world. There is no romantic subplot. Women appear briefly. They’re all so fed up with manly antics they can barely lift their eyebrows in resignation; a Greek chorus of women who find macho posturing tiresome and ridiculous. That's not the usual role for women in a Western, to say the least. Malin Ireland, playing Pine’s former wife, steals every scene with her laden silences. A lesser film would offer hints of reconciliation. But in this hardscrabble landscape, there ain't no do-overs.

 In the most powerful sequence, the brothers race out of a robbed bank to discover exactly what awaited the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang when they emerged from a plundered bank in Northfield, Minnesota in 1876:** an armed populace hype to blow their heads off. Pine and Foster met a pistol-packing Texan in an earlier robbery and escaped as he emptied his clip – even though they made of point of not taking his cash. Hell captures the seething, hair-trigger resentment of disenfranchised flyovers with Conceal Carry permits. It’s a sophisticated irony and a mid-‘70’s flashback that the trigger-happy Texas rednecks can’t recognize the brothers as their potential allies in armed revolt. The underemployed rednecks’ impotent rage makes them rejoice at a chance for legal murder. Their cold-blooded, gleeful fusillade speaks volumes about the contemporary electorate. And about how mid-‘70’s message shoot-em-ups always showed society rejecting their heroes.

The brothers race away from the bank and Hell presents a moment you’ve never before seen in a Western. Instead of horses, the armed posse fire up their pickups and SUVs and give chase. As the brothers return fire, civilian blood-lust explodes. Bridges by this time has his own reason to kill, and his performance becomes astonishing. He’s been mailing it in for a while, but here brings levels of Old Testament righteousness, of mixed grief and triumph, even his long-time fans never suspected he could never pull off. Watching him Ranger and wise-crack and be hard-bitten all over Texas of course brings to mind Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. Maybe that intimidating example inspired Bridges.

No Country looms large over Hell. Margaret Bowman – the motel clerk who can’t believe Josh Brolan wants more than one room – appears as a tough-ass waitress. She’s funny, but insists the only choice available today is what you don’t want. When secondary characters speak more than one sentence at a time – which is rare – they describes the loss of a cherished status quo. Their language is rueful and clean, Cormac McCarthy Lite. Their tiny speeches never hit a false note; they’re singing three-sentence ballads of defeat. Okay, it’s a message Western; somebody’s got to deliver the Message. 

Hell’s clumsy moments do not overwhelm its grace notes. There are plot-holes as wide as the Texas sky pushed aside by scenes right out of Jean-Pierre Melville. Foster’s best moment comes in a confrontation with a scary Native American in a casino. Foster offends him on purpose, then tries to show their affinity. The Native American, like a prideful gangster in a French Noir, is not appeased. Echoing the women, he’s had a sufficiency of swaggering broke-ass cowboys.

Hell suffers when it hits you over the head with its themes. The posse scene proves memorable because there’s no attempt at commentary. Nick Cave’s score finds the exact tone between pastoral and dread. Unfortunately, every country song on the soundtrack is wrong-headed, too on-the-nose and distracting. The film tries to use the songs to underscore emotion the scenes already evoke. The opening number – a Townes Van Zandt song that sounds nothing like Townes – and the song over the closing credits are the most egregious offenders. Each bad song hurls you out of the story.

At first Bridges was bemused, as was Pine, at what seemed to both a game. Come to the end, and neither’s assuaged the anger that fuels a war between them. The finale is bold and carefully wrought  – a truly great exploitation set-piece. Director David Mackenzie, who showed no fear of ambiguity in his under-seen Young Adam, revels in the unresolved ending. Unresolved because the saga changed Bridges and Pine. Each now sees the other – failed law enforcement vs. homegrown anarchy – as the source of his ruin. There is no simple solution and the film doesn’t stoop to provide one.

 

Jeff Bridges Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian

 

 

* Like this one from Breaking Bad   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUmpTKXpIdM 

** cf. The Great Smithfield, Minnesota Raid  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw4eL-LNejs

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The Long Riders https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hs1ZR3uIHw

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Better yet, read Ron Hansen’s Desperadoes  https://www.amazon.com/Desperadoes-Ron-Hansen/dp/0060976985/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1471906820&sr=8-1&keywords=desperadoes