Saturday, November 19, 2011

Shaking Intensified

It was with great pleasure, and a certain swell of pride, that I recieved the first copies of a new self-published anthology drawn from the online journal Shaking Like a Mountain (now called Shaking Online, with an expanded editorial focus), edited by co-conspirators Vito Grippi and my pal Wayne Cresser, containing 17 fiction and non-fiction pieces, all built around a connection to popular music serving as a central conceit. Of course it's filled with some evocative writing, and (yeah, baby) it includes one of my own, originally entitled "Bo Diddley: He Used a Cobra Snake for a Necktie, 1928-2008", from June,2008, reprinted below. As the editors themselve suggest, a near perfect stocking stuffer, available here.

A Tribute to Bo Diddley
by Scott Duhamel

Somewhere in the ever-holy Tower of Song the residents shuffle up the winding staircase (handrails gleaming, carved from ancient ivory) to the bone-shaking, perpetually hypnotic, and pure rhythm Bo Diddley Beat. Bo, like Little Richard, like Chuck Berry, helped erect the sturdy bridge between the swamp of jazz, blues, country and gospel that lead to rollicking sea of rock and roll, Bo, as himself, is the undeniable architect of one of rock’s bulwarks--the otherworldly hip-shaking, chunka-chunka in-yer-head cadence of rock and roll. Bo, without the glammy, sweaty immediacy of Little Richard, who probably performed his way out of the womb, or the sharp, calculated story tunes and radio showy guitar hooks of Chuck Berry, offered up a different sort of regal showmanship.

Bo stood stage center like a conductor, hips akimbo, tasty hat, square eyeglasses, boxy guitar, oozing a quiet confidence while unleashing his snaky tremolo and laying down his first person eurhythmics. While Sun Ra readily informed his audiences and collaborators that he been transported to space and thus transformed, Bo might well have been a true time-traveler, clad in his own version of a space suit, his vast array of tailsmanic guitars his means of teleportation, mixing and matching the rumbling backbeat he lifted from the train yards of Chicago with ancient African tribal chants and the rat-a-tat-tat of a western gunslinger’s discharge, seemingly deprived of his earthly just desserts (money and fame), but actually here with other interstellar purposes: help create rock and roll, jumpstart the Rolling Stones, and lay down a mystical, eternal syncopation that will forever hold its sway.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hitch’s Children

(Reprinted from Pop Eye)

One of my all time gurus, John Cale, once put it succinctly in song: “Fear is a man’s best friend.” Peeps in general (old school peeps, new school peeps, outta school peeps, probably even pre-school peeps ), all dig a good scare, always seem to be peeping around the darker corners of pop cult and their own upstairs windows trying to suss out yet another dose of temporary terror, attempting to churn up some innate fear-inducing chills and thrills, whether it be the ol’ pop- and-fresh in-yer-face shudder and shrink, or laying down the connected tracks for a psychological roller coaster ride, whether it be through literature, through the movies, or by splashing ketchup around the fake arrow sticky out of their pointy heads when they parade around in costumes on Halloweenie Day. (Myself, I don’t go hog-wild over Halloween because of those very costumes and the attendant behavior of those clad in them—they make me very, very nervous, but that’s a story for another day.)

Movies have long provided the safe distance into which one can thrust oneself directly into the realm of psychological, physical, or supernatural fear, and, by theory at least, be protected by the very distancing effects of the medium itself. Whatever route they take or genre they inhabit—whether it be the blood-and-entrails type, the slow-burn-to-insanity number, the have-some-paranoia side dish, or the occult special---movies have a special way of going bump in the dark and allowing for a certain release of tension, even if it’s simply the slow roll of the end credits. Of course the hypersensitive need not apply, and even the occasional regular Joe finds himself suddenly disoriented when a latent film image or a particularly piquant plot structure just keeps intruding upon his or her waking life. The catharsis that’s supposed to be part of the movie-movie deal ain’t always exactly delivered appropriately, particularly with the jaded-before-their-time, seen-it-all, oversaturated, highly desensitized contempo audiences.

The cinematic masters of the thriller-diller, the chop-‘em-up, the anxiety-arouser, the old fashioned spook fest, are indeed legion, ever expanding, and always keeping the creaking door open for any savvy art house director or pulpy filmmaker to step in for a one-timer, and try their hand in entering the ongoing (and perpetual) big screen fear fest. Names get bandied about, names like Polanski, Lewton, Lynch, Raimi, Carpenter, Argento, De Palma, Browning, Whale, Murnau, Romero, Cronenberg, and a whole passel of too-many-to-recount newbies, yet one truly stands above the rest: Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitch is the guy, the king of the fear swing, the cinematic svengali who continually wielded assorted degrees of voyeurism and sadism along with a blanket of Kafkaesque determination, bookending that filmic stew with ever eroding nerve endings and narrative uncertainty, all under the spell heavy duty moral implications, all in the glorious name of both art and commerce. Hitch was one filmmaker who, again and again, achieved a meaningful symbiosis between image, editing, camera movement, plot, character, tone and theme, and did most of it in the name of suspense. Much has been written about the films of Hitchcock, his sublime techniques, and his ability to layer a box office hit with overriding questions of guilt and morality. Hitchcock, with the possible exception of his late effort Frenzy (1972), didn’t do gore, didn’t do guts, and steadfastly refrained from all things Grand Guignol.

It was all about the power of suggestion, about the lights and shadows of both the visual palate and, yep, the soul. The ultimate Hitch film, as far as the fear factor goes is 1960’s Psycho. Not enough space allowed to re-sing its many virtues: taut, virtuosic, spine-tingling, exquisitely crafted, suggestive, lurid, flamingly Freudian, plus the cast, the score, the cinematography, the shower sequence. Years later, many would argue that Psycho, because it unleashed the first semblance of unimaginable but almost gleefully delivered overt violence--that knife against that bare skin under that deluge of sprayed water capped off by the black and white image of a splash of blood circling down the drain-- despite its indefensible stamp of artistry, set the dynamics of a whole brave and bold new cinema of unease. Hitch, what has thy wrought?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bar Talk # 6

Overheard Friday Night (9-16-11) at Nick-A-Nees
Providence, Rhode Island
(Purty much reported as close to verbatim as possible.)

If there’s one thing that truly curbs my enthusiasm it’s actually watching Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

By the end of this Sox-Rays series I’ll be washing down my popcorn with vodka and Drano on the rocks. I’m calling it the J-Lackey.

My father was a union man for forty five years. He was around when everyone knew they needed unions. Back in the day they just knew it.

I can’t play pool but I do know how to bend over and shake my ass.

I just came from the Dropkick Murphy’s outdoor show and man it seemed like it was just that close to the edge of weird-poseur-white-guy-high-testosterone-violence.

Q: How can you waste your time talking to those boring idiots? A: Well someone has to do it, right?

Taj Mahal at the Park Cinema, can you explain that to me?

Those jello-shots seem frat-like and they don’t really seem to fit in with this place, do they? I’ve had three, and now I’m looking hard for the jello-shot girl.

It’s like the time machine just let some travelers out the sliding doors, except they came out slightly altered.

Sure, RFK wasn’t exactly JFK-lite, nor was he Teddy Boy-reinforced.

Billy Wilder talking about comedy is like a priest talking about eternal redemption, you got to give the guy certain credence.

I just don’t see Governor Chafee leading any of us to the Promised Land.

A few good drinks are far better for the brain cells than TM, LSD, yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, massage, or running around in the woods in your underwear and socks and do you know how I know this? Look around man, all those dudes and dudettes who specialize in that shit are in here sucking them down.

Why are half of those dancers wearing yacht togs and boating attire?

I’d do her with my pool stick, sans chalk, know what I mean?

Did you see him in action last night, he was inventing a brand new half-a-step primitive stomp, and just because of his hair most of the party was trying to follow him down that rocky road.

If that’s the hippy hippy shake find me some young republicans.

That’s the kinda guy who stands in front of the mirror to see if his brown fedora matches his red thong.

She broke my heart, my wallet and my ass and there’s a part of me that still wants to give her mucho credit and another goddamned chance. Buy me a drink, the stupider the better.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Do The Needle Drop

(One of New York's finest, albeit a cult band of sorts, The Del-Lords, will be playing in an unidentified backyard in South County this Saturday afternoon. For those interested, in what will be an undeniable rocking (and special) good time, contact Dan [].)

The Del-Lords
by Michael Tanaka

For a very long time-- decades, now that I think about it, I’ve been making a semi-annual pilgrimage to a used record shop just outside Hartford, in Weathersfield, Ct.

I go to Ed Krech’s “Integrity n’ Music” mostly for out-of-print and obscure jazz records. That’s his specialty. But over the years I’ve also discovered many hidden treasures tucked away in the bins of the rock section. Now I’m not talking uber-collector shit here—if you just went scrambling off for your copy of “Goldmine” and your rarities want-list, forget it. I’m talking about cool stuff you don’t see much anymore—mostly uncommon and forgotten LP’s that fell through the cracks in the 1980’s when vinyl began its slow death.

Example… a few years ago, while rifling the bins at Integrity, I happened upon the first three Replacements LP’s on Twin-Tone (Sorry, Ma…, Let It Be, and Hootenanny) as well as Tim and a couple of later titles on Sire. Each one was virtually unplayed and under three bucks each. Sure, I’ve got that stuff on cd—who doesn’t? But believe me when I tell you that vinyl really does sound warmer—it sounds better. And in addition, when you drop that needle and start to listen to an analog recording on vinyl, it has a certain magic way of really taking you back.

So a few weeks ago, I hit another major vein in the rock memory mine when I flipped through the bins and uncovered the first three records by the Del-Lords. Now the Del-Lords have come up in conversation many times in the past. My pal Scott Duhamel is a huge fan of both the Dictators and Del-Lords’ Scott Kempner and has long sung the praises of Joan Jett/Steve Earle guitarist Eric Ambel. But like most of you, I suspect, I hadn’t done a lot of in-depth listening to the Del-Lords in close to twenty-plus years. So scoring the first three LP’s by this critically acclaimed, yet relatively unsung band gave me the perfect opportunity to crack open a cold one, do the needle-drop, sit back and listen. And what a treat it was.

Of course, like a nerd, I played the records in order, so when I caught the opening track of the Del-Lords’ first album, Frontier Days, (1984), I was spun around when I heard their hard-rocking cover of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” Like a line-drive double off the first pitch, this song comes out of the box strong, with incredibly tight playing, great energy and a muscular sense of swing. And as I listened to the lyrics, I was reminded of how socially conscious Scott Kempner and the boys were—I mean “are.” The song they picked to kick-off their debut, a Ry Cooder cover of a 1929 depression-era folk song (some say it was the first “protest” song) is even more relevant today than it was when the Del-Lords blistered through the track during the reign of Reagan. The song has been done plenty of times before and since-- even Bruce Springsteen added the song to his Seeger Sessions tour and subsequent American Land Edition recording in 2006. I recommend you listen to all three versions— by Cooder, Bruce, and the Del-Lords—and I guarantee the one recorded by the Lords is the one that will make you sit up and take notice. And to make that song your very first album cut—that’s balls.

And there are more Del-Lords songs from Scott Kempner’s pen that tackle tough topics directly, and manage to escape being sappy or sentimental—songs about serious stuff that still rock. “Soldier’s Home,” from the second album, “Johnny Comes Marching Home” is a blatant anti-war statement wrapped in a catchy, hook-laden package, and later in the album, “Against My Will” is a first-person account of a hostage held by terrorists.

But the Del-Lords are far, far more than a rock band with a conscience. In fact, thinking of them in that way sort of does them a disservice. This is a band that just rocks, straight up. in a no-frills, no posturing manner, with great guitar playing totally devoid of typical 1980’s riff-histrionics. This band is, in many ways, less about what they are than about what they are not. Make a list of all the things that annoy you about 80’s rock (synthesizers, fake drums, over-production, over-compression, digital delay, big hair, spandex—you could go on and on), and it is amazing how much of that is not the Del-Lords sound.

You can’t deny the Del-Lords’ ability to rock it in those first three albums, and you can clearly hear the influences of rockabilly, folk, country and punk—all enhanced with clean, uncluttered guitar solos and smart, funny, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics (another hallmark of the earlier, under-appreciated Dictators). In the garage-band flavored, near surf-parody “I Play the Drums” from their first album, Kempner writes of typical rock angst and alienation with deadpan humor: “When I hate everyone / Instead of going for my gun / I play the drums.” And in “The Cool and the Crazy,” on their third record, the first-person song spews self-indulgent hip babble, delivered without a trace of irony: “We’re the outsiders / Watching the whole show. / It’s amazing how much it resembles TV / An L-7 world lost in mediocrity.”

All I can say is that’s beautiful, daddy-O!

But when it’s time to play it straight, honest and cut it close to the bone, Kempner makes it simple and direct. “Judas Kiss” is a great screed about betrayal, and “Pledge of Love” is a love song that, in anyone else’s hands, could dance close to the edge of the corn-field, but listen to the Lords bring it, and it’s pure rock n’ roll.
Those first three Del-Lords records I found were recorded and released in 1984, 1986 and 1988. A live EP and another studio records later, and they were essentially done by 1990. But you can listen to all these great songs again, re-released recently on cd, with lots of cool, additional info and liner notes written by Scott Kempner. And three of the four original members of the band-- Kempner and Eric Ambel on guitars, with Frank Funaro on drums are playing out live again. Last year they played a house concert locally, somewhere in Wakefield, RI, before taking off for a tour of Europe. They’re doing it again this year, and I plan to be there for the house concert show. That’s even better than listening to the LP’s.

There’s a line from The Cool and the Crazy that sums up the Del-Lords in my book— “We don’t follow fashion / Who needs it when you got style.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Be Kind Rewind
by Mark Duhamel
(My brother Mark and I grew up a year apart, and shared the same bedroom until we hit the big 18 and respectively hit the road. We were nurtured, educated, and exhilarated by much of the same popcult preoccupations and discoveries, and despite a fairly continual 37 year separation of geographical home bases we remain largely on the same page. He often sends me astute, pithy, extremely erudite movie-movie reactions after viewing some gem or cult classic during the twilight hours, and I’ve decided to post them on a semi-regular basis

Do the Noir Part 2
By Mark Duhamel

I thought I’d watch some Film Noir. That particularly cynical pre and post WWII genre of films often imitated and seldom equaled in it’s stark and sometimes unrelentingly bleak view of human nature in subsequent movie making eras. I am a big fan of the lighting, photography, and especially the sensibility of these mostly low budget,B&W films. The synopses used here are courtesy of Netflix.

Sullivan's Travels 1942
90 minutes

Tired of churning out fluffy comedies, Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) decides to write a serious, socially responsible film about human suffering. When his producers point out that he knows nothing of hardship, he hits the road as a hobo. On his journey, Sullivan invites an out-of-work actress (Veronica Lake) to be his traveling companion, and the pair get into more trouble than they ever dreamed of.

Cast:Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Margaret Hayes, Eric Blore, Esther Howard, Georges Renavent, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlin, Jan Buckingham, Jimmie Dundee, Roscoe Ates, Billy Bletcher, Monte Blue, Chester Conklin, Edgar Dearing, Harry Hayden, Edward Hearn, Arthur Hoyt, Paul Jones, Elsa Lanchester, J. Farrell MacDonald, Paul Newlan, Emory Parnell, Willard Robertson, Dewey Robinson, Preston Sturges, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Julius Tannen, Harry Tyler, Pat West
Director:Preston Sturges

Okay, this is not noir. Maybe it has some noir elements to it, but it is definitely not noir. I watched it because I wanted more Veronica Lake. I wanted to watch her in “The Blue Dahlia” and “The Glass Key”, but these films are not currently available for rental or purchase.

Did you know she was 4’ 11 ½” and that she only made it to age 50, dying of hepatitis? She briefly dated Marlon Brando, whose Hollywood star was rising as her dazey days were fading. Brando later heard that Lake was cocktail waitressing and sent her a check for a $1000. She never cashed it but framed and kept it.

She is absolutely brilliant, funny, sexy, and radiant in this wonderful film that somehow pulls off making fun of Hollywood, social justice, fame and celebrity, greed and poverty, and itself with a non-stop barrage of witty dialogue, slapstick humor, and an impossible and implausible balance of hard-boiled cynicism and wide-eyed optimism. This is one of those rare films that get better and better as time passes.

The Turning Point 1952
81 minutes

Is John Conroy's police officer father, Matt (Tom Tully), on the wrong side of the law? John, a prosecutor trying to rid his town of crime, hopes not, but newsman Jerry McKibbon (William Holden) says Matt has been running around with mobster Harrigan (Ted de Corsia). But Jerry can't be fully trusted either, considering he's got a thing for John's gal pal, Amanda (Alexis Smith). William Dieterle directs this noirish drama.

Cast:William Holden, Edmond O'Brien, Alexis Smith, Tom Tully, Ed Begley, Danny Dayton,
Director:William Dieterle

A nice paean to principle and friendship conquering evil. The evil portrayed here is a truly absolute and venal evil, worthy of overcoming mundane romantic triangles and professional jealousies to find solidarity and true warrior spirit.
Featuring the Prince of Cynical All-Knowing; William Holden, who along with the rest of the cast turns in an admirable performance while noir morality morass swirls around them and we feel sympathy for the devil in all of us decent but poor cops who took a little on the side to put their smart sons through law school so they could eventually overcome our corruption. The bad guy is really bad; the small timers; really small, and the innocent victims: of course; exceptionally innocent in a harsh, bitter, and cruel postwar reality.

Pushover 1954
87 minutes

Police detective Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) is assigned the not-unpleasant task of striking up a friendship with Lona McLane (Kim Novak), the girlfriend of a man suspected of engineering a bank heist that netted more than $200,000 and cost a policeman his life. Immediately falling for the bombshell, the cop soon finds himself neck-deep in her scheme to betray her boyfriend and make off with the loot.

Cast:Fred MacMurray, Philip Carey, Kim Novak, Dorothy Malone, E.G. Marshall, Allen Nourse,Alan Dexter, Robert Forrest, Don Harvey, Paul Richards
Director: Richard Quine

Fred MacMurray was born to play these noir, doomed characters. His hangdog, “I’m so tired” face looks like he’s one cigarette away from killing everyone in the room and then, with a sigh, himself. This film “introduced” Kim Novak, who previously had only appeared in an uncredited role and just prior to doing this film, changed her name from Marilyn to Kim and took some acting lessons. She does fine and is well cast in this film, that strange noir femme fatale mix of sexual charisma, innocence, and chilling opportunism. Her best scene is not when she’s cooing and kissing but when she snarls curt rejoinders at a lusting bar patron trying to make her, violently spilling her drink on him when he won't lay off. The plot for this is a classic noir arc; predictable but still immensely enjoyable as the few moments of feral passion turn into oblivion for more than one of it’s characters.

Scarlet Street 1945
102 minutes

Unassuming cashier Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) falls hard when he meets Kitty (Joan Bennett). They become involved, but Kitty keeps a petty crook, Johnny (Dan Duryea), on the side as her real love interest. Hoping to impress Kitty, Cross embezzles funds from his employer. What he doesn't realize is that Kitty and Johnny are getting rich on Cross's paintings, which have become a huge success under Kitty's name.

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, Rosalind Ivan, Jess Barker, Charles Kemper, Anita Sharp-Bolster, Samuel S. Hinds, Vladimir Sokoloff, Arthur Loft, Russell Hicks
Director: Fritz Lang

Classic Edward G. playing against type, masterful B&W photography and precision direction by none other than Fritz Lang. Joan Bennett, what a knockout! No kidding, just watch her slink around on her “lazy legs” and you’ll be glad you took the time. Dan Duryea establishes himself as one of the greatest weasel-eyed, rat-faced, snake voiced bad guys in what became a career of playing bad guys, especially in Westerns. The opening scene smartly establishes class consciousness in a post-war country where there are no classes. The working class nebbish clerk Edward G. is presented with a 25 years watch, which he clumsily and humbly acknowledges as beyond his means, while his banker boss shows camaraderie handing out dollar cigars until he has to leave for a rendezvous with a dame who’s not his wife easily 1/3 his age. This last circumstance plants the weed of discontent in our nebbish hero. The mise en scene reveals director Lang’s deep roots in the visual medium as several scenes could easily play without dialogue, effectively propelling the story and transmitting the lust, greed, jealousy, deception, love and hate that fester for 96 of the 102 minutes. It ends with one of the bleakest fates for our fallen hero, one far worse than the hanging he sadly desires and richly deserves.

Odd Man Out (Gang War) 1947
116 minutes

In this film noir from director Carol Reed, Johnny McQueen (James Mason), leader of a secret Irish rebel organization, plans a hold-up that will provide funds to keep his group going. During the crime, things go sour and Johnny is wounded. Unable to make it to the hideout, he disappears into the seedy underground of Belfast, Northern Ireland. A massive manhunt is launched by the police, whose chief is intent on capturing Johnny and his gang.

Cast:James Mason, Robert Newton, Kathleen Ryan, Cyril Cusack, F.J. McCormick, William Hartnell, Fay Compton, Denis O'Dea, W.G. Fay, Maureen Delaney, Elwyn Brook-Jones, Robert Beatty, Dan O'Herlihy, Kitty Kirwan, Beryl Measor
Director: Carol Reed

This is a beautifully photographed film, featuring the deep focus and complex lighting of the fabulous British studio era. I love the sharp edges and shiny halos created by the banks of key, fill, and rim lights, flags, gobos, scrims, and other arcana of the high craft of this age. Carol Reed deserves his reputation as a master of the medium. James Mason, Kathleen Ryan, Cyril Cusack, Dan O’Herlihy, and all performers down to the slightest bit players deliver the highest order of performance in a taut drama that shows a slice of Irish life and presents “the struggle” in a way that transcends the stereotypes employed in the service of story. Top notch exposition, visual virtuosity and a truly sad but satisfying emotional resolution.

Dead Reckoning 1947
104 minutes

Humphrey Bogart stars as Rip Murdock, a World War II veteran ensnared in a web of crime and conspiracy when his best friend, Johnny Drake (William Prince), disappears en route to Washington, D.C., to receive a war medal. Murdock follows the trail to Drake's hometown, where he finds his friend's body burned beyond recognition. His continuing investigation soon involves Drake's ex-girlfriend, femme fatale Cory Chandler (Lizabeth Scott).

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott, Morris Carnovsky, Charles Cane, William Prince, Marvin Miller, Wallace Ford, James Bell, George Chandler
Director: John Cromwell

A smash-up of all the great Bogart noir films you’ve ever seen. In fact, I think some of the dialogue is verbatim from both “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep”. In any case, the opening shots of Bogie’s wounded face and his gravelly voice-over presage everything that is to come. There is no other actor possessing the irresistibly compelling visage, voice, and charisma of Humphrey Bogart. He is not a handsome man, yet it is totally believable that all women, and most men, find him an irresistible force. This film is the a-b-c of every subsequent noir and pseudo noir. The villain’s dialogue is the only challenge to suspension of disbelief, far too erudite and high-blown, but a small irritation in an otherwise tic-tac-toe postwar melodrama.

Hobo with a Shotgun 2011
86 minutes

This gory, gleefully over-the-top revenge fantasy stars Rutger Hauer as the Hobo, a bum who rolls into town hoping to start over, only to find his adopted city saturated in violence and ruled by a vicious crime lord known as the Drake (Brian Downey). The Hobo's answer? Pick up his handy pump-action scattergun and start laying waste to crooks, corrupt cops and every other lowlife who crosses his path.

Cast:RutgerHauer, Pasha Ebrahimi, Rob Wells, Brian Downey, Gregory Smith, Nick Bateman, Drew O'Hara, Molly Dunsworth, Jeremy Akerman, Mark A. Owen
Director: Jason Eisener

Okay, so this film has no place next to classic, carefully crafted works of noir filmic history. But I could not resist the title, nor the trailer which features a little bit of Rutger Hauer’s soliloquy to newborn babies at a hospital culminating in “… if you’re successful you’ll make money selling dope to crackheads, you won’t think twice about killing someone’s wife ‘cause you won’t even know what was wrong in the first place, or you’ll end up like me, a hobo with a shotgun…”.
I am not a fan of this gore-fest genre, and I am almost saddened to think of how and why Rutger Hauer ended up starring in this made in Nova Scotia drive-in movie, but I have to say in all sincerity; Hauer absolutely rocks in this. The soundtrack is all 1980’s electronica, there is plenty of classic bad movie poetry dialogue and over the top quotables; The Hobo: “You’re a fool, and a shitty father.” Drake: “Take him to the glory hole”. The digital photography is done with a camera called “Red Mysterium-X” which apparently means you have to shoot everything with a red filter in red light for your red digital super red sensor camera. If I still did drugs, I would take some and watch this again, tonight, and get no sleep and watch it yet again on my ipod for breakfast.

Dark Passage 1947
106 minutes

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall grace the screen in this classic 1947 thriller about a convict who escapes from San Quentin to hunt down his wife's true killer. To complete his mission, he must escape detection by the cops. So he undergoes plastic surgery and hides out in the home of a mysterious woman (Bacall) he's just met. The film uses a first-person point of view in its camera work, to put viewers into the shoes of the accused man.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett, Agnes Moorehead, Clifton Young, Douglas Kennedy, Rory Mallinson, Houseley Stevenson
Director: Delmer Daves

This is a class-A “noir”, with a top –notch cast, director, composer, and an unusual first person camera perspective for the first half of the film. It’s a “noir” in quotes, because it’s not really a noir, it features cynicism and darkness, but sports a happy ending which automatically disqualifies it as noir for the discerning viewer.
The most startling result of the first person point of view gimmick is that contemporary viewers should be able to watch as they may mistake much of it for a cool retro-B&W video game.
We don’t actually see Bogart himself until over 100 minutes have passed. His voice alone stars.
Bacall and Bogart had previously made great success out of their debut as a couple in “To Have and Have Not”, and then the truly classic follow up “The Big Sleep”. After “Dark Passage”, they scored another big hit with Edward G. Robinson in the great “Key Largo”.
The no-see-the Bogart is a great gimmick and apparently made the studio big-wigs very nervous and they may have been right as this was not a smashing financial success. Bogart gets “plastic surgery” in a San Francisco walk-up from a disgraced doctor recommended by a garrulous cabbie. A face-lift that leaves you looking exactly like Humphrey Bogart for $200.00. Ah, the “good old days”. Imagine a pre-surgery consultation delivered by your would-be surgeon that goes like this: ” We’re all cowards. There’s no such thing as courage, there’s only fear, Fear of getting hurt, and fear of dying, that’s why humans live so long.”
Note; a white male born in 1947, had a life expectancy of 66.8 years.
Great visuals, an atmospheric, moody sound, lustrous on location B&W photography, a beautifully malevolent performance by Agnes Moorehead, and Lauren Bacall is sonorous and sultry as ever, a truly persuasive argument for bringing back the “good old days”. Goodbye Irene.

The Mechanic (Killer of Killers) 1972
99 minutes

Charles Bronson (looking gnarled as ever) works alone as a hit man for "The Organization." But when willing acolyte Jan-Michael Vincent proves he has the stuff aspiring killers are made of, Bronson agrees to train him. Looks like it might be a case of the pupil overtaking the master, though, when Vincent begins to get some peculiar ideas of his own. Directed by Bronson perennial Michael Winner.

Cast: Charles Bronson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Keenan Wynn, Jill Ireland, Frank DeKova, Linda Ridgeway
Director: Michael Winner

Okay another noir that’s not really noir, except it is, aka 1972. Charles Bronson and his true love, director Michael Winner team up to leave us a template for the future – fest of assassin as hero/anti-hero films. This dynamic duo delivered many Bronson classics including; “Chato’s Land”, and all three of the “Death Wish” extravaganzas. This film is another partnership devoted to death and emotionless mayhem, a paean to 1970’s nihilism and futility. The best ridiculously 70’s scene is Bronson with the whore in an apartment wonderfully appointed with classic and obscure movie posters, a nice tip ‘o the hat to filmic history. The early scenes wonderfully capture the truly seedy side of LA behind the glamorous façade. A movie-movie full of great murdering-101 bits, a classic tinkly-piano, strings and brass suspense score by Jerry Fielding, explosions, motorcycle chases, weapons lessons, and a reliably flat Bronson playing off a wretchedly inert Jan Michael Vincent. It seems better than I thought and probably is still a favorite among late-night-professional-killing is cool viewers.

The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund) 1977
125 minutes
Idealistic German art restorer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is dying from a rare blood disease, so to earn money for the family he will be leaving behind, he accepts an offer from cunning American sociopath Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) to carry out a high-paying mob it. Zimmermann and Ripley forge an uneasy bond steeped in deceit, corruption and cold-blooded murder -- a partnership that could easily ruin what's left of Zimmerman's life.
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Lisa Kreuzer, Gérard Blain, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Peter Lilienthal, Daniel Schmid, Lou Castel
Director: Wim Wenders

A classic noir story featuring an ordinary schlub drawn into international art fraud and murder via a terrific plot device. All of the performances are memorable and iconic and of course Wenders has cast both Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller in pivotal, if minor, roles as the ultimate homage to his “American Friend(s)”.
The cinematography is extraordinary, somehow referencing the best film noir from the 40’s and 50’s and demonstrating the state of the art low light film stock of the mid to late 1970’s.
Wenders ably proves his noir scholarship: the heavy score, the sharp dialogue, and the steadily spiraling descent into darkness is perfectly paced and deliciously drawn. Hopper’s marvelous depiction of quintessential American selflessness and self-obsession, Ganz’s moral then physical deconstruction, the violence that infects and grows, lushly and inexorably unraveling lives in a cityscape spread over Munich, Paris, and New York. “Road Movies” indeed, Mr. Wenders.
I first saw this film on it’s release and don’t think I’ve seen it since. There are many moments that have stuck with me over the years, particularly a scene wherein Ganz pulls a man’s legs out from under him over a drain around Hopper’s house and you can hear the crack of bone snapping as he hits the concrete below.
I have always remembered this as a moment of truly disturbing violence. Disturbing in it’s simple and quick resolution, in contrast to the usual gun and gore porn depicted in Hollywood’s blockbuster panoramas. All of the violence in “The American Friend” is unsettling and matter of fact, a true noir aesthetic.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Growing Up in Public

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

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Over a decade, the Harry Potter film series has achieved the unusual, particularly in the light of the vast majority of film franchises. The Potter series, handed off from director to director, peopled with seemingly nearly every other high spangled thespian that Britain has to offer, featuring child actors who’ve grown up in the public and imaginative eye, has somehow maintained an unrelenting quality and no discernable softening of its collective imagery, mythology, or storytelling arc. In short, it will stand out as a notably well-stitched and irrefutably resounding example of commercial cinema at its best, underlined by the long awaited release of the final chapter of the Potter fable, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, an eminently satisfying and actually soul-stirring denouement.

Superbly helmed by David Yates, and well scripted by Steven Kloves, the final installment of the Potter epic is as much a culmination of all things Harry as it is a vivid fulmination on morality and the inevitable end of childhood, with its bespectacled central figure eschewing the tenets of the heroes journey that Joseph Campbell delineated in his seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces. More importantly, the Potter series, and particularly its final offering, did all this with sumptuous (and consciousness pervading) set pieces, a wonderful sense of scale, and an overall tone of expressiveness mixed with increasing emotion. Daniel Radcliffe, who glided from cherubic charm to enigmatic intensity, will certainly go down, no matter what his on screen future holds, as a formidable film icon, forever held on some exalted higher cinematic plain with the likes of Sean Connery’s James Bond, Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, or Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. (Now that’s one weirdly absurd declaration—but one difficult to debate.)

While the Potter films certainly followed and fed from an obvious formula (as all film franchises do), their overall stature grows from the fact that movies, while quite easily seducing both children and adults and both J.K. Rowling readers and those who never picked up the books the films were based on, remained free of voguishness and easy contempo irony, they utilized snappy action and an array of CGI effects yet always kept character and plot as the central fulcrum, and they essentially painted a burnished narrative that was continually speckled with darkness and the intertwined accents of moral obligation and impending devastation of innocence. Yet, the movies twinkled with fabulist gewgaws and magical landscapes, and they fit together like an elaborate but addictive puzzle, always inching towards a collective emotional fission that I simply would never have guessed at upon viewing the first of the series in 2001.

As Potter directors have come and gone—Christopher Columbus, Mike Newell, Alfonso Cauron, David Yates—each with quite distinct styles and sensibilities, the acting troupe has remained steadfast, and anchored by the growing-up-in-public principles, Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Gint. In the crazy quilt of supporting roles many stood out—Gary Oldham, Helena Bonham Carter, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, but none so much as Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, the embodiment of mythological evil and, by large, a classic movie villain,, and Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, eschewing subtle expressiveness throughout the course of the eight movies.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is purposefully somber, with a well-crafted grainy and drained color scheme, blips of fascistic ominousness, and the oh-so-familiar central setting of Hogwarts devoid of magic and wonderment and weighed down with sorrow and bleakness. It’s a hugely satisfying end to it all, richly textured and intimate, enriched and poignant. Every once in a while popular art can entertain and imbue, and virtuosity can become part of an integrated and well-conceived vision. It just doesn’t occur nearly often enough.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Be Kind Rewind

(My brother Mark and I grew up a year apart, and shared the same bedroom until we hit the big 18 and respectively hit the road. We were nurtured, educated, and exhilarated by much of the same popcult preoccupations and discoveries, and despite a fairly continual 37 year separation of geographical home bases we remain largely on the same page. He often sends me astute, pithy, extremely erudite movie-movie reactions after viewing some gem or cult classic during the twilight hours, and I’ve decided to post them on a semi-regular basis.)

Do the Noir Part 1
By Mark Duhamel

I thought I’d watch some Film Noir. That particularly cynical pre and post WWII genre of films often imitated and seldom equaled in it’s stark and sometimes unrelentingly bleak view of human nature in subsequent movie making eras. I am a big fan of the lighting, photography, and especially the sensibility of these mostly low budget, B&W films.

The synopses are courtesy of Netflix, which is also responsible for satisfying almost all movie whims. In order of viewing:

I started my foray onto the darkening past with a post-modern take on noir, 1975’s Night Moves, starring Gene Hackman and directed by Arthur Penn from an Alan Sharp script. My brother Scott cites the final scene featuring a seriously wounded Hackman in a small motorboat circling endlessly in a large expanse of ocean as the ultimate cinematic expression of uncertainty and futility. Or something like that.
It put me in the mood to dig deeper underground.

The Naked City (1948)
95 mins

When a model is found drowned in her bathtub, homicide detectives Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) are on the case. Their investigation, the inner workings of the police department and some of the "eight million stories in the Naked City" are explored. Filmed on location in New York City, this classic thriller won Oscars for cinematography and editing and was nominated for a Best Writing Oscar.
Cast:Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Frank Conroy, Ted de Corsia, House Jameson, Anne Sargent, Adelaide Klein, Tom Pedi
Director:Jules Dassin

My take: Difficult viewing. Takes real perseverance and commitment to the cause. It is an important film in it’s pioneering use of NYC location shooting and pseudo-documentary style, but in the end; pedestrian.

This Gun For Hire (1942)
81 mins

Phillip Raven (Alan Ladd) is an assassin whose latest murder assignment is paid for with counterfeit money by turncoat Willard Gates. Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), an entertainer and the girlfriend of the police lieutenant who's trying to bring Raven down, is recruited by the government to probe Gates's illegal activities. When Raven happens to meet Ellen on a train, they use their relationship to get what they want -- and exact revenge.
Cast:Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar, Alan Ladd, Tully Marshall, Marc Lawrence, Olin Howlin
Director:Frank Tuttle

The opening scene: Alan Ladd (billed as “Introducing Alan Ladd” after a ten year stint of un-credited, bit, and even student film parts) wakes up in a cheap hotel room and glances at his watch; 2:00 PM. He opens a note detailing that someone will be somewhere between 3:00 – 4:00 PM. Then, he checks his gun, an automatic, probably a 45. He gets up to leave but stops when a stray cat scratches at his window. He lets the cat in, gently handling it and opens a can of milk and pours it into a bowl, spilling some on his hand. He leaves the cat and goes to the washroom and just then the cleaning woman enters the room, sees the cat and viciously shoos it away. Alan Ladd returns and seeing the cat cruelty grabs the woman by the shoulder. She turns suddenly and her dress rips. “Get your hands off me you creep! You owe me a dress!” Ladd slaps her back and forth as only happens in films of this era, and orders her out. Next, Ladd enters a cheap apartment house, passing by a very young girl sitting on the steps, complete with polio leg braces, she smiles sweetly and greets him as he ascends the stairs. He summarily executes a man and a woman in an apartment and as he exits, once again encounters the girl who says demurely, “Mister, I dropped my ball.” Ladd sweetly obliges and recovers her ball. This is all within the first 6 minutes or so of film time. Laird Cregar is wonderfully creepy and cowardly, Robert Preston is not particularly memorable and of course Veronica Lake is radiant, smart, sassy and cast in an incredibly unbelievable fiction involving a US Senator, a night club owner, and a national security breach involving a decrepit chemical plant capitalist selling out the USofA. But who cares, she and Ladd pull it off and show that they are both world-class movie stars. It’s not about “acting” for either one, just about presence and shiny charisma.

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
82 minutes
In this film noir classic, when model and aspiring actress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) turns up dead, the evidence points to her manager, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), who was recently dumped by his star client. Dogged by a tenacious detective (Laird Cregar), Frankie finds the noose tightening, but Vicky's distrustful sister (Betty Grable) -- whose relationship with Frankie is chilly -- may have information that will clear him.
Cast:Morris Ankrum, Carole Landis, May Beatty, Allyn Joslyn, Chick Chandler, Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Alan Mowbray, Elisha Cook, William Gargan, Laird Cregar
Director:H. Bruce Humberstone

Wow. I’ll say it again, Wow. This is what it’s all about. Substantial performances all around. Victor Mature shines, Laird Cregar is at his creepy, foreboding best, Carole Landis plays a 1940’s version of Paris Hilton to the tee, Betty Grable is believable and satisfying as the good, sensible sister and the lighting is incredibly textured and layered, casting shimmering shadows snaking around evocative light pools. This one represents the darkly illuminated best noir has to offer. Where the title comes from remains an impenetrable mystery.

The Big Clock (1948)
96 minutes
In director John Farrow's noir thriller, crime magazine publisher Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) tries to pin the murder of his own mistress on the magazine's editor, George Stroud (Ray Milland), after he discovers George coming out of the woman's apartment. Things fall into place as all the signs increasingly point to George as the killer, making it that much easier for Earl to set up the editor to take the fall.
Cast:Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester
Director:John Farrow

I remember this one from years ago, perhaps during film school. I’m almost sure I read about this in Manny Farber’s Farber on Film back in high school. I had seen it before many, many years ago. It is a good example of the noir moral dilemma; a basically good guy who does something not terribly but kinda wrong and from there his whole world slides towards utter disaster and disintegration. In this case, he has a drink with a beautiful woman who is not his wife and stands up to his boss who not so coincidently has a relationship with said beautiful woman. He ends up framed for something he didn’t do but they don’t know it's him. A nice snaky plot-boiler with some twists and admirable turns by Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, a spicy Rita Johnson and a very likably earnest Ray Milland.

Appointment with Danger (1951)
90 minutes
This hardboiled crime story stars stoic noir staple Alan Ladd as Al Goddard, a special investigator sent to Gary, Ind., to solve a postal detective's murder and track down the sole witness to the act: shy young nun Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert). With her reluctant aid, Goddard learns the identity of the culprits and soon uncovers their gang's plot to pull off a million-dollar mail heist. Jan Sterling is a standout as gun moll Dodie La Verne.
Cast:Alan Ladd, Phyllis Calvert, Paul Steward, Jan Sterling, Jack Webb, Stacy Harris, Harry Morgan, David Wolfe, Dan Riss, Geraldine Wall, George J. Lewis
Director:Lewis Allen

A little strange noirish but squeaky clean copper caper except the cops are actually post office (??) cops, and there’s a nun, and yes, that’s right; Jack Webb and Harry Morgan as bad guy buddies. Alan Ladd goes “undercover” somehow convincing the bad guys he’s a bad guy. I didn’t buy it, but they did. And there’s a nun. Great title huh, they don't make ‘em like they used to.

Union Station (1950)
80 minutes
The same year they appeared together in Sunset Boulevard, William Holden and Nancy Olson co-starred in this classic film noir about a frightened passenger (Olson) who reports two suspicious men aboard a train bound for Chicago's Union Station. When the terminal's police squad learns that the men are armed and involved in a kidnapping scheme, the officer in charge (Holden) enlists the help of a veteran police inspector (Barry Fitzgerald).
Cast:William Holden, Nancy Olson, Barry Fitzgerald, Lyle Bettger, Jan Sterling, Allene Roberts, Herbert Heyes, Landon Dunning
Director:Rudolph Maté

This time it’s a copper caper with train station cops, with William Holden at his cynical, wisecracking, shoot me in the arm I don’t care best. It’s hard to beat William Holden for the noir leading man, no one comes close to his slacker, I don’t care but I really do nonchalance. Except for Robert Mitchum who transcends I don’t care with I don’t fucking care and I think I’m gonna hit you in the face soon.
This one is a kidnap caper. The victim is a sweet, blind, apparently rich girl. It succeeds because the “psychotic” kidnapper is actually pretty clever and stays a step ahead for most of the film. He is of course finally brought to justice by the combined efforts of the implacable William Holden and the plucky and courageous best friend portrayed by Nancy Olson. Barry Fitzgerald is in top form as always. The photography is nothing special, but the Union Station scenes are well staged.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Word According to Festus

Reprinted from PopKrazy

With the recent passing of that sublime and absolutely natural Westerner James Arness, who will live in perpetuity as the forever able and Zen-master-with-a -six-gun Matt Dillon in endless reels of Gunsmoke episodes ( all truly worth seeing), I thought of one of Matt’s few kindred spirits, Festus, played quite iconically by Ken Curtis.

In the Kitty-Doc-Festus triangle that serves the great independent spirit of the perpetual flinty and eternally taciturn Dillon, Doc (Milburn Stone) functioned as Matt’s most intellectual companion, an equal to ruefully discuss philosophy and occasionally plan strategy with, and of course, just like the Marshall, an ever astute judge of character.

Kitty (Amanda Blake), the red-haired proprietor of The Long Branch, the town’s saloon and elegant (and unsaid) whorehouse, was Matt’s only channel for overt emotion, passion, or sexuality, and she also exists as the foremost manifestation of burgeoning civilization, while she also coexisted as the triangle’s most emotive, hardened but still given to concrete measures of gentility, and—-as all bar owners are—-a quick interpreter of character.

Festus, who came to the show belatedly (after the show departures of Matt’s earlier two ids—Chester (Dennis Weaver)—-the rube that Matt once was, and Quint (Burt Reynolds)--the half-blood native American who was of true Indian heritage the way the symbiotic Matt could never be), was a pure hillbilly and part scoundrel and the embodiment of cornpone digression , yet Matt admired him for his uncompromising ways, his disregard for much of what counted as airs, his unwavering loyalty to those who did the right thing, his surprisingly cat-like ability to leap into action and mayhem, his sharpened gun battle tactics, his high lonesome love of the life’s simplicities, and deep-to-the-bone divining skills of sussing out potentially dangerous characters. Oh yeah, Festus had a helluva way with words, and somehow the Gunsmoke writing staff knew the only Ken Curtis could continually shoot that empty bottle off the fence post:

“ Let’s just cabbage on to them.”

“You’re nuthin’ but an ornery old scudder.”

“Just keep on blabberin’ alluva the time.”

“Righty thoughty of ya.”

“Mighty thoughty of ya.”

“I’ll be on you like ugly on an ape.”

“You better have a hollerin’ kinda of a voice, because he’s 45 miles away.”

“Just like two tumbleweeds, kinda bumpity-bumping across the prairie will directly hit a barbwire fence and just kinda hang up there till there ain’t nuthin left.”

“I’ll pay you back before you can say the rat ran over the roost with a piece of liver in his mouth.”

“What in the name of seventeen billygoats are you doing here?”

“You make me so damned mad I could smoke a pickle.”

“One thang about thinking, it aint like buttermilk…well, you can set it aside for a while and it won’t go bad.”

“It’s seems like some folks is born to lose, it’s the other’s that gotta work at it.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lights Off

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

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Alright, someone stop the bleeding. Well, most comic book heroes don’t actually bleed, but the movies that they are featured in seem largely to be dead on arrival, big punchy exercises in warmed-over mythos accompanied by predictable palette’s of shiny unitards, recycled plot threads, formulaic rock ‘em sock ‘em good vs. evil battles, and warmed over CGI effects. The failures are too numerous to count, the mediocre efforts seem to be mounting, yet comic book movies still seem to be eking out a decent box office life. Green Lantern, the newest, is more middle-of-the road swill, and hopefully another nail in the potential coffin of this out-of-control modern movie genre. In this humble observer’s opinion the genre needs to bite the dust, as soon as possible, before it might become plausible again, or at least watchable.

The Green Lantern character belongs to DC Comics, and after first seeing light in the 40’s he’s been revived and reinvented a few times most notably in 1959, most recently in 2005. He’s one Hal Jordan, a hot shot fighter pilot who becomes the first human selected by the so-called Guardians to be handed an emerald ring powered by a lantern that will allow him to be a sort of intergalactic super cop, with (of course) a motto all his own “Let those who worship Evil’s might, beware my power-Green Lantern’s Light”. Hickory-dickory-dock, right?

Green Lantern is embodied by Ryan Reynolds, he of the sculptured torso and continually sardonic but hypnotizing toothy smile. As bad as the movie is, one can’t really blame Reynolds, who might have been on target casting if the final product had some balls or verve or even went whole hog into the campiness it only hints at. Reynolds’s charm only goes so far, and it can’t bring a pulse to a basically lifeless exercise. Mark Strong, Angela Basset, and Tim Robbins are also wasted in perfunctory parts, although Peter Sarsgaard manages to punch his mortal-into-alien baddie role up with a bit of that ol’ Christopher Walken styled hamminess. Blake Lively, an actress of no discernable talent, fits is seamlessly with the overall tone of substandard hokiness.

When I mentioned that my assignment for this month’s column was Green Lantern, one of my fellow cinephile’s questioned the validity of 650 words or so devoted to such blatantly unfulfilling movie handiwork, offering me his own piquant summation: “Perhaps you could do The Year of the Shitty, Perfunctory, Blatantly Made to Cash In On a Potential Franchise That No One Asked For Comic Book Movie.” In the immortal words of Stan Lee, nuff said.

The ultimate irony for me personally, is that I grew up during the true golden age of comics, the mid 60’s through the mid 70’s and my brother and I were avid collectors and fastidious readers. During that fruitful period one of the biggest complaints among the fanboys (who hadn’t been tagged with the label yet) was how Hollywood just didn’t get it—comics were ripe for natural big screen adaptations, with their visual panache, social undercurrents, and strength of characters. As a pre-teen and then teen I firmly believed this also--the cinematic possibilities for comic book translations were virtually endless, a bold new cinematic form was possible if only the right filmmaker took hold. Alas, outside of the occasional Tim Burton, Richard Donner, Christopher Nolan, Jon Farveau, or Bryan Singer, the well has run dry. What’s next on the comic-into-movie to do list? As one of my long time heroes, Lou Reed once sang, “And me, I just don’t care at all.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Westerner

Reprinted from PoP--An Emporium of Popular Culture

Pop Eye
By Scott Duhamel

The slow and steady tracking-shot-into- close-up at the opening credits of the early Gunsmoke years is more than iconic, it is emblematic and will ever be a lasting (and essential) western image in American pop culture. While directly quoting the tracking-shot-into-close-up that steers all Western aficionados dusty souls, that justifiably empyrean big screen vision of John Wayne twirling his shotgun in 1939's Stagecoach, it offers itself up as a brand new (NW) defining image of The Westerner. When Ford spotlighted Wayne, that shot resonates as both the moment that that grand auteur would realize that Wayne was the right figure to represent his western balladry. Gunsmoke’s echoing shot, pulls up to a handsome and sturdy but slightly weathered James Arness (pointed to by Wayne himself after he turned down the potential spotlight dousing offer of a TV series), essentially conveying the simple fact that then iconoclastic, rosy-cheeked, cocksure adventurer of Wayne’s Stagecoach has been replaced by Arness’ Matt Dillon, a man with one foot gradually settling into the winds of oncoming civilization and one foot still planted firmly in the wooly freedoms of expansionism, yet still the lone American adventurer, a sharper, more expedient voice of law and order and right and wrong , an erudite arbitrator of frontier justice, a man who has killed, can kill, will kill, but prefers not to. The Gunsmoke close-up finally focuses on Dillon/Arness’ eyes, and they are the eyes of a nation progressing and receding, from a landscape of little rules but highly defined codes, one populated by individual valor and courage yet poisoned by wantonness and cruelty, with the ever sturdy Westerner forced to question the vagaries of right and wrong in a rapidly changing landscape.

True confession: Growing up I somehow missed the brilliance of Gunsmoke (1955-1975), the smartest, sublimely collective atmospheric (and obviously longest-running) western tale maybe ever told. Certainly individual western s movies had more impact and it’s unarguable that decidedly more overtly artistic westerns were made for the big screen yet Gunsmokes’s lasting impact, and it’s astoundingly continual high level of creativity are something to behold. I missed out on Gunsmoke, as a budding revolutionary and wanna- be hippy, because I knew there was an Arness-Wayne connection and I assumed it to be an onerous political one, and John Wayne was just somehow unacceptable in the turbulent late 60’s and early 70’s.

Years later I would read about Marty Scorsese screening The Searchers to his NYU film class, but prefacing the screening with an impromptu show of firing six shooters just so that his rabidly anti-Wayne film students would settle down for that sublime John Ford film. I missed the weekly imprimatur the Gunsmoke was searing into the collective consciousness, and have had the pleasure of rediscovering the lengthy series with continued viewings in the last few years. Although the show presented itself as hugely traditional, it was, in turns, ribald, self-conscious, cornpone, stark, moving, comical, and outstandingly consistent. Outlaws swung brazenly into town, showgirls had hearts of stone and of gold, the cowpokes were filled with grandeur, whiskey, goldust dreams, American immigrant exuberance, and more than often, just plain broken down.

With the Zen-like Dillon (who, of course, spent time with the Indians and treated with respect from the initial show) often presiding as an onlooker or mere sideman (until there was a call for action) , Gunsmoke’s Dodge City was inhabited by the cagey , flinty and determinedly philosophical Doc (Milburn Stone), the perpetual rube Chester (Dennis Weaver), the occasionally becalmed but raging bull Quint( Burt Reynolds), the red-headed highly astute business women and unabashed mistress Kitty (Amanda Blake), and the quintessential sidekick Festus (Ken Curtis), he of the cracker barrel sentiment, hillbilly rambunctiousness but the wondrous naturalness of a man at peace with his environment (like Dillon), plus a baker’s dozen of regulars from the town drunk to the officious main street businessman, never mind the uncountable appearances of every sort of actor (up-and-coming, down-and-out, character greats, stars that were and stars to be) Hollywood had to offer.

Arness’ Dillon is a stately but full blooded representation of the American Westerner and his whittled down performance, filled with pauses, squints, grunts, asides, and one sentence summations formed an amazingly well-rounded figure, highlighting a performance of depth and maturity. He embodies the transition from the traditional western to the post-western, while the modern world hasn’t fully cast a shadow on his travails, he, the great seer, knows that it is coming, and that his destiny is to help strangle the primitive world the created him and that he has so long embraced. I’ll say it straight up---James Arness' Matt Dillon is a truly tragic hero and one of the most essential starring roles in TV history. RIP James Arness 1923-2011.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Female Trouble

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

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Like most pop culture vultures, or at least those who deign TV an acceptable medium, I’ve had a long term on-again off-again relationship with NBC’s Saturday Night Live over its long and storied (and lengthy) run. I’ve come back as a regular viewer in recent years, blithely ignoring those occasionally dead-on-their-feet sketches as a nature-of-the-beast thing. What’s brought me back (and many others) to the late night comedy altar is the succession of smart, sly, and vibrant women ---Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and currently, Kristin Wiig—that have continually nudged large portions of the show back into uproarious regions. I headed to a screening of Bridesmaids recently, an unusual detour down the unfamiliar back roads of the chick flick, solely because the new comedy was co-written and starred Wiig, and I went with heightened expectations.

Wiig co-scripted Bridesmaids with comedian and Groundhog veteran Annie Mumolo, although the movie was made under the signature imprint of producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up,The Forty-Year-Old Virgin)and directed by Apatow protege Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks), also a noted TV helmsman (The Office, Nurse Jackie).Wiig plays Annie, an attractive but perpetually unkempt single woman stuck in Nowheresville, suffering from the pangs of failure produced by a small business bakery failure, stuck in a unabashed booty call relationship with a handsome cad (Jonn Hamm), all the while slowly imploding while waiting on couples in the bloom of romance from behind the counter in a jewelry retailer. Her only anchor is her lifetime gal pal Lillian (Maya Rudolph), who shatters her fragile existence by announcing her sudden and impending nuptials.

Wiig’s Annie, a lifetime good sport and perpetual onlooker, mutates into a wedding anarchist, prodded even further by her discovery of a potential new BFF for Lillian, Helen (Rose Byrne), a snotty control freak bent on shaping the wedding into a dream affair. The movie, a sly feminine answer to The Hangover, follows this former triangle , along with three additional bridesmaids, Becca (Ellie Kemper), Rita (Wendy McLendon- Covey), and Megan (Melisa McCarthy) as they go on a not-so-magic carpet ride that encompasses pre- wedding sartorial choices, a trip to Las Vegas, and eventually the ceremony itself, with Annie comically and frenetically unbalancing all the way. (The male characters in this movie don’t mean a thing, and that’s a remarkably refreshingly observation to note.)

Obviously Bridesmaids has a bit more up its chiffoned sleeves than pratfalls and outlandish female behavior. The movie, which doesn’t offer much visually or formally, gently prods at the at the troubling conditions of both romantic resentment and class covetousness. Wiig’s everywoman is much like the lost male souls that Apatow’s features usually revolve around—although not quite akin to those character’s essential manchildness because Wiig’s downright hilarious portrait of a woman on the brink holds at its center an emotive weight that somehow resonates despite the comedic machinations which propel the movie.

Bridesmaids is a rambunctious tale, and it does feature a fairly raunchy centerpiece that will be debated as too much or perfectly over-the-top, but most certainly will draw the approval of the male audience the movie needs to insure its commercial success. Is Bridesmaids an exquisite leap into a new age of proto-feminist mainstream comic cinema? I don’t think so, but it is legitimately funny, has a ton of heart, and features the absolutely first class Wiig operating on all cylinders, and that combination makes it worth seeing.

Friday, May 27, 2011

When a Power Tool Was Not a Toy

Reprinted from PoP--An Emporium of Popular Culture

Pop Eye
By Scott Duhamel

In the burgeoning years of the original Lupo’s and the Living Room, amidst the rock scene that was being spawned, The Young Adults were once kings, or at least crown princes of the Providence scene. They had the stage show, the songs, the shtick, and most of all the wild and burning energy of hell-bent provocateurs. Their amalgam of blues, white boy R&B, and even glam rock was all done with a sneer, an eyewink, and some downright hilarious antics. Springing forth from the mindset of bands like The Fugs, The Mothers of Invention and The Bonzo Dog Band, but imbued with a point-of-view that was decidedly more RI than New York, they were seen by many as full scale rock and roll Dadaists, satirists, and purposeful genre-benders, fueled by the respective swinging and towering geniuses (which in Young Adult speak translated to extraordinary talents and blossoming egos) of twin front men and songwriters Sport Fisher and Rudy Cheeks, melded together with the sly, witty talents of the almost professorial Jeff Shore, the unofficial musical director. They were ultra cool, hilarious, and extremely popular, drawing overflow crowds throughout New England, and before their career did the classic sputter and fizzle, they had managed to accomplish the release of an album, perform in and contribute to a feature length movie named after one of their local classics (“It’s a Complex World”), and also become among the very first Providence bands to release a single and garner steady airplay on the only station that counted at the time, WBRU. It was a heady, rollicking time period, and the Adults were much more than a presence, more akin to a cultural force, both musically and socially, virtually ruling the hipster scene at the one and only Leo’s, the then repository of all thing considered properly boho and avante-something that flowed in and about La Prov. They could actually rock and they were downright hilariously entertaining, an unusual and truly unique combo, and one that served them well as they, during the 70’s and 80’s, took no prisoners and put one of the early mass pop culture flags down in RI's capital city, demonstrating that the dirty old town of the time was and would eventually become recognized as continually fertile, amazingly disparate, and sublimely inventive—and certifiably RIesque-- growing art and rock landscape.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ten (Random) Reasons to Celebrate Bobby D’s 70th Birthday

Reprinted from PoP--An Emporium of Popular Culture

Pop Eye
By Scott Duhamel

1. Obviously, he is still here, constant, consistent and relentlessly performing and releasing recorded music on a regular basis, and despite his storied and magical mystery tour of a career, somehow becoming indistinguishable from the strange blur of his Never-Ending tour.

2. He has become, despite the copious amounts of money earned and the uncountable amount of press and nitcriticism generated, the sort of old road dog he has always admired, a virtuous troubadour, the proverbial wandering minstrel, dispensing bits of blues, folk, rock and roll, pop music and that old weird America to oldsters and (surprisingly enough) youngsters alike.

3. His current on stage persona—cowboy hat, slick western togs, boots with Spanish leather, is just about on par with his polka dot shirt-wearing Dylan-goes-electric look on the overall All-Time Rock and Roll Coolness Scale.

4. His voice, the one that has undergone many styles and changes and a consistent barrage of criticism since he very first appeared on the scene, has turned into a uniquely indecipherable whelp during his live performances, a guttural rumbling that sounds like a combo of a slightly busted foghorn, the disembodied ghost of Muddy Waters and God stuck and in a long check-out line in the super market while muttering intently.

5. His weathered features have all melted into what singularly can be described as The Big Squint.

6. If you devote any time at all to listening to his collective works, whether you’ve been listening intently forever, or listening closely for a long time, or even checking in occasionally to decipher a new direction or a sudden musical highlight, there are still dozens of song discoveries just waiting to be uncovered. Perpetually.

7. Over his seemingly limitless recording and performing efforts he has utilized an ultra-hip and thoroughly disparate batch of collaborators and well-paid sideman, a sorta sideways who’s who of rock players and characters: Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Clydie King, The Band, T-Bone Burnet, Mick Ronson, Scarlett Riveria, Daniel Lanois, Mick Taylor, Stevie Van Zandt, The Greatful Dead, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Plugz, Charlie Sexton, Emmy Lou Harris, Duke Robillard, George Harrison., and that’s just the quickest of glances.

8. The Never-Ending Tour always purposefully gigs at minor league parks, an unarguably smart decision.

9. The Great Mysterio / Mr. Ironic somehow matured (or mutated) to the point of becoming at least partially (and quite) publically mellow after a lifetime of rambunctiousness and beat-like contentiousness, managing to write a fascinating book that actually revealed a bit about himself and also spending a rollicking good time as the ever pleasant (and amusingly eye-winking ) host of vastly entertaining satellite radio show.

10. Finest overall collection of song titles evah, bar none, not even up for debate. That’s just the titles, mofo.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bar Talk # 5

Overheard Friday Night (5-6-11) at Nick-A-Nees
Providence, Rhode Island
(Purty much reported as close to verbatim as possible.)

"He was jimmy-jammin’ doing overtime, man."

"The Bruins sweeping the series tastes just like…freshly cooked bacon."

"Brown and RISD are like spicy side dishes of Providence, Johnson & Wales is like the ground beef, and PC is like that warm beer sitting on front lawn in that half empty cup."

"Yeah, I’ve got balls. You just can’t see them cuz they're up in my ass."

"You’ve heard the cliché, but up there on the dance floor is the illustration: Goofy white people dancing.”

"All that’s left here are band people and a bunch of crackpots."

"I gotta get home and buy some gaggers and watch Poker After Dark."

"He’s like King Sunny Ade without the genie hat."

"It’s all about the electromagnetic waves, particularly in the coastal regions."

"That guy is dancing with a traffic safety cone."

"How many ass jokes do you actually know?"

"I’m probably going to adopt a dog even though I’m probably not capable of taking care of one."

"I really want a Girl Scout cookie."

"When you see him still standing after midnight, it’s never ever a good thing."

"Okay, no problem, a hat tip and a handshake, they found Osama Bin Laden. But, what’s up with Whitey Bulger?"

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Stranger on a Train

Reprinted from PoP--An Emporium of Popular Culture

Pop Eye
By Scott Duhamel

Among true aficionados Strangers on a Train (1951) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943) are considered among the famed British directors most resolutely American films (notably, the former was co-scripted by Raymond Chandler, the latter by Thornton Wilder), both of them smaller movies that brilliantly illustrate Hitchcock’s talents before his populist career turn that came with big budgets, big stars, and well-earned box office lionization.

Strangers on a Train also remains as one of the more lucid examples of Hitchcock’s long term thematic fascination with both doppelgangers and the wrong man theme. The plot revolves around an enigmatic exchange of words between one Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) and Guy Haines (Farley Granger) during a random train ride, a meeting that results in a murder and a falsely accused protagonist fumbling nervously to protest his innocence. In the words of the film, criss-cross.

While Robert Walker’s obviously deranged Bruno character, with his mile-long oedipal complex propelling the movies’ plot, has long been the weirdly compelling figure that audiences and critics have focused on, it is Farley Granger and his portrait of tennis star Guy that actually surfaces as the lynchpin of the Hitchcock’s moral and psychological game playing. Granger’s Guy is fit and particularly handsome, yet he wears his neuroses on his sleeve, and sends off palatable vibes of both self-loathing and social climbing desperation. The movie’s resonance rests upon the fact that despite the fact that the wild and wooly Bruno is the actual killer of uptight and out-of-sight Guy’s slattern wife, Guy undeniably wanted himself rid of her. The suggestion of an overt homosexual attraction between the two men flavors the film strongly also, all the more ironic because Granger would eventually come out the closet while still active in his acting career (his 2007 memoir was entitled Include Me Out).

Granger--whose name begs the question who the hell’s parents name a kid Farley?-- died in March, was born in San Jose, California in 1925, and was signed by Sam Goldwyn as a contract player in the early 1940’s, as a skinny but pretty tow-headed young lead. After a somewhat checkered 40 plus year stint in the movie biz, the actor found decent success on the stage. He did carve out a small place for himself in the overall Hollywood firmament with strong appearances in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Nic Ray’s They Live by Night (1949), and Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954), but we will always remember him as the cocky but hapless Guy, a bit more than a mere stranger on a train, quivering impotently with anger and frustration (and a deep blotch of black guilt) as Bruno’s dancing eyes gaze upon him trapped in the frame of Hitchcock’s accusatory lens.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Inception Lite

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

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Christopher Nolan’s Inception was a grand rush of a sci-fi movie, overflowing with eye-catching visuals, brimming with storytelling brio, and offering (for the many true believers) just enough emotional fission to mark it as a truly distinctive cinematic offering. Obviously, Hollywood (always know for it’s unabashedly and constant self-cannibalization), did more than just note the critical hosanna’s and major box office bugaloo of Inception, and we, the sturdy film going public—particularly those with a propensity towards the fabulist movie tale—must prepare ourselves to keep plunging down the movie-movie rabbit hole. In fact the last month, has seen not one, but two (almost three if you would like to stretch the boundaries a bit and include the Bradley Cooper vehicle, Limitless), variations of Inception Lite, The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code.

Let’s examine the elements of the Inception Lite soup: mucho digital action, jigsaw puzzle plotting, godlike overseers, big themes swirling around matters of destiny and choices of free will, mind bending spatial or time travel, ever shifting narrative twists and shouts, artificial structural roles guided by the premise, intermittent gaping holes of logic, unintentionally preposterous leaps of movie going faith, and , always, a cool youngish (interchangeable) white male (Leo DiCaprio in Inception, Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau, Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code).

The Adjustment Bureau, written and directed by The Bourne Ultimatum’s scribe George Nolfi, stars the aforementioned Damon, alongside John Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Emily Blunt as, well, as pretty much par for the course in this breed of film, The Girl.Based (but largely altered) on a short story by sci-fi guru and visionary Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report), The Adjustment Bureau means to be part fabulist thriller and part Kafaesque nightmare, with Damon as an ambitious politician who manages to discover that there are bunch of officious government types running around in fedoras controlling and altering people’s fates. Of course, after running into The Girl in a public bathroom the hat guys emerge to inform him that his pursuit of the free-spirited woman is a definite no-no and, more importantly, a shake-it-up life changer that will forever imbalance some sort of pre-written destiny.

Matt’s politico doesn’t dig that noise, so the movie delineates his impulsive and determined dash away from the fates prescribed and towards the unfathomable possibility of true (and random) love. (And includes a whole lotta hanging out in the rain, where somehow the hat boys can’t see him.)

The ongoing discourse about choice and self-determination remains a wheezy center of the film, while the old school love story manages top generate a decent amount of classical movie romantic tension. Director Nolfi and his cinematographer John Toll craft some better-than-average sequences and a nice overall gray feel but the movie is never as provocative as it wants to be, nor does it succeed in laying out one of these suffocating blankets of paranoiac dread. Damon’s well-acted intensity is certainly a plus, but The Adjustment Bureau is merely palatable.

Source Code heads down yet another dark and deterministic alley as Gyllenhaal’s military man suddenly wakes up on a train with no conception of where is he and why he is there and gets blown into smithereens a mere eight minutes later. Once again, the hands of some mysterious bureaucrats (Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright) are holding onto the puppet strings and Gyllenhal’s gold soldier keeps getting sent back to the same time and place in a repeated loop, sweating and straining to solve the bombing before it goes boom-kaboom and, yup, falling under the spell of The Girl (Michelle Monaghan) he engages with on the train.

The young director behind Source Code is Duncan Jones, whose little seen 2009 effort, Moon, received much praise in certain circles and even gained a small but rabid post failed-release following. The earlier films showed that he was a burgeoning craftsman and perhaps even an original cinematic thinker, and Source Code demonstrates that he can confidently take on bigger material. To his everlasting credit he avoids the videogame stylistics that a movie of this sort could so easily fall into, and while the movie cruises along at an accelerated pace, replete with multiple jump starts, it doesn’t become another case of technical proficiency acing out filmmaking artistry.

Like Damon, Gyllenhall holds his own, as his slow transition from pure befuddlement to focused soothsayer is delivered with panache and his lone seeker figure gains resonance as he ping-pongs through some mind tripping editing and psychedelic explosions. The Source Code also deserves praise for framing it’s build-up of central figure anxiety with a slightly ironic, almost meta, tone.

As with Inception, both The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code are movies far too enraptured with their own too-cool-for-thou structures, and as much as they hint towards a big screen examination of some overwhelming existential morass they remain filtered through the vagaries of commercialism. (In the case of Inception, Christopher Nolan’s superior talents works towards making an audience forget all of that strained seriousness and eventually give in and jump on the glorious –but decidedly pseudo-intellectual—joy ride.) These films strive hard to elucidate and to pose significant philosophical conundrums, yet they ultimately work as entertainment baubles and remain extra sensory side trips with all too little emotional grounding. Presented with the unique opportunity to be given a chance to go backwards and change fate, or go sideways and forward to affect or bypass what supposedly has been determined will remain a lynchpin of both sci-fi and sci-fi cinema. It just ain’t that all-fired effective when the sounds of the whooshing coils and the clatter of the well-oiled machinery keeps unexpectedly protruding into the ever desired dream state.