Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Hugo": a love letter to cinema (and respite from Leo!)

I’ve already noted on this blog my great disappointment in the beautifully crafted but soulless work produced by Martin Scorsese in the years since Kundun. His latest film, Hugo, contains several elements that would seem to make it yet another venture into multiplex-land: a massive budget, a kid protagonist, a “heartwarming” promotional campaign, and 3D. Instead, the film is the best thing Scorsese has made in a decade and a half, and the first time his holy cinephilia has been “smuggled” (his phrase from Personal Journey) into a fictional narrative.

The film is a few minutes too long — Scorsese can't really answer his own question to young filmmakers, “is it as tough as Bresson?” (read: lean) — and is also incredibly sentimental. In this instance, though, the sticky-sweet sequences are evenly spaced out, and in the latter half they are hooked securely to the love of cinema in a way that makes them quite touching.

In the end, there are two key elements that make Hugo vastly different from the last decade of Scorsese “pictures”:

— it was made in England with a predominantly British cast, thus ensuring that no wildly miscast American star (Cameron Diaz, Gangs of New York), comatose lead (Nicolas Cage, Bringing Out the Dead), or preening wonder boy (Marky Mark, The Departed) shows up to utterly disrupt the narrative.
— no Leonardo DiCaprio (hosanna)!

The greatest joy of Hugo is that it seems to exist for an actual reason (was/is there any reason for The Departed to exist — and be 151 minutes long?), and that reason is for Scorsese to use state-of-the-art technology to conjure up the most primitive cinema there was, and the most magical: the works of Georges Méliès. It’s a perverse decision to be sure, but one that succeeds beautifully.

3D is a gimmick, one that was created in the Fifties to combat television and has been reintroduced into the marketplace to combat movie downloads. It has held no interest for me, as it has been used to gussy up the kid-centric fodder that occupies every multiplex everywhere. However, if this resurrected and improved technology is used with an experimental purpose in mind — as in Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wenders’ Pina — the effects can be remarkable.

In Hugo Scorsese first creates a clockwork universe that seems derived in equal parts from Tati and Jeunet, and then takes us into the less intricate but more riveting world of magician-turned-filmmaker Méliès (right). Though chronologically “primitive,” Méliès’ films remain far more impressive than the computer-crafted flicks that currently flood into the multiplex.

So, as Herzog used the third dimension to convey the nuances of prehistoric cave paintings and Wenders spotlighted the spaces between dancers, Scorsese uses the current technology to underscore the hard work and surplus of imagination that went into Méliès’ handcrafted films. Hugo may have a young protagonist (two in fact), but it aims quite higher than the usual raft of anthropomorphic animal (or doll, or car) movies that are being presented in 3D (oh, and that nightmare of tedium that is “motion capture” — just make a fucking cartoon, guys, or a live-action feature!).

Here Scorsese draws on the tradition of French films about children leading independent lives (Forbidden Games, Truffaut’s work, and a healthy dash of Zazie dans le Metro). The constant succession of chases in Hugo does parallel what goes in most kid-centric H’wood pap, but here it evokes the races-against-time that distinguished silent cliffhangers from the likes of Feuillade and Griffith.

As noted, I detected the influence of Jean-Pierre Jeunet throughtout Hugo, and this is just as it should be, since, as I’ve noted on the Funhouse TV show, the most interesting uses of CGI effects in the past decade has occurred in French films (Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke, Vidocq, every film in French by Jeunet), creating distinctive period pieces, but also fashioning interdependent universes in the Metro, a bar, an apartment building, and so forth (take a glance at Amelie, or Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen, and you’ll see the blueprint for Hugo).

Scorsese demonstrated his debt to the French New Wave in his sublimely rough-edged Seventies masterworks (think of the Alka Seltzer scene in Taxi Driver, evoking Godard’s Two or Three Things…). Here he openly pays tribute to Godard and Truffaut by having an “expert” (Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, above) supply an entertaining lecture on the beginnings of cinema, looking straight at us. Kingsley’s Méliès is every expert Uncle Jean introduced to explain something in detail to a character, as well as every Truffaut character who spoke directly to us rather than another character, to tell a story from the past.

A few quibbles aside, Hugo is the film that older Scorsese acolytes of old have been waiting for — giving us a respite from the deadening central presence of Leo. It’s a film that reminds us exactly how expert a filmmaker Scorsese is, putting his technical proficiency at the service of a storyline that evokes genuine emotion and wonder.

I can only hope that Scorsese continues to make British or European-themed films, as it can reinvigorate him as it has reinvigorated Woody Allen. Never forget that European and British funding allowed Funhouse deity Robert Altman to survive when he was out of favor in Hollywood (which was quite often).

I’d love to see “le grand Marty” produce another picture that is “as tough as Bresson”; I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen again, now that he’s infatuated with big, large, massive, colossal budgets. I’ll settle in the meantime, though, for something he really cares about, that isn’t a star vehicle and is worth rewatching. Merci, MS.

Méliès' work is available in profusion all over the Internet because (unless the film in question has been wildly tinkered with), it has fallen into public domain. Thus, you can see numerous copies of his most mind-warping films, but I would recommend these as a “starter kit.” First, the “greatest hit,” featured heavily in Hugo, “Voyage to the Moon”:

“The Man with the Rubber Head,” from 1901:

“The Merry Frolics of Satan,” from 1906:

“Fantastic Butterfly,” from 1909

Friday, December 23, 2011

Three Jewish comedians on the topic of Christmas presents

So these three Jews walk into a department store… no, no, that’s very politically incorrect. However, since I want to salute the holiday without trotting out the same tunes you hear ALL the time, and I certainly don't want to go anywhere near the religious content of the occasion, which (let’s face it) has nothing at all to do with what goes on around this money-centric country anyway. The Yuletide is all about the gifts, and so there is no better subject to be tackled by comedians in search of an Xmas single. (When people did release singles, that is. I am old.)

In this spirit I offer three Jewish comics from different comedic backgrounds supplying their takes on Xmas. First, the rarest track of the three, one I personally uploaded to YT, Marty Feldman’s “A Joyous Time of the Year.”

This is included in a CD release called “I Feel a Song Going Off” that is made up of the contents of a 1971 Marty LP called The Strange World of Marty Feldman, plus extra tracks which may or may not have been singles. Marty was a true original who did Keaton-precise physical comedy (see his “Loneliness of the Long Distance Golfer”), but he was also extremely funny as a manic character comic (watch this sketch). Here is his Xmas ditty:

A few years later, Albert Brooks released this single written by him and Harry Shearer. Interestingly, Albert was not a dad when this came out, but had children later in life. It’s a nice and nasty piece of business that comes from the period when Albert was a wonderfully abrasive comic presence (see my article on his transformations as a comedian and filmmaker). From 1974, “A Daddy's Christmas”:

And finally, since we never heard from him this past Labor Day (or since), I’ll close out with the “unkillable Jerry” (French variant title of one of his comedies). Here he laments the crappiness of his gifts with a song that is a lot more listenable than “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” or “I Ain’t Getting’ Nuttin’ for Christmas (’Cause I Ain’t Been Nuttin’ But Bad).” Herewith Jerry’s “I Had a Very Merry Christmas” — whatever you think of it, it’s worth it just to hear his pronunciation of the name “Minnie the Mermaid” (and, yes, I uploaded this one too -- these things need to be heard!):

Thanks as always to Jim G. for his diligent work unearthing the rarest comedy LPs found on the Net. His hard work is invaluable.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Arrogance, Eloquence & Intelligence: Deceased Artiste Christopher Hitchens

In terms of having read Hitchens’ writing, I am severely undernourished [UPDATE: not any more, but more on that in a future blog post], so I will speak about his importance as a media personality and a public intellectual, which is a very rare and valuable commodity in the culture of idiocy (oh, sorry… oversimplification) that has ruled in America since the B-movie actor was Pres. Hitchens could be, and quite often was, a major pain in the ass to listen to or read, if you disagreed with him. As a Lefty who enjoyed his columns in The Nation, I found his later discussions of how the Iraq War was a just one (against “Islamofascism”) endlessly annoying — more than likely because I wanted one of the best media intellectuals on my “side” and not putting his impressive intelligence in the service of something that was so clearly wrong.

But Hitchens, like any good intellectual, argued on a higher plane than most individuals whom you encounter on a daily basis, so even his most stridently wrongheaded arguments had a grounding in facts and were presented with a force that is rarely encountered outside of academic settings.

Hitchens had personality, dammit, whether he was right or wrong, and his lectures, print interviews, and TV appearances exuded the kind of contentious brilliance that was de rigeur in the days of Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, and Gore Vidal (thankfully we still have Vidal among us, an American national treasure and a rapier-sharp speaker), but has sadly disappeared from sight.

Hitchens was defined for many Americans by his English accent, incredible erudition, his linearity of thought, the reputation as a massive smoker and drinker, and yes, his obnoxiousness in interview and debate settings. Watch this wonderful clip from the fucking awful MSNBC show Scarborough Country and you’ll see him in fine form, telling off a representative of Jerry Falwell whom he’s supposed to be debating about the “war on Christmas.”

The fact that Hitchens didn’t suffer fools gladly made him a joy to watch, and this impatience made him invaluable when confronted with ridiculous belief systems like the “selfishness is good” Objectivism cult of Ayn Rand. His comments here decimate the whole Randian philosophy (plus her crappiness as a writer) in a scant few minutes:

He began as a socialist, a Trotskyite in fact, and was a heralded writer for Leftist publications until his “Islamofascist” period, which was followed by what seemed to be a move back to the Left (perception… and American politics!) with his decision to devote his attention to the dangers of organized religion and to explore his atheism.

Throughout his life, however, he remained a man of ideas who wrote books about authors and politicians he idolized (Orwell, Paine, Jefferson), while taking on people whose mythologies he felt concealed their hypocrisy (Kissinger, Clinton, Mother Theresa).

At times it seemed like he pursued conflict for its own sake. At one point he made a strident, Jerry Lewis-like, incorrect pronouncement in Vanity Fair about women comedians not being as funny as men — a topic that can be debated endlessly, but I think has much more to do with the audience reception (that audience including Hitchens), and the cult of personality that surrounds humorists and comedians. The question is, will straight men ever be cult followers for a woman comic as they would for a male? Will other women?

That debate truly felt like it was “Hitch” just honing his contrarian pain-in-the-ass image, although I have to fully agree with his savage attack on the inherent unfunniness of Bob Hope. Sure, Hitchens was ignoring the extremely entertaining movies Hope made in the Forties and early Fifties, but by the Sixties the Old Ski Nose was truly agonizing to watch (his specials from the Sixties through the Nineties remaining interesting more as cultural curios than classic comedy). Hitchens was one of the few to write about this after Hope died.

Hitchens was thus an invaluable voice even when he was being petty and bitchy about something that just popped into his head — his positions required that the listener/reader think in order to respond. He addressed the issue of whether his ire was fabricated in this very good C-SPAN interview:

I believe his decision to deconstruct “the Mother Theresa myth” was extremely important — so many people blindly worship the lady that Hitchens’ contention that her beliefs (among them, that suffering is “holy”) were wildly illogical and in fact detrimental to the people she “gave her life to” was something that needed to be said. He backed this up with facts about the way her missions operated, and how she moved among world leaders while espousing her message about the “biggest crime” (abortion).

A short-form version of his argument against her can be seen in this segment from Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, but a full thirty-minute documentary he made, Mother Theresa: Hell’s Angel, is available on YT:

Without question, what wound up being Hitchens’ legacy is his devotion to advocating and explaining atheism to those who are still tethered to the reassurances of religion. He lacked the scientific background and logical precision of Dawkins, but his lectures and interviews on the topic were never less than brilliant.

One YT poster put together an expert little montage of some of the best moments from his public debates and TV appearances. Herein you find him making some absolutely superb intellectual points, as well as a few moments where Hitch seems, like good old Norman Mailer, to be playing a “heel” wrestler to an antagonized audience:

What he shared with Dawkins was the ability to point out to the “faithful” that atheists could enjoy life with as much fervor as those who felt they had a safety net in the afterlife. Here both men speak at one of Hitchens’ last public appearances, at the Texas Freethought Convention two months ago. Dawkins gives a nicely sentimental tribute to his prickly debate partner and colleague in rationalism. It's a very moving clip, especially during the visibly weakened (physically, not mentally) Hitch's turn at the mic:

There are literally hundreds of Hitchens clips on YT and even a Hitchens channel. The best way to end this piece, though, is to spotlight his statements on death, first in an interview with Anderson Cooper talking about how the faithful were hoping for him to experience a “deathbed conversion”. Here are his comments about the key use of the afterlife as a come-on in religion:

Most of Hitchens’ fans were taking swigs of his favorite Johnnie Walker Black on the day of his death. I am not fond of the taste of whiskey, so I salute his memory as I can, with a clear thought and a rationalist’s admiration. Yes, he could be massively annoying, but we need many more people who can annoy the way that Hitch did.

Friday, December 9, 2011

British humor 8: Robin Ince

I speak a lot about the thin line that separates high art and low trash in this blog and on the Funhouse TV show (and was glad to see our friend "Bava Tuesdays" pick up on a remark I have made frequently about the factor that unites them both). Robin Ince is a fellow traveler in the art/trash appreciation biz, and his comedy reflects his unbridled fascination with both the highest forms of literary endeavor and the most unimaginably silly schlock. And for that I salute him.

I became aware of Ince through import DVDs of Ricky Gervais’ standup. Robin is a personal friend of Gervais and was his opening act on two tours. Even in the short sets included on the DVDs it was evident that Ince had already refined his stage persona: a delightfully cranky, sarcastic middle-aged man who is very disturbed by stupidity:

Ince has refined his standup since working with Gervais (and he's no longer tormented by his prank-prone super-celeb friend). The next time I came across him was as a confederate of a few of the British comics whose work I’ve profiled here and covered in depth on the Funhouse TV show, including Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. In the last few years, Robin has carved out a niche for himself as a top-notch “compere” (the English — actually French — term for MC) and an excellent radio/podcast host.

To put it simply, Ince is an “egghead comedian,” and I say that not as an insult but as a compliment. He is an outspoken rationalist (the correct term for atheist) and now discusses public perceptions of science (good, bad, and indifferent) in his standup. The only comic in America who has similar concerns is Chris Rush, who comes from a slightly different place but shows an equal enthusiasm for supplying humorous layman’s explanations of scientific phenomena and natural oddities (curiously, his scientist hero, Rupert Sheldrake, is British, and Ince’s are Americans, Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman).

Ince currently cohosts two wonderful and different podcasts with a great degree of energy and quick wit. The free-form interview podcast Utter Shambles he cohosts with the exuberant and delightful comic Josie Long. The ‘cast finds the duo talking to the occasional author (including scientists and comics genius Alan Moore), but mostly the guests are their fellow comedians, including that Lee fellow, Mark Steel, Stephen Merchant, Tim Minchin, and “elder statesmen” Alexei Sayle and Terry Jones.

The other podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage, originates as a Radio 4 show. Ince cohosts with physicist Brian Cox (whose documentaries are on American cable, if ya can find ‘em). Ince and Cox tackle a specific issue in each episode (“Is Philosophy Dead?” “Science and the Supernatural,” “The Origin of Life”) with guests from the scientific community (who get to show their humorous side) and at least one comedian (who gets to show his/her serious side).

Ince’s premiere achievement, however, has to be the annual live show “Nine Lessons and Carols for a Godless Christmas.” This rationalist celebration of the Yuletide season is something that Americans can only see thanks to YouTube postings and releases from the invaluable independent DVD label Go Faster Stripe. In addition to the Nine Lessons… events, GFS has released a full-length standup DVD, Robin Ince Is as Dumb as You, which has some wonderful material on it and a lot of extras (including outtakes and a spirited interview), all with an audio commentary from Ince (who can be quite a loquacious gentleman and is very fond of footnotes).

Dumb as You is a lot of fun, but if you’d like a more succinct intro to Robin and the world of talented and dauntingly brilliant folks he hangs around with, I’d recommend checking out the DVD of the 2009 Nine Lessons show (there is also a CD available of the 2010 show ). As the host, he offers some of his best routines in between the acts — including a gem about getting caught in a “YouTube loop,” which NEEDS to be on YT itself.

The Nine Lessons shows — which take place in two weeks in London and are already sold out for this year — boast an impressive roster of performers that is split between scientist-authors (Cox, Simon Singh, Bad Medicine writer Ben Goldacre, and the man who drives “the faithful” crazy in a wonderful way, Mr. Richard Dawkins) and comedians (Herring, Lee, Long, Peep Show's Issy Suttie, and the indescribably weird and wonderful character comic Waen Shepherd).

Here’s a nice slice of Robin talking about "boring science" at Nine Lessons:

Ince’s melding of rational thought, fun scientific anecdotes, and cranky comedy is impressive, but the reason I’m writing this profile is to call attention to a concept I consider his premiere achievement — especially for folks like myself who both love and have copyedited some very bizarre vanity-press books. The concept is the “Bad Book Club,” and Robin provided the back story for it in the interview found on the Dumb as You DVD: how his precious collection of records was literally covered in shit (no joke) by a plumbing problem that found his neighbors’ waste entering his house and destroying his stuff (as a fellow collector, I cringe even recounting the tale). His efforts to recreate his record collection, with the help of Stewart Lee, were detailed on a radio special called “How Robin Got His Groove Back” (that was up online on the essential, which is very sadly not online at the moment I write this).

This traumatic event jarred him into looking in a different direction for entertainment, and this is when the always relaxing and mind-warping pursuit of schlock came in. Ince haunted charity shops, looking for the most insane and outré titles he could find. He began to read excerpts from these books onstage, and set up entire shows around them, simply called “the Book Club,” in which the audience was encouraged to bring their own terrible tomes. There isn’t much footage of Robin doing his “book club” readings, but a few clips have surfaced. Here is the finest visual sample available, done for New Humanist magazine:

The best way to enjoy this wonderful concept is to read his book Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club, which finds him ruminating on the high weirdness he found on charity shop bookshelves. His rules were simple: he never paid over £3 for a book, and he even found some choice items left on trains and in waiting rooms. The fact that he wasn’t looking for a specific piece of crap-lit meant he discovered things that were so wildly marginal as to make his book-club tome a must for deep-fried kitsch enthusiasts. Among the oddities:

—guides to help women find husbands, and to aid men in “picking up sexy girls”
—UFO encounter screeds
—inappropriately lurid studies of the sex lives of animals
—awful, un-ghost-written, celebrity bios
—specialist poetry collections (including a book of Elvis poems and odes to TV news anchors)
—a two-fisted "men's novel" about a hardboiled cop who has to overcome his hatred of particle physics
—(the finest) a Christian gynecological romance called The Sign of the Speculum

Ince summarized his choicest finds in a best-of short list for The Guardian, but there are items in his book that are just too wonderful for words. Among them is Starlust, a Eighties collection of fans' sex fantasies about pop stars. He cites the book’s main pull quote — “If there was a nuclear war I’d be thinking, is Boy George safe?”— and tells us the heartbreaking story of a woman who cried herself to sleep at night because her husband wasn’t anything like Barry Manilow.

The one fantasy that is going to stay with me for some time is from a woman who confesses that she’s excited by pain, and thus wishes her favorite pop stars were in torment so she could be turned on by it. Her most complicated scenario involves Debbie Harry and Chris Stein suffering from fatal diseases, with the only cure being intercourse. The sex would be excruciatingly painful for both of them, but that would only serve to turn this fangirl on more…. Tales like these offer sufficient proof as to why Ince refers to these insane books as “printed heroin.”

I heartily recommend Robin Ince’s Bad Book Club, and only wish it had sold well enough to encourage him to write a follow-up. In the meantime, I can content myself with the knowledge that there is a kitsch-culture obsessive who is as taken with awful prose as myself and Funhouse viewers.

In Robin’s infrequently updated but very funny Wordpress blog he documents an experiment he attempted in 2010, to shed some of his thrift-shop book and DVD acquisitions by reading the first chapters of different books each night (ditto with watching the first chapters of DVDs) to see what he could easily give away to his standup audiences. The joy comes not only from his wry observations about these odd items, but also from the sheepish confessions he makes about keeping the bulk of the books/discs he looked at. One could expect no less from an obsessive collector.

Two of the best Ince clips available online. First, a fine bit about TV news that is timely when I write this, as he addresses the fictitious "war against Christmas":

Log TV: News Log – Robin Ince Hates News

And perhaps his best routine, about “intelligent design” (I'm not sure who the accordionist is, but the geeky-looking fellow doing an interpretive rendition of Ince's words is Lee and Herring colleague Ben Moor):

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Funhouse flashback: "The strange world of vanity publishing"

I'm currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying, the obsessive and very funny bibliophile chronicle Robin Ince's Bad Book Club (more on Robin in a later blog entry), which includes in its front matter the following statement “He does not believe the books described within are bad books. They are just different.” This put me in mind of my own favorite “different” books, the vanity press titles I used to copyedit, proofread and write cover copy for (yes, I've had a few odd jobs in publishing).

I won't attempt to offer wry observations on these works, since they don't need them; they speak for themselves. I let them do so a few times a number of years ago on the Funhouse TV show.

I hereby present the pertinent two-thirds of the fourth (and best) early episode, from 1996, where I presented vanity-press books. Included are numerous unusual covers, several mind-boggling titles, and extremely ripe and bizarre prose. I repeatedly assert on-air that I'm not making fun of these books, because I do know that in many cases they are the fruit of many, many hours of labor by their utterly sincere authors. Plus, the writer of the above title lives in NYC and might've seen the show. I know how easily fetish-folk take offense and didn't want him running after me on a city street brandishing a wet rain slicker.

The first part of the presentation features a raft of eye-catching covers and unusual titles:

The second part finds me sifting through more covers and reading from two of the more memorable items, a book of “observations” and a very strange fictional narrative written by a woman who has a fiendish plan to stop her daughter from having premarital sex. You can't make this stuff up: