Saturday, March 31, 2012

If It Wasn't For The Nights (Looking for a Happier Theresa Dunn)

If It Wasn't for the Nights is a fan-favorite album track from Abba's 'disco' album, Voulez-Vous (1979). It's musically effervescent but with near heart-breaking lyrics - a sad happy love song, europop, dance banger. Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977) is a famously muddled film, e.g., it keeps the book's ultra-shocking ending but makes its protagonist, Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton) more fun-loving than (the book's) self-destructive, dramatizing her inner life with amusing fantasy sequences that are more Molly Dodd or Ally McBeal than Wild Strawberries or The Exorcist, say. In this vid., I use Abba's great disco-hit-that-never-was-but-should-have-been as a clue to how to edit together some of LFMG's lovelier set-ups and facial acting from Keaton to arrive at

Theresa Dunn, happy-sad rom-com heroine á là Fran Kubelik or Charity Valentine, only at the height of both disco and scuzzy, dangerous, '70s NYC/Chicago

At any rate, IIWFTN deserves to be much better known than it is (if only Madonna had covered it on MDNA...).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Great Songs of the '90s: Poster Children's He's My Star

A largely overlooked gem from 1995. I was reminded of this wonderful song again today by hearing Superstar (excerpt only) from Madonna's latest album, MDNA. There's a lot to be said in pop music for keeping things melodically and rhythmically simple (at least some of the time), which then allows for focus on timbre and on lyrics. That's the game Poster Children plays to perfection here. The problem with everything I've heard so far from MDNA, including Superstar, is that nothing fills up all the space that's left for timbral and lyrical explorations. M. doesn't seem to have any stories or personality she cares to share with us this time, and there's a general lack of effort on the timbre side of things. One wants to say something like 'M. can get anyone from Nile Rodgers on down to play on her records, so how has it come to this?' Anyhow, Poster Children's shoulda-been-a-hit shows everyone how it's done.

Update: Fave MDNA tracks after 1.5 full listens are Superstar, I'm a Sinner, Love Spent, and two bonus tracks, I Fucked Up and B-day Song. Still, none of these is an outright winner in my view. The best track on MDNA wouldn't make it into the top half of the tracks on Robyn's Body Talk (2010), which should be a little depressing to her M-ness. (Robyn's key collaborator Klas Ahlund co-authored Some Girls on MDNA, and that is indeed one of the better tracks. But all I could think of when listening to it was that Robyn would be a better fit for its attitude-heavy, robot-schtick.)

Update 2: What MDNA really needs is something like a cover of a great but relatively obscure Abba song to lift it. I'd recommend this forgotten gem from Voulez-vous for the purpose:

Friday, March 23, 2012

Stephen Oliver's Main Theme for Laurence Olivier, A Life

Laurence Olivier, A Life (1983) was the extraordinary opening gambit of the BBC's South Bank Show presented by Melvyn Bragg. Stephen Oliver's music was a big part of that film's success, and never more so than when the main theme returns at the end of the first episode, when (in the show's chronological tracking through Olivier's career) Olivier is on top of the world (before, e.g., Vivien Leigh's desperate mental and physical ill health take their toll). You can watch the whole of the great documentary on youtube starting here.

Oliver died in 1992 of AIDS-related complications at the age of only 47. Read Simon Callow's lovely tribute to his brilliant friend here. Film scores have become increasing anonymous and unmemorable over the last 20 years. I dare say that if Oliver had lived he would probably have had something to say about that.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Money-losing films 1960-2004

