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.

Meet Me at the Quad: 2018 TCM Film Festival Preview

 

The feeding frenzy began Wednesday morning, sometime around 11am EDT. TCM released the schedule for the 2018 TCM Film Festival, and the drooling, movie-starved masses fled to their electronic devices to sneak a peak at the ecstasy and the agony.

For those that aren’t familiar with the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival, each spring TCM hosts a four-day film festival on Hollywood Blvd. Movies from 9:00am until 2:00am. Equal parts euphoria and self-flagellation. Maybe you’ll eat. Maybe you’ll sleep. You’ll definitely see movies. In fact, if you set your plans for max consumption you could see 21 movies during your stay.

#ProTip: Don’t plan for max consumption. You’ll enjoy yourself more by focusing on the experience — even if it’ll cost you an extra time slot in travel to and from a more distant venue. My favorite TCM Film Festival event remains The Scent of Mystery at the Cinerama Dome in 2016, an event which spent an entire morning.

Due to the current lack of a proper schedule grid, I took to my trusty notepad and scribbled a schedule for an early attempt at planning my 2018 TCM Film Festival. Because people want to know. People want to share this experience with their Fest Friends. It may feel duly and truly like solipsism, but I’ve come to realize that these TCM Film Festival previews help fellow attendees (especially first-timers) plan their trip. And the recaps help people mourn the Fest’s end and re-assimilate into daily life.

Fun Fact: TCMFF attendees are actually totally, legitimately serious when they ask for your schedule. The path we travel at these events keeps everyone on the edge of their seats. If you blog, blog it up.

Three Quick Observations of the 2018 TCM Film Festival Schedule:

Friday Night is a unholy abomination of quintuple booking. We love to complain about our conflicts. We paid many $$$ for these tickets because there’s always something to see — so when we’re faced with a single time slot that includes The Exorcist (with director William Friedkin in attendance), Leave Her to Heaven on Nitrate (maybe a special surprise celebrity introduction?), Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet (with Olivia Hussey, Leonard Whiting and Michael York in attendance), Point Blank, and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (with Michael Schlesinger in attendance) we have every right to weep into our hands. In 2018, there are a couple of these impossible time slots and a couple of lessers where I’m merely adequately pleased with the offerings. 2018, more so than my prior festivals, appears to be a feast or famine festival.

Pro tip: Eliminate potential conflicts by watching widely available movies at home before the festival — especially if those movies aren’t being shown on 35mm.

JOHN. CARPENTER.

That’s right. The master of horror will make an appearance at the 2018 TCM Film Festival to introduce Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932). He could have introduced a paper bag named Phil and I’d have shown up.

For the first time in four festivals, I could navigate the entire four days, see a movie in every time slot, and not watch a movie I’ve already seen (The Night of the Living Dead midnight screening excepted). Not that I’m going to follow that path, but that’s damn impressive. I’m not saying I’m the oracle or anything, just that I’ve seen my share.

#ProTip: Don’t ever ever ever ever worry about having a down time slot. TCM does a wonderful job of curating their schedule. You may not know or care about a particular part of the schedule, but this will encourage you to watch something you wouldn’t normally watch. Dabbling outside your comfort zone rewards amply.

Enough jibber jabber. Let’s get to the festival.

My 2018 TCM Film Festival Preview

This will be my first year attending the festival with shiny press credentials. I’ll be covering select screenings for the fine folks at Action-a-Go-Go. What does that mean for you? You can look forward to in-depth coverage of Bullitt, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Also, if you want to grab a #Bond_age_ or Cinema Shame button, I will *definitely* be present at those three screenings. Follow my @007hertzrumble Twitter feed for regular updates. Even if you don’t want a button, feel free to stop by and say “hello.”

TCM chose “Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen” as the loose theme of this year’s festival, which means they’ve attempted to corral films adapted from famous writers and films about writers under the 2018 TCM Film Festival umbrella.

