Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fresh Horses (dir. David Anspaugh, 1988)

My first and only time ever on a movie set was for the 1988 film Fresh Horses, which starred Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy. Clearly, Fresh Horses was meant to be a kind of not-quite-sequel to 1986’s Pretty in Pink, though it didn’t come anywhere close to matching its predecessor’s success. Fresh Horses was filmed in and around where I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was 14-years-old at the time and had been fairly obsessed with John Hughes’ mid-’80s high school dramatic comedies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. So I was excited when I read an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, our hometown daily newspaper, about how Fresh Horses was being filmed in town.

The only specific filming location that was mentioned in the article, and which sounded like it might be locatable for a 14-year-old kid, was a house on a rolling hillside in Union, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.  I’d never been to Union, Kentucky, of course, but I figured that it couldn’t be a very big place. Determined to find that house where they were filming, I convinced a friend who was a couple of years older and who had a car to skip school with me one Friday, so that we could drive down to Kentucky. He was up for that and excited about it, too. This was in the fall of 1987, late October as I recall.

We arrived in Union, Kentucky, by sometime around noon. It was quaint and rural, basically just one long country road through bluegrass hills and fields of horses. Within a few minutes, we spotted the big white house on a hillside, set a little ways off the road. Lighting equipment was set up in metal clusters on the sprawling lawn in front of the house, but there was no activity going on at that point; as the abundance of idle lighting equipment clearly indicated, the day’s filming would commence after sundown. In the meantime, we drove around for a while, had a late lunch at a roadside diner, and returned to the house that evening, once it had gotten dark outside.

Then something happened that would never happen today in 2017. My friend parked his car in the grass alongside the winding gravel driveway that led to the house, he grabbed a big quilted blanket from the trunk of his car, and we sat beneath a huge tree to watch the movie being filmed from a safe distance. I remember seeing one security officer stationed on the property, a little further up the driveway. He took notice of us, but he didn’t say anything to us. Neither did anybody else. Nobody even approached us at all, perhaps thinking that we had some actual reason for being there. We sat there for hours, in fact, from about seven o’clock until sometime well after midnight.

During all of those hours, we saw only two scenes being filmed, both exterior scenes on the front porch of the house, and both with Andrew McCarthy. In one scene, he drove a car up to the house and parked, walked slowly up to the porch, peered inside the front door, then stepped off the side of the porch to walk around the side of the house. In the other scene, a fight broke out just inside of the house, between Andrew McCarthy’s character, named Matt Larkin, and some other random tough guy. Then the brawl tumbled out the front door onto the porch, with poor Andrew McCarthy’s character hitting the ground in front of the porch steps. I vividly remember hearing the punctuated shouts of Patti D’Arbanville’s character, Jean, who owned that big party house on the hill, trying to break up the fight.

Nevertheless, nothing in my experiences as a young filmgoer had prepared me for just how boring and repetitious being on the set of a film would feel. The seeming glamour of Hollywood and the artful deception of edited cinematic narratives had brainwashed me into thinking that film sets themselves would be equally glamorous. The scene of Larkin driving up to the house was filmed at least twenty times, with the movie crew trying to get the right take, and the fight scene on the porch was filmed about thirty times, maybe even more. Andrew McCarthy chain-smoked whenever there was a break between takes. I remember seeing him many years later, portraying Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, and catching a glimpse of him chain-smoking yet again, out in the courtyard with the crew members during the intermission.

Perhaps because of the repetition involved in the filming, and the novelty of the whole experience, visiting that film set is indelibly engraved into my memory. I can replay the entire sequence of events in my mind anytime, like a little cinematic loop itself. It was fun, too, seeing how those two scenes had been incorporated into the film when it was released in theaters towards the end of 1988. Larkin’s little jump off the side of the porch to walk around to the side of the house, which ended right there with each take during the filming, is followed in the movie itself by his intense first kiss with Jewel, Molly Ringwald’s character, right up against the outside wall of that house. This was probably my first actual lesson about how storylines in movies aren’t filmed chronologically. I don’t think Molly Ringwald was even on the set of the film that night.

The screenplay for Fresh Horses was adapted from Larry Ketron’s stage play of the same title, and he adapted the screenplay himself. The play starred Suzy Amis as Jewel and Craig Sheffer as Larkin when it premiered in New York in 1986. It’s the story of a well-to-do college student, Larkin, who’s interested in engineering and design (constructing rides like rollercoasters, specifically), and his illicit romantic pursuit of Jewel, a street-smart country girl from across the river, who may or may not even be of age to be dating him. All of that comes out slowly during the course of the film, naturally, and with no little amount of melodramatic tears and formulaic effect. Fresh Horses is not a great movie, nor even a particularly good one. But that’s part of the reason why I wanted to write about it this many years later. How can a movie that’s not particularly good, and more than a little cheesy at times, still feel like it’s kind of good in retrospect because of how it attaches itself to one’s own youthful memories?

