November 20, 2013
#6 — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
Let’s start by challenging a myth. Life magazine never actually reported a panicked revolt by Warner Bros. executives against the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, standing up at a studio screening to lament that they’d spent a tidy sum on a “dirty movie.” Instead, that was an imagined scenario offered by the publication’s writer in a feature story on the adaption of Edward Albee’s play, a way to contextualize the film’s boundary-shoving content. There’s no actual evidence of studio discontent in the article, and not necessarily a lot of reason to think there might have been all that much. After all, this was a prestige project: a play that had been a major hit (major enough that a four LP recording of it was released) on its way to winning a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize, and it had two major stars in the leading roles, one of them already with an Oscar on her shelf and the other surely destined to win one someday, as evidenced by four prior nominations. As a bonus, those two performers were recently married and dominated the celebrity rags like few who’d came before. Or after, for that matter. There was every reason to believe the film would be a major hit, and indeed it was. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was one of the highest-grossing releases of the year.
For all the fuss over the film’s willingness to deploy somewhat profane language–the roughest words completely tame when held up against what would be commonplace in American films just a few years later–the real challenging part of the work is the raw depiction of incendiary emotions. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman did his level best to preserve what Albee originally wrote, depicting the highly fraught marriage of George and Martha with a commitment to the combative anger at the core of their relationship. In one boozy night, the two welcome a younger couple into their home, a colleague of George’s at the college where he’s a professor, along with the younger educator’s wife. The battle is waged with tongues sharper than daggers, as George and Martha demonstrate a capacity for tearing at old wounds that can only come from years upon years of practice. Albee’s words transferred by Lehman and delivered by pros at the top of their respective games have a staggering fury, showing the brilliant cruelty that can be perpetrated by people in an desperate attempt to salve their own pain, to counter their own resounding dissatisfaction.
If executives had any further cause to worry than that bruising emotional content, it came from putting this delicate material in the hands of an entirely unproven film director. Mike Nichols had already won two of his astounding nine Tonys by this point, but he hadn’t yet wielded a camera, accentuating the impressiveness of his artful command on this first outing. His directing is stylish and yet unobtrusive, weaving the camera through the scenes with a keen eye for the best way to frame a moment, finding Taylor and Burton (along with George Segal and Sandy Dennis as the other couple) as they offer added shading to their characters in quiet, agonized reactions. Nichols certainly had his affectations, but at his regularly-seen best he knew how to make his distinctive choices serve the story rather than knock it aside. That’s certainly the case with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which the director’s studied coolness actually adds to the heat of the piece. In terms of actual experience on a movie set, Nichols may have been a novice, but the talent that made him a master was already in evidence. Surely, that was what the Warner Bros. brass noticed rather than a few salty words.
November 19, 2013
“Steadily the goldfinch gazed at me, with shiny, changeless eyes. The wooden panel was tiny, ‘only slightly larger than an A-4 piece of paper’ as one of my art books had pointed out, although all that dates-and-dimension stuff, the dead textbook info, was as irrelevant in its way as the sports-page stats when the Packers were up by two in the fourth quarter and a thin icy snow had begun to fall on the field. The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature–fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.”
--Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, 2013
“WHILE, DEEP IN THE TIMELESS MYSTERY OF STAR-GLOSSED SPACE, A CORUSCATING BALL OF LIGHT GATHERS IN SIZE…FLASHING THROUGH THE COSMOS AT UNIMAGINABLE SPEED…PAINTING A CRATERED SATELLITE WITH THE LURID GLAZE OF ITS PASSING…STREAKING ONWARD, AS THOUGH HURLED BY SOME GALAXY-SPAWNED TITAN…NOW APPROACHING A PLANET…THE AZURE GLOBE CALLED BY ITS INHABITANTS, EARTH…AND THE VAST BODY OF WATER THEREON KNOWN AS THE ATLANTIC…WHERE CRUEL DESTINY AWAITS ITS COMETING ARRIVAL.”
--Doug Moench, THE INHUMANS, Vol. 1, No. 1,
"Spawn of Alien Heat," 1975
November 18, 2013
Posted by Dan Seeger under Music
| Tags: top 40 smash taps
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These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.
