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.