Larkin’s sidekick in the film, Tipton, is played by Ben Stiller, who makes a charismatic comedic impression in one of his earliest film roles; he’s cute and expressive and just manic enough. Tipton is meant to be Larkin’s reliable buddy and his social conscience, urging him to be more interested in the attractive college women at a pool party that they attend at a private home, rather than falling for the seductive girl from the wrong side of the tracks that Jewel represents. Larkin is still at that age when his homosocial friendships with other guys carry more weight than his fledgling relationships with women, including the self-righteous rich girl to whom he’s engaged to be married. That’s probably why the film opens with Larkin and Tipton cruising in a speedboat together at nightfall along the banks of the Ohio River, with a widescreen view of the iconic Cincinnati Reds baseball stadium and the Riverfront Coliseum all decked out in lights. Fred Murphy’s cinematography certainly captures Cincinnati’s gorgeous skyline exactly the way I remember it from childhood, as does David Foster’s wistful opening keyboard score, which takes me right back to the late 1980’s like nothing else really could.

Much of the dialogue from Ketron’s original play translates well to the screen, even powerfully so in intermittent flashes, especially during scenes in a run-down, abandoned railroad shack, where Jewel and Larkin work through the mysteries of their attraction to each other and further seal their bond. Jewel’s given a handful of inventive monologues that cut deeper in those scenes. Although she’s the character who never graduated from high school, she’s the covert brain of the film, as well as its fierce heart, facets of the character that Molly Ringwald more than ably conveys. As Jewel’s name suggests, she’s the magnetic force at the center of the story; other characters simply react to her. She maintains the control, even if she’s still too young and naïve to know what do to with it.

Later in the film, there’s also a riveting performance by a young, smoldering Viggo Mortensen, who plays Green, the ne’er-do-well husband whom Jewel manages to keep a secret from Larkin until later in the movie. Mortensen appears almost silently at a truck-stop diner mid-way through the film, and his only real speaking scene is for a few important minutes at the movie’s dramatic climax, when Larkin barges into the ramshackle home where Green lives with Jewel, in order to confront the two of them together. The way that Mortensen embodies Green’s cruel sensuality, and the tantalizingly lazy Southern drawl with which he delivers his hushed dialogue, should have rightly convinced anyone watching the movie back then that he would go on to have a major career as a film actor.

The moment that I remember most often from Fresh Horses is a quiet scene in which Larkin and Jewel walk together beside the tall, criss-crossing wooden beams of a rollercoaster at a closed-down amusement park in winter. The amusement park is called LeSourdsville Lake in Middletown, Ohio, a place that was located not too far from where I grew up in Cincinnati. I always loved amusement parks as a kid, even in the off-season. Recalling the towering structure of the rollercoaster and the image of a tiny couple embracing next to it, in clear contrast to its sheer size and height, I think that the scene works almost as a kind of metaphor for the immensity of time itself, and our own small space at the margins in the scope of it.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Ferron, Driver (EarthBeat! Records, 1994)

Very few records in my CD collection feel like they contain the entire life of the artist. Canadian singer/songwriter and lesbian icon Ferron’s 1994 album Driver is one of those records, and it’s also among the best. I’m surprised when I realize that it came out nearly 23 years ago now. It’s one of just a handful of CDs that I’ve returned to on a frequent basis since its release, and in a way it feels as if it never quite leaves my consciousness. The twelve tracks on Driver, the same number of hours on the clock and months in a year, seem to have been written and recorded to trace the passage of time itself, meaning that they’ve also been ingrained into the passage of time for me since they were first put out into the world.

I vividly remember hearing Ferron perform at a concert in Provincetown about 15 years ago now. The venue was the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, a beautiful old New England church that’s right in the center of town. I was feeling a little bit sleepy that evening, so after the lights went down at the start of the show, I decided to go all the way to the back of the venue and stretch out alone in one of the pews there. I already knew the songs from Driver very well, so whenever she played one of those songs, I allowed myself to semi-doze as my mind floated along on Ferron’s guitar and gently rough-hewn voice (accompanied by the impeccable musicianship of her touring partner, Shelley Jennings), though it felt less like I was dozing and more like I was traveling.

Fittingly, Driver is about the necessary tension between traveling and settling down, between solitude and companionship. Relationships are at the center of the album, including the relationship between the singer and herself, between the singer and her own history. The album’s first track, “Breakpoint,” opens through quietly atmospheric instrumentation and a line that’s both a warning and a seduction: “Let’s turn the outside way down low and play with fire.” No matter how tight the bond is when two people meet and fall in love (“To fall from a plane would make more sense, but who is so logical,” Ferron jokes), every relationship takes place across a kind of fault line, “your storm and my storm dissolving at breakpoint.”

And it’s at the breakpoint between people that Driver really departs on its second track, “Girl on a Road,” long known as Ferron’s most autobiographical song. She ran away from home at fifteen, with only a shopping bag of possessions: “I said goodbye to no one and in that way faced my truth.” In addition to hinting at an early understanding of her gender and sexuality, her truth is mainly an artistic one. “I wanted to turn beautiful and serve Eternity,” she sings, “and never follow money or love with greasy hands, or move the earth and waters just to make it fit my plans.” The song is clearly written not just as a memory, but also as an inspiration for all girls who left home at a young age, something that I’ve always related to as a young gay man who did the same.

I think Ferron’s Driver has appealed to me for so long because it’s equal parts street smarts and deep wisdom. That potent combination is captured perfectly by a clever turn in “Cactus,” my favorite track on the album: “You’re young one day but youth is rude, and while you watch it walks right past. But hey, then you get your chance to think like me.” Driver is filled with such pinpoint lyrical observations, so precise that comparisons to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan don’t really do them justice. “There’s a rhythm to the highway to match the rhythm of your fears.” “There’ll always be gorgeous babes around, it’s the nature of towns at midnight.” “And the coldest bed I’ve found does not hold one but it will hold three.” “Still the odds fall sweet in favor to an open heart.” “An open heart is a moving train.”

Openness to diverse musical styles is abundantly evident on Driver, too. Although most of the songs walk a traditional folk line (including the contemplative “Independence Day” and wistful “A Name for It”), jazzy piano interludes find their way into songs like the sexy, playful “Call Me,” a soaring soprano saxophone solo drifts through the midsection and close of “Borderlines,” and Ferron breaks out into true country hoedown mode on the celebratory “Love Loves Me,” complete with accordion, hooting yelps, and choral clapping. The prologue and epilogue of “Sunshine” and “Sunshine’s Lament” also feature classical viola and piano balladry, in order to convey appropriately the heartbreak of those songs.

Driver’s closing track and final destination, “Maya,” is named after Ferron’s daughter and begins with an indelible image: “Last night I dreamed Joni Mitchell cut her hair and changed her named to Gaia.” The song is about keeping house with a lover and raising a child together, while also growing a symbolic garden. The singer poetically reconsiders what has brought her to this place: “It was always worry dolls and love’s back door and haunted halls to the ocean floor, where I’d lick my wounds behind a rust-warped door and try to prove love couldn’t find me.” “Maya” addresses the significance of the album’s title as well. “It seems like I’ve been driving now for a long, long time,” Ferron sings. Then she whispers, “Oh, the dance of it all,” and a swaying melodica carries the song to its fading end.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Five Favorite Films of 2016

If lists of our favorite things are like tiny blueprints of our personalities, then my favorite films of 2016 certainly indicate a good deal about me. All five movies that I’ve selected to write about below, in looking back on all the films that I saw this past year, are quiet and fairly independent; with a couple of exceptions, they’re films that relatively few people watched at cinemas. Accordingly, the cinema itself, as digital technology becomes more and more widespread, seems less and less like the place where movies will eventually be housed with each year that passes. If that’s indeed the case someday, I can’t overstate how much I’ll miss the particular experience of filmgoing and its significant place in the culture.

Because they intersected so perfectly at the crossroads of movies and music, I loved John Carney’s two previous films, Once and Begin Again, so I anticipated enjoying his latest film Sing Street equally as much. What I didn’t foresee was just how deeply his new movie would resonate with me. This is mostly due to its ’80s throwback sensibilities, as well as its superbly crafted musical numbers, which were composed by Gary Clark, who scored an international hit called “Mary's Prayer” all the way back in 1987 with his band Danny Wilson. The title Sing Street is a clever play on Dublin’s Synge Street, as in Synge Street Christian Brothers School, where the film’s protagonist, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), is a student and aspiring musician from a working-class family.

Conor puts together a rag-tag band mostly to impress Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an older girl who catches his eye while standing across the street from his school. What follows is the closest any director has come to matching the late John Hughes’ classic mid-’80s teen comedies, a feat that many, many directors before have tried and failed to fully achieve. The reason why Carney succeeds, in addition to the wonderful performances of the young cast that he’s assembled, is a matter of tone, that bittersweet balance of sentimentality and authentic emotion, tempered by nostalgic longing.

While the growing romantic relationship between Conor and Raphina seems central on the film’s surface, it’s almost equally focused on the relationship between Conor and his older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), an earnest deadbeat who kindles and guides Conor’s offbeat artistic interests and ambitions. This culminates in one of most moving, visionary endings of any narrative feature from the past year, powerfully accompanied by Adam Levine’s gorgeous song “Go Now.” Several other songs in the film, and the scenes in which they appear, are indelibly catchy and memorable, especially “Up,” “A Beautiful Sea,” “To Find You,” and the phenomenal “Drive It Like You Stole It.”