By my rough count, the Temptations made thirty-seven visits to the Billboard Top 40, not counting an early nineteen-nineties collaboration with Rod Stewart at the precise moment he gave up all pretenses of being anything other than treacly hack. Of those, four actually made it all the way to #1, beginning with the sweetest of romantic tributes and ending with with a funk scorcher about a missing pater familias.They had two different tracks that just barely crossed the Top 40 threshold, both of them arriving in the nineteen-seventies. “Plastic Man,” the first of that pair had the burden of arriving while their final chart-topper was still a fresh memory. What’s more, the track was also the direct follow-up to their last song to make it into the Top 10, the title cut from their 1973 album Masterpiece. “Plastic Man” is a nice number, but nowhere near the sprawling funk/soul workouts that represented their most recent significant successes.
Late the following year, the Temptations released “Happy People,” the lead single from their 1975 album A Song for You. Co-written by Lionel Richie, the song was another tight little funk song, in line with other material they were releasing at the time and not that dissimilar from other punchy efforts climbing the charts. “Happy People,” though, stalled at #40. Though the Temptations squeezed out a couple more Top 40 entries from that album, some of the magic was clearly gone. Before long, the group jumped labels to Atlantic Records, a transition that once would have been considered unthinkable for one of the defining acts of the Motown sound. Their new home didn’t turn things around, and they were back with Motown Records by the end of the decade.
–“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
–“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
–“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
–“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
–“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
–“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band
–“Crazy Downtown” by Allan Sherman
–“I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love” by Yes
–“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde
–“Come See” by Major Lance
–“Your Old Standby” by Mary Wells
–“See the Lights” by Simple Minds
–“Watch Out For Lucy” by Eric Clapton
–“The Alvin Twist” by Alvin and the Chipmunks
–“Love Me Tender” by Percy Sledge
–“Jennifer Eccles” by the Hollies
–“Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Olympics
–“The Bounce” by the Olympics
–“Your One and Only Love” by Jackie Wilson
–“Tell Her She’s Lovely” by El Chicano
–“The Last Time I Made Love” by Joyce Kennedy and Jeffrey Osborne
–“Limbo Rock” by The Champs
–“Crazy Eyes For You” by Bobby Hamilton
–“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’” by Donna Summer
–“Violet Hill” and “Lost+” by Coldplay
–“Freight Train” by the Chas. McDevitt Skiffle Group
–“Sweet William” by Little Millie Small
–“Live My Life” by Boy George
–“Lessons Learned” by Tracy Lawrence
–“So Close” by Diana Ross
–“Six Feet Deep” by the Geto Boys
–“You Thrill Me” by Exile
–“What Now” by Gene Chandler
–“Put It in a Magazine” by Sonny Charles
–“Got a Love for You” by Jomanda
–“Stone Cold” by Rainbow
–“People in Love” by 10cc
–“Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)” by the Four Tops
–“Thinkin’ Problem” by David Ball
–“You Got Yours and I’ll Get Mine” and “Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics
–“The Riddle (You and I)” by Five for Fighting
–“I Can’t Wait” by Sleepy Brown
–“Nature Boy” by Bobby Darin
–“Give It to Me Baby” and “Cold Blooded” by Rick James
–“Who’s Sorry Now?” by Marie Osmond
–“A Love So Fine” by the Chiffons
–“Funky Y-2-C” by the Puppies
–“Brand New Girlfriend” by Steve Holy
–“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by Bonnie Pointer
–“Mr. Loverman” by Shabba Ranks
–“I’ve Never Found a Girl” by Eddie Floyd
November 17, 2013
20. Various Artists, Supercop soundtrack
Yeah, I don’t really get this one. While I’ve acknowledged that well-built compilations hold a special sway over college radio deejays who may be otherwise confronted with the dauntingly unfamiliar across the new music rotation shelves, I have an exceedingly hard time figuring out why the fairly slapdash soundtrack to a 1996 Jackie Chan action flick (which was actually the third installment in franchise, originally released in 1992 in Hong Kong) got so many spins. Sure, there are a couple amusing covers on there, but it’s mostly a incoherent mix of limp alternative rock and lazy rap, the latter of which are liberally sprinkled with the sort of language that got a prohibitory red dot affixed to the track listing on station copies. Maybe it was a result of affection for Chan, who was certainly at his most endearing at this point, as he improbably made headway in the American movie market. Seriously, though, who at the station was playing this stuff?
