Friday, June 18, 2010

Reasons to be Cheerful, Part Four

Since this is officially the day I turn “another year old and deeper in debt,” I’m going to just slip backwards in time (which comes easily most of the year, even easier on birthdays). I’ve talked before on this blog about Sixties and Seventies “easy listening” music (aka elevator music) that was burnt into my brain at a young age, and continues to conjure sensations of that era when I hear it.

You can find entries about punk artists and psychedelic artists and bubble-gum artists elsewhere on this blog, but for this entry, there are no lyrics, and it’s just “MOR” easy listening tracks that were hits and became the wallpaper to our daily activities back then. (And remain a sorta “comfort music” for those who had this piped into their consciousness.)

Most of the songs I’ll be linking to are in the Herb Alpert/Burt Bacharach/bouncy pop number category (I’ve already paid tribute to numbers like ”Classical Gas”), but I thought I’d start off with one that predates those songs and instead has a nice little depressing edge to it. It’s an evocative little number called “Last Date” by Floyd Cramer, the master of the “slide piano” who was a legendary session player in Nashvile. On its own the song has a sort of downbeat, last-call-at-the-bar feel, but when you find out the title, you sorta get the drift:

And since I don’t want to slide into a “saloon song” coma with these tunes, I’ll offer another Cramer number, this time incredibly fuckin’ bouncy and catchy. This was recently used in the soundtrack of the movie An Education (which I still haven’t seen; I found this on, where else, YT). It’s called “On the Rebound” and although “jaunty” is a word you’re supposed to use to describe people and not music, it’s pretty damned jaunty:

I’m going to skip past two of the most obvious songs that belong in the category of cheerful instrumental, “Java” and “Alley Cat,” and proceed onto one that most people of a certain age (what a remarkably diplomatic phrase, that) know, but don’t know the title of, Dave Baby Cortez’s “The Happy Organ” (all genitalia jokes will be happily skipped past too):

And one of the other songs that seeped into the brainpan back then was this sucker, which was recorded and became a hit by Billy Vaughn and Bert Kaempfert. This version has a jungle girl-themed video, so it seemed to be the one that needed linking:

Continuing on with Kaempfert, there is only one pop tune I know of to have a chart status (in the U.S. at least) that had the word “Afrikaan” in the title. That was “Afrikaan Beat,” and Kaempfert definitely led the way to the style of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, although Herb “Latin-ized” the sound.

Most of these songs are best-remembered in their single versions, but here’s a live rendition by Kaempfert of “That Happy Feeling.” The word “bouncy” doesn’t even convey the damned thing, but it must also be noted the tune has a special resonance for those in the NYC area in the early Sixties, as it was used as the theme to the afternoon children’s show The Sandy Becker Show. And what makes the vid special? You get to see the handclaps, a key part in any mercilessly hooky Sixties tune:

There's a bottomless pit of instrumentals you may know the tune of but can’t name, like “Wheels” by the String-a-longs. Then there are the songs that AM-radio listeners knew all too well, but are still as pleasant to re-hear decades on, like “Grazin’ in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela. The hit with vocals (and the insane “Icandigityoucandigithecandigitshecandigit”) was done
by the Friends of Distinction. But the Masekela original is the instrumental great:

Months ago when I did a little Deceased Artiste tribute to
Raymond, Lefèvre, the man who gave us the infectious instrumental “Soul Coaxing,” I was of course reminded of the best-known French instrumental of the Sixties “Love is Blue” by Paul Mauriat. Since I am fixated by the unnecessary vocal versions of these songs, I offer you the vocal version by Al Martino, but here is the Mauriat originaL:

On an album-cover associative level (painted womyn), here is the indelible Burt Bacharach-penned Casino Royale theme by Herb Alpert. I’m not a soundtrack aficionado per se, but this is one of the OST LPs I will dig out and spin every few months. It definitely buoys the spirits:

Since we’re on the infectious route, here’s “No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach’s In)” by the T-Bones, which was used in a TV commercial about heartburn which is here:

And if we’re going to go deep-Sixties, you’d have to resurrect
Andy Williams’ “Music to Watch Girls By” clip which is endearingly corny as fuck. Andy sang many, many of the instrumental songs that they wrote ridiculously impromptu lyrics for. One YouTube uploader maintains that the Andy song was the original in this case, but the Bob Crewe Generation (nobody calls their band the “Generation” anymore, more’s the pity) had the hook-ridden instrumental hit:

And I’ll close out with two tunes whose titles I didn’t know until recently. The first is the insanely infectious “Soulful Strut” by Young Holt Unlimited. This is supreme stuff:

Since we must move leave the Sixties behind, let’s do that to enter the Seventies, with the 1972 hit “Joy” by Apollo 100, which was sort of the 45 RPM super-pop version of the more pretentious art-rock stuff Emerson Lake & Palmer were carrying out in that era. Alternately brilliant and immaculately cheesy, it won’t exit your noggin anytime soon:

If anyone has any infectious instrumentals they want to leave links to, drop 'em in the comments! UPDATE: The comments contain a bunch of suggestions from M. Faust that include at least two songs I know had (natch) unnecessary lyrics sung at one point by Andy Williams! (The "Romeo and Juliet theme" and "Love's Theme") The Midnight Cowboy theme is almost too sublimely movie-related to have fit in here (but musically it does), and Hot Butter's "Popcorn" is infectious as hell (and well utilized in a party scene in Shriek of the Mutilated; the sequence is not on YT).

Monday, June 14, 2010

"I'm a little man, I'm a little man -- he's a big man": Deceased Artiste Dennis Hopper

Back when Dennis Hopper was a hippie wildman, Kris Kristofferson wrote the song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33 (Hang In, Hopper)” for Dennis, whom he had worked with on The Last Movie (the song was also supposed to reflect Kris’ other friends, like Johnny Cash and Jerry Jeff Walker, but his title betrays the main subject). Kristofferson’s lyrics, which can be found here, talk about the schizo nature of Hopper’s talent, how he was a “walking contradiction” (a line quoted by Paul Schrader in Taxi Driver, with a direct reference to Kristofferson, and yet another later in the film to Hopper).

Hopper definitely was a conflicted character when he was at his best — once the conflicts died down, so did the factors that made him an extremely watchable performer, and he made the conscious decision to appear in anything and everything (using accents he wasn’t very good at, and even playing Sinatra in one particularly odd pic that showed up on DVD). Perhaps to support his habit of buying art, perhaps to keep up with his upscale lifestyle, perhaps merely because he wanted to die “with his boots on” on a movie set. As a longtime fan of his, I’ve been cringing for the past 15 years plus, as he’s appeared in bad TV series, godawful “DVD premieres” (and their forefather, the “straight to video” movie), and stinking cable films; pretty much anything they offered him, he took. He completely ceased being a filmmaker after producing a few really interesting films, and became a character performer who would star in just about anything.

I say the preceding with regret, since I thought that, at his best, Hopper had a helluva lot to offer as an actor and as a filmmaker. Since the man has left us now, after a very public battle with prostate cancer (and his most recent younger wife), I’ll leave out the bad and just focus here on the good and the weird in Hopper’s work. He grew tremendously as a performer over the years, most likely due to his life experience and prolonged period indulging in drugs and really, really wild behavior (as with the sitting-in-the-middle-of-a-dynamite-circle story). Like his friend Jack Nicholson, he grew from being a really flat actor into a true multi-dimensional character on-screen, stealing some films outright and dominating others with scarily intense performances.

Hopper cultivated his “hipster” cred early on, from basking in the reflected glow of James Dean and starting a feud on a movie set with journeyman director Henry Hathaway. After the incident with Hathaway blacklisted him, he moved to New York, and tried for a “legit” reputation in theater and television. He gave some great performances in TV series, but also appeared in some compulsively watchable kitsch, like this episode of Petticoat Junction:

Even while appearing on fun crap like the above, he also kept moving in art circles, as is indicated by the fact he was in a “Screen Test” for Andy Warhol:

While researching this piece, I found that the clearest example of how Hopper grew as an actor could be found in his recitation of an all-too-familiar poem he’d memorized. He performed Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (which, btw, he had to remind us, was the middle word in “life”… man…) on The Johnny Cash Show (there was also a singing duet, which is wonderfully bad and can be found here). It’s pure corn, seeing Dennis recite the piece at this point in his career, kinda like him doing something “straight” for once, even as he is a hippie film star (with oddly groomed hair — what was it with that “pilgrim” look?):

He then performed the poem at a Dylan "Rolling Thunder" tour show, and of course inserted it out of the blue (plus the "middle word in life" bit) into Apocalypse Now. The most impressive clip I came across is him reciting the poem again as an older man, and a far, far better actor, giving it a genuinely emotional tinge that was missing in his earlier performances. Dammit if he didn’t get better as he got older (the reason why I was saddened by his descent into awful moviemaking for his final 15 years).

For a dose of pure hippie-visionary Dennis, the single best source is the documentary American Dreamer (1971), directed by L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller. When the docu was made, he was one of the hottest filmmakers in the world thanks to the success of Easy Rider, and he was about to shoot himself in the foot big-time with The Last Movie. Here he’s driving and rambling:

Here he centers in on Orson Welles as a model filmmaker, but also as the kind of person the studios simply would *not* trust with a film budget:

One of the docu’s finest moments, Dennis’s admission that he is a male lesbian:

The Last Movie (1971) is available in its entirety on YT. I have very mixed feelings about the film, since I think it is bold and daring and extremely crazy (always to be encouraged), but it actually winds up being only half a good movie, due to Hopper’s inability to actually carry off Godardian disjunctive techniques — plus the fact that he’s set up such a conventionally good storyline his working with alienation techniques wasn’t necessary:

He gave some great performances even while he was “indulging” in a major way. One of those was Henry Jaglom’s terrific Tracks (1977). The incredibly high-strung conclusion of the film finds Hopper going to that place he went to again in films like Blue Velvet:

He was also just perfectly cast in Wim Wenders’ brilliant crime-and-character picture The American Friend (1977). This trailer doesn’t have English subs, but Dennis’ scenes are in English:

Shortly after he gave the disciplined performance above, he went full-tilt gonzo for Coppola’s cameras in Apocalypse Now. It’s interesting that he was such a “type” when he gave this kind of performance, yet no one ever did an impression of him (although everyone I know wound up quoting his more batfuck crazy dialogue after seeing him give performances like this). He serves as the "doorway" to Brando, which is interesting in light of the fact that Marlon was forever going to be the paramount actor of Hopper's generation, given that Dean took an early exit and Monty Clift dissolved in the mid-Sixties:

Now we come to what I feel was the most underrated part of Hopper’s career, and the part he sadly abandoned when he started getting blockbuster salaries in the early Nineties: his filmmaking. Again, while he was still a dedicated “user,” he made an excellent low-budget independent feature in Canada that found him emulating the Cassavetes style to very good effect. Out of the Blue (1980) is hippie Dennis reflecting on the new punk culture, and the way in which people of his generation might not have been the most… attentive parents. It’s an excellently acted pic that is disturbing as hell and showed he was a very talented filmmaker who shoulda kept making movies. Here the lead character, Hopper’s fucked-up teen (Linda Manz), registers her complaints on a CB radio:

Here’s a little slice of the pic’s “atmosphere,” as the underage Manz wanders into a punk club:

And here Daddy Dennis comments on punk:

Hopper didn’t make another movie as a director until 1988, when he helmed Catchfire, which was released as Backtrack on video in 1990. It’s a bizarrely cast movie that is a helluva lot of fun, despite the fact that Dennis’s urban tough-guy accent is about as unconvincing as Nicholson’s in Prizzi’s Honor. The film was pretty much buried by its studio Vestron, just before Vestron itself was buried by bankruptcy. It exists on YT only as a pseudo-bondage clip uploaded for its fetish-y aspect, and for its Bob Dylan cameo, recorded here off of a TV set (I guess whomever holds the right to the title is demanding the clips come down?):

Hopper also made one of the best ever films about L.A. street gangs, Colors (1988). Superbly acted by Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, and as tense as all hell, the film is definitely one to be seen. It has been uploaded in its entirety on YT:

Hopper’s last film as a director was Chasers in 1994, which can be best described as “The Last Detail with Randy Quaid replaced by a hot blonde from Baywatch" (yes, it’s that high-concept). He had spoken in interviews about creating a film school for directors, but he completely abandoned that part of his career after Chasers (with the exception of one short in 2000). A definite shame, considering the talent he did display as a director — and the fact that he stopped being interested in filmmaking around the time he started earning *giant* salaries in big-budget crapo blockbusters like Speed and Waterworld (which may have failed at the b.o., but Dennis made quite a lot doing it).

Since I don’t really want to draw too much attention to Chasers, I’ll close with the trailer to his last good pic as a director, The Hot Spot (1990), which is based on an old hardboiled novel, found Don Johnson actually giving an excellent performance, and costarred the dynamic duo of Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Connelly, both unquestionably pleasing to the eye:

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A plea for an actual classic TV network: Turner Classic Television?

It is entirely obvious to anyone who digs nostalgia that b&w films and TV shows are anathema to cable broadcasters. Given our short national memory (which began disappearing when Reagan became president), I understand this fact, but still wish there was some kind of classic TV network currently on cable.

“Nick at Night” has been showing very recent-vintage family sitcoms since 1990s; it is utterly useless to fans of classic TV, as is its onetime “replacement” network, TV Land. You know how the replacement network thing works, right? A franchise is established, and then the creators of said franchise begin to sorta alter (and usually tarnish) the original, and so a secondary network is created to do what the original network used to do. In the case of Nick, it left behind the Fifties long ago, then ditched the Sixties, with the exception of a few very beloved sitcoms.

As time went on, even the Seventies was phased out on Nick. SIDE THOUGHT: Being a child of the Seventies, I firmly believe that it was the decade when American TV series really went into the crapper, as far as the quality of the most popular shows (writing, acting, even concepts; Sixties concepts were indeed “gimmicky,” but at least they went all over the map). The auspicious beginning of the decade, with the debut of the groundbreaking Norman Lear and MTM sitcoms, led to the painful '77-'80 era, when the Lear shows set the bar (low, mighty low) for the long-running sitcoms that would "jump the shark" from that point on, and the MTM shows wisely left the air while they were still funny. END OF SIDE THOUGHT. Once the Eighties Cosby Show/Family Ties/Growing Pains family series became the focus of Nick at Night's schedule, it was pretty much the end of the truly classic nostalgia factor, and the shows were not only spanking new, they were just off their network run.

Thus, TV Land appeared, in order to “pick up the slack.” In a few years it too became ashamed of its classic TV programming, relegating it to "off" hours, while producing new reality shows and showing movies that are edited for TV and theoretically relate to the viewer demographic (not forgetting airings of spankin' new reruns of "Extreme Makeover" series, which are someone's idea of classic television — someone very sad). Around this time, we who had broader cable choices were able to latch on to showings of classic b&w shows on GSN (and we know what happened there, don’t we?) and the onetime Nostalgia Network.

Whatever did happen to the last-mentioned? Well, it’s now the American Life channel, and its schedule is here. The channel tries to appeal to baby boomers, or Gen Xers, or whomever might watch old TV shows that aren’t all that old (plus “health and wellness” shows and now some kickboxing — but only a little). The Color Honeymooners (which is dazzling to the eye, but mighty hard to sit through, esp. when Kramden, Norton and co. go on foreign cruises) and Mission: Impossible are the only Sixties shows left in their lineup, which is now mostly drama series of the pre-Law and Order variety, and the lesser MTM sitcoms (where’s Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers?). In researching this blog entry, I found that the channel was bought in 2001 by the Unification Church, so they have what one advertising blog calls a “mandate for family values programming.”

Thus, we have a network that used to show nostalgia, and used to be called the Nostalgia Network, but no longer has much of a connection to it. Today I learned of a channel not carried in NYC, called the Retro Television Network (RTN). The network’s lineup is here. And again, you’ll notice that it’s a nostalgia network that believes its nostalgia fans only want to watch old shows in color. The selection comes from one library (I believe it is the Universal one), and is heavy on crime and action series, with a small smattering of comedies (The Munsters Today???), and things that were awful then and are awful now (That’s Incredible!).

RTN shows a handful of b&w shows (the sublime Jack Benny, Mike Hammer with Darren McGavin, The Rifleman, Bachelor Father, The Cisco Kid). But, as is the case everywhere else on the cable dial, classic TV is thought to be purely color series, and the Fifties are to be forgotten, the Sixties merely tolerated, and the Seventies indulged in if you’re talking those awful ABC shows that everyone watched out of sheer pre-cable zombiedom (I’m looking at you, Three’s Company, the acme and nadir of dumb-ass Seventies TV).

Thus, I make a modest proposal which I’m sure won’t materialize, but I sincerely hope that it will. Since Turner Classic Movies has proven to be THE one source for classic b&w film on television, I wish that the folks responsible for programming that network would take a chance on a Turner Classic Television network, where we could indeed see the rest of Television Past. On my personal wish list would be the gems of the Fifties (live TV plays, Mr. Peepers, Bilko, et al), the forgotten dramas of the Sixties (Naked City, East Side West Side), and the comedies that were indeed funny and not dunderheaded in the Seventies (Barney Miller among a few others). Shows that have not been in syndication since their original runs would be incredibly welcome — Comedy Central, when it was The Comedy Channel (and aired a top-notch roster of classic TV comedy fare), had a bizarre afternoon slot for failed Sixties/Seventies shows called “Sitcom Sanctuary” that was terrific.

Mostly, what I would like to see aired on some nostalgia network at some point, in any capacity, would be the wonderful VARIETY SHOWS that were a staple of network TV from the Fifties through the Seventies: from Berle, Allen, Caesar, and Kovacs, to The Hollywood Palace, The Dean Martin Show, and of course Ed Sullivan (with the specialty acts left in).

This is, of course, a concept that most would say wouldn’t fly because: a.) people won’t watch b&w anymore, except a niche audience, who could buy the shows on DVD anyway (if they even exist on that transitory medium); b.) kids have no idea what b&w is and don’t care; c.) the Trio Network, which made a practice of programming real quality classic TV, failed; d.) the “comfort shows” people crave have changed from things viewers saw growing up to the shows they remember from a handful of years ago (does anyone anywhere, though, consider the Jim Belushi sitcom a comfort show? Really?); and e.) you’d need to set up a network that would delve into different libraries of programming, and not just air one kind of classic TV rerun.

Well, all of these things were obstacles to getting a unified source for classic movies on TV, until the Turner people made a “replacement network” for TNT, which had been airing some rare and terrific gems from the Turner Library. TCM has become the model of a real nostalgia network as far as film is concerned, and it is the model for what could be done for a classic TV network. There *is* an audience for this kind of thing, it is just a dispersed one that is completely ignored by the existing nets because of the viewers’ age, their buying habits, and the fact that, although much lip service is given to the concept of “alternative” TV programming, there really is none on American television (with the exception of, ahem, what remains of cable-access).

It’s a certainty that classic TV would never fetch the kind of numbers that American Idol gets on a weekly basis. But, then again, TCM has cultivated a very devoted audience, and those folks are eagerly addicted to the channel. Again, there *is* a market for this kind of TV repository of all the good shows that aired on American TV from the Fifties through the Eighties. We’d just need Turner, or an organization with as much courage, foresight, and marketing savvy, to set it up.

Flying through the streets of San Francisco: Deceased Artiste William A. Fraker

In months past, I tried to keep track of the full-length films that were hiding in plain sight on YouTube. I’ve had other things to write about in the time since, but it’s not like the influx of uploads has stopped or anything. I offer as evidence of the raving fandom (and you have to be a fan to take the time to upload a feature film onto YT piece by piece by piece…) clips and entire features that showcase the work of cinematographer William A. Fraker, who died this week at 86.

Fraker is credited with additional photography on the surprisingly good Esperanto-Shatner horror pic Incubus, but his mainstream bow as d.p. was the Curtis Harrington thriller Games. He next did the very evocative The Fox starring a personal fave, the always on-edge Sandy Dennis. The film’s look is beautiful, and most of the picture is on YT:

One of the most successful films he worked on was Rosemary’s Baby. Here is the trailer for that classic (which was on YT, but has obviously been taken down or “hidden” under a fake name):

Fraker personally shot the amazing car chase from Bullitt:

Most interesting is a film I haven’t caught up with, Dusty and Sweets McGee. The very intense and well-scored opening of the film used to be up on YT, but now only this dramatic scene can be found. Still looks like a fascinating movie:

Fraker shot additional scenes for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which is indeed up in its entirety on YT), and did terrific work on Richard Brooks’ atmospheric time-capsule pic Looking for Mr. Goodbar. The trailer is here. The last film to fascinate me that Fraker worked on was the wonderful train-wreck known as The Island of Dr. Moreau. Good to know that Fraker’s camera beheld the always magical Nelson de la Rosa (not to mention mountainous Marlon):