Lauren Bacall, 1924-2014

Her friends, it seemed, called her Betty. I believe this to be the case because I once saw Lauren Bacall make an appearance on The Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson, the only host of that program who truly mattered, presided over it. He kept calling her “Betty,” always with a level of purely smitten appreciation that I rarely saw in the preternaturally composed entertainer. It wasn’t hard to figure out why this upstanding Midwestern gentleman might find himself a little bit swoony in the presence of her. She was decades past her debut as a willowy ingenue in the Howard Hawks wartime romantic drama To Have and Have Not, instructing Humphrey Bogart on the fine art of whistling and shimmying across the screen like a bombshell from a better planet. Still, she had a casual, almost automatic glamor, a command of everything in her vicinity, maybe even the air itself. There was the throaty, cigarette-scarred laugh and the piercing, amused stare that implied she was figure out exactly which little mouse before her was most tantalizing to toy with. Who wouldn’t beam back in helpless response?

Betty Joan Perske of the Bronx went to Hollywood and became Lauren Bacall, immediately embodying the sultry allure of the name. As much as Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe, she seemed to rise to her new moniker, finding the hidden promise nestled within it to become the movie star that was needed in the time. She was a broad and a dame, practically shaped into being by the magic of Hollywood, as if the perfect femme fatale was needed for polished film noir offerings. She was startlingly gorgeous, but edged with a touch of danger, of uncertainty. She clearly wasn’t meant to be a damsel in distress. With the arch of eyebrow, she could intimidate every brute in the joint. It’s a given that her best performances were opposite Bogart: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo. Apart from the man she married (and who, by all accounts, she loved deeply), Bacall could come across as a little indifferent. After his death, in 1957, she had long stretches when she didn’t work in film at all. In some of those gaps she wrote, publishing three memoirs, or acting on the stage to great acclaim, winning two Tony Awards. She wasn’t prolific, but that seemed a matter of her choosing. If someone wanted to work with Bacall, they had damn well better be sure it worth her time.

Whenever she was on a screen, big or small, Bacall emanated class. Toughness, smarts, confidence and poise were all present, but above all was class. This was true in challenging works and in throwaway fare. She was one of the last ties to an earlier era of American movies, one that prized that quality, perhaps more than any other. She was there at the right time, in the right place, and, with the right tweaking, even the right name. Even so, I still like to think of her as Betty. Maybe that’s because it makes me feel a little closer to the kind of classic cinema splendor and beauty that’s fading like old celluloid. Maybe it simply makes me feel closer to the intriguing figure she cut. Either way, it makes the unattainable a little more tenderly real.

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Robin Williams, 1951-2014

I remember watching Happy Days on the first night that an episode entitled “My Favorite Orkan” aired. I didn’t know that was the title of the episode. I only knew it was like nothing I’d ever seen on the nostalgia-driven sitcom. It was remarkable enough that the program focused on a space alien who visits the Cunningham home, but the actor playing that extra-terrestrial was an absolutely astounding force of nature, bending off oddball jokes at a rate that raced ahead of the speed of thought. I was seven years old, and I was prepared to tell everyone it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen on television (and lest that seem like faint praise given my relative lack of available viewing years, please know that I watched a lot of television back then). That decisive statement of unparalleled excellence lasted until the following fall, when the spin-off Mork & Mindy debuted. Positioned in the present, it was little more than a showcase for that actor who’d made the sort of explosive debut on the public consciousness that has few matches. The new series was so clearly positioned to exploit and celebrate his uniquely rapid mind that the writers were famous for leaving large portions of the script blank except for variations on the instruction “Robin does his thing.”

For years, when I was a kid and even later, I readily named Robin Williams as both my favorite comedian and favorite actor. I listened to his album Reality…What a Concept until it was as embedded in my memory as the Pledge of Allegiance (for no reason whatsoever, I ran through a sizable chunk of “Kindergarten for the Stars” in my head the other day while busy with chores), and I swear I watched An Evening with Robin Williams nearly every time it aired on HBO in the early-to-mid-eighties. If later efforts didn’t enrapture me as thoroughly, there were still delirious comic highs no one else could have delivered, such as his speculation on the genesis of golf. When I’m asked about my first concert, I automatically respond with the name of the first band I saw live, but that’s not really accurate. My first concert was Robin Williams at the Madison Civic Center, a gift for my twelfth birthday.

As an actor, Williams was nominated for the Academy Award four times, finally winning for Good Will Hunting. The look of excitement on his face when he finally gripped that trophy remains one of my most joyful moments as a devoted viewers of the awards. I worry that the retrospective view of his win is that it was an undue reward for one of the overly sentimental and simplistic performances he could sometimes default to, like the following year’s Patch Adams was the title etched on the base. I maintain he absolutely deserved to win, an example of the Academy giving the prize to the right performance, in both the year and the career. Williams brought an embittered gravity to psychology professor Sean McGuire, a weight of grinding disappointment constantly at odds with an instinct to help, to share his own highs and lows as a mean to helping this troubled Southie genius who’s been put before him. Williams had a blazing mind, and it was often interesting to see him channel it into characters that were close to him but perhaps represented a different path than the one he’d taken. It was easy to imagine him as the battle-wearied soul sharing wry jokes to indifferent students somewhere. Maybe that’s not giving Williams enough credit, though. Maybe he’s the one who made it easy to imagine it.

Filmmakers often wanted to employ Williams’s own creativity, to position him to “do his thing.” That sometimes worked wonderfully — as in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, even voicing the Genie in Aladdin — but I generally preferred the instances when he tamped down that energy, bringing his whip-smart mind to bear on a role in different ways. That happened as early as The World According to Garp, and continued on into later, often underrated endeavors such as Awakenings, Insomnia, and World’s Greatest Dad. Williams was an actor who would have benefited greatly by regularly partnering with a challenging, relentlessly complex director, if his professional entanglements with Peter Weir, Mike Nichols, or indeed Gus Van Sant had extended across five or six strikingly different films. That wasn’t to be, but the peaks still came often enough that there’s no shortage of excellent work to choose from. Many of them have greater delicacy and nuance than is widely acknowledged. His turn in Nichols’s The Birdcage was promoted with the very Robin exercise of aping the styles of several well-known dance figures in mere seconds, but the whole portrait of a gay man trying to support his son in a ruse while internally seething at the perceived need for a retreat into the closet is an inspired balancing act. Williams keys in on the character’s need for control — he’s a club owner and director, remember — as a way to properly understand his motivation. He’s frustrated by the disguise, but more so by the fact the he can’t quite get this damn orchestration to happen correctly. On top of it all, Williams is terrifically funny.

He spoke, unguardedly it seemed, about the demons that dogged him, most notably alcohol and drug addiction. I was mesmerized when he performed a sort of monologue on an episode of Marc Maron’s podcast, delivering the internal debates that accompanied a relapse low point. It could have been something he’d previously developed, but it came across as spontaneously invented right then and there as he ruminated on the problems he couldn’t quite shake. In all my years of following Williams, it was one of the most artistically daring things I’d ever heard from him, a piece on par with the raw confessionals of Richard Pryor.

Williams joined the various worlds of social media in the past couple of years, and his last dispatch on that front provides a good way to remember him. It’s a photograph of him holding his daughter Zelda when she was a mere toddler, posted to celebrate her twenty-fifth birthday. Especially given the evident circumstances of his death, it’s an irresistible enticement to find Williams in his times of pure joy. Even his most recent sitcom, the flawed but interesting The Crazy Ones, provided some of that, largely in the episode-ending bloopers that stood as a questionable gimmick except in those glimpses of Williams taking great delight in the act of playing. It’s a mark of his generosity as a performer that it was clear in those outtakes that he was at his most overjoyed when someone else was surprising him, when a co-star was making him unleash that cannon blast of a laugh.

To find the purest moment I can recall of Williams feeling ecstatic onscreen, I reach back again to Mork & Mindy. Specifically, it was a season three episode that cast Jonathan Winters in a guest-starring role, playing an uptight relative of Mindy who was loosened up by a bite of Orkan veggies. (It was the following year that Winters joined the regular cast, playing Mearth, the offspring of Mork and Mindy.) I didn’t understand all the particulars that made it so, the heavy influence the legendary Winters had on Williams, but I could clearly see that my favorite actor was having the time of his life. Late in the episode, when the outer space produce finally gives Winters a narrative excuse to riff, the pleasure on Williams’s face as he watches his hero kick into gear is a thing of beauty, as is his clear antsy anticipation as he waits for the invite to join in. When the time comes from the two of them to improv together, whether it stands as one of Williams’s finest moments as a performer is immaterial. I’m betting it was one of his happiest. Tonight, that’s the memory I want to hold onto.

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College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, An Introduction

When the task of counting down a chart is complete, I’m always left with the perplexing question of where to go next. For one thing, I don’t exactly have an abundance of options with suitable and satisfying college charts a little more tricky to track down without a stockpile of old CMJ issues squirreled away (though that has as much to do with my general unwillingness to tread too far into the territory of the post-grunge era of college radio, afraid of what I might find there). I did have a couple of strong options I was weighing for this next countdown, including one that literally fell into my hands when I pulled a copy of The Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock down from a high shelf. Just this past week, though, I found my way to a chart from an era I simply can’t resist.

As I’ve noted plenty of times before, my tenure in college radio began in the fall of 1988, shortly after I became a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I stand by my comment from the most recent One for Friday entry, which basically argued that the music from anyone’s first year as a student deejay is likely to benefit from a pronounced level of nostalgic favoritism. Much as I like to think of myself as capable of putting aside predilections when evaluating the quality of pop culture, I’m absolutely not immune to crushing hard on the albums that awaited me on the Heavy, Medium, and Light Rotation shelves when I first clicked on the WWSP-90FM main studio microphone. I knew a little bit about modern rock music (to use the vernacular of the day), but having this blessed access to the radio station’s library was like visiting Wonka’s chocolate factory.

We’ve covered some of this material in a previous Countdown subject, but that was specifically songs. It was also a Billboard chart, so the charting tracks were, by definition, the more commercial offerings out there. The chart the will provide the path for the next several weeks is an album chart compiled from college radio reporters to the trade publication Rockpool, one of many that were vying for broadcast subscribers in the late-eighties and early-nineties. For our purposes, we’ll stick with the Top 20 albums on the chart included in the issue cover-dated November 1, 1988, going through them one by one.

It all gets underway next week with a singles compilation by one of the seminal bands of college rock, even if a decent amount of the attention they received only came after it was clear they’d never record another song again. But, again, that’s for next week.

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From the Archive: Graffiti Bridge

As can be gleaned from the introductory hook to the review, this was written for the radio show The Reel Thing. I think we traveled to Madison to screen it, which was a long way to go for such a terrible movie. (The other films included in the same episode were Rocky V and White Palace, both of which I know opened in our smaller town.) In the writing of it, I didn’t mention the most memorable moment in the film, in which Morris Day urinates on a plant in Prince’s club, then promptly sets the plant on fire, implying that he somehow pisses kerosene. As I recall, I couldn’t figure out a satisfying way to write about that moment without the phrase “pissing kerosene,” which of course wasn’t allowed on the radio, especially back in 1990. I’m very glad I get to employ it now.

A couple of weeks ago on The Reel Thing, I talked about how sexism seemed to be on the increase in Hollywood. I talked specifically about reports from the set of Dennis Hopper’s film THE HOT SPOT, which detailed him making offensive remarks to the women in the film as they prepared to film nude scenes. If only I had seen GRAFFITI BRIDGE before that release, I would have had so much more to talk about. Prince’s new film GRAFFITI BRIDGE is so filled with blatant sexism that it can be purely unwatchable. The women in this film are merely objects for the men to play with, fields for their masculine conquests. Characterizations are either nonexistent or so broad and offensive you wish they were nonexistent. This fact would probably be even more reprehensible if any of the male characters had any substance. But even they are empty. The lead character played by Prince could often be replaced with empty air with little effect. We never got to see even the surface to this character, much less his soul.

Much is made of spirituality in this film, but it’s all talk, we never see or feel any. The only person in this film who is able to squeak anything out of his character is Morris Day, who embraces his role as Prince’s competitor with a campy vigor. He does a fine job of injecting the part with a humorous villainy that can be mildly entertaining when it’s not overwhelmed by the film’s less appealing aspects.

There’s no point to even discussing the film’s love interest except that she spends much of the film writing the worst poetry ever created and speaking breathlessly about redemption. The film claims to be a continuation of PURPLE RAIN, but it is ultimately nothing more than a series of pointless music videos strung together. I’m not a big fan of PURPLE RAIN, and I’m less of a fan of GRAFFITI BRIDGE. Prince is often considered to be one of the best and most creative musicians working today, and much of the music here is quite entertaining. But if Prince’s music is what you’re interested in, check out the album. Skip the movie.

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One for Friday: Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, “Pirate Radio”

With the caveat that every college radio kid probably overinflates the greatness of the music released in their first year behind the board, I’ve long championed the spring of 1989 as a pinnacle mini-era of college rock. I’m quick to list the strong releases from left of the dial luminaries like Lou Reed, Violent Femmes, the Replacements, Elvis Costello, the Cure, the Pixies, and on and on. Yet, I commonly forget one of the albums that generated the most excitement at our little broadcast outpost in the heart of America’s Dairyland, an album that indeed outpaced those of many of the more revered artists when it came time to tally up our year-end chart. There were far better and more important albums released that spring, especially with the benefit of retrospective evaluation, but that didn’t temper our excitement for Root Hog or Die by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper.

Nixon was riding the tallest wave of his career at the time, achieving added levels of fame thanks to goofball bumpers on MTV, some effusive championing in the pages of Rolling Stone (judging by the bylines, it seemed Kurt Loder was a major fan), and even a memorable namecheck in a cultish hit from the previous fall. When it came time to make a music video for the first single from the album, Nixon was able to secure the acting services of Winona Ryder, who wasn’t herself peaking yet but was ascendent enough that her participation could be categorized as a good get. There was no real chance his music was going to fully cross over into the pop consciousness (his brand of comedic rock was too aggressively confrontational for that), but he was becoming just notable enough to crop up in the the unlikeliest of places. Whatever ceiling he had didn’t matter to us, though. We played his records like he was Elvis.

If I’m being completely honest, I probably played the jokey song about Debbie Gibson that served as that lead single more than anything else (because deep down inside, I really wanted to play “Only in My Dreams” on the radio), but I now prefer to dig deeper into Nixon’s albums. For one thing, the pop culture trash-talking that earned him the most attention hasn’t exactly aged gracefully, what with references to the likes of Spuds McKenzie. On the other hand, tuneful complaints about the ugly hypocrisy of the FCC never go out of style.

Listen or download –> Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper, “Pirate Radio”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that the Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper album Root Hog or Die is out of print, at least as a physical object that can be acquired from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that duly compensates both the proprietor of said shop and the artist. I mean no fiscal harm to anyone in the posting and sharing of this song. Still, I know how the rules work. I will gladly remove it if asked to do so by any individual or entity, at least as long as that individual or entity has due authority to make such a request.)

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My Misspent Youth: Batman by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

There are a few titles that are routinely cited as instrumental to understanding the path of American superhero comics the past twenty-five years. The Frank Miller series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is chief among them. I won’t deny the impact of Miller’s satiric limited series that helped define the caped crusader’s pathology by imagined a heightened intensity future, but I think another storyline from a year later is even more important.

In the pages of the monthly Batman, Miller reunited with his recent Daredevil collaborator David Mazzucchelli to go in the opposite chronological direction from his Dark Knight series. Instead of the future, the Batman storyline looked to the past, presenting a sort of origin story that focused on the first year that Bruce Wayne took the law into his own hands in Gotham City. “Year One” found the haunted millionaire trying to clean up the urban hellscape that robbed him of his parents. Of course, he didn’t have a good angle for his vigilantism until the strangely faulty windows in stately Wayne manor proved porous enough to allow entry of an unspeakable giant bug.

The storyline followed and expanded the origin of Batman, but one of Miller’s key inspirations was the make the foundation story of the famous superhero as much about one of his key allies, who began as an adversary. I’m not enough of a lifelong Batman aficionado to say so for certain, but my clear impression of Gotham City P.D. employee James Gordon as a character before “Year One” is that he was a fairly cardboard figure, mostly in place to provide some key exposition when needed. Miller made the story about him to such a degree that some of the complaints I remember from those time groused that the saga would have been more accurately titled “James Gordon: Year One.”

For me, this was one of the elements of the story that I responded to most strongly. It’s a tried and true storytelling technique: when there are fantastical elements in play, it’s helpful to have an everyman whose reactions can be a reasonable stand-in for those in the readership. What’s more, it offered a good reason to expand the origin story that decades earlier was handled in a few panels to four full issues. Miller wasn’t dragging things out to expand to the necessary page count for a trade paperback. He was genuinely trying to explore different facets of an oft-told tale. The extra room also provided room the occasionally cute in-joke.

The ripples that emanated from Miller and Mazzucchelli’s splash went out across the waves of comicdom. The pointed seriousness of the story influenced subsequent comics far more that the comic exaggeration of The Dark Knight Returns, and the expansion of Gotham City from the setting for Batman’s adventures to a place with a far-ranging inner life of its own began here. Even the primacy of clearly defined story arcs in the midst of ongoing series can be traced here. Add to that the clear impact on Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and this work has been profoundly resonant ever since it first ran.

I remembering feeling disappointment when the fourth and final issue came out and it was clear that Miller and Mazzucchelli wouldn’t continue–I may be wrong, but I think the initial announcements were for a more open-ended tenure–but they were surely better off closing things out, making their statement on the character and even the state of comic book storytelling definitive.

Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod
Dark Horse Presents
Bizarre Adventures #27
Marvel Team-Up #48 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema
Metal Men #20 by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru
The Avengers by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Fantastic Four by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
American Flagg by Howard Chaykin
Marvel and DC Present by Chris Claremont and Walter Simonson

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Posted in Comics

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-Two

#22 — On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
It happens occasionally in this process: I come to one of those titles for which my enthusiasm for celebrating its merits without all that much concern for explicating the reasoning for its specific numeric placement is forcefully countered by a perceived need to justify why it ranks so much lower than conventional wisdom dictates. And here we are. On the Waterfront is one of those films that inspires legions of knowledgable film fans to term it one of the quintessential American features, certainly a movie that in its naturalistic approach to melodrama transformed how narrative storytelling worked, especially in the ways that acting plumbed the very souls of the characters on screen. I’ve already had to sheepishly admit to one reader that the film most commonly cited as Elia Kazan’s truest masterpiece isn’t my automatic choice for the very best of the nineteen-fifties. So let’s take the divide between expectations and my actual comparative assessment head on.

Great as On the Waterfront is — and it is truly great on so many levels — it is also a self-serving apologia for Kazan’s widely reviled, willing testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which he cited eight cohorts as Communists. Unappealing motivation and intent doesn’t automatically discredit the resulting art, but On the Waterfront suffers some narrative phoniness attributable to Kazan’s evident desire to reposition his personal cravenness as heroism. The brutish but ultimately kind-hearted dockworker Terry Malloy, played with extraordinary skill by Marlon Brando, is morally conflicted by the corruption he sees around him, particularly the tendency of almost everyone else to willingly let it continue in a collective act of self-preservation. He’s an obvious stand-in for Kazan, Terry’s eventual decision to come forward with damning information despite the certainty that there will be repercussions an obvious parallel to the director’s own sense of nobility and victimhood. However, the villainy Terry confronts — the clear corruption of organized crime, including cold-blooded murder — is far clearer than anything Kazan faced down. More problematically, the vicious reaction Terry faces from the community is deeply suspect, an example of a filmmakers’ desire to heighten the allegorical strength of his work leading to a betrayal of the plot’s internal logic. The levels of retribution and eventual defense Terry experiences both feel out of whack, a twisted act of wish fulfillment as creative process. There’s a reason Arthur Miller’s original pass at a similar story with Kazan was discarded in favor of a new version written by Budd Schulberg, another friendly witness before HUAC.

And yet the embedded achievements of On the Waterfront outpace the problems. Brando had been chipping away at the artificiality of film acting in his still young career (On the Waterfront was only his sixth film, delivering him his fourth Academy Award nomination and first Best Actor win), but this represents the first time his costars stepped up to meet him where he was instead of swirling around him in confusion as to how to react to his unpredictable realism. He’d previously been an aberration. Now he was a trailblazer, bringing his collaborators with him, including the marvelous Eva Marie Saint, who won her own Oscar as Terry’s tender beloved. If nothing else, Kazan deserves credit for shepherding these performances to the screen. That’s not all he brings to it, though. While I can criticize the mistakes Kazan’s defensiveness inflicts on the film, I must also acknowledge the passionate, muscular authority that same quality lends to the storytelling. With a keen eye and uncommonly enraptured intellectual certainty, Kazan directs as if he’s making a necessary statement from his soul. I suppose he was.

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Posted in Film
August 2014
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