The complete opposite of Sing Street in its contained, downbeat energy, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea concerns another working-class family, this time in an oceanside town on the north shore of Massachusetts. The film is masterfully constructed from an extended series of flashbacks that often shift abruptly in ways that rely on the formidable strength of the screenwriting and the audience’s intelligence. Having seen the film in New York on Thanksgiving, I admired how its exploration of family dynamics over time felt genuine in its representations of dysfunction; it refuses to offer any simple resolutions.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, who should win the Oscar for Best Actor) is a repairman for several apartment buildings just outside of Boston. He’s called back to his hometown when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies from heart failure. Joe expects Lee to care for his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a task that Lee’s not fully ready to accept as an uncle, though he does accept it in his own distinct, low-key way, the same way that Lee does everything else. We find out only gradually why Lee is so low-profile and hesitant to return to his hometown, where he’s considered somewhat of a pariah.

Three or four scenes in this film are destined to become classics in cinematic history. This is partly due to Lonergan’s finely wrought script, which moves in ways that make his actors bravely ride along on his lines, as well as the complexity of the film’s performances. In a pivotal scene that takes place in a police station, Affleck navigates the thinnest margin of dialogue while the camera bears directly down on him. Michelle Williams, as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, matches him moment for moment during the film’s overwhelming emotional climax. The power of Manchester by the Sea is that of restraint which comes cascading down after waiting for most of the movie.

To be honest, I’m surprised that Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! was nearly as enjoyable for me as his previous film, Boyhood, especially considering that they’re such different movies. Set in 1980 at a Texas university the weekend before a new school year begins, Everybody Wants Some!! takes place mostly in the frat house and nightclubs frequented by a fun and rowdy bunch of college baseball players, and a little bit on the baseball field during the team’s first batting practice of the season later in the film. At the center of the story is freshman arrival Jake Bradford (Blake Jenner), and the assortment of guys that surrounds him could not be hotter or more hilarious. Just how much fun did the people in charge of hair and costumes have while getting these actors coiffed and all dressed up? Quite a lot, apparently.

Imagine revisiting your college sports years and precisely revising every friend and memory, and that’s pretty much what Richard Linklater has done here. The jokes come quick as lightning, and the actors inhabit their wildly comedic roles as robustly as in any drama. Giving a rundown of each character’s “type” would belittle how smart the performances are, and it would also ruin the sweetness of discovery for anybody reading this who goes on to watch the film for the first time. Some viewers (and some hardcore Linklater fans) have complained that the film meanders too much, dull and plotless. But having a plot isn’t really the point. The story is in the characters themselves, an approach that’s quite true to life. Things don’t happen to us as much as people happen to us. Then things do or don’t happen to those people.

What happens amongst the people in this movie is one long, steady stream of competitive one-upmanship. Whether it’s ping-pong, video games, indoor basketball, darts, or knuckle flicking, these guys openly admit that they have to be the winners at everything they do, the kind of things that I remember doing with my older brother as a kid growing up in Ohio. John Waters has said that this is the gayest movie made by a straight director this past year, and he’s totally right about that. The guys chatter non-stop about cocks and butts, accompanied by plenty of playfully homoerotic narcissism as they all check out their own in the mirror, then go diving into a creek wearing only their jockstraps. Also, seeing McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin, a former baseball player himself) in his at-bat stance as he splits baseballs in half by swinging an axe at them remains my favorite movie image of 2016.

Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a movie that I knew I would love from the very first moment I read about it several months ago. Adam Driver plays the title character, a bus driver named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, and reads William Carlos Williams’ poetry book Paterson, among other 20th-century American poets like Frank O’Hara. Paterson is also a poet himself. He jots down lines from poems in a notebook before his shift most mornings, he thinks through and revises poems in his mind while he’s driving on his bus route, and he keeps a writing routine in a small book-nook below the basement stairs in the boxy little home that he shares with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Laura might be described as having an inspiringly persistent creative streak. She paints designs all around the inside of their house each day, including on the cupcakes that she bakes to sell at the local weekly outdoor market.

Paterson is grounded in routines. It proceeds sequentially through the days of the week and the routines of each day, methodically and touchingly. We become familiar with the things that make Paterson and Laura (and their English bulldog, Marvin) content. But even though there’s a certain enchantment to be found in those familiar routines, that’s only the topmost layer of the movie. The strangeness just underneath it is what sets the whole film and its characters afloat. For instance, after Laura tells Paterson early in the movie about a dream in which she gave birth to twins, Paterson starts seeing pairs of twins everywhere he goes, an unsettling pattern that continues throughout the movie yet is mysteriously never explained or resolved.

When I first heard that Oklahoma-born New York poet Ron Padgett had written Paterson’s poems for the film, I knew that it would be exactly the right fit. Ron Padgett’s continually colloquial, laidback language translates seamlessly into Paterson’s own poems, which we hear read by Adam Driver with a halting resonance as they appear in handwritten script on the screen. The poems are consistent with the rest of Paterson’s world and the even balance of things that make him happy: overhearing passengers’ conversations on the bus when he’s driving, taking Marvin out for his ritual walk at night, stopping in for a beer at his favorite neighborhood bar. He’s like the famous Passaic River waterfalls in Paterson that he loves to sit silently before and watch, always flowing down gently and quietly, never changing shape or pace. Likewise, the relaxed pace and rhythm of Paterson are the film’s most distinctive features, and they’re totally Jarmusch’s own.

Jim Jarmusch also happened to be the executive producer of my favorite documentary of this past year, Aaron Brookner’s Uncle Howard, a rich and sensitive portrait of his late uncle, the filmmaker Howard Brookner, a gay man who died of AIDS in 1989. I already wrote about that film in greater detail in my annual review of the Provincetown International Film Festival back in June, and now I’ve seen the movie three times in total. Its depiction of Howard Brookner’s life, persona, and achievement in the three films that he completed in his short lifetime continue to linger with me at the start of 2017, just as the words of the film’s closing song by The Pretenders, “Hymn to Her,” still echo in my mind now: “They will keep on speaking your name / Some things change / Some stay the same.”

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" (Columbia Records, 1974)

I first paid close attention to Leonard Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” in the summer of 2012, at an outdoor concert by Rufus Wainwright at the harbor-side pavilion here in Boston. I’d heard Cohen’s own version of the song before then, as well as Lloyd Cole’s upbeat guitar-pop rendition, with the Dylanesque cadences of its delivery, on 1991’s Leonard Cohen tribute CD I’m Your Fan. Rufus performed the song (which is also included on his album Want Two) as a duet with Cohen’s son Adam, the show’s opening act.

Hearing the lyrics sung by an unabashedly gay performer like Wainwright, who also happens to be the biological father of one of Leonard Cohen’s grandchildren, is probably what made me take notice. The song fits Rufus’s persona perfectly and bends to suit a different context while always retaining its original shape. That’s probably one quality that makes a song truly great; it lends its flexibility to a wide variety of performers who cover it, without sacrificing the integrity of the initial creation. Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” is another song that does this always, and I’ve never heard a bad interpretation of it.

“Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” of course, is lodged deep in rock mythology, a memory of Cohen’s overnight liaison with Janis Joplin. Like many of his best songs, it’s steeped in an intense yet also casual longing. The song’s setting, grand yet bohemian, old-school yet contemporary, arranges its manifold legendary associations around the opening lyric: “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel.” Our memories are contained by the ghosts of the spaces in which the remembered experiences first occurred, and when we return to those spaces, which continue to change over time, we bring the memories back to those spaces with us. Cohen’s memory of Joplin is a snapshot (or short film) of their time together in the Chelsea Hotel, and any subsequent visit, or even a photograph of the place, might revive the memory of her again. The lyrics are like a Cavafy poem that a straight man would write. Cohen certainly knew Cavafy’s writing because a song on his 2001 album Ten New Songs is based on one of Cavafy’s poems. Cohen himself published almost as many books of poetry as the number of albums he recorded.

The lyrics of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” are constructed on the shifting surfaces of desire: “You were talking so brave and so sweet, / Giving me head on the unmade bed / While the limousines wait in the street.” Romantic, sexual, disarrayed, and glamorous, the images clash and complement each other in a way that’s both timeless and timelessly cool. The present-tense verb “wait” in the line about the limousines idling in the street clearly plays with this idea, suspending the desire and the memory itself eternally in time, even though Cohen is singing about the distant past.

“Those were the reasons and that was New York.” The music business had brought them there and brought them together (“We were running for the money and the flesh”), for better or worse. It was the late 1960s. The years between then and the song’s release in 1974 would be years of tremendous loss, fallout from a war escalated beyond all control and a long litany of drug-related deaths, facts that further fixate the erotic memory. “And that was called love for the workers in song, / Probably still is for those of them left.” A night of great sex is what a musician would expect, but it’s still a kind of love, then and today, but especially then, at the height of the sexual revolution. Joplin was just one of many famous musicians who died young at age 27, Cohen was among the survivors, and the phrase “those of them left” takes on a whole new meaning now, with the majority of musical artists struggling harder to stay afloat and keep creating in our digital era.

Joplin’s departure in the song is a relaxed shrug and a heartbreaking refusal. We know the story, and it doesn’t need to be said outright, so it’s sublimated instead:

“Ah but you got away, didn’t you babe,
You just turned your back on the crowd.
You got away, I never once heard you say,
I need you, I don’t need you,
I need you, I don’t need you,
And all of that jiving around.”

I’ve always wondered if the repetition of “I need you, I don’t need you” is more than just an example of the lovers’ bickering and wavering that they never got around to, but rather a kind of conversational response, with the singer’s “I don’t need you” as a counterpoint, a forlorn way of addressing the memory itself. It’s as though he’s saying, just like we didn’t need the emotional games that we never had a chance to play, I don’t need to remember you this way. It’s also as if Joplin is saying that she never needed what the world could never really give her.

Then in the next verse, Cohen’s memory again overtakes the singer’s distant stance like a gentle wave washing back over him: “You told me again you preferred handsome men, / But for me you would make an exception.” It’s such an interesting turn, this unusual point of bonding; they don’t fit in with the image-conscious rock stars surrounding them, and that difference is one thing that attracted them to each other. “And clenching your fist for the ones like us / Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty” suggests another layer of meaning as well, in that beauty is one of the most enduring themes of popular music and art, yet physical beauty itself is never fairly distributed and doesn’t even last for those to whom it’s granted. In the end, however, art prevails anyway, with a sly inward smile: “You fixed yourself and said, ‘Well, never mind, / We are ugly, but we have the music.’”

The song’s denouement covers more ground in four lines than some songwriters’ entire catalogs, as the singer connects cultural history with his own relationships and memories:

“I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.”

At first the image of those “fallen robins” might seem a little sexist, drawing on the tradition of comparing women to birds, until remembering the orange color of Janis Joplin’s hair. And again, the early disappearance of so many young musicians in that era was tragically persistent enough that one could conceivably lose count, a notion that Cohen seems willing to let go of, whereas the cultural fixation on celebrities who died young would only become more fervent, nostalgic, and exploitative as generations passed. Nevertheless, the song’s closing line, “I don’t even think of you that often,” registers as quietly true, yet at the same time isn’t true at all. The entire song is a detailed resurrection of an unforgettable memory. Permanently cast in the mold of popular music, that memory is continually repeated, continually relived, both as a poem and a song, a private reverie and a public statement, revived and consumed, revived and consuming.

Despite this willful repetition — lift and move the needle back to replay the track, click refresh on the YouTube video — the song’s rich internal signifiers are also half-empty now. Janis Joplin is long gone, Leonard Cohen is just recently gone, and the old Chelsea Hotel is gone now, too, closed for renovations, soon to be upscaled and gentrified, no longer an infamous bohemian enclave but your typical downtown luxury establishment. The only figures left in the song’s insular hotel room will be us, just as Leonard Cohen intended for it to be someday.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Music of Scritti Politti

My favorite album of all time is Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85, and my favorite band of all time is Scritti Politti. Because of that, I’ve wanted to write about Scritti Politti’s music (and the man behind the band, Green Gartside) for a very long time now, but for some reason, I found that I could never quite bring myself to do so. It’s like my love for Scritti Politti’s music runs so deep that my mind was unwilling or unable to process that admiration in writing, or to make my affection for their music a more public declaration. So rather than writing the kind of detailed post that I usually write, I figured I’ll try instead to write about finding myself unable to write about Scritti Politti, which will really end up being a meditation on how I came to love the kind of music that I do, along with a few of the reasons why I love it.

I first heard Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 thirty years ago now in 1986, at the age of thirteen, when I was on vacation with my family at a hotel in Florida, on a beach somewhere near St. Petersburg. Also staying at our hotel were two long-haired sisters, about three or four years older than I was, who kept Cupid & Psyche 85 and one other album on constant rotation while sunning themselves beside the hotel swimming pool. (The other album was Robbie Nevil’s 1986 self-titled debut, another record that I still love today.)

From that very first listen — I think the first track I heard on Cupid & Psyche 85 was either “Perfect Way” or “Hypnotize” — I was totally mesmerized by the songs, by their deft beats, sophisticated lyrics, and a sonic sweetness that lingered somewhere between musical generations. I’d been raised on late ’70s and early ’80s pop radio in Cincinnati, Ohio, but the songs I heard those two sisters playing poolside on their boombox changed everything for me. The world in that sunlit Florida air tilted and shimmered a bit, then shifted gradually back into focus.

This happened at a very particular moment in the history of popular music. The playful sounds of synthesizers had recently begun to liberate the idea of who could make music professionally and how. The same young people who’d discovered that loophole then mastered what exactly they could do with those sounds and ventured to see just how far they could carry them. Also, the technological innovation of digitizing music and distributing it widely on compact discs had started to completely revolutionize the music industry and change its game rules for good.

It helped that Green Gartside, the founding force (and voice) of Scritti Politti, was quietly taking stock of all this from across the Atlantic. Sure, the ’80s pop music scene in central London was already off and running, but Green was in love with the innovations of American R&B, a love that explains the reggae-influenced slinkiness of “The Word Girl,” the laidback propulsion of “Absolute,” and the blazing danceclub-on-fire velocity of “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin).” By the time he arrived at 1988’s equally fantastic album Provision, both Miles Davis and Roger Troutman would also be in the mix on a pair of unforgettable collaborations.

I don’t want to dwell on Green’s go-rounds with the major-label music business or his ensuing semi-reclusiveness, because he’s stayed around, as smart as ever, and made five albums the way that he wanted to make them. (I have a good feeling that a sixth album might be on the way soon, too.) I do want to dwell for just a moment, however, on one of my favorite live concert memories ever, when I got to see Scritti Politti perform here in Boston ten years ago, in November of 2006. I never thought that would happen, especially not after two decades of loving a band who’d remained so low profile. But when a shy Welsh white guy can have a dance floor full of black women over 50 getting down to the bass beats of “Wood Beez,” you know that he’s doing something right.

Monday, June 20, 2016

18th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 15th - 19th, 2016)

Before a film screening halfway through this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival, one of the festival’s programmers who was introducing the film was happy to let the audience know that it would be a light movie, and she also mentioned that filmgoers at the festival sometimes ask why so many movies in the festival feel sad or dark. I thought it was great to hear this acknowledged, and I’m also someone who’s quite glad that the films in the festival are often sad and dark because the world itself is often sad and dark. While escapism at the cinema clearly has its advantages, good films tend to reflect our culture and society directly, facing difficult truths head-on and bravely exploring the more intractable or mysterious aspects of human experience. Almost all of the seventeen films that I saw in this year’s festival fit that description, and I’m grateful for it.

I was fortunate to have already seen my favorite film from this year’s festival, Aaron Brookner’s moving documentary Uncle Howard, at the Wicked Queer film festival in Boston just a few months ago. I absolutely loved the movie then, and it definitely rewarded me further on a second viewing, giving me a chance to notice lots of clever interconnections that hadn’t been apparent to me during my first viewing. Last summer here on my blog, I reviewed Smash Cut, Brad Gooch’s terrific memoir about the same subject, the late filmmaker Howard Brookner, Gooch’s boyfriend of ten years who died of AIDS in 1989, just before his 35th birthday. This documentary about Howard’s life and times was produced by Jim Jarmusch, a film school classmate of Howard’s at NYU and the sound man on Brookner’s first film, a mid-’80s documentary about William Burroughs. But what makes Uncle Howard so special is the personal perspective bestowed upon the film’s subject by its director, Howard Brookner’s nephew Aaron.

We see plenty of footage of Aaron as a little boy in the film, growing up with his uncle Howard and beginning to idolize him over time. Howard’s early death made him enigmatic to Aaron, understandably, a huge loss to be pursued and a kind of puzzle to be solved. One striking image late in the film shows the adult Aaron pacing around a large circle of all of the archival artifacts that he’s collected from his uncle’s life: photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, reels of film. The movie’s ultimate message is that memory is the only thing that really makes our stories, along with someone’s willingness either to preserve the memories or piece them back together again. Uncle Howard is pretty much the most gorgeous re-assemblage imaginable, and its closing scene, composed of perfectly selected and placed found footage, is my favorite ending of any movie so far this year.

The documentary that I’d been anticipating most in the festival, David Farrier’s and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled, certainly did not disappoint. Farrier, a bisexual journalist in New Zealand, has made a career of finding offbeat slice-of-life and human interest stories, and Tickled began when he came across “competitive endurance tickling” fetish videos online, which feature cute athletic guys tickling each other fully or partially clothed. Of course, these videos have a massive following among tickling enthusiasts as a kind of very soft-core pornography. Though it seems like those videos will be the focus of the movie, the tickle torture turns out to be just a lure into a much deeper exploration of power, money, and control, all via harassment and humiliation of the videos’ participants at the distant hands of a manipulative quasi-genius whose identity remains a secret until nearly the end of the film. Farrier’s masterful shift of tone into truly suspenseful territory is what makes this film so watchable.

Farrier himself quickly becomes the target of homophobic taunting and harassment just after he discovers and contacts the makers of the tickling videos, produced by a nebulous entity called Jane O’Brien Media. The documentary’s filmmakers gradually learn that Jane herself doesn’t exist at all but is merely an avatar in a long line of assumed identities for a mastermind with an addiction to hot (and financially vulnerable) young guys tickling each other, as well as a relentlessly vindictive streak whenever he’s even slightly crossed by anyone in his path. The psychological motivations behind these behaviors surface briefly late in the movie, and its one weakness might be that Farrier gives us only a sad glimpse into our antagonist’s childhood, yet isn’t really able to explore it further. Nevertheless, the rest of the film gathers its suspenseful energy from delving as deep as it does into the darker side of human (or inhuman) nature. Farrier’s courage and tenacity in pursuing the story to its twisted end are highly commendable.

Another film that I was quite excited to see in the festival was Tim Kirkman’s Lazy Eye, my favorite narrative feature in this year’s festival. I reviewed Kirkman’s earlier film Loggerheads here on my blog several years ago, and that film remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Like Loggerheads, Lazy Eye also quietly follows a gay storyline, this time in a finely crafted two-hander that’s solidly built from its resonant screenplay and dialogue. Dean, an artist turned graphic designer, lives in Los Angeles and owns a weekend home in the desert near Joshua Tree. One night he receives an out-of-the-blue email from Alex, with whom he was romantically involved 15 years earlier when both men were living in New York City, until Alex disappeared from Dean’s life without a single word of explanation.

Reluctantly (and not so reluctantly from a sexual standpoint), Dean invites Alex to join him for a reunion weekend out in the desert. The tension escalates and wanes in ways that I won’t divulge here, though I can say that I related to the two men’s situation on an immediate and sometimes heartbreaking level. I think most gay men have lived through the kind of relationship and loss of a relationship that Dean and Alex share; Kirkman’s ear and eye are attuned to every small detail, in a way that’s reminiscent of Andrew Haigh’s wonderful film Weekend from a few years ago. I think Lazy Eye speaks to my own generation of gay men just as well as Weekend did, perhaps even more fittingly in our current era of gay marriage. What do we lose if we opt out of that new social privilege? Will our memories of former boyfriends and potential husbands transform over time into a long line of regrets, and if so, then what should we do with those regrets?

Long Way North, an animated feature film by Rémi Chayé, was just as emotionally affecting as Lazy Eye, but in completely different ways. The movie, voiced in English, has the look of beautifully hand-drawn Japanese anime in the tradition of Studio Ghibli. Set in the late 19th-century, the story follows a 15-year-old Russian girl, Sasha, whose grandfather is an Arctic explorer who doesn’t return home from his latest expedition. His great ambition was to plant the first Russian flag at the North Pole, so Sasha is able to figure out by studying Arctic maps that he left behind what her grandfather’s approximate location might have been when he went missing.

The rest of the film is a gripping adventure tale, one that could convincingly be told only through the medium of animation. The climate of the Arctic is too inhospitable and treacherous for a live-action film crew to take on, and since CGI is basically animation anyway, why not just go with a full-on animated feature? The film’s payoff is in its extended action sequences: the Russian ship breaking its way through Arctic ice, nearly running aground, the sailors digging and blasting through the entrapping sheets of the frozen sea with dynamite, triggering an avalanche that even further endangers their ship. These scenes and images escalate the genre of animated film to a new and different level. I found myself anxiously shouting “No!” aloud at least twice during that segment of the movie, something I’m certain that I’ve never done before while viewing a cartoon. It’s best to leave the film’s ending undescribed here; I will say, however, that the movie’s climax and resolution are elegantly conveyed, while also remaining understated and Zen-like, despite Sasha’s intensely dramatic circumstances.

One of the documentaries that tied for the HBO Audience Award at this year’s festival, Jonah Markowitz’s and Tracy Wares’ Political Animals, is also well-worth mentioning. The film traces the careers of four lesbian legislators in the state of California: Sheila Kuehl, Carole Midgen, Christine Kehoe, and Jackie Goldberg. Collectively, these women were on the vanguard of gay rights and totally ahead of their time, boldly and tirelessly advocating for legal protections for LGBTQ students in public schools, as well as passing early domestic partnership bills. It addition to compiling compelling footage of their impassioned and movingly personal arguments presented before often homophobic and pro-religion fellow legislators, the film is also an informative vehicle for demonstrating how the legislative process actually works. We watch as bills fail to pass by being as little as one vote short of a majority, and then we see how these women change their uncooperative colleagues’ minds by presenting skillful logic in the context of our evolving culture, just as leaders of the civil rights movement courageously did in previous decades. I teach a course called Sexuality and Social Change at the university where I work, and I will definitely plan to show this film in class when I offer the course in future semesters.

Finally, I really enjoyed one short film in the festival, which screened alongside Uncle Howard, Brandon Cordeiro’s poignantly nostalgic ribbons. Cordeiro is a young filmmaker who was raised in Provincetown, so watching his 8-minute short at this particular film festival, in a town that I’ve visited frequently for many years, made it even more special. Based on one of Brandon’s own memories of his mother taking him to an oceanside AIDS memorial at the beach in Provincetown back in 1997, the short sweetly recreates a young boy’s (and future gay man’s) entirely innocent response to the social tragedy of the AIDS crisis, while also providing a snapshot of the LGBTQ community’s wide-ranging strength at a particularly painful and devastating point in our history. The title image of long, colorful ribbons streaming in the wind on the beach, inscribed with handwritten tributes to loved ones lost to AIDS, has been a feature of the annual Swim for Life fundraising event in Provincetown since its inception; just as memorable is Cordeiro’s luminous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” at the end of the film, sung by the director himself.

At the ceremony for honorees, Excellence in Acting Award recipient (and lesbian icon) Cynthia Nixon gave a heartfelt acceptance speech, in which she spoke of how much she’d loved her first visit to Provincetown to attend this year’s festival. She also mentioned what a relief it was to be in such a peaceful, accepting place after last week’s tragic shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, and lamented that such a catastrophe could still befall us now. Her closing words about Provincetown and this pivotal moment in LGBTQ history will be my closing words, too, because they’re abundantly evident in the films that I’ve chosen to review: “How good it is to be here, and to see how far we’ve come.”