Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ernest Borgnine was in town recently, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and I wanted nothing more than to share a beer and an easy conversation with the guy. It’s a hoary cliché to bemoan the fact that they just don’t make ‘em like they use to, but it’s equally hard to argue that there’s a whole lotta equivalents to Ernie Borgnine in contempo cinema. Borginine, particularly in action films, war movies, and western’s brought a sort of proletariat authenticity, whether playing grizzled, ornery, malevolent, or wizened.

Borgnine’s greatest screen moments may have been as William Holden’s right hand man in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (’69), but he enjoyed some fruitful collaborations with the often underrated Robert Aldrich (one of the masters, alongside Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller of men-in-conflict sub genre), getting the job done in Flight of the Phoenix (’65), The Dirty Dozen (’67) and The Legend of Lylah Care (’68). Aldrich is also responsible for one of good ‘ol Ernie’s toughest, all-out, son-of-a-bitch roles, that of train conductor Shack in 1973’s Emperor of the North.

A box office failure upon its release, it was a hard to categorize effort, a train tale, a depression fable, and a very weird coming-of-age story, set in Oregon in 1933, and co-starring the indubitable Lee Marvin as a kingpin hobo called A-No. 1 and newcomer Keith Carradine as footloose punk puppy dog known as Cigaret. (The movie also underwent a title change from The Emperor of The North Pole to its longstanding one-word-less appellation, the original title being an ironic moniker applied to the boss hobo, aka The King of Nowheresville.) Aldrich steadfastly claimed it to be a representational bit of cinefiction, a sideways commentary of the generational fission taking place with America at the time, but it played out as a period piece peppered with brutality despite a few picaresque zig-zags (a loose turkey and a sad sack cop played by Simon Oakland in hobo camp, a comical riverside baptism, some cat and mouse shtick between Carradine and Marvin).

Aldrich, always a filmmaker who knew exactly how to stage, frame and cut an action sequence, delivers throughout, and the action and its inherent violence are filmed with an unfussy muscularity. The hobo patois (and Marvin's rat-a-tat delivery) is ear pleasing and the train set pieces are vivid. The characterizations, especially Carradine’s irritating braggart, don’t quite jell, but Marvin fully commits to his raging roosterisms and my man Ernie just clenches those powerful choppers of his and squints his way right past evildom. I saw this movie in the theatres during my late adolescence and was held in sway by it then, and thought that the final one-on-one match-up between the two manliest of men, Lee Marvin and Ernie Borgnine, was pure action nirvana--hard, smart, thrilling, and too cool to be true. I’m still there, some 30 wizened and ornery years later.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


(As monomaniacal as I might truly be, maintaining a blog of this high degree of purity and insight (heh-heh) gets wearying. I realize I have enough know-it-all-pallies, informormed buds, and sharp hipster connections, that I oughtta let one or two of you bring it on home occasionally. Here’s the basic premise: 1-3 concise paragraphs about a CD (or as we old schoolers still refer to it-an album) that wasn’t necessarily an all-timer, a Blonde on Blonde or a London Calling. Instead, spotlight a possible peripheral release that stands the test of time and delivers on its small promises, or simply executes succinctly and manages to remain on yer personal playlist--- a sideways record, an overlooked effort, a self-contained minor gem, ya know, a record that’s got Shelf Life. Send me your brilliant overview in simple word form, and I’ll post ‘em up, giving my avid and obsessive readers (heh-heh-heh) an occasional breather from the sound of one man pontificating. The latest guest effort comes from my long ago high school pallie-and then rock and roll guru--Chas Chesler.)

This Is Hardcore-Pulp (Island, 1998)

I’ve always had a thing for groups that were “too British”; quintessential but poor selling late ‘60s Kinks, the original Small Faces, Bonzo Dog Band, etc. When Scotty D requested a contribution, I looked to bands without much US success yet more recent histories. Oasis? Too famous. Blur? Too obvious. Pulp? Ahh, yes. Our topic: 1998’s This Is Hardcore. Reaching #1 in the UK, it didn’t even chart here! Can’t get more “too British” than that.

More than ten years on, This Is Hardcore is still creepy. When Pulp leader Jarvis Cocker whisper/sings during opener “The Fear”, “You’re gonna like it, but not a lot”, the “All About Eve” Bette Davis line “Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" comes to mind.