Caveat 1: My data transcription from Parrish was fast and dirty. Any given year's total might be out by as much as 5-10%.
Caveat 2: It's not clear how seriously we should take Parrish's data in any case. For example, it's fairly hard to believe that there were as few failures in the early '60s as he records. To draw any serious conclusions (e.g., about Studio System vs. Movie Brat vs. Post-Movie Brat eras), we'd need to see the failure rates (i.e., data normalized to the number of films released that year), how big the failures were, the series extended back further into the studio era, profitability once secondary sources (dvds, etc.) and international receipts are factored in, and so on. As it stands, however, the graph is only a starting point for further discussion: it might suggest that failure rates have gone up sharply in Hollywood, which militates in favor of bigger and bigger off-setting hits - blockbuster-itus, endless sequels and stripmining of existing brands and properties. Maybe.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Focus-pulling in The Stepford Wives (1975)

Radiohead have long made no bones about being inspired/haunted by The Stepford Wives (1975). The final track on Hail To The Thief (2003), Wolf At The Door explicitly refers to the basic concept:
Stepford wives who are we to complain?
Investments and dealers investments and dealers
Cold wives and mistresses
Cold wives and sunday papers.
And Thom Yorke told the NY Times that the excellent Bodysnatchers from In Rainbows (2007) was "inspired by Victorian ghost stories, The Stepford Wives and his own feeling of 'your physical consciousness trapped without being able to connect fully with anything else.'"

But this influence appears to have first manifested itself in Jake Scott's acclaimed video for Fake Plastic Trees, one of Radiohead's most beloved early songs.

The video's supermarket setting reprises in part the film's famous, post-climactic 'supermarket scene' (although the vid's supermarket unlike TSW's is a blinding, high-contrast, sci-fi white, which may well reflect another specific influence). But Scott's video also makes very extensive use of very tight/shallow focus which is TSW's visual signature more generally.

My video puts TSW's big focus-pulling scenes and shots together, beginning with the supermarket scene (which the 2004 remake butchered). I cut my video to Radiohead's Fake Plastic Trees, for all of the obvious reasons mentioned above, but unfortunately that soundtrack has been blocked. I therefore recommend that (at some point) you mute my vid. and synch your own copy of FPT up to it from the top (it works wonderfully!).

I've also assembled some frames from FPT's video and some frames from TSW to help make the parallelism clear.

I highly recommend TSW. Along with Cronenberg's Shivers (1975), it gives you the perfect image of the backstory to current, unending cultural wars (particularly in the US).

Update March 13, 2012:
Consider the posh-/alterna-babe who flickers discreetly throughout the FPT vid (and whose look roughly crosses the automatized Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) from TSW's supermarket scene with Andie McDowell's character from Four Weddings and A Funeral):

The second time the posh gal appears she trails a small, white dog with brown patches. But Joanna Eberhart's small, white dog with brown patches, Fred, plays a crucial, extended role in TSW (1975):

Note too that the final track on Radiohead's OK Computer (1997), The Tourist, begins with the paranoid/depressed singer imagining himself automatized/replaced and triggering a pet's suspicions:

It barks at no one else but me
Like it's seen a ghost
I guess it's seen the sparks a-flowing
No one else would know.

While the trope of robots who pass as humans but who can't fool animals is a sci-fi commonplace, in the context of general Radiohead interest in TSW, the details of dogs and sparks rings the TSW bell again. And, of course, the FPT video's focus-pulled/differentially blurry images was evidently a touchstone for OK Computer's cover-art:

In sum, TSW (1975) is occasionally overground in Radiohead 2.0 (Kid A and after), but its themes and visual signatures are a component of Radiohead 1.0 (pre-Kid A (2000)) at its most triumphant.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Audrey Hepburn Leotard Collage

A collage of some dance training/stretching publicity stills shot by Bob Willoughby, one of Audrey H.'s favorite photographers on the set of Green Mansions (1959). Audrey's almost 30 at the time of these shots yet looks barely a teen! In the film Audrey H. plays a wood-nymphy, S. American Indian girl (who's burned to death in a tree at the end of the film, only to reappear in spiritual form!). Arguably AH was too inherently urbane and refined for that role. The leotarded publicity shots (which appeared in McCalls Magazine) feel like an attempt at a bait and switch on the audience, and as a partial acknowledgement that no one really wants to see (or believes) Audrey as a wild child cut off from culture and fashion.

Thursday, March 08, 2012


From The Foundations' You Don't Know Everything

Good tune from a new band with a tricky name. I find myself spiralling off into infinite regresses:
  • Have you heard From The Foundations yet? No? Well, here's the latest track from From the Foundations.
  • Have you heard From From The Foundations yet? No? Well, here's the latest track from From From the Foundations.
  • Have you heard From From From The Foundations yet? No? Well, here's the latest track from From From From the Foundations."
And so on.

Later Rather than Never: Oasis's Definitely Maybe (1994)

Finally got around to listening to this one 'whole', and it's a huge disappointment. I'd been lead to believe that this album was a lean, mean Rubber Soul-esque, pop gem, but that's simply not true. DM's basic sound is cramped and unconvincing apart from standouts Live Forever, Supersonic, and Cigarettes and Alcohol, and around half the songs are simply far too long for their number of musical and lyrical ideas. Individual songs and the album as whole just drag. The seeds of Be Here Now's hilariously awful time-wasting monstrosities are here in spades. And DM kind of churns away boringly, a little like AC/DC or the Ramones perhaps, only without ever really rocking. That your album is chuggy and riffy rather than melodic simply has to be a problem if almost all of your riffs are straight steals from Bolan, Slade, Bowie, etc.! The lack of ambition on DM astounds. It's as if the Gallghers deliberately set out to plod and bore at every turn outside of the three main tasty tracks.

I'd been led to believe that Definitely Maybe was (significantly) better than Oasis's follow-up (What's the Story) Morning Glory, but that's not how I see things. Instead WTSMG seems to me to be a definite improvement on DM (much more air and life in the songs, some subtlety in the rhythm section, better melodies, better singing, etc.). Arguably The Verve is all over WTSMG, and boy was it needed (at least in my view).

Further overall comparisons: DM is far less accomplished than the big alt-rock albums of its year (which I listened to at the time) such as Superunknown, The Downward Spiral, Dog Man Star, Live Through This, and Weezer. DM strikes me as about as good as Green Day's debut Dookie (1994) or, maybe, about as good overall as famously uneven records such as Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman (1994) and Radiohead's debut Pablo Honey (1993). Blur's Parklife (1994) (which I didn't listen to at the time) is again markedly superior (and just feels much more musical than) Definitely Maybe does.

What then explains DM's exalted reputation? Here's my hypothesis: Oasis cribs freely from The Beatles throughout (albeit without quite building up to the sorts of well-worked songs Oasis would achieve on WTSMG, let alone scaling the heights of Beatles-inflected popcraft found on average XTC records). This does momentarily excite the average Anglo-phile pop- lovers ears, perhaps beyond reason. Putting that flirtatious approach to the UK pop audience together with the Gallaghers Bros' swagger and image seems to have acted like catnip for UK audiences and critics alike. Listened to with a clear head, however, DM is definitely average.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Plurality Rule and the US Presidency

The first, short appendix to my book on mixed electoral systems shows how the US Constitution confuses majority with plurality rule, and thereby fails to ensure an orderly transition of power in an entirely feasible sort of situation.
Here's that two page appendix excerpted (i.e., the book opened to p. 183):

Is any of this a real problem? I think so. Americans seem to me to be characteristically bewitched by the idea that their Constitution is like a self-contained, logical machine/precision clock (designed by geniuses, possibly with God's help), and that this leads them to regard collegiality, background conventions and understandings, etc. as fungible, and as fair-game to being lawyered away in the name of partisan success. (Other jurisdictions' citizens seem to me to be less enamored with their respective constitutional instruments, and commensurately more aware of their constitutions' ultimate dependence on lots of must-not-be-lawyered-away background good will and shared conventional understandings.) Americans therefore seem to me to be uniquely likely to eventually drive their in-fact-not-at-all-precise Constitution off the rails wherever that's logical permitted. Look out.