Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Astrud Gilberto

I've been on a tropicalia/bossa nova kick lately that just will not die down. As soon as the sun starts coming out on a regular basis and sandals are climate friendly morning, noon, and night, I start getting a hankering to listen to Antonio Carlos Jobim. I remember sitting around in late college, secure in my perfect understanding of 1960's pop music, and listening to an instrumental of "Girl from Impanema" with Curt, who at the time was the lead singer of both a bossa nova AND a Talking Heads cover band (one leads to the other with a direct root of David Byrne's interest in Brazilian music and musicians, but don't they seem disparate?). "You know who wrote this song?" Me: "Uhhhh....Burt Bacharach?" Him: ((just agog with the knowledge that he has perfectly, effortlessly revealed a blank patch in my musical knowledge)) "No." Me: ((not willing to take such a wound to my pride from someone who listens to Phish and Rush)) "No, I think it is." Him :"No, I'm afraid it's not." Whereupon he produced a copy of the record sleeve and pointed one shaming finger at the composer's name.

To Curt, wherever you are; not without a note of sadness do I once and for all allow that you were right. More right than me. ONCE.

Antonio Carlos Jobim (henceforth "Tom Jobim") wrote "Garota de Impanema"; the most famous version is performed on the classic 1964 record Getz/Gilberto, featuring Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto and Stan Getz. I initially wanted to just put up a few pictures of Astrud Gilberto, comment on her style, and remind you to go to your nearest record store and pick up some Brazilian tunes before summer is full upon us, but digging in was just too saucy.

Did you know?

1) João Gilberto and Tom Jobim-- just astonishingly talented. Independently as well as in collaboratively, they were the two figureheads of the bossa nova and tropicalia in that they pretty much INVENTED the former, and had a major, major hand in the latter. Jobim has a song called "Insensaetz" that is a brief respite from the dark music on the Lost Highway soundtrack. I had this on a tape in middle school and when I bought my first Jobim record, I could hum along with that song note for note, as I wore that cassette OUT back in the day.

2) Astrud Gilberto was asked to sing on the record as a lark, with no prior professional singing experience. She says on her website that the idea of her being blindly discovered is somewhat false, that she HAD sang in public at small gatherings, but this would pretty much be a similar situation to Matthew writing a number one selling record, and, based on how much I love singing "Thanks a Lot" at karaoke, out me on it, and I was suddenly a massively popular vocalist with a number one hit-standard in my pocket. Say whaaaaaa....

Her face reminds me of Clea Duvall's...almost pretty slash almost feral. Something to do with the proportions, no doubt. Still, I love her style, her weird, tall, Priscilla-y hair and the repetition of costumes from one stage appearance to another as seen on youtube (if I had a black lace maxi dress like that one, I would wear it all the time too).

3) From an article online on trying to secure an interview with AG, the reporter spills on Joao Gilberto, with the typical "mad genius" background: " By the time he was in his thirties, Gilberto had been institutionalized briefly for depression. He was a chronic drug user, and, as often as not, homeless, cruising from couch to couch for as many as 10 years. They say he had a thing for talking to cats." By the time they married, he'd apparently straightened up enough to write the seminal bossa nova tune "Bim Bom" .

4) Cue Stan Getz (saxophonist par excellence...I can't remember which sick, out-the-door, great-himself jazz musician said "We would all play like him if we could", but you should know that one did), whose "personal life" entry on Wikipedia reads thus:

"Getz became involved with drugs and alcohol while a teenager. In 1954, he was arrested for attempting to rob a pharmacy to get a morphine fix. As he was being processed in the prison ward of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, Beverly [his wife, a vocalist for Gene Krupa] gave birth to their third child one floor below. "

Good job, Getz.

5)SG starts collaborating musically with Joao Gilberto; shortly thereafter, he begins an affair with Astrud Gilberto. WHICH I CAN FIND NOTHING ABOUT ON THE INTERNET. Nothing. One-sentence mentions in paragraph long entries. I'm used to reading biographies of people whose slightest indescretion has been exhaustively detailed-- I'm not morbidly curious, I just wanted to know if they were serious or if it was a fling situation, or what happened personally out of an unbelievably successful professional relationship. From what I understand, the collaboration broke when AG wanted to continue her career singing more pop-oriented numbers (Dusty Springfield, "Windmills of Your Mind" kind of music, which I love) and SG wanted to go back to his roots in jazz (which I also love). Both walked away from samba/bossa nova/tropicalia music, which I think is a shame. Why did Astrud Gilberto gravitate towards flawed geniuses? What did she think of her own talent? What happened to her afterward?