This is an album of damaged people asking the mirror why they should go on. Cocker spins tales of excess nightlife and promiscuity and the inhabitants’ feelings of emptiness and worthlessness these appetites provoke. They recognize the physical and emotional self-destructiveness of their actions but seem powerless to stop. As the protagonist in “Party Hard” demands “If you didn’t come to party, why did you come?”
Over a pastiche of styles, Chris Thomas’ production is sharp-edged and remote. Elements of glam, pop, arena balladry (think Bob Ezrin-era Alice Cooper), disco and a bit of dissonance can be found.

There is no respite here as each song gets under your skin and the cycle repeats. “This Is Hardcore” unintentionally acts a warning to married with children couples with second thoughts; a much darker vision of The Kinks’ “Two Sisters”, one of whom chooses the home life rather “Than the wayward lass that her sister had been”.

Cocker lends his own name to the opening lyrics on “Dishes”, about a self-loathing kept man: “I am not Jesus, but I have the same initials”. A rare light moment on a highly recommended dark masterpiece.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Going Medeival

The following column is reprinted from the September issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem neccessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Quentin Tarantino’s often told personal tale, that of a brash, young know-it-all video clerk who writes his way into the heady upper regions movie industry, writing and making his directorial debut with the in-yer-face Reservoir Dogs in 1992, dashing off the screenplay for boldly rococo True Romance in 1993, contributing the story to attention-grabbing Natural Born Killers in 1994, and ultimately co-writing and directing up-the-ante Pulp Fiction that same year, spurred on a subsequent generation of movie scribblers and film nibblers, all bent on skipping over film school or industry apprenticing and vaulting directly into movie-making power, glory, and box-office ching-a-ling, equipped with nothing more than an audacious concept or two, some twisted dialogue, and the tippity-tap of the lap top keyboard.

In the decade plus that’s followed there has certainly been dozens of Tarantino (or QT, as he is known to his more ardent followers) approximators, imitators, followers, and cinematic brothers-in-arms, none of whom have held a candle to his single-minded filmmaking wonder world—a particularly peculiar filmic view that welds together genres, movie history, and pop culture fervor in vastly entertaining packages that are always part spectacle, part low concept, and part (yup) pulp fiction. His latest, long rumored to be in the works, is Inglourious Basterds, an ostensible take on the old school World War II movie that could have almost been made by tipping a few shelves over in the hip video store around the corner, and spicing together a heady batch of both disparate and kindred found footage culled equally from the mainstream and the exploitative.

Inglourious Basterds is bound to be intensely polarizing (as the initial nitcriticism indicates), as it rolls out as if derived from an aesthete’s blueprint, yet seems crafted with pulp cartoonishness, continually nudging the artful into the low-down, craftily airing out the florid excesses of melodrama and outright tawdriness. It is, without question, QT’s ultimate video clerk film fantasia, a movie boiled in the oil of melted down film nitrate stock (ironically enough, also one of the movie’s plot points), a film that unequivocally operates in a readymade cinematic vacuum. Tarantino’s movies have never been intended to peel back the shell and reveal anything of moral or psychological import, and this—a Holocaust revenge fantasy—doesn’t even hint at any significance outside of tickling the pleasure sensors. It’s a wacked-out paean to the delirious beguilements of the cinema, happily self-indulgent and brazenly self-assured.

As per usual, Tarantino’s arc is dominated more by character than plot, and the movie flies by the ring-a-ding-ding of its skillfully wrought hyper-dialogue. It’s all about the talkers, and the clichéd movie-movie toy soldiers are coolly filled out by a disparate cast of eye-archers. Brad Pitt plays the “Aldo the Apache”, a southern-fried Lieutenant leading a group scruffy Jewish soldiers (known as the Inglourious Basterds) intent on getting behind enemy lines and (literally) taking the scalps of 100 Nazis apiece. The squad winds up mixing and matching with the likes of undercover Brit soldier (and practicing film critic!)Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbinder), sexy German film queen Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), movie palace operator-with-a-past Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), and silky smooth Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), better known as “the Jew hunter.” Waltz walked away with a well deserved acting prize at this year’s Cannes, and in all actuality he gets much more screen time than the top-billed Pitt, who is fairly acute at rendering a caricature that would be equally at home in a Coen Brothers’ film.

Inglourious Basterds is 153 minutes of pop-art felicity, a rollicking collision of the absurd and the visceral, and there will be those (like myself) who can’t help but be swept along in its chortling, blazing, transparently outrageous pop-cult blender. In the blink of an eye, the film conjures up or draws upon huge dollops of film iconography, ranging from and to The Great Dictator, The Alamo, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Devil’s Brigade, The Dirty Dozen, Ennio Morricone, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, Aldo Ray, Peter Sellers, Emil Jannings, G.W. Pabst, Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg, war movies, westerns, splatter flics, and film noir. To top it off, the movies very finale is set within the plush confines of Tarantino’s very own “Cinema Paradiso.”

