The Art of the Sell — John Waters “No Smoking” PSA

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Back in the nineteen-eighties, movie theaters had to work a little harder to remind patrons that they weren’t allowed to smoke. None accomplished it with more panache than those lucky art house theaters blessed with a short reel of director John Waters addressing the crowd directly. Waters explains the policy clearly, but, contrarian to the core, he also expresses his disapproval at the prohibition, marveling that anyone could go the length of a movie — especially the high-falutin’ fare about to offered at the art house — without indulging in a smoke. All the while, Waters puffs away, all the better to taunt jonesing moviegoers.

I don’t smoke. I’ve never smoked. But even I have to concede the power of the sadistic seduction offered by Waters. He almost has me reaching instinctively for some phantom pack in my pocket.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

Outside Reading — I Want a Little Sugar in My Cup edition

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An Oral History of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Perfect Men in Black ‘Sugar Water’ Scene by Rachel Handler

Look, it’s probably a stretch to call this article an oral history, since it’s really comprised of nothing more than two interviews — with Vincent D’Onofrio and director Barry Sonnenfeld — interwoven. And I’m not sure what weird clickbait sorcery the Vulture editors think they’re perpetrating by highlighting the single moment when D’Onofrio downs a glass of sugar water. Setting aside the framing flaws, this is fine recounting of the oddball ingenuity D’Onofrio brought to his performance in what is ostensibly just a silly sci-fi comedy. I recall Tommy Lee Jones briefly marveling at D’Onofrio’s work in some sort of HBO First Look or other behind-the-scenes promotional endeavor, acknowledging that there’s not a lot of research an actor can do to develop verisimilitude in portraying a giant space bug collapsed into the skin shorn from a human victim. I’ve thought about including this feat of acting in the Greatish Performances feature even since I launched it, but I felt capturing its wonders was beyond my capabilities. This article manages what I could not.

 

Rebecca Traister’s keynote speech at the 2019 MOLLY Prize dinner

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Rebecca Traister has already been highlighted once before in this fledgling feature, and I’m sure I’ll cycle back to her again and again. In my estimation, few writers, thinkers, and communicators are capturing the mood of this fraught moment better than her. Rather than an essay this time, I’m linking to a transcript of a speech she gave in a keynote address at the annual event that includes the awarding of the MOLLY Prize, named for Molly Ivins and honoring excellence in journalism. (This year’s winner is Hannah Dreier, who also earned a Pulitzer for her reporting on MS-13.) A major part of Traister’s current advocacy is taking today’s intense commitment to fighting the regressive-policy-preserving cads in the power structure and showing how it echoes other points in history when the citizenry stood up for themselves. In this speech, Traister shares the story of Elizabeth Freeman, who was given the name Mum Bett when she was born a slave in middle of the eighteenth century. Freeman successfully sued for her freedom in a case that is widely credited with leading to the abolishment of slavery in Massachusetts. She should be featured prominently in the history books, and every pedestal on which a Confederate soldier’s bronzed figure resides would be better served with a commemoration of Freeman and others like her. These stories are hidden for a reason, and making them prominent is a valuable tool in moving us forward as a society. So I’ll do my small, small part and place Freeman’s picture here, to accompany the link to Traister’s speech. When I read Traister’s words, I’m reminded of how vital it is to keep teaching, and to keep learning.

 

Never a victory so Twisted by Scott Gordon

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One of the true pleasures in moving back to the city of my birth is becoming reacquainted with a uniquely rambunctious community culture. It’s been particularly helpful to discover the handful of newer media outlets that operate with a whip-smart hardihood in alignment with the broader municipal personality. And there’s no finer chronicler of the telling absurdities of Madison, Wisconsin than Tone Madison. (Full disclosure: Some of my awkwardly-assembled sentences have occasionally appeared in that digital space.) This week, the site’s fearless leader, Scott Gordon, braved an upgraded Taco Bell on State Street, in the bustling heart of the city’s downtown. So why cover a chintzy fast food outlet debuting a limited, highly regulated menu of alcoholic offerings in a desperate attempt to extract traveling money from the pockets of college kids? The emergence of a Taco Bell where, in theory, drunkenness can be achieved is emblematic of a sea change in the city, the ballot box deposing of a seeming mayor-for-life whose foundational student radical spirit slowly atrophied into curmudgeonly opposition to practically all new liquor licenses, in addition to more problematic erosions of his progressive principles. Gordon burrito-wraps all of that lingering political drama into the article, while effectively conveying the experience of day drinking in a nearly empty Taco Bell on what’s theoretically a gala day celebrating the victory of corporate persistence. The details in the piece are so well-chosen that I find myself hoping Gordon strays from his usual beat and finds a way to cover the opening of the Taco Bell-themed hotel and resort in Palm Springs.

