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Stop Making Sense: Cinema Shame

Cinema Shame: Stop Making Sense

Scratching another entry off my 2018 Shame Statement.

I love experiencing live music — there’s so much more revealed about the band and the eccentricities of the music than what can be conveyed through a studio recording. A recording mutes personality, often diluting aural idiosyncrasy in favor of glossy palatability.

Concert films, meanwhile, have never been much more than a filmed concert for me. A concert on film is nice, but it’s not like you’re actually experiencing the live show. You’re watching a recording, just as you’re listening to a recording on an album. The music’s not too loud. The beer’s not too warm. The cat on the couch next to you is far less annoying than the drunken malaprop that’s singing all the wrong words to your favorite songs and invading your space.

So what I’m saying is that there’s benefit to a filmed concert — accessibility, convenience — but I’ve never seen a concert film that struck me as pure cinema. Until now.

But push this meditation on “the concert film” aside to consider why it’s absurd that I’ve never before watched Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.

The damning evidence. My most spun vinyl record:

talking heads - stop making sense

If we’re gauging my musical tastes and allegiances based on the lists every music fan makes, Talking Heads would also appear in my Top 10 albums (Remain in Light), Top 5 favorite bands/artists, and log at least 3 or 4 tracks in my Top 100 favorite songs.

Hence my shame.

At some point I arbitrarily decided to wait to see Stop Making Sense until I could see it on the big screen. I made this determination because of my aforementioned thoughts on concert films. I wanted to feel present at the original venue. Unfortunately my repertory migrations never allowed such a thing to happen. Finally, I broke down and popped in the Blu-ray disc. The time had come to break the seal.

stop making sense title

After the credits (I have always loved this font) David Byrne steps up to the microphone. At best he saunters. All we see are his white sneakers and the cuff of the pants from his now famous grey suit. He sets a boombox down next to the microphone stand, presses play and starts strumming a low-key rendition of “Psycho Killer” along with the music emanating from the tape deck.

The boombox cannot, of course, project sound throughout a concert venue in this fashion. In this instance, it’s a Roland TR-808 drum machine, spilling through the venue’s speakers. The drum machine rat-a-tat echoes like gunshots — Byrne staggers. He envisioned this as an echo of the ending to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless as Jean-Paul Belmondo has been ambushed by gunfire.

This is a visual cue, seemingly a comment on the nature of pre-recorded music in an new age — one marked by a shift towards consumerism and ownership. Even the music at a Talking Heads concert comes pre-recorded these days. My concerns about the cinematic nature of Stop Making Sense disappear.

Here’s the opening of the film:

Within the last few years, I’ve come to prefer to this version of “Psycho Killer” to the studio recording. The down-tempo pace and David Byrne’s foregrounded vocals over acoustic rhythm guitar and the drum machine change our emotional response. I’ve always admired Talking Heads’ ability to craft mid-tempo pop music. Songs that feel faster and more accessible than they really are. This highlights that phenomenon by taking arguably the band’s widely recognized track and rendering it a completely different beast. A minimal and more deliberate “Psycho Killer” feels like a dirge rather than a ditty.

As this opening set continues, more members of the band join Byrne on stage. First Tina Weymouth on “Heaven” then Christ Frantz on “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel” and finally Jerry Harrison on “Found a Job.” As the band grows, so too does the additional equipment and musicians that appear on stage.

The band finally reaches maximum capacity when it launches into “Burning Down the House.” (The original 1985 home video release has the band performing “Cities” first, however.) It’s a cathartic moment, a build to a euphoric release both for the listener and the band. After the incomplete band migrates through stripped down versions of the tracklist, everyone on stage lets loose in the complete ensemble. Wait for David Byrne to unleash fury during the extended finale and outtro.

Demme’s influence on the film becomes apparent during this sequence as well. He’s not focused on the music. Each band member’s personality becomes the most important aspect of the film. We all know “Burning Down the House” — and the music becomes something more like a score to a Jonathan Demme movie about a band called Talking Heads rather than our single reason for watching.