6) From what the guy in that article I cited on #3 says, she lives in Philadelphia, continues to record, has a lot of cats, and refuses any and all personal interviews. She does have a website, which is at times weirdly piteous and archly critical of the (even at that, very scarce) information available about AG on the world wide web:

"Regrettably, there is some unscrupulous exploitation of Astrud Gilberto's name and likeness on the Internet, as well as misinformation about her, including inaccurate or distorted "facts", sometimes posted as "biography"... "


At the risk of being one of Ms. Gilberto's mean, mistreatin', would be biographers, I give. That's as far as I got before I slipped back into the music. The childlike, empty look of her face and that simple, innocent voice on the recordings was enough for me to know about the jolie-laide Astrud Gilberto. Sometimes elusive figures are best left elusive.

To the records, friends!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

La noire de...(Black Girl) 1966

Haunting, haunting Senegalese film called La Noire de... (Black Girl) is streaming on Netflix... while I was overcome by the general themes of alienation and loneliness of the main character, a woman who comes from Dakar to the French Riviera and is treated to a sea change of attitude from her employer, I selfishly was also awestruck by her presense and style. She looked like a moving piece of a still painting. Director Ousmane Sembene made the film as his first full length motion picture in 1966-- it's considered by most to be the birth of Sub-Saharan filmmaking. I haven't been so impressed with a "first film" since probably The 400 Blows. What a bang to start with.

Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) is initially thrilled to find a job in Dakar working for a white French family with small children-- she's chosen from a gaggle of local women who wait on a streetcorner every morning to be looked over by prospective employers because of her cool, calm demeanor in the midst of the scrabbling, prospective bonnes. When the Pouchets ask to follow the family to the French Riviera to continue in their employ, Diouana is convinced by the chance to see "real French", the colonial ideal of the mother country-- her perception of "real French" is drastically altered by her experiences in the family's new home. Her faith in the essential kindness of the woman of the house, it turns out, was badly misplaced-- the same mistress who would hand down to Diouana her only slightly secondhand French dresses and high heels suddenly insists she change her elaborate dress (a polka dot silk sheath, earrings, and necklace, a Westernized version of the beautiful, baroquely traditional clothes she wore in Senegal) and wear something more appropriate to her station. Relations become more and more strained between employer and employee-- though Diouana speaks fluent French, when a party guest asks the lady of the house if her maid speaks the language, she replies in the negative, saying that Diouana "seems to understand intuitively". Thinking their comments are falling on deaf, savage ears, the party guests go on to discuss Diouana, in her presense, as if she were a zebra, or some other exotic, though fundamentally bête, creature. One man rises from the table to kiss her on the mouth. "Je n'ai jamais embrasse une noire! Ma premiere noire!" he says boisterously. The bitter taste of that line ("I never kissed a black before! My first black!") lingers for the rest of the scene, as does the shocked and embarrassed expression on Diouana's face as the man clumsily embraces her.

The narrative is carried by Diouana's internal monologues-- only in her inner life and in her mind does she react to the slights and slings of her experience in an alien and rejecting culture, keeping a stoic front to all outside goings-on. Her actions seem inexplicable to her employers, but as the audience, we're allowed a very privileged insight into her thoughts by way of her own voice, which draw clear lines between her deep, deep emotional wounds and the consequences of her employers' newly adopted UBER-colonialist attitudes. While she had the respect of a regular worker in Dakar, Diouana is reduced to an appliance, a convenience, in her role in the French Riviera. Her lassitude, her hesitance, her depression and feeling of complete displacement is clear to us, and yet the mistress considers her lazy, shiftless. At one point, Mrs. Pouchet declares “If you don’t work, you won’t eat,” to which Diouana replies “If I don’t eat, I won’t work". What seems like childishness on Diouana's part to the mistress-- however, seen from Diouana's perspective, Mrs. Pouchet is the childish one, refusing her the basic necessity of food in her insistence on perpetuating the belief that Diouana is "inexplicably" difficult after the move to the Riviera, her refusal to see another human being suffering.

The push and pull of the relationship hits a breaking point in the final fifteen minutes of the movie, but I won't spoil for you what is an entirely unspoilt film. From the first reel of the film, the moment you see the beautiful black girl stepping off the boat, walking down the long gangway and decidedly not disappearing into the crowd, striking a very distinct figure across the faceless "other" she's entering, to the last reel, you are 110% committed to her. To watch her struggle to its conclusion is a jarring, but altogether moving experience. At 65 minutes, the economy with which Sembene tells the story is to be praised, but not nearly as much as his accomplishment in creating a character that lingers long after the credits roll.

Black Girl on Wikipedia

Black Girl on Netflix

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Chet Baker

About a year ago, my friend Rob and I had a great arrangement in which we would make bi-weekly pilgrimages to Hillsboro Village, for-to grab a couple drinks and a movie down at the Belcourt. While this sounds like a good idea at the outset, it's often difficult to get through, say Point Blank or The Long Goodbye (last year the Noir film fest was American, this year it was British and French...they do some killer lineups) in forty year old, busted out theater seating with three IPAs under your belt. Fidgeting was not the word. At one point, I was pretty much churning the nubbed orange upholstery, panicked with the idea that I couldn't get out of the aisle without trampling on the feet of several well heeled fellow patrons, and that I would miss a crucial scene, and that I wouldn't be able to find my place again when I returned to the darkened screening. However! We did catch some of the better stuff they played last spring. One of the highlights of this period was a movie we ended up seeing after watching the trailer, oh, ten, fifteen times during the noir festival:

Elvis Costello wrote "Almost Blue" with Chet Baker's version of "The Thrill is Gone" in mind...then got him to record the vocals on it (after he did a career boosting trumpet track on "Shipbuilding"). Between EC's literate, razor sharp sense of lyric and sound, and Chet Baker's dissipated singing voice, but spot-on phrasing, I was humming it for MONTHS after. Also, this is one of the best trailers for a film I think I've ever seen.

So. Chet Baker in Let's Get Lost (1989). The film was directed by Bruce Weber, the man that brought us the look of Abercrombie and Fitch and that Chris Isaak video on the beach-- part documentary and part expressionistic, black and white biographical pastiche, the film follows Baker interviews with rebuttals and recriminations from those who love/hate him best (it seems to be about the same emotion for most). The photography was thrillingly a moving coffeetable book collection of the most gorgeous photos. The movie leaves you with just a cake icing glimpse of what his life was like-- but the icing is so delicious, it doesn't really matter that you never get to the cake.

I've always been curious to see what kind of a person some of the cooler icons of the 1950's stack up in "real life" to the image culture projects on them. Sometimes the real person falls so short of the schoolgirl crush you get on that image, that it's jarring to try and understand how rotten people can be, amazingly talented or no. Baker and Brando are the highest on my list of celebrity biography let downs-- some stars I read about are just boring, some pretty saucy, some interesting-in-a-non-film-related-way. These two, however, just seemed to be irredeemably bad-in-a-boring-way in their free time. Brando, in that his biography was a long, long list of the type of girls he used to nail in various exotic locales (he manages only passing, vague mentions of his life outside of sex, his acting, his movies, or Hollywood in general) and his nasty divorces-- not nearly even as entertaining as that Larry King interview he did in the early 90s.

Baker, for his part, had all the sex there was to have for a cool, glamorous looking white boy playing California jazz trumpet in the 50's, while simultaneously doing all the heroin there was to do in the state of California in the 1950's, 60's, 70's, and 80's. The emptiness of it-- how every person interviewed for the book couldn't find anything to say about him outside of drugs, women, and his horn (in that order)-- is discouraging. The intimation is not that he's somehow elusive and romantic, but that he simply lived his life as a cipher, a void, where the records and the music are all you can really take from it.

Drugs became a driving/destructive force throughout the last thirty years of his life-- he pawned his trumpet for it, he served jail time in Italy and the United States, he was more than once deported from Europe. He died, very haggard, very old-beyond-his-years, but still somehow very talented, from a fall out of a second story window in Amsterdam while Weber was still in the process of cutting his documentary.

The same disbelief I felt while watching the Maysles' Grey Gardens is an issue with CB-- you look at that washed out, hollowed out face and think, there's no way he was ever young, much less possessed of a great beauty. The gothic nature of finding out, at some point in the narrative, that this was indeed the case, and more, is both thrilling and disconcerting. Do we really get that old, that fast? Could that really happen to someone with so much in their favor?

What's crushing in reading the end-of-the-book-first, as you end up doing with a lot of celebrity life stories, is to know he once HAD IT.

His recording Chet Baker Sings came out of a time where usually mute jazz soloists were taking to the microphone as crooners as well as musicians-- see the Louis Armstrong singing series in the mid sixties. Despite a silvertone voice, musicians in one biography recalled how many hundreds of takes and splicing it took to get those final tracks-- I say whatever means brought us this record were justified, as "smooth" doesn't begin to describe it. PERFECT, lullaby sweet renditions of standards. Twenty-four years old, same age as me.

Compare that first video to the second. Granted, he's missing a tooth in "Time After Time", but what, at final count, is he missing in the first video?

Soyez sage, mes enfants.

Watch "Let's Get Lost" on Youtube (and don't feel guilty, bc I don't think it's yet released on dvd)

First track on Chet Baker Sings, also via Youtube.

Chet Baker tribute site

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Enid Collins of Texas

I was having a woebegone sort of day at Southern Thrift in Donelson-- not a blamed vintage dress in sight, no old cookbooks with recipes stuck in 'em, and I was listlessly carrying around an unframed 50's Derby winner photo thinking I might overpay for that just to say I'd found SOMETHING-- when what did I spy with my little eye but this, hanging alone and forlorn from the end of a clothing rack?

An original Enid Collins bag? GOOD GOD.

Mine is missing the two gemstones from the peacocks' bodies, but for...drumroll...TWO DOLLARS AND NINETY NINE CENTS...I think I can deal. If I live a hundred years I'll never understand how Southern Thrift in general can place such arbitrary prices on things. And what arbitrary luck I have at finding the ones that slip past their radar.

I'd seen these bags before at estate sales, but just oh-so-rarely, and always shockingly tagged (2.99 would not have been admitted to the same ballpark as these rough-on-my-existing-pocketbook prices). I've seen dozens upon dozens of decoupaged wooden boxes at thrift stores, and have a couple that are kind of Holly Hobbit sweet, with flowers and gingham, but I'll admit, I was not ready for the whizz-bang of Enid Collin's singular pursemaking vision.

Here's the lady herself in her Texas studio, and one of the many "Money Tree" designs, in color, to the right. The one I found is from the same series, but I can't place the year without buying an exclusive guide to dating Enid Collins purses (self published, of course). I've been running into this problem more and more often trying to tack down a specific date on my finds. Ho hum.

Note how the 60's purses are almost all wooden and in pastels. EC favors designs like fish, birds, animals in general-- of the two or three I've seen in real life, I'm pretty sure they were all just splotchy flower patterns-- I far prefer the fauna to the flora.

I want this one in the worst way. The black and cream and amber, the weird, weird choice of a carriage design....heaven. The bug in the lower left hand corner sells the purse on the right for me.

(L) SOMEONE HAS TOO MANY ENID COLLINS PURSES. You are just showing off past a certain point. Also, give one to me. (R) There were a couple of transportation themed bags but you can't beat a trolley for charm.

Two more birds. I prefer the wilier "Roadrunner" to the exploding peacock. Just my taste.

(L) "Sophistikits." Yes. (R) More transportation. Hello, cable car.

What 60s design showcase would be complete without a deranged owl? These are too glitz to look at. Love.

WARNING: Do not go to ebay or etsy after reading this post. It's just going to break your tiny heart into tinier pieces, unless you've got a couple hundred dollars just laying around to blow on handbags (in that case, again, you can take me out to dinner, and I'll be sure to bring mine to show you). However! Keep hope and keep watching those tag never know when an Enid Collin gem will be poking out from under a creepy fox stole juuuuust itchin' to come home with you.

Great blogpost on EC
Info from a vintage seller on EC
More pictures of purses, more info


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