THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thai Pop Spectacular (***)

Thai Pop Spectacular
Various Artists, 1960-1980s
Sublimefrequencies Records

Score of the week from the library - and yes, I picked it up because of the cutesy cover! (Full disclosure: I am every bit as glib and shallow as I appear to be.) Compiled by Alan Bishop and Mark Gergis for Seattle's Sublime Frequencies label (sublimefrequencies.com), it's basically Thai music for Westerners who want to hear Thais trying to sound Western. Kind of like Bollywood kitsch. Though it starts out sounding slightly traditional, with songs addressing topics like "Magical Love of the Countryside" and "Papaya Salad Merchant" things start to pick up by the time of the Johnny Guitar instrumental "Fawn Ngeo (Dance of the Ngeo)" - Ngeo are Northern Thais of Burmese origin - and get very weird as the tracks progress. Like Chailai Chaiyata & Swana Patana's "Kwuan Tai Duew Luk Puen (You Should Die By Bullets)," which opens with electronic beeps and blips before merging into a disco toe-tapper with horns straight out of the chase sequence on a 70s TV cop show. Weirder still is Gawao Siangthong's "Gao Guek (Wise Old Man)," wherein the singer actually uses belches for syncopated percussion!

The group Generation's "Nan nan Pob Gan Tee (Long Time No See)" sounds like it comes from a Thai film soundtrack (like Shaft Goes To Bangkok, if such a film existed!), all wacka-wacka guitars and wah-wah pedal. Similarly, Kabuan Garn Yor Yod Yung Yong attempt some funk stylings on "Gang Geng Nai Krai Lab," a title translated here as "Look Whose Underwear Is Showing." This should probably be the official anthem of Bangkok's Patpong red-light district.

Thong Sung Blue: "Look Whose Underwear Is Showing"

But the song that gets the most attention on the compilation is Pairoj's "Khor Tan Gor Mee Hua Jai," a decidedly bizarre Thai cover version of Brit two-hit wonder band Paper Lace's 1974 hit "The Night Chicago Died." (Though "The Night Chicago Died" was their only U.S. #1 hit, Paper Lace's anti-war protest song "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" was a UK #1 in 1974.)

Paper Lace gets Thai-Died

Other standouts: Phet Potaram's trilly-voice backed by snake-charmer horns sounds very Bollywood on the delightful "Koh Phuket (Phuket Island)"

The only track I can't stomach is Man City Lion's "Tid Lom Ta lai (Drinking Whiskey Until I'm Blurred)" because the singer's high-pitched affected voice is annoying beyond belief. And am I the only one who envisions the Manchester City football club when they see this Thai group's name?

CD track listing:
1. Introduction - Welcome To Thailand
2. Roob Lor Thom Pai - Buppah Saichol
3. Mae Kha Som Tum - Onuma Singsiri
4. Lung Dee Kee Mao - P. Promdan
5. Fawn Ngeo - Johnny Guitar
6. Kwuan Tai Duew Luk Puen - Chailai Chaiyata
7. Dek Kai Nuang Sue Pim - Sangthong Seesai
8. Gao Guek - Gawao Siangthong
9. Tid Lom Ta Lai - Man City Lion
10. Mai Na Lork Gun - Kampee Sangthong
11. Nan Nan Pob Gan Tee - Generation
12. Koh Phuket - Phet Potaram
13. Gang Geng Nai Krai Lab - Kabuan Garn Yor Yod Yung Yong
14. Khor Tan Gor Mee Hua Jai - Pairoj
15. Sao Dok Kum Tai - Pumpuang Duangjan
16. Tangkon Tangnae - Sangthong Seesai
17. Keng Ma - P. Promdan
18. Na Doo - Man City Lion
19. Dteuu - Setha
20. Mia Rai Duen - Duongdao
21. Pleng Show (Title Theme) - Chalermpon Malakum

Product description from sublimefrequencies.com:
Thai pop history has been largely ignored and neglected by the international musical community for far too long. By the late 20th century, Thai pop music had developed as many faces as localized roots music such as Molam or styles like Luk Thung or Luk Krung, (each with their own respective pop-sectors). Bangkok – always the hub of the Thai recording industry – attracted musicians and singers from across the country that were both informed by tradition and inspired by the wealth of international sounds entering the region via radio and phonograph. Jazz, for instance, had a profound influence on early Thai pop music, the King of Thailand himself being a noted Jazz composer.

This superb collection features modern Thai music styles combining with elements of surf, rock, funk, disco and comedy, revealing the use of clever instrumentation, brilliant vocals, great arrangements, twisted breaks, and resourceful production techniques. Discover the Queen of Luk Thung, the 1960s “Shadow Music” sound, classic tracks from Thai films, blazing examples of Bangkok disco from the 1970s, legendary Thai comedy Pop, and the most outrageous version of "The Night Chicago Died" you'll ever encounter. Thick horn sections, wah-wah guitars, tight drums, and funky organs help round out this astounding set which proves beyond a doubt that the Thai were a completely unique and powerful force during the 1960's, 70's & 80's global popular music explosion.

