Thursday, February 21, 2008

Desire and the Image

"Marilyn's need to be desired was so great that she could make love to a camera. Because of this, her lust aroused lust in audiences, sometimes even among women. There was nothing subtle about it. She was no tease. She was prepared, and even eager, to give what she offered." - William Manchester

Of all people, it was Jackie Kennedy Onassis who predicted, "She will go on eternally." Marilyn continues to rise up in the popular culture of the times, over and over, taking different forms.

Marilyn, in one version of the story, succumbed to an infant paparazzi utterly child-like compared to today's piranha-like variety. Each generation of "sex symbols" have had to adjust to the pursuit of the lens.

Madonna turned her attention back at the lens.

My favorite scene in her film Truth Or Dare is one in which she enters a room with Warren Beatty on her arm. Beatty sees the camera and recoils; Madonna sees the camera and devours it.

While I like the first Basic Instinct film (1992) I am in the small minority who think the real jewel is the sequel (2006). In novelist-slash-serial killer Catherine Tramell, Sharon Stone creates a female sexual predator who would cause Hannibal Lecter to cower under a desk in a puddle of his own urine. Spreading her legs before the male characters in the films (and the men in the audience), Tramell commands us to look at it, so she can look at us looking. Powerful professional men become 14 year-old boys caught hiding in the dirty book section of the neighborhood drugstore.

Twenty-one year old actress, Lindsey Lohan, has been through the magnifying glass-slash-meat grinder of celebrity fetish media as or more intensely than anyone in recent years. Multiple stays in rehab, arrests for drugs and alcohol, it is easy to understand why Lohan has a certain fascination with the imagery of Monroe. A recent issue of New York Magazine featured Lohan's collaboration with Monroe's photographer, Bert Stern, to recreate Marilyn's final photo shoot.
In the above photos Lohan prepares for her shoot. The first time I saw these images was a bit like seeing Christian Bale in the Bob Dylan anti-biopic I'm Not There, it took me a little while to figure out that the distance between the subject (Bale/Lohan) and the object (Dylan/Monroe) was intentional and calculated. In these photos Lohan eschews the airbrushing and make-up that might have removed that tattoo or eliminated the freckles and, having made a study of the original photos, her expressions seem to explode with intent as well.

I find it easy to imagine that, if Lohan were a conceptual artist, these images might cover the walls at the Whitney in an exhibit on contemporary American celebrity culture. The idea, which was hers, and the execution are brilliant.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Kiss Me, Stupid

Tags: Billy Wilder, Dean Martin, Kim Novak, George & Ira Gershwin, Cinema of the 60s.

I was 11 years old in 1964. If you can imagine a time before the internet, maybe you can imagine generations of kids slowly assembling the pieces of the puzzle of sex in hushed schoolyard conversations and the airbrushed images in Playboy magazines peeked at in the dark corners of sympathetic newsstands.

I grew up in a Catholic family and the only movie ratings system at the time was the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency whose ratings would circulate in small newsletter mailings. As I recall, films were either rated the equivalent of “G” acceptable for all audiences, or “A,” suitable for adult audiences only. There was a third rating, “C” for ”Condemned” which meant, and I’m not making this up, if you were Catholic and you went to a condemned film you could no longer receive the sacraments and would slowly roast forever in the fires of Hell. Perhaps this is what’s needed today, a ratings system backed up by the doctrine of infallibility.

I have a vivid memory of a movie that came to the neighborhood theatre and the torrent of secret conversations it generated. The movie had been rated “C” for “Condemned” and it was, to our knowledge, the first C-rated movie that had ever played anywhere where we could just walk by and actually look at the actual doors behind which an actual movie that had the actual power to actually doom your immortal soul to hell was actually playing.

Talk about your forbidden fruit; this was forbidden fruit salad.

Forbidden ambrosia.

We’d ride our bikes by in silence every afternoon, a slow procession, slowing even more as we swung past the doors of the movie house. It was as if we thought if we listened really hard we might hear the voice of Eve herself whispering through the wood and glass and describing just how impossibly beautiful the apple was.

Rumors began to circulate based on thoroughly unconfirmed stories about the uncle of somebody’s neighbor’s friend who’d seen the movie. Stories about the film’s stars engaged in things we didn’t understand, couldn’t spell or even pronounce right up there on the huge screen where all the lucky bastards who didn’t care what the nuns thought about them could look right at it.

OK… now jump forward to the early 1990s and a Sunday morning about ten o’clock. Sitting down with the Sunday paper and a cup of coffee, flipping through the channels I stopped on Showtime to see what movie was about to start. I heard the announcer, “The following feature has been rated G, acceptable for all audiences….” and it’s THAT movie! By this point I hadn’t been a Catholic since the end of the Sixties but I could almost feel whatever was left of my immortal soul running for cover.

I haven’t read the Bible since back then either, but I’m betting that there is a translation of the book of revelations somewhere that actually lists the DVD release of a film by Billy Wilder starring Dean Martin as one of the signs of the end of the world.

On it’s release in 1964 Billy Wilder’s sex farce, Kiss Me, Stupid, was dismissed by Time Magazine as “One of the longest traveling-salesman jokes ever committed to film.” While it does not challenge the status of Wilder’s greatest films, The Apartment (1960), Some Like It Hot (1959), Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Stalag 17 (1953), I will argue that it comes right behind those and stands as Wilder’s underrated masterpiece.

In addition to a hostile critical reaction and bombing at the box office in the US following the coup de grace of a national Catholic boycott, Kiss Me, Stupid was beset with problems from the start of the production. The central role of the jealous piano teacher/failed songwriter was originally filled by Peter Sellers, but assumed by Ray Walston four weeks into production when, according to Wilder biographer, Kevin Lally, Sellers "suffered a mild heart attack while making love to his wife of less than two months, the actress Britt Ekland (and using amyl nitrate to intensify the experience)."

The farce revolves around two would-be songwriters living in the tiny town of Climax, Nevada. The film’s score by Andre Previn is wonderfully heavy-handed, and all the genuinely awful songs the two hopeful losers write were written by George & Ira Gershwin having the time of their lives getting to be so horribly inept on purpose.

This film could never be remade today simply because there is no one in contemporary entertainment who could play the part of Dino, the superficial womanizing heavy drinking Vegas star whose car breaks down in Climax, NV. Dean Martin’s performance in Kiss Me, Stupid is in the top three most fearless self-parody performances, ever (along with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero and Madonna in Guy Ritchie's BMW commercial) and worth the price of admission alone.

Kim Novak, as the slut/barmaid/hooker, is both brilliant (think about it, when wasn’t she?) and the thing that 1960’s hetero Catholic boy dreams were made of. Perhaps it’s time for a Kim Novak revival as I’d happily spend the weekend in a theatre for the chance to see Picnic, Man With The Golden Arm, Bell, Book and Candle, Of Human Bondage, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, and Pal Joey on the big screen again.

Felicia Farr shines as Walston’s wholesome wife who ends up in bed with Dino. Her adultery, along with Walston’s (who ends up in bed with Novak) is what caused the condemned rating - the Catholic Church in 1964 was cheesed-off to no ends by depictions of happy adulterers. Cliff Osmond, as the owner of Climax's one service station and Walston’s partner in songwriting crime complete what is really a bedroom farce five character cast.

The film does have a stark sexuality about it that would have made it somewhat of an aberration in 1964, a quality enhanced by Wilder’s decision to shoot in black & white. The recent DVD release offers the US theatrical release as well as a slightly racier version edited for the European market (where the film was far better received at the time).

Any fan of Billy Wilder, the Gershwins, Dean Martin or Kim Novak not familiar with this movie would be very well served to seek it out. As you watch it, try to imagine (or remember) a world in which a film like this caused controversy and threats of eternal damnation.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Across the Universe

Tags: Maharishi, Beatles, meditation, LSD, aliens

This past November I wrote about growing up in Philadelphia in the 1960s. I was motivated by the recent sale of the house I grew up in, and by a cover photo on a Sunday NY Times Magazine that reminded me of a photo I took in 1968 after seeing the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when he toured the US with The Beach Boys. While the Beatles love affair with TM was short-lived (years later Paul McCartney confessed in an interview that the supposed sexual indiscretions attributed to the guru were false and that the Maharishi becoming upset by the Beatles drug use at the Himalayan retreat was the actual cause for the rift ), even the momentary intersection was responsible for some interesting things.

Looking back at the era, the arrival of the Maharishi onto the pop culture scene of the late 1960s makes quite a bit of sense. The chain of events included:

* George Harrison taking interest in the Indian musical instruments that appear in some of the scenes in the Beatles’ second feature film, Help!
* A friendship between Roger McGuinn of The Byrds and the owner of the World Pacific record label (Ravi Shankar’s US label) led to David Crosby bringing Ravi Shankar to George Harrison’s attention.
* John Lennon and George Harrison’s introduction to LSD-25 by way of being dosed by their dentist, Dr. John Riley, at a dinner party in 1965.

Canadian poet and song writer, Leonard Cohen, has spent quite some time in a California Zen monastery and his teacher, an old Japanese Zen master who heads that center, said something once that I think has a whole lot to do with the experience of psychedelic drugs.

“You can’t live in God’s realm too long. There are no restaurants or toilets.”

The Beatles move from LSD to meditation mirrors the experiences of the US Buddhist community as a whole. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review conducted a poll in Autumn of 1996:

"Number of responses: 1,454 (63% from the magazine, 37% from the web). 89% said that they were engaged in Buddhist practice. 83% said that they had taken psychedelics. Over 40% said that their interest in Buddhism was sparked by psychedelics, with percentages considerably higher for boomers than for twenty-somethings. 24% said that they are currently taking psychedelics, with the highest percentage for people over 50 and under 30. 41% said that psychedelics and Buddhism do not mix OR: 59% said that psychedelics and Buddhism do mix. The age group that expressed the most confidence in a healthy mix was under 20. 71% believe that "psychedelics are not a path but they can provide a glimpse of the reality to which Buddhist practice points." 58% said that they would consider taking psychedelics in a sacred context. (In the "under 20" category this percentage was 90 %)."

I remember that, when the Maharishi was in town in 1968, people could go to his hotel and get a private consultation with him for the price of one week’s salary and a bouquet of flowers. That consultation resulted in receiving one’s mantra, a nonsense word that you would repeat during meditation and that would help clear one’s mind. A major reason for my own independent skepticism regarding TM is the whole idea of the “top secret mantra.” Many years later a bunch of people who’d received TM training around the same time suddenly realized that they’d all been given the same mantra.

No wonder it’s a secret.

This is not, however, to dismiss the idea of daily meditation. If you’ve ever spent twenty minutes sitting on the floor or on a pillow trying to empty your mind you will gain an immediate insight to how The Beatles White Album came about.

For a little while in the late 1990s until about early 2002 my office was located directly next door to the Indianapolis Zen Center and I would often join them for their evening meditation. One night there was just myself, the center’s Abbot, and his assistant. After the half-hour of sitting in silence the Abbot’s assistant remarked, “I don’t know what was going on; my mind was a young puppy tonight.”

Perhaps monks who’ve been at it for twenty or so years can actually “empty their minds,” but most of us will find that, when we try, it is as if a damn of the most bizarre images and ideas has burst and floods our minds.

Flooded, I imagine, by characters like Bungalow Bill, Rocky Raccoon, blackbirds, warm guns, savory truffles, and all the little piggies.

So, from a dentist’s tea cup to a Himalayan retreat, from the giggles muffled by the Maharishi’s beard to the greatest double LP in pop music history.

And into deep space.

Polaris, 431 light-years away, is the destination NASA sent The Beatles song "Across the Universe" to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its first space mission. On Monday, February 4th at 7 p.m. Eastern time, the array of huge antennas that were usually tuned to listen for inbound signals from space beamed the best of John Lennon’s Rikikesh compositions to a spot (186,000 x 60 x 60 x 24 x 365 x 431) miles away.

Born sometime between 1911 and 1918, named Mahesh Prasad Varma at birth, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died this past February 5th in Holland. In the end I think he is bets remembered as basically a good fellow whose impact on the world was for the good and whose momentary affair with the counterculture of the 1960s influenced some fine music. Without it, there’s a chance that side two of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper LP might not start with “Within You Without You,” and that would be a tragedy.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Dylan Jazz....

Lost in piles of budget exploitation records, Glen Campbell meets Bob Dylan and makes a gem of an album that’s not going to see a CD reissue anytime soon.

Back in the early ‘70s, I wasn’t in the mood for guys singing about rhinestone cowboys or Wichita linemen, especially with full orchestras and background singers. It was a time of very serious artists with serious acoustic guitars who played mostly unaccompanied and always wrote their own serious songs (how could you sing about feelings that weren’t your own?).

Dave was this banjo-playing bartender friend of mine who let me drink for free in a dark roadside motel bar just outside of the town I was living in at the time. I kept him company and watched him win hundreds of dollars from road-weary truck drivers with his “red card, black card E.S.P.” card trick that, countless beers and truckers later, I finally figured out how to do. Late one evening at his apartment somehow Glen Campbell’s name came up in a conversation and I sneered and made some comment about "rhinestone linemen." A little later he put on a record and said, “Listen to this.” It was some bluegrass track and in the middle was a totally monster mandolin solo.

“Holy smokes!” I said. “Who’s that mandolin player?”

“That isn’t a mandolin player.” My friend said. “That’s Glen Campbell on a 12-string.”

While I didn’t become a fan at the time, that was later after I realized that Jimmy Webb was a genius, I did stop sneering and developed a respect for Campbell, Tommy Tedesco, Howard Roberts, Hank Garland and another hundred faceless session musicians I’ve learned about over the years.

If you ever see The Monkees video for “Valerie,” notice how the camera cuts from a wide shot of the whole band to a super tight close up of the hand on the fret board of Mike Nesmith’s Gretsch White Falcon guitar during the solo. If I had a favorite Monkee it would be Mike, no doubt. His solo material is really quite good. But the guitar solo in “Valerie” is about as beyond his abilities as a guitarist as James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is beyond mine as a writer (or a reader for that matter). If you could see the arm attached to that hand it’d be attached to Glen Campbell [*actually, it turns out that's an internet legend; the guitarist is really session legend, Louis Shelton].

As the rules of irony might dictate, during the Glen Campbell scorning period of my life my musical idol was Bob Dylan. It was Dylan after all who turned the definition of folk “authenticity” on its head and in the wake of his work nobody was authentic if they weren’t singing their own songs (and another strike against the Rhinestone Cowpoke).

Where the irony enters is in the form of this album, Dylan Jazz. An album of Dylan songs done instrumentally in small jazz-combo arrangements by the Gene Norman Group and lifted up into someplace special by the guitar playing of Glen Campbell.

The GNP Cresendo label was the creation of Gene Norman, whose jazz club, The Crescendo, was a famous Sunset Strip nightclub in the 1940s and ‘50s and home to performances by every major jazz artist of that era. Gene Norman started his GNP label in 1954 and later struck gold with releases of Star Trek and Trek-related albums. Gene Norman told me the funniest joke I ever heard.

I met him in his hotel room at a NARM convention in San Francisco about six or so years back. He was in his late-70s and sat on the edge of his bed smoking a huge cigar.

“I heard a good joke the other day.”

There was a theatrically long pause for effect.

“I met a man who didn’t own a record label.”

You can’t see me but I’m still laughing almost too hard to type.

Gene showed me his passport. Where it has occupation listed his had, “Impresario.” I still think it was among the coolest things I've ever seen.

Needless to say, Gene is relegated to playing the electric cash register in “The Gene Norman Group.” The musicians here are Jim Horn on sax and flute, Glen Campbell on guitar, Al Delory on piano, Lyle Ritz on bass, and the great Hal Blain on drums. The album was produced by Leon Russell and Snuff Garrett and sounds like everyone involved had a pretty good time in the process.

The sleeve here is a surprisingly hip quotation of the sleeve of Dylan’s 1965 LP “Bringing It All Back Home.” An issue of Time magazine lies on the table by a harmonica. The woman sits by an acoustic guitar and holds a tambourine. The covers of two older Dylan LPs are to the bottom right, the top of his 1962 debut record just peeking into the frame.I have a fatal weakness for guitar players, a fact well illustrated by the leaning tower of record crates across the room, and this is one wonderful jazz guitar album.

Most tracks are only briefly recognizable during an opening passage where the melody line can be heard, then take off into some terrific flights of fancy mostly via Campbell’s outrageous guitar playing. My friend, Scott Ballentine, is one of the better guitar players in Indianapolis, and his taste in guitar music is pretty brutal. I’ve never come up with a favorite airy arty solo finger-style acoustic guitar record that he didn’t ridicule within the first 10 or 11 seconds. Some of my all-time favorite guitar players, such as Larry Coryell and Lenny Breau, don’t rate much above a begrudgingly mumbled “Mmmm yeah, they’re OK.” It has become my mission to find guitar records that slap that “show me something” smile off his face, and I am happy to say that this one left both cheeks stinging.

Scott, like me but even more so, is not dazzled by shows of technical virtuosity alone. There’s got to be somebody there. There’s got to some feeling, some heart, some soul in the notes and in the spaces between the notes or it’s just not going to be worth going back to a second and third time.

Dylan Jazz is stuffed full of spirit, heart, soul, whatever you want to call it. A good deal of it flows from Glen Campbell’s fingers on the lesser-known “Walkin’ Down the Line,” in particular. Songs that are musically a bit on the monotonic side like “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rains A’ Gonna Fall,” are opened up melodically wider than I might have thought possible.

I’ve collected Dylan LPs for over 20 years and have never come across this until Punkin Holler Boy, John Sheets, gave me an old beat up copy he had lying around. I just slightly upgraded that one, courtesy of eBay, but still kick myself over a German pressing on the Vogue label I missed about a month or two back. The first time I saw Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on CD I realized that just about anything might come out on disc eventually, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for this one. However, I was surprised as all get out to just now find that the album is available from iTunes as a download.