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“Going Attractions” and Coming Distractions: The Coney Island Film Festival

Outside of the biggies like Sundance, Toronto and Cannes—with their star power and acquisition deals—film festivals are usually fun but rather sedate affairs. You go and see an indie movie or shorts collection, be supportive during the Q&A afterwards, maybe go to a wine and cheese reception and hobnob a bit. This is the kind of film fest I go to and there are plenty to choose from. But the one I attended in mid-September in Coney Island was a breed apart. It’s even smaller than most; situated in one building on Surf Ave. (parallel to the boardwalk) and run by the non-profit arts organization Coney Island USA. Inside they have two venues: bleacher seating downstairs at Sideshows-by-the-Seashore performance space and upstairs at the Coney Island Museum with seating set up in the main room.


Upstairs at the Coney Island Museum (All photos by author)

The Coney Island Festival emphasizes local filmmakers and this year’s program had many works that took place in the immediate vicinity of the venue itself. Moreover, Coney Island USA integrates the screenings with the larger subculture promoted in their mission statement. That is, to extol and carry on many traditional forms of popular entertainment (as we will see in a minute). It was fitting then that the opening night film was “Going Attractions:The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace.” This documentary is an engaging and thorough look (past, present and future) at the classic American “picture palace” which, at the height of their success in the Twenties and Thirties, were among the most opulent buildings ever constructed for a clientele of the average person coming in off the street.


Click to see the trailer!

These theaters, many of them extraordinary in their scale and richness of architectural detail, once crowded together in the entertainment districts of major urban centers and, in a more solitary fashion, graced the main streets of medium-sized cities and even small towns. Director April Wright has steered this project, obviously a labor of love, with a sure hand. The backstory is presented clearly but not ponderously, with most commentators (from star movie critic Leonard Matlin on down) beginning with personal anecdotes of their first visits to one of these amazing venues. Of course, times change and eventually the movie palace business model declined, post-WW2. Suburbanization and the rise of TV were two big reasons and the scale of these theaters were a big problem, they required big staffs and upkeep costs proved prohibitive.


Renovation or more neglect?: The Everett Sq. Theater in Boston is one of hundreds old movie theaters in limbo.

“Going Attractions” gives significant space to those who have played major roles in saving these now-treasured buildings from neglect and maybe a date with the wrecking ball, several of these good folks can be see in the trailer. Probably the most astounding rescue tale is told by former ballerina turned activist and author Rosemary Novellino-Mearns. It is hard to imagine that Radio City Music Hall, the exquisite Art Deco landmark known for the Rockettes and its stupendously popular holiday shows, was threatened with demolition in 1978. In an inspiring David-and-Goliath story, Rosemary and her future husband started a save-Radio-City campaign with their fellow employees. They attracted publicity and powerful allies in what ended up being a major embarrassment for the Rockefellers, who had to cancel plans for a lucrative office skyscraper on the family-owned site. Novellino-Means was blackballed out of her job as a full-time dancer within a year but in the Q&A afterward unsurprisingly told us she had no regrets.


Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, second from left, standing next to director April Wright after the screening of “Going Attractions.”


Another featured commentator for “Going Attractions” is photographer Matt Lambros. His book “After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater” is a must-have for anybody with an abiding interest in this subject. Lambros has criss-crossed the country photographing the current, usually abandoned, state of these magnificent venues. Their beauty is typically still evident despite years of neglect, via Lambros’ vivid large-format photography. A new volume of “After the Final Curtain” is due out this fall. See his website for more details: https://afterthefinalcurtain.net/books/

Radio City Music Hall had been known for their elaborate dance numbers performed on its enormous stage before the movie. This inter-disciplinary spirit continues in film palaces that were saved (which often double as performing-arts centers) and was also on display at this festival. Vaudeville acts were also popular attractions at the old movie palaces and Coney Island USA has for years fostered this spirit. They put on the crowd-favorite Mermaid Parade on Surf Ave. every June and stage many sideshow-type events, including at the opening night party. For a reasonable fee, you got an open bar (topped by almost topless dancers) a generous buffet and a real live revivalist show, featuring an MC who doubled as a cigarette-swallower, a contortionist, and a few burlesque dancers before I was obliged to catch the Q train back to my Manhattan hotel.


This ain’t your granny’s cine club: Opening night party at the Coney Island Film Fest.


I had to head back to Boston on Sunday that weekend so I couldn’t catch the block of animation shorts. The festival’s local flavor continued here with this half-minute clip of the delightful-looking “Brooklyn Breeze”

The following night, inspired by the film, I took a stroll down that once-notorious stretch of West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. The dense concentration of movie houses and theaters there were mostly pornos before being condemned and transformed into the “Disneyfied” Times Square that people like to complain about today. I’m not sure who really misses those places: I’m not a big fan of the Harry Potter plays, tip-seeking Elmos and distracted/compulsive selfie-takers that dominate now, but the danger and seediness are not exactly to be mourned. I wandered into a couple of multiplexes to see if there were any remnants of the glorious past. At the Regal Cinema, on the old site of the infamous XXX Harem Theater, the new decor features a beautiful retro-Deco mural, a nice surprise. (See detail below).

Across the street I hit the jackpot at the AMC Empire. Over the voluminous lobby of a multiplex, where escalators zipped you up to the latest blockbuster, was a gorgeous old-time dome where Egyptian and classical Greek themes intermingled. People don’t know what they have, it was only after some of them noticed me pointing my Nikon up at the ceiling that they looked themselves. Baby steps. I found out later that the original Empire Theater was located a little further up the street and that the entire cinema was moved 170 feet to its present location, with giant balloon figures of Abbott and Costello made to look like they were tugging it along (the duo performed at the old Empire). The the main part of the theater was pushed up towards the street to be the lobby while the modern multiple screens were built behind. Hey, whatever it takes! I love American ingenuity and American movie palaces. Find out where there is one close to you and support them, keep the tradition alive.
—Rick Ouellette

AMC Empire theater lobby, two details below.


“New Killer Star”: David Bowie’s astute 9/11 testament

9/11/01 “See the great white scar over Battery Park.” So begins “New Killer Star” the outstanding lead-off track to David Bowie’s 2004 Reality album. Reality, indeed. In the wake of history’s worst terrorist attack, musicians naturally jumped into the rhetorical fray soon after the initial wave of shock, anger and profound sadness in the following weeks. These songs ranged from chauvinistic revenge fantasies like Charlie Daniels’ “This Ain’t no Rag, It’s a Flag” (awesome title, huh?) to Neil Young’s Flight 93 re-enactment “Let’s Roll” to the thoughtful human dramas on Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising.

Bowie, a long-time New York City resident, came out with this lyrically subtle and musically uplifting tribute three years after the fact. It certainly has a carry-on vibe to it (“Let’s face the music and dance”) and a keen sense of the lasting dread in the 9/11 aftermath, reflected in the song title. But its vision its expansive. It touches upon the elusive concept of universal understanding (“I never said I was better than you”) and a look ahead to a time beyond our own (“All the corners of the buildings/Who but we remember these?”). Sure, all this was probably flying over the heads of many in the audience when Bowie and his crackerjack band performed “New Killer Star” on the subsequent tour (the only time I got to see him in concert). But the incremental enlightenment of great art works in mysterious ways, building up over extended periods of time to inspire people to become fully engaged in the world, instead of settling for the unfocused rage and bigotry of the Charlie Daniels’ song, attitudes more recently fermented in your typical Donald Trump rally. As David sings it himself here “I got a better way/Ready, Set, Go!.”

–Rick Ouellette, 9/11/2019

Jack DeJohnette Trio: Musical Heaven on the Harbor

On August 11th, two days after he turned 77 years old, jazz drummer/legend Jack DeJohnette and his trio gave one of the best musical performances I’ve ever seen at the Shalin Liu Center in Rockport, Mass. His two partners here are saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (son of John) and bassist Matt Garrison, son of Coltrane classic-quartet bassist Jimmy Garrison. This inter-generational/progeny combo has been a side project for about five years now and the anticipation was palatable as the veteran drummer-pianist, whose first solo LP (and his appearance on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew) date back a half-century, ambled onstage followed by Ravi with three saxophones strapped to his neck and Matt clutching his five-string electric bass.

The Shalin Liu Center has become quite the marquee venue since it opened in 2010, just as much for its dramatic location as for its exemplary acoustics. The building is squeezed in between the shops and art galleries of this destination seaport and behind the stage is a two-story window overlooking Rockport’s Back Harbor (the main harbor is on the other side of a little peninsula where sits Motif #1). The atmospherics could not have been any greater as the group settled in under an otherworldly green-gray twilight sky. DeJohnette started an extraordinary half-hour suite of songs by sitting down at the house Steinway, playing a soft melody. He ended it an extended and dramatic flourish on his drum kit to climax the group’s dramatic rendition of John Coltrane’s 1963 civil-rights eulogy “Alabama.”

It was a sublime thirty minutes of sensual, exploratory interplay that was as exultant as it was daring. DeJohnette’s sterling reputation precedes him by five decades of course, and his powerful and unique style has not dimmed with the years: the audience got the full complement of his tom-tom smashes, cymbal washes and the geometric patterns and rolls that never seem to land in the same place twice. Before this night I had not been familiar with Matt Garrison (who is also DeJohnette’s godson); he was the group’s link to our technological present. He is an exceptionally nimble player, even a little show-offy a la Jaco Pastorius. His bass guitar was fed into any number of effects thru his onstage laptop and his loops and overlays were a continual source of enjoyment.


Here’s a great 9-minute piece from 2016, promoting the release of the trio’s “In Movement” album but also showing the deep inter-generational connections that has made this project so special. Nice interviews and good snippets of the album, which is not up on YouTube. So buy it!

It was Ravi Coltrane who was the evening’s wild card. He was the only of the three that I had seen live before, as part of an ace quintet led by another John Coltrane alumnus: pianist McCoy Tyner, the only one of that classic quartet that is still with us. I knew Ravi (who looks just like the old man) to be a talented but somewhat subdued saxophonist, as if he were careful not to be seen mimicking his father’s outsized legacy. But all that went out the two-story window that night and he channeled his dad’s intense and passionate playing style that always emanated from a deep spiritual center. Switching throughout the night between tenor, soprano and sopranino, he shined on “In Movement,” gliding over the tune’s metronomic rhythm and he impressively cut loose on “Cop-Out,” the set’s one foray into traditional up-tempo bebop.

Ravi Coltrane (left) performing with Matthew Garrison (center) and Jack DeJohnette (right) in October. Coltrane is nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo at the 2017 Grammy Awards for the title track from In Movement, recorded with Garrison and DeJohnette

The cathartic applause by the rather upscale audience (big plus: no up-raised smart phones!) at the end of the first set said a lot about the impact of this music. We repaired to the 3rd floor reception room for drinks and a chance to catch our collective breath. Early on after the intermission, as darkness descended on the Back Harbor backdrop, came another musical peak in an evening filled with them. The trio started into the ethereal Miles Davis ballad “Blue in Green,” from his landmark album Kind of Blue, on which John Coltrane first gained widespread recognition. Here, with DeJohnette back on piano, the band magnified the popular original with a new fluid arrangement over which Ravi blew a magnificently expressive solo on soprano sax, honoring his father’s presence (on tenor sax) from the 1959 original recording. The room seemed to be in a state of suspended animation—to the point where, for a few precious out-of-body moments, I felt I was watching John Coltrane himself (what did they put in my beer?).

After I was eased off the wing of a musical angel and back into my seat the show went on in a slightly more earthbound manner. Matt Garrison got a solo showcase that was giddy with virtuosic excitement and Jack ended the proceedings with a definitive smack on his snare drum that put a full-stop exclamation point on an enchanting ride that had to end somewhere. As the trio stood at center stage, the septuagenarian leader flanked by his two surrogate sons gracefully acknowledging the standing ovation, the whole spirit of this night came together in a late-breaking attestation to the everlasting virtue of both music and family. Not necessarily just kinfolk of course, but as DeJohnette put it in the liner notes to the group’s 2016 album In Movement, “we are connected at a very high and extremely personal level.” And as with all great art, that feeling extends to the beholder of it as well, and to the artist’s contemporaries, too. This is the great paying forward of world culture and is needed now more than ever, in this pitiless planet that grows more uncertain by the day, even hour.

Of course, we all had to walk back into that world after the show, but I tempered that disappointment by picking up In Movement on CD a week later. This is not only a great keepsake of a show that will live well in my memory (yes, their versions of “Blue in Green” and “Alabama” are on it) but for that ineffable spirit I described, of a work that spreads its love around: there are titles like “Lydia” (for DeJohnette’s wife), “Two Jimmys” (Garrison and Hendrix), and “Rashied” for Rashied Ali, Coltrane’s drummer from 1966 until John died the year later (Ravi’s mom, pianist Alice Coltrane, was also in that band). A beautiful album by beautiful people in a time when it is so sorely needed.


A boat’s-eye view of the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Mass.

In a Dream of Strange Cities, Part 3: “Parabolica”

We all stood just inside the door of the long-closed sanctum. Lady Domine took a few steps forward from us. She wore a charcoal floral-print tunic, pale red leggings and stylish hiking shoes; she stood with a regally erect posture. But the way her hands cupped her sides with fingers spread, and the manner in which her right foot was set forward, suggested she was better prepared for a spirited game of hide-and-seek than the more serious matter at hand.

I remembered Crutch’s comment when he first told me about our company’s top benefactor. “She’s sort of stuck somewhere between a duchess and a tomboy.

“Well, one thing is for certain,” she said after a pause of a half-minute, “For this sort of undertaking, the old meeting room of a secret society really fits the bill.”

“Didn’t I tell you, it’s perfect!” Crutch spoke with an eagerness that was a bit out of character.

“Oh, don’t you worry, Charlie Crutchfield. At $90,000 we’re definitely going to buy it.”

I nudged Hannah with my left elbow and nodded. She replied with a discreet thumbs-up.

Domine turned to look at me. “Asbestos?”

“Well, there is some, mostly in the basement. But it’s not a very large building.”

Crutch piped in. “The Parabolic Society was never a large fraternity. More like a watering hole for utopian sky-watchers. Have you heard of them?”

She lifted a little crooked smile that lit up her still largely-unlined face. “Not at all. I always rely on you guys in the Ministry of Dark Tourism for my esoteric learning.”

“I doubt that, but thanks” Crutch said and they walked over towards the apse, with its formal arrangement of three chairs.

Hannah turned to me confidentially. “When she says ‘we’re’ going to buy it, should I take it literally to mean all of us? I don’t exactly have twenty-two grand lying around.”

“Don’t worry, that’s her way of being inclusive. She’ll probably take the $90,000 out of her petty cash drawer.”

Lady Domine approached the chairs and lightly patted the larger one in the middle. A light puff of dust rose up, but she took a seat anyway. Then it occurred to me: who would sit on either side, if anyone? The rough idea was a political rally under the guise of a MODT event featuring a re-creation of a 19th century mesmeric performance. I hoped that my late career switch didn’t turn out to be more than I had bargained for.

She leaned forward in the big chair. “Oh, Crutch, I don’t know. What are we supposed to be doing here? Advocating for the partition by having me do parlor tricks? This town is probably crawling with red-caps. It could even get dangerous.”

Crutch turned to look at us and nodded towards the back area. We stepped on bits of shattered tiles, past the apse and into a hallway. I peeked back and Domine had moved off the chair and was peering thru a cracked Palladian window down at the street. I paused with Hannah to look at some parabolic diagrams that remained on the wall. After a moment I suggested she should check out the old member’s lounge and kitchen. When she did, I lingered in the hall.

“the hopheads won’t bother us,” Crutch was saying. “We’ll put up a sign saying ‘Private Event’ and get Ike’s friend Jason to work the door. You remember Jason—about six-foot eight and two fifty, with fists like pile drivers?”

“That must be the gentleman who checked tickets at our ‘Satan’s Skyline’ fiasco last October,” Domine replied. “Let’s limit alcohol sales for this event.”

“Anyway, let’s have a soft opening. We’ll invite maybe 25 of our best customers for free and maybe a few college kids from the town. See how it goes.”

“Do you want to hear a bit of what I’ve been working on”

Hannah had just poked her head out of the kitchen, probably to show me the double dumbwaiter. Rookie enthusiasm. Instead, I motioned her towards me. Once Lady Domine sat back down in the big chair and started speaking, Crutch waved us back into the main room.

“Now let’s spin back down the years to the autumn of our discontent in 2016. When PFF came to power, it was like a little piece of me died. I’m sure many of you felt the same. And when he met his maker, that piece of me was not re-born, it stayed dead. I can only hope to replace it with a new inspirational spirit derived from a wholly new source…”

Her eyes were wide open and stared straight ahead as if into nothing and everything. The effect reminded of the “Glass-Eyed Goddess of Union Mills” whose visage had recently become the MODT emblem.

The good Lady continued. “There is a new righteous power that is forming behind the scenes of everyday life. Anyone with a good heart can tap into it. But we must be careful with it. The retrogressions of this century have been shocking—the vile and needless hatreds, the bloated ignorance, the flagrant racism and the emptiness of forfeited souls that have led to countless brutalities.

“I know the desire for retribution is great with some in this current political vacuum. But we should never resort to violence in any of its forms: physical, economic, mental or whatever else. Instead, we should smite our enemies with the three Ls: Logic, Learning and Love. And the smite shall feel like a kiss.”

Lady Domine leaned back in the chair and rolled her eyes as if to say “who me?” I realized I had just snapped out of a little trance of my own.

“Well, that’s sort of the end of it. I’ll build up to it.”

After a brief silence, Hannah practically slapped her cheek with her right hand. “Omigod, that was amazing! You’ve got to do it. I know I’m new and have no clout… but if we don’t do this event I’m going to die!”

Domine smiled at her, then turned back to Crutch. “I’m still not sure. Why wouldn’t I just start a pro-partition action fund?”

“Because that’s boring and would fizzle out quickly. We’ve already talked about this—sensational gambits and star power is the only thing that’s works now. We’ll hash out the details at the next staff meeting.”

“I’m not really a mesmerist, you know, but I could wing it and see what happens. Soft opening, yes. Or else I won’t do it. Don’t be putting me down for a definite “yes” just yet. No, I have to do it, just look at this country. Can we have drinks later?”

Hannah gave me a side look. “Huh?”
“Don’t worry. You get used to it after a while.”

Crutch took Lady Domine to see the other rooms, Hannah tagged along. I looked out the front window into the town center, where the light was failing. Down below was a stonework mass of once-proud mercantile buildings, their civic ideals mostly forgotten. Beyond that was the triangular common, with its’ patchy lawn and statue of a Union soldier, standing prematurely at ease. A few guys were gathered around a bench at its far side, next to an old pick-up truck with a flag mounted behind the cab. They had bagged drinks and a couple of them were shin-kicking a third, playfully at first but then not so much.

I exhaled uncomfortably. The place with the drinks was only three doors down so I kept quiet and let it pass. But I knew it couldn’t stay that way forever.

This is an excerpt from an in-progress illustrated or graphic novel called The Ministry of Dark Tourism. If interested, follow this blog to get updated or friend me in Facebook, Rick Ouellette.

“Summer Interlude” (1951): Ingmar Bergman’s Silver Cloud with a Black Lining

It’s no big revelation that summertime, that most celebrated of seasons, can often be a contradictory advantage. Sometimes the reasons can be simple: the weather turns stifling, the beaches get too crowded, the traffic backs up for miles and it always seems a little too fleeting. “Summer’s lease has all too short a date,” as Willie Shakespeare put it. And then there is the more existential angst that can come into play. That nagging feeling that there is something missing despite all the fun that was had—a bittersweet feeling stemming from a sense of lost innocence, of elongated school vacations and the promise, even fulfillment, of first love.


Ingmar Bergman’s background in live theater is evident in the “Swan Lake” excerpts and scenes of backstage life.

Early in his film-making career, Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman captured this rueful essence in “Summer Interlude” (translated from “Sommarlek”). This movie centers on a beautiful but detached ballet dancer named Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson). While preparing for a “Swan Lake” dress rehearsal, she receives a package containing the diary of an old flame, sent to her anonymously. When a power failure delays the rehearsal until that evening, Marie, now bundled up against the autumn chill, leaves Stockholm on a ferry to the island of her family’s summer place. This was the scene of the summer romance with the boy in question. In the numerous flashbacks that follow, Nilsson transforms Marie (already world-weary at 28) into a vivacious teenager. A dance prodigy, she has a practice room upstairs in the family manor (her aunt and uncle are the only relations we see) and personal use of a one-room cabin down by the rocky shoreline.


Birger Malmsten as Henrik and Maj-Britt Nilsson as Marie.

It’s on that same ferry some twelve years before that she meets Henrik, a pensive and handsome boy slightly older than herself. Bergman was in his early thirties at the time and young enough to recall the peculiar rapture of young love, as the world soon boils down to Marie and Henrik and his tag-along poodle. The director’s lustrous B&W cinematography aches with a universal nostalgia but with a keen eye to locations well known to him personally. From the glimmering of the water when the sun peeks from behind a cloud, to the dense pine-filled forests looming in the background, to the long-lingering twilights of a far-north summer spent at the 60th parallel, this film is a marvel to behold.

Just as deftly captured is the couple’s fledgling romance (“We’re inside the same bubble,” Marie tells her new beau). Bergman shows the giddy recognition of mutual attraction, the teasing byplay, the long afternoons spent in a bathing suit, and drying out on the rocks while devising the grand declarations of self-serious late adolescence. (Just as easily as Marie states “I’m never going to die,” Henrik confesses to visions of falling into an abyss). These relatable feelings are so finely honed by the two lead actors that when the tragedy we sense coming actually happens, it hits extra hard.

It’s here that the film starts hinting at themes that would later come to dominate Bergman’s work in such arthouse favorites as “Wild Strawberries” and “The Seventh Seal.” These would include the inescapability of the past and questioning the existence of God in an impersonal universe. Back in the present, Marie chances upon her debonair but creepy uncle whose revelation about the diary helps her to leave the island feeling a bit less shackled by her memories and ready to move forward with what is now in front of her.

Although it featured no nudity and only inferences of sex, the sensuous “Summer Interlude” was originally titled “Illicit Interlude in America, playing in slightly shady downtown cinemas before the days of straight-up porn. Otherwise, it became recognized as one of the first major works of a great global director and the first of an informal trilogy with “Summer with Monika” (1953) and “Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). For Bergman himself, it marked the true beginning of of the mastery of his craft. “I suddenly felt that I knew my profession,” he later remarked also noting that it was fun to make it. Like he shows with his two young lovers, there will always be a little magical something in the season where “the days are like pearls and the nights like waking dreams.”
–Rick Ouellette

Make Mine a Double #13: The Bee Gees’ “Odessa” (1969)

From their humble beginnings as a family singing group, the Bee Gees went on to become one of the biggest selling popular music groups of all time. The three Gibb brothers reached their commercial zenith as the dominant act on the 1977 Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which has sold some forty million copies worldwide. Although their early AM hits and the iconic disco workouts of Fever remain in steady rotation in various radio formats, little if anything from Odessa graces the airwaves anymore. This lushly packaged double LP hit the stores in early ’69 and although it did achieve a measure of success (#20 in the U.S., #10 in the U.K.) the album was hindered by the lack of a monster single to sustain its reputation. In fact, a dispute between two of the brothers over what song to release as a 45 caused a fissure in the band that would take a couple of years to patch up. An impressive set of progressive pop compositions beautifully sung and performed, Odessa could be a fresh discovery for those who have long extolled the virtues of the much-worshiped Pet Sounds. Like that classic album from the Beach Boys (also a family-based group) Odessa elevates a teenage art form into a sophisticated new realm without ever seeming pretentious.


“First of May” was the only single released from the double album and only got as high as #37 in the U.S.

Born on England’s Isle of Man, older brother Barry and twins Robin and Maurice honed their close harmony style from an early age. Their family moved to Australia in the late Fifties but after topping the Down Under charts in 1966 with the immortal “Spicks and Specks,” the brothers headed back to England. They fell under the auspices of impresario/producer Robert Stigwood, who heavily promoted the band and helped them hone their signature style on yearning, melancholic ballads like “To Love Somebody” and “Massachusetts.”


The Bee Gees in 1969, with drummer Colin Petersen, second from right, still a full member with the Gibb Brothers.

By the end of the Sixties, with high-aiming records like Sgt. Pepper and Days of Future Past all the rage, the Bee Gees made their move. The curtain-raising title track clocks in at 7:30 and features Maurice’s Spanish guitar and solo cello by guest Paul Buckmaster. The nautical imagery and historic references presage the work of artists like Al Stewart and (much later) the Decemberists. The boys even work in a new wrinkle on their usual theme of dealing with romantic setbacks, courtesy of the eyebrow-raising refrain, “You love that vicar more than words can say.”

But with seventeen songs to work with, there is no shortage of the Bee Gees’ stock-in-trade balladry, that keening heartache delivered by the famous high-pitched voices and insistent vibrato. Because tunes like “I Laugh in Your Face”, “Sound of Love” and “Never Say Never Again,” (“You said goodbye/I declared war on Spain”) sound familiar despite their relative obscurity, Odessa sometimes seems like a template for the elegant pop songcraft of a lost era. This craft extends to the musical performance. Drummer Colin Petersen kicks into gear when the group stretches stylistically, especially on an early foray into funk at the end of “Whisper Whisper.” There’s also a fun homage to The Band (“Marley Purt Drive”) a jaunty hoedown (“Give Your Best”) and an eccentric ode to Thomas Edison.

Despite the album’s long string of top-notch lead vocals by Barry and Robin Gibb, it may be the “quiet” brother Maurice who’s the unsung star here. Playing a variety of keyboards in addition to his bass duties, he comes to the fore on the loftier second disc, his grand piano leading the way on the orchestrated instrumental “Seven Seas Symphony.” He also takes full advantage on his one vocal showcase: “Melody Fair” is maybe the loveliest tune on a record chock full of them. Despite his reputation as a stabilizing presence in the midst of two more ambitious siblings, Maurice (who died in 2003) couldn’t prevent the rift caused when Barry’s “First of May” was chosen as the single while Robin’s “Lamplight” was relegated to the b-side. Robin (who passed away in 2012) was out of sorts over the notion that his older brother was being pushed out to center stage and split for a solo career.


Maurice Gibb’s delectable “Melody Fair” gained popularity two years after its initial release when it became the de facto theme song for the movie Melody starring Tracy Hyde.

Although Barry and Maurice carried on as a duo (Cucumber Castle, anyone?) the trio eventually re-united and re-defined themselves for the Seventies, leading to an outbreak of white leisure suits, exposed chest hair and those little spoons hanging around the neck. After Saturday Night Fever the excesses of the decade caught up with the Bee Gees, as Robert Stigwood insisted that they star with Peter Frampton in a mega-movie based on the Beatles most famous album. Seized by what was reported to be a sort of collective cocaine psychosis, cast and crew turned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonelyhearts Club Band into a garish and silly film musical that was universally loathed. It is worlds away from the classy accomplishments of a work like Odessa, where ambition was happily married to good instincts.
—Rick Ouellette

Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”: Spending the Holidays with some “basically good” people

Cover illustration by Pierre Le-Tan for the Criterion Collection DVD.

“Metropolitan,” Whit Stillman’s beguiling Upper East Side comedy of manners, is classic in more ways than one. But since it became an indie sleeper hit upon its 1990 release, it has never been considered a holiday perennial. This despite its classic New York look (aside from a few giveaways, like the taxi roof ads, this could be mid-century Gotham) and the fact that the events of the film take place over the course of a week where Christmas falls right in the middle. The trees and the stores are decked out and the film starts with a snippet of holiday music, before slipping into some self-consciously (yes) classic jazz. Yet the event that is December 25th is barely mentioned by the characters and the season is more like a seductively twinkling backdrop. Still, the setting and Stillman’s unshowy compassion for his leads makes this a nice alternative viewing at this time of year, especially if you’re looking for a break from the yearly repeats of Scrooge and the Grinch.

The story concerns a group of young and wellborn Manhattanites, most of whom seem to be home on the winter vacation of their freshman year at Ivy League colleges. Stillman’s stand-in would be the less well-of Tom Townsend, a red-headed Princeton newbie first seen leaving a posh hotel alone after a society dance and who is mistaken as a competitor for the same cab with a group his own age. This mixed group of friends is the self-named “Sally Fowler Rat Pack” (SFRP) and before you can say “after party” Tom has fallen in with them, finding himself in the spacious parlor of her family’s Park Ave. penthouse. What follows is the first of the many hyper-intellectual and often catty group conversations which are “Metropolitan’s” main claim to fame.


The Sally Fowler Rat Pack convenes.

Here, the sophistication goes way deeper than the surface appearance of tuxedos, evening gowns and a parlor filled with old-money furniture. An almost ridiculously erudite skull session is underway as outsider Tom reveals a left-leaning world view and admits to being a “committed socialist” as the talk quickly turns to French philosopher Fourier, of whom he is a fan. Despite some doubts about this, the group decide that Tom is a “basically good person,” a high form of praise with this crowd.

The group comes into focus. The bespectacled Charlie is a self-appointed defender of the positive values of the old WASP aristocracy, even though he (like some of the others) recognizes its decline. The bookish and wispy Audrey has a sharp intellect and a love of Jane Austen; she soon develops a crush on Tom, to Charlie’s chagrin. She stands in sharp relief with Jane, the tall and confident brunette as well as with the fair-haired Sally Fowler and Cynthia, who would probably be mean girls if they weren’t so well-bred.


Jane (Allison Rutledge-Parisi), Nick (Christopher Eigeman) and Sally (Dylan Handley)

The real standout, however, is the handsome, dimpled and (seemingly) impertinent Nick. Unabashed about his privileged status and easily seen as rude, Nick (as brilliantly portrayed by Chris Eigeman) is the de facto leader and conscience of the SFRP. Nick breaks down Tom’s resistance about returning the following night, and senses Tom’s insecurity about the cost of his rented tuxedo and his lack of an overcoat (though his raincoat “has a lining” as he is obliged to explain to the others). These scenes between Nick and Tom (played by Edward Clements) are a highlight of the film. The cajoling may start out because there is a “severe escort shortage” at the start of debutante week, but turns into something more. With the group clued in to Audrey’s feelings, Nick informs him that he has made a “big impression” on the girls and that he should drop his moralistic objections to high society and enjoy the amenities. Check out this well-played scene between Eigeman and Clements.


Nick and Tom parry in the vestibule in my favorite scene from “Metropolitan.” Come for the debs, stay for the “hot, nutritious meals”

The famous good advice to authors to “write what you know” is assiduously followed her by the writer-director. Stillman based his Oscar-nominated script on a similar experience he had on his first Christmas back from his own freshman year at Harvard in 1969. This rarefied upper-class milieu of society balls and formal fashions is not the most readily sympathetic subject matter but Stillman owns it with panache. He deliberately amped-up the cultivated banter for comic effect and takes semi-satirical delight in arcane details. Charlie (played by Taylor Nichols) name-drops Averell Harriman and earnestly comes up with a more accurate acronym for the WASPs, namely the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (UHB, or “The Ubbs” as Nick would have it) while Audrey would defend the old-fashioned virtues of Austen to the ends of the earth. Oblivious to her affections, Tom still pines for Serena, his ravishing but flighty ex-girlfriend who he hasn’t seen since “Yale game weekend.” Nick details at novelistic length the alleged sex crimes of his arch-nemesis, the conceited Rick von Sloneker, an actual baron. It keeps “Metropolitan” likably light on its feet even as the characters, suspecting that this is last real debutante season, see their way of life fading.


A photo from a recent reunion of the “Metropolitan cast and director Whit stillman (far right).

“Metropolitan” can’t help but suffer a little when Nick departs the scene with about a third of it left to play out. (Chris Eigeman would delightfully reprise this character type in two later Stillman films, 1994’s “Barcelona” and 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco”). Shortly after a confrontation with the young baron goes awry, Nick catches his train upstate to his dad’s place, where he’s sure his evil stepmother has plans to murder him. In case he doesn’t return, Nick makes Tom and Charlie promise to uphold the tradition of the UHBs. Although it would have sounded corny, he could have suggested they uphold the principles of the “basically good” people, especially in light of the Rick von Sloneker’s of the world. The UHBs certainly had their flaws but their straight-laced civic-mindedness and charitable tendencies stand tall in contrast to what we get with the infamous 1% of today’s economic upper strata. Nick describes von Sleneker as “tall, rich, good looking, stupid, dishonest, insolent and possibly psychotic.” Take out the “good looking” part and it sounds suspiciously like the current occupant of the White House. Who knew this would combination would be so “irresistible” to so many voters. Nick’s righteous indignation at the baron (also the name of Trump’s youngest son), misunderstood by many other characters, sounds impeccably prophetic today.

METROPOLITAN, Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, 1990


Audrey and Tom look to better days. Happy Holidays, everyone!

A Cheap Movie Holiday in Other People’s Misery: A Punter’s Guide to 40 Years of Brit Punk on Film, Part 1

Illustration by Eric Bornstein

In June of 1977, much of Great Britain was celebrating the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, who had ascended to the throne in 1952. At the same time, the punk rock uprising—which had been a disruptive presence in English society since the previous year—was reaching the apex of its notoriety. The Sex Pistols were certifiable public enemies by that time. They spent Jubilee Night on a hired Thames riverboat, sailing past the Houses of Parliament and railing against what they saw as an artificial figurehead looming over a fractured society and a declining economy. When the boat docked after this open-air shindig, the police were waiting…

Almost as soon as bands stared forming and a scene coalescing, Punk was being filmed. On the riverboat that night, camera in hand, was Julien Temple. While at university he became enamored of the French anarchist filmmaker Jean Vigo and in 1976 befriended the Pistols. Also on the scene in these days, with a newly purchased Super 8mm camera, was Don Letts, the dreadlocked DJ at London’s Roxy club. He filmed many bands during the famous 100-day period in early ’77 when the Roxy was an all-punk venue. This footage included performances by the Pistols, X-Ray Spex, Billy Idol and Generation X, the Clash, Subway Sect, the Slits and also American acts Johnny Thunders and Wayne County. He edited together his best clips of bands and fans at the Roxy as well as on the seminal White Riot Tour and released the endearingly primitive “Punk Rock Movie” in 1978.

The film ends with an electrifying 5-song clip of the Sex Pistols playing at The Screen on the Green in April ’77, their first performance with Sid Vicious. It’s an invaluable depiction of a revolutionary band as yet unburdened by their own infamy or by the Machiavellian manipulations of manager Malcolm McLaren.

Around the same time, a fledgling German filmmaker named Wolfgang Buld set out for London and shot many of the same bands as well as others like the Jam, the Adverts and Chelsea. Buld also paid homage to the first-column punk followers in several scenes, and for contrast ventured into a club chock full of conservative Teddy Boys (1st Ted: “One of them (punks), he had a dog collar on. There’s nothing good about that, is there?” 2nd TED: “That’s why we give them a good hiding every time we see ‘em.”) Buld also captured some bands playing live in their practice spaces, most notably X-Ray Spex and their dynamic singer Poly Styrene.


X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene in a still from “Punk in London”

The resulting “Punk in London” (like “Punk Rock Movie”) closes with an extended sequence of a top-line punk outfit. The Clash rip thru several of their politically-charged numbers on a spacious well-lit hall in Munich, making this one of the better filmed documents of the group’s early years. Both these movies show punk in straight-up mostly cinema verite form. It was a homegrown protest calling out Britain’s faded postwar promise and a raucous reaction against a stale pop music scene.


The Clash, “Garageland” Live in Munich 1977

Punk’s real Days of Rage started December 1st, 1976, when the Pistols where hastily invited to appear on the early-evening “Today Show” when the guys in Queen cancelled. A drunk and condescending host named Bill Grundy questioned the equally soused group and four members of their Bromley Contingent fan group. When one of them, future star Siouxsie Sioux, gets propositioned by Grundy, it’s more than guitarist Steve Jones is willing to take.


Forty-thousand pounds gone “Down the boozer”: The Grundy affair gets hashed out in Julien Temple’s 2000 doc “The Filth and the Fury

The British tabloids went off their nut. The Pistols had just released “Anarchy in the UK” their Molotov cocktail of a debut single and the uproar that followed the “Today” broadcast instantly gained them a national infamy. Glen Matlock, the band’s bassist and songwriting contributor, was soon after replaced by the less talented but more volatile Sid Vicious, born John Beverly and a friend of Rotten’s. This fit well into the game plan of the Pistols’ rakish manager, Malcolm McLaren, who wanted to exploit this growing sensationalism for maximum shock effect and easy money. It worked only too well. By the spring of ’77, Sex Pistol gigs were getting banned in several cities and anxious record companies were signing and then quickly dropping them amid the general moral panic. Their status as media Public Enemies was no joke: both Johnny Rotten and drummer Paul Cook were viciously attacked by London street thugs. What was overshadowed in all this was that the band’s “God Save the Queen” single was a true cultural turning point in UK history.


The semi-fictional propaganda hodgepodge that was “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” was released in 1980 as some sort of twisted Malcolm McLaren testament. Rotten had long left the band and despised the idea of it but the movie (directed, in a sense, by Julien Temple) had its moments, including a couple of nice bits of animation.

Although vilified by the press and misunderstood by large portions of slightly older rock fans, punk did find an early ally of sorts in the person of left-of-center artist/designer/director Derek Jarman. His cult film “Jubilee” was shot in ’77 and released a year later. He used punk singers and personalities like Toyah Wilcox, Jordan, Adam Ant and the Slits alongside players who were more identified with Jarman’s Warholian London art clique.

The film was a dystopian fantasy where Queen Elizabeth I, curious to see what the future holds for her country, is transported by her in-house sorcerer to an England where a social breakdown has left a blighted urban landscape where fascist police battle politically radicalized punk gangs.

At the gang’s dockside they work up militant manifestos but also aspire to be pop stars despite a global media machine as represented by an all-powerful impresario, the cackling Borgia Ginz. “Jubilee” was didactic arthouse fare that was not widely-loved when it came out in 1978. Many punk rockers were pissed off at the film’s implicit idea that they were callous and violent by default, booing at the premiere at a scene of one of the impresario’s hangers-on being tied to a lamppost with barbed wire.


Just another day in the dystopic Docklands of “Jubilee”

Today, Jarman’s movie looks more astute, pre-figuring the divisive Thatcher years and the modern media-industrial complex that marginalizes true rebellion by feeding the general public an “endless movie.” Speaking of which, the establishment got into the game by 1980, most notably with “Breaking Glass.” The script seemed to emanate from the boardroom instead of the street, although the sole credited writer-director was the BBC-trained journeyman Brian Gibson.

It starred the strident vocalist Hazel O’Connor playing a singer whose rise to messianic status defies both logic and musical greatness. Even the solid presence of Phil Daniels as her original manager/love interest doesn’t help much (Gibson, to his credit, would gone on to make two much better fiction films of real iconic female singers: “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Josephine Baker Story”). The year before, Daniels had starred in Franc Rodman’s brilliant screen adaptation of the Who’s rock opera “Quadrophenia.” The film was embraced by the punk community and showed in a way that this new cultural uprising was also part of a longer continuum and would eventually be looked on with the same sort of nostalgia it was then detesting. But more of that in Part Two.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

RIP the voice of HAL

It was interesting to read the obit today for Douglas Rain, the Shakespearean actor from Ontario who is best known for voicing the HAL 9000 supercomputer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Rain was a bit underwhelmed by his two-day voice work assignment during which he had little other connection to the production. (In fact, it was said he never even watched the finished film).

But maybe the ever-clever Stanley Kubrick was up to something. Rain’s unnerving and coolly disembodied voice perfectly captured the detached but deadly disaster that could easily ensue when humankind forfeits its sovereignty to technology. This cautionary and influential sub-plot has remained a least a little bit of a check against this human tendency to see any technological advance as an automatic life improvement. (I don’t use Siri and choose not to own a “smart” phone).
HAL’s two most famous scenes—-the “pod bay door” standoff and the empathy-provoking disconnection—sandwich what I think was Rain’s best bit. Here is HAL’s two-minute attempt to try to convince a grimly determined Dave Bowman to re-consider. After killing the other astronaut and three hibernating scientists, HAL admits that “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently.” Ahh, ya think?? It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so horrifying.

Despite Rain’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for his “2001” role, he reprised it in Peter Hyam’s “2010” sequel from 1984. He also did a very similar (and effectively spooky) narration in the 1975 Oscar-winning documentary “The Man Who Skied Down Everest.” RIP Douglas Rain.

Make Mine a Double #11: The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (1995)

Throughout their peak years, the Smashing Pumpkins were often as belittled as they were beloved. The Chicago quartet, led by the ambitious and troubled Billy Corgan, made their first album in 1991, the same year that saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. But while the Pumpkins were contemporaneous with the grunge-rock movement, they always had a bit of a street-cred problem with alt-rock purists. The ready-for-prime-time debut Gish had arena-rock production values and betrayed an affinity for pyschedelia and Sabbath, an approach that used just as much luster as grit. The formula was refined on the blockbuster Siamese Dream and, with the help of some memorable videos, cemented their popularity and fixed their darkish image for the general rock public. Never afraid to aim high, Corgan and Co. had rocketed to fame with grandiose personal statements where the vivid peaks and valleys of their music were as emotionally charged as their leader’s lyrics. “Despite all my rage/I’m still just a rat in a cage” was a (sometimes mocked) catchphrase for the decade and the refrain of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, as blistering a chunk of speed grunge as you’d ever want to hear. It was the lead single when Corgan went widescreen in 1995, spearheading the band in this two-hour collection of songs that found him at his restlessly creative peak.

The exceedingly earnest catharsis of many of these tracks struck a chord with millions of young people in Generations X, Y and Z. In a skeptical age, it also left Corgan open to detractors, who could point first at the album’s overwrought title, with its limp play on words. The curtain does open with the titular prelude (thankfully “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” turns out to be an instrumental) and this piano-and-mellotron introduction gives way to a sudden surging crescendo and the dramatic plea for personal connection that is “Tonight, Tonight,” one of the Pumpkins’ most elegant showpieces. (The group seemed to have this thing with silent movies: the first album was named after Lillian Gish and the video for this song was heavily inspired by early French filmmaker/fantasist George Melies, as was the handsome cover art).

But much of the first disc (titled “Dawn to Dusk”) is a lot harsher, with metallic riffing predominant and Corgan plumbing the depths of his inner torment. This domineering a frontman usually overshadows his colleagues and the band was long known for its internal vexations. In the obsessive pursuit of sonic perfection, Corgan had often played the parts of second guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky in the studio. The group was also known for its constant infighting and drug problems, especially those of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Mellon Collie benefited by a shift in strategy suggested by co-producer Mark “Flood” Ellis (Alan Moulder and Corgan were also at the controls) that had the group hashing out material in rehearsals beforehand, making for a looser sound than on some of their earlier airtight productions. They also employed two studio rooms concurrently—while Corgan honed his vision in one space, the others could be working out the foundation of the next number. Iha and Corgan team up for some soaring guitar passages here and Wretzky’ bass along with Chamberlin’s thunderous drumming stoke the fires underneath a long line of emotionally fraught songs. This is generational angst music and, especially for those outside the realm, the effect can seem oppressive. But there’s plenty of room for the Pumpkins to show their spaced-out side as well. The first CD ends with the nine-minute dream voyage “Porcelina of the Vast Ocean” and Iha’s acoustic “Take Me Down”, both reminiscent of the underappreciated Meddle-era Pink Floyd of the early Seventies.

But we’re never far from the notion that these 28 songs serve as a platform for Billy Corgan to properly exorcise all his demons. As a child, he was abandoned by his mother and ill-served by his substance-abusing father (he bailed out his incorrigible dad on a drug bust as late as New Year’s Day 2008). Corgan also asserts he was physically abused by his stepmother. His battle with depression was fated to be long lasting. For every reflective gem like “Thirty-Three” there are a few others where Corgan’s adenoidal wail cuts through the wall-of-noise with lines like “I never let on that I was down”, “Peace will not come to this lonely heart”, “I’m in love with my sadness” and even “Love is suicide.” The band’s image, crafted by their leader, also became more complex: the promo shoot for the scorching single “Zero” was one of the first showing Corgan’s famously shaved head and newly feral visage, before long he was appearing in videos as Nosferatu. But it was a diverse look rounded off by the Japanese-American Iha, Wretsky’s goth-chick allure and the quarterback good looks of Chamberlin (intact despite the heavy heroin use). The four come together to take turns singing on the concluding “Farewell and Good Night”—comparable to the Beatles’ soft landing for the “White Album”—a quiet coda for this stormy testament to an era of self-regarding uneasiness.


The Pumpkins’ young and innocent days? From left: Darcy, James Iha, Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin

Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness debuted as a Billboard #1 and would go nine times platinum. The Smashing Pumpkins did not see this high a mountaintop again, either in terms of artistic scope or popular success. Touring behind this album, their supplementary keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of an overdose after an all-night drug binge with Jimmy Chamberlin. The drummer survived but was fired (he later returned) and the band’s next couple of records never struck the same chord with fans. Since disbanding in 2000, Billy Corgan has had little to do with Iha and Wretsky, becoming estranged, as it were, from his second dysfunctional family. When he revived the S.P. name in 2006 in a fitful comeback attempt, only Chamberlin was back from the original lineup. While still trying to discover a new winning formula in early 2010, Corgan, in a Rolling Stone article called “Rock Star, Interrupted”, said “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? Yes, I do.” There are many who would beg to differ—one could imagine the reaction of former Big Black leader (and fellow Chicagoan) Steve Albini, who once said the Pumpkins were about as alternative as REO Speedwagon.

In an age of a million ironic hipsters, where musical integrity is seen to be in direct proportion to its obscurity, Corgan was bound to be the whipping boy of certain factions. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness reaches heights that most modern bands wouldn’t even bother looking up at (“an Icarus with wings that worked” said Time magazine, naming it top album of 1995) but its best quality may end up being Corgan’s knack for seeing life’s smaller defining moments and merging it with the panorama. The shimmering “1979”, modestly tucked away in the middle of the second disc (“Twilight to Starlight” for those keeping score at home), turned out to be the record’s biggest hit song and one of the great singles of the Nineties. In thirty lines of nearly uninterrupted verse, Corgan paints an impressionistic portrait of his generation as they see life spread out before them, all the way to its inevitable passing (“With the headlights pointed at the dawn/We were sure we’d never see an end to it all”). In a Middle America of diminished expectations, these carousing young teens, living “beneath the sound of hope”, are nonetheless touched with a grace that can’t be negated even “in the land of a thousand guilts.” As fitting to its era as Kerouac’s On the Road was to baby boomers, the Samshing Pumpkins’ “1979” is one of those works where the intimate and the universal co-mingle as one—which is about as epic as it gets.