I’ll arrive in Los Angeles about noon. If my calculations are correct, I’ll have enough time to make it to my hotel, stash my stuff and record a quick on-location at TCMFF Cinema Shame podcast special before programming  begins at 6:00pm.

Before you jump headfirst into TCM Film Festivaling, let’s go over a few choice pieces of advice I try to give to every new attendee:

Drink lots of water. Buy bottles of the stuff at CVS or Trader Joe’s and keep them handy. You’re going to be eating more than your share of salty food. Plus hydration keeps disease at bay…

…speaking of disease, bring some of those Vitamin C tablets, Airborne’s or the like. I’d suggest one per day. Travel, lots of people, lack of sleep, irregular sustenance do not build a functioning immune system.

Eat food when you have the opportunity. Especially breakfast. You can bring food into the theater. Go directly to your movie queue and wait for your numbered voucher. Once you have that, you’re free to leave. If you’re in a hurry, toss a burrito or a sandwich into your bag and return to your queue. They load the theaters 30 minutes prior to showtime. Once you’re seated, break out that sandwich and have at it.

Bring a portable phone charger. Even if you’re not on social media and burning through your battery, you’ll still want to make sure you can communicate with other people at the festival. Things like “Save me a seat!” or “Where are you in line?” or “What are you seeing at 7?” will be oft-repeated. I use this one — it’s a brick, but it charges multiple devices at once… and fast. Plug it in at the beginning of the movie and you’ll have a fully charged phone by the time you leave.

Thursday

thursday tcm film festival 2018 schedule

As you can see by my old school workflow chart, I scribbled out my schedule before someone threw together the proper grid to share with the community. It’s charming. Feel free to borrow these.

I kid. Just wait until I get to tomorrow and my shorthand becomes completely unintelligible.

 

tcm film festival 2018 finishing school

7:00pm – Finishing School (1934) – Chinese Multiplex 4

TCM baptizes by fire in this first slot. I would have been happy to see any one of the other films shown. To Have and Have Not, Detour, Murder on the Orient Express, and Them! poolside. Finishing School is the only one I haven’t seen and it’s in 35mm and the only one I don’t already own on DVD.

4/23 edit: It seems that Finishing School might become a bloodbath in Multiplex 4. It’s entirely possible I’ll finish up the on-location Cinema Shame recording and opt for Detour to avoid chaos. 

#ProTip: So many variables come into play when choosing a film to see at any given time slot. Have you seen it? Is it rare or unavailable on home video? Is it being shown on film or digital? Who’s speaking before the film? You’ll notice on my scribbled schedule that I’ve marked up four stars next to Finishing School. Unseen. Shown on film. Guest speakers. Pre-code.

tcm film festival 2018 throne of blood

9:15pm – Throne of Blood (1957) – Chinese Multiplex 4

This is my first crisis. Stage Door is being shown on Nitrate film stock at the Egyptian. Throne of Blood on 35mm in Multiplex 4. Stage Door is great, but Throne of Blood is my all-time favorite Kurosawa and I’ve never seen it big and on film. The irony is that I care so much about the aforementioned duo that I haven’t considered Fail Safe or The Sea Wolf — two films I haven’t seen… though I do love me some Sidney Lumet and Fail Safe is something I should watch… urgh.

4/23 edit: This one will be a game time decision. Fail Sale keeps tugging at my unseen Lumet guilt strings.

Fun fact: Plans are meant to be broken.

Friday

tcm film festival 2018 friday

The first full day kicks off with three consecutive toss-up decisions.

Fun fact: By my calculations there are roughly 5000 different schedule combinations for each Friday and Saturday.