 

The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth

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Now that I’ve set aside Saturdays to celebrate the writing of other people, I think this is where I’m going to comment on — and therefore keep track of — the books I’ve read. (So rest in peace, Great Moments in Literature. You served me well.) This Philip Roth novel was published twelve full years before the 2016 presidential election, and yet it perfectly — and I mean perfectly — captures the toxic nationalism, bigotry, xenophobia, and id-driven selfishness always simmering in the national character that has delivered us to this dreadful moment in time. Focusing on the experience of one New Jersey family in an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” movement put the famed aviator and Nazi sympathizer in the White House, ending Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure after two terms. Roth expertly shows the way wide social and political issue reverberate down into personal lives, and he meticulously tracks the slow progression of citizen-stifling policies until democracy is being fully papered over with totalitarianism. It is such a precise allegorical reflection of the current moment (except that the fictionalized Lindbergh is actually skilled in guising his ill intentions and ugly prejudices) that the copyright date on the book seems like a typo.

This Week’s Model — Bob Mould, “I Don’t Mind”

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(Source)

Bob Mould writes about the impact of the Buzzcocks in his memoir, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and MemoryAs a college sophomore, Mould saw the Buzzcocks opening for Gang of Four. Enamored by what was before him, Mould intently studied the guitar work of frontman Pete Shelley. The scrutiny was obvious enough that Shelley supplemented Mould’s studies by shouting out chord changes as he made them. Elsewhere in the book, Mould recounts meeting Steve Garvey, bassist for the Buzzcocks, enthusing about the long-past show that shaped him.

“I was again reminded that I’m simply part of the lineage, part of the continuum: both listener and storyteller, fan and creator,” Mould writes.

On the cover of the Buzzcocks’ “I Don’t Mind” released this week by Mould, he is clearly and wonderfully listener, storyteller, fan, creator all at once.

 

Laughing Matters — Strange Planet, by Nathan W. Pyle

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

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I’ve tried to think of a way to describe the abundant pleasures of Nathan W. Pyle’s webcomic Strange Planet, but everything I come up with is merely explaining the reason its humor works, which, to be fair, is a very Strange Planet way to approach the task. Instead, I’ll just share a couple of my favorite here and include a link to the comic’s home on Instagram. The only thing I’d like to add is that the final punchline on the birthday party strip below elegantly, perfectly captures my animosity toward pranks of all kinds, even well-meaning ones and especially those I’ve personally perpetrated over the years. And it delivers this ingenious observation in only two words. This comic is a joy, and it’s absolutely brilliant.

A book collecting the strips arrives later this year.

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Playing Catch-Up — Pather Panchali; Pocketful of Miracles; Free Solo

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Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955). The debut feature from Bengali director Satyajit Ray is a marvel of deep empathy and refined visual storytelling. Based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali focuses on the struggles of a rural family living in poverty in the nineteen-tens. Ray adeptly captures the breadth of the challenge the family faces, largely through the perspective of its two children, Durga (Runki Banerjee when the character is a child, and then Uma Dasgupta when she moves into her teen-aged years) and Apu (Aubir Banerjee). Without shortchanging the grim realities of an existence on the edge of the most basic solvency, Ray finds moments of grace in the kids’ fascination with the smaller treasures of life. Eventually, tragedy intrudes, and Ray’s approach allows the resulting sorrow to feel narratively and thematically proper rather than harshly exploitative. Aligned with Italian neorealism, Pather Panchali is especially impressive because it was crafted by relative novices, including most of the actors, miracle-working cinematographer Subrata Mitra, and Ray himself. The film is a compelling testimony to the value in democratizing access to the tools of cinematic art.

