#40 — His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, 1951)
There’s so much messiness to sort through with His Kind of Woman that it makes the inclusion on any sort of best list a bit of a marvel. And of course I’m expressing that assessment on a list of my own devising. Working for Howard Hughes’s RKO Pictures, John Farrow was the director on the project, but what he turned in displeased the big boss. Indeed, it was decried problematic to such a degree that Farrow was removed from it altogether, with Richard Fleischer brought in to rework it, including shooting a batch of completely new scenes. Hughes also pulled together a bunch of the studio scribes to bang away at revised script pages, carrying the film who knows how far from the original, unpublished Gerald Drayson story on which it was based. Capping off the confusion, the film has a title that has practically nothing to do with the actual storyline, instead calling attention to the presence of Hughes’s prized studio asset, Jane Russell, a tactic employed in the same year’s comedy Double Dynamite (anyone familiar with the famed story about Hughes leveling his considerable engineering acumen on development of a special bra for Russell can probably glean exactly what feature of the actress he was trying to highlight with that title). All of this added up to a muddled affair that has been aptly described (by, as best as I can tell, an IMDb commenter) “Six Noir Characters in Search of a Plot.”

And it is exactly that wooliness I respond to, especially the unlikely convergence of all the disparate elements into a film that is unpredictable, and therefore disarming. I tend to think of film noir offerings, probably my most-loved cinematic subgenre, as characterized by Swiss watch plot construction. When I really consider it, though, that’s often not the case. For example, cornerstone Hollywood noir picture The Big Sleep is well known for a plot so convoluted even the filmmakers had to admit they were bamboozled by it. His Kind of Woman basically confirms the paradoxical insignificance of plot architecture in a subgenre so seemingly dependent of the soundness of plot, and compounds its proven theory by operating with a largely lackadaisical approach. Even the characters, led by the indispensable Robert Mitchum’s Dan Milner, proceed as if they’re bored by trying to figure out what’s going on. Instead, the wallow in the splendor of mood, florid emotion, and verbal exchanges that resound like the tolling of some grand clock. There are double-crosses, duplicity, vast sums of money tossed around like battered baseballs, and sexy individuals smoldering for the sheer pleasure of it. What it all sums up to is far less interesting than the pleasure of surveying the multitude of addends.

As noted, Mitchum is fantastic. He owned film noir the way John Wayne owned westerns. They may be no other performers in Hollywood history besides the two of them who can make such definitive claims. The very best performance in the film, however, belongs to Vincent Price, playing hammy movie actor Mark Cardigan. As he becomes more and more engaged in the sort of rough and tumble heroism that’s usually the province of fiction for him, Price takes to scenes with thrilling gusto. He’s a man cracked open to the possibilities of the world, living what he’s previously pantomimed. There’s an according freedom to his emotions, like a kid breathing the summertime air after a winter so long he’d forgotten how the sun baked the oxygen to a different flavor. It exemplifies the whole film, which strikes out with a charming what-the-hell bravado. How much of that is owned by Farrow or Fleischer of any number of Hughes’s cadre of demolitionists and rebuilders is beside the point. Authorship is less important that the elusive alchemy, the surprising movie magic, that can make something like His Kind of Woman come together, against all odds.

18. Weather Report, Mr. Gone

In 1978, the seminal jazz fusion act Weather Report was charged will following up their biggest hit to date, the previous year’s Heavy Weather. This being jazz fusion, blockbuster status was still fairly modest: topping the Billboard Jazz Album charts for the first time and having enough sales to go gold. They also snared a five star review from the influential jazz magazine Down Beat, making them generally celebrated as the standard bearers for this new wrinkle in the classic American music, one that many felt was the true next wave of the art form, as legitimate as, say, hard bop. In some ways, it surely seemed like the one that held the greatest promise to keep the music commercially viable, given the way it operated with some of the same audio textures as prog rock, which of course what all the cool kids were buying and listening. Well, maybe it was just the stoned kids, but jazz had always counted on them, too.