19. Screaming Trees, Dust
Screaming Trees was not a band I expected to endure, much less get a tantalizing taste of mainstream success. When I arrived at the station, there were a couple Screaming Trees albums already in the C Stacks, the part of the library reserved for the most obscure artists, and there was more to come. These were good albums, but also typical of their label, SST Records, meaning they were loud, a little angry and had a devout lack of polish. There were other things that I played on the radio thinking, ‘This is the sort of thing that should appeal to listeners of classic rock radio,’ but I don’t think that ever happened with those Screaming Trees albums. Then they did indeed crossover, landing a deal with Epic Records and putting out albums that preserved their crunching sound but also had production that emphasized the hooky sharpness of the songwriting. “Nearly Lost You,” which showed up first on the Singles soundtrack before anchoring the band’s album Sweet Oblivion, became one of those songs even more ubiquitous than its official chart rankings suggested. And just like that, the pressure was on for the follow-up. By most accounts, the Washington-based band gave up on at least one take on their next record before recruiting producer George Drakoulias, probably best known for his signature work with the Black Crowes. The resulting album, Dust, was a little more downbeat, still clearly a tough-minded rock record, but also opting for some slinkier, more downbeat material, closer to the most interesting stuff that would later be part of lead singer Mark Lanegan’s solo career. As was the case with a lot of the survivors of the grunge movement, Screaming Trees didn’t last much longer than their first release after the trend peaked. After a couple years touring behind Dust, the band went on hiatus before officially calling it quits in 2000. This is usually the part of the write-up where I add a note about the inevitable reunion, but that hasn’t happened with Screaming Trees. Indeed, Lanegan stays busy enough with other projects–from his solo work to Queens of the Stone to collaborations former Belle & Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell to the Gutter Twins–that its plausible he’ll never make room in his schedule to revisit this particular slice of his past.
–90 and 89: Antichrist Superstar and Three Snakes and One Charm
–88 and 87: No Code and Unplugged
–86 and 85: Greatest Hits Live and Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts
–84 and 83: To the Faithful Departed and God’s Good Urges
–82 and 81: Billy Breathes and Sweet F.A.
–80 and 79: The Process and Test for Echo
–78 and 77: Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds and Breathe
–76 and 75: Bob Mould and Walking Wounded
–74 and 73: It’s Martini Time and Trainspotting soundtrack
–72 and 71: Aloha Via Satellite and Fever In Fever Out
–70 and 69: Hi My Name is Jonny and One Mississippi
–68 and 67: Everything Sucks and The Aeroplane Flies High
–66 and 65: First Band on the Moon and Razorblade Suitcase
–64 and 63: Comic Book Whore and Peachfuzz
–62 and 61: All Change and Rude Awakening
–60 and 59: 12 Golden Country Greats and Songs in the Key of X
–58 and 57: Brain Candy soundtrack and Pinkerton
–56 and 55: Sublime and Count the Days
–54 and 53: Wild Mood Swings and The Cult of Ray
–52 and 51: Bringing Down the Horse and Crash
–50 and 49: No Talking, Just Head and New Adventures in Hi-Fi
–48 and 47: Lay It Down and Pogue Mahone
–46 and 45: I’m with Stupid and XTORT
–44 and 43: Tango and …finally
–42 and 41: Good Weird Feeling and Mint 400
–40 and 39: Happy Nowhere and Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly)
–38 and 37: Turn the Radio Off and Electriclarryland
–36 and 35: Naughty Little Doggie and In Blue Cave
–34 and 33: Eventually and Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks
–32 and 31: Beautiful Girls soundtrack and Strat’s Got Your Tongue
–30 and 29: Upstroke for the Downfolk and Set the Twilight Reeling
–28 and 27: Born on a Pirate Ship and The Golden Age
–26 and 25: Ænima and Dead Man Walking soundtrack
–24 and 23: Victor and Songs for Pele
–22 and 21: Down on the Upside and Music for Our Mother Ocean
November 16, 2013
This week at spectrum Culture, I started with an album review. Specifically, this was another of my attempts to write about an artist who I like a great deal, but whose work is a little outside of my proverbial writing wheelhouse. I’m somewhat satisfied with the resulting review of the new record from M.I.A., but I do feel like it could have used more precise and detailed descriptions of the music itself. I was somewhat at a loss to describe the melange of sounds she creates. M.I.A. makes fantastic songs, but I don’t thing she’s yet pulled off a album that lives up to the promise of the dynamic, devastating singles.
On the film side, I wrote about the latest from John Sayles. It’s not good, but my conflicted feeling about calling it out for its middling quality wound up as the crux of the review. Not that I have any delusions whatsoever that my small review will impact the viability of future Sayles projects, but it still feels like a sort of betrayal to disparage the latest work from a filmmaker who I’d gladly bestow the gift of a perpetual green light upon. Still, a flawed film is a flawed film.
