Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Step Inside Love

The stunning opening to Cilla Black's original tv show:
This is a very fine performance and arrangement of a White Album out-take that Paul McCartney gifted to his scouse friend and fellow George Martin producee. McCartney's original demo. had traces of Jobim in it:

but Cilla's version rotates that influence 90ยบ through Bacharach's appropriation of that tradition, surprising/climaxing with a trace of Bond/John Barry in the chorus. Marvellous stuff that anticipates some of where McCartney would go post-Beatles.

It would be interesting to know how much of Cilla's arrangement McCartney was responsible for. And if the answer to that question is 'a lot', whether he'd have thought of developing the song in that direction without Cilla's Bacharach-laden example in front of him? At any rate, here's a snippet of Paul and Cilla setting up to record the song:


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)

In the light of his death last week, I finally got around to watching Claude Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). Just as advertised (by various Obit. and Appreciation writers), LBF's a great film - ingenious, frightening, maddeningly elusive but also unbearably direct, unforgettable. It seems obvious in retrospect that LBF is an important influence (directly or indirectly) on the intellectual 'shock' cinema that stretches from Haneke to directors such as Noe and Breillat.

I'll need to think the film over a lot more to be sure, but, right off the bat, LBF appears to fit beautifully with Psycho and Peeping Tom as a panel in a 1960 horror triptych about men and women as largely, mutually uncomprehending, alien species (though distance from self or self-incomprehension is also important in these films) in something like a state of war, or, perhaps better, a parasite-host symbiosis or a zoo-animal/-keeper relation. The last is the key, cruel suggestion of the terrific zoo scene in LBF (although the audience isn't in a position to decipher that suggestion properly as it's made, i.e., first time through[1]). [Update: I used to have a clip of the scene here, but it's been removed from youtube, so a couple of images will have to do.]:

P, PT, and LBF all argue that only various sorts of social norms and self-delusions prevent the horrifying facts about ourselves from being obvious to all concerned. LBF's coda flags explicitly that those self-delusions can include novel and film conventions and expectations about romantic heroines and pretty Parisiennes in particular, i.e., factors that have shaped and distorted our view of the film we've just been watching. On the one hand, that coda practically demands that the audience rewatch LBF immediately (I immediately rewatched about half). On the other hand, some viewers will inevitably react angrily to this sort of meta-manoeuver, resent that Chabrol has so manipulated them, and so on. Indeed, LBF was a financial and critical failure in 1960 (according to imdb, it led some Parisian viewers to break their cinema seats), and it wasn't released in the US (in NYC) until 1966. At least LBF didn't effectively end Chabrol's career in his home-industry the way PT did Powell's.

LBF is dee-pressing, and brilliantly nasty, albeit in a way that's fairly familiar to us these days from Haneke, Breillat, et al.. But Chabrol got there first, in something like the way Hitchcock did with Psycho. 1960-vintage Chabrol and Hitchcock was quickly out-stripped in the explicit sex and violence stakes by imitators and acolytes, and by the directors' own later selves (some contemporary viewers may be incredulous at LBF's pre-film, R-18 certificate -'Ce Film est interdit aux moins de 18 ans'). But both P and LBF are such artful and pure examples of the film sub-genres they founded that they're hard to improve upon in any case, and the subsequent jading of our palates in fact only makes them more watchable now.[2]

LBF wobbles slightly and almost falls over first time through (at about the half-way point in my case). We flail and lose patience as we're left suspended, not knowing how to understand/read what we're seeing. That's risky, but Chabrol's risk-taking pays off big time by the end of the film, and on subsequent viewings. Les Bonnes Femmes is a masterpiece, probably the original brainy, malevolent masterpiece.

[1] Indeed, first time though we're tempted to exactly the wrong (or at best strictly one-sided) analogy: biker guy is like the caged animal. Some reviewers, apparently eager to demonstrate their superiority to Chabrol's relatively open-textured film, overlook this and falsify which conclusions LBF allows anyone to draw, as it were, in real time, e.g., Mick LaSalle's intemperate remark: "The women go to the zoo and see a lot of beautiful animals in cages. We get the analogy. The gals don't." But, as we've seen, LBF initially, principally signals that the biker guy is (perhaps guys in general are) the caged animal. That is, this important scene, like others in LBF, opens up multiple meanings, and an alert audience has no choice but to try to juggle these partially competing ideas (keep them all aloft) as the film unfolds and springs its traps. Taxing the audience in this way is a signature of a certain sort of potentially great film-making, albeit a sort that's not to everyone's taste (e.g., some people simply dislike all demanding films). At any rate, LaSalle's dismissive yawn at LBF is quite unwarranted. It's also very revealing. One of Chabrol's most famous films, Les Biches (1968), explicitly asks 'Who's the hunter, and who's the hunted?'-type questions. A reviewer for a major metropolitan paper in 2000 should have been able to be sensitive to and non-reductive about different possibilities from Chabrol.

[2] Modern audiences have to work a little bit to appreciate P's and LBF's original 'hot stuff'/scandalous sides. The upside of that distance, however, is that it takes the edge off the films' contents and makes them more acceptable and accessible to broad audiences than before. Hard-R '70s films and their indie/foreign extreme successors today, by way of contrast, remain beyond the pale for many people. It's just a fact that Looking for Funny Games with Mr Straw Dogs Irreversible Goodbar rarely comes to a multiplex or a dvd-player anywhere near most of us.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

At least it wasn't The Omen

Act MP David Garrett says that he took the idea of stealing the identity of a long dead baby to procure a fraudulent passport for himself from Frederick Forsyth's 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal (filmed by Fred Zinneman of High Noon fame in 1973). Another '70s pop-culture phenomenon that prominently featured shenanigans about dead babies was The Omen. Wiki summarizes the beginning of its plot as follows:
The infant son of Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick), dies shortly after birth in Rome. Out of concern for his wife's mental well-being, Robert is coerced into substituting the dead child for an orphan whose mother died at the same moment by Father Spiletto (Martin Benson), without telling her the truth. Katherine and Robert name the child Damien (Harvey Stephens). Shortly afterwards, Robert is named U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain.
It later emerges that Damien is the anti-Christ, and that the Thorns' dead infant son was in fact murdered (by, as it were, anti-Nuns). The plan is for the anti-Christ to be raised as a child into the friends-of-a-US-President family then, once grown, for him to use those connections to become US President, or Helen Clark, or some such thing. That plan comes to something like fruition in Omen 3: The Final Conflict, the first and only Hollywood film to have two Kiwi leads (Sam Neill and Lisa Harrow).

Coincidence? I think not. Dream bigger darling Mr Garrett: Roger Douglas stabbing someone in a cathedral, Rodney Hide drowning under ice, fending off Sensible Sentencing Trust wolves, the permutations are endless. Photoshoppers and youtube parodists, start your engines.

Update Sept 24, 2010: Garrett has resigned from Parliament and, according to the NZ Herald, claims that dark forces are at work within the ACT party. The Herald also reports that ACT MP Heather Roy, denies being behind the leaks that doomed Garrett:

'She laughed off the comments about dark forces, saying, "I think everybody might have been reading too much Star Wars."'
Wrong answer. Not dark enough. Try harder. Oh, alright....

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Without a Love Story

I tend to enjoy quite simple mash-ups, and this is a good 'un of that kind.

This blog entry captures part of why this mash-up is affecting, but I believe that the mash-up's burying of the vocal in the track (amid lots of pre-echo wash fx) is also a factor. That blurring of the lyric allows gender and sexual orientation ambiguity to creep in: in this version of Swift's song it sounds as though the singer's daddy is telling her to stay away from Juliet. Meta-mash-ups beckon, e.g., add some Kanye West interjections, some Taylor Swift responses, while U2 continues to chug indefinitely underneath...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Lexicon of I'm not in Love.

10cc's I'm not in Love (which was a UK #1 in June 1975) was one of the quintessential, fantastic singles and sonic achievements of the ’70s. It’s on the very short list of songs/records from the period that consistently still blow people away (e.g., Benny and the Jets, Heroes, I Feel Love, Dreams, Wuthering Heights, Trans-Europe Express, and a few others). Its almost underwater sounding beat, the massed backing vox, its cut-up-ness and general unearthliness still amaze.

The standard reading of the song – the singer’s in love alright though he doesn’t want to say it, admit it etc. – gets at something that was in the air a lot in the years after INIL came out. Let me explain.

There’s a great, double-edged scene in Annie Hall (1977) where Annie (Diane Keaton[1]) is ticked off that Alvy (Woody Allen) never says he loves her. Alvy wittily defends his approach to the L-world by saying that it’s too puny etc. for him, and opining that, in general, any word in a real, public language would falsify and diminish his feelings for her etc.. Alvy then launches into saying that he lurrrffs Annie, loaves her, etc.. That’s all quite winning, but it also does register as an evasion. We (and esp. female viewers!) effectively know at that point that Annie and Alvy won’t make it/will eventually split up.

‘New sensitive males’, Alan Alda-ish, Alvy Singer-ish guys, and their downsides became a big, ongoing topic of cultural discussion from the late ’70s on. Part of INIL's power at the time, I suggest, was that it was a leading or at least v. early indicator of that cultural formation: ‘whiny INIL guys and the women who love them too much’ perhaps. And since those questions about men and child-men after feminism haven't gone away since, INIL still 'works' as a piece of stinging observation.

After influencing things like the intro. and feel of The Bee Gees's How Deep is Your Love and the whole production of Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are in the late '70s, in the 1980's INIL musically begat at least:


And half of 10cc itself revisited INIL territory in:

In the '90s, the sound of INIL (and of Paul Mauriat's orchestra) was all over Air's first couple of albums. And INIL itself was on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's (in my minority and at-the-time-socially-suicidal view, preposterous) The Virgin Suicides, for whose score Air were otherwise largely responsible. Consider the final party scene from that film:

That's not INIL in that scene (it's Air), but it might as well be.

A Japanese documentary on INIL is up on youtube, and even though only about half of it is in English, it's pretty interesting and worth watching, e.g.:

[1] How much of Keaton was there in Annie? Ahem, Diane Keaton's family name is 'Hall' (she assumed her mother's 'maiden' name, 'Keaton', for Actors' Equity purposes after college), and her standard, affectionate/'friends call her' name is/was 'Annie'. To say this is not to deny, of course, that Keaton is one of the greatest Hollywood actresses. In the same year as AH, Keaton had the lead in the truly frightening drama, Looking for Mr Goodbar, the Irreversible or Requiem for a Dream of its time. This was an astonishing double for Keaton: giving arguably the best comic, female, lead performance since Stanwyck/Dunne/Hepburn in the same year as the (no-ifs-ands-or-buts) most out-there, hard-R-rated gritty, dramatic performance ever (and Hollywood studios have never gone that dark again). Having dazzled previously in small roles in the Godfather films in particular, Keaton now had two leads that added up to one of the greatest acting years of any film actor ever. It was popularly believed at the time that Keaton's Oscar for AH was in part an award for both her big 1977 roles. That's probably right: the combination left almost nothing to chance. Still, in my view, Keaton probably would (and certainly should) have won the Oscar even if she had had only one film out that year. She was just that good in both cases, and each case was a truly fascinating, industry-peak film.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The New

A fun line from the Hollywood Interview:
With his rigorously intelligent, highly organized, painterly visual style, Christopher Nolan is the new David Fincher, who was the next Ridley Scott, who was called the heir to Kubrick, who revered Ophuls and Welles, who adored Sternberg, who worshipped Murnau.
This emulates a much longer line of alleged influence that humorously traces all original 'cool attitude' back to Marlowe or Bernini or whomever (due to some pretentious know-it-all, maybe Pynchon? Wolfe? Foster Wallace?).

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Madonna's Holiday II: Performance

In my previous post I focused on Holiday's music and lyrics. But what of Madonna's performance? Your own mileage from M's vocals may vary, but for me her Holiday vocals are terrific: they're characterful, but in a non-showy way that doesn't compete with the groove and that sells the vibe of the music. Most memorable for me are the various 'Oh yeah's, 'Hol-i-daye!'s and 'It would be-ee so-o nice's that occur as little response-line (see my previous post for discussion of Holiday's call-and-response structure) sub-dramas throughout the record. In the final third of the record especially, M's voice rasps a little as it tickles quickly across the runs of notes on these occasions, which I find incredibly fun and even moving.

Madonna's voice isn't a Donna Summer or Annie Lennox (or even a Shannon) powerhouse, but it is the voice of a dance music true believer. She really does want to 'let love shine' through the medium of the sort of time-out from life's pressures that a truly celebratory dance record affords. We need a Holiday. Yes, we do. And, by God, we've got one while this record plays. The upshot is that Holiday is a 6+ minute record that everyone wishes would never end. Interestingly, as far as I'm aware, no one else has ever been able to cover Holiday with any profit, let alone with real authority. This is surely in part because Madonna herself has consistently and very publicly explored new versions of the song, effectively stamping herself all over it - see examples below. But it also may simply be the case that Madonna's original recording maximized the potential of the underlying song, which would have been a trifle coming from anyone else. (Tellingly, Holiday was offered to and rejected by at least two other artists before Madonna and her producer 'Jellybean' Benitez grabbed it with both hands.) We provisionally conclude that what appears to be true is true. Madonna nailed her parts on the record, and 'Jellybean' Benitez (with a crucial assist from Zarr's piano) aced the rest.

Of course, performance on an original record isn't the whole story about a lot of the best pop music. In addition, there's at least what you look like and, if you're v. lucky, how you move and perform, especially live. Holiday entered a recently MTV-ed world relatively unloved and without an official video, but this setback in fact ended up foregrounding Madonna's strengths in post-(recorded performance) dimensions of pop success. Not having a video to sell Holiday for her led Madonna to perform (normally with her brother Chris Ciccone and her friend Erica Bell[1]) as a live dancer on every North American and European TV show that hosted lip-synching acts that would have her. Many of those performances still astonish: Madonna's dance-training is evident, and she's in constant motion in a way that sells both the record and herself as something new and interesting. Her work ethic and entrepreneurial/take charge drive was also apparent. Message received: v. sexy, possibly destined to give certain sorts of puritan feminists fits, but no foolish floozy this one.

While M. in 1983/1984 has a version of what we might call the 'cool but approachable, white-girl, club chick' look of the period (think Bananarama, say, in their fondly remembered Shy Boy video), M's not trying to 'be cool' or just 'be seen' or, as in Bananarama's own case, just half-heartedly shuffle towards being mobile. Rather, she's a hard-working dancer in action (who's obviously watched a lot of Soul Train growing up!), and that action is highly aerobic. It's worth noting that aerobics classes were huge, and growing and differentiating fast in the early '80s (think Jane Fonda workouts, the cheese-ball Travolta movie Perfect, and the like). In an only slightly subterranean way, then, Madonna's highly aerobic dance performances for Holiday are part of that explosion, building a new bridge between night-time club-culture and a woman-centered, day-time world of classes and exercise.

Consider in this light the following fragment of a performance of Holiday on a French magazine show:

While a lot of club-kids (perennially, at least for a period) aspire to be aloof, posing, quasi-decadent night-people, M. herself is happy to get her leg above her head for you. By a pool. In the sunshine.

Or consider M's performance of Holiday on Top of the Pops early in 1984:[2]

The crowd starts whooping as the aerobic energy from the stage starts to hit them, particularly when tightly choreographed, snaky, sensuous, sideways movements suddenly accompany the lead-off Chorus, after the Intro has been accompanied by a sucker-punch combination of more relaxed movement and dancer smiles all around. By the time we come back from the piano solo, Madonna (and Chris and Erica) are at the front of the stage, arms raised in triumph like they've won the World Cup! But then they surprise us again by breaking back into further cool, choreographed moves. We are so there. It's a landmark pop moment/performance, electrifying, and star-making in a way that's hard to appreciate these days, i.e., post-Madonna. A sexy, cool NYC chick, but one who, like Elvis and MJ, could really move, and who had every beat and gesture planned, truly stood out in 1984. There'd never been anyone like her.

Holiday was born in and designed for clubs, i.e., environments similar in scale and kind to the TOTP studio. On one level, then, Holiday's success in that setting shouldn't have surprised. But what of live performances in vast arenas, before 50K+ people? Would Holiday scale up? In early 1984, one wouldn't have necessarily expected Madonna's dance-pop to be especially at home at something as big and messy as Live Aid, but in fact she ruled the (admittedly rather shambolic) US end of that mid-1985 event (her final 'Now I know you're mine' from Into the Groove sounded downright sinister to some ears that day!). At any rate, as her opening number at Live Aid, Holiday got Madonna off on the best possible foot:

A personal favorite among Madonna's many stunning Holidays is the rocked-out version from the Who's That Girl? tour in 1987, i.e., from the first relatively rough/relatively fallow period for Madonna (both professionally and personally) since her 1984 breakthrough. Just because your latest music is uninspired[3], your current movie stinks, and your marriage to Sean Penn is on the rocks, doesn't mean you can't still slay 'em live (and arguably be in the best voice and dancer shape of your life):

Watch the whole thing: 'Let's have some order here'. At this point, M. on stage is a whirlwind and something like the best Howard Hawks gal ever (which is to say, a serious candidate for 'best gal ever' period, let's face it), notwithstanding that her movie in that vein was a disaster.

Other notable Holidays include the performance recorded in Truth or Dare from the Blonde Ambition tour:

and a performance in Brixton in 2000 at which Madonna described Holiday as having for her a special connection with London (presumably referring to 1984's TOTP triumph):

Lastly, consider a fan's omnibus history of Holidays:

In sum, although it may be, in various ways, overly simple and naive, Holiday has been a perfect vehicle for Madonna. Its uncluttered aerobicness has always allowed her basic, formidable and attractive personality to shine through, while the convincing 'we'-ness/egoless-ness/persona-free-ness of its lyric sidesteps the principal liabilities of that (wannabe then actual) superstar personality (too much ego, about which a supplicant audience ends up knowing too much, general insufferableness, and so on). Performing Holiday live has been an on-going showcase for Madonna's interpretive chops and for her dance and performance skills more generally, but I suspect that M. especially continues to love Holiday because of the holiday from ego and talking about herself and persona-generation that it represents. Each time she sings Holiday, Madonna gets to be partly reborn as that before-she-was-famous club-kid who just wants to lose herself in dancing, and who wishes we were on the floor with her.[4] It would be-ee so-o nice. We are so so there.

Many people have tried to create sunny, inclusive, utopian dance tunes that appeal explicitly to what's universal in us, and many have failed. Madonna's first big success, however, does precisely that, making a foundational, dance-pop standard for the ages.

[1] Important early solo performances/lip-synchs of Holiday include spots on Solid Gold, hosted by glamorous Marilyn ('Up, up, and away') McCoo, and, especially, on American Bandstand with Dick Clark. The latter isn't currently available on youtube, but it's downloadable here. Madonna's notorious 'I plan to rule the world' interview with Dick Clark after that performance, is downloadable here.

[2] The TOTP performance was broadcast on Thursday, January 26, 1984, a day before Madonna (w/ Chris and Erica) performed both Burning Up and Holiday on The Tube as part of a special broadcast from Factory Records' famous Hacienda Club in Manchester. Bizarrely, however, the Hipster-reality-distortion-field that still surrounds both The Tube and Factory/Hacienda has caused numerous people, e.g., here, to misrepresent M's Hacienda spot as her 'first UK TV appearance' or 'her first appearance outside NY' or whatever it may be, and quite generally to pretend that her much more successful TOTP appearance (much more widely seen, much better lit, shot, and sounding, and so on) never happened.

[3] Although that's a relative judgment - relative to Madonna's hardly putting a foot wrong up to Who's that Girl? For example, I like Causing a Commotion a lot (and love its 'silver screen' 12" remix). It would be a crown jewel in other acts' allegedly Imperial Periods. But it's definitely second- or even third-tier Madonna. It's the sort of stuff that can be a 'fan favorite', but it's not world-beating or new-fan-making.

[4] One of Madonna's other, early signature songs, Into the Groove, makes this pre-fame, happy, but also touchingly yearning and lonely club-kid idea of Madonna that's implicit in Holiday, completely explicit: 'I'm tired of dancing here all by myself/Tonight I want to dance with someone else!' ITG's an amazing song and record, but that little bit of explicit auto-biog. and persona-generation makes it, I believe, less distinctive and useful overall to Madonna than Holiday is. That is, ITG is on one level just more confessional/talking-about-herself stuff, and why shouldn't M. want a break from all that? Moroever, insofar as ITG does self-describe, to that extent it raises questions of age-/status-appropriateness that Holiday doesn't. That is, it's hard for someone who's been enormously successful for 20+ years to sing convincingly and explicitly about being dance-partner-less, whereas Holiday's giddy, utopian wishes always work. In sum, M. has excellent reasons to treasure Holiday, and to simply enjoy performing it more than she evidently does ITG.