Monday, January 31, 2011

Baby Face

Baby Face
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ

I wanted to like Baby Face so much. Barbara Stanwyck, maybe my all-time favorite actress, in a pre-code film from early in her career? It sounded like an absolute winner, and indeed, she's terrific in it, as she always is, but the movie was a pretty big disappointment overall.

The premise is simple: poor small-town girl Stanwyck moves to the big city and seduces men in order to become rich. As this is a pre-Hays Code film (pre-code Hollywood was the theme for this month at the Loews Jersey City), there's quite a strong emphasis on sex and violence, from the way the camera lingers on Stanwyck's bare legs to the ways she has to physically fight off would-be suitors. There's a definite Mae West influence in the way she talks and looks at me that would inform many of Stanwyck's later roles, and it's awesome to see it at work here.

It's such a shame, however, that it's in service to a plot full of holes and inconsistencies. Let's start with Cragg, the old man who convinces Stanwyck's Lily to use what she's got to get what she wants. It was a bit disappointing that Lily gets the idea from a man, yet also very surprising. Cragg talks more or less like a radical feminist, decades before the movement for women's rights got into full swing. This movie takes place only 13 years after women earned the right to vote, so the very concept of women's rights is still a relatively recent one. My point is that Cragg's attitude is an unusual one given the fact that he's not only an old man in 1933 America, but in all likelihood a first-generation immigrant, and this unusual aspect is not remarked upon within the story. (Given that Lily starts out working in a speakeasy, it's possible that Baby Face begins sometime in the 20s.)

And then there's the source of Cragg's philosophy: Nietzsche. Nietzsche? Really? The same guy who said "Everything about woman is a riddle" (Thus Spake Zarathustra) and "Woman was God's second mistake" (The Antichrist)? I don't think Cragg should've been a misogynist just because he reads Nietzsche, but the irony of Nietzsche's philosophies being used for the benefit of a woman is never acknowledged, assuming the screenwriters were even aware of it (which I seriously doubt). The entire character of Cragg was ill-thought out; he's clearly only there as a plot device.

Next there's the character Chico, a young black girl (shouldn't that be "Chica" then?). What exactly is the nature of her relationship with Lily? When we first see them in the speakeasy, they appear to be co-workers, both equally shat upon by Lily's father. Lily goes out of her way to save Chico's job when she didn't have to, and after Lily's father dies, she takes Chico with her to New York, so it appears as if she regards her as a friend.

Yet once Lily starts to work at the bank, Chico isn't so much forgotten as she is disconnected from the plot. Given Lily's morally questionable character, I would've expected her to ditch Chico when she realizes that it's difficult for a white woman to have a black friend in 1933 America. When they first go to the bank, in fact, Lily makes her wait outside while she goes in, realizing perhaps that the only job Chico could possibly get at this place is as a cleaning lady, if that (though maybe I'm giving Lily too much credit). Instead, Chico somehow becomes Lily's - maid? That's how she's dressed the next time we see her, and that's how she acts. What was Chico doing all that time in between, while Lily was sleeping her way up the ranks of the business, one floor at a time? And how did she feel about her situation?

Lily and Chico eventually move into a ritzier apartment, and in one scene we see Chico dressed fairly extravagantly (though not as much as Lily) for a night out - and the audience at the Loews actually laughed at her appearance, even though it wasn't meant to be funny, no doubt because they too, saw the incongruity at work here. Where was Chico planning on going? Harlem, perhaps? Has she made friends of her own in New York while Lily was doing her thing? And if so, what does she tell her new friends about where she got such fancy clothes?

These questions are never answered, because the way Chico is written, she just comes and goes in and out of the story at will without any clear idea of how her relationship with Lily has changed. Either she's a friend who Lily treats as a subordinate, or a subordinate who Lily treats as a friend. It's absolutely unclear and frustrating to watch because of its dishonesty.

I started to lose interest in Baby Face when the character of Courtland was introduced, after Lily is shipped off to Paris after her affairs with the bank executives become public. I didn't care about him, and I didn't really see why Lily did, either. I suppose it was inevitable that Lily would eventually fall in love for real, but I didn't want to see that. And then at the end, it looks like he tried to kill himself with a gun, but he somehow pulls through, which makes me wonder: if he was trying to commit suicide, wouldn't sticking the gun in his mouth be the easiest way? When Lily finds him, he's sprawled out on the floor, gun still in his hand, and no blood anywhere, yet he's apparently so close to death that she calls for an ambulance. It's not clear how Courtland tried to shoot himself, or even if he did! Yet we're supposed to believe something serious happened.

I acknowledge Baby Face's place in film history as the movie that hastened the formation of the Hays Code, but as a film it simply doesn't work for me at all due to the sloppy writing and poor characterization.

The version of Baby Face screened at the Loews was the uncut, uncensored one. After the film, we were treated to a few extra scenes made for the censored version, the version that was initially released in theaters, in which the morality of the film is much more black and white. (You can read more about it here.) It got quite a few laughs.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Saturday Set List (delayed)

I was out all day yesterday; didn't have time to post this.

Soundtrack of the week: Selmasongs (the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack)
Hated the movie, liked the music. Bjork acquitted herself adequately as an actress; it's just that the Lars von Trier brand of melodrama that kept me spellbound in Breaking the Waves didn't work for me here. Perhaps one day I'll do a post about it. In the meantime, here's arguably the best song from the movie.

Bjork and Thom Yorke, "I've Seen It All"

Song-about-movies of the week: "Rosanna"
I was never a big Rosanna Arquette fan; I liked her in Pulp Fiction and After Hours and that's about it. I don't think I ever saw Desperately Seeking Susan.

Song-that-would-make-a-good-movie of the week: "Fun Fun Fun"
Good girl gone bad! When Daddy buys a brand new T-bird, it's only a matter of time before she talks him into letting her drive it - and when she does, watch out! This would, obviously, have to be retroactively made in the 60s. Maybe it could be a Frankie and Annette movie.

Actor-singer of the week: Jeff Bridges
Well, do I really need to explain this one?

Jeff Bridges, "The Weary Kind"

Friday, January 28, 2011

Life in a Day

Life in a Day
seen online via YouTube

In the summer of 1995, I was working as a camp counselor in the woods of western Massachusetts, and we created a time capsule. It was a tradition at this camp; every ten years they throw a bunch of items from the campers and staff into a container and bury it somewhere on the camp grounds, to be opened ten years hence. I contributed some comics I had made. Unfortunately, I have no idea what the campers of 2005 made of my comics or anything else in our time capsule, but I like to think that it interested someone.

The concept of a legacy - leaving something behind for future generations that indicates one's time on this earth - is a powerful one. We like to think that our lives matter in some way, even if, in the cosmic scheme of things, they're nothing more than the blink of an eye - but the average person hardly ever thinks in such terms. For artistic people - and I use the word "artistic" in the broadest possible sense - this concept is especially strong, because the hope is that one's work will outlive themselves.

Life in a Day is this concept taken to a macro scale. It's a remarkable enterprise undertaken by Kevin MacDonald, director of The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, among other films, and Ridley & Tony Scott. Last year, they partnered with YouTube and invited amateur filmmakers worldwide to record their life as it was lived on July 24, 2010. The result was over 80,000 clips from almost 200 countries, edited into a single narrative.

And it does play like a narrative, which surprised me. It begins with footage from late at night, moving into sunrises, people getting out of bed, making breakfast, and going about their day, and so on into sunsets and night footage again. There is no political rhetoric, or commercial pitches or religious sermonizing, just people going about their lives, some of them aware of the camera, others not. For some, the day was a significant one, but for most it's simply another day. There's a lovely original score throughout the film as well. You can read more about the process behind the film in this interview with MacDonald.

Yes, the movie shows how much we all have in common and it unites humanity in a beautiful mosaic and blah blah blah. But it took MacDonald, and his editor Joe Walker, to sift through all of those videos and find those common threads, and arrange them in a compelling manner. It bears repeating: this is not a collection of home movies; this is a fully-realized film, with a narrative structure. I think it's safe to say that nothing of this scale has ever been done before.

Will Life in a Day stand the test of time? It's far too early to tell... but if there were those who took part hoping for a shot at immortality, they could do a lot worse than this.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Way Back

The Way Back
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Sometimes I just get stuck for inspiration. I saw The Way Back the other day and liked it, but for whatever reason I had a problem trying to write about it in any way other than a simple review - which, as you know by now, is something I try to avoid with this blog.

The film itself is something far beyond my experience. I can't really say that I've been in any life-or-death situations. I've never seen a desert first-hand, or been to Siberia. I've never seen the inside of a prison and I'm not Polish. I've taken plenty of long walks in my life, but I think it's safe to say that they all pale besides this long walk - and I didn't want to write anything about the noble struggle of man versus nature or anything like that.

I thought about writing about director Peter Weir, whose work I like. I've seen many of his movies, but the only other one I feel I could write intelligently about is The Truman Show, since I've seen it so many times. Actually, I started reading the book Master and Commander recently, but I got bored with it.

I could say a few words about the Kew Gardens. On Tuesdays (and Thursdays), admission is $7, so you'd think there'd be a bit more of a crowd. Sometimes there is, but I think it depends on the movie. The Way Back is rather grim; something like The Kids Are All Right or The King's Speech had bigger crowds. Sometimes I worry that this theater won't be able to sustain itself. I love that it's a cheaper alternative to the Angelika or the Sunshine, and I'll continue to support it as long as it remains so, but I guess I need some reassurance that it's doing okay. Maybe I should see a show there on the weekend as a basis for comparison.

Then there's the neighborhood. Lately whenever I go to Kew Gardens for a movie, I've been eating at a tiny little pizzeria across the street from the theater. It's so tiny that it has an old-fashioned counter with stools. The pizza there's decent. The place I really like to eat at, though, is this broiled chicken place next to the subway. They served broiled chicken with rice and pita bread, or with a salad, and all for a nice price.

So I guess I managed to generate a little something... even if it's not the grand essay I had hoped it would be.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar 2010: The nominees

The Best Picture 10:

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter

The Kids Are All Right

The King’s Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

The rest of the nominees.

First impressions: Perhaps the most significant item - and the one I'm sure everyone will be talking about today - is that once again, Christopher Nolan got shut out from Best Director. I never thought The Dark Knight was Best Picture worthy, at least, not in a field of five nominees, but I did believe Nolan deserved a Best Director nod. And now, to see him left off the ballot again is mind-boggling. Who else today is making films like Nolan? Who else could have made a film like Inception? When you see how much love it got in the tech categories - Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction (but not Editing, which is also insane since editing is so very crucial for this movie) - all of that is directly attributable to his vision for the story. But don't take my word for it. At least his original screenplay was nominated.

Yay for Michelle Williams and John Hawkes making the cut in Acting. Hawkes was nominated by SAG, so this wasn't too much of a surprise. No Robert Duvall or Julianne Moore though. No Blue Valentine screenplay either.

Exit Through the Gift Shop made the cut for Documentary Feature. Big surprise. It's currently available on Hulu, so I plan on finally watching it. Look for a post about it next week.

The important thing to remember when evaluating what will win Best Picture is the "preferential ballot" system, which went into effect last year when the field expanded to ten nominees. Here's how it works. (It's kinda complicated, but it's not that difficult to understand once you grok the mechanics of it.) Under this system, one does not need the most number-one votes to win. Divisive films - those that people either love or hate, with little in-between - will have a harder time winning under the preferential ballot. Some say this is what cost Avatar the Best Picture Oscar last year (though I like to think The Hurt Locker would've won regardless).

The Social Network has racked up a stunning amount of critics awards, and it won the Golden Globe for Best Picture/Drama, but The King's Speech beat it for the Producers Guild Award, where Network was heavily favored. As a result, what started out looking like a Network dominance has turned into more of an actual race. My money is still on Network to win at the moment, but Speech and especially The Fighter stand very good chances as well. We'll know for sure February 27.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Happy Feet

Happy Feet
last seen at Bryant Park Winter Film Festival, New York NY

What lengths would you go to in order to see a free movie? Would you sit out in 20 degree weather in the dead of winter? No? I don't blame you. You're probably not a film nerd looking for material to write about in your blog.

Every year, Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan hosts a free outdoor film festival during the summer, where they show a bunch of classic films. They're extremely popular, and it's one of the best summer attractions in New York. In recent years, Bryant Park has also built a temporary ice skating rink during the winter, and that too, has been a smashing success. Well, some genius got the bright idea to combine the two, no doubt thinking that, like chocolate and peanut butter, it would be two great tastes that taste great together. So this past weekend saw the debut of the Bryant Park Winter Film Festival. Yes, that's right, you can ice skate and watch movies at the same time! How brilliant is that?

The festival began last Saturday with Happy Feet, which, in all fairness, is an awesome movie, one I considered worth enduring sub-freezing temperatures for. The programmers thought it would be cute to show winter-themed movies. In addition to this, they're screening March of the Penguins, Ice Age, Blades of Glory and The Cutting Edge. They do not screen summer-themed movies at the Summer Film Festival.

The first time I saw Happy Feet was when it initially came out. I went with Jenny. We had dinner first. I forget what I had, but it definitely did not agree with me, because during the movie, I started to feel sick, and I mean violently, stomach-churning sick. About a third of the way into the movie, I had to go to the bathroom and throw up. I stayed in there awhile too; Jenny had to get an usher to check in on me. I didn't have the constitution to finish the movie, so we left. Jenny, thankfully, understood; she could see that I was messed up. I didn't have to go to the hospital or anything, though.

I didn't have any such problems Saturday night. The skating rink at Bryant Pond is in the middle of the park, built over the lawn. It actually only takes up around half the space of the lawn, give or take. In addition to the rink, there's a temporary two-floor restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows so you can watch the skaters (and the movie), as well as a smaller concession stand. The large movie screen is set up on the west side of the rink, next to the fountain, the same spot where it's set up in the summer. The weather was in the mid-20's when I left my house in the morning, and while there was some wind, it wasn't particularly harsh. The early evening sky was clear, which was a big relief; we've been getting hit hard with snow in the past few weeks.

I had a nice spot picked out - almost dead center of the screen, directly behind the rink, on the platform to the left of the restaurant. There were chairs and tables scattered around the platform; I grabbed one of each and sat down. It was about 45 minutes or so before showtime and there were about a dozen to fifteen other people sitting around me. One couple had a blanket to cover their legs. The guy to the left of me brought his baby son, and at one point he took him out of his stroller and let him wander around in the snow next to the rink.

As the movie played, I glanced at the skaters from time to time. They didn't appear engaged in the film to any great degree. They were simply going around and around. Who could say whether they even came for the movie? I doubt it. If I were out there on the ice, I probably would have a hard time focusing on the film too. As for the people around me, they stuck it out in the beginning, but as it got progressively colder, they left, one by one. I had bought a hot apple cider ($3), but it went in a hurry and didn't do much for my system.

About halfway into the film, I got up to go to the bathroom, and my legs and feet were in pain! I had been moving them around to keep my blood circulating, but it didn't do much good - I could barely stand upright and had to slowly shuffle across the rear end of the park like a zombie. When I came back I opted to watch the rest of the film standing up, stomping my feet repeatedly in a vain attempt to stay warm. By this point the thin movie-watching crowd thinned out even more. The moment the movie ended and the closing credits began, I high-tailed it out of there in a bee-line for the subway and didn't look back. I just wanted to feel warm again.

Needless to say, this was a bad idea. For one thing, the sound system, while not bad, could have been better, and anyway, the noise from the skaters made listening to the film a bit of an effort. If this was my first time seeing it, I'd likely be even more frustrated than I was. Also, I don't understand who this is supposed to be for: the skaters, most of whom weren't paying the slightest bit of attention? Or the minuscule band of movie watchers who were freezing their asses off, most of whom gave up trying to sit through the cold before the movie was half over? I figured I'd try it at least once to see if I could do it, but there's no way I'm ever gonna do this again - not in 20 degree weather, in back of a skating rink full of people!

So what's the craziest thing you've ever done to see a free movie?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

WSW @ Anomalous Material

My first guest appearance at another movie site can be found this weekend at the very popular blog Anomalous Material. For the past several weeks, they've been running a fantasy draft for movie stars and filmmakers, in which the participants use their selections to create a movie pitch. The best part is that one's picks are not limited by time, so one can put, for example, Charlie Chaplin and Kate Winslet in the same movie! My movie pitch is up now, and it's based on a Saturday Set List pitch I made here not too long ago. Have a look - and if you like it, be sure to give me a high rating!

Saturday Set List special: Krush Groove

If you remember Krush Groove, you don't need me to tell you how totally awesome this movie was. If you've never seen it, well, you can't call yourself a hip-hop fan unless you do, because this movie is nothing less than a hip-hop masterpiece, and here are four reasons why...

LL Cool J, "I Can't Live Without My Radio"
"Box!" And with that, the 17-year old LL Cool J makes his memorable first appearance in the film with this song. He'd go on to have a long and successful career as both rapper and actor (I liked him in Any Given Sunday). Before 50 Cent, there was LL.

Beastie Boys, "She's On It"
Who would've ever dreamed that these three skinny white dudes would conquer the hip hop world? Songs like this, which is as much punk rock as it is hip hop, gave them street cred, and by the time Licensed to Ill came out, nothing could stop them. Now they make movies as well as music - including this upcoming film that revisits one of their best videos with an all-star cast.

Sheila E., "Holly Rock"
The most talented former member of Prince's harem without a doubt. She still tours and performs, and according to her Wikipedia entry, she recently won a CMT reality show, so now she's branching out into country music. And she still looks damn good!

Run DMC, "Can You Rock It Like This"
What can I say? They're Run DMC. No further explanation necessary.

And of course, mad props must also be given to Kurtis Blow, the Fat Boys, Debbie Harry, and everyone else associated with this movie and soundtrack.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Wild Style

All this week we'll take a look at some classic hip-hop films from the 80s and talk about the early days of the music and the culture from four different angles: graffiti writers, deejays, breakdancers, and emcees.

Wild Style
seen online via YouTube

By the time I first heard rap music, it had already gone mainstream. This would've been in junior high, during the early 80s. I wish I could remember the first song I ever heard. It might have been Run DMC's "Sucker MC," but I don't think so. I would hear kids rapping in the hallways, in the lunchroom, on the school bus. Sometimes they'd be original compositions but mostly they'd be hit songs. I accepted this new sound of music quickly and easily, and I wanted more, like everybody else.

I liked a lot of different rappers, but Run DMC stood head and shoulders above everyone else for me. They were from Queens, like me. They dressed fly; I wore Lee jeans because of them (at one point in junior high there was an epidemic of the large Lee labels being stolen right off of people's jeans!) and I begged my father for weeks to buy me a Kangol hat which I wore proudly. People would tell me I looked like DMC! They combined rapping with rock music; the guitar riffs on songs like "Rock Box" are just as def as their rhymes! And they knew how to get down.

As I got older, my musical tastes shifted from Top 40 (which included rap) over to classic rock and metal, and while I didn't abandon rap completely - I completely devoured the Beastie Boys' debut album Licensed to Ill - for some stupid reason I felt the need to publicly distance myself from rap at one point. I suspect I only did it because I wanted to look cooler around my friends. So I drifted away from rap, which is just as well, since the rise of the "gangsta" rappers did more to turn me off rap than anything else. And yes, I'm well aware of the hypocrisy of decrying violence and misogyny in rap when rock music has plenty of its own. I have no defense. These days, my tastes have come full circle; I've gone back to listening to the music of my father's era - the "golden oldies" of early rock and R&B, and I find I enjoy it much more than when I was a kid.

Getting back to rap though: Wild Style captures the feeling of emcees rocking house parties well. Unlike the better-lit, comparatively roomy dance floors of Beat Street, the parties and clubs here feel smaller, darker and sweatier. Like Beat Street, however, Wild Style's cast consists of first-generation emcees and deejays, the ones who were big in the Bronx and Manhattan before rap records were made. It has a bit of a rougher edge, and one gets the sense that its stars, especially graffiti prodigy Lee Quinones, aren't acting so much as being. Compare this to Beat Street or Krush Groove, where everything feels much more scripted.

Still, I was disappointed with Wild Style. The plot, such as it is, meanders all over the place and can't seem to decide if this should be a fictional narrative or a concert documentary. If this were the latter, it might've made for a stronger movie. Everyone's playing thinly-veiled versions of themselves anyway. I recognize the film's importance, however, since it led to Beat Street and Breakin' and Krush Groove and all the rest.

The hip-hop history book Yes Yes Y'all, which I mentioned on Wednesday, has a section on Wild Style in which co-star Fab 5 Freddy talks about how he was making in-roads in the larger music industry, as well as the art world, which is how he eventually met director Charlie Ahearn (a co-editor of Yes Yes Y'all). Here's a good quote from Freddy:
At that time people weren't seeing all these different [hip-hop] elements as one thing, you know? It was like people doing graffiti were just doing graffiti. Rapping people were rapping. the break-dance scene would go on at hip-hop parties, but it was pretty much a Latin thing, so there were Latin clubs that would happen where break-dancing would go on. So I had this idea to bring these things together, and Charlie was like, "This is cool."

Thursday, January 20, 2011


All this week we'll take a look at some classic hip-hop films from the 80s and talk about the early days of the music and the culture from four different angles: graffiti writers, deejays, breakdancers, and emcees.

seen online at YouTube

I never had the body for breakdancing. I've always been a little on the rotund side. Even as a kid, I could never see myself spinning and flipping around like that. Popping seemed simpler. I think I spent most of the sixth grade working on my popping moves - unsuccessfully.

Truth is, I wanted to dance like Michael Jackson. Back then, who didn't? The first time I saw him moonwalk, it was like a revelation. Breakdancing may have been the move back in the 80s, but there was no doubt who was the dancing king. This was also the dawning age of music videos, and with every new video of his, Michael had moves that I looked at and studied and tried to imitate - again, unsuccessfully. And it's not even like I aspired to be a professional dancer or anything. It's just that he was Michael. And to be able to dance like him was to capture a tiny fraction of his magic.

I knew a few breakers in junior high, though I don't remember too much about them. I do remember years later, however, when I worked with this one young dude who was a breaker. This was the late 90s, and I remember being surprised at the time that breakdancing was still around. These days, it's not unusual to walk around Manhattan (or even in the subways) and see some dance crew performing out on the streets for cash. Sometimes they're breakers, but not always. They've become tourist attractions more than anything else.

The difference between Breakin' and Beat Street is like night and day. The former was the bigger commercial hit, but the latter, as I said yesterday, seems more genuine. Breakin' is set in Los Angeles and has a white lead character, which, while not an inherently bad thing, is a marked contrast to Beat Street, which is more interested in showing hip hop's roots. Breakin' kinda skirts around the edges of race without actually going there; one almost gets the impression that the characters want to be able to talk frankly about it instead of hiding behind phrases like "they're a different class of people," but that would be far too much to ask of what is essentially a good-time dance movie.

I don't really have a whole lot more to say. I've never been much of a dancer in general, and I don't wanna get too much into other forms of dance, since this is supposed to be all about hip-hop. Anybody have anything else to say about breaking? Now's your chance.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Beat Street

All this week we'll take a look at some classic hip-hop films from the 80s and talk about the early days of the music and the culture from four different angles: graffiti writers, deejays, breakdancers, and emcees.

Beat Street
seen online via YouTube

The closest I ever came to being a deejay growing up was making my mix tapes. I was a total Top 40 nerd as a kid - I consumed just about everything on the radio, no matter how crappy. Now, of course, there were singers from the 80s whose music has stood the test of time - Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran - but thanks to my numerous mix tapes, I preserved the mediocre ones as well.

In the 70s, the radio station of choice in New York was WABC, and I remember listening to it, but when Z100 came along in the 80s, I made the switch, and most of my mix tapes were made from there. Of course, I'd never miss "American Top 40" with Casey Kasem every week, a show I took very seriously, because how else would you know which songs are the best? (I think it was WPLJ that syndicated his show back then.) Free thought and individual taste would come later in life; keep in mind I was only ten or so.

The mix tapes were inspired by my father, who had the most incredible record, tape and 8-track collection - and he was always making mix tapes. His music was R&B and country. He'd buy blank tapes by the dozen, Maxell or Sony usually, then record the music off of his records, and write the names of the singers on the labels. He had the best handwriting of anyone I knew, and his labels would always look sharp, so I knew my mix tapes had to look just as good. I numbered each one - "Volume 1," "Volume 2," and so on - and carefully wrote out on the labels both the song title and artist of each song on the tape. My father bought me a spinner rack to shelve my mix tapes, which grew with each year. It was my pride and joy as much as my father's tapes were his.

Occasionally I'd take them to parties at school. I made my mix tapes for me above all else, and I never put much thought into things like sequence or theme. I never tried to make a tape specifically for parties. The thought may have occurred to me at some point or another, but I was more interested in making them for my personal enjoyment. Generally, my tastes were the same as everyone else's in junior high, so if I played one of my tapes at a party, my choice of selections was rarely an issue. Rap music was part of everything else on the radio, so Run DMC and Whodini and UTFO and LL Cool J and the Fat Boys were as much a part of my volumes as anything else popular at the time.

In college, I actually was a deejay at our radio station for a semester, and that, obviously, was a very different experience. I still tended to gravitate towards songs I'd first heard on the radio, although this time it was classic rock that informed my choices instead of pop. I did, however, mix pop songs from my youth in with Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, and I even made it a point to include one song a week from my father's collection, which he generously permitted me to do. I'd record my hour-long sessions and play them back for him to hear. I think he was impressed.

Beat Street is a mostly-sanitized version of the house party experience as it was in the early days of hip hop, which I was far too young to have known about. I've done some reading, however, so I now know that it features many of the pioneers of hip hop throughout the movie in supporting roles, including two of the greatest deejays of all time - Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc.

The highly-recommended book Yes Yes Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip Hop's First Decade compiles interviews with numerous hip hop veterans, including Bambaataa and Herc. They both talk about putting on shows in the Bronx in the 70s and how they worked at making their venues safe for all who came. Herc was the one who would play hard-to-find R&B and funk music never heard on the radio, while Bambaataa was the one who'd mix in unusual beats and sounds with his diverse range of music, as well as establishing a sense of community.

Going by what I've read in that book, Beat Street seems to get it mostly right: hooking the sound system up to a telephone pole, frisking people at the door, b-boy battles, and so on. It's a Hollywood version of the whole experience, so you've also got the obligatory love story subplot and the Big Show at The End where everyone comes together, but despite the rotten acting and cheesy script, there does seem to be a feeling of sincerity to it all. And Rae Dawn Chong is adorable.

Harry Belafonte was a producer. Here's a great quote from him from Jet Magazine: "What appealed to me [about the movie] was being witness to the creation of a real folk art that developed under its own steam. The entertainment industry didn't create this. It was born on its own and it will go at its own pace to its own conclusion."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Museum of the Moving Image, reborn

...The threefold nature of MMI's mission—film screenings programmed by David Schwartz, education initiatives overseen by Christopher Wisniewski, and ongoing and permanent installation exhibitions and acquisitions—are all poised to benefit substantially from the museum's makeover. Mr. Wisniewski offered that the physical needs of the museum's education programs were "one of the impulses for this expansion project in the first place. Education has been a central part of the museum's mission since it first opened. We've been booked to capacity with school kids for years, and normally we have to turn people away."
Did somebody say film screenings? I definitely plan on making it over there for a few, so expect my take on the renovated Museum soon.

- Director Paul Greengrass has a Martin Luther King biopic planned. (Vulture)
- Paul Haggis says he's actually not involved in a Scientology tell-all book. (24 Frames)
- The Chilean miners are ready to tell their story for Hollywood. (THR)
- The Oscar-winning Irish musical Once is coming to Broadway. (TheaterMania)
- Sorting out the problems in Oscar's foreign language category. (The Wrap)
- Two perspectives on what went wrong with For Colored Girls. (In Contention, GMan Reviews)
- What exactly is Jeff Bridges saying in True Grit? (In Contention)
- This new blog shows pics of classic film stars on bicycles. (Rides a Bike)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Style Wars

All this week we'll take a look at some classic hip-hop films from the 80s and talk about the early days of the music and the culture from four different angles: graffiti writers, deejays, breakdancers, and emcees.

Style Wars
seen online via YouTube

I should say upfront that I do consider graffiti an art form, albeit a highly misunderstood one. Living in New York most of my life, I've seen far too many good examples of it to think otherwise. Like jazz music, there's an improvisational skill involved in its creation that's the result of numerous hours of practice. The connection to territory, the self-identification with a specific place, is an integral element. And like any artist, graffiti writers want their work to give them a shot at immortality.

I knew one or two writers in junior high school. (When I say "writers" in this context, I'm referring to those who make graffiti.) I thought what they did was cool and all, but I was never as caught up in that aspect of hip hop. Understand that when I was growing up, hip hop had already begun to go mainstream. When my father bought me Run DMC's King of Rock, even he knew who they were by that point because rap was everywhere. Still, I never aspired to be a writer.

Something changed in me when I got older, though. Part of it was my drifting away from Top 40 music, which included rap, and more towards rock and metal, which changed my attitude towards rap for awhile (more on that later in the week). Most of it, I imagine, was the simple fact of learning more about the world and seeing it differently, but suddenly graffiti didn't look so cool to me anymore.

I still have some memories of the days when graffiti covered subway cars. Being a kid, I didn't think anything of it; that's just how things were back then and I never questioned it. I'm more used to seeing graffiti-free subway cars in my life than I am to seeing "bombed" ones. So I've come to accept that that's the way it should be, and not only for subway cars.

I watched Style Wars with an open mind. I listened to the various writers of the 70s and 80s talk about their lifestyle, and the lengths they go to pursue it and why, and I was even able to see some of the beauty in these urban murals that adorned the subways, but I still found it difficult to fully appreciate.

Part of the problem is its omnipresence. The way it covers so much territory in so many places is more than a little disturbing. Seeing so many "tags" on top of each other, consuming the same areas endlessly, makes it lose any aesthetic value it might have had at one point and just become ugly. (In fairness, the movie does address the ostracism of those who write over other people's work.)

Another part is the danger element. I understand the desire for people to see one's work, but when you see the places writers go to do their work - high atop bridges, deep within the underground tunnels, on rooftops - it makes you question the sanity of some of these people. There's a scene in Style Wars where a teenage writer and his mother are interviewed, and the kid says he tells his mother where he goes and what he does, which is laudable, but then he says something like how he knows she worries, but he's never gonna get caught by the cops, so it's no big deal. At that the mother rolls her eyes.

My friend Reid, who's very much into graffiti, has tried to explain the danger aspect to me on numerous occasions. He and his pal Nick often go on escapades around the city, looking for the most out-of-the-way areas to find graffiti to photograph, often at risk to life and limb, and since they know many of the current writers in New York, they often find "tags" they recognize. Personally, I can think of better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon, but that's just me.

This brings up another point, though, one that gets touched upon in the movie. One writer says that he doesn't consider himself an "artist," but a "bomber," i.e., one who deliberately defaces public property (at least, I think that's how the slang term is defined), and a different one (I think) says that he doesn't do what he does for the masses, but for his peers. That would, I suppose, explain the obscure locations often chosen for their work, but it wouldn't explain the subway cars, which many New Yorkers use. Maybe I'm too caught up in the artistic aspect of graffiti to see it otherwise, but why use such a grand canvas in the most public of venues if not to attract the greatest audience?

Speaking of which, there's also a scene showing graffiti art in a gallery, with a bunch of "regular" people commenting on its merits. I have yet to see the controversial film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which has garnered quite a bit of praise over the past months for its skewering of the mainstream art world through street art, but I'll just say here that I think the disconnect between what's considered "high art" and "low art" is absolutely a topic worthy of discussion. Does graffiti lose its context once you put it in a frame and hang it in a gallery? I don't pretend to know the answer. (I was disappointed that no mention was made during this scene of street artist turned mainstream wunderkind Jean-Michel Basquiat. I would've liked to have known how the writers of the day looked upon someone like him.)

I've told Reid this, and I don't think he entirely disagrees, but if I were mayor of New York, I wouldn't fight the graffiti writers - I'd commission them. I'd attempt to harness their energy towards civic projects that beautify the community and pay them for it. There's an area here in Queens that Reid and I have been to on several occasions called 5 Pointz, a kind of studio where graffiti can be made and seen in its "natural habitat," so to speak - in this case, an old warehouse. It's quite breathtaking, and if I were in charge I'd encourage more venues like it. I may not entirely grok graffiti, but I do believe it's art of a sort, and that its practitioners should have a place to pursue it - preferably, one that enhances the city's beauty instead of detracting from it, and one that doesn't put their lives in jeopardy!

Graffiti tends to provoke strong reactions in people, both pro and con, so if you have an opinion on it, I'd love to hear it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Saturday Set List: Her mocking smile says it all

Soundtrack of the week: Boogie Nights
...which, oddly enough, does not have the song "Boogie Nights" on it. Nor is it only disco; there were some rock and pop songs in this movie too. Such as this one (which is actually from the second disc):

Elvin Bishop, "Fooled Around and Fell In Love"

Song-about-movies of the week: "Marlene on the Wall"
I knew a girl in high school named Marlene the first time I heard this song, and I never could understand why Suzanne Vega would pronounce "mar-LEEN" as "mar-LAY-na." It would be years before I found out who Marlene Dietrich was.

Song-that-would-make-a-good-movie of the week: "I've Committed Murder"
A pulpy neo-noir story with a classic femme fatale at its center. She does all sorts of morally questionable things to help her lover climb the ladder of success, but she goes too far when she kills for him. Can he keep his cool and reap the rewards of her actions, or will he turn her over to the police? Does she love him enough to keep protecting him, or will his attack of conscience turn him into a liability? I could see Kimberly Elise or Kerry Washington as the lead.

Actor-singer of the week: Val Kilmer
No matter what you thought of The Doors, you have to admit that he nailed the role of Jim Morrison.

Val Kilmer, "Five to One" (NSFW)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

So after talking about Chasing Amy the other day, here we've got another movie with a comic book connection, which surprised me. Rabbit Hole, besides being the name of the movie, is also the name of a comic made by a teenage character in the story named Jason. He refers to it as a comic book, but it's more like a graphic novel: it appears to be fairly thick, and it's oversized, like a European album. It's also lavishly illustrated, in full color, using different media. It's about a boy traveling through different timelines in search of his missing father.

It's not clear what Jason's plans for the book are. If he were to self-publish it, it would be fairly expensive even if he had his own scanner and printer; the paper looks bigger than letter-size. I don't even think the finished version is a reproduction. It looks like the original art, folded and stapled into book form. It could be that he doesn't even want it reproduced - again, it's not made clear. He does seem like a comic book reader, though - he wears a Fletcher Hanks T-shirt in one scene. Talk about hipster cred.

The actual artist for the "Rabbit Hole" comic is a youngster named Dash Shaw, whose claim to fame is an enormous graphic novel called Bottomless Belly Button. He's currently working on an animated film co-produced by Rabbit Hole director John Cameron Mitchell. His art style isn't too far removed from what he used in the film comic. He definitely seems as much of a fine artist as an illustrator.

Rabbit Hole is about a couple in mourning over their dead child, who was hit by a speeding car. I don't think people realize how much damage speeding cars do. According to the Centers for Disease Control, motor vehicle injuries are the biggest cause of death for children in the US. I want you to stop and think about that for a minute. Cars kill kids more than any disease. How does that happen?

Simply put, ours is a culture devoted to the car. In America, we've made getting around by car too easy, to the point where traveling any other way is problematic at best if you don't live in a major metropolis like New York or Chicago or Boston or Washington. I never realized how well-off I was living in a city with 24-7 public transportation until I moved to a place without it.

But here's the thing: cars are so ingrained in our national identity that we resist any attempts to provide substitutes for it. Here in New York City, the state government stole money specifically set aside for our public transit system to balance its own budget, and the result has been vicious service cuts and higher fares, making it harder than ever to ride the trains and buses on an everyday basis. Bike lanes have swept all over the city within the past few years, but certain misguided politicians and media reporters have vigorously opposed them, despite numerous statistics showing how much safer streets have become with their presence. And this is here in New York, allegedly a bastion of liberal enlightenment and diversity. Can you imagine how much more prevalent this attitude is in smaller cities and towns, places with fewer transit options?

I could go on, but my point is that we're putting our children at risk every day when we drive like maniacs on the road - when we speed, when we drive and use the cellphone (which Nicole Kidman's character does at one point in Rabbit Hole), when we drive and drink. We're so eager to enforce traffic laws on bicyclists to the point of harassment, but we're slower to react when cars routinely kill and maim pedestrians - children, like in this movie - on a weekly basis. That's got to change.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

At Home in Utopia

At Home in Utopia
seen online @ New Day Digital

Okay, so last week I kinda made fun of the whole Red scare of the early 20th century and the 50s in particular. It's not like I'm especially sympathetic to Communists, but when you grow up being taught that America is the country where people are free to believe what they want without fear of reprisal, and then you see people being persecuted by the government for thinking a certain way about things, it does kinda makes you turn the snark-o-meter up to eleven.

I've read my share about Communism, both the foreign and domestic kinds. I think that it sounds better on paper than in practice, although to see how powerful an idea it once was tends to give one pause. But I don't wanna get into a political debate - my point was, and is, that ideological opposition to another political system is insufficient justification, in and of itself, for curtailing civil liberties and the rights of the individual. Anyway...

At Home in Utopia is a documentary from 2008 about a high-rise neighborhood in the Bronx that was a haven for Jews, Communists and unionists in the early 20th century. My pal Andrea lives in this place (though she didn't grow up there), and it was she who told me about the film. The place's official name is the United Workers Cooperative Colony, but it's commonly known as the Coops (rhyming with hoops). It's a small but cozy group of buildings clustered together across the street from Bronx Park and a stone's throw from the 2 train, and it was built as an alternative to the crowded, more hectic Jewish neighborhoods of Manhattan's Lower East Side and Brooklyn's Williamsburg - one with a greater sense of community, and with a beauty all its own.

The doc interviews long-time residents of the Coops who talk about how being Jewish, being Communist, being pro-labor, marked them as outsiders back in the day and how this place was home to all of them in a way the rest of the world wasn't. Even if you've never been any of those things, it's not too hard to sympathize with their situation back then and understand why they needed a place they could call theirs.

And for a co-op, it's not too bad, to look on it today. When Andrea invited me to her place a few months ago, she took me on a small tour of the grounds. There are fountains and small gardens in between the walkways. The apartment buildings are arranged in a way that provides a sense of enclosure, and since they're not that tall, they don't come across as intimidating as many of the bigger high-rises around the Five Boroughs. A sign of the Coops' Communist roots can be found on some of the doorway facades, where you can clearly see a hammer and sickle above the entrance.

In later years, the Coops became more integrated. Blacks were encouraged to move in, and the doc interviews some of the ones who lived there back in the day, as well and the warm friendships made between them and the Jews (including a sad story about an interracial date spoiled by racist cops). It also discusses a performance by Communist sympathizer Paul Robeson attended by many Coop residents and the atmosphere of intimidation by the cops who guarded the show. Seeing this, I was reminded of the first time I read one of my favorite books, Native Son, by Richard Wright (a Communist himself), back in high school.

At Home in Utopia is a fascinating look at a vastly different time in American history. The Coops were a truly unique experiment, one that was ahead of its time, I would surmise, and it would be a great tragedy if the lessons learned from this place were forgotten. (New Day Digital streamed the movie for free today; they offer options to pay for it at their website.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chasing Amy

Chasing Amy
from my DVD collection

I first met Jenny in about 1995-96 when we were both part of a club for comics creators. I had only recently gotten back into reading comics, and I had begun making my own as well. I still had an interest in superheroes, but I was also discovering the work of UK writers like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison, and wanted more challenging material. Jenny's tastes ran towards "underground" material, like Roberta Gregory and Peter Bagge, and through her I discovered an even wider range of comics than I ever knew existed before, one I found both bizarre and thrilling.

Jenny lived in the East Village at the time, and we'd often hang out in the area, going to bars and such and checking out bands. I'd explored the Village lots of times before, but seeing it from her perspective - a decidedly punk one - made it look different all of a sudden. She was in a punk band herself around this time, and she totally got off on dressing up in outlandish get-ups and prancing around the stage screaming songs about murder and mayhem and farm animals.

She wasn't someone who I would've imagined falling for. We were so very different; I mean, I was a complete square in comparison, but I was entranced by her. She'd gone through some seriously rough times in her life, and was still struggling through them to a degree, but she persisted, and she took all her anger and pain and frustration and turned it into art - both her comics and her music. She knew how to have a good time. And she was cute.

I don't wanna get into what happened next, because I don't like bringing it up again (and certainly not in a public venue like this), but suffice it to say that Jenny and I ran into some turbulence for awhile, but we eventually dealt with it. We never actually became a couple, but we remained friends, which I'm grateful for. Though our paths have taken very different turns since, I've never regretted a moment of our time together and I'm thankful I met her.

I saw Chasing Amy with Jenny and a mutual friend when it first came out and I identified with it immediately. How could I not? The circumstances were a little different - Joey Lauren Adams' character being a lesbian, for one thing - but it was so easy for me to imagine being Ben Affleck's character: a comic book creator in love with a girl far beyond his normal realm of experience. It gave me the courage to tell Jenny how I felt about her (though nowhere near as spectacularly), and though she didn't feel the same way, I never would've been able to do it in the first place if not for that movie.

Chasing Amy has meant something special to me over the years. After it came out on DVD, I used to have a ritual where I'd watch it before going to a comics convention in Maryland that I always went to, one where I'd see many of my comics friends from around the country. I can quote so many lines from the movie. While I don't have the entirety of The Speech down, I can at least do the entire "Black Rage" scene, though I still can't do it without cracking up. Last night I watched it with the audio commentary on: Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck, Jason Mewes and members of the production team, and they were all having a good time talking about making the movie.

I love this movie for many reasons... but mostly because it reminds me of Jenny, and the good times we had.

Any other fans of alternative comics out there?