Their 1978 studio album, Mr. Gone, was their ninth overall. While this was considered a strong stretch for the band, thanks in part to the recent addition of bassist Jaco Pastorius to a line-up that also included Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine, and Joe Zawinful, there was also perhaps something of a backlash settling in. Down Beat took a stance on Mr. Gone that was very different from their celebration of its predecessor, slagging it as too commercial and famously (or infamously) leveling a one-star review. It requires someone with a far more intimate knowledge of jazz in the waning years of the the nineteen-seventies than me to weigh in on the validity of that criticism, but Mr. Gone certainly doesn’t sound challenging, innovative, or interesting to my ears. I’ll admit that maybe it’s some three decades of hearing fusion jazz reappropriated for the most generic of soundbeds, but most of the album is dull as can be.

For example, “Young and Fine” sounds to me like it was created with the express intent of providing background to a Sunday morning airing of a largely disinterested television station’s community calendar listings. There certainly must be those who find the airy rapidity and restless intricacy of “Punk Jazz” intriguing, but I mostly thought about how it didn’t really sound like either of the words in the title. And with something like album opener “The Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat,” it sounds like Weather Report is auditioning to score the latest tepid, confused Hollywood stab at a sci-fi freak out. Some of these avenues may have yielded something interesting had the band rigorously pursued them, but Mr. Gone instead sounds like a series of diversions, a sense only compounded when the odd live track crops up. Maybe Down Bear was right given that the only coherent message of the album was that there was a iron that was sufficiently heated for striking.

In general, Weather Report definitely wasn’t lax about stocking the jazz section in record stores. The group officially lasted less than ten more years, with plenty of line-up tweaks (Wikipedia lists no fewer than twenty-nine people as “Past Members”). In that span, they released six more studio albums and a live album, before heading off to the in perpetuity of vault raiding that jazz artists often enjoy, although their history seems to have been picked over far less than some of their contemporaries. And listen, man, somebody out there still puts on this record, dips their head low, swings to the rhythm, and can’t believe how much this thing grooves.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls

Since I evoked my Mojo phase in yesterday’s post, it seems only appropriate that today’s sheepish looks back towards old writing should present my most overt attempt at writing in that British publication’s style. Taken from my brief, happy tenure with Central Florida’s The Independent Journal, this review covers a unlikely blast of 21st century prog rock that–in a turn even more unlikely–I liked a great deal. It also inspired me to give it my best Mojo review section try, particularly when it came time to pile up quasi-arcane references. I remember being very happy with the results. And I still think the description of the album’s final track, intentional ridiculous as it is, is spot on.

When one of the chosen methods for introducing a band’s debut release is via laser show, you’ve probably got a good idea of what sort of musical territory will be traversed on that shiny silver disc.

The first full-length from The Mars Volta make the splintering of At The Drive-In complete. Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos, and Tony Hajjar were first out of the gate with their band Sparta and last year’s Wiretap Scars, but fellow ATDI-ers Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopex may have won the race, at least if the determining factor for victory is ambition. The Mars Volta takes the punk-fueled explosions of its previous musical home and grafts them onto an updated approximation of the sort of hard-driving prog rock that made FM radio the chosen sanctuary of the stoned and sleep-deprived some thirty years ago.

The record even takes the form of that most dreaded of seventies blights: the concept album. According to press releases, the album tells the story of Cerpin Taxt, who falls into a coma and gallivants “through the different worlds and planets of his subconscious.” I have to take their word for it, as Zavala’s vocals are about conveying urgency and emotion rather than crisply enunciated words. That’s incidental, though, as the deeper meaning of lines like “Dress the tapeworm as pet/ Tentacles smirk please/ Flinched the cocooned meat” would be elusive if Tony Bennett crooned them a capella in a lecture hall.

It’s the music that ultimately drives this record, anyway. There’s a sort of rock-show-on-the-edge-of-tomorrow vibe winding through the ten tracks as the band collaborates with producer Rick Rubin for a crisp, big sound that pretends that the last twenty-five years of rock evolution never happened. Or maybe happened very differently. “Roulette Dares (The Haunt Of)” includes one of those moody, sedate, David Gilmour-ish guitar solos that used to signal “Big Thoughts Ahead,” and the full, funereal balladry of “Televators” recalls Led Zep during their emotive Ring Wraith and Misty Mountain phase.

It’s never predictable. Even when the album closer “Take The Veil Cerpin Taxt” starts with the sort of pile-driving guitar hysterics that made At The Drive-In critical darlings in the first place, it quickly transforms with a battlefield of electronic pops into some free-form meandering that sounds like Bitches Brew as created by Van Der Graaf Generator and finishes with the finest two-and-a-half minutes that Rush never had.

For all that, the album rarely plays as a pastiche. Instead, the reclamation and reinvention of the sort of rock that gave rock a bad name is so thorough and propulsive that whole endeavor feels amazingly original.

Thought I can’t necessarily parcel my personal journey as a music fan into clear, clean divisions, I have had a few distinct phases, stretches when the material I sought out was actively influence by one source or another, be it individuals or, in a couple of case, entire radio station music libraries. And then there are the periodicals, led by the foundational and sometimes regrettable impact of Rolling Stone on my taste. I hold far greater fondness for a later period of time I think of, as I must, as “The Mojo years.” I started buying the U.K. magazine after reading an online article that lamented the sorry state of similar publications on this side of the Atlantic, citing Mojo as one of the exemplars of how a music magazine could be done right. I agreed, falling under its thrall right away. Interestingly enough, it didn’t exactly fulfill my endearing need to learn about the best new music, a need I felt especially strongly in the late nineties, having left radio and without the vast internet resources now available. Their coverage of new music was solid enough, especially in the astute if occasionally overly generous review section. What really captured me was the magazine’s extensive coverage of what I think of as the hidden history of rock ‘n’ roll.

By the time I was actively engaged in the hunt for records, a canon of rock ‘n’ roll had been established, laid out by Rolling Stone and ratified by sound-alike classic rock stations from coast to coast. Want to know about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bruce Springsteen, or Led Zeppelin? No problem. Just about anyone else, and you were on your own. Even the Kinks, who should have been as big as any of them, were largely relegated to “Lola,” a fine enough song, but burdened enough by the whiff of novelty that it was roughly akin to treating Chuck Berry like “My Ding-a_ling” was his most important song because it happened to be the only one of his singles to top the Billboard charts. I knew from my own experience in college radio that often the best songs were those that didn’t catch on with a broader audience, for whatever reason. I was pretty well-versed in what the hidden gems from 1989 were. I wanted to know about the equivalent treasures from 1979 and 1969. Mojo became a idiosyncratically-educated crate-digger pal to me, regularly championing releases that I’d never heard a blip about and writing about them with such vigor and enthusiasm that I couldn’t wait to get my ears on them. And if one of those bands had a song that was about baseball, all the better.

Earth Opera was a psychedelic rock band from Boston in the later nineteen-sixties. In their lush, intricate arrangements, they somewhat anticipated the prog rock that would flood the market in the next decade, but their was a pleasing airiness to the Earth Opera songs, providing just enough of a sense that they might not be taking this stuff too seriously. If rock ‘n’ roll was about to get battered into clumsy lumps by its own pretensions towards greater art, bands like Earth Opera showed that bigger, bolder sounds could be achieved without distancing stuffiness. And being Boston boys, they clearly had to take a little time to celebrate, perhaps somewhat ironically, the hometown team. I can’t definitively claim this music is better than that of the artists who get to be celebrated as iconic in perpetuity, but the great breadth of music should allow for a little more variety. I’ll sure take this over just about any track from the Doors.

Listen or download –> Earth Opera, “The Red Sox are Winning”

(Disclaimer: As far as I can tell, the two full length Earth Opera albums are out of print, at least as physical items that can purchased new from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. It is therefore shared hear with the understanding that doing so causes no fiscal harm to any innocent parties. Record companies don’t count. Regardless, I know the rules. I will gladly remove it from this humble corner of the interweb if asked to do so by any person or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

#15 — Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer, 1979)
By now, it’s firmly established that playing a historical figure necessitates an actor pursue expert mimicry and slavish adherence to documented tics and tendencies above all else. While that can lead to truly remarkable work, it often results in overly staid performances, acting that has no edges or energy. Emotional truths are subsumed by the craftsmanlike conviction to master an accent or echo the specifics of a voice. It short, it can prevent artists from the vital task of playing the character, the need to honor the original person so burdensome that acting takes on the mustiness of dull portraiture. Something essential is lost.

Certainly, it’s not simply its genesis in another era that makes Malcolm McDowell’s take on H.G. Wells in Time After Time loose and inventive in a way that’s grandly freeing. This wasn’t some stuffy, Oscar-hungry biopic of a famed figure from the distant past. It was a high-concept lark back before zippy, hooky plots ruled the Hollywood development slate. Written and directed by Nicholas Meyer (making his feature debut in the latter role), the film posits that writer H.G. Wells didn’t simply concoct a time machine for the purposes of filling the pages of the novel, but actually had a fully functioning version of his device down in the basement. He introduces the machine to a dinner guest, surgeon John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner), in a gesture that seems fairly harmless, at least until the local police begin pursuing John in the correct belief that he’s been terrorizing the London streets as the infamous Jack the Ripper. John takes advantage of the unique route to the freedom that’s been laid before him and uses H.G.’s machine to escape into the future. The author pursues him to San Francisco, in 1979, setting into motion an extremely unique game of timestream displaced cat and mouse. This is not the stuff, to put it plainly, of studied verisimilitude.

What McDowell’s performance may lack in history book accuracy, it compensates for with resounding cleverness, perhaps more befitting for the famously creative person he comes to embody. Necessarily playing the befuddlement of a man thrust about one hundred years into the future, McDowell keys in on the character’s inquisitiveness and intellectual capacity for adaptation. Wells was, after all, an author whose most enduring tomes were whirlwinds of futurism that helped launch the genre of science fiction. After the shock subsides, H.G. instinctually tries to figure out this bizarre land he’s landed in, puzzling over the strange surface of a fast food table and gazing at the citizenry whose every bit of demeanor is entirely foreign to him. McDowell signals the ways in which H.G.’s mind is always whirring. He’s pursuing a single fugitive in time, but the entirely of this existence he’s been transplanted into is its own mystery. There is vulnerability built into the situation, but H.G. also operates with the composure of someone with just the right amount of confidence. This, like all things, he will be able to figure out.

It is similarly this always evident intellectual acumen that gives all facets of the film an authenticity within the fanciful flights, from H.G.’s romance with a modern bank employee (the invaluable Mary Steenburgen) to his heavy realization that his murderous acquaintance is less a man of out of a time than a person set right, his form of bloody punishment more suited to the hyper-violent modern times. Those notes are central to the success of both McDowell’s performance and the film itself. Despite the pulpy silliness of the premise, no one involved in the film treats the material like disposable fluff. Instead, there’s a plainspoken belief in the inherent value of the story, a resolute willingness to go wherever the unlikely logic leads. Meyer later went on to be one of the more important contributors to the Star Trek film franchise, contributing to the notably better even installments of the first iteration of the interstellar adventures, and Time After Time forecasts his ability to artfully counter borderline hokey sci-fi trappings with the dramatic gravity necessary to give the finished work depth and meaning. McDowell strikes the same precarious balance as H.G. Wells. It could have been silly and slight, and there are are certainly hints of that in McDowell’s slightly playful approach. But he simultaneously stays true to the core of his conception, insuring that the portrayal holds the proper amount of respect for the estimable cognitive capabilities of the man he plays. McDowell goes a long way towards making the unbelievable into the most plausible story imaginable.

    Previously…

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton as Regina Lambert in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover as Simon in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams as Lisa Reisert in Red Eye

#41 — Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
History doesn’t slow down, and it doesn’t pause to give affected observers time to process what has happened. Sometimes art has to rush to keep up. In the process, it can unearth raw, troubling truths, both through what it directly, intentionally conveys and through what is revealed by its process. Hiroshima Mon Amour, the debut feature of French director Alain Resnais, was released less than fifteen years after the United States capped off World War II by dropping nuclear weapons on Japan, including the title city. That’s hardly an ink-still-wet sort of timespan, but it is fresh enough that the scorched shadows of the incident still creep into the film. Watched now, all these decades later, the film is as much an artifact as any old, scratchy radio broadcast replayed to capture a distant time. But the sense of reverberating memory is infused deeply into it, giving it an artful timelessness that plays like modernity. It’s not a film made staid by reflection. It is of the immediate moment, struggling with the echoes of the unthinkable.

Resnais was initially approached to make a documentary, in large part because of admiration over his documentary shorts, notably Cannes sensation Night and Fog. That was about the Nazi concentration camps, which surely led to the suspicion that he could craft something equally powerful about the aftermath of atomic weaponry unleashed. The director couldn’t find his way to documentary, eventually opting for understanding through fiction. Working with a screenplay credited to the novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, Resnais leans on the sturdiest story there is, that of a love affair. But he also approaches it through abstraction, identifying the lead characters as only She and He (Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada, respectively). Resnais is equally elusive about the particulars of their story, revealing only reflections of their shared and individual truths. The film is not about the details of how they do and don’t connect, but the emotions that inform their experience. Through that approach, Resnais is able to comment on the fragility of connection in a world that’s literally been damaged.

Further, Hiroshima Mon Amour suggests the inherent inability of film to carry real truths, one of the foundational notions of the then-emerging French New Wave. Resnais rejected his inclusion in the movement, but his debut isn’t drastically apart from what his peers were up to, casually deconstructing narrative cinema through a cool mastery of its techniques. The opening of the film is a dialogue between She and He that, among other things, considers the unfathomable ravages of war, all of it delivered as voiceover atop footage of the destruction the bombing wrought. The philosophical musings against the black-and-white reality stretch on for around 15 minutes, upending all expectations about how a film should engage and then proceed. Then there’s the vocation of She. The character is an actress who has come to Japan to shoot a movie, one that evidently also deals with the war, albeit in a manner that seems far more melodramatic in the brief glimpse of it. Resnais underlines his fiction by embedding a starker version of cinematic falsehood within it, which seems like code and confession. Or maybe it’s an open acknowledgment of the ongoing struggle to make meaning through creation, even when–or especially when–a worthwhile underlying purpose to humanity’s self-destructive savagery is utterly inscrutable. That is one of art’s tasks, after all, and it’s rarely more vital than when life is still slowly quivering back toward stasis after devastation that must be examined.

At this point in the director’s career, it may be easier and more instructive to catalog how a new Wes Anderson film is different than its predecessors. For example, his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is packed with all the same ornate, beautifully-realized art direction and costume design, intricately framed images, and absurdist, deadpan humor that has been his hallmark for the bulk of his career. But there’s also a creeping darkness to the humor, like edges of paper blackening against pronounced heat. There’s coarser language and flashes of unabashed sexuality that are somewhat unfamiliar to the director (though that’s not quite true, all of Anderson’s films were rated R until playing to the junior set with The Fantastic Mr. Fox necessitated dialing it back a bit), but there’s also the employment of comic violence that is straight out of the Coen brothers’ toolkit. Even central character M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) recalls the work of the Coens in his use of complicated, almost pompous language to prop himself up in an existence of refined sleaziness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a sort of offhand caper, a yarn spun by a gentle ruffian with an aspirational appreciation for the finer things.

Despite observations about potential new kindred peers, The Grand Budapest Hotel is unmistakably the work of Anderson. The title setting itself is exactly the sort of mammoth realization of softly-colored, highly detailed beauty–touched with a hint of squalor–that stands as the director’s specialty. Largely taking place in a nineteen-thirties, as the fictional European country that is home to the splendiferous hotel is falling prey to a continental militaristic control that strongly recalls certain German incursions of the time, the film is a farce putting on airs of a genteel drawing room comedy. Gustave is the concierge of the hotel, serving to the every need of his wealthy clientele, including the sexual and emotional gratification of many elderly widows. One of them, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, throwing herself into Anderson’s broad fakery with expected gusto), meets her end in a manner that is somewhat suspicious, a situation further complicated by her callous family’s ire when they discover she’s left a priceless work of art to Gustave. With that story foundation foundation, Anderson and his co-screenwriter Hugo Guinness indulge in a dizzying array of side plots and supporting characters, many played by Anderson’s ever-expanding stock company. As with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson seems to be engaged in a wager with himself to see just how much he can pack into a single film.

If The Grand Budapest Hotel lacks the heart and soulfulness of Anderson’s best work, it has a restless playfulness that’s irresistible in its own right. Some of that is directly attributable to Fiennes’s performance as Gustave, in which the actor is clearly taking great delight in the chance to do something lighter. He’s charming, graceful, and imbued with a pleasingly prickly politesse. No matter how Anderson’s popping confection risks spinning off into oblivion, Fiennes hold it in place, a reliable core. With so much that’s deliberately, forcefully remarkable in Anderson’s film, Fiennes achieves the feat of being grandest of all.

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