 

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Pocketful of Miracles (Frank Capra, 1961). The final feature from storied director Frank Capra exhibits a surprising deftness given the length of his career’s tooth at the time. It might have helped that Capra had already take a pass at roughly the same material once before. Pocketful of Miracles is based on the Damon Runyon story Madame La Gimp, which Capra had previously adapted for the screen in the the 1933 comedy Lady for a Day. The story centers on a destitute woman named Apple Annie (Bette Davis) who sells fruit on the street while presiding over a small crew of fellow small-scale hustlers and panhandlers. Her wares are viewed as the ultimate good luck charm by local gangster Dave the Dude (Glenn Ford), who is on the cusp of securing a major alliance as Prohibition falls. To keep Annie happy — and those lucky apples coming — Dave has to help orchestra a ruse upon the occasion of a visit by Annie’s daughter, Louise (Ann-Margret, in her first film role). Capra structures the film like an farce, though one that never spin off into frenetic tomfoolery. With a crispness to the visuals and the narrative, Capra keeps the proceedings grounded in emotion and smartly leans on the skilled cast. This is one of the better performances I’ve seen from Ford, and there are fine supporting turns from Edward Everett Horton and Peter Falk, the latter earning an Oscar nomination, his second in as many years.

 

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Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 2018). Last year’s Academy Award winner in the feature documentary category mostly succeeds because of the ways it subverts rules and therefore expectations. On its most basic level, Free Solo follows the quest of Alex Honnold to become the first person to scale El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, with the aid of ropes or other mountaineering support gear. The film marvels at the death-defying feat without ever fully celebrating it, leaving plenty of room for the viewer to draw negative conclusions about Honnold’s choices. Amy Poehler says the movie should be called White Nonsense, and that seems reasonable to me. Co-directors Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi and Jimmy Chin capture several small, telling moments — such as Honnold’s amusement in filling out a psychological profile questionnaire being stopped dead what he hits the entry that asks about depression — and use them shrewdly and strategically to build a fuller picture of the climber and those around him. The most impactful choice involves the gradual incorporation of Chin and his camera crew into the film’s narrative. They are not simply pointing their camera, but preemptively weighing the guilt and horror they will feel if their footage includes Honnold falling from a dizzying height, sustaining grave injury or death. What could have easily been a rote sports documentary with some stunning nature photography for flavor becomes instead an unexpected modern morality play.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #708 to #705

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708. The Special AKA, In the Studio (1984)

Using the most straightforward explanation, In the Studio is the third album from the Specials. The fact that the band is billed as the Special AKA tells a significant story. This wasn’t the same outfit that topped the U.K. chart two times in the early nineteen-eighties and delivered seven straight Top 10 hits on the same tally of hots. In the Studio is the document of a band in disarray.

The troubles began when Terry Hall, Neville Staple, and Lynval Golding left the band to form Fun Boy Three. Jerry Dammers, the keyboardist and chief songwriter of the Specials, tried to cobble together a new lineup for the band, cycling through session musicians and members snatched from other bands. In all, Dammers and the rotating support cast spent about two years toiling away in fits and starts. It was apparently a bleak scene during sessions, leading Horace Panter, the Specials’ bassist and co-founder, to later observe the “atmosphere was unbearable.” He quit the band midway through recording process.

Despite these conflicts, In the Studio is a strong album, though miles away from the froth ska music with which the Specials built their fame. That is largely attributable to the new collaborators Dammers brought into his circle, since they were far more accustomed to jazz-influenced riffs than caffeinated Jamaican rhythms. Dammers was also clearly looking outside himself in shaping the lyrics, leading to highly politicized songs such as plaintive pleas “(Free) Nelson Mandela” and “Bright Lights,” the latter of which references the case of Colin Roach, a black man who died in police custody in 1983. Often, the Special AKA chose the most direct path to making their points, as on “Your Racist Friend,” which argues “If you have a racist friend/ Now is the time, now is the time/ For your friendship to end.”

There’s a remarkable fullness of thought in the sound of the individual tracks. “The Lonely Crowd”  jazz colliding with R&B, “Housebound” is flinty and experimental, and “Break Down the Door”  recaptures Stax soul sound, giving it a decidedly modern spin. None of this was what fans wanted, evidently. Except for “(Free) Nelson Mandela,” which benefited from its timeliness, none of the singles fared particularly well, and the album was the band’s lowest-charting effort to date.

Shortly after the release of In the Studio, Dammers dissolved the band, opting for other pursuits. The Specials’ name has been opportunistically employed for various nostalgia tours over the years, but Dammers hasn’t really been a part of the zombie versions of the band.

 

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707. Rank and File, Lone Gone Dead (1984)

Lone Gone Dead is the sophomore full-length studio release from Rank and File, a band out of Austin, Texas that was fronted by Chip Kinman and Tony Kinman. Slotted into the emerging cowpunk scene, Rank and File were exhibited tendencies toward more straightforward Americana rock ‘n’ roll. They do ably cover the the Lefty Frizzell song “I’m an Old, Old Man” on the album, keeping some current running through the country music connection, but most of Lone Gone Dead sounds like the college rock version of what John Mellencamp was just starting to bang out.

There are still vestiges of the band’s shared punk roots, but mostly found in the layers of defiant attitude as on the homespun “Sound of the Rain,” which includes the simple, powerful lines “I see walls/ But these wall aren’t in my way.” There’s a popgun fun to “Saddest Girl in the World,” and “John Brown” finds them sounding like a cowpoke Nick Cave. In general, there’s a boisterous quality to the album, sometimes manifesting in unexpected ways. “Hot Wind,” for example, sounds like it could have served as the theme for a television Western had the genre remained a wholly viable genre into the mid-eighties.

The music is good, but the band had difficulty getting a foothold with broader audiences. There was only one more album, a self-titled effort for a new label, before Rank and File quit for good.

 

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706. Blancmange, Happy Families (1982)

Blancmange started in 1979, plying their trade in London. Originally a trio, the group settled into a partnership between vocalist Neil Arthur and keyboardist Stephen Luscombe. The pair made intellectually potent pop music, vibrating with dance floor intensity and struck by a bracing certainty of purpose. Happy Families is the band’s debut full-length.

The album opens with the danceable fervor “I Can’t Explain,” and it keeps reverberating with splendid cuts such as the bright, booming “Living on the Ceiling” and the handsome drama of “Waves.” Some of the material is tightly tethered to the era in which is was made, as evidenced by “Cruel,” which is mild goth with a vibe that anticipates Depeche Mode’s “Master and Servant.” More often, the cuts have a bright inventiveness that make them sound perpetually contemporary. “Feel Me” isn’t far off from the jabbing insistence of the most recent LCD Soundsystem album. Occasionally, a track is novel enough that it could have beamed in from another reality altogether, as is the case with “Sad Day,” which is like the theme song for a remake of Knot’s Landing set in outer space.

Blancmange managed two more albums in the nineteen-eighties before announcing a split in 1986. A reunion happened fifteen years later, and it included a re-recording of this debut album, titled Happy Families Too…

 

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705. Kate Bush, The Whole Story (1986)

Kate Bush had creating music from broad public consumption for nearly ten years when she released the “best of” collection The Whole Story. She was very well known at home in the U.K., where her 1978 debut single, “Wuthering Heights,” spent four weeks atop the chart, making her the first female artist to hit that pinnacle with a song she wrote herself. She was eighteen years old when she wrote the song, and her personal odometer had only ticked ahead one year when she hit the chart peak. Although she never quite reached those heights again, she’s remained a consistent commercial force in the U.K., notching seven Top 10 hits over the years, including as recently as 2012. It made sense for her to pull together a collection of peak performers for that market.

In the U.S., she was more of an unknown quantity, leading Bush to joke that most record-buyers probably viewed The Whole Story as her debut album. There was a little exaggeration to that statement given that “Running Up That Hill” pushed into the Billboard Top 40 in 1985, but she likely wasn’t that far off. For some audiences, The Whole Story was merely a shortcut to fill a lamented hole in a collection. For U.S. audiences, it was a primer on a vivaciously inventive iconoclast who was never likely to crack a commercial landscape more inclined toward easily digestible pop.

Bush recorded a new vocal for “Wuthering Heights,” but The Whole Story otherwise pulls morsels straight from her earlier albums, giving listeners — and college radio programmers — the convenience of the pure beauty of “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” the brilliant churn and charge of “Hounds of Love,” and the tightly controlled wildness of “Sat in Your Lap” all in one place. “Experiment IV,” the album’s sole new track, is less successful, skewing uncomfortably close to filler on a concept album. Otherwise, The Whole Story is a gift, providing a valuable overview of an artist whose creativity is vast and dizzying.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

 

 

Outside Reading — Ever So Curious edition

The Unexpected Profundity of Curious George by Rivka Galchen

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I’m always going to susceptible to a smart story involving Curious George, and this piece is smarter than most. For The New Yorker, Rivka Galchen explores how well the adventures about the inquisitive little monkey have aged and digs into the shared biography of the two authors, married couple Margret and Hans Rey, in an effort to consider how their experience as refugees shaped the storytelling. Galchen makes interesting connections that further illuminate the deep resonance to be found in the Curious George books. In particular, the specific details Galchen excavates from the various books are always well chosen and amusing. There’s a loving admiration of even the most daffy components of the books, those authored by Rey and a few other choice examples. What I now need — and I do mean need — is for Galchen to expand the thesis to deliver a deep reading of Elizabite: Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant.

 

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How to Draw a Horse by Emma Hunsinger

Also from The New Yorker, Emma Hunsinger is given a sizable chunk of digital real estate for an autobiographical comic about, to put it most simply, the time in her adolescence when she strained to add horses to her artistic repertoire. It is, of course, about much more than that. Hunsinger’s sharing is heartfelt and poignant. What really impresses is the way she takes full advantage of the form in which she’s working. There are single images that carry the weight of full confessional monologues and others that achieve added power through imaginative desconstruction. Basically, How To Draw a Horse succeeds so completely because it’s a story that couldn’t have been told any other way.

 

A 40-Something Looks Back at ‘Thirtysomething’ by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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Now that “Outside Reading” is the thing we do ’round these here digital parts every Saturday, I suspect I’ll be typing out Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s name a lot. She’s delivered winner after winner for The New York Times in recent years, whether celebrity profiles, long-form investigative pieces, or withering take-downs of cultural nonsense. This week, she published an article that uses a semi-nostalgic, mostly curious rewatch of the late-eighties/early-nineties drama Thirtysomething. Brodesser-Akner lands on a piece that is properly amused by the decidedly of-the-moment trappings of the original series, but it also slides into melancholy — sometimes even bruising — memoir. In doing so, the article offers the reminder that for all the attempts to consider pop culture through a critical framework, it’s almost inevitable that these TV shows (and movies, and books, and albums, and, and, and) strike us as viewers in a way that deeply personal. I had my own dalliance with Thirtysomething back when it first aired. Since I was watching while in college, I’ve long thought I was seeing it as a sort of instructional manual for the looming adulthood that secretly petrified me. After reading Brodesser-Akner’s piece, I wonder if there were some other wounds that were being bandaged up. Maybe the strongest testimonial to the pleasures of the article is this: After finishing it, I immediately put in my preorder for Brodesser-Akner’s forthcoming novel.

 

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Watching Elizabeth Warren Come Alive by Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick has long been my favorite writer at Slate, and her new piece drawn from following Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail is the first that makes me believe the Senator from Massachusetts could very well succeed in her run for the U.S. Presidency. That’s not exactly the argument that Lithwick is presenting, but her clear-eyed reportage on Warren’s approach is telling. “Warren shines in her unscripted Q&As precisely because she isn’t trying to please the Unknowable American Electorate of 2020,” writes Lithwick. “She is just trying to answer whatever the questioner is asking in the moment.” I could go on at tedious length about why that simple approach is precisely what any politician needs to do in this fraught national moment, and I likely will indulge in some expounding too many times between today and November 2020. For now, I’ll refrain and let Lithwick’s article carry the weight.