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“Rock Docs” spotlight: “Gimme Shelter” (1970)

(Fifty years go this weekend, the Altamont Free Concert, where the Rolling Stones tried to stage a Woodstock West, became one of the most notorius events in rock history. This review of the Maysles Brothers film is taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover image at the right for more info).

By autumn 1969, the Beatles had not played live for three years. Their mid-1960s tours had been the blueprint of all modern rock concerts to come, but beset by the teenybopper hysteria of their fans (and unable to replicate their increasingly sophisticated music on stage) they had retreated to the studio. Their place as a top concert draw was claimed by their bacchanalian counterparts from England, the Rolling Stones. The group hired the Maysles brothers, along with their frequent collaborator Charlotte Zwerin, to document their 1969 American tour, the first where they were introduced as “the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.” Right from Gimme Shelter’s first musical number, a turbo-charged version of “Satisfaction” from a Madison Square Garden show, the Stones do their best to live up to that hype. Times have changed since the Beatles’ touring days: witness the communal hero-worship, the sophisticated sound system, the druggy ambience. Certainly, the sexually-charged appeal of singer Mick Jagger is a far cry from the schoolgirl crushes inspired by the Fab Four a half-decade earlier. But the Stones had missed out on Woodstock, which had happened a few months before their arrival, and they were already looking ahead to staging a one-day free festival in California at the end of the tour, hoping to create their own “microcosmic society,” a memorable decade-ending event. That it certainly was (for all the wrong reasons, of course) and the Maysles brothers again were on the scene as they had been for the Beatles arrival in America, this time capturing one of pop music’s most infamous happenings.

The filmmakers alternate concert clips from the tour with the chaotic negotiations for finding a locale for the outdoor gig. Many of these entertaining scenes are set in the lavish office of celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli, who has been retained by the band. The original intended site was Golden Gate Park, an ideal and familiar location for the hippie masses. The permit may have been granted, and history altered, if not for an already-scheduled pro football game—the San Francisco 49ers then played in Kezar Stadium on the park’s southeast corner. As the scramble to find an alternate site continues, images abound of the Stones’ life on the road. The best of this footage shows the band doing some studio work at the famed Muscle Shoals facility in Alabama, especially when caught pensively listening to a playback of their haunting ballad “Wild Horses.”

The mere rumor that the concert had been moved to the Altamont Speedway (some forty-five miles east of Frisco) sends tens of thousands of kids heading that way. “It’s an amazing phenomenon,” says one of the suits in Belli’s office. “Like lemmings to the sea.” All the last-minute maneuvering left its mark: A hastily-constructed low stage and little in the way of food, water, toilet facilities, or medical help. Moreover, the treeless Altamont Pass is one of the least hospitable places in the Golden State—the speedway had been closed at the time and in disrepair, and the early December weather was chillier than usual. Enter three hundred thousand fans and the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels.


It was possible to have had a good time at Altamont, esp. if you stayed well back from the stage area.

The popular notion is that the notorious motorcycle gang was formally hired by the Rolling Stones to provide security for five hundred dollars worth of beer. Leader Sonny Barger, on a radio call-in show the day after the concert, disputes this, saying they were told by promoters that if they would sit on the front of the stage and let no one pass, the beer was on the house. Semantics aside, the Angels were there as de facto bouncers and used their weapon of choice (sawed-off pool cues) early and often during the afternoon’s line-up of top California bands. Most notably, Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin leaps off the stage to try and help an assaulted spectator and is knocked out cold by the Angels for his trouble. Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, a band who had occasionally used the gang as security, are seen being told of the situation; they would eventually refuse to play. All interweaved with the brewing trouble, the Maysles brothers and the camera people they employed gathered together many shots of the audience “freak scene,” a standard-issue task during that era. But now the flower-power vibe of the Monterey Pop Festival and the brotherhood ethos of Woodstock appear to be overtaken by unchecked hedonism and moral relativism by default.

When the Stones finally take the stage after dark, the scene, with the many bonfires casting an eerie glow in the sky, was later described by the Jefferson Airplane’s Spencer Dryden as akin to one of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of hell. They launch into “Sympathy for the Devil” but it soon sputters to a halt as a major fracas breaks out right in front of them. “Something funny always happens when we start that song,” Jagger tells the crowd, but the coy joke does not seem to take. The filmmakers could hardly have been any closer to the chaos, capturing some truly extraordinary mob-scene footage. The roiling mass of audience, fearful but still desperately determined to enjoy the show, are pushed up against the low-rise stage, further agitating the volatile and inebriated Angels.


“The mad bull has lost its way.”

Gang members, having already established that they will resort to violence at the drop of a hat, prowl the stage and the Stones themselves look like potential targets. Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards try to calm things down, careful not to lay blame (“Who’s fighting and what for?”). During their attempt to get through “Under My Thumb,” Jagger, much altered from the cock-of-the-walk we saw at Madison Square Garden, hunches despondently over his mike stand, changing the coda of the song from “you know that it’s all right” to “I pray that it’s all right.” It’s not. Suddenly a large space clears in front of the stage and a black man, later identified as Meredith Hunter, is seen brandishing a revolver before being set upon by knife-wielding Angels, who stab and kick him to death. Either unaware of the killing, which took place largely in darkness, or afraid of the consequences if they stop the show, the Stones play on, but the damage is done. The counterculture has lost forever the utopian glow it acquired only four months earlier in the farm fields of Bethel, New York.

Gimme Shelter ends with Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts watching and rewatching the murder on an editing room viewfinder. Interestingly, speculation over the years has centered on the theory that Hunter was about to point his gun at the stage, casting the Angels role in a somewhat different light. Did they save Mick Jagger’s life? It is something that could be on the singer’s mind when he is caught in the memorable freeze-frame that ends the film.

Gimme Shelter’s soul-searching ambience captivated the youth audience when it opened in New York City in late 1970, then fanned out to first-run theaters, college campuses, and midnight showings for years afterwards. The film was the bane of certain “establishment” critics at the time. Pauline Kael all but accused the Maysles brothers of having a hand in staging the Altamont show as a “cinema verite spectacular” that unexpectedly hit the “jackpot.” In truth, initial plans for a free concert in the Bay Area had begun before they had been signed on to replace the original director, Haskel Wexler of Medium Cool fame. Today, Gimme Shelter is usually placed at or near the top of any list of the greatest rock music documentaries.

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

Rock Docs spotlight: “Echo in the Canyon” (2018)

The nostalgic Echo in the Canyon, directed by Andrew Slater and hosted/executive-produced by Jakob Dylan, trains its rose-colored lens on L.A.’s musical community of blithe spirits that created the Californian pop and folk-rock sounds that captivated fans in the mid-to-late 1960s. A documentary like this has a certain built-in success rate for baby boomers. The tone is set early when the Byrds’ “Wild Mountain Thyme” is set to vertiginous aerial shots of steep-sided Laurel Canyon, with its funky houses in a asymmetrical jumble. This stuff is baby-boomer catnip and the producers spread the appeal by also featuring performers of younger generations, discussing this music’s impact and performing some of these chestnuts in new arrangements.

As expected, the Byrds figure heavily here. The type of 12-string hollow-body Rickenbacker guitar that Roger McGuinn played on many of the group’s hits (most notably their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”) adorns the DVD cover. The film starts with Tom Petty (who later also employed a Rickenbacker) discussing the instrument’s distinctive jangly sound. Only a few other groups are given wide coverage: the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds era), the Mamas and Poppas and Buffalo Springfield. There are some glaring omissions (no mention of Joni “Ladies of the Canyon” Mitchell??) and Jakob Dylan’s strange reticence in the casual interview segments with such notables as David Crosby, Michelle Phillips, Steve Stills and Jackson Browne is a decided drawback.


Tom Petty shows Jakob Dylan Laurel Canyon’s weapon of choice.

So while I would not hesitate to recommend Echo in the Canyon to its target demographic, it does have a tendency to coast on the ready-made appeal of its subject. This does not make it unique among Rock Docs, but a little more imagination could have yielded a film of more staying power. The cross-pollinating of influences and friendly one-upsmanship between the B’s: Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys and Bob (Jakob Dylan’s dad, that is) is a well-travelled road, travelled once more. More compelling here is the localized narrative of the pixie-dust effect you got with closely-grouped creative types in a (then) semi-rural enclave that was just up the hill from the Sunset Strip with its music clubs, sound studios and record label offices. Another nice touch is Slater’s inclusion of choice clips from the 1968 Jacques Demy movie Model Shop; it was shot in the vicinity and gives a great feel for the era.


Cros to Jakob: “You know, I knew your old man five years before I ever saw him smile. But you, kid, you’re all right.”

Presently, we get the tribute renditions of the related classic songs. Some of these are informally done in the studio. Brian Wilson sits down at the piano and there’s a tuneful duet between the younger Dylan and Nora Jones on the Association’s “Never My Love.” Towards the end the action shifts to the concert stage with a band led by Jakob that mostly features relative newbies like Regina Spektor, Beck and Cat Power. Your reaction to these concert clips may depend on how you feel about the individuals involved (I guess I’m destined not to be a Fiona Apple fan) but there’s another issue at play. These songs are culled from a “genius era” and that magic is hard to match. While the Byrd’s 1968 version of Carole King & Gerry Goffin’s exquisite “Going Back” was a transformative experience, here it’s just nice. Still, Echo in the Canyon is a fairly good valentine to a golden time, place and sound. As Graham Nash says at one point, “Historians will remember us 200 years from now. I’m not letting this go.” And neither are we.

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

This Way to Vestigial Horrors: On the Road with Alt-Tourist H.P. Lovecraft

“From the Light into the Darkness”: Who’s ready for a campus tour?

H.P. Lovecraft: He should be as October as Pumpkin Spice Oreos and sexy-Wednesday Addams costumes. In a way he is. His most famous creation, the monstrous cosmic entity Cthulhu, has its own video game and merchandise line, even a campaign for President (sample slogans: “No Lives Matter” and “Why Settle for the Lesser Evil”). But Lovecraft himself has a harder time gaining traction. His influential horror tales are encased in baroque prose that is a hard sell nowadays (many head straight for “Call of Cthulhu” on their PlayStations instead) and his latent xenophobia is a very bad look in our Woke age.
But in the details of his adjective-rich and dread-filled stories written by this baleful bard of Providence, as well as in aspects of his generally somber life, are a whole host of fab facts, fun ideas and teachable moments that just may raise your Halloween to a new level.


Bust of Lovercraft, Providence Atheneaum

No Dunwich, No Horror

Was Howard Philips Lovercraft the first alt-tourist? True, he didn’t travel very broadly, though by the time he died in 1937 (at age 46), he had made it as far south as Key West and as far north as Quebec City. He regretted that he never made it over to Europe. But when it came to granular, near-home expeditions, he was top notch.

In 1928 Lovecraft toured north-central Massachusetts, visiting a few friends and, as was his wont, wandering around a bit. He was forever inspecting local landmarks, taking stock of fading architectural remnants of earlier eras and conjuring up what hidden horrors may lie beneath the surface of topographical features. All of this would be grist for the mill in the tales he would publish in Weird Tales magazine and which would be anthologized beyond his wildest imaginings after his passing. Over-arching existential terrors don’t happen without a setting and whatever Lovecraft saw in that relatively non-descript region was configured into the opening three paragraphs of “The Dunwich Horror” which would end up being one of his most enduring tales. A tour-de-force of fictional scene-setting, Lovecraft tells of what you will encounter should you ever make a wrong turn on the Aylesbury Pike.

As you walk up this forbidding country road, in the blessed age before GPS, the bordering stone walls seem to inch closer together the more you walk up it. The trees seem abnormally large and “the wild weeds, brambles and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions.” The scattered houses have a uniform appearance of “squalor and dilapidation” and the “gnarled, solitary” figures seen on crumbling doorsteps are best avoided. So you push on without directions, crossing unstable bridges over ravines of “problematical depths,” thru the mostly-abandoned village with its “malign odor” and past the unnaturally-smooth, domed hills topped by tall stone pillars. I don’t doubt Lovecraft when he says the wayward traveler is relieved when the Dunwich road eventually reconnects with the Aylesbury pike.

But let’s face it: curiosity has already got the better of you, am I right? That’s why the reader reads on, to find just what sort of cataclysmic event turned this once respectable New England town into a repellent ruin. I am here to say, what is good for books, is good for life. In this age of urban explorer websites and legal weed, it’s easier than ever to have an adventure off the beaten path (while there are still some that are unbeaten). You just may come away a more enlightened person, if the monster doesn’t get you first.


This book is a good a place to start as any.

Dreams in the Witch House, With 20,000 of Your Closest Friends

Closer to the subject at hand, consider my hometown of Salem, Mass. The roads into town are all blocked up on weekends in October as about 20,000 people crowd on the average Oct. weekend day (don’t even ask about the actual Halloween night) and its costumed crush of humanity. If you’re in you’re in, if you’re an amateur stay clear. Of course, the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 had more to do with the persecution (and in 19 cases, execution) of innocents caught up in a puritanical hysteria of superstition, misogyny and straight-up land grabbing than hook-nosed crones on broomsticks. To be fair to the city, the teachable moment in regard to universal intolerance has been more emphasized in recent years, but there is still money to be chased. The message is sure to be lost on many of the cosplayers and ghouls-for-a-night who discard their fried dough wrappers in the Colonial graveyard adjacent to the food fair and funhouses.


The Witch House in Salem, before they learned how to properly monetize it.

Naturally, Lovecraft was drawn to the Witch City for inspiration, changing the name of Salem to Arkham for his fictional purposes. If your averse to long lines and clueless revelers you may want to wait for a moody, overcast day November to have your own “Dreams in the Witch House.” The historic Crowninshield House was a setting for the gooey and grim “The Thing on the Doorstep.” The Crowninshield is located in an enclave of historic buildings off of Essex Street near the Salem Common. While rich in atmosphere, you can just as easily wander around the Federalist neighborhoods centered around Chestnut St. to soak up some mysterious vibes of long-gone days. The brick sidewalks here are often quite narrow and first-floor windows are sometimes at shoulder level, giving the nocturnal stroller an even chance at catching a glimpse of once aristocratic families fallen on hard times—a favorite jumping-off point for Lovecraft stories.

Cthulhu Origin Story: From the Deepest Darkest Cosmos to 7 Thomas Street

H.P. was himself to the Victorian manor born in 1890. Though his family lineage could be traced back almost to the Mayflower, by the time Howard Philips came around the clan’s star was pretty faded. Both of Lovecraft’s parents spent time in the psychiatric wards at Butler Hospital on the outskirts. Their son was not the most hale and hearty of children, but he did find intellectual nourishment in his grandfather’s attic library at the family manse at 454 Angell Street. The boy was also beset with fantastical nightmares of huge demoniacal beasts and far-off galaxies.


The Fleur-de-lys Studios, part of the Providence Arts Association.

Providence, with its sharp inclines, tightly-packed Colonial districts, eccentric landmarks and moody waterways, provided plenty of great settings for Lovecraft’s later tales of creeping existential dread and imminent monster hegemony. “The Call of Cthulhu” marked the first literary appearance of HP’s big fella, the strange sculpted subject of an unstable artist housed in the colorful and flamboyant Fleur-de-lys Studios on Thomas St. in the College Hill area near Brown (oops, I mean Miskatonic) University. Lovecraft was one of the first authors to divest himself of man’s general anthropocentric notions, that the human race is the central feature of the universe. The overriding futility of this concept plays well into the man’s general xenophobia as well as to his main character’s tendency to succumb to madness. The inscription on Lovecraft’s grave marker, he is buried towards the back of Swan Point Cemetery on a bluff overlooking the Seekonk River, reads “I AM PROVIDENCE.” This has got to be a reference strictly to his hometown, because the defitional meaning (that God is looking out for you) couldn’t have been farther from the author’s way of thinking.

Relevant sites in Providence are many so a good place to get your bearing when in Rhode Island’s capital city is at the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences store inside the Providence Arcade at 65 Weybosset St. downtown. Open daily. Find out more at http://necronomicon-providence.com/store/


Lovecraft’s allusive prose has inspired artists of all types, from painters and illustrators, to musicians, filmmakers and other writers. One of the most famous examples is the adaptation of his Arkham Asylum into the Batman universe. This artist has appropriated the hand-colored style of vintage postcards to offer us this fictional view.

Many genre writers carried on the informal Cthulhu Mythos after Lovecraft’s death in 1937, these included Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber and “Conan the Barbarian” creator Robert E. Howard. This trend was likely a boon for various pulp fantasy digests and helped cement the iconic status that Lovecraft, who died as a marginal scribe, enjoys to this day, albeit from beyond the grave. One of my favorite newer entries in the Lovecraft-inspired literary continuum is the 5-part comic book series “Innsmouth” by Massachsetts-based cartoonist-writer Megan James.

James’ greatest source of success is the recognition of the rich vein of humor lying just below the surface of Lovecraft’s writing. If anyone was primed for affectionate parody it’s this guy with his purple prose, his decrepit towns plagued with cosmic inter-breeding and his ready-to-crack narrators. She takes as her locale the shunned village of the title, that dread municipality of “blasphemous abnormality” (HP’s phrase) half-populated by half-fish people in league with the Deep Ones. In his 1931 story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the intrepid (i.e. foolhardy) narrator boards a bus of “extreme decrepitude” in Newburyport, Mass. to the mystery town. Drawn to the town for reasons that only became clear at the end, he is chased out (in one of Lovecraft’s few action scenes) but not before seeing enough blasphemies to tip off Federal agents, who soon burn down half the town.

In James’ contemporary tale, enough of the town (and its cult-like citizenry) has survived to get up to their old shenanigans: that is, enabling sea monsters by identifying “the tear in Eldritch time” that will allow the beasts to end the world as we know it, not knowing (or even caring much) that this apocalypse could include them. (At the Church of the Esoteric Order of Innsmouth, one parishioner objects to the scheduling of End Times because it conflicts with the Potluck Dinner). James is quite in tune to this notion and her lively (if oft misguided) characters and richly-colored settings keep her story–and her message–moving along. When Randolph Higgle, a lowly door-to-door Pocket Necronomicon peddler, becomes the chosen one when claimed by the local eyeball-intensive Shoggoth, conscience leads him to befriend the Miskatonic U. employee guarding the unabridged grimoire. This young woman in a headscarf, a direct descendant of the “Mad Arab” Alhazred, is the kind of canny character that just might help the hapless Higgle save the world from itself. Brilliant stuff from Megan James, let’s hope we see lots more of her work in the future, whether Lovecraft-related or not.
See https://www.meganjamesart.com/innsmouth

The Gentleman Wants to Walk.. A Lot

Although a fair amount is known about Lovecraft in a standard biographical way, he wrote many letters and had numerous professional contacts, it’s always been a bit harder to get the inside personal scoop on the odd, semi-reclusive writer. A great way for fans to get that closer look is check out “The Gentleman from Angell Street” from Fenham Publishing. Fenham is the passion project of Jim Dyer, the grandson of Muriel and C.M. Eddy, Jr. The couple were writers and Providence residents who befriended Lovecraft and were possibly his only regular contacts in town, besides his two aunts who he lived with after his mother passed.

The Eddys were in written communication with Lovecraft for a long time before finally meeting him (Howard eschewed the use of modern devices like the telephone and typewriter). When Lovecraft did agree to meet them, he hoofed it three miles across town in nearly 100 degree heat, dressed in suit and tie and straw hat, yet his handshake was cold and he didn’t appear to be sweating. A peculiar man, yes, but he also turned out to be a very cordial one. Eager to discuss writing and to help others do the same, he was quickly found out to have quite the sweet tooth and to have an affinity or cats (although the couple move to change the subject when their new friend tells how his black feline, called Nigger Man, got lost).

“The Gentleman from Angell Street” consists of Muriel Eddy’s lucid title essay about she and her husband’s long-standing friendship and some of her related poems inspired by same. C.M. Eddy’s main piece here is about the many long walks he took with, many of them nocturnal. (Fenham has also re-printed several volumes of C.M.’s short fiction, he also was a “Weird Tales contributor). Destinations included the aptly-named Poe Street, a dark and distressed corner of town that must have fired Lovecraft’s imagination. They also took a trolley to outlying Chepachet to try and find the Dark Swamp of local legend. Although they didn’t find it, Lovecraft pointed out that a “walk was never wasted.” Good thinking, get out there and make your own adventure! For more, see fenhampublishing.com

–Rick Ouellette

“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!