Kabuan Garn Yor Yod Yung Yong - "Gang Geng Nai Krai Lab" (Look Whose Underwear Is Showing)

Kampee Sangthong - "Mai Na Lork Gun" (Don't Deceive Me)

Man City Lion "Na Doo" (Very Striking Girl)

More reviews:
Pop Matters
All Music Guide
Funeral Pudding

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mickey Baker (***)

In the 50s - Hit, Git & Split
Rev-Ola Records, 2007

Another new compilation I picked up at the library recently. I never knew much about Mickey "Guitar" Baker, other than hearing his late 50s session work at Mercury Records backing Louis Jordan's rocking blues sides like the 1956 version of "Caldonia" (which is included here). I had heard him thanks to the good taste of Kenny Vieth, who used to played the gifted guitarist at his Fells Point bar-and-restaurant Henninger's Tavern, and recently was thinking of him thanks to the Gallery Cafe, where Kate the sandwich girl was playing some instro compilation - I remember liking it because normally the place blared forgettable classic rock on 98 Rock. And I know Rolling Stone magazine included Baker as #53 in its list of the all-time Top 100 guitarists (Hendrix was #1 -surprise!).

If you check out this anthology, I recommend burning selected songs (git-the-hits-and-split!), mainly the instrumentals, because it's a hit-and-miss affair. Yes, there's the famous Mickey & Sylvia hit "Love Is Strange" (which ironically made its way onto the Deep Throat soundtrack) and Louis Jordan's "Caldonia '56," but with the exception of unsung rockabilly star Joe Clay's "Did You Mean Jelly-Bean (What You Said Cabbage-Head)?," a lot of the vocal sides are pretty pedestrian, being strictly B-list rockabilly and jump blues tunes.

Of those instros, I like the Bill Hendricks Orchestra's "Spinnin' Rock Boogie," Baker's own House Rockers' "Bandstand Stomp (Ho Ho Ho)", "Shake Walkin'", "Rock with a Sock" and "Greasy Spoon" (all of which would compliment any Las Vegas Grind collection) and Sam Price & His Texas Bluesicians ' "Rib Joint" (whose sleazy sax stylings are also worthy of Las Vegas Grind).

Of the vocal tracks, you gotta love Brownie McGhee's "Annie mae" - which features smokin' hot Baker solos after the first and second verses - and, of course, the irrepressibly charismatic Louis Jordan's "Caldonia '56" in which Baker conducts a riffs workshop, sliding up and down the frets like he's just greased his fingers with butter, and the boppin' titular "Hit, Git & Split" by Young Jesse.

Amazon product description: "2007 release, a definitive collection of Mickey's early world-shaking sides. Probably every guitarist has at least had a go at the legendary Mickey Baker's Complete Course in Jazz Guitar, right? And anyone who doesn't know the classic Mickey And Sylvia hit 'Love Is Strange' just hasn't been paying attention! As influential a stylist as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, as vital to the music as Ike Turner, as innovative in technique and technology as Les Paul, Mickey was the secret hero who defined the electric guitar as it now exists."

Johnny "Guitar" Watson (****)

Untouchable! The Classic 1959-66 Recordings
Ace Records, UK, 2007

Picked this up at the library, where they also have Watson's later Funk Anthology. But, like Elvis at Sun Records, the early recordings often represent an artist's best work, and this compilation from the UK's Ace Records certainly proves that theory right.

Although the compilation opens with the silly novelty song "The Bear" (aka "The Preacher and the Bear") - was there ever a good song about hunting bears? - the rest is solid stuff, especially the rockin' singles on King Records. I love the would-be dance craze song "Posin'" (the Vogue of its day) and the title track "Untouchable!" finds Watson grouchin' about how his girl is in love with Robert Stack's stoic FBI agent Eliott Ness of then-popular 60s TV show The Untouchables - pure Dr. Demento novelty song gold, replete with machine gun sound effects. And Watson proves himself a pretty adept ballad singer, albeit heavily influenced by the vocal stylings of James Brown (circa "It's A Man's World"), especially on "Embraceable You" and "The Nearness of You."

Good, fun stuff from the vintage age of American R&B.

Related links:
Johnny "Guitar" Watson (Wikipedia)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Kraut Funk (*****)

Raw Funk (2000)
"Various Artists"
Hotpie & Candy Records

I got this 10-track compilation CD out of the library recently and I've been listening to it while commuting to work ever since. It's easily the blackest, baddest, funkiest, sweetest soul music I've ever heard. But here's a poke at me, I'm a total dummy: it's by the whitest of whitebreads - Germans!

Hotpie & Candy was a small German label (a subsidiary of Soulciety Records) that released a series of singles between 1992-1995. All of these releases were by a band from Munich called The Poets Of Rhythm whose members included the very un-soulful-sounding Teutons Jan Whitefield, Max Whitefield, Boris Geiger, Till Sahm, Malte Müller-Egloff, Wolfgang Schlick, and Michael Voss. This German funk band (consider that oxymoronic term: German Funk!) recorded under various pseudonyms (Bo Baral's Excursionists, Bus People Express, Karl Hector & The Funk-Pilots, Mercy Sluts, The, Mighty Continentals, The, Neo-Hip-Hot-Kiddies Community, New Process, The, Organized Raw Funk, Pan-Atlantics, The, Polyversal Souls, The, Soul Sliders, Soul-Saints Orchestra, Soul-Saints, The, Syrup, Whitefield Brothers, The Woo Woo's), releasing albums in the guise of "compilations" by "Various Artists" between 1992 and 2002. Ha! Don't be fooled like I was. Despite their tighter-than-James-Brown sound, the Poets remained relative unknowns outside of Deutschland until they were discovered by DJ Shadow in 2001; Shadow helped bring them to the attention of London's Ninja Tune records, where their Define Discern release reached a broader Western audience.

Poets of Rhythm

The minute the first track played I realized I owned this CD (and probably still do, though I've since lost it in the pop cultural dumping ground that is my domicile). In fact I used at least two of the tracks, by the Whitefield Bros and The Woo-Hoos, on the first season of Atomic TV. The Whitefield's funk groove provided excellent accompaniment to a classroom scare film about fire safety while The Woo-Hoos riff was used to illustrate the monthly cycle on the Atomic TV menstruation episode, "It's Wonderful Being A Girl!"

This stuff lives more than lives up to its "raw funk" name and passes the colorblind test. Never in a million years would you suspect that rigid Krauts - from the land of clockwork-precision and Kraftwerky robotic rhythms - were kicking out the smooth grooves. After all, Germans aren't exactly known for having natural rhythm, in fact they're more renowned for possessing a Negative Funk Factor - more likely to be found goose-stepping than getting down on the good foot. There go all my musical preconceptions!

Essential in any music library.

Related Links:
Live in Limerick, Ireland (YouTube)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Constant Rider Omnibus (****)

Stories from the Public Transportation Front

Constant Rider Omnibus
by Kate Lopresti
Microcosm Publishing, 128 pages, 2007
Cover illustration by Kalah Allen

I came across this book while perusing the Graphic Novels section at Daedalus Books & Music and was instantly intrigued by the its concept: a journal devoted to documenting a woman's adventures riding public transportation in Portland Oregon and other diverse destinations. The woman, Kate Lopresti, mainly travels by bus, but sometimes hops a plane or train, and those journeys are documented as well. This anthology presents issues #1-7 of her zine Constant Rider, in which Kate records her aisle-side observations of "fights, intoxicated passengers, fellow travelers' reading choices, and even impromptu bus stop singers." She also has a website: www.constantrider.com

I have long been fascinated by people's horror stories about riding various bus routes in Baltimore City, so I picked it up and found it a very good read. Kate never tries too hard to write the be-all social psychology masterpiece: these are just everyday observations of both the plain and the (admittedly more interesting) unusual people and events that she's encountered riding public transportation. I did like her checklist of inappropriate conversation starters on the bus, my favorite being middle-aged men asking young women, "Are you a student?" That's creepy, fellows! Better to keep queries like that to yourselves - or the letters column of Barely Legal magazine!

Now I just wish someone would start a local version about Baltimore bus rides - or even a D.C. zine devoted to riding the Metro. I have many fond memories of being accosted there by hyper-aggro homophobic drunks! (Mental note: never be accosted by this demographic while clutching a Kennedy Center Ballet Playbill!)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Forbidden City, USA (****)

Forbidden City, USA
USA, 1989, 56 minutes, documentary
Directed by Arthur Dong
Cast: Larry Ching (The "Chinese Sinatra"), Frances Chun (Singer), Charlie Low (Owner, Forbidden City), Mary Mammon (Dancer), Toy Yat Mar (The "Chinese Sophie Tucker"), Jackie Mei Ling (Dancer), Dottie Sun (Comedic Dancer), Dorothy Fong Toy (The "Chinese Ginger Rogers"), Noel Toy (The "Chinese Sally Rand"), Tony Wing (Dancer), Jadin Wong (Dancer)

Thank God for Pratt Library for owning this out-of-print documentary on Charlie Low's famous San Francisco nightclub, which opened in 1938 and was still in business up through 1972. Famous because it was the first to feature an all-Asian entertainment cast catering (mainly) to white audiences that were too scared to go into Frisco's Chinatown. Having just seen the 1961 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song - whose Celestial Gardens nightclub was modeled after Forbidden City - I wanted to learn more about the source nightspot, and I'm glad I did. I got to see the Chinese Sinatra, Ginger Rogers and Sophie Tucker, as well as hear stories about the challenges facing Asian-Americans during World War II and afterwards. Many performers at Forbidden City were actually Japanese-Americans (white audiences couldn't tell the difference) and in at least one case, had to stop working there during the war when all persons of Japanese ancestry had to report, by law, to internment camps (so much for taking their act to Hollywood). I was particularly struck by "Chinese Sophie Tucker" Toy Yat Mar's recollections about touring the segregated American South and not knowing which bathroom to use - the one for Blacks or Whites. Some Chinese in her touring company used the Black restrooms, others the White. It reminded me of my half-Japanese girlfriend's dilemma when she fills out forms that ask ethnicity (she always opts for "Other"). And I liked how one Chinese dancer described a Texas town as being really small. "How small was it? It didn't have one Chinese restaurant - and every town in America has at least one!"

From IMDB:
"It was the swinging 30s. The big bands of the 40s. It was San Francisco night life Baghdad by the Bay. And the crowds were packing the nation's premiere all-Chinese nightclub, Forbidden City. Like the Cotton Club of Harlem which featured America's finest African American entertainers, Forbidden City gained an international reputation with its unique showcase of Chinese American performers in eye-popping all-American extravaganzas. Part That's Entertainment and part PBS, Forbidden City, U.S.A. captures this little-known chapter of entertainment history and takes it center stage."

Late Chrysanthemums (***)

Bangiku (Late Chrysanthemums)
Japan, 1954, 101 minutes, b&w
Directed by Mikio Naruse
Cast: Haruko Sugimura, Sadako Sawamura, Chikako Hosokawa, Yûko Mochizuki, Ken Uehara, Hiroshi Koizumi, Ineko Arima, Bontarô Miyake, Sonosuke Sawamura, Daisuke Katô

Though his quiet films are often compared to Ozu, Mikio Naruse is really the Japanese George Cukor - crossed with the existential concerns of Ingmar Bergman. He loves strong women's stories, especially those of aging or retired geishas and working class moms. Men are seen as good for nothing womanizing drunks and leeches that women are better off not having in their lives. Feminist cinema, Far Eastern style. This film is bleak - the women find their beauty has faded and their children and lovers are disappointing - but it has an uplifting finale that showcases the indominatable spirit of these resolute women - all retired geishas who have seen better days but keep on keeping on, despite the passage of their generation for a new post-war society that they are trying to understand. Naruse shows their lives, warts and all: in one amazing sequence we actually see a character nonchalantly pluck her nose hair! And I loved the scene where the two friends Tomi and Tamae watch a "modern" young woman wiggle down the road and Tomi remarks, "Look at her walking like that American woman Monroe! I can do that too!" before comically imitating the young girl. As former geishas, these woman had also looked ridiculous trying to attract and please men, but in this instant they recognize their former folly and laugh at it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Flower Drum Song (**)

Flower Drum Song
USA, 1961, 133 minutes
Directed by Henry Koster
Songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein
Cast: Nancy Kwan (Linda Low), James Shigeta (Wang Ta), Benson Fong (Wang Chi-Yang), Jack Soo ("Sammy" Fong), Juanita Hall (Madame 'Auntie' Liang), Reiko Sato (Helen Chao), Miyoshi Umeki (Mei Li)

I wanted to love this film because it was the first musical with an all-Asian cast specifically aimed at an Asian audience. Never mind that the story, based on a novel by Chinese-American author C.Y. Lee, had a number of Japanese actors portraying Chinese characters - that's because there was a limited pool of Asian or Asian-American actors to choose from in Hollywood, and it still beat seeing Caucasian actors like Boris Karloff (Fu Manchu), Peter Lorre (Mr. Moto) or Myrna Loy portray Asians. But the bottom line is, the songs are pedestrian - "Grant Avenue" is the only halfway decent song - and despite its Asian affiliations, it was still written by white men, lending it an inescapable sense of appropriation and inauthenticity. In other words, even with its Asian source material and cast, it ends up stereoyping. In terms of examining Chinese-American identity, it's a long way from Flower Drum Song to Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing (1982) - the latter film featuring the superior Pat Suzuki version of "Grant Avenue," by the way. (Suzuki had starred as Linda Low in the 1958 Broadway version of Flower Drum Song before getting passed over in favor of Nancy Kwan for the film adaptation - in which Kwan's voice was dubbed by singer B. J. Baker.)

Still, you get the beautiful Nancy Kwan, fresh off her starring role opposite William Holden in Richard Quine's The World of Suzy Wong (1960) in the first role that put her dancing background (she studied dance with England's Royal Ballet) to use. Unfortunately, she suffered the fate of many ethnic minorities in Hollywood - scarce opportunities for A-list quality roles. That said, Kwan's jiggly-wiggly high heels-and-bath towel dance number "I Enjoy Being A Girl" in front of a dressing mirror remains one of the visual highlights (schwing!) of FDS.

Nancy Kwan enjoys being a girl

And you get Jack Soo (Goro Suzuki, pictured right), the sleepy-eyed character actor best known for his later role as Detective Sgt. Nick Yemana on the 1970s TV sitcom Barney Miller (Soo has the film's best line when, after he flip-flops on his marriage proposal to Nancy Kwan to become engaged to another woman, he tells Kwan, "Baby, nothing's changed." When Kwan responds, "You're getting married to another woman!," he responds "That's the only thing!") Jack Soo got his big break in Flower Drum Song after he was spotted working as an MC at San Francisco's famous Chinese-themed Forbidden City nightclub, which served as the model for the film's Celestial Gardens nightclub. Forbidden City has been called the Asian-American version of Harlem's Cotton Club.

Forbidden City: The Asian Cotton Club

Unfortunately, you also get Academy Award-winning Japanese star Miyoshi Umeki (Best Supporting Actress for 1957's Sayanora) starring in a role that propagates the stereotype of the meek, humble and subservient Asian female, a role she would continue to play as housekeeper Mrs. Livingston in American television's The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969-1972).

Personally, my favorite actress in Flower Drum Song was Reiko Sato as hard-luck "other woman" Helen Chao, the seamtress who secretly pines for male lead James Shigeta (who barely notices her) and gets to sing and dance the surreal, beautifully choreographed "Love Look Away."

Always the Bridesmaid's Seamtress, Never the Bride:
Love looks away from Reiko Sato

And yes, as her name suggests, Sato was yet another Japanese actor playing a Chinese character in Flower Drum Song! Though she later appeared in Marlon Brando's The Ugly American (1963) and had an uncredited appearance (as "Charlie's girl") in Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo (1955), Sato was best known for her roles in Space Giant (Supa Jaiantsu, aka Starman), the Japanese sci-fi film series starring Ken Utsui.

Supa Jaiantsu (aka Super Giant, Starman)

In addition to appearing alongside Brando in The Ugly American, Sato enjoyed a close relationship with the enigmatic American star; though they never married, they were together for 20 years and following her death in 1981, her cremated remains were "spirited away" to Brando's private island.

Flower Drum Song was revived on Broadway in 2002 with a new script by socially conscious playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly).

Related Links:
Flower Drum Song (Wikipedia)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (*****)

Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs)
Japan, 1960, 111 minutes, b&w
Directed by Mikio Naruse
Cast: Hideko Takamine (Mama, aka Keiko Yashiro), Masayuki Mori (Nobuhiko Fujisaki), Reiko Dan (Junko Inchihashi), Tatsuya Nakadai (Kenichi Komatsu), Daisuke Katô (Matsukichi Sekine), Ganjiro Nakamura (Goda), Eitarô Ozawa (Minobe), Keiko Awaji (Yuri)

I love Naruse. He tells stories for AARP set. His films are about the folly of youth, the anxieties of aging and the wisdom that comes with maturity, like this story of "Mama," a proud and pure middle-aged bar hostess who refuses to take the easy route of sleeping with men to make her life more comfortable (and help the handouts she makes to her greedy mother and leech of a brother), only to be deceived by the man she thinks is her true love. Heartwrenching finale. In that way, it compares favorably with Fellini's Nights of Cabiria.

Mama You've Been On My Mind:
Tatsuya Nakadai pines for Hideo Takamine

A young Tatsuya Nakadai plays bar manager Kenichi Komatsu, who secretly is in love with Mama. The DVD has a special feature interview with Nakadai that is very interesting. He says Naruse favorite Hideo Takamine wasn't the friendliest actress to work with, but one that nonetheless taught him a great deal about acting and the business of making movies. Nakadai also reveals that Naruse had an unusual way of filming scenes. For example, he'd shoot a scene of Nakadai talking to Takamine in two separate takes, filming all of Nakadai's dialogue (including his reactions to an offscreen Takamine) in one take, then shoot a separate camera angle of all of Takamine's dialogue and reactions in another take. It's the equivalent of a band laying down its rhythm tracks in the studio and then adding in vocals and guitar overdubs later, rather than recording "live" in one take.

"Fancy" (****)

"Fancy" - Bobbie Gentry
Capital Records, 1970

"Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, and they'll be nice to you."

I've always loved this late hit by Southern Gothic diva Bobbie Gentry about a backwoods babe who at her mother's urging uses the gifts nature bestowed upon her to land a slew of sugar daddies (including "a king, a congressman and the occasional aristocrat") and trade in her rickety one-room shack for a Georgia Mansion and a New York townhouse flat. I especially loved that line near the end: "I mighta been born just poor white trash, but Fancy is my name." I had the original picture sleeve single (#31 Billboard Hot 100, 1970) on Capital Records, which is long lost in some dust-filled corner of my house. But now, thanks to my friend Cody lending me her The Best of Bobbie Gentry: The Capital Years CD, I've been listening to it all week.

Born Roberta Lee Steeter in Chicaksaw County, Mississippi, Gentry was one of the first female country artists to write her own material and hit her peak in 1967 with her #1 hit and album "Ode To Billie Joe," which saw her receive 1968 Grammy awards for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Performance.

But it was this 1970 single that remains the definitive Bobbie Gentry track for me.

Bobbie Gentry sings "Fancy" on the JOHNNY CASH SHOW

I guess the reason I fancy "Fancy" is that I can still recall my old girlfriend Sharon performing the song, word-for-word and with choreography, back in the mid-90s, in the days before she was murdered by a drug addict (don't be shocked - this is Baltimore, where murder and drugs are as much a lifestyles cliche as drinking Natty Boh and dropping the "Hon"-bomb). Sharon was a music freak and truly gifted at not just singing along to songs as they played on her stereo, but "performing" them, replete with props and dance routines. (I still can recall one amazing night when, slightly drunk, she performed the entire Andrew Lloyd Webber Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack - in the nude! I remember desperately wanting to have sex with her - her dance routines were very erotic! - and chafing at the bit as she played all four sides of the double-LP before reaching the climax of the final track: "John Nineteen: Forty One." Talk about four-play!) For "Fancy" I recall her prop was a big feather boas that she would toss around her neck dramatically.

Sharon was from Dundalk and unusual in that she was the only member of her family to go to college (and not just any college, but artsy-fartsy MICA) and not work for the government, which played against the negative Dundalk stereotype of the uneducated, blue-collar yokel. That's why I think she identified so strongly with "Fancy," for the song's protagonist is another economically disadvantaged outsider to mainstream society who has to use her wits to get ahead and beat the odds. Not that Sharon used sex as a weapon like Fancy:
Well, Momma washed and combed and curled my hair,
then she painted my eyes and lips.
Then I stepped into the satin dancin' dress.
It had a split in the side clean up to my hips.

It was red, velvet-trimmed, and it fit me good
and standin' back from the lookin' glass
was a woman where a half grown kid had stood.

But I think she liked Fancy's pluck in overcoming her humble roots to have the last laugh. I mean, no Baltimore neighborhood gets dissed more often or as ruthlessly as Dundalk. No wonder there are t-shirts I've spotted that say, "I'm from Dundalk...Fuck you" - a big middle finger gesture that says in effect, "Yeah, so what?"

Or, as Fancy concludes, all things considered: "I ain't done so bad."

Related links:
"Fancy" lyrics
"Fancy" mp3 (last.fm)
"Fancy" video (YouTube)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Stranger In a Strange Land (****)

"Stranger In a Strange Land" (David Crosby)
The Byrds - Turn! Turn! Turn!
Columbia Records, 1965

I've been listening to this extra track on the 20-bit digitally remastered CD reissue of The Byrds' Turn! Turn! Turn! album over and over again all week. It's a really great, hypnotic instrumental to listen to while commuting to work, its soothing 12-string guitars and minor key changes calming down my normal road rage as I navigate downtown's many twists, turns and detours that result from Operation Orange Cone and other annoying municipal initiatives and West Side gentrification projects. But I was surprised to learn that this track wasn't written by Roger McGuinn or Gene Clark but by David Crosby - I didn't think he had it in him.

I've never been much of a Crosby fan (though I liked Bob and Bing Crosby). By most accounts he was almost universally considered a jerk during his Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash and CSN&Y days, even before his much-documented rehab and prison adventures. And how exactly do you manage to be both a coke addict and fat? Did he snort coke up one nostril and Hamburger Helper up the other?

But I give credit where it's due, and it's due on this dandy ditty. Inspired by the Robert Heinlein sci-fi novel of the same title, Crosby's composition originally had lyrics, but no recorded version remains - thank God, as David Crosby lyrics tended to be pretentious hippie-dippy drivel ("Mind Gardens," anyone?) - except as covered by Blackburn and Snow (the male-female San Francisco folk duo of Jeff Blackburn and Sherry Snow - the latter allegedly considered as a replacement for Signe Anderson in Jefferson Airplane in 1966), who released it as a single on Verve Records in 1966. The backing band was We Five and the writing credit was attributed to "Samuel F. Omar."

Behind the Music
For more on the story we turn to Johnny Rogan, author of Timeless Flight: The Definitive Biography of the Byrds (1988) and The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (Rogan House, 1998) - which are both, criminally, out-of-print (and fetching used prices of up to $228 - glad I got mine back in the day for $40!) - who in describing the extra tracks on Turn! Turn! Turn! wrote:
"Finally, there was the mysterious instrumental 'Stranger In A Strange Land,' borrowed and refined from the bootleg Journals. Unfortunately, a vocal version could not be found, but the backing track remains a fascinating and tantalizing piece. David Crosby admitted that the lyrics were a naive attempt to capture the spirit of the Robert Heinlein book of the same title, and that in itself sounds ambitious and interesting. According to Jim Dickson, the song was sold by Tickson Music and tentatively scheduled for a movie soundtrack that never appeared. It was later recorded on a single by the duo Blackburn & Snow..."

"...Even two years on, with the hippie counter culture at its zenith, the song languished in obscurity. 'Stranger In A Strange Land was a very unsophisticated, childish rendering of that ethic,' Crosby confessed with undue modesty. 'I don't think it was a very good song, but I was greatly influenced by Robert Heinlein and always loved science fiction.'"
Indeed, Crosby also borrowed allusions to the same Heinlein novel in his song "Triad" (famously rejected by The Byrds only to be resurrected later in Crosby, Stills & Nash) when the lyrics referred to "sister lovers" and "water brothers." (Hmmm, wonder if Alex Chilton was really referring to Heinlein for his Big Star Third: Sister Lovers album?)

Anyway, further research determines that the bootleg source that Columbia used for the remastered CD was Journals Vol. 6; the song was recorded September 18, 1965.

I know: fascinating!

P.S.: You can listen to "Stranger In A Strange Land" on YouTube.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Cranes Are Flying ****

Letyat Zhuravli (Летят журавли, The Cranes Are Flying)
Criterion Collection DVD
Russia, 1957, 97 minutes, Black and White
Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov
Cast: Tatiana Samoilova (Veronika, "Squirrel"), Alexei Batalov (Boris), Vasili Merkuryev (Fyodor Ivanovich), Aleksandr Shvorin (Mark), Svetlana Kharitonova (Irina)

Plot: "Veronika and Boris are blissfully in love, until the eruption of World War II tears them apart. Boris is sent to the front lines...and then communication stops. Meanwhile, Veronica tries to ward off spiritual numbness while Boris' draft-dodging cousin makes increasingly forceful overtures."

Awards: Winner of Best Film and Best Actress awards the Palme d'Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.


I picked this up based strictly on the cover, which had a close-up of an attractive Slav femme (Tatiana Samoilova, aka Tayana Samoylova and Татья́на Евге́ньевна Само́йлова):

Like Godard said, all you need to make a movie is a girl (he had Anna Karina) and a gun, and this had both - with plenty of guns, being set in WWII. By the way, I liked that the girl's nickname in the film was "Squirrel" (Belka) - a toy squirrel containing a note from her lover figures prominently in the film's narrative. According to the liner notes, this was one of the first postwar Soviet films to get any kind of airing outside the USSR, and for Russians it's apparently always been a sentimental fave, which makes sense given its plot that's straight out of the Great Historical Russian Novel playbook - you know, the tragic love story set against an epic backdrop, the lovers separated by war, the great WWII nationalism in the face of the villainous German invaders...but what grabbed me instantly was the beautiful black and white cinematography of cameraman Sergei Urusevsky, the Human Steadicam. It starts with that jaw-dropping, seamless, swirling shot of Boris (Alexei Batalov, aka Aleksey Batalov, who later starred in 1979's Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears) running up the stairs at Veronika's apartment building that makes me dizzy just thinking about it. Then there's that mad dash through the bustling crowds and tank-lined streets of Moscow as Veronika frantically tries to catch Boris before he heads off to war, highlighted by Veronika running up a stairway in a sped-up sequence that creates a flurry of motion matching her emotional turmoil. And the later scene at the front when Boris is shot and as he falls the screen dissolves to a flashback of him ascending the stairs in Veronika's apartment house. Pure eye candy.

Train in Vain: Veronika chases after her man

Of scenes like these, Urusevsky explained that "The camera can express what the actor is unable to portray: his inner sensations. The camera must act with the actors." Or, as DVD Times' Michael Brooke raved:
Technically, the film is absolutely astonishing, and not just for its era – Sergei Urusevsky’s mobile camerawork predates the invention of the Steadicam by some two decades, but you’d never know it from the way it swoops and glides from scene to scene, moving from long-shot to decidedly Wellesian neo-Expressionist low-angle close-up in the same take. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that director Mikhail Kalatozov started out in the silent era, where mastery of the technique of purely visual narration was much more necessary than it was after actors started talking.

And in his excellent DVD liner notes, Chris Fujiwara writes the following about the Mikhail Kalatozov-Sergei Urusevsky collaboration:
"The two men's joint body of work deserves to be considered as one of the great multi-film director-cinematographer collaborations, no less innovative and fertile than those of William Wyler and Gregg Toland, Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist, and Jean-Luc Godard and Raoul Coutard."

Now I have to seek out their much-heralded "visual extravaganza" I Am Cuba (1964).

I liked this film a lot because buried beneath its surface plot of nationalism and heroism in the face of invasion (with that hokey ending that has Boris' soldier friend proclaim to the masses, "We have won, and we shall live not to destroy, but to build a new life!”), Kalatozov made a personal statement about the tragedy of human loss. It's captured for the ages on Veronika's face in that final scene when it finally hits her that Boris isn't coming home.

Funny coincidence the next day at work...I was on the phone helping a woman with a Russian-sounding name (c'mon - how many non-Russians are named Olga?) and I asked her if she had seen this movie. I attempted to say its title in Russian and she actually understood me! She responded enthusiastically, "Yes, this is very famous film in my country. And Alexei Batalov [also spelled Aleksey Batalov], he is my favorite actor. His family very famous, his brother was a writer and his father, yada yada yada."

Russian screen icon Alexei Batalov

She promised to bring me in a biography of this actor, who was acclaimed for his portrayal of noble and positive characters and was named People's Artist of the USSR in 1976 and Hero of Socialist Labor in 1989 and had Boris Yeltsin present the Lifetime Achievment Nika Award to him in 2002. Small world. Who knew? Once again, the cinematic art breaks down barriers and brings people together in a common understanding.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Le Mystere Picasso **, Guernica *****

Le Mystere Picasso (The Mystery of Picasso) **
France, 1956, 78 minutes
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

While it is somewhat fascinating to see a bare-chested Pablo Picasso painting numerous canvases for the camera, allowing us to see his creative process at work, this documentary left me cold. I'm sure I'd like it more if I was an art student watching this in class, but after the first couple of drawings come to life via time-lapse photography - a painting that took five hours is rendererd onscreen in a mere 10 minutes - the technique (which utilizes special transparent "canvases" constructed so that Pablo Picasso could paint on one side and Clouzot's cinematographer Claude Renoir could film the other) gets old. But what do I know? After all, it won the Special Jury Prize at the 1956 Cannes Film festival, where it was also nominated for the Golden Palm.

I think Clouzot liked this work best because of the cult of personality - he got to meet and film the great Picasso. But as a film and as a record of what Picasso's work means and its impact on the 20th century, I much prefer Alain Resnais and Robert Hessens' 13-minute short Guernica (1950) that's included as an extra feature on the DVD.

Guernica *****
France, 1950, 13 minutes
Directed by Alain Resnais and Robert Hessens

The short masterfully uses jump-cuts, cross-fades, stirring music and sound effects to present paintings, drawings, and sculptures that Pablo Picasso created between 1902 until 1949, including the famous "Guernica," all set against the dramatic ode "Guernica" written by French lyrical poet Paul Éluard as recited by Jacques Pruvost and María Casarès. For me, this is the greatest rendering of the power, import and significance of Pablo Picasso captured on film.

Or as the folks at Strictly Film School put it:
...Guernica is a thoughtful and passionate meditation on barbarism, warfare, and human resilience. Alain Resnais incorporates ingenious, rapid cut editing strategies and fragmented, subset images that not only visually integrate the principles of cubism in cinematic form, but moreover, reinforce the film's overarching, thematic structure of multifacetedness that subtly - but inescapably - reflect on Spain's (then) continued struggle under fascism at the end of World War II: the superimposition of character portraits against the static image of a post-bombing Guernica (note the use of cross-fade that Resnais subsequently incorporates in the superimposed images of Diego and Marianne in La Guerre est finie); the focused, directed lighting and partial occlusion of images that intimately underscore the resulting psychological toll of the inhumane destruction; the platen overlay of portraits that are subjected to a (simulated) riddling of bullets in order to evoke the image of rampant, arbitrary gun-shed, violence, and chaos. In the end, it is this dimensionally complex and multifaceted depiction of war's long-reaching and ineludible toll that is reflected in the film's bittersweet and melancholic human poem, not to serve as an elegiac commemoration of a senseless tragedy, but as a solemn prayer for the deliverance of a persecuted, suffering people.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Lost in Beijing (***)

Ping Guo (Lost in Beijing)
China, 2007, 112 minutes
Directed by Lu Yi
Cast: Tony Leung Ka Fai, Fan Bingbing, Tong Dawai, Elaine Jin
Plot: A look at modern-day life in China's capital centered on a ménage-a-quatre involving a young woman, her boss, her husband and her boss's wife.

After the graphic sex of the opening half hour, I didn't think I'd like this film - it seemed ugly and misogynist - and I regretted recommending it to a Chinese woman at work (I was hoping it didn't shock her and her husband). But I stuck it out and I'm glad I did, as it is a really impressive film from Lu Yi, whose two earlier films I must seek out. The acting is top-notch, especially Tony Leung Ka Fai - Hong Kong's "Big Tony" as distinguished from "Little Tony" Leung Chiu Wai (2046, In the Mood for Love) - who gives a career-defining performance, and Fan Bingbing, who represents a true discovery for Chinese cinema. Reportedly the director got such great performances out of her actors by instructing them simply to "walk and talk like human beings." Works for me. I also loved the cinematography, especially a section in the middle of the film that is a wordless montage of scenes from the city. Stylistic flourishes like this abound in Yi's film, which utilizes many techniques - the hand-held camera during a shower sex scene, the blurred in-and-out-of-focus lens work to depict Fan Binbing's drunken perspective during the rape scene, the beautifully composed Ozu-like still shots of couple Fan Bingbing and Tong Dawai eating in silence while gazing at the Beijing cityscape.

Anyway, I'm tired so here's Wikipedia to do my lazy bidding on the rest.

Lost in Beijing (Chinese: 苹果; literally "apple") is a 2007 Chinese film directed by Li Yu and starring Fan Bingbing, Tong Dawei, Tony Leung Ka Fai, and Elaine Jin. It had its international premiere at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival on February 16, 2007. Lost in Beijing is director Li Yu's third feature film after the lesbian-themed Fish and Elephant (2002) and the drama Dam Street (2005).

Lost in Beijing was produced by Laurel Films, a small independent production company owned by Fang Li and based in Beijing,[1] and is being released internationally by the French company Film Distribution.[2] Distribution in the United States was picked up by New Yorker Films.[3]

Like many films that touch on the underbelly of Chinese society (see for example, Li Yang's Blind Shaft or Blind Mountain, or Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle), Li Yu's tale of prostitution, blackmail, and rape in modern-day Beijing has been plagued with censorship problems. The film also found controversy for what some critics described as "thumb-nosing gratuitous sex scenes."[4] After nearly a year of delays, the film was finally banned by Chinese authorities in January 2008. However, as noted by Time, Chinese citizens have managed to view the film online, along with the uncut versions of two other sexually-explicit films, Lust, Caution directed by Ang Lee and Summer Palace, directed by Lou Ye.[5]