To others, all of this is sugary frosting and not much more, and QT will be (perhaps justifiably) accused of substituting intellectualism for inanity, of passing off virtuosity as substance, of allowing shallowness to be painted as pointed (and artistically fermented) nihilism. He’d probably laugh that sort of complaint off, and tell ya that a movie is just a movie, man, and the pleasure always lies within the framework. As far as that goes Inglourious Basterds is written with sharp malevolence, shot with blissful theatricality, rendered with an adrenaline-pumping tension, and delivered with an overall directorial panache that you simply don’t find in the vast majority of mainstream movie offerings. No way around it, Tarantino, the film maven-turned-filmmaker, truly goes medieval this time out.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


(As monomaniacal as I might truly be, maintaining a blog of this high degree of purity and insight (heh-heh) gets wearying. I realize I have enough know-it-all-pallies, informormed buds, and sharp hipster connections, that I oughtta let one or two of you bring it on home occasionally. Here’s the basic premise: 1-3 concise paragraphs about a CD (or as we old schoolers still refer to it-an album) that wasn’t necessarily an all-timer, a Blonde on Blonde or a London Calling. Instead, spotlight a possible peripheral release that stands the test of time and delivers on its small promises, or simply executes succinctly and manages to remain on yer personal playlist--- a sideways record, an overlooked effort, a self-contained minor gem, ya know, a record that’s got Shelf Life. Send me your brilliant overview in simple Word form, and I’ll post ‘em up, giving my avid and obsessive readers (heh-heh-heh) an occasional breather from the sound of one man pontificating. Weighing in this time is The Professor, Wayne Cresser)

Submarine Bells- The Chills (Slash, 1990)

I probably wouldn't have known much more about the Chills than the catchy “I Love My Leather Jacket,” if it hadn’t been for one of those blessed mixed cassettes that friends would give me when the mood struck them. I never saw these 90 minute gems coming, which was a good thing since the surprise of the music had a better chance of working different levels when that happened.

Jen M. gave such a tape to let me know what the radio kids at Wheaton College were digging; this was maybe Spring, 1992. On the tape, there was a lot of Yo la Tengo, Pavement, a wonderfully strange Connecticut outfit called Uncle Wiggly, an even stranger Wiggly spinoff called Fly Ashtray and the sublime Chills from New Zealand. “Leather Jacket,” was in the mix, but that was just the key that opened the door to two songs from their 1990 album Submarine Bells: “Heavenly Pop Hit,” and the title track. “…Pop Hit” was impossibly bubbly-sounding. Paced by an echoey, ascending organ, it might float away if it were not tied to Martin Phillipps’ skeptical writing:

And I’m growing in stages,
and have been for ages,
Just singing and floating and free. Dum de dum dum
Its a heavenly pop hit
If anyone wants it.

The bolded line brings things back down to earth. Not a lot of people wanted “it” despite the Chills wit, charm and musical intelligence. The title track is flat out beautiful, with Phillips putting the finishing touches on the ocean motif that floats under the entire record (which I have to admit, did not come into my possession until years later).

Between the alpha and the omega, there are ten more elegant tunes, the best of which rock hard, “Familiarity Breeds Contempt,” soft, “Don’t Be-Memory,” and weird, “I Soar.” Submarine Bells is one of those records you always listen to in its entirety and wonder what it might have sounded like live.

I imagine the Chills toured the States in the 90’s, but sadly, I didn’t see them. If only I’d been paying more attention

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Don't Look Now

Just when you think that the contempo version of the horror genre has run its course, wham—a dumbass kill fest like last week’s new release The Final Destination hits the muddy ground running and racks ups the box office ducats. For those of you who desire something a bit more from the genre, the perfect antidote has arrived—a pristine new transfer from Criterion of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), one of the finer psychological thrillers ever made.

Although this was only Polanski’s second feature, and his first English language film, his sense of detail and unnervingly chilling pacing demonstrate his youthful cinematic mastery. Of course, as always with Polanski theme plays a dominate role, and this tale of alienation and sexual repression unfolds sublimely, with the picture perfect Catherine Deneuve (all 21 years of her) at the center as Carol, a Belgian manicurist sleepwalking through the spidery sidewalks of 60’s London. Carol is being chased by a handsome young man (John Fraser), and being affronted by her roommate and sister’s (Yvonne Furneaux) invading (and probably married) lover (Ian Hendry). Left alone for a week, she slowly dissipates, and as Polanski positions the viewer into sharing her subjectivity we witness her creaky apartment come alive with unnerving noises, shadowy glimpses, and walls that seem to almost breathe and sigh as she entombs herself, both psychically and psychologically.

Although the similarly plotted (and themed) Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is the work of an obviously more mature filmmaker, Repulsion is a commanding film, beguilingly composed and effectively stitched together, and creepy as all get out. In a strange way this is an anti-Hitchcockian thriller, although it shares Hitch’s penchant for mixing up sex, dread, and violence and it also is an effort that acutely utilizes the visual as a code for the psychological. Hitchcock enticed viewers with a surfeit of surface cinematic bedazzlement, and only audiences that chose to penetrated deep below the surface. Polanski, on the slips and slides and burrows into the subterranean psychosexual blues, accompanying it with a visual scheme that always seems poised to veer into the surreal, creating supreme tension because it never quite does. Yet, like any of the more powerful Hitchcock efforts, Repulsion will stay with you and linger ever so tantalizingly in the mind's eye, long after your viewing experience.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Las Vegas Redux

(Although home, can't wipe the arid Las Vegas air outta my lungs, nor can I rid my nose of the perfumed stench of gung ho gamblers and witless casino dwellers, and my mind can't erase the all-out stale, pre-packaged wierdness of the landscape, so I dug out last year's after-the-trip reaction, presented below.)

Ahhhhh, Las Vegas. Just returned from an annual business trip/four-day tour and I still can’t get that horrifying (and continual) sound of the ever-clanging slot machines out of my head. That and the ongoing sight of hookers, high-rollers, bottom-feeders, sandal and short donning grown men, weirdly tanned women, hyped-up Asian youth, fat-assed security guys, all exhaling that strange combo of desperation and hope.

It ain’t Sinatra’s Vegas any more, although a brief excursion through so-called “Old Vegas” provided some temporary stale but outside breathing and a chance to walk among the more middle-class dreamers and beamers in a slightly upgraded version of the Atlantic City boardwalk. Just to make sure that I was fully aware that I could never walk in Frankie’s venerated footsteps, my colleagues decided that we should (for once) go to a show, rather than just eat, drink, and gamble till the wee wee hours.

My boys, good guys all, are not exactly culturally discerning, and some how the choice was made to sit through a performance of Cirque du Soliel’s Mystere. (Yeah I know, not even the Beatle’s show!) The sight of us, nine grown men in various states of inebriation and head titling sleepiness, seat by seat next to each other awaiting this hocus-pocus mix of mime, acrobatics, and artificial meaningfulness had to be, without a doubt, the gayest image I’ve ever been part of. After nodding through most of it, recoiling at half of it, and, despite my struggles, fully inhaling the acid aroma of stale showbiz cheese, I burst out onto the streets and left my union brethren behind, desperate to find my inner manliness, to go John Wayne on someone, to plunge down the Vegas strip with the Zen toughness of Burt Lancaster, the brutish male soul of Robert Mitchum, and the hard and clear oh-so-masculine eyes of Lee Marvin.

I immediately bent right down on the sidewalk and sniffed the first pretty girl’s ass that I saw, elbowed aside a couple of frat boy jokers and flashed ‘em the psycho stare, broke up the hand-clenching of two starry-eyed young lovers, got on my hand and knees and scooped up every grimy call girl playing card stuck to the curbsides, asked two silicone-injected west coast divorcee types to do the funky chicken with me, tore up the stairs to one the saddest McDonalds of all time and swallowed a Big Mac and left the goo right on my lips, threw a few fries at some Frenchy looking bastards with poofed-up hair walking below, then zigzagged across the street challenging any one of the Pakistani cabbies to run me over, demanded two Cuervo Gold shots and a Budweiser at the nearest bar and loudly asked anyone in the vicinity to tell me if there was a better sports town on earth than Boston, and by the way did they know that the 6-0 Celtics were marching directly towards the NBA crown, that Bill Belichick oughta just tap dance on the grave of Vince Lombardi, and that the Red Sox just might roll through the next coupla World Series. The bartender cast a weary eye on me, pointed a finger a the torn Cirque du Soliel stub sticking out of my top pocket, and told me in a quiet but stern voice that the next round was on him, nodding sagely all the while.