9:00am – Intruder in the Dust (1949) – Chinese Multiplex 4

My first instinct had me watching the Lubitsch musical The Merry Widow at the Egyptian, but I had to change course after some more consideration. This could be a teaching moment for all you first-timers. I’ve seen The Merry Widow and while it’s tremendous fun and shown on 35mm, I would likely never make the time to see the lesser known Intruder in the Dust. Many consider Intruder the finest adaptation of a Faulkner novel. Clarence Brown, a friend of Faulkner’s, pushed this into production at MGM, and as a result the legendary writer had a unofficial hand in the production. (He was contracted over at Warner Bros.) Years later, when you look back on your festival experiences, you’ll probably remember these movies far more vividly than rewatches of movies that you already know you enjoy.

…all that said, I wouldn’t discount a trip to the Cinerama Dome to see James Garner in Grand Prix. At some point everyone needs to make a trip over to the Cinerama Dome. And if I do that, these first two time slots are spoken for…

11:45am – Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – Egyptian

Unseen and on 35mm. Witness narrowly edges out Errol Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade. War movies generally don’t powder my canons, but I could make an except for Errol — who plays like gangbusters to a classic film crowd. Plus, Light Brigade might win in the end because it gets out earlier and that might benefit my next selection…

2:30pm – Blessed Event (1932) – Chinese Multiplex 4

TCM Film Festival 2018 Blessed Event

The Set-Up‘s a great noir over at the Egyptian, but Blessed Event is a pre-code comedy playing in the Chinese Multiplex 4 and I’m all about braving a bloodbath. (See 2016’s Double Harness debacle.)  TCM made a habit of stuffing hugely popular pre-code comedies into this, the smallest theater in the festival, grabbing a box of popcorn and watching the carnage. Last year, attendees were given a reprieve from the harrowing experiences of prior years (these films mostly played at the Egyptian in 2017). It seems, however, that TCM grew bored with widespread harmony. There’s a reason the Multiplex #4 is known as the Thunderdome. If you really want to see this movie, you may need to arrive early.

none shall escape tcm film festival 2018

4:45pm – None Shall Escape (1944) – Chinese Multiplex 6

This is where the schedule on Friday gets a little wonky. Two 85-minute movies play in the Multiplex 4 and 6. Depending upon when Blessed Event gets out, I might be able to sneak in the one with the earlier start before Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song at 6:15pm — but a bunch of variables will come into play here and I’ll just have to see how it goes. I’ve got this one earmarked, but I can’t make any commitments because I’m contractually obligated to be at…

tcm film festival 2018

6:15 pm – Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) – Egyptian

Melvin Van Peebles in the house to introduce his masterpiece of independent filmmaking. Even if I weren’t covering this film for Action-a-Go-Go, nothing keeps me away from this truly special opportunity.

the exorcist TCM Film Festival 2018

9:30pm – The Exorcist (1973) – TCL Chinese Theatre

Prepare to raise your first to the heavens and shake it angrily. During this time slot you, dear 2018 TCM Film Festival goer, must choose between five amazing films. This is the cluster#&$% about which I spoke above. The Exorcist, Leave Her to Heaven, Romeo & Juliet, Point Blank or Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Godspeed.

Luckily the midnight choice is easy… since there’s only one film playing.

world's greatest sinner tcm film festival 2018

12:00am – The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962) – Multiplex 6

I don’t know anything about this, but that doesn’t matter. Catch that third wind and settle in for the midnight screenings. You may regret all of your decisions in the morning, but when you’ll look back fondly on those bleary-eyed evenings spent with other like-minded hooligans.

 

Saturday

TCM Film Festival 2018 Saturday

In my opinion, this is the weakest day of the 2018 TCM Film Festival.

Fun Fact: Plenty of people will disagree with me because everyone approaches this thing from a different angle.

2018 TCM Film Festival ox-bow incident

9:00am – Ox-Bow Incident (1943) – Egyptian

I love both His Girl Friday and Kiss Me Deadly; I own them both on Criterion Blu-ray. I haven’t seen the other three offerings, and TCM calls them all “Essentials.” I am Cinema Shamed. Now of the three, I’m least jazzed about Love Finds Andy Hardy and that’s the one shown on 35mm. I’m not remotely familiar with A Letter to Three Wives. A stiff breeze could make this decision for me.

2018 TCM Film Festival bullitt

11:45am – Bullitt (1968) – TCL Chinese Theatre

I’m all in for Bullitt (with Jacqueline Bisset) on the biggest screen of them all. I might be more unhappy about the options I’m not watching if I stopped for a minute to consider them — Ida Lupina’s Outrage (1950) on 35mm, This Thing Called Love (1940) introduced by Ileana Douglas, and the goddamn kicker, Jean-Pierre Melville’s When You Read this Letter (1953). Melville’s one of my all-time favorite directors (he could make a case for my favorite) and this is a film of his I haven’t seen — in fact, it’s not even available on DVD in North America. ENOUGH. I HAVE TO SEE BULLITT. THAT’S IT. JAY IS GETTING UPSET.

2018 TCM Film Festival tom sawyer

2:00pm – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) – Multiplex 4

This is going to be tight. Bullitt will let out right about 2pm. Between Wife vs. Secretary and this one, Sawyer‘s the closest in proximity to the Chinese Theatre. I could take a leisurely break and wait for Sunset Boulevard at 3:00pm —  but I’ve seen it a few times. And it’s DCP. And I’d rather opt for the unseen pre-code…

2018 TCM Film Festival girls about town

4:30pm – Girls About Town (1931) – Egyptian

Directed by George Cukor, starring Kay Francis and based on the Hollywood exploits of Tallulah Bankhead? I’ve never heard of this film, but it’s got the making of the sleeper hit of my festival.

2018 TCM Film Festival show people

7:00pm – Show People (1928) – Egyptian

The gap between Girls About Town and Show People gives me the opportunity for a real meal. If I tackle Heaven Can Wait, it’s another rush and grab job — though Heaven‘s a movie I’ve always intended to watch and it would make a really solid Cinema Shame entry post-festival… and this all assumes I’m going to overlook The World of Suzie Wong with Nancy Kwan and Sam Fuller’s Park Row with John Sayles introducing. This is a sneaky block of difficult decisions.

#ProTip: Sometimes there are no wrong decisions.

2018 TCM Film Festival scarface

9:45pm – Scarface (1932) – Multiplex 6

After a day of rigorous indecision, TCM rewards me with an evening of no-brainers. John Carpenter will introduce Howard Hawks’ classic Scarface. It’s widely known that The Master of Horror is a huge Howard Hawks fan so this should be a treat.

In case you’re not a Carpenter fanboy, the other options are also quite exceptional. Hitchock’s Spellbound on Nitrate. Gigi introduced by Oscar-nominated costume designer Mark Bridges. The Raven with Sara Karloff (Boris’ daughter) introducing. And, finally, here’s the biggest curiosity of the festival — at least for me. My beloved The Big Lebowski at the TCL Chinese Theatre. Now. Here’s the question. If TCM has decided to play a film from 1998 in the Chinese Theatre (and not in the Multiplex), there’s a goddamn good reason beyond it just being the film’s 20th anniversary. I have a suspicion that someone special will be in attendance and that someone won’t be announced until the start of the festival. Take from that what you will. (Last year Martin Scorcese introduced The Man Who Knew Too Much and that wasn’t announced until the day of.)

4/23 edit: As predicted, Jeff Bridges will be in attendance for The Big Lebowski. I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO DO. 

2018 TCM Film Festival night of the living dead

12:00am – The Night of the Living Dead (1968) – Multiplex 6

Introduced by Edgar Wright. Sleep isn’t that important. Sunday’s pretty much a half-day anyway. It’s perfectly fitting that we’re getting a zombie movie on the second night of the festival.

Fun fact: The above photo was snapped as 2017 TCM Film Festival attendees left Zardoz.

 

Sunday

2018 TCM Film Festival Sunday

 

Rise and shine, beauties. You’ll feel as hung over and any real hang over you’ve ever endured. Roll out of bed, get that last breakfast and get back to the grindstone.

2018 TCM Film Festival midsummer night's dream

9am – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) – Multiplex 4

I’ve avoided this movie because A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Having taken multiple semesters dedicated to The Bard in college, I’ve read my share; I’m not just comparing it to Macbeth and Hamlet. I could choose the 164-minute Once Upon a Time in the West because the movie’s currently on my Shame Statement for 2018 (as it was in 2017 and 2016 because I JUST NEVER WATCH IT) but I do actually believe I’ll at some point choose to watch OUATITW. I don’t feel the same about the former. If you’re looking for a recommendation here, I’ll sing the praises of Ronald Neame’s Tunes of Glory. 

4/23 edit: I’m starting to think that OUATITW will eek out of a victory in this slot. The Cinema Shameness of this one deserves the big screen treatment. 

2018 TCM Film Festival taking of pelham

12:30pm – The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – Egyptian

My last film of the 2018 TCM Film Festival will be a good one — and my final assignment from Action-a-Go-Go. Due to the flight schedule and my need to be a functional human on Monday, I have taken to departing Los Angeles in the afternoon in order to sleep in my own bed that night.

The reward of taking that one non-stop is a 5+ hour flight rather than 9 hours of total travel time including the layover. I did that twice. It was terrible.

I sacrifice my final two films. I’ll regret missing out on Ron Shelton introducing Bull Durham (what are they going to get Millie and Jimmy for their wedding gift?!?) and don’t even get me started about that final time slot. At least I won’t have to make that decision, I suppose. (For what it’s worth, I would have gone with Animal House because pretty much the entire cast plus John Landis is going to be there!)

After The Taking of Pelham, I’ll say my final goodbyes, so-longs, farewells, see-you-next-years and rush off to LAX. The conclusion is always so bittersweet, filled to the brim with cinema and sanity stretched wafer thin. At least we’ll always have the people we meet at the TCM Film Festival to help ease us back into the real world, because they’re all out there on Twitter or Facebook, perhaps just an email away.

Read my previews of past TCM Film Festivals for more info — I tried not to be too redundant!

2015 / 2016 / 2017

Also be sure to check out these 2018 TCM Film Festival previews and hot tips from other fellow festival attendees!

Chris Sturhann: TCMFF Survival Guide: The Revenge

Angela Petteys: My Choices for TCMFF 2018

Aurora at Aurora’s Gin Joint: Picks for #TCMFF 2018: To Be or Not To Be…

Kristen Lopez at Journeys In Classic Film: My TCM Classic Film Festival Must-Sees

Julie Ricci: TCMFF 2018 – My Picks

The Crimson Pirate: Swashbuckler Shame

crimson pirate

Swashbuckler Shame: The Crimson Pirate

For the Cinema Shame prompt for March, we settled on Swashbucklers and Pirate movies. Because Maarrrrrggch, obviously. Also, I’ve had the genre on my mind lately after introducing my daughters to Errol Flynn last month. While I’ve spent significant time with Errol, the genre outside of his contribution remained somewhat hazy. I’ve decided to entertain more plundering and pillaging in addition to the standard allotment swashing and buckling.

While I placed The Black Pirate (1928) on my Shame Statement for year, I inexplicably elected to watch The Crimson Pirate (1952) to satisfy the Maarrrrrgggch requirement. Burt Lancaster and early 1950’s Technicolor sounded rather essential, and I was still trying to wrangle a copy of The Black Pirate from the Pittsburgh public library system.

the crimson pirate

Having not done my homework on the film beforehand, I was struck by the “directed by Richard Siodmak” credit straightaway. Siodmak, known primarily for his B-movie and film noir output in the 1940’s, seemed an odd choice for a color-splashed Caribbean adventure film.

In his autobiography, Christopher Lee (who appears in The Crimson Pirate in a minor, thankless roll of one-note stoicism) said that Siodmak had been given a solemn script by screenwriter Waldo Salt, but that after reading the material the director refashioned the script into a comedy. The film’s producers may have feared association with Salt’s rumored communist ties, and though I’ve read nothing in my brief searches to suggest that the producers intervened in Siodmak’s creative process it seems likely that they also a hand in the rewrite and tonal shift.

Perhaps too long constrained by the grayscale genre limitations in Film Noir, Siodmak embraced the opportunity to direct this sprawling light adventure film with his The Killers star Burt Lancaster. While Lancaster fares well outside his comfort zone — 100-watt charisma plays, no matter the genre — a defter directorial touch might have better expedited the sluggish middle bits.

the crimson pirate

The film wastes no time in presenting itself as a lark, introducing itself with a Bye Bye Birdie-style sequence (or rather Bye Bye Birdie borrowed the Crimson Pirate opening) with Burt Lancaster introducing the film while swinging back and forth between ship masts, bare-chested and grinning ear to ear.

Siodmak’s film moves along at a steady clip, mixing elaborate slapstick choreography with double crossing and a side of swashbuckling. Casual glancers would presume the film to be a 1950’s MGM-brand musical based on costuming. color and boisterous puffery.

the crimson pirate

Burt Lancaster plays Captain Vallo, a famous scourge of the seven seas known as, of course, the Crimson Pirate. He and his crew capture a frigate belonging to the King carrying Baron Gruda, a special envoy on his way to crush a rebellion on the island of Cobra. Vallo suggests selling the frigate’s weapon’s cash to the rebel leader El Libre. Gruda humbly suggests there would be more money to be made by capturing El Libre and selling him to the King.

Vallo and his lieutenant, Ojo (Nick Cravat), meet the island’s rebels, lead by Pablo (Noel Purcell) and Consuelo (Eva Bartok), and learn that El Libre has been imprisoned on the island of San Pero. Thus begins the symphony of double- and triple-crossing that features prison breaks, Lancaster in drag, a crackpot scientist, mutiny and a bit of the old swordplay. The finale predicts the bloated epic comedies that graced the early 1960s.

the crimson pirate

Even when The Crimson Pirate sags in the middle as it navigates the hypeconvolute narrative, Lancaster and Nick Cravat anchor the film with infectious enthusiasm, preventing it from floating away entirely on its own hot air. (This makes more sense when you see the hot air balloon climax.) Lancaster even tried to resurrect the character for a sequel in the 1970’s.

The bookending spectacle set pieces, showcases for the athleticism of Lancaster and his circus-partner and career-long trainer Cravat, make for an entertaining matinee spectacle. The Technicolor-tailored costume design and screaming blue Caribbean landscape call for a Blu-ray treatment even though the material feels undercooked.

Entertaining spectacle. Lancaster essential. Technicolor beauty. Fun but non-essential piracy. The kind gentlefolk at Warner Archive saw fit to release this Technicolor marvel on DVD, and I thank them for that.

Crate Diving: Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club – s/t

bruce woolley and the camera club

Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club – s/t

 

Place in Time:

Originally released in November of 1979 under the title English Garden in the UK. For the North American release, CBS/Columbia Records (the album was released by Epic elsewhere) stripped away the title and transformed Bruce Woolley from an erstwhile Elvis Costello/Elton John hybrid into a proto-Chris Isaak. Note the UK cover below:

bruce woolley and the camera club uk

Vinyl Me:

The cover grabbed me. There’s something about the promise of a 1940’s crooner transplanted into the 1980’s (in this instance 1979) that piques my curiosity. When I’m crate diving and blindly choosing which unknown records to sample, I rarely seek Internet consultation. At worst I’m out $3. At best I’ve uncovered a slumbering and forgotten gem.

I love the anticipation of placing the needle on the turntable and not knowing anything about what’s going to come spewing forth from my speakers. That moment of gestation, signaled by the static and the 30Hz hum of the needle sliding across the vinyl. I’m guaranteed to hear something brand new to me.

So you’ll understand my shock when I sat down to give Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club a first listen and heard — side one, track two — “Video Killed the Radio Star” emitting from my speakers. It sounded more like The Cars by way of Brian Eno doing “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but nevertheless, there was no mistaking that hook.

the buggles the age of plastic 1980

What ho?! A cover? But the sleeve dates the release as 1979 and I knew, without any doubt, that The Buggles released The Age of Plastic, featuring “Video Killed the Radio Star” in 1980. So not a cover?

More investigation was required. To the Interwebs I flew.

Impressions:

A successful singer-songwriter for a decade before recording with his band The Camera Club, Bruce Woolley had penned songs for The Studs and Dusty Springfield before becoming frustrated with the opportunities afforded to his work. In 1977, Woolley began tinkering with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes on a project called, that’s right, The Buggles. Shortly before The Buggles (Horn and Downes) signed to Island Records, Woolley departed to form The Camera Club with Matthew Seligman (future bassist in The Soft Boys), Rod Johnson, Dave Birch and a young Thomas Dolby.

bruce woolley and the camera club
Bruce Woolley and The Camera Club

For The Camera Club’s debut LP, Woolley recorded both “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “Clean / Clean,” songs originally co-written with Horn and Downes for The Buggles. Here’s the interesting twist of fate. The Buggles’ The Age of Plastic dropped in January of 1980 (two months after the UK release of Woolley’s English Garden), and North American ears wouldn’t hear The Camera Club until November of the same year. Both records were recorded in 1979 and crossed the Atlantic like ships in the night.

Critics describe The Age of Plastic as a landmark 1980’s Technopop album. Artists such as Daft Punk and Phoenix have cited the record as a major influence. Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club couldn’t even coerce CBS into releasing their second album.

Many critics (mostly old stodgy ones) lauded Bruce Woolley’s version of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” calling The Buggles’ version novelty kitsch. The Buggles made the music of the future and certain folksy critics didn’t exactly know what to make of it. It’s psychedelic science fiction, fearful of the mass media culture just over the horizon, made with pre-dated techniques of electronic production. Progress causes growing pains.

While I’d love to laud The Camera Club as the real “Video Killed the Radio Star” artist, I can’t hop up on that soapbox. They’re yin and hang, complementary flipsides of a 7″ single, and I’m grateful to have finally turned the record over. One is iconic, the other an eager sidekick.

Verdict:

The Camera Club’s new wave sound echoes comfortable trends during the transition into the 80’s. It’s impossible to listen to songs such as “English Garden” and not hear Brian Eno’s 1977 classic Before And After Science. The album relies on Bruce Woolley’s songwriting. As an artist, Woolley embraced a brand of optimism and earnestness that had faded among commercial artists.

After The Camera Club disbanded in 1982, Woolley returned to his bread and butter. He penned “Slave to the Rhythm” for Grace Jones (a song originally intended for Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and even wrote the seminal ambient electronic track “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Center of the Ultraworld” for The Orb’s debut 1989 album. He returned to stage performance with The Radio Science Orchestra, a theremin-led ensemble and worked on the score to Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge!

bruce Woolley theremin

Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club’s one and only record might be a footnote in the careers of The Buggles and Thomas Dolby, but it’s a highly listenable curiosity. The record provides a little extra context for the first wave of artists inspired by the sounds of the coming artificial age. Not only was Bruce Woolley one of the first casualties, but he also became an innovator.

And if you want to dig a little deeper into “Video Killed the Radio Star” lore, here’s Geoff Downes talking about the history of the song.

 

Past episodes of Crate Diving:

Crate Diving: Kids in the Kitchen

A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick