Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Where Does Love Go (1965) : Charles Boyer Sings!

Good morning!!

Long time no see! How've ya been? I'm peeping back in from the BLAZING, SCORCHED EARTH of Nashville, Tennessee to update you with a celebrity oddity I ran across the other day. Yep, the kind of thing only you and I would enjoy.

Confession: I cancelled my Spotify premium subscription the other day in a bid to cut down on some of the superfluous digital services we seem to mindlessly become entwined with (it's so easy to do!). As much as I love commercial-free listening, I figured with all the things out there, there had to be somewhere else I could get my music (legally, semi-legally, whatever) for free. And, in my spendthrift haze, I had completely forgotten that Freegal, a service provided by my local library, totally allows unlimited music streaming from something like 10,000 music labels, including Universal Music Group (which has subsumed SO. MANY. OLD SCHOOL. LABELS). While the user interface is barest of bare bones, hey, it's free! And no commercials. And so....many....weird things.

Such as? A contender for the prize of "Weirdest Midcentury Spoken Wordish Singing Record by a Celebrity" (the mantle formerly held by Dirk Bogarde alone)... this compilation of Gallic import Charles Boyer speak-singing, in French has flipped my wig to where it is completely on backwards.

Let's talk!

It's funny, but as with a lot of classic Hollywood stars, you don't get the full picture of Charles Boyer's movie impact in a still photograph. His receding hair and average stature, coupled with even but unprepossessing features, are nothing to write home about at first glance-- and yet put him in a movie and you're sure to be swept away by his suave, continental bearing, his smoldering glances, and above all, his dreamily pronounced French accent. Also, ascots. Boy, all the ascots. A heady combination for old school romantic movie-lovers such as ourselves.

Born in the Pyrénées in 1899, Charles Boyer became famous in America for a line from the trailer of the Pépé le Moko remake, Algiers, that never even made it into the finished film. "Come with me to the Casbah", pronounced trippingly on Boyer's tongue, became the "Come wizz meee to de Cazzbaaah" of a million celebrity impressionists, as famous in its day as "I vant to be a-lone". The sonorous, deep quality of his voice, combined with the rakish French accent, is pretty much irresistible. The year before his catchphrase was born, he played in a romantic weepy that won my heart, opposite Irene Dunne in Love Affair. That film would later be remade as the four-handkerchief classic An Affair to Remember... and if you'd have told me, pre-screening, that the person in the photograph on the left would give Cary Grant of all people a run for his money in a romantic who-played-it-best, I would have been skeptical to say the least. However! Boyer carries with him an urgency verging on pathos in most of his good scenes-- while he may start a movie haughty and remote, arch and distant, it seems as if there's always some turning point along the course of the filmplay where the music swells and you realize he's been torturing himself trying to suppress his love for you  his onscreen lady love for the better part of the movie. AND THAT, my friends, is what makes a truly indelible heartthrob in the Mr. Darcy mold. I've seen plenty of movies that were just "eh" (see: The Garden of Allah, in spite of its jawdropping Technicolor gorgeousness) in hopes of capturing one of those true heart-string tugging moments that the best of his movies include (see: All This and Heaven, Too). 

Which brings us to why I would be psyched to see his name next to a record in the Freegal holdings!

Initially, I was like "Whoa, TWO records of...wait, these are the exact same songs." Waaah. 

Is this record perfect? No, it is not. Is it totally fun? Yes it is. Is it weirdly more listenable than the Dirk Bogarde record (which, itself, has kind of grown on me)? Indeed! INDEED IT IS. My favorite part, bless my little beating francophone coeur, is that Boyer slips into French in half the songs-- "Autumn Leaves" and "La Vie Rose" both feature passages of the original French lyrics, a real treat for French speakers. I love the series of ideas that sprung to mind as I listened and sighed a swoony sigh:

  1. Do old-time French actors have a specific accent that is dated by its age/time period, in the way that 1940's actors (Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, etc) have a very specific way of talking even outside of their individual idiosyncracies? People in 1940's movies, stylized or not, have a very identifiable way of speaking specific to that era, which made me wonder: if a native French speaker listened to Boyer speaking in French, would they get a sense of old-fashionedness from his in-French accent that misses us for not being born francophones?
  2. Imagine going back to some dude's apartment in 1965, and he puts THIS on the hi-fi as a "mood setter"/possible makeout music? I think that's technically the intended audience for this and the Bogarde record, as a swoony-romance-y dim-the-lights music, but I would have fallen into a fit of giggles at the preposterous nature of the whole endeavor I'm pretty sure from Minute One. "Bolero" is obvious enough, but a record of a French actor speaking his way through love songs would just advertise subtlety as NOT being one of your strong suits, sixties' Mad Men era would be lothario.
  3. Also, think of Charles Boyer himself giving a "I'm game" go-ahead for this album, though professing to possessing no great vocal ability. Record company: "Charles, we're going to bring you in here to do a record." Charles Boyer: "And whhhy nawt?" with an insouciant toss of his diminutive shoulders. Go on, get your life, Charles Boyer.
Give it a listen yourself, and see what you think-- you can catch a lot of these songs on Youtube or Spotify or even Freegal, if your library subscribes.


And if you won't take my word it being good, did you know that no less a shining star than Our Elvis Presley who art in Heaven expressed a deep love of this record around the time of his Las Vegas performances? Read for yourself:

Whaaaat. You heard it here first! Or possibly second, if you've read those two Elvis books I just grabbed pull quotes from (the latter of which, Peter Guralnick's epic two-volume bio, is essential reading). My favorite part of that passage is that no one else liked the record because of its melancholy nature-- I guess there is a kind of sad undertone to the music, but that's about the only way I like it-- dramatic, romantic, BIG!

Anyway, it's good to get a chance to check in! I've definitely missed writing and interacting over here, and as always, hope to make good my promise to return to a more regular blogging schedule as time permits. In the in-between-time, I hope you're finding lots of great stuff out at the sales and enjoying the summer months as best you can for all this oppressive heat! Stay cool, and see you again soon! Til then. :)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Monkey Fur Success (Coat of My Dreams)

Salutations, friends! How's tricks? Not much new here in this life of Riley except for one startling development of a few weeks ago. Would you believe....COULD YOU believe...that I finally have a monkey fur coat of my very own??

Let's just cut straight to the goods here, there's no time to spare!

Just as I'd put my oversized foot down about buying more fur coats (and actually passed up a mink or two under $50...who even AM I any more?), an amazing vintage-buying opportunity popped up out of the blue to pick up this 1940's monkey fur coat. Was the coat in question extraordinarily beautiful? Yes, ma'am. Were the terms of the sale extraordinarily, pinch-me-I'm-dreaming reasonable? Oh hayyyull yes they were. And the seller was super nice/prompt, to boot. You'd better believe I jumped on it quicker than you could say Jack Robinson, and now, I have the Marlene Dietrich jacket of my dreams I first mentioned here almost exactly two years ago (how the time does fly!). My only problem at present is trying to finagle an invitation to somewhere swank enough to show this sucker off ( this point, I'm pretty sure I would take any opportunity to give these guy a I become the most glamorous girl the Gallatin Road Sonic has ever seen).

Check it out:

I love the white-on-black, Cruella de Ville ness of the color, and the pelt is so much like human hair it's almost creepy. How it hangs! Look at those boxy shoulders! Chic, chic.

If you don't remember from the previous post, monkey fur coats had a few separate rise and falls in popularity, ranging from the Victorian era, to the 1920's, to the 1940's...just about every twenty years there seemed to be a resurgence in interest in the weird, wild texture until colobus monkeys became endangered towards the end of the forties' and a halt was put to their use in fine furs. Today, glad to hear, the little guys are doing fine, but the scarcity of the coats make them super rare. Not to say that they're not still a buzzing about! I saw an all black variety on Cookie Lyons in an episode of Empire the other day and decided my life's work was

Some monkey fur coat news articles collected from Google News Archives for your perusal:

1940 (l), 1933


And just for good measure, these gorgeous gals... I want that HAT, Lord, I want that hat.

Sorry for the brief update, but I'm telling you, my time is not my own these days!

What do you think? Have you scored any bucket list items off your must-have vintage dream collection? What's the best offer you've ever gotten as a result of a random blog post/friend of a friend/happenstance? Let's chat!!

I've got to run, but have a fantastic Tuesday, and we'll be talking again before long! :)

Monday, March 7, 2016

Calvin Black's Possum Trot Dolls (Outsider Art Americana)

Good morning!!

How are things? Same old, same old here in my camp-- I've been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, going to a lot of estate sales, and eating as many tacos as my conscience will allow...but don't worry, things aren't as dire as they were in the last blog post. I'mma survive, people! I'm looking forward to going to the beach in a week and giving new meaning to chillaxing by my egregious example of self same behavior. But enough about me-- how you? I hope 2016 has been treating your well thus far!

Hi-ya, friend!
What brings me back to my own private corner of the internet? I was watching a trailer for a movie on Amazon Prime called Almost There early last week and had completely forgotten, the next day, the title of said movie. I googled "outsider artist movie" and came across this helpful list of things I really, really needed to know about, which included an entry on a short film called Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black, 1903-1972 . In the words of the list author:
Folk artist and ventriloquist Calvin Black created a makeshift tourist attraction in California’s Mojave Desert in 1954 known as Possum Trot. Black created more than 80 life-size female dolls, which he used to perform with during shows set inside his Bird Cage Theater -- each one with their own personality and voice. You can see the strangely grotesque figures in action in Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black, 1903-1972. Their odd, misshapen forms combined with Black’s quavering impersonation and the desert landscape is a truly surreal experience.
"Truly surreal" is an understatement. I came away from this short documentary completely obsessed with the idea of these dolls and the man who fashioned them, whittled away from salvaged wood and his own feverishly febrile imagination, and it inspired me to come tell you all about it over here at She Was a Bird. Folks, let me introduce you to the weird, weird world of Calvin Black, pictured below with some of his creations:

Does the dollmaker not weirdly resemble the dolls?
Throughout the twenty-eight minute runtime of the documentary, I was sitting with my mouth slightly open. I started watching it in the background of my computer, figuring, like a bunch of the folk documentaries I've been through in recent weeks (as work doldrums threaten to consume my living mind, haha), that it would be as much an aural experience as a visual one. When the tape-recorded, falsetto warblings of Calvin Black in the voice of his dolls started in the first minute or two, I had to stop the movie and back it up to the beginning. Because I would need to see EXACTLY what was going on with this.

The documentary opens with a helicopter shot of a series of ramshackle buildings, the whistle of a desert wind filling the silence of the isolated California landscape. The silence gives way to a reel to reel recording of Calvin Black doing the voice of "...Helen Marvel of the Bird Cage Theeee-ater, out here on Ghost Town Road, out in Possum Trot, California", and the camera begins to cover the exterior of the buildings in detail. Every outdoor surface is festooned with weirdly stoic wooden figures in varying weatherbeaten stages of still life. Some are rigged to be wind powered, arms akimbo, one pair of legs pedaling a stationery bike. Some are just lashed different parts of the building, hair blowing in their eyes and those eyes unblinkingly painted into close-set recesses on their smooth laquered faces. Handpainted signs litter the property: "We don't know where Ma is but we have Pop on Ice", "Often seen Jim and his Limb". And most importantly, in large letters over the main building: "BIRD CAGE THEATRE: FANTASY DOLL SHOW."

Out from the rabbit's warren of outbuildings emerges Ruby Calvin, a stout woman in a kerchief and a man's pullover, a shaggy black dog in tow.  The following dialogue ensues:
1: Hello!
2: Hello.
1: What is this place? What do you have inside?
2: Uh, have...all kinna stuff. Jewelry and rough rocks and postcards...and things.
1: Who made all these dolls?
2: My husband carved the dolls. Head and body's made out of redwood, and uh, their noses and arms, feet, legs are made out of sugar pine.
1: Do you have more dolls inside?
2: Yeah, have some inside...even have one with teeth carved in his mouth. 

TELL ME MORE, I says, PLEASE DO TELL ME MORE. Over the next half hour, Ruby Black, Calvin's widow, takes us through the buildings, describing the life she led with Calvin and the business she shared with her husband for almost twenty of the thirty four years they were married. After moving to the desert for Calvin's health to a parcel of land they bought from ad in the back of a magazine (!!), the self-taught artist and former carnival worker began carving the dolls shortly after the building was finished.

The isolation of the desert setting, the palpable absence of showman/dollmaker, the eerie motionlessness of the totem-like dolls in the amateur roadside attraction he created...those are all just parts of the draw here. Look at the actual dolls themselves, in place in their Birdcage Theatre:

Each of the dolls were lovingly carved by Black from downed telephone poles or highway posts and other scrap materials, featuring "doll gowns by Ruby" (as you can see on the sign above the stage), stitched and sewn by his wife. According to another interview subject who actually saw one of these performances, Calvin would lead tourists into the building and give a short speech before the stage, then play guitar and sing in synchronized routines with the dolls, some of whom had been outfitted with recorded tapes of dialogue and snatches of songs. Think "Showbiz Pizza" but in the most primitive of settings. An "admission" of a twenty-five cents or greater donation, and any other  tips for the girls in "kitty boxes" displayed in front of the figures, would go towards buying new clothes and even perfume for the figures, which grew eventually to number over eighty individual dolls. I couldn't help but think of taking some road trip circa 1970 and stumbling across this great big piece of weirdness in the middle of the California desert. At the same time as I probably would have been afraid for my life, it must have been SOMETHING. ELSE. to see this place in its heyday. 

One of the more extraordinary parts of the film features a stop-motion animation of the dolls frolicking around the building at the twenty two minute mark. If you thought these things looked unsettling sitting still, you can imagine my feelings towards them when they take on human motion, swinging their arms and rocking back and forth to the atonal singing and guitar strumming of their predeceased creator. It reminded me of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer -- and just in the way this his work can be uneasy watching, it shares the same fascinating singularity. It's WONDERFUL by sheer dint of it unusualness. Where ELSE are you going to see something like this?

All of this, but moving. It is WILD.
Though Calvin initially asked that the dolls be burned upon his death, Ruby kept the figures and the property together as it was at his death until 1985, when she herself was found dead of heart failure at Possum Trot. An eyesore to the community, there was a failed attempt to leave the collection intact before the outfittings of the buildings and dolls were sold to an art dealer in Los Angeles for around $36,000 in today's money. In 2007, the Sherion doll alone (pictured below), sold for $96,000, and are hot pieces of "outsider art" for collectors of the same.

Which brings me to a secondary concern, besides what a trip the documentary was-- is the old "it BELONGS in a MUSEUM" chestnut applicable here? And if not in a museum, certainly not in some millionaire's Neutra-style LA house, right? As a frequenter of estate sales myself, I do often ask myself where heartfelt, beloved items "belong" after the person to whom they had such significance passes away...and in this case, the intimately-connected, sense of self-expression of the dolls makes this issue resonate twice as strongly. Robbed of their context, are these pieces not kind of "wrong"? Not wrong in the sense of morally unsupportable, but wrong in the sense of "not correct", inauthentic.? As magical as the dolls seem, outside of their "home" and with their creator long gone, re-invented as collectibles rather than personal totems, they do seem weirdly sad to be orphaned, scattered to the four winds, never to perform again?

The people initially trying to save Possum Trot put forth the following idea in the 80's, shortly after Ruby's death, but as you can see, none of it came to fruition:


I could see someone posting this documentary or photos of the dolls to Reddit's Creepy thread, but I think there's something so much more interesting at play here than "ooh look, what a weirdo, how weird, bet he's a murrrrrderer or something!!" that I'm sure a first glance would gain the Possum Trot gang. Eerie as the place is (especially at night! See: last few minutes of the film), set aside the idea of some James Wan creation taking place in the Birdcage Theatre. Instead, think about the earnestness that went into making this one man's wonderland out in the middle of the California desert. No, the figures are not Disney-quality, but they're pretty ingenious for a man with no formal training or education to dream up out of his own imagination, with what he had on hand. And, besides that, the WHY of it, THAT'S the most fascinating part. When you think of all the time and effort and single-mindness of vision that went into executing the theater and its "girls", it's nothing short of amazing. I have always liked, as is the subject of many of these folk documentaries and short films, the idea of art being made in a vacuum, without encouragement, some times in the face of open discouragement, in spite of lack of resources, in spite of lack of interest-- because you just have to create whatever it is you're moved to create. Think of how there must have been some keening wail of creativity deep down in Calvin Black that drove him not only to make the first doll, but to make almost a hundred more where that came make them a theater to work in and a world to inhabit, to keep working with them. And, as he says in recordings from the documentary, if people come and pay to see it, sure, that's great-- but it's the act of having pulled it off and having it seen and appreciated for which the man worked, far more so than the monetary gain of it.

The dolls in situ at the Possum Trot site, with Calvin
So, taken from that context of being a single vision, without their creator, put up on an auction block for thousands of dollars...what does that make the dolls now? And what else can you do with them, except appreciate them as art objects, now that their creator and the space they were created in are both long gone? ((sighs)) I don't know. I DO KNOW I would give my eye teeth to see some of these in person. I wonder if I'll get the chance!

Here are just about as many of the dolls as I could find online. If you've seen any others, bring 'em to my attention, I'm-kind-of-obsessed, thanks-in-advance:

Bob Greenberg's collection of Possum Trot dolls, now displayed in a case in the office of his ad agency's waiting room

Watch the whole documentary here and see for yourself:


I've got to get going, but do tell me-- how'd you like the documentary? What do you think of the dolls? How do you feel about things being scattered to the four winds? 

You'd better believe I have a back log as long as it is tall of vintage stuff to tell you about-- will try to hurry back before too long and give you the scoop! :) Have a great Monday afternoon, and I'll see you again soon! Til then.

Monday, January 18, 2016

David Bowie's Gone and We're Still Here (1947-2016)

Good morning!

Well, it's been a tough 2016 already, friends. 

Last Monday morning around six in the AM,  I was feeling a little under the weather and struggling to get my act together enough to get out the door to work at the correct time. As my fingers were forgetting how to lace my boots from sleep deprivation, Matthew came in from making the coffee and sat down on the bed with his serious face, which definitely is atypical for him at any time, much less at this ungodly hour.

"Listen, I need to tell you something and it's gonna be ok, but I wanted you to know before anybody else did."

Me internally: What is he even talking about did I sleep walk and knock over the tv or something? Is he mad at me? What is he talking about? Me outloud:"Yeah, fine, what is it, bibi."

"David Bowie died."

I replied almost nastily, looking at him like he'd hit me full in the face: "No....he's not....what are you talking about?!?"

"I mean, it was on Kotaku this morning, so it may...not be true....I don't know I just wanted to tell you before you saw it at work or whatever."

My hands started shaking as I reached for my phone. "He put out a record on Friday."

I googled "David Bowie" which immediately suggested "David Bowie dead" and as several reputable news sources came up on the browser, I literally burst into tears.

Now, something you should know about me-- I do not burst into tears in my own life for almost anything. While I cry to beat the band when Barbara Stanwyck gets her heart broken on screen or Hank Williams sings about dreaming about Mama last night or someone saves a baby on an old episode of Greys Anatomy, I'm not a big crier in terms of my own life. I'm usually too stressed or too focused on how to fix things to cry in real life over my day-to-day even when it's merited. So I think I was fairly as shocked as Matthew was that tears were streaming down my face as I just laid back down in my bed.

"I'm so sorry, little bean."

"EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE. WHY IS EVERYTHING SO HORRIBLE?" I said, almost laughing through my tears about the comically bad run of days I'd had in the last week. My best friend's going through a serious crisis, I'm sick as a dog, my job/commute/workplace is killing me, I need to lose about thirty pounds, when are we going to have a baby, I MUST stop drinking so much, I hate everything....and David Bowie is dead.


As the information fell into place, I realized the album release was Bowie's last, greatest publicity stunt, as cannily planned as any other in his fifty four years in the industry. Who ELSE would hide an eighteen month, reportedly ferocious battle with cancer behind a frenzy of professional activity, from the aforementioned record with accompanying short-film-style music videos to a Broadway play featuring a Bowie penned score. Before doing the real-world equivalent of disappearing behind a magician's cape, he made sure the two singles from what was to be his final record were rife with imagery related to his passing, which of course, his faithful audience, myself included, just took as regular Bowie subject material. I had listened to "Blackstar" in December and "Lazarus" on the 8th with a "Not bad, sir!" feeling of Outside meets Heathen, totally missing lines like "Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside", "Just like that bluebird, I'll be free/ Ain't that just like me?", "Look up here/I'm in heaven" that would become achingly prescient. I hate how good this last record is, only because it stands as a stark reminder of how much I'm going to miss the man.

My love affair with David Bowie began in 1998, when, as doofy thirteen year old already having passed through a few years of voracious reading and album consumption regarding the Beatles, I picked up a copy of Viktor Bokris's Andy Warhol biography, hoping to garner some info on his friendship with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Bowie was mentioned several times, and when I saw a cd single (!!) of "I'm Afraid of Americans" in the music department of Kmart (where my mom had parked me sometime earlier as she ran around looking for household items), I loved the weird, simple line drawing on the cover. "Are you sure you want this? It's $10," my mom tutted, as this was at least twice as expensive as any of the other singles in the bin. "YES," I said, emphatically, not knowing 'd taken the first step on the biggest musical obsession of my life.

You can imagine how my mom probably was into the hanging guy in the tree/possible lynch vicitm on the cover of the album her thirteen year old was asking for her to buy...
A listen or ten later, "Pretty good," I thought. A little more modern of a sound than I was used to, but something about it piqued my interest. The next time I was at Phonoluxe, a record store on Nolensville Road where I'd been slowly collecting Beatles albums over the last year and a half as my allowance allowed, I wandered over to the regular rock n roll bins (separate from the collectors/mint record bins) and flipped through a different section of the B's than I usually perused. Based on covers alone, I picked up Space Oddity and Fame and Fashion: David Bowie's All Time Greatest Hits. At the library, there was a single copy of Stardust: The David Bowie Story by Henry Edwards and Tony Zanetta that I dutifully checked out.

It all started here, kids
Aaaaand I was hooked. Hooked, hooked, hooked. The heady combination of book smarts, glamour, good looks, boundary pushing, and GREAT. MUSIC. was like nothing I'd ever heard before. I reread Stardust several times, taking copious notes of records to look for and important acquaintances like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop to research. Photocopied the photo inserts at the Madison branch library on an old, finicky xerox to make legal paper size homemade posters of Bowie in various stages of his career, learning to use to zoom and contrast features on the machine like a pro. I had just recently made friends with a girl the year ahead of me in my related arts class, and gave her a mixtape I think in return for her letting me borrow her copy of The Stand. In the way only pre-internet, too-smart pre-teens would have the time and energy for, Kelsey and I both launched headlong into a shared obsession and a friendship that's been going strong for eighteen years. For the all-important next five years, finishing out middle school and continuing on into high school, we lived and breathed David Bowie. There were so many books to read and movies to see and, all importantly, records to fall into. A millennial resurgence in 70s nostalgia served our analog curating tastes well, as there was lots of stuff on VH1 and late night tv to consume and digest. "David Bowie's the musical guest on this late night rerun of Saturday Night Live, I'm gonna set my VCR!" "Someone with the premium cable channels taped a copy of Ziggy Stardust the movie for me, we have to watch it!" I can remember sitting on the carpet in front of the turntable in the upstairs living room of my parents' suburban house, listening to Lodger and trying to figure out what in seven hells was going on. Who sounds like this? WHAT sounds like this? Flat on my stomach with my heels kicked together in the air, a copy of the liner notes spread out in front of me and a spiral notebook. "Brian Eno?" in ballpoint pen next to a few lines from "Fantastic Voyage". He wasn't just something I listened to, he was a huge part of who I was....and to my hopeful teenage heart, what I could be.

Two idols, one picture
In the midst of mourning last week, I pulled out as many Bowie records as I could from my collection to re-arrange them in chronological order and just flip through them for old time's sake. Look at this body of work just spread out on my living room floor, an embarrassment of riches:

The only one missing is Never Let Me Down....that is not uninentional...
And that's not even all of them! And doesn't count books/buttons/whatever else I could scrape up Bowie-related. Since 1998, I've been a Bowie devotee. Years of checking the record bins on every trip to Great Escape or Phonoluxe yielded the pile of albums you see above. And EVERY record reminds me of a different time in my life-- I could tell you when I bought most of them or who this or that song reminds me of. While Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane are two of his best albums, it was really Diamond Dogs that first introduced me to my favorite "form" of Bowie, the soul chanteur receiving transmissions from another planet. Dark, dangerous, gorgeous decadence. Diamond Dogs and the Eno trilogy are records I can listen to front to back, on repeat, forever. They're a major part of the fabric of what I would call "my musical taste". And isn't my life richer for that!

This Man Who Sold the World poster and the Space Oddity album cover poster used to hang on my bedroom wall in high school-- both of them came with copies of the album.
My love of David Bowie sustained me through dozens of other musical interests-- he was a gateway drug to the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Television, William S. Burroughs...probably ones I can't even think of off the top of my head. I wouldn't think about him every day anymore, but any time anyone mentioned him, I thought, "There's my guy." When I was feeling bad, it was nice to pop in Low or Stage and just sit down with an old friend.

What I can't believe with this whole last week is how I'm actually grieving this loss. I never met the man. I don't know if it's being in a kind of adult crossroads here at 30 after the can't-wait-to-grow-up-ness of my teens and the just-spinning-your-wheels-trying-to-keep-moving feeling my 20's that is working as an emotional accelerant, but something is making this break my heart about a hundred times worse than if it was anybody else. It must have been similar for people in our parents' generation to lose Elvis or John Lennon-- not to co-opt those tragedies, each of them died far younger than David Bowie; but in terms of the impact he made in my life, he was, like Lennon and Elvis to that age group, the soundtrack to my life.

Earlier this week, trying to explain how upset I was to a friend, I legit started crying again realizing he was "there" for me. Growing up with parents that loved me but didn't always much understand me, here was something and someone I could pin all my hopes for a glittering future to. There are people out there who are like this, I told myself. Look at how big and outrageous and gorgeous and dramatic and grand the world can be. A little less so for loss of him, but I can't put into words well enough how much having that to hold on to meant to me then as it does now. Can you even imagine how it must feel to have had that much of an impact on one person, much less the legions of fans who are going through the same deep sorrow to lesser and greater degrees all over the world? I hope he knew how much he meant to everybody, not just as the "style chameleon" interviewers and journalists like to lean on as shorthand for his career and influence, but as a truly original and immensely talented artist.

So safe travels, Starman. I'm still too sad, I can't lie, but this tweet helps:



Anyway! I've been angry (Tarantino) and I've been sad (David Bowie) so far this year, hopefully I'll come back with some good news next time I update this spot! :) Lots of light to all of you, 'til next time.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

I Hate Hateful 8 (And Here's A Whole Lot of Why)

HAPpy new year, kiddlings!

How have ya been, what have ya been up to? It has been a busy holiday season-- I feel like I'm still saying "Oh man, what am I going to get so and so for Christmas" to myself in spite of the fact the 25th has come, been, and gone. Ditto New Years, which Matthew and I spent watching AbFab and swilling champ in the shadow of the Playmobil pyramid I received for xmas (it. is. SO. COOL). Both days seem like they half happened for how out-of-it all these at work/not at work starts and stops, I'm telling you! In spite of my dazed condition, I've been moved to pull up a chair at my own corner of the internet to update you on my very learnèd opinion on the new Quentin Tarantino movie. People of my long-term acquaintance know one of my party tricks in college used to be that you quote any line (ANY LINE, not just the memorable quotes) from the whole of Pulp Fiction to me and I could give you the next five, as if I were Richard Burton reciting passages from Shakespeare. That's how crazy I was/am about his first four-ish movies. I'm veering from my usual positive outlook on the world to respond to a number of people who asked me "But what didn't you like about Hateful 8? I thought it was pretty good!"

What didn't I HATE about Hateful 8 would be an easier question to answer succinctly (the costumes). And I'm here to tell you why.

Such promise! Such unfulfilled promise!

Just take a moment to put yourself in my over-sized loafers and think upon the beforehand knowledge I had regarding the former of the Kurt Russell winter double bill. Written and directed by one of my favorite living directors. Showing in a limited number of theaters in 70 mm (!!) and Panovision, reviving a dead film format last used in 1966. A REVENGE WESTERN featuring aforementioned beloved John Carpenter star and Samuel L. Jackson. I would even excuse the casting of Tim Roth (one of my least favorite actors of all time, an opinion I obviously do not share with QT) and Walter Goggins (am ALWAYS leery of actors known for television roles being put in major motion pictures) because look at that setup. I purposefully put aside my extreme disappointment in Tarantino's post-Kill Bill 1 output, because self-same movie may be the best new-at-the-time movie I've seen in a theater and consarn it, maybe he's pulled his act together finally in the ten plus years since he'd put out a movie I would watch more than once. All this dragged me out to Franklin on Christmas Day eve to stand in line with a bunch of other like-minded individuals hoping to score good seats to the 7 pm showing of, as a Stagecoach font on the front of the souvenir booklet reminded us was, "the eighth film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino". Here's a shot I took with popcorn bucket in balanced in the crook of my arm, brimming with bright eyed anticipation for the three plus hours to come.

Talk. About. A LET DOWN.

Where do I even start? From a purely technical standpoint, the "glorious 70mm once in a lifetime experience" I was promised was undercut by the fact that the theater did not project the film on a large-enough, Panovision sized screen. I know I don't exactly understand how projection works besides light and film and machine, but I am deeply confused as to why people in other cities saw a full 70 mm format screening (see a jubilant in-theater shot of the correct sized screen here ), and I saw a movie projected on a regular size screen with a generous FIFTH OF THE FIELD OF VISION BLACKED OUT TO ACCOMMODATE THE SCREENING RATIO. It felt like the emperor's clothes... was everyone else really impressed by this mindbogglingly poor decision on behalf of the exhibitors? I was honestly sitting in the theater up until the film actually started going..."So they're going to expand the screen, right? They're not going to just show this whole time like this, right?"

It was supposed to look like the top paint looked like the bottom at THE ONLY 70 MM SHOWING OF IT IN MIDDLE TENNESSEE.

Yeah, not the same thing.
Glorious my eye. I think I would have done better to just go see the movie in wide release and in a less generous ratio that was at least better-to-look-at. Or even in one of those horrible pan-and-scan 90s full format (words I never thought would escape my mouth). F- for presentation.

Even with that going on, I think I could have forgiven the horrible viewing experience if there was anything up on the screen to view. Tarantino to self: "How about we set a western, a genre known for showcasing the splendor of God's green earth, shot in wide format, special stock film of which much ballyhoo is made, in A SINGLE ROOM, guys? Indoors! Crazy, right? Whaddya think? NO ONE'S EVER DONE IT BEFORE." For a reason, my friend. Sweeping vistas? John Ford-like dollyshots of horses galloping across the open plain? Maybe a mountain? Not for 90% of the movie, I'm afraid. If you like looking up close at what could essentially be a television or very detailed dinner theater set, well, this is the movie set is for you.

"Wait, so the ENTIRE MOVIE is set in this room?" "Well, yeah, more or less. I'd say like 90%." [considers this]"You're the boss, applesauce."
SPEAKING OF, this is the least well written and acted of ALL...A-L-L...the Quentin Tarantino movies. I don't say that lightly. I say that with a heavy heart and a near tear-inducing level of frustration and disappointment. The whole picture felt like Tarantino wrote a very interesting one page treatment with each of the eight characters outlined in two to three sentences, sold the idea to the Weinsteins, sat back for eight months, and then stayed up all night the night before production began, freshman-year-term-paper-style, stretching forty five minutes of action and dialogue into THREE. FREAKING. HOURS. Three hours for a movie lover is no big deal, if it's done well. I was psyched to see some epic, Sergio Leone style narrative spill across the screen in the grand tradition of  spaghetti westerns, a genre in which I know QT has mastery-level understanding. Or hey, maybe he would do some Delmer Daves/Raoul Walsh/John Ford OLD SCHOOL Western. Another style he's referenced with great proficiency in past interviews and work. But oh hell no.

Problems (warning, spoilers ahead):
  • Provocativeness for the sake of provocativeness
    • Violence towards women: the FIRST time Kurt Russell hit Jennifer Jason Leigh's character in the mouth as hard as he would a man, even in the year 2015, I was shocked. Very effective, made you think twice about the characters, who was good and who was bad, etc, etc. The subsequent ten or fifteen times, I was also shocked, by how unshocking it was, based on sheer, meaningless repetition. How could the writing be so heavyhanded (no pun intended) as to assume this would continue being a "Oh my gosh!" moment for the ensuing million times it happened? I have questions but no answers, kids. Questions such as:
      • If Kurt Russell is "principled" enough to hang criminals for their offences to see justice served, how is he not above just clocking a woman in the face a comical number of times? For crimes (ostensibly committed with her brother's gang) that we are never really even made aware of...I know more about what Bruce Dern's character did to deserve to be killed than what she did to be repeatedly beaten while on her way to be hanged.
      • When Jennifer Jason Leigh's character was down to like no teeth and bathed in (hers, other people's) blood, there was a momentarily surreal shot of her broken mouth cracked wide in a laugh...but it was a thirty seconds of interesting counterbalanced by HOURS of waiting for something like that to happen. And it turned out to be an isolated incident. What was the point of her entire character other than as an impetus as to why the two factions of characters were all in the same place?
At least SLJ's costume was on point.
    • Race: QT ALWAYS gets flack for using racial epithets in his movies. And it's (almost) always undeserved. HOWEVER. Let's talk about:
      • Samuel L. Jackson's "big speech" about killing Bruce Dern's son. I think I was supposed to be jawdroppingly surprised by what happened to him....uh, except similar sex-as-an-act-of-degrading-someone was all the frank over A Brief History of Seven Killings or even one story arc of the police drama The Shield. How am I supposed to respect/root for his character after this? Yeah, what Bruce Dern did was some racist, horrible, inexcusable stuff-- but what SLJ did to his son wasn't so much "revenge" as it was just horrible and unfunny when I felt like Tarantino might think the overblown, over-the-top-ness of it would elevate the scene waaaay more than it did. The resonance or dawning horror I think I was supposed to feel as that story unfolded was instead just "is that all there iiiiiiis...? Is that all there issssss...."
      • Apparently the Lincoln letter was a later-draft addition to the screenplay-- the leaked version of the script doesn't include a scene I was trying to find from the final cut, where SLJ says something akin to "it's hard for a black man to be taken seriously in America today". Which is a sentiment I 100% respect and 100% feel is relevant to the year 2015/2016...and which I also feel just got airlifted into the script to be like "TOPICAL...amirite?" Show me, don't tell me-- and instruct me or enlighten me if you're going to try to get into big topics. You don't just get to reference a major issue and get points for having "discussed" it. WHICH BRINGS ME TO:
      • The use of the n-word over, and over, AND OVER, AND OVER, AND OVER. See also: writing problems.
Here's one page of the original script, which plays exactly like this in the film:

You can go, "Well, ANY Quentin Tarantino page of dialogue could have ten instances of the n word in around a minute and a half of screen time, right?" True. However, I've never been so acutely aware of him using it as lazy-shock-value/broadly telegraphing "SEE, THEY'RE RACISTS" instead of actually correct/true-to-the-character writing or nuanced dialogue. I know he wants us to think "Oh look, it's one racist talking to the other!" But let's pretend the offensive word wasn't offensive. Replace the n word in that conversation with "greengrocer" and you end up with something like this:
1: You know that greengrocer over there?
2: What greengrocer? You mean that greengrocer? The greengrocer sitting at the bar?
1: Yeah, that greengrocer. The greengrocer sitting at the bar!
2: I don't associate with greengrocers, even if he IS  a greengrocer sitting at the bar.
1: Well that greengrocer isn't just ANY greengrocer...that greengrocer...that greengrocer OVER THERE....
I know I'm exaggerating, but it was JUST. THAT. RIDICULOUS. Not "excessive" so much as actually foolish-sounding.

    • Showing and telling and showing and then telling again: Did we need to hear/see/see/hear/hear every FREAKING PLOT POINT ALREADY MADE FOUR TIMES in the movie FOUR ADDITIONAL TIMES. Examples:
      • SLJ essentially explains what must have happened to Minnie who runs the place and debunks the Mexican character's story that "they've gone visiting over the mountain" point. I mean, it was like a Sherlock Holmes/ murder mystery deconstruction of all the reasons this probably happened rather than that. "And so, it would follow that if x is true, and x is this, then it's not possible for y to be true. What I think probably occurred is....". Ok. Great. A little annoying, but ok. THEN THEY SPENT 10 MINUTES SHOWING US CHANNING TATUM AND FRIENDS DOING WHAT SLJ SAID THEY DID. [internal screaming] Should I have gone to get more popcorn during one of those parts? Because having both of them in the movie makes no sense.
      • Flashback with voiceover for the part where SLJ kills Bruce Dern's son as QT never misses an opportunity in this movie to treat the audience as if their substandard intelligence wouldn't pick up on the events unless it was both telegraphed AND shown. "See? It's cinema! You're hearing what happened but then you're also seeing it but then we're also telling you again for emphasis what happened."
      • Last scene where the "true identities" of each of the gang members are what end? For what purpose? Who cares? "I'm Sharky Sharkerson." "WELL! SHARKY SHARKESON! Did you know SHARKY SHARKESON killed eight men in a hold up? Sharky Sharkeson has a $10,000 bounty on his head. And you're him! The old Shark himself!" It was a lobotomy-patient-approach-to-dialogue call back to the n word situation I mentioned above 
    • Bad Directing Leading to Bad Acting
      • Why was Kurt Russell, a very strong, very experienced actor, doing THE BROADEST JOHN WAYNE IMPERSONATION known to man on every single line of his dialogue? I mean, a man who lived through ten plus Disney movies and a slew of mid sixties' and seventies' child actor tv appearances in his adolescence should pretty much be immune to being embarrassed for his onscreen work, but I was embarrassed FOR him. I think Tarantino is to blame, because I'm 98% this was HIS choice for the character rather than Kurt Russell's. So I am also mad at Tarantino for doing this to one of my favorite actors.
      • Why was Michael Madsen even in the movie? He had like six lines of dialogue-- all very well acted, but was QT just throwing his old friend some "exposure"? Did "The Hateful 7" as a title rankle with him to the point that he needed an additional character with almost no effect on the storyline? Ditto Jennifer Jason Leigh, a FINE dramatic actress, who was mostly just shrieking or cussing or singing that one ballad in the middle (which was actually pretty decent).
      • Why was Tim Roth pretending to be Christoph Waltz pretending to be whatever was supposed to be going on with his character? Waltz being one the few bright spots of the last two Tarantino pictures, I figured he must have had a scheduling conflict which the filmmaker solved by saying "Hey, Tim Roth, can you come and do two days of work on this new movie of mine? No, I'm excited to have you be here, too. Can you watch these two audition reels of Waltz from my last two movies and just do 'him'? Yeah, no, just however you think he would say it, you say it that way. FANTASTIC." Uhhhh, not so much.
      • Why was Samuel L Jackson, another great screen presence, given nothing to work with and yet expected to work in pretty much every scene for the whole movie. I can see Tarantino in his Kangol hat behind the camera calling out, "JUST YELL, SAM! Yeah! Just KEEP YELLING!"
There's so much more. Why was the much-hyped Ennio Morricone original score used to the least effectiveness at every opportunity?  I actually wrote out a page long list of other things I hated, but you can call me on my cell phone and ask me about it sometime if you have another hour to kill hearing me weeping bitter tears over what could have been.

Hateful 8: More like the Unenjoyable One Hundred and Eighty Seven (minutes of my life I won't get back)

Last point I'll make: how you REALLY KNOW this is a bad movie? I'm sitting there trying to make sense of nonsense character motivations/plot points just to give Tarantino the benefit of the doubt. I can't think of another movie where I've been mentally racing through a list of possibilities that never come to anything because it's not a brilliant written movie that I'll eventually discover has been fooling me the whole time (à la the ultimately ineffectual but at least imaginative Shutter Island) but instead, as said, a sham of a screenplay. At various times, I thought:
  • The character who shot SLJ was actually Bruce Dern's son-- the whole forced fellatio monologue was a ruse cooked up by SLJ to force Bruce Dern into drawing his gun so SLJ would be justified in killing him after he's put him through some heavy psychological trauma related to the (spurious) account of his child's death. Bruce Dern is related to both Channing Tatum and JJL, which is why he was there in the first place in cahoots with the gang.
    • Nope, sorry, didn't happen. Just two unrelated, stupid plot lines floating around in this janitor's mop bucket we're calling a narrative.
  • The Mexican character who talks like one of the banditos from Treasure of the Sierra Madre is actually perfectly fluent in English and using this "Oy, gringo" facade as a strategy against the others. At some point, we'll hear him drop character and really mess these guys up in the Queen's own English.
    • Nope, just a Mexican stereotype from the 1940s. Sorry.
  • Walt Goggin's character's BROOOOOAD, horrible performance in the whole of the movie has something to do with something HE'S hiding. Maybe he's been in cahoots with the others this whole time and is playing some kind of long con on Samuel L Jackson?
    • Uh, no, he's just not a good movie actor and being egged on by a director I'm beginning to believe is not-a-good-movie-drector.
  • All of this will make sense in the final 15 minutes of this torturously boring three hour experience.
    • Sorry, Charlie. At least that one scene with the under-the-floorboards shoot out was kind of cool....? #notnearlycoolenough
Well, I have let vent my spleen, people. I really can't tell you how almost on-edge I was part way through the movie knowing it would be another few years before I'll get maybe an even less impressive movie out of what was once one of the most promising working directors in Hollywood.

The Roy Orbison song that would have better fit my mood over the closing credits, btw:

How about you? Did you see the movie? Where do you stand in terms of Tarantino fandom? Have you seen any movies that did or didn't live up to your expectations this holiday season? Let's talk!

I have to get back to the grind, but I will talk to you again about something I am less mad about very soon, haha! Til then.


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