November 15, 2013
Posted by Dan Seeger under Music
| Tags: one for friday
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Now that it is completely, definitively, decisively established that the surest route to mainstream chart success these days is repetitive, dance-tinged songs about feeling empowered while dancing all night long in the club, I can’t help but wonder if there are any tracks on those slicked-up albums that take a look at the melancholy downside. It’s not that I think there’s some responsibility of pop culture to provide that balance. Instead, I’m just struck by the way that the college radio playlists of my younger days often seemed to have songs that portrayed drinking cultures in all their permutations, from celebratory to regretful. The Replacements may have called for sudsy beverages matched with barbecue chips as a foundational breakfast but they also delivered arguably the most poignant song ever penned about the barfly life. There was some acknowledgment that staying up all night to get lucky might just make a person tired to their very soul.
There were many battered bards of the bottle in those days, but few were as committed to the cause as Mark Eitzel. First with American Music Club and then with his solo work, Eitzel seemed to save his sharpest songwriting chops for those instances when he was prepared to offer a consideration of the contours a life spent partially pondering the proof levels printed on the sides of bottles. It was hardly his only topic, but it was certainly his best. With every new collection of mordantly funny, downbeat songs, the surest route to finding the peak was scanning the wordy song titles until the one that promised a certain glossy-eyed poetry jumped out. There’s plenty of good stuff on 60 Watt Silver Lining, his first album after the break-up of American Music Club, but sure enough it’s the track with the word “Bartender” in it that makes the deepest impression.
Listen or download –> Mark Eitzel, “Some Bartenders Have the Gift of a Pardon”
(Disclaimer: It appears to me that 60 Watt Silver Lining is out of print as a physical object. It also appears it can be purchased digitally for a modest amount, but I suspect that Warner Bros. isn’t exactly working their hardest to make sure Eitzel gets his fair share of those purchases. Regardless, such commerce doesn’t do a thing to help the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record. There are loads of fine releases with Eitzel’s handiwork on them that can purchased in such a way that makes every deserving individual a bit of scratch. Anyway, I feel okay about sharing this song here in this way. That doesn’t mean I won’t take it down if asked to do so by someone with due authority to make such a request. I surely will, promptly and happily.)
November 14, 2013
It’s been quite the season for movie stars portraying endurance in the face of overwhelming odds while operating in isolation. While premieres and the resulting opening chatter took place earlier, across successive weekends Sandra Bullock tumbled through space and Tom Hanks faced down pirates on the open sea. Trailing that duo (though it had its festival bow first) is All is Lost, which strands Robert Redford in the middle of the ocean, taking the watery troubles Hanks struggled through and increasing it by a significant degree. Redford’s character is by himself on a sailboat when a collision with a stray shipping container, adrift on the waves, leaves a gaping hole in the side of his vessel and floods it significantly enough to knock out all communication. And this is just the beginning of his woes.
Referencing another Hanks film, All is Lost suggests that writer/director J.C. Chandor watched the 2000 Robert Zemeckis directorial effort Cast Away and found it too talky. Why not eliminate the blood-smeared volleyball providing justification for a bit of dialogue and go from there? Beyond an opening narration and an futile attempt to communicate via the ship’s waterlogged radio, Redford barely utters a word. Indeed, there are precious few noises that escape his throat, Redford stoically trying to fix his wounded transport or deploying yet another piece of impressively designed survival gear. Chandor, Oscar-nominated for typing out an awful lot of words for 2011′s Margin Call, seems to have set himself the challenge of making a movie with a bare minimum amount of dialogue. It’s an impressive chore he’s given himself, admirably achieved, and yet it also holds back the film. All is Lost often comes across as completed exercise rather than compelling artistic vision.
The film is so bereft of the normal trappings of modern narrative films that it winds up feeling fairly empty. Almost no information is provided about Redford’s character. He’s not even granted a name, listed as simply “Our Man” in the credits. That is undoubtedly in keeping with Chandor’s plan, emphasizing the universality of his survival instinct rather than tugging at the audience’s interest with details of a heart-rending history. It makes the film rather hollow, though, leaving the central figure of the film so oblique that he has no definition whatsoever. Redford may as well be playing himself, a Sundance badge dangling from a lanyard around his neck. The sheer mechanics of Chandor’s directing are fairly impressive (at least until a closing sequence that traffics in the exact sort of cheap manipulation and overly beatific imagery others see, mostly inaccurately, in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity), but to what end? He may have stood up to his own artistic dare, but the resulting film has no emotion and not much more intellect. It’s not just Redford who’s lost at sea, with little hope of finding solid ground.