Not only is this the best seat in the house; you’re the only viewer. You are omniscient, standing on stage and witnessing musical genius at play through a macro lens. You might not care about Talking Heads’ music, but I find it hard to believe you could watch this film and not respect David Byrne’s and the band’s cerebral ability to command a stage. He’s some unique brand of buttoned-down mania.

Byrne’s wardrobe also provides a glimpse into his mental acuity when it comes to music and performance. His “big suit” grows larger as the concert progresses. The suit become an icon for the film — and even appeared on the movie poster. Eventually he comes back on stage engulfed by the suit. His comically tiny-looking head sticking out through the engorged jacket. He doesn’t call attention to the changes, he’s just shrinking as the concert rolls along.

david byrne's suit stop making sene

Byrne later explained his methodology: “I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger, because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head.” He said he was inspired by Japanese theater — Noh, Kabuki and Banraku — when creating the costume. The manipulation of audience response through artificiality.

I’ve watched dozens of films as a result of this Cinema Shame exercise and I’ve ultimately loved a great many of them. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, however, just became the first film I can’t comprehend not having in my life. It’s almost like I hadn’t even really heard the soundtrack. The film’s opening and the gradual gathering of bandmates gives extra context to the sparse compositions that begin the album. I’ve heard so much more in the music now that I’ve seen the concert film.

That is something I never thought I’d say.

2018 Shame Statement Update:

(Bold/linked denotes watched)

Five Easy Pieces
Lifeboat
Stop Making Sense
The Black Pirate
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Paris, Texas
Wuthering Heights
Paper Moon
Sunrise
The Conversation
Victor/Victoria
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ikiru
Help!

Cinema Shame Monthly Prompts:

January Prompt: Shame Statement
February Prompt: An American In Paris
March Prompt: The Crimson Pirate

First Watch Club: March 2018

March wound up being a lackluster month overall for personal moviewatching quantity, but not necessarily quality, as life and work seemed to intervene in normal viewing time. I finished strong, taking advantage of some Spring Break time (aka, the let’s-flee-home-renovations trip to the sister-in-law’s) to catch up. First-Watch Club March of 2018 offers a wide variety of cinema spanning 106 years.

Since the April edition will likely be dominated by TCM Film Festival offerings, this one will be the last whole-grain, non-homogenized, organic First Watch Club, untarnished by the glow and spectacle of Los Angeles and the TCM Film Festival, for some time. Next month I’ll still be sleep deprived and basking in the warm glow from a trip to Los Angeles. The kind of glow one can only achieve, however, by spending 16 hours per day inside a movie theater.

First-Watch Cinema Club: March 2018

#5. Frankenstein (S. Searle Dawley, 1910)

I stumbled onto the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel as I researched clips on early silent serials for a forthcoming article in Action-a-Go-Go. Instead of a proper two- or three-paragraph blurb, I’ll mix this up and include my solo, impromptu live tweet commentary because it will better capture my surprise and enthusiasm for the film.

So the creation of Frankenstein’s monster was actually a pretty cool effect. This figure was set on fire and then edited into sequence in reverse. The flames give away the trick, but visually interesting nonetheless. #Frankenstein1910

I’m pretty sure Dr. Frankenstein called his monster “Gene Simmons” but I have no support for this theory other than this image. #Frankenstein1910

Okay, #Frankenstein1910, that was a really cool ending. The monster sees himself in the mirror, flies into a fit of rage and then disappears, except for his image in the mirror. Dr. Frankenstein enters and the image of the Dr. syncs with the image of the monster in the mirror.

This concludes my #Frankenstein1910 broadcast day. I really do need to get back to research. If you’d like to view FRANKENSTEIN (1910) dir. J. Searle Dawley for the Edison Company, here’s the link:

#4. Somewhere in Time (Jeannot Szwarc, 1980)

first watch club march somewhere in timeThe narrative simplicity creates an unusually proximate intimacy with our time-crossed lovers. That something as minimal as a character staring into the eyes of a photograph has the ability to orchestrate a crescendo of emotion speaks volumes about the potential power of the film.

I say “potential” because you must give this film access to the emotions. Skeptics will find it hokey or schmaltzy — and in truth, it is both of those things in some measure, with a little bit of TV-movie atmosphere mixed in.

Time travel undertaken with the least amount of exposition. Convince yourself you’re in a certain place and a certain time. And it works because you’re not forced to question any brand of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook. Suspension of disbelief becomes an emotional leap rather than rational acceptance.

Despite the brief runtime of the film, the viewer and our protagonist — Christopher Reeve in a wonderful performance — experience a swell of emotion in step. So when it all comes crashing down, we’re also invested in this perfect, timeless romance. Who wouldn’t be madly in love with 1980’s Jane Seymour?

Somewhere in Time works because the value of this movie lies in the spaces between the unusual narrative beats. It’s about getting swept up in a believable romance despite the impossibility of time and distance.

Much respect to Scott Weinberg and Drew McWeeny for calling attention to this film on their wonderful 80s All Over podcast.

Somewhere in Time is available on DVD.

#3. The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)

first watch club march the love witchI love that this movie exists more than I love this movie. But my love of the movie also supersedes my individual caveats with the execution.

The film is overlong and occasionally too blunt. It’s in need of an editor that isn’t the director. My criticisms, however, don’t do justice to the individual accomplishment of director Anna Biller.

The Love Witch is a perfect homage to low-budget films of the late 1960s/early 1970’s. Is she borrowing from exploitation? Horror? It’s really hard to say. (I know much has been made about critics misunderstanding filmmaker intent.) At the same time, however, calling this “homage” would be selling the film short. It exists in that world. It breathes that same air. And don’t you dare call it camp, because camp is ribald and often referential mockery.

This is an important, living, breathing, clearly personal and sincere film about women’s aspirations, fears and desires. About the dual stations of projected perfect womanhood and private sensuality.

The male gaze does not knowingly want to be called out by a woman in control of her sexuality. Once this character takes control, once she asserts a measure of dominance over a man — he becomes either hopelessly infatuated or tries to burn her at the stake. The clear-eyed observations that comprise the emotional core of the film make this an essential work about gender dynamics for the times in which we live.

The Love Witch is available on Blu-ray.

#2. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Colin Higgins, 1982)

first watch club march best little whorehouse in texasHinges on Charles Durning’s beautifully comic “Sidestep” number. For a man of his size, he moved like a jungle cat.

Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton (aka national goddamn treasures) flash their charismatic best in this “how the hell did this get made” Hollywood musical. Seriously. How did a big budget musical about the benefits of prostitution get a green light? When Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds laugh at the same time, you’ll suddenly think everything is right in the world.

I love the 80’s.

Gonzo mainstream cinema is an odd duck, and this should be one of the greats of the genre, but it just doesn’t get the kind of positive attention it deserves.

Part of me wonders if Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” would have been the same massive chart-topper if the general populace had known that it was originally written about a madam singing to the local sheriff who had closed down her brothel.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is available on Blu-ray.

#1. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)

first watch club march stop making senseLong time concert film appreciator, first time lover.

In practice, the concert film should reveal something new about the band that wouldn’t be readily accessible to the average fan. There’s value in having the “best seat in the house” but that’s less a “film” than a concert on film. Important difference.

As a long time Talking Heads obsessive, I inexplicably never made the effort to watch Stop Making Sense. I never believed a concert film could transcend the genre. It’s not that I didn’t want to watch — “I just never got around to it.” Thank goodness I have Cinema Shame to guilt me into these first-time watches.

Demme’s Stop Making Sense became the first of my Shame conquests that I can’t comprehend not having had in my life. The film straddles the line between David Byrne performance art and music video. It’s the perfect distillation of Talking Heads-ness eccentricities and musicality.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve spun my vinyl or the expanded CD version of this soundtrack. This music has been in my blood for as long as I can remember, but now I finally feel as if I’ve heard the record for the first time.

Stop Making Sense is available on Blu-ray.