Friday, June 26, 2009

Rosa von Praunheim: the Funhouse interview

This week is Pride Week, and so it’s sorta apropos that I’m airing the second part of my interview with German filmmaker and provocateur Rosa von Praunheim. I already offered up some choice von Praunheim links on this blog a few weeks back. But now I have the opportunity to present a clip from both von Praunheim Funhouse episodes.

In the first clip we discuss camp humor in his work

And in the second we turn to his 1990s campaign of “outing” closeted German celebrities, and the anger it created in the media and among his friends.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wonder if the New York Post will be reprint this Michael Jackson cover page?

The cover can be seen here, because Blogspot has decided it doesn't want to load the picture (and it's now down on the Post site) — ah, technology!

I'm sure the Post will have a reverent tribute in their pages tomorrow for “MJ,” but I doubt they will resurrect this nasty, and I do mean nasty cover they ran a few years back. I will confess that I was never a massive Michael fan — although I of course deeply loved his Sixties/Seventies pop and totally respect his classic albums with Quincy Jones — but I was actually stunned by how evil this NYP cover was. The gent is now laid to rest at a young age, and no doubt revelations will be made about his private life. Let it not be forgotten that the Post headline-writers were in there kicking ’im when he was down….

Lost in the Shuffle: Deceased Artiste Sky Saxon

Let us not forget Mr. Saxon in all the major celeb deaths! I fondly remember first encountering the Seeds as a “hippie band” on the sitcom “The Mothers-in-Law.” The clip was on YouTube for a while (shot off of a TV set), and I have it saved somewhere. But since the gent left us today, I thought I’d throw this up here promptly, as the guy was a "garage" legend. Thanks to M. Faust for the info.

The official obit:
Sky Saxon, lead singer and bassist of '60s garage rockers the Seeds, died Thursday in an Austin, Texas hospital. He had been in the ICU since Monday suffering from an undisclosed illness — doctors suspected an internal organ infection — until his wife, Sabrina, announced his passing via Facebook.

Influenced heavily by the Rolling Stones, Saxon — born Richard Marsh — founded the Seeds in 1965 in California. The next year, the psychedelic rockers released two albums, 'The Seeds' and 'A Web of Sound,' and had hits with 'Can't Seem to Make You Mine' and 'Pushin' Too Hard,' their most successful song. In 1967, the band released two more albums: 'Future,' a psychedelic rock album, and 'A Full Spoon of Seedy Blues,' which was credited to the Sky Saxon Blues Band and featured liner notes by the legendary Muddy Waters.

After some lineup changes and a few more commercially unsuccessful albums, Saxon dissolved the band in the early '70s. He joined a California commune, the Source Family, adopted the name Sunlight and occasionally performed with their trippy house band, the Ya Ho Wa 13. In 1989, Saxon reformed the Seeds to tour with other '60s acts like Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Arthur Lee and Love. They toured again in 2003, and Saxon kept busy musically, releasing an album last year, and recording with the Smashing Pumpkins. Though he fell ill last Thursday, Saxon still managed to play a short gig on Saturday night at Austin rock club Antone's.

Earlier today, Sabrina Sherry Smith Saxon wrote on her Facebook page, "Sky has passed over and YaHoWha is waiting for him at the gate. He will soon be home with his Father. I'm so sorry I couldn't keep him here with us. More later. I'm sorry." No other announcements have been made.

The big hit:

And the song that got big exposure in the past few months on a commercial. Watch Ms. Page shimmy to the Seeds’ “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.”

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Catch the "missing" Cassavetes films

Following up on the character actor entry below, I felt I should definitely recommend a YouTube poster’s posting of the three “missing” films directed by John Cassavetes. Cassavetes made eight “personal” films that are the ones upon which his reputation as an indie godfather rests. I do love Too Late Blues and Gloria, but they are not in the same league as films like Shadows, Faces, and A Woman Under the Influence. The three films which his family does not hold the rights to aren’t seen as frequently, so it’s a very nice discovery to have them present on YT. Go visit, and watch, and download the clips ( and make it possible).

Husbands (1970)

I believe that Minnie and Moskowitz (1972) is the perfect entry point for those who are too timid to take on the masterful family-discord pics that Cassavetes excelled in. It’s an excellent comedy, with a superb cast:

And the final personal film has been completely “unfindable” in the U.S. for years, except on old VHS tapes, Love Streams (1984):

All hail the character actor

He’s never going to be a romantic lead, and he’s never even going to be the central villain in an action film. The character actor (and actress) is of course the unsung hero of the movie biz and is also the backbone of many a great crime picture (or Western or sci-fi movie or comedy or drama). I was pleased to see a thematic tribute on YouTube to the character actors of old posted by a gentleman in Switzerland. What he has done is isolate their segments and underscore them with fades to black. This may seem odd and disjunctive (“isn’t something missing?”). But it serves to illustrate how they enter a movie, do their bit, and occasionally steal the show. He includes the likely suspects including Mike Mazurki and Lionel Stander, but the posts are most interesting when he finds clips where the person is dominating the action, as this bit of Oscar Homolka from Hitchock’s Sabotage

Here Max Showalter, the grotesque, guffawing dad from Lord Love a Duck is used to sentimental effect in How to Murder Your Wife

The immortal Elisha Cook, Jr., puts the menace on a “glamour girl” in the noir Born to Kill:

And the all-purpose ethnic guy who made such an impression in Orson Welles’ movies, Akim Tamiroff. Here he’s seen with Funhouse god Peter Ustinov (a pretty strong character person himself) in Topkapi.

The poster also goes to somewhat more recent character performers like the great Val Avery. His clip (from the completely forgotten Russian Roulette) is an interesting one, but I would have to direct you to this bit from Cassavetes’ nearly perfect rough-edged romantic comedy Minnie and Moskowitz wherein Avery completely dominates the proceedings and can never be forgotten:

Friday, June 19, 2009

The dark humor of George Axelrod

George Axelord is best known as the screenwriter of two early Sixties classics, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Manchurian Candidate. What’s thoroughly fascinating about him as a writer, however — besides the fact that he was both a fully accredited “light romantic comedy” and espionage-thriller scripter — were his dark, bitter jibes at the hang-ups of the American middle-class male and his savage mocking of movies and TV in his better screenplays.

Axelrod was around for a number of years (he lived from 1922 to 2003), but his greatest period of productivity was the Fifties and Sixties, when he worked with two of the period’s best candy-colored satirists, Frank Tashlin and Richard Quine. Besides the aforementioned duo, his best known work is The Seven Year Itch which began his abuse of the hung-up wimpy American male. That film has become immortal, thanks to a certain skirt-blowing scene, so I won’t include any links to scenes here (plus Tom Ewell wears me down…). I will skip to the film of his play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which openly mocks the way that celebrities are created, and while thoroughly charming, is a pretty sardonic look at show biz (Tashlin wrote the screenplay, by the way, but it retained much of Axelrod’s original). The trailer:

And a key scene spoofing the difference between widescreen movies and small-screen TV. The poster edited this in with the terrific opening to another Tashlin classic, The Girl Can’t Help It. Admittedly, these scenes are more Tashlin than Axelrod, but they fit in nicely with his constant abuse of the phoniness of the media (and besides, "Tish-Tash" was another god):

One of the two Axelrods I’ve yet to see — that also is a show-biz parody — is up in its entirety on YouTube.

This gentleman put it there. It’s Paris — When It Sizzles

I haven’t seen The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968) in a few decades now, so I’m not qualified to hold forth on that, but I am glad that two of Axelord’s darkest and most memorable comedies are sampled on YT. The first is How to Murder Your Wife (1965)

Here is the film’s sarcastic opening, narrated by Terry-Thomas. Jack Lemmon plays a cartoonist who does a daily spy strip. He acts out his action himself, and has his butler (T-T) photograph it, producing this oddball “fumetti”-like sequence.:

As the film proceeds along we are introduced to a wife (Claire Trevor) who gives newlywed hottie Virna Lisi a speech on how “the better half” can manipulate her hubby.

The most astoundingly dark bit of comedy, however, is the final courtroom scene, in which the ever-affable Lemmon presents an argument that married men would gladly (if they could be anonymous and not jailed) dispose of their wives. The thoroughly politically incorrect piece is made even better by the always-awesome character actor Eddie Mayehoff (who was a mass of wonderful comic tics):

My personal favorite Axelrod creation is his first writer-producer-director credit, the unforgettable Lord Love a Duck. Offering a critique of the American middle-class that is literally savage, the film showcases the charms of a bitchy Tuesday Weld and the always charming Roddy McDowall as her infatuated friend. It’s a film that quickly moves back and forth between light, silly comedy and very dark satire. The “12 Cashmere Sweaters” scene, which has been put up on YT in three parts, actually is both:

The film’s trailer, which outlines all the things it is against, and dubs it “an act of pure aggression”!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A timeless tune

As I turn "another year older and deeper in debt" today, my thoughts turn to that song by the "old pea-picker," Tennessee Ernie Ford. Here is a souped-up Sixties version.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Goodbye, analog TV: it was never pretty, but it always worked...

I remember a mere ten years ago, walking by some guy, presumably homeless, on a street corner in my neighborhood. He was sitting in a beach chair on the sidewalk, watching WWE Smackdown of a Thursday evening, with his teenytiny b&w TV set hooked into a lamppost base, where he had looped the sucker in and was getting a pretty damned clear signal….

But now the conversion of all U.S. television is completed. Analog TV is over, and so is the notion of free television broadcasting. With analog signals, anyone who had a TV of any kind and any decent antenna could watch something — it might have not looked very good, but you got a signal, the damned thing worked, and it was now up to the networks and local affiliates to actually give you something worth watching (they, of course, have pretty much given up the ghost — oops, an analog pun!). With digital, you’ve got a gorgeously beautiful, detailed, richly colored picture. But you’re gonna pay for it, sucker.

Most of us already are paying for cable or satellite service, of course, but I do reflect on my parents who, for whatever reason (financial, habit, technophobia) had continued to use rabbit ears on their TV sets. When I installed the wondrous digital converter box for my dad, I discovered that the piece of crap draws in the digital signal using the rabbit-ears antenna, and is actually more whimsical and subject to errant transmission than the antenna itself. With the antenna connected to the box — and oh, you have to get a SPECIFIC antenna that draws in the UHF channels (including PBS stations that were on the VHF lineup, but were broadcasting using UHF frequencies) — you could get two or three stations with the antenna this way and you go another two or three angled that way across the room. In other words, it’s a far worse set-up than rabbit-ears. Thus both of my parents decided that the basic level of cable was the only option to actually get the channels in … except for those occasions once every two-three months where the signal just goes and you’re left with a box receiving nothing from the coax cable (I had one of these last week).

Thus, it must be honestly said that the TV makers of the world and the cable companies are thrilled with this federally-mandated digital conversion, which Obama did thankfully delay — but, again, what is it exactly making better? (We aren't going to be converting over to the super-beautiful, more-lines-per-image European system.) It makes no one’s life easier or better (those who wanted a better picture and could afford it… already have it!), and just troubles low-income folks who can use their coupons to get a digital converter box that must be programmed, channel for channel. And there is nothing, believe me, nothing more fun than trying to explain to a senior who is used to the “ghosts” and snow of yesteryear why the television transmission just suddenly froze, and a still picture is on their set. “Well, you see… you’d now have to take this antenna and move it around the room until you find the signal again. Then leave the antenna in that place — use a chair or something to prop it… what about this TV table over here, you don’t use this…”

The conversion was a fraud and a sham, and it simply benefits those who make TVs and the cable and satellite megacorps. It also permanently erases the “snow” that indicated that “our programming day has now ended…” (cue National Anthem) I already discussed how I believe that while digital is the “prettiest” medium around, its innate “planned obsolescence” is the neatest money-burning trick to come along in quite a while. Now that the entirety of the U.S. has been forced by government mandate to make this conversion (hey, the vacated bandwidth will be used, we’re assured, “for public emergencies” — and how would we tune the damned things in, if we shed our analog equipment?). Some technological upgrades are awesome in their potential for bettering our modes of disseminating culture and ideas. Some are just holidays for the greedy.

This hoary old 1974 movie-theater warning clip takes on new meaning with the converter-box scam:

For more sobering footage, a Missouri resident captured the moment it happened for his town, right at midnight last night:

A Philly viewer caught an even more emblematic image: commercials (of course!!!) going to the station logo, and then… it’s over:

For some funereal music to play, I suggest the Cramp’s “TV Set” and, of course, the song mentioned a few weeks back as the finest paean to tube-addiction, the Normal’s “TVOD.”

Pop made simple: the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

My favorite kind of comedic material comes from smart folks who act very silly. Of course this has been the foundation of some of the finest British humor, from Lewis Carroll to the sacred Spike Milligan (yes, he was Irish!) to the Pythons and beyond. Well the same concept holds for so-called “novelty music.” The more talented the players, the stranger and cooler the music can be. For a prime example of this, witness the extremely talented folks in the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain giving their interpretation of perhaps the seminal Nineties tune:

The wonderful part here is that this “novelty” music is actually the creation of some very skilled folk, who wind up (lemme not sound too academic here — ah, what the hell) conveying the emotions behind the songs in their terrific stripped-down renditions (and demonstrating their own talent in the process). What the Ukulele Orchestra have comprehended, and convey quite handily, is the indelible nature of these melodies we’re so familiar with. No matter what the “idiom,” these tunes are awesomely catchy, and sometimes quite touching. The UOGB prove the utterly impermeable nature of popular music from classical to lounge to disco in this wonderful pastiche, “Fly Me Off the Handel”:

But of course the group's musical virtuosity can be forgotten sometimes, as when they take on a truly hook-driven ditty, like “The Theme from Shaft”:

or another movie theme, “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly”:

At this juncture I should of course link to the group’s official site. They also are quite fine in collaboration: here with the Kaiser Chiefs on “Ruby”; here in beautiful harmony with the former Cat Stevens doing “Peace Train”; and an audio bite of their only Gainsbourg cover!

And being a child of the Seventies, I highly recommend the Uke-Orch’s covers of ’70s glam gems. Here they do “Satellite of Love” (I do love Lou Reed’s finer moments, but perhaps it might be more interesting at this stage of the game to hear female voices singing the hits…)

One of Bowie’s most touching little ditties, "Life on Mars.” This really is beautiful stuff and does great justice to the original (while adding other strands of pop melodrama). Both Herr Bowie and his one-time partner in crime Brian Eno have given the thumbs-up to the fine musicological stews cooked up by the UOGB:

And finally, since I’m a diehard Kate Bush fan, I’d have to close out with the Uke Orch’s wonderfully jazzy version of her seminal “Wuthering Heights”:

I would love to see these ladies and gents play these shores (at a place I could afford, which ain’t many these days). They are sublimely talented and, yes, delightfully silly.

When the finest Sixties protest singer met the ultimate Sixties rock idol: Phil Ochs and John Lennon jam

Last week I gave you two of the greatest comedians ever in a photo, this week I bring you two of the finest rebellious Lefty singer-songwriters meeting up in audio form. I had heard that John Lennon had met Phil Ochs (no surprise, as the two traveled in the same circles when “Jock and Yono” moved to Manhattan), but now there is audio proof the two hung out together — and John played dobro in accompaniment to Phil doing his terrific “Chords of Fame.” The Internet is rife with discoveries like these, but each one of them is sublime:

Thursday, June 11, 2009

WPIX-TV to NYC: Drop Dead!

So I still haven’t forgiven Game Show Network for killing off their classic b&w shows, in favor of an all-color, all-underwhelming schedule. Down in the standard line-up of channels, it’s nearly impossible to find b&w programming or films of any kind (unless PBS dusts off its evergreen, or public domain, titles). WPIX-TV, Ch. 11, is the only local commercial channel here in NYC that airs anything made before 1980. The shows, up until recently, numbered four: the weekly hour of Honeymooners (in which case the PIX programmer is dead asleep and chooses the same two or three dozen episodes — out of a syndicated pool of over a hundred — again and again and again); The Jeffersons (which was unfunny back in the Seventies when I was a kid, and it’s still unfunny); the once and future classic 79-ep Star Trek, and a New York City favorite, The Odd Couple with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

The Odd Couple is a show that should be perennially running in NYC, just as Naked City and several other Manhattan-set shows should be on the air (I know, I know, Seinfeld was set here, but MAN were those street sets phony as hell!). I rediscovered The Odd Couple last year when I had a period where I had no access to cable in the late evening hours. The show’s first season was dreadful, as it was shot with a single camera on the play’s set without a studio audience. Once Randall and Klugman flexed some muscle and the show was done with an audience on the set that is familiar to most viewers, it became one of the Seventies’ best sitcoms, with a starring duo who were born to play the roles (and, in both cases, seemed to live their parts off-screen). The show’s odd continuity changes (where the guys lived, how they met, how their friends came together, when they married) were totally excusable (Garry Marshall did far worse on his later Happy Days by just deleting a central character completely!), since the series was well-written and splendidly cast, from the guest stars to the boys’ love interests to the walk-on character actors (which included much of Sgt. Bilko’s platoon, as well as the sacred Victor Buono and the unforgettable Leonard Barr; Funhouse fave Wally Cox also appeared, but has been scissored out of the syndicated versions of the shows).

Anyway, much as GSN decided to utterly drop any hint of b&w and replace the best quality programs they had on with Family Feuds and the daytime color Password — never as good as the nighttime weekly version — WPIX recently dumped its airing of The Odd Couple for… an infomercial! This isn’t surprising at all, but what was interesting is that after the one half-hour infomercial that took the place of the “original OC,” they return to the schedule as it formerly was: the grievously unfunny Jeffersons, and the newer reruns (edited Comedy Central titles), and then… more informercials! And yet WPIX has left in place the most inane present-day stuff available: edited Sex and the City, Three and a Half Men, The George Lopez Show (I’m so glad other ethnicities can have bad sitcoms now too), and, worst by far, According to Jim (there is a special area in Hell carved out for the works of James Belushi). So, we lose a N.Y. tradition, but we get another infomercial stuck right in the middle of the late-night program schedule, and those who do want to see decent older television have to resort to DVDs or nothing at all. Perhaps the best part was that, in the last few go-rounds of the “OC” cycle, WPIX kept leaving out the same shows over and over again (including a personal fave — in which Felix and Oscar are trapped in a stalled subway car). Now the show is gone completely in NYC. Thank ya, PIX. Keep the legacy alive!

Plus, I really need a nightly dose of this guy:

UPDATE: The show was put back on after I wrote this and was then eventually pulled, as was the weekly airing of The Honeymooners.

Friday, June 5, 2009

There were comedy giants then...

Although I do enjoy a handful of current comedians and comic actors, let’s be brutally honest and say that the most popular movie comedians these days are just absolutely dreadful. It’s hard for me to muster the slightest interest in the dull deadpan of Will Ferrell or the empty boisterousness of Jack Black when these guys used to be creating anarchy on screen. I don’t think I need to identify ’em for ya, but the gent on the left was born William Claude Dukenfield, and the man on the right, who was more familiar with a greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, was born Julius Henry Marx. This pic finds them meeting at a friend’s party in 1938. I can’t imagine a nicer encounter of comedy immortals.

A mind-warping duo: Barnes & Barnes

So I’m never sure exactly who’s going to be posting videos on YouTube, but am interested to find celebrities whose work I’ve enjoyed deciding to join the legions of cam-whores… oops, I mean performers with webcams, and provide us with little updates on their creative processes. In the case of one musical performer, I was surprised to see him post on YT because he and his musical partner decimated my gray matter for a time in the early ’80s and thereafter, and I’ve often wondered where he went. The gent in question is Robert Haimer, better known as half of Barnes and Barnes, the musical duo that also included the very active TV/music renaissance dude Billy Mumy (the original Seth Green!). In his musical guise as “Artie Barnes” (Mumy was “Art Barnes” — hey this was the era of “Bob I” and “Bob II” from Devo), Haimer has put up some very, totally, extremely silly, goofy-ass videos, and then some other items that are far more serious in tone.

For those who don’t know who Barnes and Barnes were, they were considered novelty artists because of the enormous popularity of one absurdist anthem they recorded, which is below. I first heard it on the great Dr. Demento show, and first saw this mind-roastingly weird video on Saturday Night Live, way, wayyyy back when it was actually funny and adventurous, five lifetimes ago. Of course I speak of “Fish Heads,” costarring Big Love’s Bill Paxton and Dr. Demento himself:

The thing about Barnes and Barnes, though, was that their music was perfectly synched up with the “new wave” period in Seventies/Eighties music — they had an “electronic” sound (albeit an elemental, cheap-sounding one), sang lyrics that were alternately absurdist and creepy, and generally played around with the listener’s head, rather than just making him/her laugh. To illustrate the creepier aspects of their music, here’s their lovely ditty “Cemetery Girls,” which has sound clips from Mumy’s unforgettable turn as “Anthony” on The Twilight Zone (“you’re a bad man!”). This stuff messed with my head when I was an adolescent.

Bill Paxton stars in the duo’s ode to true romance, “Love Tap”

In addition to the ridiculous and catchy “Soak It Up” and “Party in my Pants” (which I first heard when B&B performed it on an SNL replacement special that had — no kidding — Rosemary Clooney singing in said trousers!), there is of course the Miguel Ferrer-starrer “Pizza Face” (also ridiculous and catchy):

And one last vintage Barnes and Barnes vid, the wonderfully strange and sexy, yet oddly off-putting, “A-ha”:

Now “Artie” is on YouTube right here, and has uploaded some very silly (did I say goofy) vids, as well some pure webcam biz, dispensing his philosophy of life. From the evidence in Mr. Haimer’s vids, I’d have to say that Mumy brought the musical hooks and the lyrical ability to the act, while Haimer brought the wild exuberance and memorably surrealist onslaught into B&B LPs.

Here we see the two gents, now a little older, but none the less weird, singing a ditty at the piano and making gay references (something they were wont to do on their albums — I cannot easily forget “Homophobic Dream #22” from Sicks):

Haimer’s most interesting upload is this clip, with him reflecting on what life in the normal world is like for a guy with a weird sense of humor:

The Barnes boys offered some Xmas greetings on the Artie Barnes account, and a new tune that reflects on Haimer’s own experiences, “Momma’s still here”:

That song is an affectionate view of a relative dying that combines the Barnes’ catchy musical ability with a lyric that is pleasant-sounding yet oddly haunting. Along those lines, Haimer has been putting up on YT video images of a lady in a hospital bed who I assume is his mother. The clips are jarring, since the lady doesn’t seem to want to be photographed. The captioning is affectionate and while it doesn’t seem like he is mocking the lady, these shards of a “passage” that doesn’t appear to be all that pleasant is as in-your-face as some of the most unforgettable B&B tunes. However... (as Professor Corey would say), the boys actually wrote their best paean to the Big Sleep a number of years ago, and closed out their first album with it. It’s a very strange, and yet oddly calm and sweet view of kicking off, entitled “When You Die: